“What would you do,” I asked my daughter, “if you walked into a restaurant full of little boys and little girls with green and brown and hazel eyes, and you sat down and asked for something to eat, but the restaurant owner told you that you couldn’t eat in his restaurant because your eyes were blue? How would that make you feel?”
Let’s back up a minute. In all fairness, my eight-year-old daughter is the one who started this conversation. I’m not sure I have the foresight in my daily activities to plan a historical and cultural lesson that just happens to coincide with the anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest men in the last century.
“Have you ever heard of Martin Luther King?” she asked me earlier tonight.
“I sure have, sweetheart,” I said.
(ignoring me) “Well, dad,” she continued, “Martin Luther King was a very important man. He won the Nobel Peace Prize because he got the blacks and the whites to stop living separately and to stop being so mean to each other.”
“Okay,” I replied. “I guess that’s one way of putting it.”
“Dad, what’s a Nobel Peace Prize?” she asked, so I reminded her about Norman Borlaug and how he developed dwarf wheat, a plant that saved 1 billion lives (she had read about Borlaug and talked about him in class the week before). Then we talked about Gandhi and Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the work those three men did, how they all just wanted people to be treated the same, even if they were different. I told her that the Nobel Peace Prize was something that was given only to men and women, and sometimes even groups of people, that do wonderful and extraordinary things to make the world a better and safer place to live.
(after a thoughtful pause) “Dad, am I white?”
“Well, yeah, sweetheart. I suppose that, if you were to ask people back when Dr. King was still alive, they would have called you “white.”
A look of slight relief came across her face. “So I wouldn’t have to drink from a different water fountain that said, ‘Colored only’ or go to a different school than my friends?”
“No, you wouldn’t have to do any of those things, but all of your friends at school who have darker skin would have to leave your school and go to a different school where everyone there had dark skin like them.” I could tell by the lack of response to this statement that this wasn’t really sinking in.
So I asked my daughter, “What would you do if you walked into a restaurant full of little boys and little girls with green and brown and hazel eyes, and you sat down and asked for something to eat, but the restaurant owner told you that you couldn’t eat in his restaurant because your eyes were blue? How would that make you feel?”
“That wouldn’t make me feel very nice,” she replied. “I think that would make me very sad.”
“Well, sweetie,” I said,” that’s the way it felt for people with dark skin who lived in the United States of America when Martin Luther King was alive. There were separate schools and buses and restaurants and water fountains and even separate churches. And this was all because some of the people in our country had darker skin than the rest.”
“But Martin Luther King stood up to them, didn’t he, daddy?”
“Mmm-hmm,” I agreed, as I pulled her onto the recliner with me and set her on my lap.
“But then a man shot him,” she said, looking troubled and with her voice starting to break. “Why did they shoot him just like they did Abraham Lincoln? They shot President Abraham Lincoln before he could finish! And then Martin Luther King had to finish it for him! And then they shot Martin Luther King!” she said, sinking her head into the spot where my arm and chest meet. “Why did that man shoot Martin Luther King?”
I thought for a moment about how to explain something like this to an eight-year-old. “Dr. King said some things that made a lot of people angry. Some of them got so angry that they wanted to hurt him, and one man did,” I said to my daughter as she stared toward the floor. “But you know what? It was too late. The man that shot Martin Luther King Jr. may have killed him, but he couldn’t do anything to stop all the good work that Dr. King did.”
An idea suddenly struck me. “Would you like to see a video of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. giving a very important speech?”
“Is it the ‘I Have a Dream Speech?'” she asked, her eyes lighting up. I nodded yes. “Yeah!” She said, clapping her hands together. “We read about that in class!”
I quickly turned the Blu-ray player to the YouTube channel and found a slightly shorter version of the speech (it was already past her bedtime). We cuddled together and listened to the speech. She didn’t squirm, she didn’t ask questions, and she didn’t take her eyes off the video. At the end, she asked me if that was really Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the video, if that was really his voice. I told her it was, and then I asked her how she felt and what she thought while she was watching the video.
“It made me feel like freedom should ring for every person in the whole world,” she said, “even the animals so they won’t get eaten.” (I’ll have to remind her of this the next time she’s eating a plate full of bacon at breakfast.)
A few minutes later, after I tucked her into bed and sang her two favorite bedtime songs (“You Are My Sunshine” and “Twinkle, Twinkle”), she asked me, “Daddy, if I win the Nobel Peace Prize does that mean somebody will shoot me? Because I’d like to be a scientist and invent things that make people’s lives a lot better. And I want to make sure we always have the laws that say you can’t separate black people and white people from each other.”
“No, sweetheart,” I said, running my fingers through the hair on the top of her head. “Just because you win the Nobel Peace Prize, it doesn’t mean that someone will want to shoot you. But you don’t have to win a prize to be able to do good things for people. Gandhi and Mandela and Borlaug and Martin Luther King, they weren’t trying to win a prize or an award. They were just trying to do what was right.”
“Okay, daddy,” she said with a long sigh. “That’s good, because I wanna stand up.”
And with that, I kissed her and left her to her dreams.