While sitting in a cafeteria in Oklahoma, on MLK Day a couple of years ago, I overheard a conversation between an elderly couple sitting at a nearby table and their middle-aged waitress. The woman at the table said to the waitress, “Don’t rush home this afternoon. There’s no mail today.” The waitress, frowning, replied, “Oh, I hate it.” The man, tapping his plate with a fork, added, “I still don’t consider it a holiday.”
It was the laughter of the waitress and her next remark that prompted me to scan my table for something to write on: “It’s one of those back-of-the-bus holidays.”
Not believing what I was hearing, I removed a pen from my pocket and jotted down their words onto a napkin as quickly as I could. The woman at the table nodded to the waitress and said, “Never did know his place.” The man put his fork down and, in a low voice, said, “That’s why he got what he did.”
What I remember most is the way my hand trembled as I jotted down these exchanges. I wanted to say something, but, regrettably, I held my tongue. The conversation ended abruptly as the waitress was called to another table. Before leaving she said, “You folks have a good day.” The man, smirking, replied, “Yeah, happy holiday.
Why is it I felt compelled to record that conversation? Why is it that I still hear the waitress’s laughter, see the man’s smirk? Why is the woman’s, “never did know his place,” comment still ringing in my ears?
Fortunately, there is another conversation to offset the cafeteria episode. It took place on an MLK Day in Arizona, years earlier. While working at a school that provided services to children who were blind, I had volunteered to transport five high school students to and from a studio where they participated in an art project. The teens, totally blind, were sculpting a human figure that would say something about their blindness.
The students worked on the project every day after school, weekends and holidays. Each student fashioned a different body part: face, torso, legs, arms, and hands. In the end, they put all the pieces together to create a bronze figure of a young girl holding a butterfly. They named it, “All Things Are Possible.”
While the project was a powerful one so, too, was the discussion I listened to while driving the students to the studio on MLK Day. The students were all white Caucasian, except for Victor, a Mexican American. He asked, “So what do you guys think of MLK Day?”
Amber was the first to respond and recounted this story. “I remember Thanksgiving when I was five or six. All my relatives came and we were sitting around the table eating dinner. My aunt was talking about some black people who had moved into the house next to her. And one of my uncles was talking about how some white guy at work was mad that a black guy got the promotion he wanted. For the longest time, the conversation was about black people and white people. It made me wonder what color I was and I asked, ‘Am I black or white?'”
Amber’s best friend, Sara, who was sitting next to her in the van, said, “This may sound weird but sometimes I’m glad I am blind. I can’t see skin or someone’s looks. Friends ask me why I spend time with ugly people? For me, it’s what’s on the inside. Someone’s looks or skin color doesn’t matter.”
“I just don’t get color, Justin said. “It’s really about what people say and do.”
“Well,” Victor said, “I’m dark and sometimes my skin talks before I do. They tell me I’m brown. Some call me a ‘wetback’ or tell me to ‘go back to Mexico, where I belong.'”
Nicole weighed in.
“Belong… We don’t belong anywhere except to the world – all of us. Sight is such a distraction. Why do people spend so much time on things they see that are so unimportant? White, black, blue, plaid… So what?”
“Plaid isn’t a color,” Sara said.
“Can you imagine if it were?” Amber asked, laughing.
Two conversations, two takes on race.
These are the ones I hear on Martin Luther King Day – reminders of how far we’ve come and how far we need to go