Monday, January 21, 2008
The personal history of a dream
I realized a while back that the first time I saw the famous “I have a dream” speech must have been in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination. I don’t remember any of the scary images that have since waxed with time and attached themselves to that day, the rage and violence that tore through the poor black neighborhoods of so many American cities in reaction, Bobby Kennedy’s aching announcement to a crowd in Indianapolis, his imploring his audience not to react in racial hatred. Those are all historical facts that formed, for me, over time since then to define that day and that loss, after the fact.
I was six years old that day and I’m sure my mother did her best to shelter me from the disturbing images and troubling news. But at the same time, there’s only so much you can hide from a child. That old black and white Zenith, my dearest friend in the family den, the same television set that brought Romper Room and Captain Kangaroo in the morning, also brought news of war and social strife in the early evenings. The toy soldiers in my hands fought it out on the braided carpet while my mother worked up dinner out in the kitchen.
But that early evening it wasn’t some scary report about a war far away. There was no talk of Lyndon Johnson —that man my father was always so angry with. It wasn’t the rise of violent crime or the decadence of degenerate hippies on the evening news. The man on the television spoke of this his dream, of the nation rising up “to live out the true meaning of its creed.”
From those same days —early April, 1968, I do remember an image of Coretta Scott King, her face behind a transparent veil, holding her daughter. And I remember that speech on the television. I know, at the time, I hadn’t even connected these into a coherent understanding of what had happened. I knew what a funeral was. And I know I was struck with the sadness of this beautiful black woman with her child. Slow gracious movement in somber shades of gray. This did not equate in my mind with this man speaking of his dream.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I lived in a safe white quiet suburban town. I had some sense of those facts too. The neighborhood my grandparents lived in back in Boston had become “less safe” —and I saw what that meant in terms of the color of your neighbor’s skin. My parents weren’t civil rights activists at the time, they weren’t reactionary bigots either. My mom was cool with me playing with the one black kid at John F. Kennedy Elementary School, at the same time she was frightened every time we visited the home where she grew up, where each time it was a little less like the neighborhood she’d known. Black faces from families no one knew. Reports of rising crime. The old neighborhood, it felt dangerous, foreign.
But there in the den, the man on television spoke of his own children, and he spoke of “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners” sitting at a table. He spoke of how “...one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers..."
"I have a dream today,” he said.
There are things you learn and you remember where and when you learned them. Sometimes that learning comes in a moment, even before you can put the lesson into words yourself. You remember such moments. And I know what that six year old, watching tv in the den, took away from that speech. It was an understanding of racism as something that stole as much from those who practice it, as it does from those who are the object of its spiritual violence. Racism, I could see it as something sharp like a knife, with no safe handle. I saw how it cut both ways. That’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. got across to me that day, that he wasn’t only trying to achieve something on behalf of his oppressed people, that the message of brotherhood was something offered to the oppressed and the oppressors alike. It was offered to those who reacted in anger, even to those who turned away in fear. What he dreamed was a dream on behalf of all of us, of “all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.”
He dreamed of them all, singing.
Obviously I didn’t translate King’s message into those terms right then and there. I was six. But I do remember walking out of the den and into the kitchen. The den was a dark room where the shades were almost always drawn —ideal for television viewing. The kitchen was brighter. I went to talk to my mother about what I’d just seen and what I took it to mean. I don’t recall what I managed to say, but I do recall her smile.