Over the past week, as she’s continued to ask about the day and the man, I have been trying to figure out how to talk about Martin Luther King, Jr., with my five-year-old. At her school for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been impressed by how important they’ve made MLK in the children’s imaginations. She’d come home asking, “is it Martin Luther King Day yet, Mommy?” and we’d say, “not until next week, honey.” This graduated to “Tell me about Martin Luther King, Mommy/Daddy!” and at bedtime, “please sing me Martin Luther King songs.” Although I want to honor the legacy of MLK, I have to admit, I’m not used to this amount of holiday-ness, as if it’s Thanksgiving or Halloween (but not quite Christmas or Passover).
To add to the sense of holiday, Laurel repeatedly asked to make “Martin Luther King Waffles” on Monday, which involved having chocolate/nutella on one side, and leaving it plain/”white” on the other. “That way it’s black and white together!” she exclaimed happily. This adorable desire to eat something, to ritualize the day in the way a child loves best, warred in my mind with the symbolism of black and white, two halves in what sounded almost like a yin-yang of breakfast, not to mention the troubling confusion over the unspreaded side of the waffle as being “white,” as if black/brown/not-white were something just draped over the whiteness. I can only hope that this aspect of the symbolism was lost on my daughter in a much more fervent hope of “everyone together.”
At school they learned that MLK “saved the world.” “Oh?” I asked. “How did he save it?” “He made everyone nice to each other, and the government was being mean, and he made it be nice,” she said. “It’s still nice, right Mommy?” she asked?
I looked at her sympathetically. “Well, honey, it’s not as nice as it could be, that’s for sure. And that’s why we remember Martin Luther King, so we’re all reminded to keep working to make the world and the government nicer.”
“But it’s nice, right?” she persisted. My heart was breaking for her. It got more complicated.
“Mommy, Martin Luther King was shot dead by a gun, right?”
Oh no, now what. “Well, yes.”
“They don’t have guns like that anymore, right? To shoot people dead with?”
“Um, well, actually, there are still guns like that. But thankfully, where we live, we don’t have to worry about it too much.” I was trying to put her mind at ease, since our neighbors had had an unarmed robbery a week or two ago, and it had rattled us all a bit.
“Well, mommy, I know there are water guns. I think you mean we still have water guns.”
I could only look at her and repeat, “I wish that were true.”
Beyond my sheer lack of knowledge of how to talk with a sheltered five-year-old about guns, violence, and death, I find myself unsure even how to talk about race. My husband and I have avoided identifying people, including some of her classmates, with racial markers. Does she know that her classmate B. is black? How can we talk about race and making the world a better place, without introducing the concept that some people think that we should judge by the color of one’s skin? As near as I can tell, small children don’t think this way unless they get cues from the adults in their lives that we should make distinctions of color, class, race, or any other marker of difference we as adults choose to use in our children’s hearing. Without directly asking her about it, which risks awareness, how do we begin to talk about it?
Although we were able to figure out a little bit of what she’d been taught in school, we were both left a little overwhelmed at bedtime. Then, for stories, she wanted to know about what MLK did. We told her about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, because Rosa Parks is mentioned in one of her books, My Name is Not Isabella, about a courageous girl who spends her day pretending to be famous and remarkable historical women. She wanted to know “all the stories, up until he is died.” We gently told her she would learn them all as the years passed. No dogs, or police, or firehoses for bedtime, not at age five.
Then she asked for Martin Luther King songs. We weren’t sure what she meant, so I started in with “We Shall Overcome,” but I knew she really wanted the songs she’d been singing at school. Often, their class adds holiday cheer by signing about holidays to the tunes of popular kids’ songs like “Bingo,” “London Bridge,” etc. As it turns out, there was one to the tune of “Bingo” (“Mar-tin Lu-ther King”), the other to “Yankee Doodle.” We didn’t know these words, though, so we muddled through the night.
I wondered what message we were sending our daughter about not knowing these MLK songs. Did that tell her that the holiday was somehow different from others, where the songs are well-established? I hope that, regardless of if we knew the songs to sing, she still understood that we took her interest and her questions seriously, and perhaps that’s what really matters at this age.