Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born on 15. January back in 1929. His birthday is a federal holiday here in the states & is celebrated every third Monday of January. So, today is that day. Most people tend to treat holidays like this as a burden. “Oh the banks aren’t open… oh the mail isn’t running… I hate today.” They do it with Memorial Day and Veterans Day as well. Or businesses will run flash sales, which I find to be in poor taste. Reserve that sort of thing for Independence Day or Grandparents Day or something; not when we’re remembering the dead or the lives they led.
So, on this holiday I do not mind that the mail isn’t running. I do not mind that some businesses will be closed. I always wake on this day remembering a man I was never alive to know. Remembering all the human rights improvements he marched for. The ones he struggled and died for.
I remember the first time I heard about him, we were learning about him in school. I was thinking he was pretty swell, but it was really when we listened to his 1963 I Have A Dream speech that I really felt something. I was seven or eight. I was hearing words from a man who had died more than twenty years before. His voice resonated with me. But for the most part, what stuck with me initially about that speech were the references to Mississippi and his little kids.
I did not understand the world that King came from. Though things still need to change, so much had changed by the late 1980s in my home state of Mississippi. I did not understand the references. I did not understand it when he spoke of “for whites only” or people not being allowed to vote. I also didn’t understand the term “negro” as that had since fallen out of fashion as an acceptable term among the people.
I remember later that same day turning to my friend asking her questions. Asking if her family was allowed to vote, if she wasn’t allowed to go certain places, or if she was this ‘negro’ that King was speaking about. She was just as puzzled as I was about any of it. I’m guessing this means that her family either felt she was too young to hear the stories, or that they wanted to forget so it wasn’t talked about. She only knew what I knew.
I also felt sorry for Kings children. Why did he have to dream that his children wouldn’t be judged by their skin colour? Did his kids have no friends? Did they have bullies? Why weren’t people leaving his kids alone? Who would judge kids? That was the main thing I didn’t understand and I also felt sad about.
However, later in the week when I saw another friend of mine when she came over to the house to visit, I told her about King and the speech and asked her the questions too. She’d heard about Dr. Martin Luther King, and she had heard other things too, but she said that we should ask her mom. So we did. Which is when I found out that ‘negro’ used to be a term for black people, but isn’t anymore. Now it is African-American, but in the late 1980s in Mississippi she told me that the correct term was ‘black’. Which is why I still end up using both of them interchangeably.
She also informed me that Mississippi was once a lot different. That her daughter and I wouldn’t have been friends then. She looked sad, which I now realize is all the things she couldn’t say to me. All the hurt she had endured, all the things she remembered, all the horrors. But there was happiness there too, swimming in her smile and eyes. That I was asking the questions, wanting to know. That it was possible that her daughter could be friends with whomever she wanted, go where ever she wanted. Though I didn’t realize any of this until I was older.
She kid-proofed the conversation, but told me a lot. About Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., about his freedom Marches, about how people weren’t allowed to vote and were segregated from whites and how he had rallied to change all of that. And she explained that people did judge others based on their skin colour and that King wanted better for his children with that line. I remember saying that he got his wish because from the world I knew blacks and whites DID get along. I remember her smiling before she sent her daughter and I off to play. But there was something in it that I wouldn’t realize or fully comprehend until I was older. The fact that at my age my world was tiny and while it was true that her daughter & I were friends, some things take a lot longer than a generation to change.
My first incident with this was a little after this event. This same friend & I loved playing Barbie’s. I knew they made other Barbie’s besides white, because I had Chinese and Hawaiian Barbie. But I never shopped for them myself, so I’d never seen the doll line-up before. I simply assumed that’s all they made and my friend would have white, Chinese, and Hawaiian Barbie’s too. But she pulled out all of her Barbie’s when I visited her and they were all her. I was upset & amazed at the same time. Upset because she had Barbie’s that I didn’t have, but I thought it was very cool that they had other Barbie’s.
I promptly informed my mother that I would be using my birthday money to purchase one of these Barbie’s. It never seemed fair that my friend had to be a person she wasn’t in Barbie-Land while playing at my house. Though most of the time I wanted to be Chinese or Hawaiian Barbie while playing myself.
I went to Wal-Mart and was a little upset that they had a million white Barbie’s but only one Hawaiian Barbie and one black Barbie. Where was the choice? Where were all the nations? I had envisioned one or two of each race, but that was not what I found. But they had a black Barbie, which is what I went into purchase, so I didn’t think much of it.
Needless to say I was super excited. Her swimsuit was awesome, she was beautiful. I didn’t get to purchase things very often, let alone with my own money, so I felt like a grown-up. Plus I could use this Barbie to be my friend instead of white Barbie when I played alone, and my friend could be her when we played together. I would be seeing her that weekend & I couldn’t wait to show her.
