-Shelley Vermilya, PJC Member
Two small Black children in tattered clothing holding hands, ask quietly, “Have you seen our mother?”
This scene of the ghostly siblings is in a hologram display at The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. I listened and then moved on to another hologram of the sister of another child taken from their mother. I went to the next gate behind which was a hologram woman talking of God and things meant to be, redemption, but her words melted in my ears and I was drawn back down the hall to the children. A hologram woman singing piercingly in an adjacent cell made listening difficult. I focused, trying to hear the question. Such a small voice. I bowed my head against the cast iron bars of the gate and suddenly sobbed. I was broken open.
All my years learning about the history of the South and the North, reading autobiographies of civil rights activists both Black and white, sorting out pieces of lies, myths, the glossing over, the distancing, the constant betrayal of half-truths, and the silences. The glossing over, the denial, the denial, the denial. I was finally broken open.
Our Nation has been built on the dehumanization and destruction of Indigenous Peoples of North America and Peoples from Africa brought here with no consent. It was not enough that the International Slave Trade was abolished in 1808. The Southern States created the domestic trade and Montgomery was booming with it. The Civil War was not enough. Reconstruction was shattered. Jim Crow smothered rights. 4,400 people were known to be lynched between 1877-1950. The Civil Rights of the Sixties did not create real integration of schools or society. The denigration and dehumanization of Black people continues through violence, police shootings, incarceration. A Google search reports, “Prison rates in the US are the world’s highest, at 724 people per 100,000.”
Right after our return from Alabama, Jussie Smollett was attacked in Chicago. He is an actor, out as gay, and Black. Racial and homophobic slurs were yelled at him, in addition to a noose placed around his neck. This is racial and homophobic terrorism in January 2019. Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are trying to get an anti-lynching bill passed and to designate lynching as a hate crime. 2019. 2019. 2019.
Imagine being Ruby Bridges’ parents in 1960, sending their six-year-old daughter into a white school for a better education. Ruby and her mother daily walked past screeching vicious crowds while escorted by white federal marshals into the school.
Imagine a phone call in 1961 from Alabama that your white child, supposedly in college in New York or Boston studying for exams, was beaten severely at a Greyhound Bus station in Montgomery.
Imagine those parents and children believing so deeply in integration, and, that the time had come for change. The Freedom Riders had signed their last will and testament the night before getting on the Interstate bus. They were willing to die for justice.
People from my family, my father, his siblings, his parents, grandparents, born into the South believed everyone liked it just the way it was. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make change. People know their place. Philosopher Elizabeth Minnich has written about the “evil of banality.” People do their job, want to be the best at it, go along. They don’t necessarily question why or what they are doing, they don’t think about it. And racist, white supremist core values were seen as polite, civil, “just the way things are.”
I am abashed by the hate. Those capturing, shipping, whipping, selling people. Taking a mother from her small children. Collusion everywhere—from the slavers to the sellers and wearers of the cotton fabrics. The boatbuilders in the North. The rope makers, the blacksmiths making manacles and chains. Those cheering and having a picnic at a lynching. Everyone, North and South, was part of the enslaving systems. Everyone was terrorized.
History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. -Maya Angelou
My years of reading and watching documentaries (like all the episodes of Eyes on the Prize,13th), and facing this history and our legacy, takes courage. It also takes acceptance. I have accepted the power of the lies, the insidiousness of the whitewashed versions of happy slaves, the hysteria that white women have to be protected from Black men, the “science” of brain, bone, teeth measurements to determine intellect, the absolute humiliation for us all of stereotypes and misinformation.
This trip to Alabama was merciful—50 degrees, the museums and sites were not crowded so we could walk through the Memorial at our own pace with our thoughts and wonder. It was also heartbreaking. Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, writes in Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, “There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy.”
“Racism is a heart disease,” says Buddhist teacher Ruth King, “and it’s curable.” Racism is a disease. We can cure this if we face the realities as Maya Angelou says. Enough white fragility. Enough, oh that was so long ago. Enough coming down on each another, for that perpetuates the rule of the owners and betrays our abilities to heal and unite. Our only chance for survival will be through our resistance to hate. Resist racist, homophobic and sexist remarks, jokes, and symbols. Resist messages that demean us. Educate about the honest and true history and contributions of People of Color as intertwined with Euro Americans. We have to work together in all our creativity and abilities to save the planet and create the future. Urgently.