photo credit: by Tamir Kalifa
I purposely did not write about MLK50 yesterday because I believe there were, and are, voices more powerful and more relevant than mine. While I proudly embrace Memphis as home it does not escape me that I am a transplant. I have not lived through the racial, educational, and socioeconomic struggles of those who have lived here longer than I have been alive. Though my life got a rough start it has changed drastically for the better, unlike that of many Memphians whom protesters acknowledged yesterday have seen “still no change.” Many of their tragedies are far worse than what I consider my worst tragedies and in that understanding my heart led me to step aside and let the stories surrounding Dr. King’s time and untimely death here in Memphis be told by those who could best tell it.
I’d contemplated not attending the commemoration service with my son Luke only because of the cold and the crowd (in the thousands), being mindful that a seven year old isn’t too keen on either of those. But that seven year old asked repeatedly when I picked him up from school if we could please go.
So we went.
We stood between two native Memphians whose company I will forever cherish because they instantly became my village. A grandmother to my left, who was there with her grandson, gave Luke her scarf and gloves when he started shivering (from the cold.) I had to insist she not give him her coat, too, and instead told him to wrap his arms around me tightly so that he could maybe get warmer. Sam- whom we’d just met but felt eerily like a long lost friend- to my right, commended Luke on his patience and then said to me, “Mom, he is going to be a fighter for justice.”
Her words have echoed in my spirit repeatedly since she spoke them.
Yesterday I watched the commemoration service not as a writer but as a mother to son who has already asked me why he has brown skin and many of his friends at school don’t, and why not long ago children with brown skin couldn’t drink the same water as children with white skin, and why someone wanted to kill Dr. King. “Was it because he had brown skin?” I did not grow up with questions like these but he is. And it breaks my heart.
As I listened to the bell ring 39 times at 6:01 pm, signifying each year Dr. King spent on this earth, my greatest fears in what it means to raise a little Black boy in our world today collided with the hope, love, compassion, and strength I saw in my son’s eyes as he looked at the bell. He wiped my tears over and over again with his borrowed gloves and in those moments I knew: we will be ok.
Dr. King’s death became a passageway of life for little Black girls and little Black boys just like mine who, though living in an unjust world, know that darkness- inclusive of fear- can only be driven out by light- inclusive of hope, love, compassion, and strength.
I want to thank Tamir Kalifa for capturing with his lens what my words could not articulate. I want to thank him for being far enough away that the sacred space I shared with my son went untouched but for being close enough to feel what we were feeling, and somehow translating that into a photograph.
Tamir, thank you.
And thank you, John Eligon, for telling the story in a way only you could.
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