to a king (2004)

Underneath my father's bed, in whatever apartment he was living in, was a battered suitcase, never locked, which I could always open. I imagine it's still under whatever bed he's sleeping in now. It is our treasure chest.

What the contents of the suitcase look like to me now is such a distant memory, I imagine it's colored by my imagination: the letters in it likely glitter less, there may be fewer of them, the small crafts and pictures I made him are probably in far worse shape than I imagine, especially the King Kong made out of playdough that was already looking pretty bad last time I saw it around 15 years ago. But I remember pretty well what is inside the suitcase.

A small handful of photos of his family, newspaper clippings from the car accident that killed his mother, stepfather and young brother. His draft call, magazine pages about Vietnam and photos of some of the protests, handbills from the INFACT protests I remember being on. And letters and cards, loads and loads of them, from past lovers, a few from his almost-second marriage who suicided, a handful from friends back when he was resisting the draft and protesting Vietnam, when we lived in the middle of nowehere, a batch from me as a child, and most treasured of all, a small pile of letters and cards from Coretta Scott King.

My father did some work for the civil rights movement before I was born, just before and after Dr. King was assassinated. I don't know what exactly he did to merit getting those letters, save that I do know my father is an intense and insanely smart person who can create very strong bonds with people. He's Italian, after all -- we can all be awfully charming, it's in our genes. He also often downplayed his achievements in life so much growing up, and then overplayed some other things -- probably like anyone else -- so there's really no telling at this point what really happened. But I do know those letters were like gold. When we looked through them on rare occasions, we touched them reverently and cautiously, lest they crumble. They may have been/may be his most prized possession, understandably.

The neighborhoods I grew up in after we came back from hiding out in Pennsylvania were incredibly mixed. Growing up, I would not have classified my friends, neighbors or teachers as white, asian, black, mixed-race, because those sorts of divisions just weren't in my vocabulary or experience, since the majority of my friends and neighbors were simply everything under the sun. I didn't ever think of myself as a race, either, though chances are that was a lot easier to do being white. Most of my mothers coworkers were black, and thus most of my babysitters, when I had them, were their daughters. Those daughters corrected my crappy Irish Catholic church experiences (though in hindsight there were awfully funny) with trips to their Southern Baptist churches, where I got to sing and dance and run around to smiles and laughter for the crazy little white girl monkey apparently grooving so hard on Jesus. I was out at dinner with a friend who grew up in Harlem last night, and she found these stories pretty comical: they are, they're good times in my childhood. In my late teens, I took a market research job for a bit to save up for school, and ended up with one of those sitters as my boss. She was always nervously waiting for me to start running up and down between the cubicles shouting Hallelujah, the poor gal.

Because of the work my father had done, and because I was never talked to like a child, I knew racism existed, I knew about King and Malcolm X, I knew a decent lot about the awful racial history of the culture. My third grade teacher, Ms. Clark, was one of the first batch of kids bussed into desegregated schools in the South, and she had lots of strong stories to share. But all this without personal context; it was academic, it was second or third-party. It's not that I disbelieved my father that racism was still very present, I simply hadn't ever seen it with my own eyes or ears.

I was trying to remember last night exactly when the first time was I saw it for myself, and it only came back to me at 3 AM this morning (jolting me awake, and screwing up my sleep pattern so I overslept for boxing today, damn the luck). 5th grade. My friend Rochelle and I were playing at the park when a white friend of mine walked up with a smirk and told her to take a bath. I didn't get it. I'm all "What are you talking about? Her hair always smells pretty, but yours looks all greasy today, so..." blah blah blah. Finally, she tells Rochelle to go take a bath to get all that black dirt off her skin. I get it.

And find myself in the principal's office shortly thereafter with a sore fist. Joanne Wilkins and I spent a good deal of time together in the fourth and fifth grade. Enough so that I'll never forget her name. Had I had the boxing classes for girls I'm supposed to be able to teach soon then myself, I probably would have spent a lot less time there because I would have been taking out on a bag what I doled out on classmates all too often. Sometimes, I was totally unjustified -- a boy would renege on a bet (I figured out that you could run mini-rackets in elementary school to net hot lunch money by making pools for what hot lunch would be that day), or just be a boy. Other times were more murky: I punched because I got teased about worn hand-me-downs or lunches brought from the hospital cafeteria, or for having no lunch at all and getting a PB&J in pity from the lunchlady. I punched because a boy was terrorizing one of the girls who didn't know how to fight back. I punched because a white girl just said something to one of my girlfriends that completely floored me, that I was overwhelmed anyone would even think, let alone say, that bust a hole in my own reality, making one of the rare places I felt we were all safe in, where the rules seemed predictable and stable, school, not so safe and not so stable.

