This week I am going to dip my toe into a tough subject. Last night on 60 Minutes I watched a story about a memorial being built to the victims of lynchings. It was painful and graphic. Not only because they chose to show photos of victims. The story itself made me cringe and feel uncomfortable. It was a testament to the ability of people to justify their horrific actions towards other people by reducing them to less than human. It wasn’t just the Klan or rednecks or whatever stereotype we like to apply to those who perform such acts. It was women, children, shopkeepers, tradesmen, lawyers, etc. who watched and approved. It made me question if in another day, another time and another atmosphere, would I be in the crowd watching and accepting?
There are people who want to think stories like the one last night need to be viewed as history and feel we should just move on. There are those who choose to avoid or ignore stories like that one because they do not want to be uncomfortable or confront the painful actions of others. There are those who claim such stories only lead to more divisiveness by dredging up the past and using it as an excuse for present day behavior.
For me it is a way to have a small inkling of understanding and empathy for others. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died in my lifetime. His I Have A Dream speech is still quoted and still relevant. It is very easy to pass judgement on the behavior of others based on what we feel we would do in situations. But I have never had to deal with a history of being judged based on my color. A history that goes back 200 years and is still being lived today.
A few years ago, Rochester dealt with a controversial piece of art that was displayed on a carousel. It was an example of racist, pickaninny artwork. Those who wanted it to stay up argued that it was a piece of history, figuratively and literally. Factually, it is an historic panel, painted more than 100 years ago. As such, I believe it needs to be where it is today, a museum. Not on a carousel where it can be viewed as a tacit acceptance of what is being depicted, especially by children who do not know it is a very old image that is not acceptable today. I hate to play the “what if” game, but what if it showed a lynching, something that was as acceptable as pickaninny art at one time?
What many do not seem to understand is it isn't history in the sense that people are still living it as reality. We still label others based on their color, religion, orientation and ethnicity. Across history and the world labels are used to reduce others to less than ourselves and to justify evil actions towards them. We are quick to pass judgement on other’s actions, especially if they are different from how we act. The truth for me, though, is I will never walk in another’s shoes and therefore cannot judge their actions. I can empathize and try to understand, but I will never live a life where my options are limited based on my color. Just as I am a product of my family's history, others are too. People are proud to talk about their ancestors and how they are carrying on traditions. Heck, Ancestry.com encorages people to find out what their genes show of their history. Why then, do some of these same people tell others to get over the past?
It is time for people to start listening and to get uncomfortable with the past so we can start to see each other as humans, not labels.