A Dream

I watched the speech on August 28, 1963. Yes, I was around then. I was 12 and no, I wasn’t particularly racially or politically astute. I watched it with Estelle.

Estelle was the black woman who took care of our family while my mother worked. There were five of us, and I was the oldest. My siblings were 3, 6, 9, and 11. Wisely, my mother did not entrust them all to my care while she was at work.

Estelle was our second mother for a year or so. We liked Estelle. She was funny, gruff at times, motherly when needed and tolerated no foolishness from us, which is not to say my brother Michael and I didn’t try our own brand of foolishness on her. In our daily battles to assert ourselves, she asked for no quarter and gave none. I remember hiding outside from the belt she had waiting for me when hunger finally overcame me and I ventured inside. She was right to use it on me when she did. Belt or not, we liked Estelle. I believe she liked us.

On the day of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream Speech,” I returned to the house sometime in the afternoon from whatever neighborhood mischief I was engaged in or causing. Estelle sat on the sofa in our little living room. The chores were done, my brothers and sisters were either fed and napping or playing in the yard. Estelle sat, leaning forward, her elbows resting on her knees, her eyes fixed on the small black and white television across the room.

“What’s on?” I asked and plopped onto the floor by the sofa.

“Hush,” she said.

She didn’t try to explain who Dr. King was or why she wanted to hear him speak. I could sit quietly and watch or get out. I sat and watched.

The flickering images on the screen showed a vast throng gathered on the Washington Mall with the Lincoln Memorial in the background. I recognized it because I had been there. We lived in Petersburg, Virginia and had made the hundred mile journey to Washington D.C. several times.

“I know that place. I been there,” I said.

“Hush,” she repeated, more sharply this time. Her eyes never left the television, silent as if she were in church quieting an unruly child.

I focused on the screen, more interested in the crowd than the commentary from the broadcasters. Finally, they stopped speaking and Doctor King came onto the screen.

I looked at Estelle. Her wide black brow furrowed in concentration. I knew that something important was about to happen. I just didn’t know what.

I tried to follow the speech. I have to admit that much of it was lost on me. Maybe because I was twelve, maybe because I wasn’t the smartest kid on the block.

What wasn’t lost on me was Estelle’s reaction..intense, focused, Dr. King’s every word soaking into her soul…a religious experience, a moment of faith and belief. I understood that day that he spoke to her and to millions like her. I’ve learned since then that he spoke to all of us.

When he spoke of his dream that one day all children, all mankind, would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, he said it to all… to white and black, Latino and Asian…to everyone. I believe the racial divide today would evaporate if all people and all races actually worked to make the dream a reality and focused on the content of character and not skin color and labels.

I admit that I didn’t understand that then. I didn’t remember the words of the speech until a few years later when I read them and then remembered that day, sitting on the floor of our little house, watching the black and white images with Estelle, trying to follow Dr. King’s words.

What I did understand that day was that Estelle was profoundly moved by his words, by his dream. As he ended the speech, I looked at her face, more curious than anything else. Tears glistened in her eyes and rolled down her round cheeks. There was hope on her face and a burning desire in her eyes that the words and dream were true, would be true one day.

We moved away to another city a few weeks later. I never saw Estelle again. I have never forgotten her though. I still remember the tears and hope in her eyes that the words would be true.

 

Comments

  1. This is beautiful. It is odd to me to think that we were alive during these times (very young and unaware but point being it was not that long ago). To hate someone because of the color of their skin seems as dumb as hating someone because they have blue eyes or black hair. We had no choice in any of that. What is going on now under this so-called president disturbs me greatly – this is not who we are.
    I hope Estelle lived long enough to see Obama become president. I hope she had tears of joy in her eyes.

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