Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Washington, DC

If your kids are like mine, they likely came home this week telling you that in the days leading up to MLK Jr. Day on January 16 they’ll be learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a parent, I’m thrilled that my first-grade daughter will be learning about Dr. King in school. As a teacher, I’m looking for more opportunities to help her make a connection with Dr. King and the historical events he was pivotal in achieving.

As an English teacher (one semester away from finishing my Masters in Education), I have this theory that all English teachers have one particular area of literature they love more than others. For me, that is African American literature. In honor of Black History Month coming up in February, I’m going to be posting an experiential learning guide I have created that honors the voices of some of my favorite African American writers and then offers suggestions of places to visit in the DC/Northern Virginia region that directly tie to those authors. This project was initially done for a course in my Masters program but the work was so interesting and fulfilling to me that I’m going to build upon it and publish it here to share it with as many people as possible.

That being said, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of my favorite writers featured in this publication, and as the only one who has his own national holiday, he earns a bump-out feature of his own. I’d like to share with you some ways to get your kids involved in actively learning about and celebrating the life of this great man on January 16. We are particularly lucky living in this area to have access to so many places that directly relate to Dr. King and can really bring his voice to life for ourselves and our kids. I plan to do this with my own kids as I attempt to introduce them to one of our greatest American figures.

Featured writings:

Everyone knows King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech- or, at least, they know of the snippet in which he declares he has a dream. Try reading the piece in full with your kids, out loud, and then watch a video of King himself delivering this speech at the March on Washington. When I teach my students rhetorical analysis, I love including audio/visual clips when at all possible. So much is conveyed in tone, facial expression, and mannerisms that doesn’t always carry through in writing (or gets distorted or lost during read-alouds because of the different mannerisms or speech patterns of whoever is reading). There is something very powerful about hearing a writer read their own writing as they intended it to be heard and received. King in particular is a gifted orator whose words on the page are powerful but become epic when heard in his own voice.

Although “I Have a Dream” is perhaps King’s best-known piece of writing, he is the author of others that (if I’m being honest) I actually prefer. One of my favorite pieces of writing of all time is King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which was written when he was jailed in Birmingham following the 1963 Birmingham protests. In Bearing the Cross, a Pulitzer-Prize winning account of King’s Civil Rights career, it’s revealed how personally stressful King found his stints in jail. Being jailed was a not-uncommon occurrence for King in the mid-60s as protests cropped up across the South in which he would either lead or take part. As often as he was jailed, King found each instance emotionally fraught and mentally taxing. During his five-day stint in Birmingham, he released  nervous energy by penning “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” To read his moving words and measured and rational rhetoric, one would never know the great duress he was under at the time. It bears one of the most elegant and haunting closing paragraphs of all time:

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

-Martin Luther King, Jr.; Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

It is no secret that we are currently living in a world and society which is troubled and bears the silent rumblings of discord and misunderstanding across groups. I read King’s words from time to time to remind myself of his optimism and vision. I ask my students to consider our present day circumstances and to ruminate on whether we have yet reached the “not too distant tomorrow” in which King envisioned love and brotherhood. Their responses are often surprising in their depth and intellect and sensitivity. I love to hear what they think. Ask your kids the same question. (Ask yourself the same question.)

The final piece of King literature I’d like you to read is King’s haunting and eerily prescient “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. One again, King’s delivery of this speech is mandatory viewing, as his emotional state really comes through via spoken word. If you don’t have 43 minutes to spare, please do at least spend two minutes to watch the final words of his speech, when he really ramps up and appears to be on the verge of tears.

It really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land.

I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

He would be shot dead the following day at his Memphis hotel. I promise you, it is impossible to watch him deliver these words and not feel the impact. What thoughts lie behind them? What fears were he nurturing?

Where to visit:

Once you’ve acquainted yourself with the man and his words, you have the option of visiting many places in this area to deepen the connection. Here are my suggestions:

Starting with the most obvious, a stop at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Monument is a must. As it’s part of the National Park Service system, it’s free and open to the public 24 hours a day, year-round. Kids can get a Junior Ranger Booklet to complete for a badge (I’ve written here about the wonderful Junior Ranger program and highly recommend it for kids).

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From there, visit the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech as part of the March on Washington, a coordinated protest aimed at pressuring government to pursue legislation that would ensure equality in the workforce for African Americans, creating more/better job opportunities for them and securing the right to equal pay.

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Of note is exactly why the march culminated with King’s speech being delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The March on Washington took place in 1963- the centennial of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The location was a specific rebuke against the fact that much of what the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence promised had not been delivered to African Americans- or as King put it, “it is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.””

And just where did King write this era-defining speech? Right here in Washington, DC at The Willard Intercontinental, where he was staying as a guest. In the lobby of The Willard, King and his advisers made the final revisions and edits to this speech just before he delivered it at the March. Pop into the hotel and show your kids where history was made.

