Listen to this essay.
I am seated here at a desk, writing under a lamp much like my grandfather would do while typing his sermons. He was writing the Word of God for the People of God. I remember playing with my siblings and cousins nearby and being scolded. He yelled, "Hush now!" It was not an uncommon thing for him to yell or become angry when frustrated. It was a yell that would halt the room. It was so common, in fact, that his children--our parents--rarely corrected or challenged his abusive ways. At some point, while we continued to laugh and play, he rose from his desk and rushed over to us while taking off his belt. Whipping it once, hard and swift, across our bodies, uncaring for where the belt or buckle landed, he glared at us in anger and in complete, intimidating silence. No one said anything. No one said any of the words that needed to be said:
"This is not okay."
"This is abusive."
"This is learned behavior from colonial slavery."
"You are engaging in white supremacist behaviors of domination."
No one said stop.
So, here I am lodging at a southern plantation transformed into a family foundation, attending a conference on our racial history and the disproportionate success of U.S. children in schools, and I again am feeling the weight of what goes unsaid. With our room keys, we were given a self-guided tour pamphlet of the grounds. While discussing its classic and leisurely history, the pamphlet reads:
"Visit the home of the distinguished Middleton family, and learn about the African-Americans who sustained the agrarian plantation economy."
While grateful of this conference's focus as well as the space being provided for needed dialogue and working groups, I read this pamphlet and found myself saddened. Then, I became angry. I became very angry. I remembered the school field trips to plantations while growing up, learning about the economy of cotton and the beautiful silverware. No one said anything about the ongoing terrorism of a group of people, of my ancestors. I thought surely the seminar team considered these things. Maybe this is intentional and they want it to come up during our process together. After engaging a few folks and some of the organizers, it seems to have been a complete blindspot.
This is why I believe the ongoing work of consciousness around human difference is necessary. When planning this conference, no one said the words that needed to be said:
"This is not okay."
"This space is historically brutal and is an erasure of its brutal destruction and ownership of bodies."
"This space may be traumatizing."
"This space endorsed colonial slavery and engaged in white supremacy."
I have no confusion about why the United States would need to have conferences or seminars on race. I am not confused on the progress of our children. We have a long, often ignored, ugly history. White people hide it from themselves and many People of Color have reimagined the brutality that took place, forgetting its pain and terrible nature. In some ways, possibly for the sake of peace--a false peace--we insulate ourselves from the truth.
I cannot be certain, but I wonder about the personal and societal transformation that could have taken place had we used this space to bear witness to our violent history while offering space for healing and planning. Someone paid for us all to come to this plantation and participate in this seminar. Too often, we choose to fund the legacy of white supremacy rather than dismantle and transform it.
One of the seminar's participants went nearby to another plantation and found someone doing something very different. Joseph McGill leads The Slave Dwelling Project, an organization that combats the romanticized narrative of Southern plantations. Hailing from California, this participant made the case for why it is important to do the "real" thing. We cannot hide from white supremacy. When we talk about the future of our children in America, let us say the words that we need to say. For me personally, the gift of this seminar was meeting people from across the country who were not afraid to name "white supremacy", even when encouraged to use other words like "academic achievement gap" or "poverty". One participant courageously said, "These are euphemisms."
When the voice speaks to say, "This is not okay.", let us not silence them or rush away from the tension. Let us have the courage and strength to engage this deep wound for true healing in the United States--for ourselves, our life together, and especially for our children..