being good ancestors

Four weeks ago today, I wrote about a Memorial Day celebration in a small cemetery.  By the time it was posted that morning, there had been an incident in Manhattan’s Central Park between a bird watcher and a dog walker.  The latter, a white woman who was disobeying the posted park rules, repeatedly told the man that she was going to call the police to tell them that “an African-American man is threatening my life,” which wasn’t true.

With a video of the encounter spreading on social media, it was destined to be a big story.  Then, a few hours later, George Floyd was killed.  Another black life snuffed out for no good reason.

Africans came to this continent four hundred years ago.  In chains.  There are still “whipping trees” alive with grooves in their branches made by the chains from which the slaves hung while receiving their punishment.

Somehow the people involved would go to church on Sunday, dressed in their finery, while maintaining that Jesus could be the savior of the slaves too, if only they would get religion.

It took a war, more than a hundred fifty years ago, for nominal freedom to be given to those slaves, but the bondage and the violence didn’t disappear overnight.  It still haunts us.

A week ago was the centennial of an event in Duluth, when “a white mob lynched three black circus workers,” who were among six accused of the rape of a white woman.  There was no evidence to back that up, but in short order you could buy a postcard of the dead men hanging from a street light.

A year after that, the Tulsa Race Massacre destroyed much of that city’s thriving black community, which was known as Black Wall Street, and many were killed.  A black man was accused of assaulting a white woman, triggering the angry mobs.  (Perhaps you’re noticing a pattern.)

When Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” in 1939, it had long been obvious that there were different rules for blacks than whites, and that vigilantes often took the law into their own hands, with no consequences.  The civil rights movement brought wide attention to the problems, which for a time led to more killings, but also more awareness as television became widespread.

Other anniversaries roll by.  Sixty years ago, there was Ax Handle Saturday in Jacksonville.  Before that, Emmett Till was murdered for supposedly flirting with a white girl.  And to go to school, children had to be escorted by armed guards through crowds of angry whites.  (For years I wondered about the woman screaming in the famous photo of Elizabeth Eckford.)

The physical and emotional brutality was accompanied by the institution of laws meant to disadvantage and disenfranchise blacks.  Voting rights were impeded at every turn, financial institutions practiced “redlining” to avoid lending in black areas, and hiring practices in many industries systematically excluded blacks.  And those problems weren’t limited to the South; Minneapolis was well known for deed restrictions that prohibited blacks from owning property in certain areas.  The racial composition of neighborhoods in the city today is a reflection of those practices of the past.

William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  His house stands near the University of Mississippi, the location of many notable events in the history of civil rights.  The state still has the “stars and bars” as a part of its flag, as if in tribute to something other than the subjugation of a race.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said at the memorial for the Duluth lynchings, “We can’t control what our grandma and grandpa did, but we can control what we do.”   In a recent special, Dave Chappelle said, “This idea that what you do in your lifetime informs the generations that come after you is something I keep thinking about.”  His great-grandfather had gone to the White House in 1918 to object to the treatment of blacks.

If we are to be good ancestors, it is time for us to make a difference.  American exceptionalism comes not from blind loyalty and promotion of our triumphs, but from continuing to redress our failings and to create the more perfect union that had been envisioned.  We aren’t there yet.

Today, there are still efforts in parts of this country to make it more difficult to vote.  What kind of moral code condones such action for political gain?  It’s reprehensible.

In a column on Father’s Day, Maureen Dowd gave tribute to her dad, a long-time detective.  This paragraph hit home:  “I grew up in the shadow of two powerful patriarchies, the Catholic Church and the police.  Both institutions attracted an element of warped, sadistic people.  Instead of rooting out those dark forces, the institutions protected them, moving bad priests to another parish and bad cops to another precinct.”

In both cases, those institutions betrayed our faith in them, yet we have been reluctant to push for the truth and for real change, thinking that doing so would somehow be turning our backs on our heritage and our values.  The opposite is the case; by not admitting and not addressing the sins of the past we are perpetuating them for the future and weakening the institutions we want to save.

Imagine people a hundred years from now looking back and thinking that we didn’t seize this moment.  Then imagine them looking back and seeing that we did.

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