This past August, I posted on social media a story about James Marion Sims, the
“father of modern gynecology,” who in the nineteenth century conducted
excruciating experiments on black slave women without consent or anesthesia. Anesthesia had been invented by then, but it was reserved for white women. A
few hit the “like” or sad face button but one person quoted a bible verse about
forgetting the former things. She reprimanded me, cautioning that dredging up
stories about slavery fed racial disunity and impeded healing. This same person, a
month later on 9-11, encouraged her friends to Never Forget.
Of course we should never forget 9-11. I am a native New Yorker and I remember
watching with fear, indignation and sorrow as those proud towers fell. Who did this
and how dare they? Then all the stories told afterward about how people died, how
many people died and the heroism of the first responders. I’m so glad that every
year we pause and pay tribute to them and tell our children about that terrible day.
The person who reprimanded me is not alone. I’ve been encouraged many times to
stop talking about one but keep talking about the other. Why? Is it that we’re
supposed to remember the sins of foreign powers and forget our own? Or because
slavery happened so long ago and 9-11 is so recent? Is there an expiration date on
things worth remembering? I don’t think so because we recollect and memorialize
many things that happened a long time ago.
It reminded me of something I saw a few years back. My family and I had been
members of the local Jewish Community Center. We are not Jewish, but the JCC had
a great deal on an annual membership and since my boys loved to swim, we joined
and really enjoyed hanging out there. One day, I noticed a wall filled
with names. It had been created by Rochester-area Holocaust survivors to
remember their family members who perished in the Holocaust. This is a
permanent display. Children pass it every day, and I imagined adults explaining the
names and the moment of solemnity that followed. The members of this community
do not shy away from remembering one of the most horrific events in modern
history. The purpose of the wall is not to encourage bitterness, but to remember, to
honor and to vow, Never Again!
Most of us agree that it’s deeply important to remember this atrocity, and yet, some
of us won’t ever read an article about the effects of three hundred years of black
servitude or watch a racially themed movie. Slavery, Jim Crow and the black
experience in general is like a bothersome fly that won’t go away. People become
exasperated, impatient and even angry when a new article hits the press or a new
movie gets released.
The problem is, so few Americans know this history, including black Americans. Most of our childhood history books dedicated one chapter to slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement; they conveyed the sentiments that it wasn’t that bad and it’s all over now. The wicked treatment of black people is a tiny blot on the otherwise beautiful landscape of America and it doesn’t really deserve any more of our attention. This makes many black people want to shout, “We matter!” “Our history matters!” “This
part of American history matters!”
Also problematic is the fact that some of the very same people who fail to learn
about black suffering also fail to learn about black excellence. So they neither
empathize nor honor.
As time goes by, however, things that were once covered over are coming to light.
Grisly details surface and hidden stories of heroism are finally told. We’re hearing
about black scientists who were there at the dawn of breakthrough, black
mathematicians who were there helping men orbit the moon, black writers who
were there, penning brilliant prose and breathtaking poetry. We were there
performing first surgeries and exploring barren wildernesses. We were there,
breaking through barriers, pressed down and rising still. Every “You can’t” became,
“Watch me” and every negative assumption disproven and rejected for the lie that it
You can’t swim. You can’t play tennis. You can’t play golf. You can’t quarterback.
You can’t play classical music or dance ballet. You can’t pilot a plane. You can’t lead
a company. You can’t lead a country. You can’t lead a family. You can’t excel in
math or science. You can’t direct a movie or produce a film. You can’t write a best
seller. You can’t make wealth. You can’t argue a case. You can’t think logically or
rationally. You can’t win a gold medal in gymnastics – or four. You an win a beauty pageant - or 5. You can’t demonstrate courage.
Oh yes we can.
In this country, other than First Nation tribes, no other people group has suffered as much or for as long as African Americans and yet as a people we have excelled in every disciple, pole vaulting to the world stage in everything from music to math. Not only has our dogged strength kept us from being torn asunder (as Dubois noted), but I has sent us hurdling over every obstacle.
The stories of both sorrow and success matter. We tell them not to feed bitterness or division, but to fill in the gaps and dispel the lies. We tell them because honesty requires it. We tell them because silence never cures anything. Silence will not cure the friction in your marriage. It will not cure the wound in your child’s soul. It will not heal the disrespect you feel at work and it will not heal the racial tension and offense that has festered in this country for centuries.
So talk over lunch and talk over dinner. Talk to you kids, your friends, your colleagues.
Talk without becoming offensive, defensive, evasive or fragile. Talk when it’s hard and when it’s easy. And listen, too.