Every year, we have a party called “Drinking Coffee (and Hot Chocolate) in Honor of MLK, Jr.” We get together on what is almost always a cold night and drink hot drinks, listen to music, talk, and let the kids play. It’s a nice way to acknowledge the holiday. Though one year some of the kids read parts of King’s most famous speech (“I Have a Dream”--- the one that he delivered in Washington, D.C. in 1963) out loud, we don’t generally recite quotes or watch youtube videos of Dr. King or anything like that. Basically, it’s just another party in Montclair. A typical multiracial groupfest with dogs and cats wandering about and lots of kids running around---some with parents of different races, others with parents of the same gender, some with parents from similar ethnic backgrounds, but radically different backgrounds in other ways. Many married people and some single people. People with children and without children. People from every part of the United States and the world.
I chose the coffee-drinking theme not only because I know that coffee is a form of community glue---and that it is healthy and invigorating---but also because Dr. King liked coffee. In fact, he drank coffee as part of his writing process. The idea of Dr. King fretting over a blank piece of paper and drinking coffee is incredibly humanizing. While he has become an icon, he was a person—a person who got married, had kids, drank coffee, and probably did not plan to die in his 30’s.
It has often bothered me that I don’t know the words to the “I Have a Dream” speech by heart. It stands as one of the greatest prose pieces in the history of American writing. As a writer, I am dazed by Dr. King’s mastery of our beautiful American language. His use of metaphor and point/counterpoint exposition. Yet, I am deeply pained by the imagery that his language evokes. That of the “sweltering summer of discontent” and people languishing in the “dark and desolate valley of segregation” waiting to get to “the sunlit path of racial justice.”
These beautifully assembled words reflect an awful reality---a huge opportunity cost. The price paid by all of the people who went through sweltering summers and never enjoyed a day at the beach—metaphorical or otherwise. People who wanted to read and never had an opportunity to. People who worked in tortuous jobs, because those were the only jobs available. People who woke up day after day only to deal with the psychic strife that accompanies the legacy of years of racism and other types of discrimination. Those who missed the mark---not because they weren’t up to the task at hand---but because they never even had a chance to try. The door to success was closed---and failure was a foregone conclusion.
At our party, after we had marveled over interesting toys, discussed ways to support a family facing a medical challenge, compared different gyms, and debated the merits of being on or off of facebook, I lamented that I had not prepared any MLK-related activities for the kids. What was the point really? Some kids were busy drawing pictures or walking on stilts downstairs while the adults watched the Giants game on TV. Some were upstairs playing in my daughter’s room, secretly putting on lip gloss or playing some tween-oriented online game. Others were on the main floor, sitting at the table in the dining room trying to get every last drop of fat-free organic whipped cream out of the container. All told, we were in the midst of living out one version of Dr. King’s dream in a completely relaxed unselfconscious way.
Then we took a couple of group photos. As the photographer took the shot, we held our coffee cups up and said, “I have a dream.”During that moment, there was absolutely no sense of irony---only a sense of transitory magic. People complain that MLK day has been reduced to a set of tropes and clichés. However, I think that the “I have a dream” speech, the MLK holiday, and all of the related symbolism serve as reminder of the need to be mindful of the idea of justice. Justice.
Although the kids don’t totally get it yet, there are at least 100,000 acts of justice that created all of the circumstances that made that party possible. It’s mind-boggling to really think it through. When the kids were out doing service projects the next day, they were holding up signs with photos of MLK, Jr. on them. They were performing small acts of justice. I am certain that they were waiting to finish, so they could get back to the things they wanted to do. I am also sure that they felt that calm quiet sense of satisfaction that comes with service. It’s all good. What matters is that these small acts of justice are done at all. It all adds up to something. Even if it just means putting a hot mug of coffee in someone’s hands so they have the energy and drive to try again. Or putting a hot mug in someone’s hands to simply welcome them in.