As we mourn the tragic deaths that have rocked communities lately coast-to-coast, the question we ask too seldom or too quietly is: how did it come to this? Ranging from fear to finger-pointing, public reaction is too centered on the circumstances of here-and-now — with one exception. We must mourn the dead and offer our deepest sympathy to those who lost their loved ones.
Like a nation facing an epidemic the extension of our mourning should be a relentless search for the deeper cause. The reason for the violent acts and reactions are historically rooted, by ignoring this fact we doom others to similar fates. Like cancer, the origins are part of our national DNA. Arguments on political podiums, viral debates in social media, rating grabs by competing pundits all center on the language. #BlackLivesMatter expanded our vocabulary and although we could react by letting the new phrase facilitate the dialogue, we have not done that. The discussion has been lost in semantics.
The entitled demanding that their lives matter too misses the point. #BlackLivesMatter is an infusion into the language of the disenfranchised. #Black. #Native. #Muslim. #Asian. #Gay. #Transgender. #Hispanic. #Immigrant. And others that we have yet to recognize – these are the people that are not fully embraced by our society. These are the people whose lives are often plagued by prejudice – not just today. American history books tend to whitewash our centuries of dishonor, horrible deeds, horrific injustices, and shameful policies. Because this part of our history is not the focus of our study, their lasting realities are made all the more potent to modern generations.
In 1964 James Baldwin, African-American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet and social critic, wrote, “In every generation, ever since Negroes have been here, every Negro mother and father has had to face that child and try to create in that child some way of surviving this particular world, some way to make the child who will be despised not despise himself.” After all the civil rights achievements, after nearly eight years with an African American President, this is still a reality for black Americans.
George Erasmus, a First Nations leader, said recently, “The United States of America does not share a common memory, and therefore we struggle to have a real community. The dominant white culture remembers a mythical history of discovery, expansion, opportunity and exceptionalism, while our communities of color have live the experience of stolen lands, broken treaties, slavery, Jim Crow laws, boarding schools, segregation, internment camps and mass incarceration.”
This week on America’s Got Talent before we were treated to a superb performance by singer Brian Justin Crum he spoke of the bullying he was subjected to in high school for being openly gay. Many people would say that with gay marriage now the law of the land gays are fully vested, no rights left to fight for. Like so many endemic prejudices the gay persecution continues all across this country.
We are a nation that likes to believe in an edited history. If we’ve corrected policies that were in error, no point in dwelling on it. Ignore the first one hundred forty-four years during which women didn’t have the right to vote. Ignore eighty-seven years of African American slavery — didn’t emancipation and the civil rights movement make up for that? Native Americans, what was left of them, were not granted citizenship until 1924, many were denied voting rights until 1968; but they all have casinos now, right? It was way back in 1998 that Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was found tied to a fence, beaten and burned – so with the success of the LGBT movement we need worry any longer about the hate that resulted in his death. Right?
Much of our population feels that atonement is a sign of weakness. We insist on defending our past. We cannot defend it. We bear the guilt of our forbearers because by ignoring it, it has infected us. While there is no way to pay the debts of malice and injustice that have been part of our history, part of its foundation, we can own it. We can and must end our cycle of violence and hatred by looking deep into ourselves for the roots of prejudice that we all inherited.
Despite the ‘male bent’ to his message, the late 19th Century Nez Perce, Chief Joseph said it well: “If the white man wants to live in peace . . . he can live in peace . . . treat all men alike. Give them the same law. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. . . . Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade . . . free to think and talk and act for myself, and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty.”
I don’t propose that we labor over our history exposing heroes and naming the villains. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote recently in Time, let’s try not to “degrade the complexity of the problem to the most simplistic B-movie.” Instead we can aim toward a greater depth of understanding by steeping the present in the past.