Last week, amidst the recent tension of racially-driven violence, police brutality, and USA’s general inability to understand and tolerate civil disobedience – or any differing opinions, really – I had an interesting experience. Once a month I attend the Sr. Adults bible study at my church and then join them for lunch. On this particular week, they were wrapping up a study on Leviticus – a brave and difficult study to undertake! The final few chapters led us to discuss the year of Jubilee, slavery, and other similar issues. We discussed how wrongly some of these passages have been used over the years, including especially by the United States (the South in particular – though of course slavery existed well beyond the “South”). Even today, slavery is a booming industry, and is prominent in the USA – think human trafficking. I was encouraged and impressed by the things that these Sr. Adults discussed.
One older white gentleman in particular, who did a good deal of traveling with his job before retiring, told us of an incident he experienced that made an impact upon him.
He told of growing up in the Northwest and having race not be much of a big deal. He remembers having black teammates in sports and that they were fully accepted to the best of his recollection. It was a shock, then, to travel to Georgia in the mid-1960’s where he experienced segregation. He told us of eating in a diner where black folks were not allowed to come inside, and yet the wait staff was made up of black women. (He didn’t like this experience.) He remembers seeing a building across the street form the diner that was burnt down – still smoking actually. It was a dance hall. He asked about what had happened and one of the waitresses told him that recently a young black man had taken a young white woman to a dance. He had been lynched for his actions: murdered, tied up, and then burned along with the dance hall itself to send a message to the black community.
So why is race still an issue? Why is racism still worth talking about? One simple argument would be that this message was heard, loud and clear. Hundreds and thousands of similar messages were heard all across the country. Individuals, families, and entire communities received these messages and remember them still to this day. If this was the mid-1960’s, then it is conceivable that this young man’s parents might still be alive. Certainly brothers and sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews, and friends would all still be around. Multiply this by the thousands of similar, and even more horrific cases of lynching that occurred in the US and are forced to understand that there are many, many people alive today that still bear with them the personal scars and memories of burned buildings, bodies, and smells. With these memories, are the sounds of upheaval, hatred, and the constant threat of violence. Is the world, the USA, different today? Sure. But that doesn’t change the fact that these realities happened and linger not only in the collective consciousness of society, but in individual memories as well.
Racism still occurs. And yes, folks, racism can also happen to white people. Truth is, black lives matter, brown lives matter, white lives matter – all lives matter. But events like those experienced above, which rear their ugly heads still in places and situations like recent events, should move us to affirm, in particular, that the lives of those who look different than us (I’m white) truly matter. (Events like that above, after all, seem to indicate something different.) Affirming that black lives matter does not exclude the reality that white lives matter after all.
Finally, there is a tendency for some to read stories like this and say, “fine, I’m sorry that happened, but it’s time to move on.” I understand that sentiment, and yet I wonder how realistic this is. White people telling the black community to simply “move on” is dangerously close to Germany telling Jews to “move on,” to white South Africans telling black South Africans to “move on,” or perhaps to the Middle East telling the USA to “move on” from 9/11. In the USA we are told constantly to never forget 9/11. OK. I understand why that is espoused. If this sentiment is allowed, though, we must understand that the realities of apartheid, lynching, racial violence, and the many years of the enslavement of African people will also not be forgotten. These events directly affected far more people than, say, 9/11, for example.
We need to move on, but we must do so together. Moving on together means we bring our stories with us, we don’t leave them behind. Reconciliation cannot be achieved apart from our stories. We can’t be selective about which stories are included and which must be abandoned. Embracing our stories, as painful and difficult as they might be, is the only way to ensure that these heinous events are not repeated. Think the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Moving on will take time – a LONG time. With each new generation there is more and more hope of leaving our mistakes behind us and living into a world free of racism. That world is not here, but though things seem seem tragic at the moment, I’m hopeful that we’re headed there.
The photo above was taken at the entrance to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa.