What to give our Beloved Uncle Sam in belated celebration of his 49th Anniversary to his yearning bride, the Civil Rights Act? Fifty years of marital bliss is gold, but we’re not quite there. Etiquette lists inform me that for 49 years it is appropriate to give our white-bearded, svelte emperor “LUXURIES, ANY KIND.”
And so I shall.
O, Avuncular Sammy, ye of the stars-and-stripes top hat, let me luxuriate you with this gift of words, to celebrate your union to Lady Justice by the stroke of Johnsonian quill.
Accept moreover these words as a token in lieu of flowers for your slain son, Trayvon, whom you buried with snorting disgrace.
I had been planning a trip to Atlanta this week for some time. My daughter and I had a date with whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium. Also, there would be dolphins and river otters. Sea dragons and beluga whales. Plus a postlude trip to Zoo Atlanta to behold panda bears. Very exciting for an animal lover family.
Then the Trayvon Martin verdict was handed down. Rather, the George Zimmerman verdict. Or was it instead the verdict of the American Soul?
My conscience dictated that we needed to add a stop on our trip to the Georgia capital. Peachy keen.
Weeks ago upon learning of Nelson Mandela’s current hospitalization, my parental instincts started pinging me that it was time to have “the talk.” No, not that talk. My daughter is only five. Not #thetalk, either. We Bjorns are of Norwegian descent and rarely endure ethnic abuse beyond the occasional joke about our ancestors’ strange attraction to lutefisk.
The “talk” to which I’m referring is a preemptive strike against society. I recognize that it is only a matter of time before my daughter starts hearing from peripheral sources various claims that ethnic and socioeconomic differences dictate hierarchical treatment of her fellow human being. And I fully intend to beat racism and bigotry to the punch.
Thus, many of our recent library trips have resulted in bringing home books about Mandela, Gandhi, King, etc. The real superheroes. We have talked about how unimportant skin color is, yet also the appropriate terms to describe people who look different than we Hyperboreans when the subject presents itself. And somewhere in there was a funny conversation about how our personal surface shade more resembles Crayola PEACH than WHITE. But I digress.
(Well, one more digression. It’s not easy as a parent, reading all these children’s history books about race, then trying to explain why the terms in these books used to describe people “back then” are not appropriate terms anymore. Children would be completely justified in thinking that the world of adults is remarkably idiotic.)
Back to Atlanta. I did about the only thing a Norwegian-American parent could do in the wake of the sordid case of State of Florida v. George Zimmerman. I took my daughter to the final resting place of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I am going to be brutally honest. I have no desire to criticize those responsible for maintaining the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, but I could hardly believe I was at a National Park Service facility. My soul sought the Taj Mahal but instead encountered a depressed museum that is all but trumped by the Harry Hampton Visitor Center at the Congaree Swamp National Park near my residential neck of the woods.
I’m talking about MLK being out-curated by a bottomland hardwood forest! Not cool.
The Freedom Hall exhibit rooms dedicated to Dr. and Mrs. King and Gandhi seemed antiquated and sunken with respect to presentation. And the reflecting pool that houses the joint tomb of Dr. and Mrs. King was filthy. While I am certain Sequestration has hit every National Park Service location hard, there can be no curatorial excuse for what I found. (The full site composes 35 acres, so I am going to permit the possibility that the small portion we visited is the exception, not the rule.)
All the same, I brought my daughter to this sacred site, complete with eternal flame, more for the message than the presentation. Yet five year olds by their nature are not always in the mood to contemplate serious history—especially in the aftermath of four-hour car rides. The minute I started to explain to my daughter some of the civil rights timeline photographs on display, she began exhibiting the typical hands-on-hips backtalk and boisterousness which parents of rising kindergarteners know full well.
That’s when the bigger thing inside me took over.
I dropped down on my knees and a rare parental pointer finger emerged: “Young lady, you are not going to dishonor the legacy of Dr. King. To say nothing of Mr. Gandhi, who is represented in the room next door. Period. Dr. King is a sacred figure for all Americans, and every member of our family will honor him. Do you understand me?”
