Monday, January 19, 2009

Beyond Our Dead Heroes

Somehow, I always feel a little bit prouder of my existence and heritage on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I look forward to it every year, and not only because I associate the day with freedom from work!

Even though we label it with Dr. King’s name, I don’t think today is just about one man’s life and legacy. Instead, I think it should be a day when we celebrate all the heroes – famous and unnamed – who fought for racial equality.

Why? Because although Dr. King was a dynamic, irreplaceable leader, he didn’t walk alone. I’m sure he would be the first to affirm that the civil rights struggle was a movement of the people. He always thought in terms of “we,” not “me.”

Now, having written a children’s novel, I find myself wondering how this holiday affects others. At a writers’ conference in Harlem, I heard parents lamenting the lack of black characters in children’s books. One comment really resonated with me. A frustrated mom said: “books targeted to black children are always about the same dead heroes.” She said, “Holding up these heroes over and over makes regular kids feel inadequate. It’s a model that most can never live up to, so many of them stop trying.”

I couldn’t disagree. I remember, as a kid, how much I looked up to Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, etc. It seemed to me that we needed a lot more heroes that would keep changing the world. Only as an adult have I come to understand that it’s not heroes who made the history. It never has been any one person alone.

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we should all get to share in the celebration. For me, it’s easier to imagine myself standing in the crowd than being the one up front. But I also want to believe that even my own work makes a difference in the world, and that I hold a little piece of our collective victories. So, let today be MLK Day Plus!

Who are the unsung heroes in your life?

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