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  • Jeff Marker

    husband, dad, teacher, filmmaker, writer, film geek, musician, DIYer, vegetarian, Bulldog, Buckeye, Nighthawk

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Watching My Son Watch MLK Jr.

My wife is showing our 6-year old the video of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This has become a family tradition on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, one which we plan to continue for the foreseeable future. Watching him view the video prompts a number of thoughts.

First, I love my wife. Not just because she makes a point to show our son this video then discuss it with him afterward, but because of the way she does it. She didn’t make a fuss about it and present it like ‘a big important educational moment.’ Any kid will resist the message as soon as you create that scenario. Instead, she got it cued up and simply said, “Hey buddy, come here for a second.” Then she let Dr. King do the rest. She and I have both learned from teaching in various contexts that when the message is powerful enough, no extra push is needed, and one certainly doesn’t have to insinuate oneself between that speech and anyone who hears it. That speech stands as one of the greatest pieces of oratory ever captured. Just push play then get out of the way.

Second, my son’s reaction demonstrates just how powerful the “I Have a Dream” speech is. He, like his father, is a rather fidgety boy who’d rather be building Legos or doing some other physical activity. The video is in black and white, the lighting and resolution are awful – especially when viewed on Youtube, which is how we watched it this morning. Yet he sat through the entire thing and gave it every bit as much attention as he gave Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone last night. Words are powerful, especially when delivered with passion and righteous intentions.

Third, our son has no inkling that people from other ethnicities or who do not look like him are different on a fundamental level. He simply doesn’t see difference as a factor when he meets other kids. Being white parents raised in the Midwest who are now raising a child in the South, we’re quite proud of that. It isn’t by accident. We don’t expose him to racist things or racist people. We have a strict household rule against name-calling, whether it’s related to race or not. When the occasional, inevitable exposure to something discriminatory does occur, we talk about it to make sure he understands that we believe in acceptance (not just tolerance – acceptance) and that God deals with those who hate.

But we also know that sooner or later, this country we live in is going to try to teach him the wrong way to look at difference. Our struggle to teach him that there is only one race, the human race, is just beginning. And unfortunately, the people who will make it most difficult to teach our child the righteous way to view other people will, ironically enough, come from his own ethnic group. It isn’t that prejudice is exclusive to any one ethnic group, but because of how in-groups and social spheres function, he will hear discriminatory language and racist jokes from people who look just like him. Lord knows, growing up in Ohio I heard every racist joke in the book. It was normal in our rural, almost exclusively white area. My enlightenment began when I moved a few hours away, to a college near Detroit. I was suddenly in the minority, and my whole world view began to shift. Suddenly, the “I Have a Dream” speech was relevant. Suddenly, I heard it. I thank God for that, because I absolutely believe that our souls are at stake when it comes to racism.

Does my 6-year old understand everything in Dr. King’s speech? No, not yet. But my wife and I also know that we have to be pro-active. We must teach our child understanding and love before the haters try to teach him their beliefs. He needs a strong foundation that will keep any seeds of hatred from taking root.

I’m not sure why, but at times I cringe when I see white people thanking Dr. King. It’s probably my liberal over-sensitivity, but sometimes when white people thank Dr. King I get a feeling similar to the one I get when white females call each other “Girl” or white bands cover Bob Marley. Whites have appropriated so much from minority cultures. I don’t want to be part of that particular problem.

So I hope no one will mind if I thank Dr. King. I thank him for being so important to my own salvation, and I thank him for doing so much to make it possible for my own son to grow up in a better America. Because of Dr. King and so many other brave leaders, it is possible – not easy, but possible – for a child to grow up without ever learning to hate those who are different. My wife and I are raising a son on the red foothills of Georgia, and because of the courage and conviction of Dr. King, the table of brotherhood is in sight. My son does not know any racist jokes, but he knows the refrain, “Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty we are free at last!” My son does not know the names of racists, but he knows the name Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And for that I am truly thankful.


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