Back in the USA. We went to Montgomery Alabama to visit the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum – from Slavery to Mass Incarceration, which opened at the end of April this year. If you can, go to Montgomery. Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative have made such an extraordinary contribution to the United States and to the world. I believe it may be the most important thing happening in the States.
In the divisiveness of our era, in this time of ‘Trump this’ and ‘Trump that’, many of us are realizing that even if we thought we understood the nature of polarizations and backlash, we may have been more naive than we hoped, believing that collective and social awareness was more progressive and continuous.
So, how do we grasp the violence in our history? And its impact, its persistence, and evolution? And how do we not just go hopeless? How do we bring awareness into our interactions and polarizations and support the potential in human beings to become conscious?
How do we find hope – not pie in the sky hope – but hope that is rooted in the potential in humanity to become aware, and to transform the world we have inherited, so that we might create a different future? I feel a profound gratitude to those whose shoulders we are standing on, those who risked and gave their lives for human rights and civil rights, so that some of us are freer to use our voices.
But, then comes the question that many of us have – what do I add with my voice?
After our visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, I did that thing where I thought maybe if I waited a few days, then my experience and words would flow more easily – about the need in the USA for a conversation, deep and wide, a facilitated process of truth and reconciliation.
But, there are no words that can begin to describe the unspeakable atrocities upon which this country was built. First the genocide of Native Americans at the foundation of this country. And taking 12 million people hostage from Africa, 2 million dying during the horrific crossing of the seas, 200 years of the brutality of slavery, the dehumanization and families torn apart, the physical abuse, the sexual violence of white slave owners towards slaves; then after the civil war and period of reconstruction, the constant use of terror tactics to assert white supremacy, including legitimization of white men raping black women, and thousands of black people lynched, sanctioned by the government and the public – for looking at a white woman, for speaking up, for daring to think you are somebody, for nothing; the Jim Crow laws of segregation and white supremacy enforced with brutal violence and terror; 6 million people fleeing the South to find refuge and some opportunity in the North; the violence and terror tactics used to suppress the civil rights movement.
Importantly, in the memorial and museum, the Equal Justice Initiative not only tells this history, but looks at its impact and legacy now, showing as Bryan Stevenson says, “Slavery didn’t end, it evolved”.
Slavery evolved – from the terror tactics of lynchings, to the ‘war on drugs’ and the current mass incarceration of black people in the United States. And African Americans are still not protected by the State, cannot turn to police for protection, when it is police repeatedly attacking the black community in ways that we have all now witnessed due to the smart phone and internet.
In an Interview in ‘A Perilous Path, Talking Race, Inequality, and the Law’, Bryan Stevenson says “… I went to South Africa, and what I experienced there was that people insisted on making sure I understood the damage done by Apartheid. When I talked to Rwandans, you can’t spend time in Rwanda without them telling you about all the damage done by the genocide. I go to Berlin, and you cant go a hundred meters without seeing those markers and monuments that have been placed near the homes of Jewish families that were abducted during the Holocaust. The Germans want you to go to the Berlin Holocaust Memorial. And then I come to this country, and we don’t talk about slavery. We don’t talk about lynching. We don’t talk about segregation.”
He continues, “I want us to deal with this smog created by our history of racial inequality, so we can all breathe something healthy, feel something healthy… For me, the big barrier is to create a cultural moment, where we start talking about this history …where we start putting up markers at every lynching site … And if we get enough people in this country to say “never again” to this history of racism and bigotry, we won’t be facing some of the problems we’re facing right now.” ( Ifill, Lynch, Stevenson, Thompson, A Perilous Path, Centre on Race, Inequality and the Law NY University, P.85-86)
As you walk in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, you see hundreds of large steel monuments hanging from the ceiling, each with the name of a County, and the names of those who lived in that County who were lynched. As you walk, the floor has a slope. And as you walk down the slope, the columns which are at first more at eye level are now hanging above you. The Memorial is somber, even beautiful, spacious, timeless. It invites you to walk, and to stop, to walk again, to stop again, to not avert your eyes to the horror of these atrocities that were even attended by the public in their Sunday best. To stop, to feel and reckon with the reality of the ongoing impact and legacy of these decades of racial terror. And to realize that in order to move forward, we need to stop and bear witness.
