Despite the fact that Washington, D.C. is my home, I opted to take my kids to Target last weekend instead of the commemorative Civil Rights March on Washington. How could I? My mom attended the original march 50 years ago, and I, a bi-racial woman born in 1970, was basically a Civil Rights Movement baby. But still, I just didn’t feel like standing in a huge crowd listening to speeches by today’s best opinion makers.
By the time Wednesday came around and President Obama spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the commemorative activities had receded into a flurry of other incoming information: my second grader’s fascination with his French classmate’s accent, the fact that my 16 year old forgot to walk the dog when I was traveling, and my puzzlement over the world’s response to the MTV music awards; something I assumed had long ago lost relevance to anyone who was actually interesting.
Wednesday evening however, I found myself glued to the TV, watching not only the crowds and clips from the President’s speech on the mall, but photos and video from the original march, where Dr. King galvanized thousands with his “I Have a Dream” speech. I was struck by the gravity of the two events, but mostly found myself fixated on their differences.
Two images from the 1963 march defined for me what is simply missing in America today: a collective consciousness. First was a picture of Dr. King speaking, flanked by what appeared to be American Black Muslims, though there is some discussion about who exactly they were. What’s interesting was my immediate reaction to the picture. I found it genuinely surprising, because my simple mind always associated Black Muslims with Malcom X; why would they be there with Dr. King? I quickly realized that this was a symptom of my own, circa now, gross compartementalism: something has to be either/or, it can’t be both.
I then saw footage of Peter, Paul and Mary singing on stage while the mixed race audience clapped along to the music- not stratified by genre, but inspired by message. My thoughts immediately shot to Miley Cyrus, and her alleged misappropriation of Black culture by “twerking” at the MTV video music awards. Disgust and disappointment surged through my body. Is this how we’ve come down to defining color lines? Will music ever again draw parallels instead of lines in the sand?
I turned to my son and explained that the 1963 March on Washington was about a collective consciousness. Can you even get your head around that? Collective. Consciousness. It was about people, Americans, coming together in substantial numbers to shout, in a collective voice, that what they saw was wrong; it was unjust, it was cruel, it was un-American. This group wasn’t defined by snarky hashtags decrying who was left out and who was invited in. It wasn’t polarized by what kind of music was okay and what wasn’t okay, what religious or ethnic group was too far out or too far in, who was too privileged and who just didn’t get it.
It was about a group of people, who walked, bussed, railed, flew, or in my mom’s case, hitchhiked in to D.C. to hold hands with strangers and rally around an issue that they would not allow to be defined by anyone but themselves. It dawned on me that this was a thin slice of people in a snapshot in time, the likes of which may not be seen again in my lifetime, and that weighed on me.
I decided to make some personal commitments. How can I decide to live in the spirit of what the original marchers believed? How can I stop my snap judgments on people, my own subjective categorizations based on looks, occupation, or personal preferences? How can I stop talking and thinking and start listening and embracing? How can I teach my kids to create a collective consciousness, when everything around them emphasizes difference and compartmentalization? I haven’t yet found the answer. But I’ve started the conversation, and I’m committed to working it though. My goal is to check myself when I go to judge, and instead work to understand, appreciate, and accept, and to teach my kids to do the same. I want to find a common ground, not a corner to hide in. In my children, and the people around me, I want to nurture a collective consciousness for future activation. Something tells me that Dr. King would approve.
Post by Cyd McKenna.