I just finished a Pulitzer Prize book — “The Known World” — set in pre-Civil War days in Virginia. The practice of slavery is vividly and viciously portrayed, even when “nice” things are happening. Because nothing nice can come from one person’s “ownership” of another. Or when one race lords it over another.
Our African American daughter-in-law cannot read books or watch movies dealing with slavery. This is her history were she to go back enough generations — and it pains her to know black people were treated so abominably. When I make that journey into my family’s past I find a different story.
Just this week I learned of friends who visited Poland and stayed in the house his great-great grandfather built — now restored and a vacation rental. It reminded me of my visit to rural Norway and lodging with relatives in the two-story farmhouse with the sod roof where my great-grandfather had lived with his family. None of these people were prominent but they were free.
A column I saw this week references how Martin Luther King Jr’s father mentored him — teaching him to “stand against the system of hate surrounding them but also to forgive the people caught up in it.” A story is told of the time a policeman called the elder King “boy.” King pointed to his son and said, “This is a boy. I’m a man, and until you call me one, I will not listen to you.”
Just the battle for respect — ongoing — coming from a history of enslavement and contempt leaves me astounded. What it has taken is beyond what I can know. But I can see its scars — our daughter-in-law questions sometimes if it’s “because I’m black” when something negative happens with a white person. Not placing blame, but unsure of herself amid the muffled racial echoes down the years.
No one can choose what came before. But as the article mentioning Martin Luther King Jr states, “What a man does in life is history, but what he puts into motion becomes legacy.”
The elder King — a Baptist pastor and participant in the early civil rights movement — defended what he believed about individual human worth and standing for it in a nonviolent way and he aimed his convictions forward for his son to catch.
His son ran passionately with those convictions — and changed these United States of America in ways that benefit us all. This mother-in-law can testify to that.