Human Rights Day/Martin Luther King Jr Day/Black History Month. They are a bit awkward for me. Not because I disagree with any of it, I don't! I think they are all wonderful, but none of them have really ever meant anything to me personally. I've always thought of this as a good thing. A sign that the world was moving forward, that these aspects of the past were no more pressing in my daily life than, say, the American Revolution, the Fall of Rome, or the Great Flood. That is to say, I benefit and live in the world where changes have been made because it happened, but I don't need to spend much active brain time dwelling on dealing with it. As a result, however; I just don't really know what to do with the holiday.
It wasn't until about 6 years ago, when my now step-father-in-law was introduced to me the idea that it really wasn't that long ago, generationally, when segregation was a reality. While he didn't grow up in the United States, he did visit. Having an outsiders perspective made the concepts and realities of this separationist lifestyle a bizarre and imprinted memory for him. My family left the South (what few of them lived there) 4 generations ago. We left the East at the same time. The observations and encounters, while no different then the text books and documentaries, my s-FIL had to share really struck me in a way that no history lesson ever had.
You see I grew up in an area where the idea of discrimination was someone else's problem. It was something that happened a long time ago. In fact the American Civil War was before statehood, so there really wasn't a lot of immediate connection to it. Being to the West of the Rocky Mountains, there is a clear distinction between all the stuff that happened on the other coast of the country, and what I experienced growing up. Before the internet it really wasn't possible to feel any further away from Washington D.C. and the rest of the world.
Additionally, everyone was white. Ok, not everyone, but sometimes it felt that way. There were a few Native American peoples, but not many in the area where I grew up. There were some people of Hispanic heritage, but they blended in to me or just never really went out of their way to say, look at me I'm different. For the most part my growing up, hair color was a bigger distinction than any skin traits. Oh sure, every once in a while there'd be someone blessed with skin pigment (trust me if you burn when you think about sunshine, anyone with pigment is seen as blessed to you!) Anyway, those lucky people who looked different were instantly the most popular people, or maybe they just had those personalities.
That's not to say it was easy for them. I distinctly remember an African American, or African (we had a few immigrants as well) family who moved in while I was in elementary school. My sister was friends with the little girl. She was very popular and I believe her brother was just as popular at the junior high. Unfortunately, while I think most people were generally welcoming to them, they left after just a year. I don't know exactly why they left, shoot to this day I can still only tell you about a couple of my neighbors, it just wasn't that kind of place where everyone knew everyone else and they lived a few blocks away, but it was rumored they left because they didn't fit in because they were the only black people for miles.
Obviously, the thought that they would leave because they felt like they couldn't be comfortable because of their skin color always stuck with me. I understand that maybe culture had more to do with it than skin color, but I really wish they had stay. The girl was super nice and my sister liked her a lot. I never really learned much about them, and I've always felt a bit disadvantaged from that. You see, most of the kids I went to school with, they were all the same. Most of them went to the same church, they all really looked a lot alike. We all did the same things, celebrated the same national holidays, and tried to understand the world around us, without experiencing the world outside of our little suburban-style shell.
Since we had that isolation, it's easy to see why Martin Luther King Jr, the Civil Rights Movement, Segregation, and all of that seems a long time ago, in towns far far away. For as much as it impacted us, it might as well have been in another galaxy. As a result it was kind of like the defacto of being an American, it was just something you learned in history and it tried to explain why were fools before and the way we are now, which in the future will still be fools, but at least we should be less of fools than those before us.
Talking to someone, while not impacted, but at least a witness, that changed that long time ago aspect. And of course as my boundaries grew from the end of the street, to the elementary school, to the mile square of the houses where I lived, and then the town, the valley, and now as far as my wallet and desire can get me, it isn't so far away either. I still struggle to say how much these events continue to impact my life, I am ever so thankful they happened. I look at my children, who for years have more friends who are not American citizens (or have parents who are on VISAs) than are the same genetic heritage as they are, I think of how blessed they are! Not only does the concept of discrimination based on color of the skin make no sense to them, they same can be said for country of origin, or native language. I hope someday they understand that the rest of the country is not as blessed as them, and for them these struggles are present in their living history, and their neighborhoods, and I hope they can take what they've learned in their town far far away and share it with the world.