There was a time when many schools in NH did not honor Martin Luther King, Jr or other Civil Rights leaders with a holiday. There was a time when many schools in the United States did not honor humans like Martin Luther King, Jr. period. There was a time when many Americans did not understand why the work of the Civil Rights Movement needed to progress more quickly than our history books would later report. There was a time when a Senator named Kamala Harris, daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father who met working for the Civil Rights Movement here in America, could not believe a run for Presidency of the United States was possible. Yet, today, the day we celebrate Dr. King, she announces her aspirational hope to lead this country. I know nothing about her yet beyond this announcement. Yet, I love that we live in a country where she is going to try.
Today, I’m grateful for the wide range of young adult literature available to our next generations concerning countless issues– especially if their parents at home aren’t talking about inequality or inequity or injustice as it appears in our modern world. The books that won’t stay on my shelves these days are about gay teenagers finding their way in the world– about the youngest refugees– about the complexity of immigration— and the power of friendship regardless of time period— racism and bigotry and history repeating itself. The history teacher’s job is endless. I don’t even pretend to know how they discern what are the essential questions or major conflicts that every kid must know before we send them off into the world.
But I do know Dr. King’s now world famous quote wasn’t famous when he first wrote the words– mostly because the average person didn’t want to believe how he or she might also be contributing to that kind of injustice.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
And so when we read books like Elie Wiesel’s Night, students must have at least a basic understanding of the complexity of Hitler’s rise to power and WWII. The last few years have been harder to help modern audiences understand that Hitler didn’t just take over the world. He was smart and people liked him. He didn’t enter into his relationship as Germany’s leader and immediately start throwing people into concentration camps. So the analogy working more clearly today is equating the rise of Nazi power more to an abusive relationship. No one goes on a second date with someone who hurts them. Kids nod. They understand this. Yet, once a relationship is established and things begin to go wrong, it’s harder to leave or protest because feelings confuse reasons. Wiesel reminds us, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
We must compel kids and adults living in our modern world to think about our actions. Do our actions contribute to injustice? Do they help to fight injustice? There’s a media/ internet firestorm surrounding the teenage boy wearing the “Make America Great Again” hat staring with a strange smile at the Native American Vietnam Vet singing and playing on his drum. Do I believe he is a racist? Of course not– I do not know him. The world is worried about why a video like that goes viral. The world is worried about what conflict with a different group protesting earlier may or may not have contributed to his actions. He has spoken in his defense that his smile was meant to show that he would not be provoked to anger. What worries me more is the posse of young men behind him pointing and laughing and filming and probably posting to any number of social media venues. How does that promote understanding? How does pointing or laughing help their friend? How does that help the Vietnam Vet?
Yes, they are young and on the cusp of adulthood. They don’t have all the answers, and neither do we, the adults in their lives.
Recently, my 9 year old son asked me what being a racist was because someone in his ski group had called him that on a chairlift. He said they were “roasting each other” and the other kid didn’t know what it meant either– but she knew it was an insult to be called a racist. When I explained what that word meant, he was quiet for a minute. “But I’m not that at all,” he finally realized. No, but it’s important to understand the words that can be hurtful and talk about them with our kids. We can all do that– and that kind of understanding does and will make a difference. So, Dr. King, we continue to do the work you asked of us 60 or so years ago.