Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Compassion and the Legacy of MLK

My son went to day care for Dr. Martin Luther King Day.  I had to work, my husband had to work, so there was no day of service for him, no Letter from Birmingham Jail, no "I Have a Dream" speech, which I've made him watch parts of for two years running now.  My daughter's school was also closed, but hosted a day of service, for which I was grateful.  So there's that.  But I also felt like our conversations yesterday fell short of what I really want to say.

I feel conflicted about the celebration of Martin Luther King, more so this year than ever.  For many people, it seems like Thanksgiving: struggle, martrydom, and at the end, the Native Americans and colonists sat down together to eat turkey.  Nice and neat.  I feel like there's some sense of satisfaction, some suggestion of completion implicit in the holiday. But as we all know, the arc of the moral universe is long, and if you remember anything the way curves and limits behave in mathematics, you know also we could could be a long time waiting for it to arrive at justice unless something happens to interrupt that equation.

And maybe something has.  Maybe what has happened is that finally we're hearing a different narrative that we're finding difficult to align with completion.  Making us uncomfortable.

When I was in college, I thought I was going to study comparative literatures of the U.S.  I was interested in what was then called "minority voices," interested in the writing that told a different story than the one I read everywhere else.  I took a different road after a few years, for many reasons, but I continued to seek out those voices.  The ones that made this look like a different country than the one I knew it to be.  The ones that revealed Dr. Martin Luther King's dream to be unfulfilled, the ones that showed the holes in what I was taught about equal opportunity.

I was listening to a short conversation between Maiken Scott and Dan Gottleib yesterday morning in the car (I can't find the audio version of it anywhere, so you'll have to go with my spotty memory of it) about MLK's thoughts on compassion, and I was struck by this thought: that compassion is the ability to listen to someone's story without judgment, without frustration, without getting caught up in our discomfort and helplessness.  And try to imagine living that person's life and having that story as yours.  Because if you know that race is constructed, then you need to understand that their story could just as easily BE yours.

I don't know.  There's a lot of "well, what do we do" going around.  There certainly are things to be done.  But maybe part of what we do is also just live with being uncomfortable.  We let it get under our skin.  Because maybe doing too quickly just tries to make the problem go away, when maybe what we need to do is live with it for a while, to think about how these systems and categories got constructed in the first place, and realize that they were created to do exactly what they did..

In South Africa, after apartheid, there was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The Commission gave people an opportunity to voice their experience of human rights violations, offer support for victims and healing for survivors and their families, and express their regret at failing to prevent human rights violations and commitment to building a better society.  Part of me thinks that race relations and the history of race as a construct that has shaped our present has been silenced for so long that it's time for something like this.  Something more official than what we see on our Facebook and Twitter feeds. I realize that this opens up the Pandora's Box of reparations.  But we can't even go there until we can hear--really hear--other people's stories.

Maybe that's where my conversation with my children can--or must--begin.
Pin It


  1. I sat down last night and read through Dr. King's speech. In light of everything that has happened recently, it was very clear that a lot of what King worked for still needs attention and discussion. That we are still very far from the end goal, both within this country and around the world.

    You're point about being willing to listen, even when it's uncomfortable is an important one. But we also need to be mindful about the "fixes" to some of these problems. Mainly in there aren't quick fixes and change will only work on a holistic level. The problem is, people don't like discomfort.

    Lots to think about. Lots to talk about too. Thanks for getting me thinking.

  2. A very thoughtful post. Much progress has been made, and much remains to be made.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...