“Daddy, what does ‘murder’ mean?”
It was one of those rare nights when I got home early enough to help my son with his homework. My wife thought that with Martin Luther King, Jr. being a member of my fraternity, I’d like to help Justin with his MLK report for school. Let me tell you, I haven’t felt this awkward since I pledged.
There were so many issues to tackle in one sitting that I didn’t even begin to know how to address them all with my son. The irony is not lost on me that my son’s introduction to violence was in learning about one of the icons of non-violent protest, and it became glaringly clear how sheltered he’s been thus far. (The other day he asked us “What’s a cockroach?” No lie.) How do you address racism when you’ve never discussed race in your house? My son is peach-colored, as far as he is concerned. I’m brown. Mommy is yellow. The first time he heard the phrase “Black” or “African-American” was when Barack Obama announced his Presidential candidacy. It’s never been an issue for his six-year-old mind to grapple with. My wife and I have passively pushed race in the house. The angel on top of our Christmas tree is Black, as is baby Jesus. He never asked why.
His friends at school are of many different races and ethnicities, but they don’t define themselves in those terms yet. He knows that his mother is from Haiti and that his Grandmother is from Grenada, but that is as far as we’ve gotten with personal distinctions. In school he is Justin B. B for Barrow, not Black.
Covering the basics of MLK’s birth and early life were simple. But when we got to why he was important to American history, I paused. How do you explain Jim Crow laws to a kid who is just grabbing the concept of law and legality? I had to explain to him that there was a time when Black people were treated very badly because of their skin color, and that it was legal. I was given the “Daddy, my notebook is Black – look!” but he kept quiet and listened. I made the distinction between legal and illegal because the police still treat us like its 1963, even though it’s illegal. Dr. King wanted to change the law so that everyone would be treated equally and to get along with each other. He got that.
Then we came to his death. I don’t know how much was covered in class but Justin knew that “a bad man shot him,” though he didn’t know what the word “murder” meant. It pained me to tell him that that is when you take another person’s life. It’s not just dying, like with his goldfish. This was intentionally done by another person. The man that shot Dr. King murdered him. Justin’s face just fell.
I spoke to my sister about my dilemma and she said that we both had a stronger sense of race at Justin’s age because our father is very much a “race” man. He was always talking about “Black people” and what we needed to do to succeed, etc. But how could you not be if you’re a Guyanese immigrant living in New York during the Ronald Reagan/Ed Koch era? Thirty years later not much has changed racially, but I hadn’t felt the urge to push this lesson on my son yet. Yet.
Am I wrong for letting him be ignorant for just a little longer? Or do I need to sit him down and show him video of the BART shooting of Oscar Grant? So much on my mind I just can’t recline…