He sat on the ground in the center of the display taking in every inch of it. The heritage of Martin Luther King had been a name told him his entire life, in bits and pieces, often distilled to the most basic and least controversial version. But there he sat in the King Center, exposed to a broader, deeper and jarring version of the man who had come before him. So he sat. And watched.
Nearly a year ago we started to dream of this trip - taking a group of students from our neighborhood to key places of the Civil Rights Movement to inspire and invite them into something bigger. This collection of bicultural students, ones well practiced at code-switching between the myriad of cultures they live their lives in, from Somalia to Iraq to African American to European American to Burundi, Rwanda, Congo... We walk the streets of Syracuse's Northside and are ever reminded these are their streets, and we want it to stay that way. These homes, business corridors, sidewalks, parks... they lie vulnerable to displacement at nearly anyone's determination but their own. They are renters of their own streets, ever aware of their lack of ownership when homes deteriorate in the hands of slumlords and sidewalks are like 4-wheeling paths for wheelchairs and strollers.
They are the future. They are the voice, the presence, the possibility that can lay claim to their own streets and change the story.
So we raised thousands of dollars, put them on (for most of them) the first airplane of their lives and flew them south to take the journey of a lifetime. I knew in my bones that this week was going to be one of those watershed types. I'd spent weeks doing work study and seminars with these students, not to mention the years of life shared with most of them over the past decade. I had my own versions of this venture as a teen and it'd altered my entire life. But I could not have written this narrative.
Our facilitator Ronnie Matthew told me multiple times before we left, "For some of these kids, this is the difference between prison, death or life. This is the summer they are supposed to go to jail." And as I watched their antics, their typical being kids ways in long van rides and uncomfortable moments, there kept emerging these incidents you could, not. script. These moments when lightbulbs turned on so bright the whole room could feel it.
These famous names that made history were my age.
These slaves that were kidnapped from their homeland were my age.
These African American brothers and sisters of mine were also themselves refugees from the south where they daily feared lynchings, just as I fled from my homeland of Somalia, Iraq, Congo.
These women had strength, voice and seized the moment. They changed history in a uniquely and powerfully feminine way.
This is OUR history. We are all bound up in it.
My sister from Rwanda remarked nearly every day how this was the best day of her life. She asked deep questions, freely shared her highlights, and seemed to be soaking in every possible moment that encountered her.
My brother born and raised in Syracuse's Northside, who has known far too many men in his world have prison swallow up years of their lives, walked through exhibits denoting mass incarceration of people of color, including the juvenile system and was messed up in that unshakable kind of way.
My sister graduating from high school in a predominately white town off the beaten path spent her entire week as the only European American student, learning a history school had never taught her, and wrestling with how our stories are caught up together. It was hard. It was good.
The best moments were captured in the halls of museums, when twelve teenagers would silently and attentively read the signs for each exhibit. They did not miss a moment. It was somehow amazingly obvious that they understood at a whole different level just how much this is our story, and they hungered to know it.
And now that we know it, we will never be the same.
Now that we know it, we realize it is a living history, one that is an unfinished story.
To be continued.