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The Civil Rights display at Library of Congress

Before entering the room where Thomas Jefferson’s book collection is housed and displayed, the Library of Congress has erected a wonderfully informative walk-through presentation about the Civil Rights movement and its pinnacle in 1964 of achieving the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed equal treatment of African Americans under the law and prohibited discrimination, voter suppression, and other forms of injustice faced by African Americans through the period following the Emancipation Proclamation and Jim Crow.

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The display shows the work of many of King’s contemporaries in the movement and the work that led to getting the legislation signed and passed by President Johnson. King’s speech is featured as well as a picture of he and other Civil Right leaders with President Kennedy at the White House following the March on Washington. For anyone who’d like a deeper look into the movement and the Civil Rights Act, this display is a must-see.

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note: the Library of Congress website says this exhibition was only on display until January 2, 2016- however, I was just there in mid December, when I took these pictures, and it was up.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Access to this new museum is still mostly limited to highly coveted timed passes (which will go up soon for April) but there are a limited number of same-day passes available each morning at the museum. If you’re able to grab those, do! If you can’t manage a visit in time for MLK, Jr. day, try your best to get in at a later date and make the visit nonetheless. I was lucky enough to get timed passes last September just weeks after the opening date and it was one of my favorite experiences of the year. I consider this museum to be a work of genius- never has the design of any building so informed the experience within.

Starting in the bottom floor of the museum, one begins in the dark days of slavery. Appropriately, this part of the museum is dark, light-less and feels stifling and hot. Moving up through the second and third floors you pass through the Civil War, Emancipation, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, and finally you burst into the light-filled center atrium feeling as though you’re gasping for air. The fourth, fifth and sixth floors (the above ground corona) are paeans to achievement in culture. Reaching the top, one feels the heights that have been reached, made all the more poignant when considering the depths in which progress began. The museum’s tagline is “A People’s Journey.” Never has a journey felt so personally rewarding.

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In this far back corner of the top-most floor of the NMAAHC I looked out through the bronze lattice-work that ensconces the building and stood face to face with the Capitol building. How I wished all those who had gone before could stand in that same spot to see the view. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that he had been to the mountaintop. He undoubtedly had. But I wish he had been there for this mountaintop as well.

Other events and activities:

Washington, DC

Dr. King preschool storytime at the MLK branch of the DC Library.
King mural discussion at the MLK branch of the DC Library
Martin Luther King, Jr. parade, Anacostia (January 16, 2017, 11 am)

Northern Virginia

25th Annual Martin Luther King March and Celebration– beginning with prayer at 10:15 at the Leesburg Courthouse, the march honoring King will then proceed to the former Douglass School.
Loudoun Chorale presents “Lift Every Voice” a festival of choirs and inspirational speakers in honor of Dr. King. Leesburg Community Church (January 15, 2017, 4-6 pm)

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Flower Mart at National Cathedral + Passport DC 2016

When: May 6th and 7th, 2016 (first week of May every year)
Where: 3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC

Every May, Cultural Tourism DC launches its Passport DC program, which is a series of events designed to help you travel the world without ever leaving Washington DC. DC Passports are provided at various information spots throughout the city at key events and visiting the activities that are part of Passport DC will earn you a stamp at each spot, just like a real passport.

One of these events is Flower Mart, an annual spring festival held at the National Cathedral by All Hallows Guild every year since 1939. At Flower Mart, embassies from all over the world contribute a floral arrangement that represents their country, which is then displayed in the nave of the Cathedral for viewing. Outside, various vendors sell not only flowers and plants, but handmade crafts and goods (we saw soap, clothing, tote bags, and wind chimes) as well as food- we snacked on choreg from an Armenian pastry stand before grabbing a half smoke from the Ben’s Chili Bowl tent for lunch. There’s carnival rides and games for kids, puppet shows, and special tours that allow visitors to climb the Cathedral towers.

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Despite passing by National Cathedral many times (my sister used to live on Garfield St. and we’d cut through the Cathedral grounds on our way to Cactus Cantina, hey-o) our visit to Flower Mart was the first time we’d actually gone inside! Do I need to tell you it was incredible?

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Tucked in the nave were over 30 individual flower arrangements representing their home countries. These were all unique – some featured flowers indigenous to that country (such as an arrangement of Birds of Paradise from Indonesia) and some were arrangements that depicted something specific to that country, like this array of pink roses from Australia meant to represent Lake Hillier, a lake in Western Australia that is PINK due to the bacteria that thrive in its highly salinated waters:

 

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New Zealand’s contribution was a miniature Hobbit Shire!

