“Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community” Georges Erasmus
I first heard the above quote during a presentation done by Mark Charles at Q Conference in Boston this past April. Mark was making the case that Americans will continue to have racial tension as long as we all continue to operate from a different a memory and different pasts. It’s really sad to think that it required 9 people being murdered by a racist white supremacist for us to finally reach a point where are beginning to take the steps necessary to have a common memory of our history as Americans, black, white, and everything in between.
While I fully support the removal of the Confederate/Rebel Flag from the grounds of state capitals, I fear this will cause us to prematurely think our work is done. Those flags will be removed from our public places, but our real problem is not that flag although the debate surrounding it is indicative of our true problem. One symbol stirs feelings of pride from a shared heritage for one group of people stirs feelings of trauma from a shared suffrage for another.
We do not have a common memory and we do not share in the same past. For White Americans their collective memory and past is one of conquest, colonization, freedom, and “God’s blessing”. For ethnic minorities, particularly Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, collective memory and past is one filled with trauma from the struggle to be recognized as human and treated with dignity and equality. Our collective memory is filled with dehumanization, enslavement, mass genocide, demonization and marginalization. For white peoples in this country it has truly been a dream. For black and brown peoples in this country that dream has almost always been a nightmare over the 400 plus years since the early colonies. “Manifest Destiny” destined those deemed savages and beasts to destruction and to the margins of our country.
As difficult as it might be, white people need to start listening to the memories and the past of the ethnic minorities in America. It won’t be easy. It will be hard to believe for no other reason than so much of it is omitted from the majority of our history books. History has always been written by and representative of those who are one of the majority and elite. If we want real healing then the parallel narrative of the marginalized must be heard. It must be written. It must be taught. It will expose the blind-spots you didn’t know were there in our past as a nation. Black people, Hispanics, and Native-Americans need to remember that white people are hearing these stories, memories and past for the first time. They are being asked to look at parts of our history through our eyes, and if they really see it it will strike at their heart. Hearing about it for the first time will be traumatic for them and we need to extend them grace. We need to assure them of our sincerity in informing them is not to guilt or shame them, not to demand an apology, not to seek reparations. We need to show them the compassion we’ve so desperately needed to heal. In this way we can all heal together, and truly have community without losing ethnic and cultural identities.
The debate raging on social media over the Confederate/Rebel Flag and its possible removal caused one of my white friends to do some research into the history of the flag. She described having a traumatic experience. She grew up in the south with that flag being flown everywhere, and was told the same as so many others of it being a symbol of their heritage as southerners. What she found was a gapping blind spot into the history of how that flag quickly became a symbol of white supremacy and hate as its re-designer William T Thompson intended. Her words to me over the phone illustrate what so many are experiencing, “I have been grieved to my heart since finding out the history around that flag.” If I had responded with a flippant “well duh, where have you been” attitude it wouldn’t have been helpful. No more or less helpful than when I’ve shared more stories and memories of what it’s like to be black in America and it is met with accusations of playing the race card, or attempts to explain it away.
The flag should be removed from the grounds of state capitals, and states who integrated it into their state flag need to get it out. However, if that is all we do then we will fall desperately short of what is necessary for real community to happen that transcends race and ethnicity. We need to teach both narratives in our history books in our schools and places of higher learning. The history of our nation needs to be taught through the eyes of both the elite and the marginalized. I am not suggesting that we throw out one narrative and replace it with the other. Rather they should be part of one comprehensive telling of our history, of our past, and shape a shared memory, so we can move forward into the future not separate but together.