A reality check for those who might still believe this is all something from the past. Just the other day, we (Jean-Claude and Arlene) were visiting old friends in a small town in Virginia. In the small town where they live, the KKK had delivered packages in zip-lock type plastic baggies, some with DVDs, and with flyers. The flyer was a call “to White America to wake up”. With unspeakable despise and twists of phrases, it calls for ‘the Negro to apologize to us’ (referring to white Christian people). And it said “Blacks and Jews have pushed too far and will never stop.” The flyer threatens, “Their day of reckoning is near.” and “We’re going to end this confusion.” And “We are the Final Solution!”, borrowing from Hitler’s terminology. Then a website and phone number is provided, so you can call and get more information and join the KKK.
The flyer was shown alongside an article about this in the local newspaper, which described it as ‘distasteful, but not illegal’. (This is a subject for a larger conversation – the intersection of ‘free speech’ and where we cannot tolerate hate speech, threats, and the instigation of violence.) Some people in the small community were apparently unconcerned, and only had heard of the KKK as some crazy guys in sheets. Others who were indeed concerned by this appearance of the KKK felt that it was unwise to speak up for fear of feeding the problem or creating repercussions. Terror tactics are by nature effective that way.
Bryan Stevenson’s work is an inspiration. For those who don’t know his work, Stevenson is a lawyer, and his organization EJI, Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery Alabama advocates for people on death row – people who had no real legal representation, and often are awaiting death for crimes they didn’t commit. He is author of Just Mercy, a fantastic book about this work. His work naturally and importantly means repeatedly meeting and tackling institutionalized racism and the larger systemic dynamics which led from the brutality of slavery to our current situation of mass incarceration. Bryan Stevenson and EJI are calling out – that, as a society, it’s high time to finally have a real conversation.
EJI’s contribution of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice supports the need for our country to face our past and the ongoing impact and legacy of racial violence, in order that we might build our future. One purpose for a process of ‘truth and reconciliation’ and other processes of accountability, and for creating museums and memorials is to stimulate our ability to feel, to grapple, to begin to process our history and grow our collective awareness, so that it does not repeat. This needs a lot of care and facilitation – so we can touch the agony, and facilitate awareness of the persisting polarizations, for healing, not to recreate the hurt.
Another purpose for having a process of ‘truth and reconciliation’ is to prevent historical revisionism – that is revising or forgetting history. We easily disassociate from our traumatic collective story. We may go numb because the pain runs so deep. Or we cannot fathom what we have done – it feels to much to perceive, to take in, to bear witness. Or we ‘forget’, unconsciously identifying with our inherited privileges, and not understanding that history doesn’t recede neatly into the past – its impact is continuous.
Historical revisionism also happens by way of disinformation. You create a false narrative. This can be used to give impunity to those in power, or to mythologize and romanticize a time when you were in power. This is the case with white supremacy. With the endless flow of information in our times, this sort of revisionism is often masked or excused as ‘free speech’, or made relative as in ‘everyone has their own perspective or version after all ’. Or, the potential for developing a collective narrative that we can grapple with together is deliberately turned on its head, an age-old technique that Trump has recently made famous, when he accuses legitimate reporters as the ones bringing the ‘fake news’.
In such a climate, how might we each contribute to a process of personal and collective awareness, to pitch into the conversations needed? How do we reflect on our personal accountability (for our own behavior), and our collective accountability (for our family, ancestors and group, and the relative privileges we have inherited on the backs of others, or on the shoulders of others who fought for our rights). And how do we reflect on our human responsibility, knowing that as human beings we have done this to one another – this unspeakable history is ours. How might we each let ourselves be moved by a deeper contact with ourselves and one another and add our voice, our awareness, our support for the potential in humanity, with a spirit of responsibility and humility, knowing our voices will always be incomplete?
I feel a deep gratitude and I feel proud (if I can say that) of the work of Bryan Stevenson and EJI. And gratitude to all those whose shoulders they stand upon. Not only by this enormous contribution of the Legacy Museum and National Memorial and all of EJI’s ongoing legal work – but by way of an attitude which models what it means to take personal and collective responsibility for bringing awareness along into our collective narrative. With vitality and clarity, we are called to the table. For the purpose of inviting a deeper conversation. For the purpose of finding hope based on the possibility that we can build a different future. To find ways to grapple with the injustice that we have perpetrated and suffered, inherited and perpetuate as a nation. To recognize the need for healing the collective trauma from slavery and its legacy at the heart of this country, alongside the atrocities and collective trauma from the genocide of Native Americans that has never been grappled with as a nation. And to do this because we believe in our potential, ever with us, to become conscious and human.