When I was 10, I thought I understood Dr. King's message. My family had a recording of the "I Have a Dream" speech, which I'd listened to, and it all seemed so simple. Everybody deserves equality and justice; you should treat everybody with respect. Of course! I knew it was important, and I knew that in the past, people had been treated very badly. I thought the holiday was basically a warm fuzzy day on which we reminded each other that we should be nice. But I had no experience to prove to me that America was still full of racism (nobody told me it was gone; I just hadn't seen it), and especially, no concept of what made "I Have a Dream" a truly monumental speech in American history.
As I've gotten older, racism has creeped in to my life. I've lost friendships to it. I've seen the kinds of injustice I believed had been eradicated in the 60s. I've met people whose ignorant racist attitudes are silently poisoning their communities. I've even been hated for being White.
I was born in to almost every possible category of privilege except maleness. I'm White, from a stable, loving, educated family with a decent amount of money, straight, an agnostic, American, in excellent health but protected by insurance, etc. The list goes on and on. There have been a few occasions in my life when I've been in minority - as a White person on trips to South America and Asia, and while building houses in Arkansas. As a hearing person in the Deaf community. As a young person among much older people when I worked at labs at Cornell University. As a female in maybe 75% of my math classes in middle and high school.
Anybody who can recount all their significant experiences as a minority in a short paragraph is obviously not a minority. Therefore, anything I know from personal experience about racism is likely to represent only a tiny fraction of the true experience unfolding in America today. And that's a sobering thought.
Because racism, over the last few years, has really weighed me down. The enormity of the problem has really settled in. I used to believe that simply being nice to everybody would solve the problem; it won't. Now I realize that. I realize that there's no excuse for sitting by and watching racism happen, even if you're a nice person. More than anything, I now see and feel the racial tensions that I never noticed as a child. There's deep mistrust in this country.
With that realization, I think I began to view the fight against racism as increasingly hopeless. Every group seems suspicious of the other. Equality and justice are virtues frequently called upon in lawmaking, and racism is, of course, no longer fashionable, but where is the friendship? What happened to the part where we actually get along? It's good that our government isn't legally racist anymore, but individuals sure are, and we can't even talk about it - because "good" people are "never" racist.
Yesterday morning, for the first time I was 14 or so, I watched the "I Have a Dream" speech, and it totally bowled me over. I saw it in a completely new light. All the times I'd heard it previously, it had sounded a lot like "Hey America, stop hurting Black people. This is horrible. Treat us the way we deserve. Give us our rights." But yesterday, what I heard was "Hey America, wake up. We really can achieve unity. We can get along. We can overcome this."
Just what I'd almost stopped believing.
I think I understand better now what King was saying. He wasn't just demanding that Black people be given equal rights - though of course he did that. He was actually hopeful, he was the opposite of hate (even when he himself was hated), and was truly leading towards peace.
Of course, the world knows that. King said it himself! (Maybe I just wasn't listening.) He got the Nobel Peace Prize. Millions of people have written about his message. But the powerful, unexpected optimism with which he spoke didn't really hit me until yesterday.
After I watched the speech, I spent a tearful hour listening to Beethoven's 9th symphony, and realized that, like so much of Beethoven's work, the symphony only gets sweeter the more sourness you've experienced. It just becomes more and more sublime. The very end of the last movement - the one with "Ode to Joy" - offered up its words in a new way:
- Finale repeats the words:
- Be embraced, ye millions!
- This kiss for the whole world!
- Brothers, beyond the star-canopy
- Must a loving Father dwell.
- Be embraced,
- This kiss for the whole world!
- Joy, beautiful spark of the gods,
- Daughter of Elysium,
- Joy, beautiful spark of the gods