Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Luxury of Ignorance

There is an image I can't get out of my head, a depiction of how African slaves were stacked on ships to be transported and sold in places far from their homeland. There were maybe eight shelves, no more than 18 inches between each, with naked bodies lined up flat on their backs filling every available nook and cranny. They say that 23 hours of each day was spent laying on these shelves, in human waste, and only one hour of each day were they allowed on the deck of the ship to be washed off and the dead bodies thrown overboard.

I try to imagine the stories of the men and women and children who were herded like cattle aboard these ships. I wonder about the agony faced by their mothers, fathers, children who were torn from their arms, never to be reunited again. Can you imagine a world so dark where it seems more appealing to throw yourself to blood-hungry sharks than to continue on in your physical body? Except, you can't escape to the sea because shackles crush your throat and bruise your limbs?

Someone pointed out that we like to shelter our children from the gruesome realities of a history we perpetuated. Heck, forget the kids! We don't even like to face the horror ourselves.  Oh, that we have the privilege of sheltering our minds and children! I weep to think of the children who had no such luxury, who instead lived the brutal reality. Today, we skim the tortuous truth and choose to highlight just a few of the "bright spots," the victorious, courageous men and women who boldly and creatively found their freedom [don't get me wrong...these accounts deserve to be highlighted as well! Just not at the expense of telling the truth about inflicted horror].

I just read an article about how some former slave plantations are starting to discuss the truth of what happened there, beyond the wealth accumulation, stately homes, and beautifully manicured landscape. Honestly, this only makes me cringe. The year is 2017, and we are only just now starting to talk about the truth of what happened more than a century, even 150 years ago?!? Apparently we find comfort in avoiding the truth.

Sometimes, it is hard to know how to move forward toward justice and reconciliation. I wonder if it doesn't start with truth-telling. With exposing ourselves and our children and our communities to the history of a brutality inflicted upon one race by another. When images and stories horrify us, to press in instead of cringing and turning away. How else do we understand the current tensions we seek to repair?

As I move forward, I am seeking--choosing--to press in. To see and hear and imagine all the horror of the past as I also strive to be a good listener to the present. I will continue to revisit a history that was excluded from the classrooms and textbooks from which I was taught. I am imprinting images like the one I described above on my brain, so that I can share with those who come after me the truth so deliberately excluded from many classrooms and textbooks. The truth, after all, is what gives birth to freedom. The question is, will we listen?

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