“I learned about Martin Luther King Jr. today,” the 6-year-old girl I nanny told me, matter of factly.
I recalled when I, too, at 6 years old, learned about MLK. I had watched an animated cartoon, “Our Friend Martin,” in school. I had a child’s epiphany that I would not be alive if it were not for King. I went home to my white mother and Black father, clinging to the realization. I considered the size of the 6-year-old across from me now: tiny and missing a tooth. I must have been of the same frame when I had what felt like a life-or-death acknowledgement.
The little girl I care for was beaming with excitement with her new knowledge. There are 15 years between us. As her senior, I am too painfully aware of the civil unrest, brutal and quiet racism and protests that the last 15 years have encapsulated. I have experienced implicit racism that her fair skin protects her from. The knowledge I have doesn’t beam. It burns.
There is a flame of fear that history will be taught the same way to children today as it was taught to me. A history that championed whiteness and crushed the marginalized, an exclusive recounting of the past. I recall learning little of Asian American and Pacific Islander and women’s history. When Indigenous and Native people were quickly mentioned, the retelling was biased and neglected colonial violence. The Jewish history taught included only World War II and the Holocaust. No lessons mentioned Latinx, LGTQB+ or disabled history. When Black history was shared, it was only in regard to Black trauma and oppression.
MLK was chosen as the primary face for the civil rights movement in curriculum because, unlike Angela Davis or Malcolm X, he was deemed as unextreme. In the classrooms I attended, the brilliance and complexity of MLK had been (white)washed away. His remarkable archive of speeches was abandoned. The great King became a man of few words.
In my lower education, he was known only for his dream. His beloved “I Have a Dream Speech” is undeniably significant but the lessons centralized around it missed the surrounding context. Educators chose one out of the Big Six who organized the March on Washington, ignoring James Farmer, John Lewis, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph and Whitney Young. Black history is more than MLK’s dream. King’s own history is richer than that.
It’s a peculiar heartbreak, knowing complete education was stolen. How unfair that MLK’s other works were intentionally ignored, like his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” or “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” The disappointment rings at the abandonment of his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, which he reflected, “The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve.”
I worry that America’s immaturity is reflected in lower education. I graduated high school with only a white piece of history’s puzzle. I was conditioned to believe that piece was the only one I needed, to which I strongly object and demand mature change.
Marginalized communities’ history is only marginalized because it has been systematically silenced. The conscious decision to disregard their past harms every student. A fraction (that upholds white supremacy) of America’s nuanced history is not enough. Education is the best tool for fighting, and perhaps even preventing, ignorance.
King announced, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” His dream will not be fulfilled until marginalized history becomes mainstream. His dream will not be achieved until Black history, and all the missing pieces, become equal to white history. I dream that students today may receive an inclusive account of the past that celebrates differences.
I suggest we start by teaching Martin Luther King Jr. was more than a dream and honoring his legacy beyond January 17.