Dad to Dad: Dr. King
Back in my activist and rock and roll days, I had a moment to define whatever movement I feel like I’m a part of for life: I was standing next to Noam Chomsky at T.T. the Bear’s in Boston listening to Howard Zinn speak. Let me write that again – I was standing next to Noam Chomsky while watching Howard Zinn speak. If you live in Boston, there are a few times this kind of thing might happen. If you don’t live in Boston, or the Northeast, or aren’t part of the kind of crowd that reveres or seeks out this kind of thing, it was a big deal that happened by accident, but still happened.
It was one of those moments I’ll forever hold in that weird celebrity part of my brain, like sitting next to John Updike in a movie theatre (well, across the aisle) or talking with then Senator Kerry while waiting for my turn on the microphone at an AFL-CIO conference, or getting a half an hour with Kurt Vonnegut in his office when he was teaching at Smith.
I’m enough distanced from these moments that now when I think of them, I do so as a Dad. When you’re young you march and protest alongside other young people, and then you go out to celebrate and publish the happenings in your ‘zine. Then you pick it up again as soon as you can, and repeat. When you’re a little older and a parent, you march and protest as long as there’s a sitter, or you can do so around preschool hours and days off. The Movement is always moving, however old you’re getting.
On this MLK day, I think of Dr. King the Dad, recalling his constant referencing to his children over the course of his life as a speaker and essayist. Like him, all parents have a grandiose view of an idyllic society, one where our kids can play and learn in peace. As a parent, continual maintenance of the local playground is more of a focal point for city activism than fighting the WTO or corporations or the Man (Damn the Man! oh wait, am I the Man?). This is where true change happens in a society: moms and dads making it nice for everyone. And this sentiment is essentially the idea behind every great movement: let’s just make it nice for everyone. You know, for the kids.
Since Dr. King’s day, the marches and sit-ins have changed dramatically in focus – in a First World setting, we’re fighting for things like Minimum Wage increase, the Dream Act, Sustainability, Marriage Equality, and some equitable legislation toward solving the drop-out rate in high schools while fighting the effects of poverty seen in American children (and hopefully children around the world). We’re signing petitions online between play dates and diaper changes, and posting the you-should-care-about-this videos and memes on social media while getting ready for that second job so the kids can have a few more presents during the holidays. Aside from a pro-breastfeeding “sit-in” and Farmer’s Market signature collecting, parents don’t have the same marching and parade options as the parents in the 60s and 70s did, although the Unions keep this proud tradition alive, and every now and then we’ll see millions gathered for a cause (gee I’d really like to Occupy Boston, but I have to work and take the kids to soccer). But while we’re fighting for the reparations of the last list of incongruities here in the First World, there is a huge world of Dads and Moms out there just trying to make ends meet in countries where food and vaccines can’t just be bought at the other CVS or Walgreens in your city.
The other day I was pleased to hear my kindergardener tell me about an outdated world where there were “Whites Only” signs and people were mean to each other because of skin color. We talked about being kind, peaceful, and how to share, and what Dr. King did to help people. Absent from the conversation was the heavy topic of racism, but for a six year old in 2014, ideas about race from the 1960s can be summed up in that wonderful story of Once Upon A Time people were mean to each other because of skin color, and now they’re not as mean. And that’s pretty much it, from Dad to Child: you just have to be kind and fair. My four year old constantly asks why we look white and pink (why do people look like each other? is one of my favorite questions from her), and I tell her about DNA and families and somehow she gets it (although she thinks all females have brown eyes and all males have blue eyes, which is only because she and her mother have brown eyes while the boy and I have blue). To add to this we live in a drastically different media world than ever before, as if Handy Manny, Dora, and Doc McStuffins have led the way for our children to see the world in a way that I only started to see back in the 80s. Is this the romantic future the marchers were imagining back in the abolition days and on through towards the 60s? Maybe so.
And so, on this MLK Day, I salute the thirty-something Dad who spoke, marched, petitioned, protested, was jailed for, and preached on behalf of his children, their classmates and their families, and how he continues to inspire this thirty-something Dad to speak out and write on behalf of my children and their classmates and their families when and where I can, albeit in a different world than it was a few generations ago, and toward the (brand) new or revised world it will be by the time my children are writing about their children.