Paxton, Levon and I began honoring this important day listening to excerpts from a reading of Martin, Malcolm and Medgar, a play that imagines what might be said by these remarkable men if they were reunited. These voices inspired the boys to share some of what they’d been learning at Park School about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The conversation lead us to attempt to understand why these wise and kind men, so important to the evolution of our nation, were assassinated.
I don’t think the boys ever realized that King was shot. We talked about guns and the difference between shooting animals we eat, versus shooting people we hate. I am often struck by the matter-of-fact acceptance of things by kids this age—things that should be shocking or upsetting. Perhaps it is a sign of their maturity, that in this case they were rather stunned, even confused, by the prospect of fearful white people killing brave black people who worked to make America better for us all.
I don’t recall how old I was when I learned the word “inauguration.” Surely much older than kindergarten. One of the many things I appreciate about my new role of village trustee is the exposure my children have to our democratic process. My boys sat surprisingly still and quiet at the village inauguration on New Year’s Day. Today they ate sundaes as we watched the first half of the presidential inauguration coverage together. They left during Barack Obama’s speech to play in the other room. Still, they have a clear sense of what is happening today, if not the full weight of its historical significance.
How could they understand that America’s independence was a radical experiment in self-governance? How could they understand how exceptional it is that while we have three distinct branches of government, the power of the presidency is concentrated in one single person—one person who is not also a religious leader or a military dictator? How could they understand that despite a history of controversial elections and vote counting, today was the 57th time we have celebrated a peaceful inauguration of a president? That it wasn’t until years after Barack Obama was born that people who looked like him were ensured the right to vote in all states of our union? That despite restrictions passed by 14 states leading up to this election, the constituencies they sought to disenfranchise voted in greater numbers than ever before? That an inauguration ceremony including participation by a Jewish senator, a black female civil rights leader, a Latina supreme court justice, a gay Cuban poet, a Cuban Episcopal priest praying partly in Spanish, and a black president was unimaginable just a generation ago?
Paxton and Levon have only ever known a world where Barack Obama is president. They attend a school where white people are a minority. Soon my boys will be bilingual, empowering them to speak with nearly all of North and South America.
I look forward to our family’s next trip to DC, when we will visit a stone image of Rosa Parks “as she completes her journey from the back of the bus to the front of Statuary Hall” and becomes only the second woman honored in this manner. The dream of Martin Luther King lives on. While Barack Obama’s presidency epitomizes much of what we can celebrate as a nation, we still have much work to do.