I think you would have smiled today.
I’m too young to remember your life, but just the right age to realize your legacy. The separate water fountains were long since gone by the time I was born. But the tables at my junior-high cafeteria were still separated by color, by unspoken rule as strong as any law.
Our churches, too, although we would have told you, and been honest when we said it, that it was a force of habit, not a decision to exclude that made it so. I would have fiercely told you I was not prejudiced, but my life certainly wasn’t integrated, either. All my friends looked like me.
But in the summer of my fifth-grade year, the color barrier came down with a splash when a beautiful African-American family with three rambunctious boys moved in three houses down.
But race was secondary to the important factor. They had a pool. So we traipsed up and down the sidewalk all summer, wet footprints washing away any remnants of color-consciousness. I tutored the boys in math, and although I would deny it if asked, they may have taught me to jump straight from the bedroom window, cannonballing into the deep end.
My children now, blessed in ways they take for granted, have role models of every race and culture. Their principal from Oakland, the beautiful Indian woman who owns the beauty salon, friends from Haiti, China, Poland, Mexico.
When we were preparing to adopt last year, my daughter surprised me when she said “well, I want a sibling who looks like me.” Startled, I asked “so you wouldn’t want a sister like…” and named a friend who is a gorgeous blend of African-American and Hispanic.
“Oh no, she looks like me,” said our fair-haired, blue-eyed girl without missing a beat. “Just not someone real tall.” In a few weeks, when our son-to-be came to visit, they laughed and roasted marshmallows over the dining-room candles and raced with the dogs around the block.
“Oh mom,” she whispered that night when I tucked her in, “I think we found our boy.” His olive skin and dancing dark eyes were never a factor. Not with us, not with his grandparents who lived through segregation, not even for his great-grandmother who would appall me as a teen by using “Negro” and “colored” long after they had fallen out of favor.
So on this beautiful January day, as we get ready to celebrate our nation’s first black president, I found it only fitting that we should join thousands in our city to march in your honor, Dr. King.
We shared the shuttle bus with dreadlocked twenty-somethings, a white-haired Caucasian couple, a group of Muslim women in hijabs carrying pro-Palestinian signs, people of every race and station. We were the last on the bus, and as we walked down the aisle, a young African-American woman was quick to stand and offer her seat.
I smiled as I declined, and then we both laughed to realize the seat she was sitting in had a sign above it honoring Rosa Parks. On this day, I was certainly not going to let her give it up.
The march was packed and the pace was slow enough that we walked with several groups on the journey. My son admired the uniforms of the Buffalo Soliders. My daughter and I sang spirituals with a gospel choir. I took a picture of a shirt that made me smile, and we all hugged a woman with a sign offering “Free Hugs.”
Then, as we neared the end, I saw two elderly men, arm-in-arm, each using a cane to make their way. One white, one black, each leaning on the other for support. They were passing a phone back and forth, talking to one man’s daughter in Maine. “I know, I know,” one of them said. “Did you ever think this day would come? But I thank God it has.”
Yes, I do think you would have smiled.
Still Dreaming with You