The Time is Now
"He’s too young" I was told as I struggled with deciding how I would share Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy with my six-year-old son on the MLK holiday this year. As I contemplated taking him to a screening of Selma with a panel of Black Lives Matter LA, others warned me that the film was "too violent." No less violent than the stories of the murders of young black boys and girls around his age like Aiyana Davis and Tamar Rice--I thought to myself. Although I was adamant that he needed to know the truth, I began to doubt my thinking and questioned the potential harmful impacts of him seeing beaten black bodies. "Will the film scare him? Brew fear or hate in him?"
Being the only Black boy in his kindergarten class, I worried how he would show up for school the following day. He'd already started noticing he was "different from the other kids"--will learning the history of violence perpetrated by whites against blacks create a dislike for his white classmates and increase a sense of inferiority because of his Blackness? These are all the questions I had to ponder the night before MLK Day. I took to reading Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and my answers revealed themselves.
The question I struggled with about the appropriate age or time to share this history with my son was similar to the question Dr. King faced while in the Birmingham jail: timeliness. Dr. King was questioned about his timeliness or untimeliness of his protest in Birmingham Alabama by white clergymen. Dr. King explained that time is never on the side of those who are oppressed. Those who are not the victims, of course, can say wait. Or say now is not the right time. But King declared that “wait” always meant “never” and “justice too long delayed is justice too long denied.” When expounding upon why it's hard to wait for the “right time” to act, Dr. King describes the struggles in the life of the Negro in the 1960s, resonated so much with the struggles today of the Black community, even in my own household. Dr. King describe the agony of being a Black parent, when trying to “concoct an answer to his own five-year-old son when asked, ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’” More than fifty years later, I am faced with a similar dilemma when my son tells me, “Mom, I don’t want to have brown skin, I want white skin, because white is more cool.” I realized that as a father, Dr. King couldn’t wait until his child was old enough to “understand”, because racism and hatred doesn’t wait.
The time is now - because my son notices his own blackness as a sign of difference and potential shame of “not being cool”. The time is now - to expel the myths of self-hatred, to foster within him a sense of pride for being black and to create a protection against internalized oppression. I was told that he was too young to understand. But, he is not too young to understand because he sees his difference. And rather than wait, I want to show him what a powerful strong black man who stood and fought for our people looks like--a cocoa brown man who looks like him. So that when I tell him "Black is beautiful" he doesn't question my statement and accuse me of lying, but he believes it and sees it when he looks into the mirror. That was my intention, and it was a necessary and timely moment to inspire within my son a sense of divinity, pride, and empowerment by learning about the courageous fight, long-lasting endurance and unbending tenacity of people who look like him. My hope was to reignite a dimming sense of pride for having cocoa brown skin.
Similarly, in the violence against women's movement there's never a “right time” to talk to children about abuse or violence. This past week, I was again worried and doubting if I should talk to my son’s kindergarten class about my work with Move to End Violence for Career Day. I was worried if I would do more harm than good and scare children about the harms and dangers of the violence in the world. However, after reflecting on Dr. Martin Luther King’s readings, I learned that it was not about teaching about what we are fighting against, but rather inspiring and encouraging them with we are trying to build and create. And, although they were only five and six years old, the time to engage in that dialogue was not too soon--the time is now. I planted a seed of inspiration for those young children to be advocates who stand up for equality. It’s important to engage young children early in dialogue using affirmative language inviting them to help build the world we want to create—one with racial and gender equity.
As Dr. King stated in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, "Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial [and gender] injustice to the solid rock of human dignity”. As mothers, fathers, guardians, and advocates we won’t always be able to control the circumstances or challenges that our children will face, but we can teach them to see themselves and others with grace and humanity to create a world of compassion...the time is now.