Jonathan Chang: I am America's brother


Published January 12, 2007

I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow, I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me, "Eat in the kitchen," then.

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed-
I, too, am America.
- "I, Too" by Langston Hughes

Those words sum up much of the festering discontent many minorities in America felt towards the system of segregation and Jim Crow laws prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1965. This Martin Luther King Day, let's not forget who put the D in American democracy. No, it wasn't Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan. It was none other than the preeminent Dr. King.

Without King's work spearheading the Civil Rights Movement, America couldn't call itself a great liberal democracy or promote its core values and way of life to other nations. For that reason, America celebrates MLK Day as a national holiday.

Who would think that just 40 years ago, a large portion of America's black population could not be served food with a smile and a little bit of respect? Imagine an America with segregated toilets, drinking fountains and schools with playgrounds determined by color. If it sounds a bit like South Africa's infamous apartheid system, it was America before the Civil Rights Movement. Could we really call ourselves a liberal democracy prior to this reformation of conscience and social justice?

My mother, a young Chinese immigrant in the early 1960s, who was neither black nor white, felt consternation and fear at having to choose between white or black drinking fountains. She dreaded making a wrong choice - and getting a beating. A white man once told her that she could drink at the white fountain, but later, she was unsure and simply drank from the sink inside.

The Civil Rights Act did not instantly sweep away years of segregation and the mentality behind it. A black roommate in college told me his parents said, "Just hold it. They won't serve us!" in the early 1970s while traveling by car through west Texas. Some gas stations still didn't allow blacks to use their toilets years after 1965.

This MLK Day, let's not forget the alliances that all great leaders must forge. Some are bonds of friendships while others are intellectual bonds. In regard to the latter, one of King's inspirations was Mahatma Gandhi. Much of the American Civil Rights Movement and its tactics were based on non-violent, social protest movements similar to the ones Gandhi successfully led in South Africa and India.

Gandhi's precepts built the foundation of non-violent social protest movements like those led by Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Likewise, in Gandhi's journal notes, he beams with admiration and respect for two of his great role models, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Gandhi states that their writings led him to focus on non-violence and the credo, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

As the saying goes, "Gold always shines." Great minds borrow from like souls. Thus, let's remember the contributions of both King and Gandhi towards making America what it is today. King was the musician, Gandhi the piano and Thoreau and Emerson were two of the keys. Let your gold be the ability to think independently, borrow from great minds without preconceptions and forge alliances that unite all brothers in America and beyond.

Jonathan Chang is a freelance writer and an alum of the University of California at Los Angeles.