“You are born alone and you die alone. Don’t dump on anyone else for your decisions. You’re a big girl and you make them yourself,” was the quote that I remembered at the end of the night. These were words from a Jewish great grandmother based on more than 90 years of living. Not stated as a cliché, but heartfelt and serious.
It reminds us that, in the end, no matter what, we have to be comfortable with who we are, with who we have become. We have to be comfortable in our own skin.
Recently, my kindergartener used the phrase “the man in the black skin,” in reference to the person he was talking about.
This was a description. Not a derogatory statement or a put down, as it might have been in generations past, but a simple descriptive statement.
As if he had said, “the man in the red shirt.”
After reflection, I realize the two descriptive phrases are not quite the same.
“The man in the black skin” is not able to take off his black skin and put on a skin of another color, while “the man in the red shirt” can easily change shirts. While my kindergartener sees the color of a person’s skin as a simple attribute, it is one that cannot be easily changed by dye, diet, or a new outfit.
This makes skin color inherently different.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was 39 when he was assassinated in 1968, two years younger than I am now. It fills me with sorrow to think of his wife and children left behind, and the work that he could have accomplished.
It also leaves me in awe of a man who accomplished so much in his all-too-short life.
Dr. King not only dared to dream that our nation would be one where “all men are created equal;” – Dr. King also provided us with a picture of what that dream would look like:
“All of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’"
This past week, I attended the opening of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. The organization’s Web site notes that the American Jewish Committee “is a national advocacy organization that works to build bridges of understanding between ethnic, religious and national groups around the world. The Atlanta Chapter produces a film festival because we believe that film is one of the best ways to tell stories and stories are the best way to share experiences.”
It seems fitting that the AJFF spans the weekend when Martin Luther King’s birthday is being celebrated.
The ideas of building bridges of understanding and using stories to share experiences are ideas that Dr. King might have considered worthwhile.
When a friend remarked that I might not want to go to the film festival because it might be bombed, I knew she was kidding, but it made me stop and think.
Keeping a sharp lookout for bad drivers and paying attention in dark places or in areas with little pedestrian traffic are all part of my daily routine. However, I rarely consider that that I might be targeted due to religious beliefs.
Dr. King was probably aware of the physical risks that he ran while leading the civil-rights movement and, as with many soldiers, he probably believed that the possibility of his personal sacrifice was worth the risk in light of advancing the greater good.
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream…”
This dream has come a long way since Dr. King’s death, but we are not there yet.
In trying to live the dream, our society has focused on building political correctness rather than building individual character. The overwhelming political correctness of our society today puts everyone into a group. Once groups are created, it is easy to focus on differences rather than to focus on similarities. The continued categorization and labeling creates continuous friction rather than fostering solidarity and unity for Americans who are interested in how we can help each other move forward.
It makes no more sense to group together people born with white skin than it does to group together people born with black skin. Skin color is not determined by an individual, but by genetics. What each person can control is the person who fills that skin.
If we really are to live the dream of Dr. King, skin color and religious background should be mere descriptors, and the focus should be on the person inside – the content of the character and how this character is reflected in everyday activities and actions.
Make sure you feel comfortable with whom you are as a person. After all, you did not create the skin, just the person who lives inside it.