We’ve come a long way since MLK delivered “I Have a Dream” in 1963. Or so we’d like to think.
By Stephanie Hunt
It was a minor milestone, unheralded and unnoticed, really, by all but me. And truly, it was no big deal. But since it’s my motherly duty to catalog “firsts”—the first tooth, first steps, first words—I couldn’t help but quietly make a mental note as my daughter packed her same-old PJs, hairbrush, jeans and Old Navy T-shirt in her same-old overnight bag for yet another sleepover. Only it wasn’t exactly same-old; it was her first interracial sleepover, which was, of course, no big deal. This is, after all, the 21st century, the gilded age of pluralism. Archie Bunker last topped the Nielsen ratings more than 30 years ago; integration is just a footnote in history books; and the melting pot has long since bubbled over, even here in the Deep South.
And yet as I dropped my daughter off, it dawned on me that this was probably the first time anyone in her entire extended family, throughout generations of Hunts, Woods, Petries, Blums and related genteel Southern white folks, had spent the night with a best friend who happens to be African-American. So the fact that it was no big deal, just a run-of-the-mill, stay-up-too-late, eat-too-much-junk sleepover, was ever so subtly, dare I say, a big deal.
I grew up in North Carolina in the late ’60s and 1970s, and went to a small private school because things were still rocky in the recently integrated public schools. The only time I ever went to a black person’s home was when I was five years old, after I’d stolen $20 from dear Inez, our housekeeper (I snagged a bill from her pay on the kitchen counter and told my mom I’d gotten it from the tooth fairy), and my mother drove me to her small home in the “projects” to apologize. I remember walking through her bare yard, up the dirt sidewalk to her front door, burning with shame. My remorse was compounded by realizing, even at that young age, how different our homes and neighborhoods were.
I now live even further south, in Charleston, S.C., the cradle of the Confederacy, a mere jog from where the Articles of Secession were signed. I can’t say things have changed all that much from when I was a little girl. Truly integrated neighborhoods are the exception rather than the rule. The public high school serving downtown Charleston is 100% black, because the rich folks who live in the beautiful old planter’s mansions on the peninsula send their children to private schools. It’s white flight on another level. It’s don’t ask, don’t tell.
Maybe the rest of y’all have gotten racial equality all worked out and we Southerners are just slow, too busy drawing out our vowels and minding our manners. It’s best not to stir things up, don’t ya know. Plus, it’s not a big deal. “Separate but equal” was rectified decades ago; so what if we haven’t quite gotten to equal but fair?
This week my kids, like kids all over the country, will learn and recite Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech in classrooms they share with kids of different colors, backgrounds and abilities. I’ll listen to crackly recordings of MLK thundering up to his mountain top moment, and get teary-eyed as I always do. But when, I want to know, will we start talking as much about today’s reality as we do the “one day” dream? And where exactly are we, some four decades hence and a world away, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day? Complacent, cause hey look, we’re integrated, we’re cool, it’s really no big deal? Committed, because, let’s face it, there’s still so much to be done regarding economic and educational justice? Confused, because, whoa baby, there’s all this other mess, what with gays getting married and illegal immigrants snagging jobs and on and on?
An image comes to mind from the surfing documentary, “Step into Liquid.” These middle-aged, thick-in-the-waist dudes would catch the wake of supertankers approaching the Gulf Coast, and ride steady but mediocre waves for miles at a time. There was little challenge, little danger, no crashing waves, but the ride was fun and long as long as they stayed upright. I feel like that’s where I am: contentedly riding the wake of supertankers before me, like King, who charged forth with vision, with dreams, with conviction. Whose decisive and daring willingness to make waves has given me the smooth option of coasting along, not doing much besides being quietly approving and a bit smug about my daughter’s unspoken sleepover milestone. How progressive we are. Meanwhile, waves come crashing down all around me on those not born into white, upper-middle class, heterosexual, American privilege, as I was (and yes, I realize this surfing analogy is so white, so privileged).
At first glance I considered the “Got MLK?” t-shirts I’d see here and there as clever and quippy, but as innocuous as a milk mustache. Now I see them more poignantly. They mean business. They challenge me: Do ya got MLK? Got conviction? Got a dream?
I must continually ask myself “Got MLK?” when I read (please, not yet another!) letter to the editor about the Confederate Battle Flag (only recently removed from our state capitol), when I read of the racial discrepancies in my state’s achievement test scores, or of the surging post-Katrina violence in New Orleans.
King warned of the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” He preached of the “fierce urgency of now.” He knew that time would have to play its hand, but that true change doesn’t just take time, it takes hard choices. It comes not just from visionary dreams, but from facing harsh realities. From knowing where we stand, why we stand there, and how and where we hope to be going from wherever it is we are.
It’s a big deal. Because only rarely, like at a 40-years-in the-making sleepover, do significant things happen overnight.
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Contributing editor Stephanie Hunt's last piece for SoMA was The Sustenance of Flame.
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