Not too long ago Athena and I touched on the subject of segregation. We were looking at a calendar and I was pointing out holidays, and there was Martin Luther King Day, so I explained that he was someone who had fought for civil rights in the US. Athena, being six, didn’t know what that meant, so I explained that at some time in the past, not too long ago, people who had dark skin couldn’t use the same things or go the same places as people with light skin; they had use different water faucets, stay in different hotels and eat only at certain tables at restaurants, and sit in the back of the bus.
"Why?" she wanted to know.
"Because people who look like us thought they were better because of the color of their skin," I said.
"It’s just skin," she said.
I allowed that it was, but that at the time, people thought that it mattered.
"But people in my family have tan skin," Athena said. I should note that at some point in her past, Athena observed that some people have tan skin and some people have peach skin, and inasmuch as that is a far more accurate assessment than "black" and "white," we never saw the need to "correct" her language on this point.
"Yes they do," I said, because they do. In fact, many of her cousins are tan to some degree or another, thanks to Mexican or African ancestry. "And if you lived back in that time, they couldn’t go to the same places you could, or do the same things you could do."
I wish you could have been there to see the expression on her face at that moment, which was not one of puzzlement, but of actual anger, over the idea that people she knew and loved would not be treated like she would. "If someone tried to do that to me, I would get into a fight with them," she said.
"That’s sort of what Martin Luther King did," I said, and we talked a little bit about the protests and the boycotts, and we may have even talked about Rosa Parks. And then she watched some cartoons and played videogames and lived in a time where a six-year-old girl with peach skin had to be told about segregation instead of already knowing it existed through the day-to-day experience of her own life.
This is not to say that various forms of segregation don’t still exist, or that Athena won’t meet with them or won’t see how they affect her or people she loves and cares about. It does, and she will. But she’ll come to those knowing that they are wrong, as opposed to them just being the way it is. It matters.
I thank Rosa Parks for being one of the many people who helped point out to millions of people a thing that my six-year-old daughter was able to grasp in a moment: segregation was unfair. And I thank her for helping create a world where my six-year-old daughter’s mental leap in considering segregation had her arriving at the fact it’s unfair, and not at the fact that everybody does it. The service Rosa Parks has done to me in this regard is small compared to the service she has done others, to be sure. But it doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge it, or her.
Thank you, Rosa Parks. Godspeed.