Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Children are our future... and MLK Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. day will never be the same for me after living in Memphis.  Before we moved to Memphis I really thought that all the fuss over racism and the need for affirmative action was completely exaggerated.  Memphis corrected my thinking on that point in a hurry.

I still remember the time (working as an RN) I took a blood transfusion consent form to a patient.  She asked
"Y'all don't have any black blood right?"
My naive mind honestly thought she was asking about the color of the blood down in the lab.

Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in downtown Memphis.  It completely reshaped both the social and physical topography of the heart of the city. In the wake of the riots, the white folks packed up and moved to the suburbs.  The good peaceful black families who didn't care to live in turbulent areas soon followed which in turn created a rainbow of constant color changing neighborhoods.

Melvin and Evelyn Alexander were our surrogate grandparents {black} while we lived in Memphis.  They are about the same age as our parents.  They still call to check on us now and then and it makes me laugh to hear that distinct downtown Memphis accent on the answering machine.  They used to invite us over for Sunday dinner which always included fried chicken legs, mashed potatoes and spaghetti among other things.

One evening after dinner, Rustin and I had the chance to visit with Melvin about growing up in downtown Memphis.  He grew up right in the thick of all the political unrest of the 60's.  He talked to us about trying to make it home to be able to use the bathroom because there weren't any that were available for him to use while shopping.  The same for trying to find a place to get a drink.

Can you imagine being a mom and having to tell your thirsty toddler that he wasn't allowed to use a drinking fountain?

The thought certainly made me shudder and I asked Melvin "did it make you so sad to have to live like that?"
His reply was enlightening. Actually kind of shocking.

"I didn't think anything of it.  That's just how it was."

This man is my father's age.  We aren't talking about people who lived hundreds of years ago.  Had I been born in a different area these would have been my parents.

 That's when I realized that the wounds of racism go deeper than I ever suspected.  There are entire generations of people--our parents generation!--who had the desire to determine their own destiny squelched by the mind-numbing fogs of racism.

I think that's why Martin Luther King Jr. was so revolutionary.  His view point was new even to many of the black population.  At least it was new to Melvin and his friends.  The idea that black people and white people could live together and be equal.  Not in separate communities as many--both black and white--claimed to want.  For MLK jr.the spark of ingenuity and excellence and personal achievement stayed alive.  He could see through the fogs when most could not.

I don't know what it is going to take to heal the race divides.  I just read that Frayser High School (in our ward boundaries and near our old community) now has 86 un-wed pregnant teenage mothers.  86. Inequality was ingrained in both white and black communities for so long that I think it might take many generations to overcome.

It may take generations as it did for the children of Israel.

Back to the older patient in the hospital who didn't want to receive 'black blood.'

Her granddaughter was embarrassed by her grandmother's query.  I could see on her face that she wanted me to know that she herself didn't feel as her grandmother did.  I'll always remember both of them and it gives me hope that with patience, all will work out as it should.


Spencer P. said...

Nice post Kim!!
I just lectured about gendered and racist language in our interpersonal interactions. My students are mostly middle-upperclass white people.

It seems that generation next (or whatever) is not that concerned with racism. I like to think that one of the good things about the baby-boomers dying off is that they will take their racism with them. Was that too bold?

Juli said...

I agree, Spencer. After living in New Orleans, and hearing my neighbors talk about "keeping the neighborhood white" when we were selling our house, I think some ideas are going to have to die with the people who hold them. The strangest thing is that the people who held those ideas were very nice people, who brought us crawfish etoufee and butterbeans when I was on bed rest. It's hard to change something you grew up believing.

beck said...

Kentucky gave me a few insights into racism as well.

This was well-written and informative. (I'm trying to sound like Spencer.)

Kimberly said...

I love my siblings. You make me feel good.