Originally published at Caramels on Maple Street
Lately, my 3-year-old daughter has been asking the same question over and over. I thought I’d run clean out of answers when she was 2, and she would ask, “Mama, why?” Now, I’ve got real problems, because here’s what my little girl wants to know: “Mama, why did Martin Luther King die?”What does a 3-year-old know about dying or a man named King? Absolutely nothing. But she knows a lot about mimicking her older brother. And ever since January, when my 6-year-old son celebrated his first real Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday at his elementary school, that question has been at the forefront of his kindergarten mind.
Sky, our first-born, can’t yet read a clock or a calendar. But he had figured out a few things about this particular birthday celebration. He knew that the man people called Doctor had dark skin like his mother. And he knew that King’s killer — “the guy with three names” — had light skin like his father, my husband Brian. But this wasn’t just a question of race. And it also wasn’t just about finding the right way to answer the question for a child of mixed race. This was about any number of bubbles parents build to shield their kids from reality, and realizing we had reached the point when we would have a hand in popping one of those bubbles open.
Up until recently, Brian and I had our son convinced that people die only after they get old and really, really sick. Seeing King’s face, hearing his electrified voice, Sky knew instantly that mommy and daddy had been playing tricks. People could die young. And they could die in other ways besides getting sick. They could die by meeting a bullet.
I have no idea how much of the rapid-fire interrogations going on in our house have to do with little minds trying to grasp death, or little minds trying to grasp that someone would have to die — whatever dying means — over skin color. One seems almost as incomprehensible as the other. But here on Maple Street, we always try to answer the question that is asked. And today (and yesterday, and very likely tomorrow), the question is not why do people die. The question is, why did he die?
Because some people don’t like change, we say.
Because some people are really mean.
Because some people’s brains are just messed up.
Because some people weren’t hugged enough by their parents.
Because back then, some people were afraid of people with dark skin going to the same school or sitting next to them at a lunch counter.
Which people were afraid?
People with light skin.
People like daddy?
Yes, buddy. People like daddy.
Because dark-skinned and light-skinned people couldn’t really know each other back then.
And sometimes people are afraid of what they don’t know.
Does that make sense?
Yea. But why did Martin Luther King have to die?
After a while, my husband got worried about the message we were sending – not with any particular explanation, but with the constant effort to answer the question every single time it was asked. We may have been confusing Sky or we may have been clearing up confusion. But either way, we were making the focus of Martin Luther King’s life about his death. And we knew we didn’t want that.
Figuring out exactly what we do want to say, and how to say it, is another matter, one that will require ongoing reflection, action, and cutting ourselves some slack. Six-year-olds are pretty smart; with a 3-year-old, it’s a little easier. (It’s definitely the chicken way out, and usually involves a lollipop or going upstairs to try on a new fuscia tutu.)
Martin Luther King, Jr., died on April 4, 1968. Why did he die? For a lot of reasons, including this one: so my husband and I could meet, marry, and make babies who would make us think hard about the meaning of this question.
Francie Latour is a print and web journalist who writes about race, gender and intellectual trends in culture and pop-culture. She is a contributing writer for the Boston Globe and the author of two blogs: Caramels on Maple Street, which chronicles her adventures raising three biracial in small-town New England, and The Hyphenated Life, a news-oriented blog on race and multiculturalism for Boston.com. Francie has taught journalism at Boston University; she worked at the Boston Globe for 11 years as a crime reporter, investigative reporter and editorial writer. In 2005, she was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize while at the Globe. In 2008, she won Time Inc.’s Henry Luce Award for a piece about missing black children in Essence magazine. She has appeared as a guest on NPR, NBC’s Today show, and other outlets on issues of race and gender.