The first time I learned about Martin Luther King Jr was back when I was in grade school. I remember my teacher talking to us about race and this guy named MLK. It was the first time I heard someone talk about the color of one’s skin. I’d never really thought about my skin color before- I’d just been jealous of my sister Shelli for her darker skin – she never seemed to burn in the sun like me and she had the darker skin tones that went well with her brown hair. I was incredibly confused by the idea that we humans would be treated differently based on our skin color and made a pledge to myself to always treat my fellow humans with dignity and respect.
Little did I know that the classroom where I first learned about race was in the middle of a White Utopia – AKA the state of Oregon – where few people of color were woven into the fabric of culture and society in this PNW Wonderland.
Fast forward to today. I was tired, crampy, and unclear if I wanted to drive the 50 minutes north to listen to the MLK keynote at Oregon State University. I had arranged to meet some friends after the lecture so I texted to see if they were still in or if I could gracefully back out for a day at home of nothingness. They were still in. So I put on my purple Keds and headed out.
The keynote speaker was Melissa Harris-Perry, a kick-ass professor from Wake Forest University. Her lecture took us through the last 50 years since the last birthday MLK celebrated. She showed pictures of what happened from January 15 through April 4 of 1968 – black children being shot by police, working class African-Americans speaking out for economic justice, organized marches to seek change – all things that are happening today in 2018, 50 years later. She asked the question, did MLK’s Life Matter? The answer was yes – of course it mattered, but she said that MLK ultimately failed. He was a martyr fighting for a cause for which there is yet to be a solution – equity and justice is not present in the U.S. We try, but we fail.
The other day I was thinking to myself about my political stance on a lot of things. In particular, I was working through how I could bring up capital punishment with a guy in my life. I wanted to know his thoughts – to hear whether he – like Charlie from the West Wing – would want revenge on the person who hypothetically killed a family member. I’ve asked myself this question so many times. Would I ever pull a gun on someone? Would I ever kill someone who was endangering myself or my family? The answer is no. I don’t like guns. I don’t believe in killing. And I certainly don’t believe in capital punishment – our government’s attempt at filtering through the “evil people” in the world. I do believe that some people have tainted hearts, but I don’t believe people are evil. I believe people lose themselves in a psychological abyss full of darkness, frustration, and forgotten tears. I see capital punishment as a true failure of our government that only perpetuates inequity and injustice to people of lower socio-economic status.
To me, capital punishment taps into the economic injustice MLK fought, a fight that continues to this day. I often find myself going down the rabbit hole of wondering – what is the answer? How can we change the system? How can we have true redistribution of wealth? How can we really help with housing and rehabilitation services? Where I live in Eugene, I ride public transport and ride across town with many individuals who move their full shelter every morning. As I observe my fellow humans on the bus, I wonder – how does this work out this way? How did I end up where I am in a job I love with many life experiences behind me while my peer on the bus is now living in a shelter for the first time in the last four years? I honestly don’t believe this has to do with hard work or my dreams. We all have dreams. There’s something bigger – there’s a system of inequity that runs though our world and continues to advantage some and disadvantage others.
I try to avoid the rabbit hole which is part of why for a while this morning, I considered staying home. I didn’t want to feel. I wanted to sleep, knit, and drink tea. But turning off my brain to sleep more and worry less isn’t helping anyone, least of all me. I think the greatest thing I heard today was when Melissa Harris-Perry said that MLK didn’t do the advocacy work for himself; he did it for all the others. Life shouldn’t be about making my life easier to live for myself. Life is really about trying to make a mosaic of the experiences, people, and places I encounter. And I want that mosaic to be beautiful – one that brings joy, laughter, and emotions to all who are part of it.
Today, on MLK’s birthday, I wasn’t reminded of specific quotes about a great man who led the Civil Rights movement in the 60s. Instead, I was reminded of the fact that I’ve got to stay woke. I’ve got to remain engaged and concerned and I have to speak out more and write more about the chaos that continues to challenge my life mosaic. And honestly, I need to remember that it’s not MY mosaic. Life, earth, they are ours. We’re all in this together. So it’s time to refocus our energy on creating a more equitable, just world. And I, for one, pledge to start again every day. Because, when I’m honest, I know that I need to restart every day so that I can continue to do and say things that will help fight the injustices and challenge the White Utopian ideas that continue to shape our nation, my home state, and the very culture that grew up in. If I want to live in a world where humans really aren’t judged by the color of their skin, I’ve gotta do something to help that happen.
Until next time,