My grandmother died three months shy of 100 years. At her funeral, a happy obituary that played like a Shirley Temple film, was read. Later, a distant relative asked me, “Would you like to know the real story?” She told me of the saloon, a Texas or Mexican brothel, and colorful details completely foreign to the public narrative.
What version of America’s story did they tell you? Was it the sanitized Euro narrative, or another version? Consider that a nation is made up of individuals and families. So one might ask, how does a family tell its story from one generation to another? What parts do you tell? What do you keep secret? Some families have active predators. Do they protect them or expose them? If they protect them, and don’t speak truthfully of their crimes or victims, how are any of the nieces, nephews or neighbors safe when that uncle, cousin or step brother is around?
Once, after being called to jury duty, in voir dire I was asked, “Do you know anyone who has either been the victim or perpetrator of violence?” I laughed at the either-or absurdity. The judge asked why I laughed. But as a human who paid attention, and as a pastor who served, it was simply my experience. “I know them both,” perpetrator and victim. I was excused as a juror.
America is both, perpetrator and victim, those who cause pain and those who hurt. And we are not excused from our role in protecting one from the other. We would be wise to seek facts, to ask questions, like, what is the real story? If we search to find mirrors that do not lie, it will be challenging, but our beliefs will be better informed, and we may learn wisdom, protect some from monsters, and avoid some of the pitfalls of our foremothers and forefathers.
Henry L. Benning’s 1861 speech to the Virginia Convention regarding secession remarkably parallels contemporary rhetoric. Mr. Benning, Fort Benning’s namesake, expresses many fears throughout his speech. Fears that the North would abolish slavery, that new free states would be admitted to the Union, fear of losing power and fear of reform. In his own words: “By the time the North shall have attained the power, the Black race will be in a large majority, and then we will have Black governors, Black legislatures, Black juries, Black everything. Is it to be supposed that the white race will stand for that?” I’m telling you, fear builds an audience.
Those same fears of 160 years ago are manifest in racism today. They thrive in voter suppression acts in Georgia, and well beyond. They fear Black governors, Black legislatures, Black juries. They fear Black voters and Black equality. A secret, unuttered white fear? If Black people gain full power and equality, what will restrain them from doing to us as we have done to them for centuries? Understand the source of those fears. Because anyone who violates the Golden Rule, or degrades another human, as with any evil act, will naturally fear exposure and justice. But how will we fix any of this without taking ownership of our condition, the source of these fears, and how many people will be unsafe in America until we do?
So, raise the bar. We need truth and respect for truth to light the path, to help us understand our condition and rightly inform our beliefs. If we learn the right lessons from our past, and apply them to our present, we will be wiser and better. If we take responsibility in our day, rather than being the perpetuators of harm, dysfunction, and injustice, we will become to those who follow us, ancestors worthy of respect, and they will tell our stories.