This I Believe

Kelvin - Durham, North Carolina
Entered on January 18, 2008

My 6-year-old has become quite the history buff lately. His curiosity about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his untimely death and why he was killed has been particularly interesting. I’m certain his interest in King has everything to do with the recent holiday in honor of the slain civil rights leader, and the fact that we are in the midst of celebrating Black History Month.

The drawings and crossword puzzles about black history and King he eagerly pulls from his book bag each day are fueling his interest, I’m sure. I think it’s great.

But a few days ago he really caught me off guard. After explaining to him as gingerly as I know how who killed King, his next question really threw me for a loop. Days later I’m still questioning whether I could have answered his query without permanently warping his view of the world.

Dad, he asked, why did the man kill Martin Luther King?

After starting and stopping in midsentence several times, I finally gave up on answering. I decided helping him with his math homework — which he’s been having a little difficulty with lately — would be a better idea.

Like many adults, I have my own theory of why such a great man was cut down in the prime of his life. But explaining my assumptions to my 6-year-old son just didn’t seem like the right thing to do.

There are stark contrasts between 1967 (when I was 6 years old), and the world in which my 6-year-old lives. His is a world of technological wonders and numerous possibilities unimaginable four decades ago. And despite lingering social and political inequities, and not so blatant prejudices, my son has a better chance at charting his own course in life than I, or his grandparents.

So how in good conscience could I tell my little boy that King was killed because he preached love over hate? How could I tell him that he was killed because he dared dream of a day when men and women would no longer be judged by the color of their skin, but rather by the content of their character? And how could I tell him King was killed because he dared preach peace when others preached war? I could not.

To turn my impressionable 6-year-old’s world upside down with accusations of conspiracy, racism and self-serving political agendas at this point in his life would invariably do more harm than good.

The realities of my youth left little room for thoughtful discovery and the lesson from that, I think, is to give my young son an opportunity to develop emotionally before bombarding him with instances in history when our inhumanity to one another caused millions insufferable pain.

So for now some of his questions will be answered and others will not. And his understanding of African-American history will remain a sort of pseudo-manufactured one for now. But perhaps that is best.

I have no doubt that one day he’ll discover the reasons why King’s life ended so abruptly. I also imagine he’ll have an excellent understanding of the tumultuous history of black people in America. In time, I’ll see to that.

For now, mastering addition and subtraction tops his list of priorities.