As older adults, we may be pushed by concerns that are different from our children’s, but right now, we share a lot of these with all Americans. I don’t know about you, but I feel more challenged than ever to pay attention, stay awake, re-educate myself, and use whatever wisdom I have to be active in the world. So, I say to my fellow Elders – the world needs us/you! Needs our discernment, honest reflection, unsparing examination and ongoing conversations that can offer wisdom, experience, and guidance.
Here’s a question to grapple with: How do we hold and discuss the history of our country as both the ugly truth of slavery, genocide, theft of native land, Jim Crow laws, ongoing and systemic racism along with the aspirational vision that the founding fathers created – the ideal and the idea of equality, a more perfect union?
That question looms large for me right now. I am committed to my own re-education – to include the history I was not taught in school but that was happening all around me. To include history I knew existed but chose to turn away from because it made me too upset. I realize, of course, that my brothers and sisters of color never had that luxury – they can’t turn away from the truth of their lives and histories.
In general, it seems to me, white Americans have been addicted to holding only one perspective on our history – glossing over the parts we don’t like and glorifying or building up the parts we do. It helps us maintain our power, our mythology, and the status quo.
But, I believe we are being called to expand our capacity to look squarely at the parts we don’t like – acknowledge the consequences of our actions, inactions, blindness to the suffering of others and work diligently toward true equality, making necessary course and policy corrections, lobbying politicians and working to release our tenacious hold on power.
There is much talk these days about Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers – deeply flawed human beings, slaveholders, rapists. Yes. Is it possible to hold them both as flawed human beings and people who also formulated a great vision we are still trying to achieve? We have fallen far short – but the original vision still calls to many Americans as an achievable goal.
My father’s ancestors came to America in 1629 from Scotland. The oldest name in our family history is Samuel McCrary and he settled in southern Virginia. From there, subsequent generations went to Georgia which is where my father was born in 1917. I don’t know but suspect that many of my ancestors may have been slaveholders, may have been evil, cruel people – I would hope not, but it is possible.
A few years ago, I read about a black college football player in the south whose last name was McCrary and it struck me that he is probably carrying the name his ancestors were given by mine. A slave name, a brand. It shames me and weighs heavy on my heart but such seems to be my history. So, can I hold both truths? A possibly ugly family history that resulted in me being here today? Can I hold it all? Not idealize it, or demonize it – just acknowledge it?
Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Path to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, says that as soon as white America makes a couple of changes (taking down Confederate flags, for instance), they will want to stop and say, “OK, that’s enough. I’m getting uncomfortable.” He’s undoubtedly right. I feel that tendency in myself. But I know it’s not enough and the fact that I may be getting uncomfortable tells me that it’s not enough.
Another thing Mr. Menakem talks about is how white folks really want to talk to their black friends about race and have them tell them what to do. He says – don’t talk to me – talk to each other! White folks need to talk to each other about race, challenge each other’s thinking, commit to their education and transformation because nothing will change until we as white Americans are changed. We hold the reins of power – we can only unwind the systemic racism that has driven our economy and culture for so long when we are transformed and form a new culture truly based on equality.
Living in the age of Zoom, we have many opportunities to start these conversations with one another and without politics or partisanship, take an honest look at the inequality that has been created and how we can be part of both healing and action for a more perfect union.