How movies and Martin Luther King Jr. help my son understand his Blackness
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an HG contributor writes about her son, his school project on Dr. King, and the realities of raising a Black child.
My 13-year-old son has been diligently working on a project for National History Day. According to the National History Day website, more than half a million middle and high school students around the world conduct historical research on a topic of their choice. The theme for this year’s project is “Triumph and Tragedy in History.” Students are encouraged to use various forms of media to research and present their final project. The two historical figures that my son is interested in exploring are Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and as he began diving deeper into his research, it opened a greater conversation for us about what he watches on screen, how he views himself as a Black teen, and how he thinks the world sees him.
We watched hours of archival footage of Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, and the terrible atrocities they experienced as Black men in America. My son had a hard time watching Black people get attacked by white police officers, arrested for boldly expressing themselves, or lynched for drinking from the wrong water fountain.
During a break from research, we went to the movies to see The Hate U Give. Based on Angie Thomas’s YA novel of the same name, the movie is about a 16-year-old girl who witnesses the death of her childhood friend at the hands of a cop during a routine traffic stop. Attending the movie with my son on the heels of watching documentaries about the civil rights movement was a profound, unforgettable experience. He was engaged from the moment the film began with the main character’s dad giving his children the “talk” about what to do when they get pulled over by a police officer. It is a talk that every Black parent has been forced to have with their children for decades. It is hard. It is painful. It is necessary.
The scene where a young man is murdered by a cop in front of his best friend is gut-wrenching. We knew he was going to get shot. We knew who was going to shoot him. But seeing it unfold still stung. The media images we’d been watching from another era played out on the modern-day big screen, just as they still play out in the news and on our social media timelines today.
Sixty-some years later, images of Black people dying at the hands of racist police officers are eerily similar to the murders in the Deep South that Martin Luther King preached about.
That movie highlighted so many injustices that Black parents deal with daily. History has documented the tears of Black mothers and fathers burying their children due to racism. For generations, the message has stayed clear: Black skin is considered a threat; white skin is not. Martin Luther King’s dream that all children will one day be judged by the content of their character and not their skin color is a dream that has yet to be realized.
And raising a Black child to have confidence and pride in his heritage continues to be an uphill battle.
Everything in our society tells my son that he will one day be feared—maybe even hated—because of his melanin. As his mother, I am tired of painful conversations, but I will keep having them. I am too terrified to send my child into a world that may never see his heart or his humanity, and I understand the potential deadly consequences of that reality.
But our children are more than hashtags, and we need them to know that. Media like The Hate U Give is important because it reminds us of the power of community and illuminates the injustice wreaked by a broken criminal justice system. Still, I want more movies like Black Panther that show positive and powerful images of Blackness. Imagery and representation matter, and my son is not a threat. He is a compassionate, humble, silly, messy teenager—when will the images he sees on screen reflect that reality? Hopefully, it won’t take another sixty years.
A few nights ago, I watched my son working on his history project. He was studious, deliberate, and focused. I couldn’t help but think that this too is a part of Dr. King’s dream. That a young Black male in middle America can know his worth, strive for excellence, and create opportunities for himself in the face of adversity.
As I walked to the kitchen, he took his headphones off for a moment, and called out to me.
I smiled inside; indeed, it would.