My daughter’s eyes grew as big as proverbial saucers. She hadn’t heard me talk like that since the time she cracked a joke out loud at Mass while our priest prepared the Eucharist.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw an eavesdropping elderly African-American woman smile knowingly, and I was fairly certain her smile had little to do with the French medallion to Coretta Scott King she was pretending to admire.
That’s when I realized my parenting slip. During our drive to Atlanta, I had been describing our pending visit to Dr. King’s boyhood home as a museum, when I should have described it as a national holy site.
I made the necessary corrective adjustments, and the rest of our visit was a success. My daughter especially connected to an exhibit room devoted to Rosa Parks, as I thought she might. Many civil rights issues from the 1950s and 1960s sail over children’s heads, but kids get buses.
Suspecting such, I had packed a copy of Nikki Giovanni’s Rosa for the trip. It was our nighttime reading that evening. And each night since, it has been the book my daughter has chosen for her quiet reading time before bed—even above all the dolphin and whale shark reading materials we scored at the Georgia Aquarium. (Hint-hint, parents. Buy this book for your “talk.”)
Once my daughter was tucked into her hotel bed the night of our visit to the MLK tomb, I wandered the streets of rainy downtown Atlanta. Maybe I deserved a bit of a parenting pat on the back, but my soul remained miserable. The condition of the museum really bothered me. And the national fallout from the Zimmerman acquittal only made matters worse.
I walked along Peachtree Street several blocks in the persistent drizzle and passed a number of homeless African-Americans asleep on concrete steps. My mind wandered to the depressing Facebook exchange I had the morning following the Zimmerman verdict, in which a “friend” insinuated that the need for civil rights advocacy ended the day of the last Southern lynching.
Then I turned a corner and saw in the distance that landmark downtown Atlanta sign. Those importunate three red letters: C-N-N.
That’s when the indignation really hit me.
I wanted to drop down on my knees and chastise our belligerent, Little Lord Fauntleroy emperor:
“Samuel, I don’t know who you think you are, but I refuse to let you dishonor Dr. King. Not on my watch. Just because an African-American is your Commander-in-Chief doesn’t mean you can forego round-the-clock watch of the inane human predilection to judge human beings based on a melanin swatch. And just who do you think you are, letting racist states pass laws that serve as anywhere-as-you-please human hunting licenses? And while we’re at it, stop torturing and killing all across our Little Blue Planet. Just what the hell is wrong with you? Enough! Now go to your room and sit on your bed. And take off that ridiculous stove pipe hat until you learn to behave. And for God’s sake, go clean Dr. King’s reflecting pool!”
If you came here looking for answers about Trayvon Martin, I apologize. I don’t have any. What I mainly have is a belly full of righteous anger beyond my parental instinct to connect my daughter to the great non-violence thought leaders of our recent past.
But when I think about it, I realize that every one of these thought leaders—Mandela, Gandhi, King, Parks—were (and are, God bless you, Mr. Mandela) perfectly well aware that it takes more than words to force society to lower its head to drink from the river of righteousness.
To achieve justice, one must be willing to surrender one’s personal freedom. (Translation: civil disobedience.) To achieve justice, one must be willing to protest vigilantly. (Translation: fight “stand your ground” with tireless marching.)
But how many of us in 2013 care that much about justice?
Will we ever again find a leader who compels us to march until “justice flows like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”?
The only thing I know for certain this evening is that that leader will not be Trayvon Martin. We will never know the man he would have grown up to become.
Uncle Sam, I realize it’s impolitic to celebrate your 49th Anniversary to the Civil Rights Act with such a reminder: but your son Trayvon is dead. And you have only yourself to blame.
Probably not what you were thinking of by LUXURIES, ANY KIND. I’m sure you would have preferred I just sent flowers.
I am so ready to march.
Are all the voices of justice confined to museum glass?
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