Joanne Wilkins usually admonished me, no matter what, but sometimes with a smirk for my chutzpah under the disapproving words or tone, which I saw through. But I rememberedthat that time, Joanne Wilkins listened to me say what happened, nodded, and just quietly told me to have a good day and sent me back to class.

I'm not sure how I feel about that in retrospect.

I was pretty shaken. Not by the fight, and not just by my friends feelings being hurt, because they didn't seem to be at all, which was really confusing. Of course, in hindsight, one would assume they weren't because it was likely not the first time she had seen racism directly, it was only my first time. But the whole incident created divisions I hadn't had before, just in that small moment, and some discussion of the thing would have been helpful (as telling me that punching a bigot, especially one likely just parroting a parent, wasn't the best solution). I had to realize I had White friends and Black friends and Asian friends and Indian friends and Biracial friends when I hadn't before, and that I was one of the White friends. I didn't get to be colorblind anymore. And that incident, of course, opened my wee eyes enough that I started to notice more and more racism around me. Not long thereafter, I overheard my mother's Irish parents talking about moving fromthe south side because of black families buying more homes. I overheard dinner talk at my friends house from her father, an alderman, in terms of troubles he was having due to his race. Later on, as we'd move around, I became aware of how often I got outsider status because I didn't choose my friends based on race (though one if left to wonder if I was always the one whose closest friends were Indian, Asian, Black, Latina because what I was seeing in some white people made me want not to belong with them, or because of the fact that we were all poor, or if it was simply random -- hard to say, but likely all three).

This stands out as unusual in my childhood, because in almost every other regard, I was never a child who lived in a child's world; I rarely got to experience ignorance being bliss. Innocent is not a word which describes me as a child. I knew about violence, about poverty, about having to take care of oneself, about beaurocracy, about renegade politics, about current events, about betrayal, about neglect, about very real fear, about any number of "adult" things most kids aren't familiar with. And maybe that was some of the shock: simply discovering there was something around me I didn't know anything about experientially or personally. Discovering there was something truly awful I thought didn't exist in my world. Possibly, discovering that my Daddy, his companions and his heroes didn't fix the things I thought they had.

I also remember feeling a sense of relief that felt awful: that for once, there appeared to be one form of punishment or taunting or terror that didn't, couldn't apply to me. It didn't feel at all good, but there it was, that awful relief. If you've ever been the target of a bully who suddenly picked someone else, or been abused in a family where eventually another member became the target instead of you, or watched an ex-partner who mistreated you move on when they found someone else to mistreat, you know the sort of mixed-bag I'm talking about.

I'd be willing to bet that Rochelle doesn't remember this incident at all. Joanne Wilkins may not remember it, either. Again, I'm not all that comfortable with Ms. Wilkins allowing me to sock the white girl in the eye and giving me unspoken approval for that, but... here's hoping that girl remembers that day all the same and that my own violence didn't undo what she might have learned.

In my mind, it's far-fetched and really patronizing to say we can fully understand issues which really don't apply to us. We can sympathize or empathize, sure. That suitcase of letters and such aside, just by virtue of being female, of growing up (and often still being) poor, by being queer, and so forth, I have a certain level of understanding for racial intolerance and bigotry, because in plenty of ways, it's similar to other sorts of bigotry which have been applied to me. I have some understanding by virtue of growing up in such a mixed community, by having friends and colleagues who have experienced racism very directly to listen to. But.

"Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking:"Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. " - Martin Luther King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail,1963

I get itchy when I hear men talk about feminism and women's issues, when I listen to people talk about abortion who have never had one, or who biologically can't ever have one. I feel a little gurgly in my belly when straight people talk about queer life and community, when people who grew up middle or upper class talk about poverty, when people who have not been abused or assaulted try and represent those of us who have, or compare experiences to assault that could not have even come close. I try and acknowledge those feelings when I have them, let them be present, and generally they pass: in my heart of hearts, I do want everyone to be able to be compassionate in a very real way, to think beyond their own issues and work together for what's really best for everyone.

