“There is no more powerful force then a people steeped in their history. And there is no higher cause than honoring our struggles and ancestors by remembering.”
Lonnie G Bunch III Director of the Smithsonian Institution
February marks Black History Month, a tribute to the black men and women who have made significant contributions to this nation, and across the rest of the world. Black History Month is about celebrating those who have shaped our nation for the better. It is about the shared experiences of all black people and how those experiences have challenged, and ultimately strengthened America. Black History Month celebrates the rich cultural heritage, triumphs and adversities that are an indelible part of our country’s history.
As school boards across the country argue over what should be taught in schools, Black History Month serves as a reminder of what has taken place in our country; the good, the bad and the ugly, and why it is so important to have a greater understanding of history. James Baldwin once said “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it’s faced” and this is a reminder of the importance of facing history.
History is powerful and history can be uncomfortable, but it is in history we can learn from the lessons of the past and forge a better future. Our nation is so polarized because we have a conflicting understanding of the past with competing narratives about our histories. To heal we need to establish a shared truth and a collective memory which can then begin to unite us. There is a real danger in ignoring the past and doing so brings added mistrust and prolonged pain within our nation. Black History Month provides an opportunity to revisit our past, to understand our history more deeply and bring to light the harmful beliefs and attitudes which have developed in our nation revitalizing an awakening for the need for racial justice.
Political forgiveness creates new possibilities for to how all sides can live peacefully together in a renewed society. One key element to laying this foundation is the construction of historical memory to ensure the past is not forgotten, but rather dealt with head-on as a means of focusing those involved in the process and seeking to end the violence. To this end Bryan Stevenson, a public rights attorney, established the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. Stevenson has devoted his life to exposing racial bias in the United States penal system and shining a light on the uncomfortable history of the United States. He understands that it is necessary to address past wrongs with truth and reconciliation efforts and yet his approach is not what we typically think of in terms of a traditional truth and reconciliation model.
Stevenson’s approach focuses on creating physical markers of the nation’s racial crimes across the state including documenting the history of the slave trade in the form of signposts acknowledging the grim history of our nation. Through the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project, Stevenson began a campaign to recognize the victims of lynching’s by collecting soil from lynching sites and creating memorials that acknowledged the horrors of racial injustice. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4000 racial terror lynching’s in 12 Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950. Several hundred of these victims were lynched in Alabama.
To create greater awareness and understanding about racial terror lynching’s, and to begin a necessary conversation that advances truth and reconciliation, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice was built dedicated to the memory of enslaved people and African Americans terrorized by lynching’s and humiliated by Jim Crow. It memorializes thousands of black people who were hanged, burned, shot or beaten to death after the Civil War. The Legacy Museum was created as a narrative type museum where people can get a first-hand experience of what it was like to be a slave. The building itself was the former site of a slave warehouse existed giving those who visit a stark reminder of the past. When people enter the museum, they are standing on the ground where enslaved people were put in pens and held until they were taken to the auction block down the street. The first thing visitors see are slave auction books that advertise people for sale and within are the ads trying to recover people who have run away. It is a stark sight to see such a site and the horror which once occurred there. The slave pens look empty but when someone walks up to them, it triggers a motion sensor and a hologram appears where you will see and hear an enslaved person give an account of how they were pulled away from their siblings, their parents, their children, and how they were sold. It is absolutely heartbreaking, and it is something every American should experience. It is our history, and we must deal with that fact.
The museum narrative goes from slavery to lynching, from lynching to segregation, and then from the segregation era to the contemporary era. In the last exhibit, visitors sit down, pick up a phone, and talk to someone who is incarcerated in prison today. They hear personal accounts of what it was like to be young, some as young as 13, and be sentenced to life without parole. They hear what it was like to be innocent on death row. The purpose of the museum and memorial is to create connections between the past and the present so people can understand how the injustices of the present are logical outcomes of the past. This narrative was created so people could understand what happened and recognize that now the narrative can be changed, and it must be changed.
In the museum there are hundreds of jars of soil which were taken from lynching sites. On these jars are the names of the victims and the date of their lynching’s. Visitors are given the opportunity to go to these sites where the lynching’s took place, to collect jars and it can be a powerful experience for many. In one instance a middle-aged black woman requested to go to one of these sites. Following a meeting ahead of the trip she was ready to go and was given a jar and a note of what to do. It turned out that the lynching site which she was assigned to was in a remote area. This made her extremely nervous, but she decided to go anyway.
She was about to start digging when a truck drove by driven by a white man and the truck slowed down and stared at her. The truck stopped, turned around and drove by again and she could feel his eyes on her. Then the truck stopped. A tall white man got out of the truck and started walking toward her making her even more nervous. She had instructions which detailed that she did not have to explain what she was doing. She could just say that she was getting dirt for her garden, and that is what she intended to do. But when this white man walked up to her and asked her what she was doing, she said something else “I’m digging soil because this is where a black man was lynched in 1931, and I’m going to honor his life”. She was so scared that she started digging faster. The man stood there and said, “does that paper talk about the lynching?” to which she told him it did and the follow up was not something she expected, “Can I read it?” The woman gave the man the paper, and he stood there reading while she was digging. He put the paper down and turned to the woman as she was digging to ask “would it be okay if I helped you?” Then this white man got on his knees. She offered him the little plow to dig the soil and he said, “no, no, no. you use that”. He started throwing his hands into the soil with such force that his hands were getting coated with soil. He kept throwing his hands and digging feverishly. That moved her. The next thing she knew tears were running down her face. He stopped and said, “oh, I’m so sorry I’m upsetting you” but she answered, “no, no, no, no, you are blessing me”, and they kept putting the soil in the jar.
When the jar was almost full, she noticed the man was slowing down and that his shoulders were shaking. She turned to look at him and saw the man had tears running down his face. She stopped and she put her hand on this man’s shoulder asking if he was all right. In a stunning reply he said no, “I’m just so worried that it might have been my grandparents that were involved in lynching this man”. They both sat there with tears running down their face. When all was done, the man stood up and said, “I want to take a picture of you holding the jar”. She too wanted to take a picture of the man holding the jar. The woman brought the man back to the museum where they put the jar on the exhibit together. This was a powerful moment for them both, a shared history being acknowledged and the pain allowed to air (‘NPR, Terry Gross, 2020).
Moving moments like that do not always happen when you tell the truth about history and when you have every reason to be afraid and angry. Until we commit to dealing with the past and encouraging moments like that, until we tell the truth, we deny ourselves the beauty of redemption, the beauty of restoration. This is the face of a political forgiveness process. It is about people coming together, deciding to live together in a different way, a way which has healing at its core. This can only be achieved if we take responsibility for our past and make different choices for the future. In many cases these experiences can be so profound as we learn the power that forgiveness can bring, even on a symbolic level.
The United States was founded on the principle that we are all created equally and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. We have never been able to live up to this guiding principal yet it is something we can aspire to and something we can achieve but it must start now. Unfortunately, systemic racism still exists in our nation today and diminishes who we can truly become. If we can face our past openly and honestly by working together as one people and uphold the principle we are founded on, we will become a stronger nation, a more perfect union, and a more perfect version of ourselves. We are all equal, you no better than I and I no better than you. We must acknowledge our history, no matter how difficult it is, and we must educate future generations about out history so they can actively choose a better path forward and to never allow the injustice of the past to be repeated. The future can be better, the future must be better and the work to achieve this is long overdue. It is time to get to work.