Friday, October 4, 2013

History lesson

A high school nearby held a meeting last night to discuss the school budget but some people had another item on their agenda they wanted to bring up. The high school was named after Nathan B. Forrest who was a Confederate general, slave trader, and KKK leader. Some students and parents said it was demeaning to have to go to a school which bore a name that reflected a shameful past and honored a dishonorable person. Others showed up to defend Forrest and his honor. Still others wondered what difference it made. That was then, what matters is now. Florida is full of place names that honor Confederate generals and leaders who were no friends to Native Americans or African Americans. Jacksonville, with it's larger than life statue of Andrew Jackson on his horse in the center of downtown, honors a slave owner and war hero in the Indian Wars. As President Jackson he oversaw brutal relocation policies for Indian tribes. He was an avowed racist but some would argue that so were many others at that time. So,what is the point of history. Is it only now that matters? How many place names do we change today as sensitivities have changed. More to the point, how many people even care?

That was the point of another meeting last night. This was held at a church. The speaker was an African American professor and principal of a local school. He spoke on race, reconciliation and the Church. He talked about the need to know our histories if we want to be able to understand each other and treat each other with respect. Racism can be defeated by understanding which exposes our stereotypes and prejudices. The Gospel declares that in Christ we are all created in God's image and equally loved and made one body although we may be many ethnicities. But, the breakdown of racial stereotypes and prejudices needs an understanding of who we are and where we come from. So we don't keep repeating the past. Slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Struggle, Integration - these topics are not just Black History but all our history as US citizens. We don't need to know it to dwell on the past or cast blame on any group for what happened in the past. We weren't there but we are here. If we don't know the past, we can't understand the present and act in reconciling ways. Why did the Trayvon Martin killing trigger such strong emotions? Why are some people offended by the name of a high school? Why did President Obama call for a conversation about race in this country? Why is Sunday morning the most segregated hour of the week? Why do many white people not see a race problem in our country while many black people do?

The professor who spoke at church last night advocated reading black history and visiting museums that keep that history alive. When we were in Birmingham, AL this summer we visited the Civil Rights museum there. As we walked through the exhibits explicitly detailing the racial history of this city in the context of the wider Civil Rights movement, we were deeply moved. We went across the street to the place where four children died attending Sunday School as a bomb exploded outside their church. Their deaths are marked by a small statue and their names are on plaques near the room where they died.  They are there for us to remember.

There were videos of the violent attempts to put down the demonstrations and marches for racial justice in the city and beyond. There were soundtracks which reverberated with the names and insults shouted at blacks who participated in the demonstrations. It was surreal to stand there watching and listening in a mixed group of black and white persons. I did not know the black persons on my right and left. I wondered what they were experiencing as we heard the profane language and saw the violent attacks on people for the reason of their race. As I felt the tears in my eyes, I wondered if they shed tears for their people, too. I had this thought to reach out and say to someone, I am so sorry for what happened. Forgive us. Pehaps, I should have. But, it felt so awkward, not out of place but out of time. I wasn't there. They weren't there. But we are here and with knowing came understanding, and compassion, an awareness of race, and an awareness of the need to work for racial reconciliation.