A headline flashes across my Facebook feed. “Mississippi governor signs order declaring April 2020 Confederate Heritage Month.” My first reaction is incredulity— that can’t be true. It’s from a news source I’m not familiar with, so I do a quick Google search to see what I can piece together about the story. Within seconds, I see that the New York Times and US News and World Report carried the story, as well as several localized news affiliates.
My disbelief dissolves into frustrated indignation. Why did I not see this story sooner? Why aren’t more people talking about it? Why is it that the only place people are having this discussion within my feed is in a group specifically about racial reconciliation?
Truth be told, I wanted to write an article right then. I wanted to go on a tirade about how people in our nation believe that racism doesn’t exist, while things like this are happening right under our noses. I wanted to rant and rage and cry and lament. Gratefully, a still small voice whispered, “Wait…” And so I waited. And I prayed and I researched, and now, two weeks later, I’m ready to write and share these words.
The truth is, more and more I’m sharing unpopular words, or at least words that represent unpopular opinions. Being the enneagram two people-pleaser that I am, this has been a difficult position to find myself in. But when I look at how wildly unpopular Jesus was during the last few years of his life, I realize I’m in good company, the best really, and I fight on. I say that to clarify that I’m fully aware that these words I’m stringing together to talk about racism and privilege will make some people upset. And maybe that’s what needs to happen.
On April 3, 2020, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed a proclamation declaring the month of April to be Confederate Heritage Month; Confederate Memorial Day is also observed as a state holiday on the last Monday of the month. At first glance, the proclamation seems harmless enough; it’s a call to learn from the past. But it doesn’t require much scrutiny to recognize the disgusting lack of empathy and compassion demonstrated by the governor by omitting any reference to the racist foundation of the Confederacy. Granted, Mississippi still proudly flies a state flag featuring the Confederate battle flag, so this isn’t entirely surprising. But it still requires our attention.
The fact that one of our country’s 50 governors is capable of establishing an entire month, 30 full days, to memorializing the Confederacy— a political group whose primary tenet requires the oppression of an entire people group— should concern us all. To clarify that the Confederacy is beyond a doubt based on racist principles, here are the words from Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, said in his Cornerstone Address a few weeks prior to the start of the Civil War, “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” Applause followed in Savannah, Georgia. The “ideas” he references are those the Constitution is based on, the “assumption of the equality of races.”
There are groups that condone Reeves’ choice and applaud him for upholding history; maybe even you are thinking those very things as you read this. The truth is I am not proposing we ignore this part of our nation’s story. As a matter of fact, I’m doing the exact opposite. I’m suggesting we pay particularly close attention to this part of our history, that we focus on narratives other than those written by white men, that we look at the ways this affects our country and its citizens still. This is often where I face the most opposition when talking with my friends. The mere suggestion that slavery 150 years ago may have lasting effects for US citizens today is met with resistance, as is the much less inflammatory statement that racial relations in our country are still fraught.
It causes me to compare the national apathy on the part of US citizens to the general feeling of Germans regarding the holocaust, a national travesty occuring more recently than the Civil War. There is a German word— Vergangenheitsbewältigung— which literally translates to “the struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past” or “working through the past.” Generally, this word refers to the work the German people are doing to this day to come to terms with the potential collective culpability they share for the Holocaust. Yes, some people engaged in this work were not even alive during World War II, and yet they engage in this dialogue. Why? In “The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity,” Charles S. Maier uses the phrase “inherited collective responsibilities.” The German people are conscious of the fact that while they are not directly complicit in their nation’s horrific actions, they may have inherited the responsibility, embarrassment, and remorse.
Do Americans do the same? Are we willing to assume any responsibility for our nation’s shameful actions, or at least have a discussion about what we have inherited? Or do we throw up our hands in total denial, owing the state of racial relations to those who are no longer alive to take the blame and repair what has been broken?
Yom HaShoah, also known as Holocaust and Heroism Rememberance Day, is a national holiday in Israel and is also officially observed in the United States annually, as established by US Congress. Holocaust Rememberance Day is observed beginning this evening (April 21, 2020) and continues until the evening of April 22, 2020. Each year, a Yom HaShoah event is hosted by the US Department of State. (This year, the ceremony will be held virtually and broadcast online due to COVID-19 pandemic social distancing requirements.)
Hear this— The same government that establishes a national day of rememberance for the holocaust allows for a day to be set aside less than a week later to be devoted to honoring a racist group. And maybe that’s what makes the US great, right? That we all can have our own opinions, voice said opinions, and we can even have a day ordered to recognize our opinions.
But I have to ask… does everyone really get a voice? Is there a point when collectively we say NO, when someone’s viewpoints require the dehumanization of others? When a mindset is both hateful and injurious to any hope for unity? Would Germans idly stand by while a faction of their government declared “Nazi Heritage Day?” I’m guessing not…
In Braving the Wilderness, Dr. Brene Brown says, “In order for slavery to work, in order for us to buy, sell, beat, and trade people like animals, Americans had to completely dehumanize slaves. And whether we directly participated in that or were simply a member of a culture that at one time normalized that behavior, it shaped us. We can’t undo that level of dehumanizing in one or two generations. I believe Black Lives Matter is a movement to rehumanize black citizens. All lives matter, but not all lives need to be pulled back into moral inclusion. Not all people were subjected to the psychological process of demonizing and being made less than human so we could justify the inhumane practice of slavery.”
We can’t undo that level of dehumanizing in one or two generations. So why do we ignore it? Why do we act as though none of this exists when it’s still very much integrated into our culture?
Because it’s awkward and upsetting and painful. Because acknowledging this may saddle us with responsibility. Because we don’t really know what to say.
It’s time. Time to access the best parts of us and push through. Time to overcome the awkwardness of the conversations that need to happen. Time to do some digging and accept whatever we find, even if we don’t like it. If we don’t actively grieve this part of our nation’s story together, we can’t move forward with repairing the broken relationships among people in our country.
So, what do we do? We do the next right thing. For some people, that’s going to start with a basic level of acceptance that racism is alive and well in our country. For others, it is realizing that their position of privilege is achieved on the backs of the oppressed; after all, to be empowered, the power has to come from somewhere. For still others, more research needs to be done as to how this mindset persists and what can be done to restore and reconcile.
But one thing we can ALL do, is talk. Have conversations about this complicated, difficult, nuanced topic. Share what you’re learning, ask about others’ perspectives, discuss what can be done, lament and grieve and sit in the pain of it. Because, yes, the Civil War was more than 150 years ago, but the Governor of Mississippi signed a proclamation upholding a racist heritage this month. It’s time to wake up. There is work to be done.
Photo courtesy of Douglas Bagg via Unsplash