A few years ago I started working on a play that was about a white sociologist professor and her black photographer boyfriend. In one of the scenes, the professor came home after spending all day in the office, only to learn from her boyfriend that it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Embarassed, she said, "Well, do you want to go out for dinner? Or--get something for the grill? Or--I don't know--what does one do on Martin Luther King Jr. Day?"
I couldn't tell if that scene was funny or not, I hoped that audiences would recognise that MLK Day is a weird holiday and laugh along gently. I only know it's MLK Day on Monday (although today is King's birfsday) because there was a sign on my bank saying it would be closed. So apparently it's a national holiday. But unlike President's Day, there are no sales, unlike Memorial Day, there are no home-repair projects and barbequeing. What does one do on MLK Day? I've never observed it, never had a special meal or done anything particularly memorable, and that's when I realised I don't really know much about MLK other than he was involved in the civil rights movement and he was shot.
So Monday, at the library, I checked out a biography of Dr. King. I was a little trepidatious, because biographies tend to be dry, but this author has completely balanced a good account of King's life with a genuine admiration for the man, sprinkled with King's speeches and horrifying accounts of living in the sixties. Ironically, I was reading it on the train, sitting next to a black man who was sprawled out next to me, invading my personal space. Instead of being annoyed, as I usually am (there would be so much more room on the L if people would just SIT WITH THEIR KNEES TOGETHER) I was marveling to myself about how if this man had invaded my personal space this badly fifty years ago he might have been thrown from the moving train. So the juxtaposition of history and now was very immediate. I don't know if I can say "oh, how attitudes have changed!" but the steps we've taken are certainly in the right direction. Institutionalised racism is now unacceptable, and it is the personal racism we have to work on, as opposed to fifty years ago, where individuals might be kind, but institutionally, racism was accepted.
Still working on it though.
As for me, after I finish this book, I think it's time to go back and read American history from the other perspective. Perspectives.