Periodically, I get a phone call from my grandmother that begins with her saying, "Listen to this," or simply with her reading aloud a vignette she'd just written about her life in Newark, N.J. Usually, I tell her the brief tales sound good and encourage her to keep writing. "I'm leaving all this stuff for you so you can write my story after I'm gone," she often tells me, in reply. I ponder her statement and then reply, as warm and loving as only a grandson could, "You ain't dead yet!"
My frankness stems in part from my discomfort when it comes to talking with her about the inevitability of death. But my candor mostly reflects my desire to affirm that her story is still alive and being written daily—that she, as a primary source, represents an invaluable record. Thus, it was a coup to not only convince her to be interviewed by me for The Root, but to have her speak on three issues of great significant to me—the transformation of Newark over the past fifty years, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., and his relevance to her life, my life, and the evolving history of the city of Newark.
My grandmother, Ruth Dargan, is 87 years old and has broken a series of barriers in her lifetime. She was part of the cast of the 1943 Broadway musical Carmen Jones, the first black saleswoman at a department store in Newark, and the first black police detective on the Newark police force. Some time after King's assasination, she was on Coretta Scott King's security detail on a visit to Newark.
We sat down recently to record a video for TheRoot.com, a cross-generational conversation about our home city and the legacy of Dr. King, forty years after he was assassinated.
I was born in the late 1970s. As an adult, I've come to fret January's third Monday. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, MLK day meant no school, a Knicks game, and intermittent glosses over Dr. King's ideals. I never watched any footage of the actual assassination until I was in graduate school, far from home at Indiana University. My two white roommates and I sat through a documentary aired on PBS, during which I felt genuinely inspired as the piece followed King through the various campaigns that he participated in or lead. But at the end, there were two pictures: one of a balcony in Memphis with King standing, one with him fallen and flanked by people pointing across a hotel courtyard—the two images peppered with the sounds of rifle explosions and mass gasping.
Unbeknownst to me, there was a deluge of pain locked in some hidden room inside my body, and it was as if someone took those two images, slid them between the lock and the door frame, and loosed it all upon me. Though I am rather unemotional, I cried until my sinuses and throat locked up and my heart seemed to pound against my chest for air. How could you, I kept thinking to myself as if there was some "you" at which I could direct all the rage and hurt of that moment. I had to leave the room, as if my roommates were somehow a part of that "you" simply because they were white.
For a good while after that, for me, MLK day in January was always dominated by thoughts of April 4th.
So I was surprised at my grandmother's response, when, in our interview, I asked her about her memory of April 4th, 1968. There was some pain in her answer, but she was ultimately matter-of-fact. Another leader had been killed. The fact that it was King was a specific anguish. But the act itself was nothing new to her. Her tone did not so much reflect resignation, but rather an understanding—a psychological buffer protectively imposed decades ago.
There is much about my grandmother's reality, her processing of facts and events, that is starkly different from mine. When I think of Newark, I think of hometown rapper Redman's Welcome to Da Bricks: "George Clinton called us the Chocolate City—ninety percent black and sugar-free." But the Newark of my grandmother's childhood abounded with European immigrants and was characterized by the mingling of cultures (though still far from utopian in segregated America).
She'll likely tell you about the Jewish grocer who let her father run a tab to feed his family through the Great Depression, and the German woman who was her first partner when she entered the police force as the city's first black female officer. Holding her Newark up against my "Brick City," it is hard to assess where Newark is in relation to Dr. King's Dream. True, since the 1967 riots the city has elected three black mayors, Kenneth Gibson, Sharpe James and Cory Booker. But does a black-washed, post-white flight Newark embody the equality King sought? In a general way, I think the writer Kevin Young fruitfully wrestles with the question in his poem "Negative":
Wake to find everything black/ what was white, all the vice/ versa—white maids on TV, black// sitcoms that star white dwarfs/ cute as pearl buttons. Black Presidents./ Black Houses. White Horse// candidates. [. . .]// Is this what we've wanted// & waited for? To see snow/ covering everything black/ as Christmas, dark pages written// white upon? [. . .]// Only money keeps/ green, still grows & burns like grass/ under dark daylight.
King's life and cause ended, like Young's poem, on the note of economics. And though Newark teems with black faces today—from city hall to the county jail—I would be curious to see a comparison of the wealth distribution today against the economic landscape of my grandmother's childhood during the Great Depression. How close can the city truly be to King's dream if the degree of economic equality has remained stagnant or declined? Or as Dr. King himself posed on the eve of his assassination, in a speech delivered at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis:
"It's alright to talk about 'streets flowing with milk and honey,' but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's alright to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee."
Every generation has its "mountain top" and its leaders who will guide them to, though not necessarily accompany them across, that threshold. Dr. King was more of a leader for my grandmother and her generation than he is for me. Yet I understand the charge he bequeathed to them, the charge to pass on the mantel for change and progress to their children in the hope that they will do the same.
But it is debatable whether or not this exchange between generations is preserving the crucial stories. When I asked my grandmother about this, she told me that "The children don't know what we went through." She went on to say "If I had the money . . . I think so much of the Eyes on the Prize, and there are probably other documentaries that I haven't seen . . . I would get one and put it in every black school."
While it may seem ideal to watch documentaries, to listen to Dr. King's speeches and read his words, there are lenses to his history and guidance right in front of us, or on the other end of the phone. Before going to the television or Internet, talk to people in your family to see to what living documentaries have yet to be explored.
Kyle G. Dargan is a poet, essayist and assistant professor of literature and creative writing at American University. He’s also the founder and editor of POST NO ILLS magazine.