How to teach about American Civil Rights to 13 year old Istanbulians:



(something I never envisaged in a sticky Catholic school classroom
of stifled Central Illinois,
tracing the hate contorted face of Hazel Bryan with my finger,
on page 157 of my “The Americans” textbook and thinking,
“Well, it’s a good thing America is different now,”
even though not one of the 18 faces
floating above the desks surrounding mine was black,
even though we were about to embark upon a divide in our adolescence, when the girls
stopped trying to get the best grades in the class, and started playing dumb,
stopped playing kickball at recess, and started worrying about how our asses looked in khakis, as we stood watching on the sidelines.)
In the simplest English, I implore them to imagine
the horror of living in constant trepidation,
with the anvil-like knowledge hanging around your neck,
that something as crucial to the make-up of your physical form, yet so insignificant
that it should affect nothing else in your day to day life, like your skin, your gender, your sexual orientation,
could cause an onslaught of such evil, condescension, hate.
I attempt to impress upon them that this happened,
that this is still happening,
in the capitalist oasis that has infiltrated the remnants of their Ottoman empire,
the proud optimism of their Republic,
the land of the free that sets an example for the world that it struggles to follow.
Maybe my students have Kobe Bryant on their notebooks, but it was only 66 years ago, (a blink of an eye
to people who walk through bazaars that have been standing since 1660,)
that Jackie Robinson first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Maybe a man with African-American roots is sitting in the White House,
but the world refuses to have a discussion about his decisions, his politics, his person without factoring in his race.
Maybe women dominate the world on our television programs, but statistically, they have the same jobs and incomes that they had 50 years ago.
I attempt to impress upon them that these aren’t “American issues”, "race issues", "gender issues".
They’re human issues.
If you dare to think this fight doesn’t include you, you’ll be proven wrong.
It won’t affect a middle class white girl until she and her wife are denied
equal custodial rights for their daughter in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
It won’t affect a Turkish boy until he’s refused a passport because
he hasn’t done two years of military service on the war torn Syrian border.

When I teach about Civil Rights,
The students popcorn read “I Have a Dream”,
and then we listen to MLK Jr.’s voice fill the sticky school classroom
of chockablock Istanbul, and something I can’t quite identify
wells up in me and threatens to leak through my eye-lids.
“çocuklar (children):
When you fight, fight against hate, and for people.
When you dream, be certain that it’s your dream.
Never let someone tell you that you can’t live your dream. Never tell someone that they can’t live their dream.
That’s Civil Rights. If you forget the names and dates after your exam, just remember that last part.”

Guide that inspired this poem: 


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