I find the current discussion on our political scene, trying to gloss over significant and serious events in our nation’s history, quite disturbing. It’s like trying to say each of us individually has never erred or done a noteworthy misdeed. Of course, we have. One would hope that we have learned from these errors in judgment or action and have changed our ways.
We all have significant gaps in our memories. Sometimes those gaps are healthy or even life-preserving. They can keep us from reliving painful moments or painful periods in our lives that can inhibit our personal growth or our attempts to rebuild fractured relationships. These gaps can serve to maintain a sense of balance as we move forward.
Yet gaps can also exist for our willful or unconscious ignorance of past wrong doings. These past indiscretions might be personal things that we did wrongly to others and that we have forgotten. There might be gaps in our social fabric that we chose conveniently or inadvertently to forget about how life-changing events in the past or present continue to subvert our progress as a society seeking common good. It is these latter gaps that I am addressing here.
After finishing HOW THE WORD IS PASSED: A RECKONING WITH THE HISTORY OF SLAVERY ACROSS AMERICA by Clint Smith back in 2021, I realized how woefully inaccurate my knowledge is of critical times and places in the history of our country.1 My gaps in the knowledge of this history I hope are inadvertent, but a close introspection reveals that perhaps it is too easy to gloss over these events as the past and not worthy of further review. Nothing could be further from the truth. I need to discover the uncomfortable facts about slavery and its lingering effects (racism) if I intend to be a positive contributor to our common good. I need to fill those gaps with facts, to learn the lessons of the past, and to advocate for change that is consequential.
But first, let’s address the lingering fear that such a journey can pose. Recent attempts to examine and deal with our less-than-glorious racist past have been called out as unpatriotic, damning our forefathers, or an unwillingness to just let the past be in the past and move on. School boards have been attacked for reasonable efforts to truthfully review our nation’s complete history. Fear-mongering folks have labeled these efforts as teaching “critical race theory” and/or un-American. I do not accept such an analysis. We need to be seeking to accept a truthful introspection as the path forward to advancing the founding principles of our country – that all men [people] are created equal.
David Thorson (a tour guide at Monticello) is quoted in Smith’s book when referring to gaps in our historical conscience – “I think that history is a story of the past, using all of the available facts, and that nostalgia is a fantasy about the past using no facts, and somewhere in between is memory.” Our attempts to fill the gaps are often misinterpreted as stomping on someone else’s nostalgia, when, in fact, we are just trying to learn so we can do better in the future and, if need be, to readjust our moral compass going forward. Nostalgia has no place in policy making or goal setting for the future.
Clint Smith addresses the gaps in vivid detail in his book. Let me highlight the gaps that he notes in the chapters therein.
- Monticello – The story of Thomas Jefferson and Monticello is incomplete without an understanding of his relationship to the slaves that he managed and to the Hemings family. His lofty words and goals for the “American experiment” need to be reviewed in the context of his actual deeds. Monticello is currently working to fill the gaps in the telling of Monticello to its visitors with a more complete rendering of the history.
- Whitney Plantation – Plantations can be viewed as beautiful sites for weddings in our modern-day society but not recognizing their past is to diminish the lives of those enslaved people who worked there and those who brutally died there. The Whitney Plantation in Louisiana is seeking to fill those gaps and acknowledge its complicity in past wrongs. The fact that heads of rebellious slaves back in 1811 were put on spikes is a chilling reminder of the inhumanity that our society has been capable of.
- Angola Prison – The checkered history of the Angola Prison in Louisiana reveals a disproportionately large number of incarcerated blacks, in part due to a law that allows for prison sentences or death penalties with less than a unanimous jury verdict. This was a huge gap in my knowledge. Even today, this prison and its practices manifest disturbing reminders of how the unseen are forgotten.
- Blandford Cemetery – This cemetery in Virginia serves as a memorial for the Confederate war dead and is the site of frequent ceremonies to celebrate the Confederacy. “It is a place less interested in what truth looks like than in avoiding how such truth might implicate their loved ones buried in the soil,” Smith writes. The “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy lives on in the minds of many of the celebrants that he met there.
- Galveston, TX – As the site of the original Juneteenth (June 19, 1865) declaration when the word of emancipation was finally delivered in Texas, folks in this community are gallantly trying to advance the commemoration of freedom. But freedom is very fragile if it is not nurtured and revered. This has not been an easy gap to fill as only in the year of 2021 was Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday.
- New York City – I certainly did not know how the specter of slavery was omnipresent in the early days of New York City and how engrained it was into the economic growth of our country via the northern financiers and bankers. And of course, New York City was essentially taken from the Native Americans by the Dutch.
- Gorée Island – On this island off the Senegal coast, thousands of black people were shipped west and into enslavement. Yet this history notes that many of these people were sold into slavery by their tribal leaders (for European goods and arms) so slavery and its roots are entangled in our human history of inhumanity and devaluing human life far too often.
The gaps that we ignore in history only serve to perpetuate false nostalgia or continue a false narrative. When doing so, we continue to deny what defines our history. Smith notes that “the history of slavery is the history of the United States. It was not peripheral to our founding; it was central to it. It is not irrelevant to our contemporary society; it created it. This history is in our soil, it is in our policies, and it must, too, be in our memories.” He concludes, “at some point it is no longer a question of whether we can learn this history but whether we have the collective will to reckon with it.”
I am seriously concerned about our children. An inaccurate rendering of history and our inability to address such deficiencies bodes poorly for the future in building a fair and equitable society. Mistruths are equivalent to lies, and the cost of lies is a series of terrible things.2 They erode personal trust and social trust. They can set us up for disaster or they can impede our recovery from disaster. They harm our relationships and hurt our self-esteem. Lies have a cost because they multiply; because they tear at our moral fabric; because they can become unrecognizable. When these things occur, we lose our moral compass and can be unfaithful to ourselves, our loved ones, our fellow citizens, and others that need us. And our children suffer disproportionate effects due to their vulnerability.
We have to address the gaps. We have to reckon with the gaps. Nostalgia is largely not an accurate reflection of history and is filled with multiple gaps. Only by addressing the gaps can we aspire to be the country that we were created to be and the country that we profess to be now. History is complicated but so is life. Only “clear eyes and full hearts” (to use an apt phrase) is the path forward to open minds that are willing to work together in the tough work ahead.
- Smith C. How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. Little, Brown and Company, 2021. 336pp.