A painful walk through history
“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us,
are unconsciously controlled by it. History is literally present in all we do.”
- James Baldwin
These words speak volumes about how history shapes our psyches, our perspectives, and our policies today. They sit high on the massive wall of the National Museum for African American History and Culture, as you weave your way through floors filled with the horrors of our American history, and the rich contributions of a culture that has persevered through the unimaginable.
Recently, I had a chance to visit the museum while on a work trip in DC. The tour starts with us descending an elevator into the basement. The next three floors walk you through the history of slavery to segregation to present day. I learned the things my school books failed to teach and if they said anything, only scratched the surface to the truth. I noticed the central force of women in the family, and the close-knit family and community that slaves created. I learned that they chose brightly colored clothing and took pride in their hair as an act of resistance to restore stolen dignity. I was reminded of the need for the creation of black-only society groups that continue today.
Each exhibit, the artifacts and objects, the stories of tragedy and triumph, wove together a devastating, compelling, and raw look at the legacy of our country and the construction of whiteness. The immense weight of loss felt painful to absorb, not just in actual human life but in the loss of brilliance and possibility along with it. And yet, the spirit of perseverance, of resolve in the face of such brutality and hopelessness was powerful. The character and strength of African Americans was unmistakable throughout.
It's been days since my trip to the museum, and I still cannot get the images out of my head: the child being ripped away from his mother, the tiny shackles used for children and babies, and the countless names and bidding prices of the people sold into slavery.
Even now as I write these words, the tears bubble up and over. These atrocities, the dehumanization, the systems of oppression were all created for the sake of power, for the institution of capitalism, in the name of Christianity.
“O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you--Learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?”
- Olaudah Equiano (1789)
How those words are so convicting still today.
It was difficult to see the countless lives that fought and died for the progress we have today. But, I left feeling overwhelmed by the work we have yet to do. I thought about all of the ways in which many of these systems continue through disinvestment into communities of color, an upside down tax code that benefits the wealthy, the growing racial wealth divide rooted in hundreds of years of enslavement, segregation, and the discrimination that continues today through disparities in the criminal justice system, education, and economic opportunity.
In this dark time in our country, when the rhetoric is so divided, and relationships strained, I have so often believed that the solution lies in reclaiming our connection to one another, the belief in our sacred humanity and in each person’s inherent value as they are made in the image of God. But, as I walked through the history of our country, I realized the naivety in my belief and the privilege of that perspective.
The awful truth is that we have never valued all lives equally as a society, only those safely inside the margins of life. The ones who uphold the myth of rugged individualism and reflect our own beliefs, culture, and comfort so that we don't have to challenge what we’ve been taught, or dismantle the very structures that have built our security, or expose the cognitive and moral dissonance staring back at us in the mirror.
I can’t help but wonder: what more would be possible if we could open our minds and hearts to the pain and struggle of others, if we took the necessary steps to reconciliation and reparation for the sins of our ancestors, so that we could design a future where all lives truly matter without question or condition? A future where differences are celebrated instead of tolerated (at best), and where we finally understand that any sacrifice made to help others actually improves our own lives, our families, and our communities for a richer, thriving society full of opportunity for all.
If you haven’t already, I hope you find some time to explore the museum and the lessons it holds. It is a small but necessary step to connect our disjointed and incomplete history lessons and begin to understand the intentional systems of oppression and supremacy that still define us today.
“We have to improve life, not just for those who have the most skills and those who know how to manipulate the system, but also for and with those who often have so much to give but never get the opportunity.”
- Dorothy Height