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Many of the Asian countries’ displays featured tall, delicate orchids. The United States was represented with this lush arrangement of native flora:

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We made sure to get a stamp in our Passport DC passport before heading over to the famous Beauvoir playground on our way out:

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The Around the World Embassy tour was also going on that day, an event in which different embassies from around the world opened their doors to visitors for cultural displays and presentations. I SO BADLY wanted to do this but alas, my oldest was suffering pretty badly from allergies and just couldn’t hang, so in the name of being a decent mother, I had to admit defeat and skip it. But next weekend is the European embassies’ turn and we will be ready and waiting with our passport when those open at 10 am.

Flower Mart 2016 has come and gone, but I encourage you to make plans to visit next May- it was such an incredible event! We managed to find street parking along a neighborhood street and had a short walk over to the Cathedral grounds, but given the limited parking in NW DC, using public transportation is highly encouraged if you can swing it.

Be sure to check out the Passport DC 2016 calendar of events to plan your trip “around the world.”

Next Level Craft at House of Sweden

Where: 2900 K St. NW, Washington DC
When: Saturdays and Sundays from 12-5 pm, through April 24th, 2016. Admission is free!

Two things I like: Scandinavia and pop-up art installations. WORLDS COLLIDING! There’s something about the remoteness and austerity of Scandinavia that I find compelling. I went through a stage where I read a lot of books set in Scandinavia (Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Let the Right One In, etc.) and then I tried my hand at making real Swedish meatballs using Marcus Samuelsson’s recipe. We have very dear friends who from Sweden who lived here temporarily for work, and I’m constantly asking them what life is like in Sweden and eating the various treats they bring back when they come to visit (micro-thin chocolate wafers with tiny crispies inside, a more refined Nestle Crunch, if you will). I just think everything about that part of the world is fascinating.

The Next Level Craft exhibition currently on display at House of Sweden (the Swedish Embassy) is one of just a long line of really fantastic, whimsical installations DC has put on lately. Breezing into town after the now- legendary Wonder exhibit and the glowing bunnies at Light Yards, Next Level Craft holds its own and is charming and fun and that special kind of freaky-deaky that only Scandinavian things can manage to be (I mean this in the best way possible). Like- there’s fish on skateboards. Somehow it makes sense? Just go with it.

Next Level Craft is a collection curated by Swedish artist Aia Judes containing examples of traditional Swedish handicraft created by 40 artists. You’ve got your birch weaving, your jewelry making, your glass blowing, something to do with burls, a music video, lighting and sound that change the room from day to night and back again, a teeny tiny herd of wood-carved reindeer.

The Swedish embassy itself is located right on the Georgetown riverfront and is the perfect embodiment of Scandinavian minimalism- clean lines, open and airy, no fuss and muss. I deeply appreciate this aesthetic even though I do not personally share it. Our Swedish friends’ home was fascinating to me- even with a preschool-aged boy in the house it was always clean in that sparse, crisp way Swedes tend to have and things that were intended to be white actually stayed white. I still don’t know how that was possible. The building itself is a work of art, with elements incorporated into its design that are art pieces on their own. You enter the embassy through a glass paneled wall with water running down the insides- this is March 6 a.m. and was designed to evoke the feel of melting ice, a key feature of the Swedish landscape. There’s also a really well-done and thoughtful exhibit on the main level about gender equality which is absolutely worth taking a look at before heading into Next Level Craft.

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The Next Level Craft exhibit is located on the lower level of the House of Sweden and takes up just one room. But that one room is crammed with whimsy and delight:

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We showed up right around noon on Saturday and surprisingly, it was totally empty and we had the place to ourselves. I can’t lie, this always enhances the experience for me. I get very selfish around art; I’ll hear the clickwhirr of a DSLR camera nearby and get very possessive. “You can’t take a picture of that, I thought it was pretty first.”

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The exhibit has two modes: daytime and nighttime. We entered in daytime, with bright sunshiny light and sweet little bird chirping sounds. As we walked around, the lighting dimmed and shifted to nighttime and the corresponding music video Aia Judes created for the exhibit began playing on all the walls in the exhibition room. It features pulsing music and Swedish artists displaying a variety of Swedish handicraft, plus a pair of dancers vogueing. It is intense. I loved it!

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The kind people at the embassy had taken the time to set up a room with various craft stations for kids so that they could get some hands-on instruction in the art of crafting, which I appreciated because look, crafting is just not my thing. It makes a mess, it takes so much patience- it’s not for me one bit. Of course, somehow, crafting at the Swedish embassy was not at all messy and was a tidy little endeavor thanks to that very unique ability Swedes have to not be a disastrous mess like Americans.

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Don’t you agree kids who are growing up in this area are just the luckiest? They surely don’t appreciate this yet but they are so fortunate to just wake up on a Saturday morning and then go spend some time painting at the Swedish embassy. This is a blog about loving where you live and appreciating what makes this area so special, and I’m counting this experience as an example of that premise.

