I’m not a teacher. I work with students at one of the best charter schools in the city. My technical title versus what I actually do is complex, hence the “I work with students.” Like most New Yorkers I have a day job and a few side hustles. The day job serves as a consistent pay check, but is not necessarily connected to the “dream” that I moved to the city to pursue. On the side I pursue my passion by writing for every publication that will pay me to opine or report. In addition, I work independently with clients who hire me to edit their work or assist with their independent projects. But back to my day job.
About a week ago all of the classrooms in the building started working on their special projects to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for MLK day, which this year falls on today although his actual birthday is January 15. I scoured over the pictures of MLK that my first graders had colored. I carefully read their two sentence interpretations of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. And I even read one of the elementary school reading level book Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King. The book, similar to the projects teachers had created for their students, similar to revisionist history, all completely watered down the legacy of Dr. King. Every thing taught to the students was only a short excerpt from his “I Have a Dream” speech. No wonder so many Americans have this fairytale, romanticized ideal of who Dr. King was. The sad thing is all they have to do is read what he actually said to realize he was not this singular passive man who just wanted to sing kumbayah and hold hands. He was angry about the conditions Blacks faced in America. And he called people out.
In college I was one of the righteous ones who thought King wasn’t militant enough. I was a Malcolm X girl all day. I rarely wanted to hear much about the contributions of Dr. King because it was my belief that he kow-towed to white people and their power structure. I was uninformed and wrong. Thankfully I had the honor of taking a class with Dr. Amiri Al-Hadid who co-authored Between Cross and Crescent: Christian and Muslim Perspectives on Malcolm and Martin. He was also the head of the Great Debate team, which I was a member of on the El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X) team. Dr. Al-Hadid encouraged us to expand our simplistic beliefs of who both of these men were, which required a lot of time and study.
In honor of Dr. King I reread his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and “The Other America.” I ask myself: how can educators or parents teach children about Dr. King beyond the surface of what they’re learning in their dumbed down textbooks? It may seem like a simple answer, but I can assure you many of the parents of my students don’t know Dr. King’s legacy themselves, let alone understand what the school is teaching is watered down. Perhaps if we start with the babies we will eventually have less Americans who love Dr. King’s hope of people being judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin, but couldn’t tell you the first about his stance on poverty, the war, pulling oneself up by the bootstrap and being disappointed by white pastors who refused to align themselves with justice. I don’t have all the answers. But I recognize the disservice being done to our youth and Dr. King when we refuse to learn (and teach) the complexity of him as a man, a father, son, a husband, a Pastor, a leader, a speaker and an activist.
Happy Birthday, Dr. King. May we never stop learning.
From Dr. King’s speech: “The Other America” March 14, 1968
I want to discuss the race problem tonight and I want to discuss it very honestly. I still believe that freedom is the bonus you receive for telling the truth. Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. And I do not see how we will ever solve the turbulent problem of race confronting our nation until there is an honest confrontation with it and a willing search for the truth and a willingness to admit the truth when we discover it. And so I want to use as a title for my lecture tonight, “The Other America.” And I use this title because there are literally two Americas. Every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one. There are two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. In this America, millions of people have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America children grow up in the sunlight of opportunity. But there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. In this other America, millions of people are forced to live in vermin-filled, distressing housing conditions where they do not have the privilege of having wall-to-wall carpeting, but all too often, they end up with wall-to-wall rats and roaches. Almost forty percent of the Negro families of America live in sub-standard housing conditions. In this other America, thousands of young people are deprived of an opportunity to get an adequate education. Every year thousands finish high school reading at a seventh, eighth and sometimes ninth grade level. Not because they’re dumb, not because they don’t have the native intelligence, but because the schools are so inadequate, so over-crowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated if you will, that the best in these minds can never come out. Probably the most critical problem in the other America is the economic problem. There are so many other people in the other America who can never make ends meet because their incomes are far too low if they have incomes, and their jobs are so devoid of quality. And so in this other America, unemployment is a reality and under-employment is a reality…
…The first thing I would like to mention is that there must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist country. Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth. And we will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is.