A Walk In The Park

A Walk In The Park

Posted on February 4 by Jael Ealey Richardson in News
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I often spend some portion of the winter holidays down south. My parents and my extended family are American, after all. But this year was the first time I took part in Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations.

In America, MLK Day is a national holiday—an entire day dedicated to a man who led peaceful marches and made bold, culture-changing declarations.

Legislators tried to establish the holiday soon after King’s death, but it took fifteen years to make it a reality. Some politicians believed that King was not significant enough to merit his own holiday; a few northern states preferred to ambiguously call it Civil Rights Day.

It wasn’t until Congress passed a bill under the Reagan administration that MLK Day became a national holiday – 15 years after King’s April 1968 assassination, when King was just thirty-nine years old. But it took seventeen years for all fifty states to unite, making 2015 the 15th celebration of a truly national holiday that celebrates Dr. King on the third Monday of the month in honour of his January 15th birthday.

In some American cities, they hold a memorial service. In other cities, they encourage citizens to volunteer in their community – a symbol of King’s service to the country. In Port Saint Lucie, Florida, banks, schools, and businesses were closed, and a MLK Family Day was held at a local park.

I started the day by explaining who Dr. King was to my five-year old son over breakfast. I told him that when his Papa was born in Portsmouth, Ohio, there were certain restaurants he couldn't go in, certain neighbourhoods that were not safe, that Papa he could not play in the NFL because of the colour of his skin. I told him that Dr. King led peaceful marches and gave important speeches that helped change the laws in America.

It was hard for him to comprehend. After all, at the age of five, the leader of this very same country looked remarkably similar to his Papa—tall, brown skin, athletic build, well-spoken. I saw on his face a look that said, ‘I don’t get it, mommy.’

I took my son to the MLK Family Day event with my mother-in-law, hoping the festivities could explain what I had not clearly conveyed. That this was an important day, an important man. There were burgers and hula-hoop contests and bouncy castles where he bounced around with children of every shape and colour, unaware of the monumental symbolism.

Part way through the event, organizers invited everyone to follow a local pastor and a group of teenagers carrying a Dr. King banner in a symbolic march around the neighbourhood as “I Have a Dream” played in the background.

Cars on the road stopped to let us pass. My son walked and he watched. He watched the police officers. He watched the teenagers. He watched his grandmother. He watched his mother. Marching for someone -- something -- important.

Together, we marked three very different generations – a Canadian immigrant, a Canadian child of immigrants, and a Canadian child raised by Canadian parents. Three different kinds of histories and lessons. It felt important, bigger than us, and as I walked, I thought of the march on Washington, the march my mother and father both watched on television as young, African-American teenagers. I wondered if my son felt the importance too.

When we got home, he said, "That was really fun.”

I asked him what he enjoyed – the slides, the games, the burger?

“The walking. I really liked the march,” he said.

I hugged him tightly.

I am hopeful that while North America still poses challenges for people of colour, that my son will not grow up with “clouds of inferiority in his mental skies”, words King once used to describe the state of young, black Americans in the sixties. I am hopeful that my son will always sense what seems so clear to him now at five – that he can do anything. I am hopeful that he will always know that despite the challenges, he is part of a strong, powerful, and resilient people with history-making, history-shaping, capabilities.

 

Jael Richardson is the author of the 2012 father-daughter memoir The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lessons, a Father’s Life. She is currently working on a children’s picture book that will also celebrate her father’s accomplishments; Chuck Ealey is the first black quarterback to win a Grey Cup and the winningest quarterback in college football history. She lives in Brampton, Ontario with her husband and son.