I was all happy and shining approaching the register. I had all these wonderful thoughts in my head. And then the check-out lady happened. She had blonde, curly frizzy hair. Everyone was old to me back then, but thinking back I’d put her in her 30s. She was sort of short and sort of plump and had on a ribbed sweater; a terrible shade of blue.
She looked at my Barbie with disgust. Then she looked at me. “You picked out the wrong Barbie.” I shook my head no, worried because I didn’t know what was happening. “It’s the wrong colour. You want to go back and get a better Barbie?” she said this as if she were talking about the most disgusting thing in the world & stated it in such a matter-of-fact way. I shook my head no again, but I was getting upset. To me, this Barbie wasn’t a plastic doll, it represented my very best friend. To me this woman WAS attacking my very best friend, which in a way she really was. I wanted to cry, but I was also scared because she was an adult. Could I get in trouble for crying? Why wouldn’t this woman let me buy this Barbie? Why were her faces and tone like that? Why was she making me feel ashamed? I wanted to run and hide, but didn’t.
She kept insisting, but I kept silently standing my ground. I finally said, “I’m buying this one. I LIKE this one. I’m allowed to buy it ain’t I?” Which I immediately regretting sassing her at the end, thinking they would throw me in jail or something for it. But, she rolled her eyes and tried not to touch the box as she rung it up and tersely wished me a good day.
When I got outside I did cry and my mom wondered what was wrong this time. I told her what happened through sobs, telling her I didn’t understand, but that it felt wrong and that the woman hated my friend and I didn’t like that woman. My mom sighed, told me to stay there, and went inside. She came back a little while later, though I have no idea what happened, though I’m sure she chewed someone out about it. She simply told me basically that people are jerks, that my new Barbie was beautiful just like my friend and that my friend would love it.
It wasn’t explained to me at the time that the woman was a racist. It wasn’t explained that she felt others were beneath her based on skin colour. It was only explained that this woman was not nice. While I didn’t understand the full context of what happened, that vivid memory has remained with me to this day and until I could connect all the dots, I just remembered to spot the similarities of facial expressions and vocal tones with other people I would not want to associate with.
There were other instances in my youth where I encountered “these” people. All people I quickly back-pedaled away from as quickly as I could. I didn’t understand them. I didn’t really grasp what they were going on about. I just knew that somehow they couldn’t be trusted and that I needed to get as far away from them as possible.
I remember first hearing the term, ‘nigger’. It was not a common word that I heard much. I was much younger and though I didn’t understand, I knew that the person was looking at a black person and I remember the disdain dripping from their lips like poison. I remember how the meaning of the word felt, the negativity it generated, and I knew that this was something to never be uttered. Though I did ask my mom what the word was later and she snapped back, “We NEVER say that!”
I remember the first time hearing it from a family member. Someone I’d seen at family reunions, but one of those relatives that you are not close to and are not immediate. I was probably about ten. They were recounting some incident and used the collective version for more than one person. It had the same sound and the same feeling when I heard it then. I remember being shocked. I’d never heard a family member use that term before. I’d never heard a family member speak any ill will against another group of people. I was disgusted and ashamed that someone I was blood related to would think this way, feel this way, or say something like this, especially in this way.
Sadly, they were not the only family member in later years to show their true feelings towards people who were not white. Funny though, that they assume I’m on board with it and talk to me as easily about their hatred and disgusting views as if we were chatting about the weather. They have no idea that they’ve betrayed themselves to the ‘enemy’. Now I am holding all the cards. Oh well.
But thinking on this day in particular, I am reminded of a mid January in my early twenties. I was making plans to do something in the next town over with some people. I suggested we do it Monday, then remembered it might be closed for the holiday. “Oh, wait. We’ll have to pick a different day. It’ll be closed for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, won’t it?” Both guys laughed at me. My face twisted into a question. “Our town doesn’t celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.” “What do you mean? What are you talking about? Everyone celebrates it!” “Nope. We celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday.”
I had no idea that celebrating Robert E. Lee’s birthday was even a thing. Sure he was a great general, but military standards. Just about any historian; Civil War or Military will agree with that. But I’d lived 22 years surrounded by Robert E. Lee and didn’t even know it. At 22, I only knew I was surrounded by Martin Luther King Jr. and people who agreed with him. It was a dose or reality, for sure.
Though it still galls me that Kings birthday is not celebrated in that town, what unnerves me the most to this day is that I still have no idea if those guys were laughing because they thought I was ridiculous… or the views of their town.