MLK Day 2021
It’s MLK Day, so a lot people have a day off of school or work. In a normal year, we might celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday by public gatherings to read his words and encourage one another in the continued fight for justice… but “normal” died 10 months ago, and honestly, I don’t think it’s ever coming back. Not in the way we knew it. We’ve learned that we can get together digitally. We’ve learned that social media can be a lifeline that we throw to each other. We’ve learned that it's pretty cool to “go to work” on our computers and not have to wear pants. Being in one another’s physical presence is different—better—for sure, but it’s also become something very special, something we no longer take for granted. So this year we will observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day (mostly) by sharing each of our individual thoughts online.
After the past year of persecution, injustice, and unrest, it seems more important today than ever to honor Dr. King’s work by continuing to fight for racial equality. Issues that nearly tore our country apart 150 years ago have been addressed, but not solved. Black Americans are still not treated the same as white Americans. I know this to be true, because I am a white American who has watched everyone from college professors to Walmart greeters treat me better than the Black, Hispanic, and Native American citizens around me.
I come from a group of people who have most of the social power, much of the buying power, and a fair portion of the political power of our country: I am white and middle-class. It can be very hard for people in this (my) demographic to see the racism and the inequality that still exists, because it usually doesn’t affect them (us). It can be hard to raise (white) kids who can see issues that don’t seem to hurt them directly.
But let’s not lie: it’s hard to raise any kids to be decent human beings these days. Phones make even adults into zombies, and I shudder to think what they do to children’s undeveloped brains! Books help people—all people, young and old—to see the world from someone else’s viewpoint. This ability to look through another person’s perspective is what allows us to develop empathy. Empathy reminds us that we’re all human.
Here are two graphic novels that can help build empathy: New Kid and Class Act by Jerry Craft. The story follows middle schooler Jordan Banks as he leaves the Bronx public school system and enters an upper crust private school—and expands in the second book to focus more deeply on his friends, as well. These are great books about middle school students figuring out who they are and where—or whether—they fit in. For me, they were a good reminder of the universal truth that all middle schoolers struggle with who they are and where they fit (and that it’s not o.k. to do things that cause someone to struggle).
These excellent books have been getting some pretty high praise, too. New Kid won the Newbery Medal in 2020 for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” As a constant reader and a former middle school language arts teacher, I am thrilled to see a graphic novel given this award. It makes sense when you think about how helpful illustrations can be when a reader is processing the story, but beyond that, these bright, colorful drawings are cheerful and engaging. Great art and storytelling like this can really help us see another perspective… and start creating a new normal for the world.
Be awesome. Read books.