There’s a picture circulating on Facebook right now where someone has taken photographs of President Obama and Dr. King with their hands in the air and synced them so that it looks like they’re giving each other high fives. I like that picture. I also like what Rev. Jesse Jackson had to say when he was asked what he thought Dr. King would say if he were here today. “There is unfinished business in our land.” Towards the end of his life, Dr. King was speaking out for more than just the black community. He spoke against the Vietnam War, stood up for Hispanics, marched for the poor.
Joshua and I are doing a play called “Struggle For Freedom: The Life of Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.,” so I didn’t feel bad for spending most of the day laying in my hotel bed watching the Inauguration on TV. Civil Rights are very much a part of my life right now, as it’s my job right now to research it and teach children about it. But I’ve had to re-learn almost everything I was taught. I can’t tell if I’ve forgotten most of this stuff, or if I never really listened and part of me is very ashamed about that. But you only learn so much while you’re in school, and whether or not you take it home with you is something that your teachers can’t control. That’s something I didn’t learn until the end of college. I know that when Joshua and I are performing much of what we are saying is falling on deaf ears- and that’s okay. There’s A LOT of talking in this play, so after a half an hour it’s not surprising to look out at a couple hundred kids and imagine you’re seeing seaweed floating in the ocean.
Our very first performance of “Struggle For Freedom” was exactly a week ago today. It was in Richmond, VA, and the audience was mostly comprised of black students and teachers. I was in the minority. And truth be told, I was a little scared the kids weren’t going to like me. There were points when I did hear laughter, and when I talked to Joshua about it after the show he told me that that laughter most likely came because they were uncomfortable too. It’s tough stuff. And it’s confusing for kids.
When the show in Richmond was over, the principal made her way down to the stage and looked out over her students. She was an older black woman, and when she began to speak Joshua and I immediately stopped packing up to listen to her. She thanked us for the play and told her students that she hoped they were listening. And then, with the aggressive elegance and rhythmic urgency of a preacher, an educator and a matriarch she silenced the room with her story. “I LIVED through that. I LIVED through that. I didn’t understand it. We had to STAND at the Woolworth’s counter. And I would ask my mother “WHY,” and it was because I was BLACK. And I didn’t get it.”
Moved me to tears, that’s for sure. Mostly because I’ve never heard anything like that in person. I suppose it’s maybe the closest I will ever come to hearing Dr. King speak about his dream. But I could also sense her frustration with these children. Frustration that nobody she was speaking to “understood.”
But when the kids are older, and they’re ready to learn, the show is SO rewarding. Last week during a Q&A after one show, we were asked questions like this:
“Why did the black people have to use cheap stuff, while the white people got all the fancy stuff?”
“What about the mixed people? Where did they have to go?”
“Wasn’t segregation just selective bullying?”
“Why did the police decide to use fire hoses?”
“What happened to the black people if they used the wrong drinking fountain?”
“Why did they kill Martin Luther King?
We answer these questions as honestly as possible. Of course, we don’t tell them the brutal details. Examples of things like how during sit-ins at lunch counters, while Black Americans were peacefully waiting to be served they were only arrested or verbally abused- but in many cases, they had food and hot water thrown on them, they were dragged off stools, beaten violently and thrown into the streets. We do tell them that during the Civil Rights Movement black people were arrested, beaten, and killed for standing up for their rights. And most importantly, we tell them that even though segregation doesn’t still exist, at least not legally, ignorance does. And that’s often where bullying comes from.
Children are not stupid. Tell them the truth and let them go. I’ve spent the past few years trying to figure out why I’m pursuing Theatre. This is why. Because there are some people who will listen.