But I think part of compassion might be letting each of us own the issues which really are our own. My father's suitcase wasn't overflowing with clippings about him, his letters to anyone else, but with what was given TO him by others and the kind of things he gave in turn. Coretta's letters weren't so important just because they were Coretta's, but because what was in them was what she generously gave to my father: not endless form thank you's for his helping, not accolades for he and everyone else, just tidbits from her own life, notes of what was going on from her perspective, her jewels, what she was willing to share. I understand when my friends with their own children say that just because I was a teacher doesn't mean I can get being a parent. I understand that while I was a teenager once, I can only represent the teenagers I give sex ed to now, and often speak for publicly, so well. I try and hear friends who grew up with other issues than I did -- who aren't white, who are male, who grew up with money, who have lived in third-world countries, who are nonacademic -- and understand as best I can, accepting I'm limited in my understanding. I try to learn to talk and interject less and listen more, though that's often very hard for me; I'm stubborn and I'm headstrong. I try to remember that it's often better for me to wait to be asked for help with issues that aren't mine than to forge forward on my own for someone else, to represent without permission or request. I try and remember, always, that nearly all of us can only truly see through our own lenses. I try to remember that trust is an action verb, and that action fuels the engine of compassion.

"Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than it injures the hated." Coretta Scott King

I've never been able to watch, read or listen to Dr. King's speeches without ending up a huge ball of tears and snot in a sea of wadded tissue. It's a given he was a magnificent orator, and beyond a given that he was a magnificent, and very human (to some people's dissapointment, even), man. And, of course, like anyone else, his words to me are all tied up in things from my own life, in growing up with who I did, how I did, in the strong feelings and longing I have for my father, to know and understand my father, what he expected of me and why he became so horribly dissapointed in and disenchanted with himself, to try and understand my mother's very mixed feelings about him and the agony of their relationship, and my child hero-worship of my father that I often cling to and don't want to let go of, despite, and perhaps because of, many harsher realities.

But I think much of the strong reaction I have to his words and deeds, and what a lot of other people might as well, especially those who often cannot know -- especially growing up in the States white, and especially growing up in the last twenty or forty years rather than before that time -- many aspects of his experience directly, of the bigotry he challenged, is that he was able to share, to do what he could to bring and allow everyone together to work against racism, without worry or bitterness about co-opting, without refusal to share his issues and history like property. He actively trusted everyone and the good of the world, in a very real way; when he had to call out those who were not being as active as they might be or could be, he did so with a great loving kindness and honesty. He worked for aims actively, but nonviolently, with an eye towards a result, but without forgetting that no matter the result, the action and the process had value all their own, with a needed and difficult sense of nonattachment amidst his great dedication. The best catalysts have to do all of that.

That's a really tough thing to do, and we can probably count on one hand the people in our history who have truly done that: not only is victim-status lauded in our culture (and perhaps not at all ironically, minority-status both punished and constantly kept in place), when anyone is oppressed, many times that oppression is one of the only things one has, so naturally, we may want to cling to it just as much as we want to shed it. We may want tosay "You have all of these things that are yours, many at our expense, so you don't get to have or share the pain or discomfort you put upon me."

But that's compassion, isn't it? Isn't that a big part of how we get there? Not by forcing others to share it, not by oppressing them in turn, not by refusing to share, but by holding it all out, knowing it may be accepted or refused. By speaking honestly, but with kindness, even when we're angry, knowing our words may incite any number of reactions or emotions, including chilly apathy. By allowing others to share in our journeys, grand and small, calling upon them to do so when needed and required, even though they may be limited in their understanding or empathy. Trusting them in using all we can give as seed to further cultivate compassion. Often, we best cultivate compassion by being willing to be a catalyst, and perhaps only a catalyst: one who plants or shares seeds, not who harvests them or enjoys the crops. Whether all of that's on the incredible level that Martin and Coretta achieved, or whether it's from one small person to another, in passing, those are monumental acts and gifts, always.

I don't know where that suitcase is right now, because I don't know where my father is right now. Morbid as it sounds, I sincerely hope that when my father passes on, it won't get lost in the shuffle and it will find it's way into my hands, because it's terribly important to me; it was always terribly important to him. But that suitcase was full of fine seed my father shared with me, and wherever it ends up, I already used much of it, and can keep on using much of it, without it being in my hands. I can use it and all my experiences and gifts to represent my own issues as best I can, and to benefit others who share them with what I can do as best I can. I can use it to remember to listen to others whose experiences and histories I don't share, to accept and give help when asked and when I can, and to cultivate compassion, rather than co-opt or secondarily carry on cynicism, anger, fear or attachment.

I can fill my own suitcase with whatever seeds I need and want to carry on, and know it'll always be right there for me and for anyone else who opens it. What's important with our suitcases isn't where they are, that we have them in our possession, or whether it's even actual: what's important is what we fill them with, what others also place inside them, and that we always leave them open.

"I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him.

I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant."
- Martin Luther King, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 1964

"We call you to commemorate this holiday by making your personal commitment to serve humanity with the vibrant spirit of unconditional love that was his greatest strength, and which empowered all of the great victories of his leadership. " - Coretta Scott King

© 2004 Heather Corinna. All rights reserved.