In our trauma healing work a key concern is the narrative we construct to tell the story of what happened. That memory can lead to a twisted us versus them story, a story of good versus evil that then dehumanizes the other and justifies the next cycle of violence. Or the memory can be more complex and full, bringing understanding and even healing.
Slavery is one of America’s original sins (the other is the genocide of the indigenous people). How we tell that story is still a challenge where even recently some white folks have tried to portray the “peculiar institution” as not such a bad thing. But the racism that instituted slavery, allowed it to flourish, and codified in the U.S. Constitution that blacks were 3/5 of a human being later gave birth to the Klan, lynchings, Jim Crow segregation, bank red-lining, ghettos, and racial profiling. The resistance runs from Nat Turner through the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the Tuskegee Airmen, the Freedom Riders, the Mississippi Summer, up to today’s #BlackLivesMatter. Through the struggle African Americans have shone in vibrant culture that has enriched the far larger community–including the arts, science, sports, and religion.
How the story is told is important for whether the story will have a positive impact or not. I’ve enjoyed reading the recent issues of National Geographic and Smithsonian magazines about the new National Museum of African American History and Culture that has opened in Washington, D.C. The rich, thoughtful, and broad-ranging process of envisioning the museum and then building the collection has been intentionally undertaken with a view of how to tell the story of the United States through an African American lens. It’s not just a museum for blacks but for all of us. At this point in our history and national ethos, the dialog prompted by such a museum could be very instructive and hopefully healing.
One small collection of artifacts already spoke powerfully to me, the shards of stained glass from the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. I’ve been to that church, worshipped inside, and stood on the corner where the bomb went off. The broken glass from 16th Street Baptist said something of the awful nature of the violence in support of racism. Yet civil rights activist Joan Mulholland saved pieces of glass she found in the gutter as a reminder of the courage needed to face hate. A new kind of light shines through that stained glass now with a story of tragedy that is transfigured by determination, courage, and hope.
I haven’t been the the new museum yet, but it will be the top priority next time I get to the D.C. area. I encourage you to visit that museum, as well as other museums that tell vital stories for understanding who we are and where we have come from. These stories can help us write the next chapter of our story with more wisdom and justice.