I skidded down to the Lawrence Chapel Monday night because I wanted to hear Leonard Pitts speak. While the Pulitzer Prize winning writer certainly did not disappoint, I left that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration profoundly affected by a different speaker.
Disarmingly diminutive, 17-year old Milly Figueroa took the mic and, with her own life story, eloquently spoke to all Dr. King had been fighting to achieve. A cellist, honors student, and child of immigrant parents, Figueroa described a painful scene in her high school orchestra class the morning after the presidential election. She said she had been taunted.”I bet your family won’t even be there when you get home today,” a fellow student said.
She cried a little as she told the story, and I did too.
As I’ve written about before, racism exists in the country, and even right here in my beloved home town. The question is, what are we going to do about it.
In his talk, Mr. Pitts addressed Dr. King’s famous speech, and used it as a call to action. “It’s not what might happen in the sweet by and by, it’s about what we have to make happen now,” he said.
Then he listed all the horrible instances of racism that have been occurring here “while we have been I Have a Dreaming.”
It’s harder than it may seem to combat racism. I know this from my own sorry tale.
Earlier this year, at a UW-Madison freshman orientation, I met two parents of a high school boy. We sat at a table chatting and I asked if their son would be rooming with someone he knew.
“Oh yes,” said the mother. “I didn’t want to take the risk of him rooming with a foreigner. You know, because they might smell.”
My mouth dropped open, my mind raced and I stared. While I was processing her comment — the guilelessness, the sincerity, the utter cruelty of that ridiculous thought — I just looked at her.
Her husband jumped in and said, “Well, really, if you’re worried about smelly people, you should maybe look at your own son.” and we all had a good guffaw at the smelliness of the American Teenager.
But, I remained stung and horrified by my own non-response.
“All I had to say,” I raged to my husband via cellphone moments later, “was that Molly’s roommate is from a foreign country and we’re so thrilled that she is going to enjoy the very cool, and enriching experience of living with someone from another culture.”
“All I had to say,” I raged to my daughter Katherine in a similar phone call, “was how happy we were that Molly is going to enjoy the privilege of living with someone from another country.”
“All I had to say…”
Poor Molly has heard this story a thousand times by now. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Later, I searched the campus for that woman because I wanted a chance to finish that conversation. But, here’s another thing about racism: you don’t get a mulligan.
If you see it, you have to address it or you’re part of the problem too.
We’ve all expended enormous energy of late on our recent presidential election, but the path to the American Dream only goes through Washington eventually. The real work takes place here — around cafeteria tables, in orchestra rooms, and at work.
We control the narrative there and we don’t have to laugh at awful jokes. We can speak up for what we know in our heart is right.
It’s easy to sit at my dining room table and write these things. But, I’m telling you, I’m going to speak them too. I will never again remain silent when I see or hear instances of outright cruelty.
I honestly still can’t believe I did that. “All I had to say…”
I’d like to thank Milly Figueroa and all the presenters at the Fox Cities Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration, for reminding me to use my voice.
I missed an excellent opportunity last summer, while I was “I have a Dreaming.”
B. Lilly, a Lawrence student, led everyone in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and I just loved that everyone in that chapel sang along.