By Nerissa Young
This week marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech uttered during the March on Washington. It’s a time to reflect on how close the nation is to King’s dream.
That the nation’s first black president led the celebration at the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday is a significant step in that direction. At the time King gave his famous speech, President Obama could not sit at the same lunch counter with white people or use the same restroom or water fountain.
But to deny that racism and unequal opportunities exist today is to deny the very truth of human nature — people are wary of those who are different from themselves.
Obama has been criticized for not leading a national discussion on race. As the first black president, he seems an obvious person to do so in putting his bully pulpit to that use. As president, however, he has many more responsibilities than that.
To suggest that he, alone, have that discussion is unfair. Race relations and unequal opportunities will not change with one single national discussion. What will change race relations and unequal opportunities is a lot of local discussions, the kind that people have every day.
Like the kind I had Tuesday on an airplane from California to Georgia.
I sat in the middle of a three-seat side row. We folded ourselves into our tiny cocoon and waited for the chance to get airborne.
To my left was a young male Latino. To my right was a middle-aged black man. We exchanged the normal pleasantries that one does when trying to avoid feeling up one another as we found our seatbelt ends and got them fastened.
Somewhere over the Rockies, my seatmate to the right mentioned the anniversary of his mother’s death six years ago. “I’d give up my career — everything — if I could just have one more conversation with her,” he said.
That struck a chord in me. In the months and years after Daddy’s death, I have often thought that I’d give up everything I have in this world for 20 more minutes with my father.
This stranger and I began a lengthy conversation in which we learned we have much in common despite the obvious, outside differences.
He grew up with six siblings in a tight-knit nuclear family. His father is still alive. He grew up in church.
I have two siblings and grew up with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins close by. Church is a big part of my identity.
He said he began a successful career and threw everything he had into it, which led to problems in his marriage. He was in California visiting his wife — from whom he is separated — and his teenage daughter.
He has regrets, he said. He regrets not spending more time making his spousal and parental relationships work. “I used to want to be right. Now, I’d rather be happy than right.”
I’m at a point in my life in which I regret not marrying and having children. I was never against it. I figured it would just happen, and I stayed busy with my job until it did. Maybe I should have spent more time making it happen.
We mostly talked about the things that are the common experiences of humanity — family, work and life. We shook hands and parted as friends. Well, maybe not friends as I’ll likely not see him again, but we parted as fellow travelers on the journey.
The changes that must occur in this country to provide equal opportunities for all do not come from the outside. They must come from the inside.
The good news is the inside is where we all look alike.
— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2013 by Nerissa Young