I was on the telephone with some relatives from the South one night when I interrupted the conversation to ask if they would wait while I threw another synthetic log into my fireplace. Unexpectedly, this resulted in a lot of reminiscences from their childhood days. For me, a fireplace is a luxury, something to kindle the imagination or spark a cozy mood. For them, a fireplace was the only thing they had to keep warm with, after back-breaking days spent chopping wood.
Sometimes it takes a conversation like that to put one's own trials and tribulations as a black in perspective. No matter what it is I'm enduring, it will never approach the real suffering of those who came before us. For me, or for any other young black who has been reasonably successful, to say, "Sorry, I have too much to deal with now," to excuse myself from helping the less fortunate, is ridiculous.
One side of my family is from Selma, Ala. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched through Selma, arm in arm with people like my relatives. They were poor. They were forced to worry whether there would be enough money for necessities. They worked themselves into early graves by earning money on any job they could find. They had real problems, but they had time, energy and the will to march at a time when one might expect to get doused with high-pressure water hoses or beaten with police billy clubs.
I remembered that yesterday morning as I wondered what would be an appropriate thing to do on King's birthday. At first, I have to admit, it forced me to think about the things I used to do and the things I have never done. It made me feel guilty.
I used to help tutor inner-city students on Thursday nights at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, until one of those so- called tribulations caused me to think that I didn't have time for that anymore. It was not a good excuse.
So, I spent yesterday morning remembering things I had learned over the past year. I remembered a story I wrote on local fund-raising for the mayoral campaigns of Harold Washington in Chicago and W. Wilson Goode in Philadelphia. All of those raising funds were young (most between 27 and 32), very successful and committed. The majority of them were black lawyers, black doctors and black business people. Some of them were the same people who worked locally for Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign. Some of them were also carrying picket signs near the embassy of South Africa. At any given time, there were probably some troubling things they had to deal with. Fortunately, those problems did not immobilize them.
I began thinking about the black schoolchildren I met while covering education as a reporter. Too many of them came from broken homes. Too many did not have fathers to turn to when they needed help, or maybe just a little advice. Too many of them had no hard-working black men in their lives to serve as role models. Too many of them grew up in homes where financial problems meant there were no newspapers to leaf through, no coloring books, no picture books, no dictionaries, no encyclopedias and certainly no home computers. So, by the time that they were ready to start kindergarten, those black children were already behind the more fortunate and more affluent children who did have all of those things and more.
I was fortunate. We had a book club at my elementary school. We could order as many books as we wanted, as long as our parents could pay for them. I have been in D.C. schools where the librarians complain they do not have enough money for books. One junior high school librarian says she goes to the Library of Congress to get books that are being thrown out.
I have dozens of books from that old school club and many more that my parents bought when I was a toddler. They are gathering dust in a trunk at home. I'm going to pack them all up and pick out a school and donate those books. On Thursday, I'm going to show up, after a long absence, at the Thursday night tutoring session and help some kid through his homework. I'm going to try to stick with it this time. It does not matter whether we choose to work within groups, or to do things as individuals, as long as we do something.
I thought about all this because today is Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Maybe, for us, the true day to make resolutions is not Jan. 1. It ought to be Jan. 15, when we remember someone who gave his life so that we could rise above adversity, so that we could be free.