If you have little ones who get antsy or bored in the craft exhibit, the embassy has thoughtfully provided a small quiet room just for kids with books, games, and quiet little reading nooks where they are free to play and explore.

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Mine stayed awhile in here with dad to play while I explored the exhibit without distraction, but they did enjoy the exhibit a great deal and came back in for a second tour through when they were done in the rumpus room. While not kid-friendly in the sense that it is absolutely not interactive and visitors are prohibited from touching the crafts, Next Level Craft does appeal to kids and feel accessible to them because it’s so fantastical and creative- so ultimately, I’m calling it kid-friendly with the caveat that you watch them like hawks to make sure they don’t climb up on platforms or touch anything.

This exhibit is temporary, so today and then next weekend will be your last opportunities to visit, and I encourage you to do so!

Other sources: 

Follow House of Sweden on Instagram at @swedeninusa for updates and announcements on what they’ve got going on.

Make a day of it:

You’re already down on the Georgetown waterfront! Take a stroll and enjoy watching boats trundle up the Potomac. There were a ton of people out and about enjoying the sunshine when we were down there- it was a perfect spring day in DC.

Light Yards at The Yards Park

Where: 355 Water St SE, Washington, DC
When: February 27-28 and March 5-6

Hi friends! Winter is so close to being over- we’ve got less than a month until we are at least, according to the calendar, if not strictly the weather, in the realm of spring. Daylight Saving Spring Forward is coming and basically, it’s only up from here. We’re in spitting distance of warm weather, evening light, and the opportunity to GET BACK OUTSIDE and break free of this mole-like existence we’ve been living the last little while.

This weekend we headed down to The Yards Park in southwest DC to take a peek at the current Light Yards pop-up art installation. Light Yards is a temporary display of light-up installations that will be at The Yards Park for just two weeks this month. Already up are Point Cloud and Cube, which are constructions made up of white illuminated cubes, but last night was the first night that artist Amanda Parer’s giant bunnies would be up and glowing. I offhandedly mentioned to my kids in the morning that that night we would go see some giant bunnies and then every 3.7 minutes for the rest of the day my 2 year old told me, “I’m going to see the giant bunnies. Where are the giant bunnies? I want to see the giant bunnies.”

We arrived just after dark and came upon what is going to be the next most-Instagrammed art installation in DC now that everybody’s been to the Renwick Gallery- a field full of glowing blow-up bunnies. There were many people there with real cameras hanging around their necks and one guy even had a mini tripod set up with a camera on the ground at the entrance to the bridge so there’s definitely going to be some highly curated shots going around, but because I’m me, you’re getting iPhone snaps edited in Afterlight on my phone. Lots of “IRL Instagram” shenanigans were going on- adults climbing on a glowing cube structure trying to look playful and artsy, striking just the right post for their silhouette shot, people jumping in front of giant bunnies 10x in a row for that perfect picture. Very entertaining. Got to see exactly how the sausage is made.

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The name of this installation is Intrude and the message behind the piece is an interesting one. Amanda Parer describes rabbits as “fairytale animals from our childhood- a furry innocence frolicking through idyllic fields.” Yet they also represent ecological destruction as they are pests who wreak havoc on natural habitats and environments in Parer’s native Australia. According to Parer, their size (5×7 m) represents the scale of the mess they create and the “elephant in the room” nature of their existence.

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But awwwwww. They’re so cute!

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And only from certain angles do they look like our new bunny overlords who promise a peaceful but firm domination of our world. “The time of man has come and gone. Now comes the age of Bunny.”

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My kids loved everything about Intrudeand the Light Yards set-up as a whole. The canal and bridge are lit up and there’s an artificial waterfall with a walkway behind it so you can stand behind the water and feel like you’re in a grotto.

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Light Yards also has a giant Lite-Brite display, and live music/DJs for entertainment. Many kids had glow-in-the-dark sticks and necklaces and combined with a wide riverside walkway and a DJ, they pretty much acted like they were at MTV Spring Break circa 1997. Mine were dancing their faces off. Today’s 65 degree weather will make for a perfect trip down to check it out. If you can’t make it on a Sunday night, don’t miss it next Saturday and Sunday because after that the bunnies move on to assert their new dominion over the people of Portugal and Hong Kong.

Handy tips:

The Yards Park is accessible by Metro; the closest stop is Navy Yards. There’s limited on-site parking at The Yards Park if you’re driving. Light Yards is free, but there is food for sale and several nearby restaurants if you get hungry while you’re down there.

Bonus:

Just a mile or so away is Blind Whino’s “graffiti church” – the former Friendship Baptist Church which now serves as a space for artist workshops and exhibitions. It’s fully painted (the work of artist Hense) and pretty glorious in daylight, but its darkened facade at nighttime lends it a completely different aspect- a little more sinister and foreboding. Scoot over to 700 Delaware Ave SW and check it out while you’re nearby:

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