“Mommy, did you know the black man who died?” asked my five-year-old daughter in a serious manner when I picked her up from kindergarten last week.
I stopped cold in my tracks. I had no idea how to respond or even what kind of question I should ask to follow up. My mind began to race. Tragically, there have been so many black men who have died, including many high profile deaths at the hands of police officers and flat out racist lunatics. Which one was my daughter referring to? Before I could answer, my daughter saved me.
“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”, she said happily. “He was a great man who made it possible for all people to play together.”
My daughter was very moved by what she had learned in school that day about the life and legacy of Dr. King. Later that evening, as a family, we had one of our most educational and engaging dinner table conversations to date. My husband and I praised the work of the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders, including Dr. King and Rosa Parks, and talked about segregation and its impact on American daily life. My daughter could simply not wrap her mind around the fact that life in her country had been so different all those years ago.
Looking back now on that dinner, I feel, perhaps, we did our daughter a disservice. We suggested that civil rights in America had been resolved. Great men and women had stood up to make our society a place where people of all colors, creeds, and nationalities respected each other, treated each other equally, and people had not only listened, but changed.
For years, this seemed to be the case. Race relations seemed to be getting better, but now it looks like it really wasn’t. Today the veil around this reality is starting to fall off, revealing rampant allegations of racism in police departments and other public service areas nationally and even here in Brookline. Corporate America has been largely immune to this negative press so far, but I believe we will be hearing about more incidents in the private sector soon enough.
On the one hand, I feel I should have been more honest with my daughter and told her there was still much more work to be done to get people to, in her words, play better together. But my daughter, like the majority of us, love a good fairy tale and a happy ending is always preferable to the unknown. Sadly, I believe we are in unknown territory now when it comes to race in this country. A meaningful first chapter was written back in the 1960s, but now Americans need to take a hard look in the mirror and own up to the fact that racism still plagues and weakens our country on so many levels.
Until we do this, the progress made by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others is in serious jeopardy. It is up to us as a nation to come together and decide what the next chapter in the ever evolving story of race in America will be, and whether good or evil will win out.
By Casey Hassenstein, Staff Writer