What did MLK day mean to you today?
Can you recall your first memory? One of my earliest memories was not a good one. It was the kind of very early memory that makes you check in with your parents and ask: “did that really happen, or did I dream it?” Before I wrote these paragraphs, that were included in an article I wrote for last year’s MLK Day, I checked in with my mom and dad, who told me that it was no dream.
One of my earliest memories is a harsh one and a stark reminder why we must always honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his ideals of racial harmony and social and economic justice.
My grandfather found the house where my parents still live to this day on a “For Sale By Owner” ad placed on a bulletin board of his workplace, The New York Daily News. And this was back in the day, when ads were written on paper and bulletin boards were literally bulletin boards. The house was a duplex townhouse on a quiet dead-end street. The back of the house overlooked just one more row of townhouses, and then a field. Beyond the field, on a clear day, I could see the ocean from my bedroom window.
One night in the spring of 1972, I remember an orange glow outside that window. My mom, pregnant with my brother, was screaming to my father, “They are burning that house down!” I was three. The house directly behind our backyard was on fire. The culprits were three New York City police officers who lived on that block in this predominantly white neighborhood. Years later they were convicted of racially motivated arson and civil rights violations in a federal court. They vandalized and burned the house simply because an African-American family had purchased it. And while they set it on fire, they didn’t bother to tell the Jewish family who lived in the adjoining house that they were going to do so either. When this happened, my parents feared not who was planning on moving into the neighborhood, but who was already living there.
At the age of three, I already witnessed what happens when racial hatred goes unchecked. At the age of 13, when I started high school, this tinge of racism was still alive and well in my neighborhood. The black family, the Alberto Charles family, one a social worker and the other an educator, never moved in but the hate was still there.
“I hear there are a lot of niggers that go to your high school,” one girl my age from the neighborhood said to me. The N word slipped out of her mouth so easily, so casually. As easy as saying, “I hear they serve a lot of hamburgers in you school cafeteria.”
I attended a high school in another part of Staten Island to get away from the group that had bullied me all through Jr. High School. This racist comment further bolstered my parent’s decision to get me out of my own school district.
I stared at her and then said, “Yes, there are quite a few African-Americans in my school, and it doesn’t bother me one bit.” Maybe I shouldn’t have justified her with an answer. Maybe I should have said more.
Today, I sat my youngest son on the couch and read the children’s book “Martin’s Big Words” with my youngest child, even though he said he read it with his class at school on Friday. We all listened to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on NPR, my oldest son reciting some of the parts by memory. I know it wasn’t much and I know that racial and social injustice exist, but I couldn’t let the day go by without acknowledging why we had the day off.
This is why I find it reassuring that today, there are many in the Rochester area who filled this weekend with memorials, services and programs of social action. And every month, it seems like there is some sort of book, toy food or clothing drive in our schools to help the less fortunate. In the words of Dr. King, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.”