Through a long series of cancellations, prior engagements, work stress and cell phone charging while reading Apple maps, the wife and I ended up in Atlanta, Georgia this past weekend. We spent the time admiring the shower in the hotel bathroom, watching a baseball game, staring at pretty girls dressed up to attend the BET Awards and being stuck in mid-town Atlanta traffic. But amongst all of that, we found time to visit the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site and it was pretty amazing.
A few years ago before paying a few bucks to go look at dusty old relics, my wife told me that her favorite thing about visiting museums were those sneaky surprise feelings that happen during a visit. Literally anything in there – and sometimes something that you might not even have known or cared about previously – might touch your emotions, pique your interest or grab you. I walked into the visitor’s center of the site not knowing what to expect, and I left with questions that were answered by a pretty unlikely source.
I feel like a person who knows quite a bit about Dr. King, and I hope that doesn’t sound flippant or arrogant, but I’ve read a fair share about the man, trying to learn about the man beyond the canonized image of him that I learned about in school. The end result has been my belief that Dr. King was a pretty rare and special human. There’s a quote that Dr. King said about Gandhi which could just as easily be applied to him rather than the Mahatma:
Gandhi was inevitable. If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore him at our own risk.
We live in a world where we (and I’m including myself in this) probably idolize people who don’t deserve to be idolized. We celebrate the bad and try to live to those expectations because spectacle is sexier than principle. Dr. King and Gandhi were both living examples of that cosmic benevolence which baffles the rational mind. The cynic in me wants to believe that men such as these aren’t possible – that the default settings of being a human forbids us from escaping the angry, violent and base instincts that most of us operate on by default, but here are two great examples of people that we should aspire to.
The museum is beautiful, filled with the images, moving and still, that sixty years removed seem almost inconceivable to me – people were that cruel, reacted that violently, that ignorant and fearful of someone because of the way that their skin looked. I can’t really fathom it. I know that sort of gut-level racism exits – I’ve seen brief snippets of it – but I can’t rationally understand it.
But there it was in front of me, in the first exhibit. Still photos and reproductions of signs were hung upon a wall, newspaper clippings and excerpts were printed, and a flat screen television showed us images of the harsh world that blacks in the south lived in during the first half of the twentieth century.
Then I saw the thing that struck me – but it wasn’t an exhibit. It was a fellow guest of the museum.
Standing below a sign hung on the wall was a fellow museum guest. She was a girl who I guess was around seven or eight. Her hair was braided and she wore sneakers with pink trim around the toes and a plastic bracket of sorts across the lowest part of her shoelace that lit up when she walked. The top of her head was just below a sign that read “Whites Only” on the wall. She looked at two pictures that seemed right above eye level to her – one of a group of Klansmen standing near a burning cross and the other a rather graphic picture of a group of white men standing around the lifeless body of a lynched black man.
The little girl stood very still looking at the photos while chewing on her index finger. Her feet were crossed below her and she seemed ready at any minute to uncoil her pointy knees into a three hundred and sixty degree jump as children are prone to do. Instead she stood still and faced the picture. I was trying not to pay too much attention to her and instead our eyes me. She looked at me for a moment and then went back to the picture. She looked again, stopping at my face for just long enough for me to smile at her. The sort of smile that someone like me gives a child or anyone whose eyes meet mine: “hello, my friend! I am friendly!” I try to say. She looked around for a moment and then saw her parents at another exhibit.
It should have felt like any other interaction that I might have with a stranger at any other place on the planet where I might be. A glance, a smile, an acknowledgement, reciprocation and a departure – human interpersonal relations perfectly summed up in less than three seconds. But this time it was awkward: the little girl looked more like the victim in the photograph and I looked closer to the group of callous and awful bad guys in the picture.
I’m a white guy. I’ve been one for probably my entire life. I’ll probably be one for the rest of my life, barring any sort of science fiction-type event happening where I switch places with Pam Grier for a few days. But even as a white guy, I try not to think of myself as anything other than who I am for the most part – why should I be proud of something that I had no control over? But I’m a white guy – history’s dominant force in a lot of the world and the guy who looks like those awful people in a photograph to a little black girl.
As I kept walking through that museum I couldn’t help but to worry that for a child that small, that immediate association in a museum – the violent image and the first face she sees after considering the picture would somehow stain her perception of people who look like me even a little. I hope that she considers her fellow humans not for the color of their skin, but for the content of their character, as Dr. King put it.
But it wasn’t just that little girl. I wondered while walking around in that museum about how things like the past deeds of whites effect perceptions of whites going about their day like I was at that moment. I don’t know if there is a right answer or an appropriate answer to that sort of worry and dread. All I know that I’ve had any sort of thoughts about my race in any sort of non-comical way in my entire life, but they arrived inside of that museum.
As the afternoon went on, I finished the exhibits in the visitor center, walked down to The King Center and even over to visit the old site of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Each exhibit moved me in a different way. Each one had places profound beauty and sadness, but my mind went back to the little girl staring at that horrible photograph.
Later the wife and I decided to make our way to our car and eventually out of Atlanta and back to North Carolina. Our map pointed us towards the nearest train station and we began walking down Boulevard Street towards the station. Boulevard is a part of a historically black neighborhood that is undergoing a bit of renewal. We saw people walking along the street, waiting for buses and going about their day. All of the sudden, from a side street a voice cried out.
“Where you guys headed,” the voice said. It was attached to an older black man, maybe in his late forties or early fifties. He was dressed casually and had a grey beard.
“Oh we’re walking towards the MARTA station,” I said.
The man walked beside me as we continued down the street.
“Oh shit this is great, white people walking through the black part of town! Y’all ain’t scared of us like your parents are!” he laughed and extended a fist. I bumped knuckles with him and kept walking towards our destination.
“We’re all people, man. I’ve got no reason to be afraid of you until you give me a reason,” I said. We both laughed when I said that.
The man told us to avoid a tricky part of the journey towards the station – a road zigs when the map says that it zags – and we continued on the walk.
“Have a good day, my brother,” he said as he started to cross the street towards a mini-mart.
“Take it easy, my friend,” I said back to him.
He looked back at me and smiled. “Take care of mama there,” he said referring to my wife. I was flattered; my wife is a foxy mama.
As he crossed the street he cried out “White people up in the neighborhood! Dr. King would be proud of this shit!” he raised a triumphant fist into the air.
I laughed and kept on walking. Later, on the train I thought about the little girl encountering such ugliness in old photographs and the older man who might’ve actually seen it up close. I smiled at them both and received very different reactions. Maybe one reaction was just a little girl fleeing the sight of horror and strangers back to the comfort of her parents, her feeling of home. Maybe the other reaction was from a man whose world has changed around him, from segregation to the site of more and more white people walking through his neighborhood. Maybe this is the innocence and experience that William Blake wrote about.
The train rushed forward and shuttled us north through the city. Throughout the journey the train stopped and all sorts of people got on and off: weary travelers and excited kids, friends heading out to dinner and families going to Cub Scout meetings, people gossiping, sharing the scores of the football games and people living their lives just sharing a train together. Nobody considered that we were all in this cart together, stealing away towards somewhere together, where there is no place for those hateful men of the past who I saw in those pictures. Instead the cart pushed forward; above and below ground, speeding up and slowing down. Eventually, the train stopped, the doors opened and we stood up and walked out together. The light upstairs was bright and we squinted until our eyes adjusted. It was painful for a few moments and then we could see clearly.