“The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” –William Faulkner
As a black southerner, Samuel Sinyangwe had to leave the U.S. to see a statue honoring a slave. Having grown up surrounded by monuments to white men who enslaved black people, and none that honored black people who fought for freedom, he recently recounted how he wept upon seeing a statue of a slave revolt leader named Bussa in Barbados.
How many Americans who consider ourselves to be passionate about equality have never wondered why there are no monuments to slaves? Why not? When the president and other white leaders talk about “honoring our history” and “respecting the flag,” they mean honoring their history and respecting the rights they enjoy under the flag. This is anathema to living in a country that enjoys peace and equality. A future of peace and equality requires an honest reckoning with the past. Just as effective apology is crucial to interpersonal reconciliation, taking responsibility for our collective transgressions is key to building national unity.
The way we deal with our past – think about it, teach it, honor it – is inextricably linked to the way we relate to one another now. As William Faulkner famously said, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” It’s no wonder, then, that in a country where most people are just as ignorant of past transgressions as current inequalities, white people are shocked by NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence. “Just play football and be grateful for your paychecks,” they say, oblivious to the fact that they sound just like the white racists who told black stars like Louis Armstrong to “stop being uppity” by speaking up during the civil rights movement.
It’s worth noting that white people tend to lack empathy when it comes to a range of injustices, from poverty to racial inequality. A recent study shows that this empathy gap stretches across socioeconomic strata and includes “educated white professionals.” It’s probably not a coincidence that this lack of empathy persists while we fail to acknowledge the full truth of our history.
The maxim that when you don’t understand the past you’re doomed to repeat it has been a guiding mantra for Germany in its memorialization of the Holocaust. Instead of monuments to Nazis that could become rallying shrines for white supremacists, plaques mark places like Hitler’s final hideout in order to remember, not to idealize or whitewash. Throughout the country, memorials and museums commemorate the horror in detail with the intention of preventing its repetition. Germany has created a cultural acknowledgement of truth, a public declaration of responsibility and a promise to live under the banner of “Never Again.” Imagine if the U.S. memorialized slavery and the genocide of Native American tribes in such a fashion.
Instead, the American president fails to condemn white supremacists marching with semi-automatic weapons and screaming hate slogans, but praises monuments to the Confederacy as “honoring our history.” He calls black NFL players “sons of bitches” for protesting peacefully and call for their firing. And his followers love him for it.
If we want to live in a peaceful country that walks its talk – extending the freedoms and rights enshrined in the Constitution to everyone – then we must make an honest accounting and memorialize the full truth of our history. Until we do, we’ll continue to be haunted by the least savory aspects of our past.