I was 14 years old the first time I went to Hawaii. Part of that dream vacation involved a trip to Pearl Harbor, where I read the names of the attack victims, watched a film detailing the history, and saw photos of Hawaii taken on the day that has lived in infamy.
It was a poignant moment for me as an American as I tried to imagine what that day must have been like. But it was also an uncomfortable moment, because I was surrounded by dozens of Japanese tourists who watched the same film, saw the same photos and read the same names I did. I wondered what the experience was like for them; I wondered what it was like to confront this part of our past from the other side.
Thirteen years later, I experienced a little of what those Japanese tourists must have been feeling.
My husband and I took our two daughters to the library in our Texas town. The children’s story time room contained an impressive display for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. The display included a video recounting the history of civil rights in the U.S. and powerful photos of civil rights demonstrators, one of which included a police dog attacking a black man in Birmingham.
“How do we teach our kids about this?” I whispered to my husband. But instead of his voice, I heard a child near me ask his dad a question:
“A dog is attacking him, Dad? But he’s not even doing anything.”
The boy was African-American, probably not much older than my oldest daughter. His dad was also looking at the photo, though with perhaps more emotion.
“That’s right,” he said. Because what else could he say?
For the first time since our arrival at the library, I really looked at the other families in the room. I discovered that everyone else was African-American; that my family and I were the only white people there. And I understood a little bit about those Japanese tourists.
I recognized the negative history that existed between the races in our country. But I also understood how far we’d come, how little animosity remained in that room, and how blissfully unaware my children were that there was any difference between them and the black children at all.
My parents were far removed from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They were farm kids living in Idaho, a thousand miles away from that police dog in Birmingham. I’m not even sure if a single black person lived in their entire county. I know that no matter how much I read or learn, I will never really understand what the photos on those walls meant to the families that surrounded me. But I can try to imagine.
Another young mom approached my daughters and I as we watched the film. She talked to my oldest daughter, who was wearing a light blue princess dress-up.
“Are you Elsa?” she asked. My daughter, always the shy one, looked away and wouldn’t answer.
“She is,” I smiled. “She’s being shy.”
“We know all about Elsa,” she said. “My son — even though he’s a boy — sings ‘Let it Go’ all day long.”
And there we were, two young moms with children who loved the same Disney movie, chatting about our lives that were more similar than they were different. Her son did a silly dance move and made my girl laugh. We learned that our children were similar ages and both loved to watch “Bubble Guppies.” We talked while in the background Dr. King’s voice on the film said “I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
While we still have a very long way to go, I saw a little piece of Dr. King’s dream come true that day. In the children’s room of a public library in Texas, white families and black families metaphorically joined hands as sisters and brothers. We were on our way to moving forward together with faith in the future.
Breanna is the author of two books, the mother of three children, and a frequent contributor to several faith-based magazines and blogs. She blogs about her faith, her family, and her favorite things at www.breannaolaveson.com.