As I begin writing the story of an important part of my own personal history, as well as, I believe, the history of Wake Forest, NC, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we choose to remember, and what we choose to forget. What we commemorate, and what we deny. What we celebrate, and what we shove back down into the shadows.
By the way, I’m so glad that the celebration of Easter is not finally about death, but Life; not hatred and torture, but Love.
However, some tortured algorithm on one service or another that I’m subscribed to, pulled up the title of a particularly brutal film, boasting a “realistic depiction” of Jesus’ crucifixion, as a suggestion for my Eastertide viewing. I cannot imagine what combination of past choices led some virtual wizardry to imagine that I would choose such a film to celebrate Easter! (Perhaps I need to re-examine my past choices….)
Not that the crucifixion isn’t important. It is important. And it is important that we do not avert our eyes.
One of the anthems the Sanctuary Choir at Oakhurst Baptist Church sang under my direction at several Good Friday services over the years is Pablo Casals’ “O vos omnes,” a setting of a passage from the book of Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow….” (Lamentations 1:12) Casals composed the anthem in 1932. In retrospect, it foreshadows the horrors of extermination camps, and forewarns against the world’s blindness to atrocities that, at the time, were unimaginable—as well as the bloody civil war in Casals’ own country of Spain, which ended with the establishment of a fascist dictatorship that lasted well into the 70s.
Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
The passage from Lamentations is much on my mind as the nightly news uncovers the brutal violence being inflicted on the people of Ukraine. It is a text that speaks to any number of atrocities we have witnessed in recent decades. (Shall I attempt to name some of them, and risk leaving others out?) It is a text that speaks to atrocities closer to home, two of which I will name: the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery—although by naming them, I leave out the names of countless other people of color who died in suspicious circumstances.
It is a text that confronts us—all of us—as we watch teachers and schools being forbidden to give a full accounting of our nation’s history. The history we avoid is one that includes the stories of people enslaved and dispossessed, and other people driven from their land by trickery and brute force. It is a history powered by an ideology that purported (and purports) to be doing everything in the name of Christ.
And who gets to tell the story, matters. Can you imagine how differently the story of what is happening right now in Ukraine is being told in Russia, as opposed to the rest of the world? Or, even more importantly, as compared to the horrific experiences of the Ukrainian people!
Is it nothing to you…. Look and see….
How will we ever live into the ideals we say we honor when we cannot even look at, let alone honestly examine, our past?
Which brings me back to where I began this post: what we choose to remember, and what we choose to forget.
In my recent visit to Wake Forest, I was struck by the eagerness of friends from the past, Black friends, to talk with me about their experiences of school integration in North Carolina at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s.
I was equally struck by the eagerness of most of my white friends from that time to avoid talking with me. Even some of those who spoke with me, among the most well-meaning and supportive, told me that Wake Forest has changed. That there are so many people moving in from elsewhere and so much new development—that it’s now a bedroom community for Raleigh. That most of the people who were in Wake Forest in the late 60s and early 70s are gone, and most people don’t remember what happened back then. (Was it only in my mind that I heard the implication that the story no longer matters?) One of my white classmates from Wake Forest High School, who grew up to be a person who identifies as progressive, looked puzzled when I mentioned the party in the parsonage. “You were shot at?” she asked.
A Black friend from that time said to me, “Oh, they remember. They may say that they don’t. But they do.”
…the descendants of the peoples my ancestors attempted to erase are still here and eager to supply the missing–or rather, willfully forgotten–parts of the story we call history.
Look. And see….
The Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights and Hate Free Decatur are two organizations who worked for years to remove the confederate statue that stood in front of the old DeKalb County Courthouse, in Decatur, GA. It had stood in that spot for well over a century, paid for and built by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1908. It was finally dismantled in 2020, on the eve of Juneteenth. Not far from the site stood an unassuming cannon, also placed there by the UDC, to commemorate “The Indian War of 1836,” which was a war to remove the Mvskoke from their ancestral lands. A year and a half later, the little cannon with the big lie inscribed on its side, without much attention or fanfare, was also removed. They are being stored in a warehouse until a decision can be made about what to do with them. (One Mvskoke elder suggested, with a twinkle in his eye, that the cannon be melted down and made into Mvskoke jewelry.)
What we choose to memorialize in monuments, and what we choose to erase.
For more than a century the only version of history memorialized by monuments in DeKalb County, as elsewhere in the South, was the version told by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, supported by state, county, and local governments made up of mostly white people with a “legacy” to protect. Meanwhile, all memory of the enslaved Africans who helped to build those states and counties and localities, as well as the names of the Mvskoke people who tended and farmed that land for centuries before white settlers arrived, was assiduously erased–
Or so they thought. It turns out that the myth of “erasure” itself was another example of selective memory white people used to support our sense of dominion, our imagined supremacy. It just so happens that the descendants of the peoples my ancestors attempted to erase are still here and eager to supply the missing–or rather, willfully forgotten–parts of the story we call history.
The story I am telling will, I hope and pray, be a worthy contribution to the body of stories that must be told to fill in the gaps of what we have chosen to remember. And all that we’ve chosen to forget.