“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today my family went out to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. As is our custom now, we choose to do something together as a family that we could not have done 50 or 60 years ago. We decided together to go see a movie, and sit side by side in recognition that once, in my own lifetime, we would not have been allowed to do so in many places in our country.
When we got into the theater itself we found it to be a small space that was relatively full. The higher seats were mostly taken and there were a smattering of single seats sprinkled throughout the upper section. Normally we would have split up, but not today. So we found 4 seats together in the lower section closer to the screen, sharing popcorn and the pleasure of spending time together.
I'm thankful for those who have gone before us, who have made not just these simple outings possible, but for the greater things.....such as being able to have the family that I have. I'm thankful for those who put their lives and well-being at risk, so that I could be the wife and mother to this husband, and these children. It is because of the struggle of others that I can enjoy a sweet afternoon with my husband and children in safety. Such a small thing as going to an afternoon movie, together, as an inter-racial family, has come at great cost. Thank you Dr. King, and to all the others who have fought the great fight for racial equality and brotherhood, for making my life beautiful.
"I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
A good friend of mine said to me recently, "but there is still a long walk ahead of us to eliminate the racism that exists in our country today. Especially recently I have felt that our quest for equality has been given a heavy blow..."
Indeed, a blow has been dealt, but to whom? And why has it felt so heavy? The issues are complex. There is the overt, in-your-face racism of the KKK and White Supremacist groups. And then there is the more subtle, pervasive, hard-to-pin-down kind that has become institutionalized. The racism of White Privilege. Both have been dealt a blow. My response to her was roughly this:
"The walk ahead of us is exactly my point too. I invite people, especially White people like myself, to really be honest with and examine our own inner sanctum. That's why I write and confess my own journey in recognizing the prejudices I had within my own head that I didn't even realize were there.
When I was young, I had long thought that I was "color-blind" as some folks say. I don't really support the use of that word now. But I once did. I thought I treated everyone with fairness and equality. I convinced myself that I did. In reality, I had many preconceived notions that I didn't recognize. I had to see it in myself before I could admit it. It should be said that those thoughts were not malicious thoughts. I didn't want to hurt anyone. They were just ignorant thoughts. "Ignorant" in the sense of "not knowing".
I mean no insult when I say this...but In general, I find many White people are that way, regardless of political affiliation. Most are not intending to be malicious. They just "don't know" what they "don't know". It is often reflected in the kinds of questions I get asked by White people. As Dr. Beverly Daniel-Tatum writes, often White people are deathly afraid of talking about racism with Black people. They haven't had to think about the reality of racism, so it has not been a topic in their conversations to any large degree. They're afraid of their lack of knowledge being exposed. They're afraid of saying something that would make them appear unintelligent. So they do not engage in conversations about racism with Black people.
But because I'm White, many White people feel comfortable asking me things about my inter-racial marriage or my husband's thoughts on things or my children's experiences. Which is fine. I invite the dialog. It needs to happen. I want White people to be comfortable asking the questions they ask me. But it also shows me that White people have a lot to learn about racism in this country. The fact that they are surprised by its persistence in America speaks volumes to me. It's been here for so long. Black folks have been talking about it for so long. White folks have not wanted to face it or deal with it. Rather they've said things like, "Slavery happened a long time ago. Why are we still talking about slavery?" or "We've had a Black president now, so don't we live in a post-racist society?" or "Jim Crow was done away with decades ago. Why all the anger?"
Because racism never went away.
Black folks have known this for a long time. White folks are just recognizing this truth. Honestly, I don't feel that our quest for equality has been given a heavy blow in a negative sense. I feel the lid has been blown off, and we can finally see the sickness inside. Maybe now the infection can drain and has a chance to heal. But it will take guts for people to look at themselves. And from my experience, and the questions that have come my way, it is not relegated to one side of the the political aisle.
It has a lot to do with White privilege....and there are many White, privileged Republicans and Democrats who have no idea how they contribute to the racial divide. But now.....there is the invitation to talk, and get behind another person's eyes....and see how they see......and make internal changes.
This year, celebrate King's birthday in a more sentient and intentional fashion. Do you have friends of other races? If not, then make some. If so, do something together that you could not have done 50 or 60 years ago. Be mindful of the gift we've been given for the opportunity to rise up out of our past and make that "bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood.......become a reality". Be deliberate.
The last time I talked with my Dad, he was coherent. That was just a week ago. He is less so today. His mind and body are less and less cooperative. The human body can only go so far. Take so much. Yet it is doggedly determined to live.
So I will covet in my heart my most recent visits with Vincent Francis Parlato. My father. My Dad. I flew to New York the day after Christmas. Everything looked like I was not going to make it back there before he died. But I did. And he soldiered on. He even made it out of the ICU and into a rehab hospital. And I had time with him. Time to hold his hands that I love so much. No one has hands like my Dad, massive and imposing, once strong and powerful. Now weakened by neuropathy and age. Time to talk. To squeeze next to him in his bed, all six foot three of him with my arm across his immense chest and my head on his shoulder, and just be quiet. To hear him breathe. To stroke his hair. To kiss his scruffy face. To smell his scent. To say one more time, "I love you, Dad." To hear one more time, "I love you too." I even got to see him smile and capture it in my mind forever. A precious, precious gift of time, and touch.