Each year, my daughter and I give a speech at her school’s MLK Mass. I often talk about race to adults in very direct, blunt language. I wanted to make sure I kept my moral compass about being “real about racism” but also to have it age-appropriate and understandable to kids who may have never discussed racism. Delivering this speech with my eldest is one of my life’s greatest moments.
Feel free to share this speech with your children!
In service to all,
ShaRhonda (and my daughter!)
January 18, 2019
Really Cleaning America’s Mess, Not Just “Straightening Up.”
Me: Let me start by asking a question. How many of you enjoying cleaning and doing chores at home? Okay, obviously there are some weirdos, but, most of us, including myself, don’t enjoy cleaning. As a kid, I didn’t just not like it, I hated cleaning. It was hard, exhausting, and plus, I didn’t understand why mom didn’t understand that I had other more important things to do, like talking on the phone.
So, over and over, when it was time for me to clean my room, I would cheat. I would throw everything under my bed and in my closet. I would straighten the comforter on the bed, instead of making my bed. And, if someone was to give a quick glimpse, my room would look clean.
But that was never good enough for my mom, she knew that I hadn’t actually cleaned my room. She knew that I had thrown things under the bed or stuffed them in my closet and that my room was still a Mess. Further, she knew the more stuff I had hidden, the more stuff I would have to clean later. So, to my dismay, she would take out all the stuff I hid under my bed and in the closet and demanded that I actually clean my messy room. She wanted me to do the work, and hiding things out of the way, isn’t cleaning. It just “looks” clean because I hid the mess.
Now that I am a parent, and I understand why my mom pushed this so hard. Doing the real work of really cleaning the mess in my room, to do the hard, not fun stuff, is how cleaning messes should be done. And as an adult, I understand that to do the hard work of social justice, is more than just quick fixes or hiding your mess, it is laying out the mess and cleaning it. Cleaning messes aren’t just important for chores at home, but it the crux of being a good person, the crux of being a good American, and the crux of being a good Christian.
And that’s what I admire most about Dr. King. He knew America wasn’t really “cleaning the messiness of American racism” but rather, America, had tried to do a quick fix, like I did by taking short cuts. Dr. King knew what a “clean America” looked like…
My Daughter: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”
And, for African Americans, and other marginalized groups, America wasn’t really cleaning the mess of racism, it wasn’t living up to the words of the constitution. Dr. King knew America was trying to get away with hiding things under the bed and in the closet, to avoid doing the hard messy work of eradicating racism.
Since the founding of America, the unique gem of America wasn’t in what it currently was, but what it aspired to be. In the Declaration of Independence, the magic words are, “in order to form a more perfect union.” The word “more perfect” means that we, all Americans, are to work to make America, “more perfect.”
Dr. King did so much on his life, but everything Dr. King did, from racial equality, women’s rights, anti-war advocacy, and his war on poverty, was done all on the premise that Dr. King demanded that America needed to be true to what it promised and desired to be, to really clean, not hide, its mess. Dr. King was not satisfied with America saying they cleaned the mess of racism when all they did was throw things under the bed and in the closet.
So Dr. King devoted his whole life to the real work, the real cleaning, of America and its mess. And just like most of us, who don’t really want to do the hard work, those of us who would rather do a quick fix and are okay with our rooms being partially clean, people were angry and hated MLK. It SUCKS to have someone who calls us out when we only “pretend to clean” and demands that we really clean up our mess. The American government, many White people, and even some Black people were okay with pretending that America was “clean” by The Civil War and 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment., but King knew that the Civil War just put the mess under the bed and in the closet and that America had a lot of hard work to do to actually clean America’s mess.
My Daughter: All we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.” If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions.
Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there.
But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly.
Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech.
Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press.
Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.- Dr. Martin Luther King
Me: I have another question, how many of you knew that Dr. King was a preacher? One of the things that I believed made Rev. Dr. King, unlike so many other leaders, is that he did his hard work in the service of God. Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins and commanded us to love one another. God doesn’t want us to just love our friends, our family, the people who are nice to us, or even people just in our country. God commands that we love and serve all of God’s children. God isn’t pleased with us simply being Christians that “half -cleaning by hiding the messes in the world; God wants us to be Christians that do the hard work of really cleaning up the messiness of the world.
Dr. King was faithful to God and was not popular by many, because he forced America to look at the mess of racism. He didn’t let people sweep our racial problems under the bed and in the closet, and let America say that it was a democracy and equal to all citizens. Dr. King showed to America, and the world, the messiness of America’s racism. He paid the ultimate price, he was murdered while trying to clean up America’s racist mess.
So, my last question to you is this, how many of you are willing to join MLK, with the commandment of God, to really clean the messiness of inequality? It is not easy. It is not fun. And the truth is, you probably won’t be able to clean up all of America or the world. When Dr. King died, America was not yet clean, but he did leave us with a great start. On Monday, MLK Day is not a “day off of school,” it suppose to be, “a day of service.” The way to honor MLK is to do service to America by helping to make it a “more perfect union.”
And we all have different skills and different abilities. Some of us can sweep, some of us can dust, some of us make the bed, but the goal is for all of us to be doing “something” to clean America. But, the important thing is that we are doing real cleaning, and not simply hiding our messes. The legacy of Dr. King, and of Jesus Christ, is for all of us, in whatever capacity we can, writing, speaking, volunteering, whatever, but that we are doing the hard work of cleaning the messiness of this world.
My Daughter: “Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”