This essay by guest editor Ruth Foote introduces The Current’s 2023 Black History Month series Reflections on Reconciliation.
In 1999, comedian Chris Rock spoke a terrifying truth. He might be rich, he said, but there was not one white man in his audience who would trade places with him. He laughed, but he was not joking.
Of course, he had a more colorful delivery than what I am paraphrasing. It was, after all, a gig.
Years later, the harsh reality of his words still resonates, especially when he said: “Cause when you’re white, the sky’s the limit. When you’re black, the limit’s the sky.”
Perhaps those who advocate for racial reconciliation might say in response, “Your Honor, we rest our case.” In other words, the issue is now moot.
But reconciliation, its meaning and import, must be examined much deeper if we’re to overcome the repercussions and resistance to atonement that have hurt our nation through the ages. And that is exactly what our columnists do in this year’s Black History Month series, Reflections on Reconciliation.
They examine the role of education as well, and look at reconciliation from different perspectives.
Once again, we have a wonderful group of African American individuals who share their stories, and we thank them immensely. It has been an honor to coordinate these essays over the past three years.
Our columnists speak from the heart. We hope you will listen.
There is no doubt that reconciliation, and what role education should play in it, has become more than a political hot potato. It has engulfed, even swallowed whole at times, both thought and tendency to acknowledge deeds of the past.
We find ourselves in denial and sometimes entertaining fiction and fallacy.
Forget 40 acres and a mule — in the case of reconciliation, at times, history has yet to fully materialize, yet even to be acknowledged.
When you fail to reconcile the past, and take steps to circumvent or erase it, as George Orwell warned, history has stopped. This means the door of discourse has been shut and locked.
Through the years, I have had the chance to interview hundreds of individuals. I believe everyone has a story to share, and it is incumbent upon us to get stories out. They are the fabric of life. I have been amazed at the struggles that both Blacks and whites have gone through, and the strength and determination they’ve had to overcome barriers.
But it has saddened me when individuals are purposely treated badly — even murdered — due to the black color of their skin. Yet I have had individuals who recalled walking miles to school as children, only to have the public school bus full of white students pass them by. From their windows, some of the white children would spit at them and call them racial slurs. Sometimes, the bus tires would splash water and mud on them.
It did not seem to matter that their parents paid taxes, too.
And through the years, they and others shared how they received substandard school resources, including their learning materials and facilities. When they did receive “new” books, as late as high school, they were mostly hand-me-downs from white schools — already written in, with pages torn and missing.
In a story I once wrote about racism during World War II, someone shared with me how he ended up throwing his military uniform in the trash because after he risked his life for his country, he was treated with such disrespect upon his return. The doors of opportunity were closed to him because of his skin color.
During another interview, someone shared the anguish of losing his uncle when he was young. His uncle was murdered by a white resident who was never brought to justice. He was an elder when he told me the story, but his pain was as deep as the day it happened.
And perhaps it was by happenstance that we joined together one sunny afternoon on campus, a group of young African American students, and shared battle scars from our racist white professors. There was one story that I never forgot. The young man shared how his professor relayed that he had tossed and turned all night over what he considered a dilemma, and felt compelled to let him know that he should not be studying criminal justice. Instead he should drop out of the school, and start washing cars at an automobile service. None of us could top that story, that battle scar.
I couldn’t fathom how someone would shoot down a young person’s dream. But I had a journalism professor scream at me that my writing wasn’t worth a dime. Later, he exalted one of my classroom assignments as the best he had encountered in his years of teaching.
I remember many years ago, when we were young, a friend of mine was fired shortly after her dark-skinned boyfriend showed up one day at her work. Her white coworkers had presumed she was white also, and we presumed they punished her for her blackness.
Another friend told me that a newspaper I used to work for only allowed black news to be published once a week and on one page only. If the page filled up, African American readers had to wait until the next week. This had occurred years before I was a reporter there, but I still thought he was joking until one day he showed me microfilm of the infamous “Black” pages.
These few incidents have permeated the ages, and are compounded by the number of those who have shared their stories, and the number of those who have taken them to the grave. They date back to lynching and slavery, and even before.
Years ago, the movie Mandingo was shown at the former Nona Theater on Simcoe Street in Lafayette. It dealt with the atrocities of slavery. My father went to see the movie, and I remember him telling me that after the movie, white attendees literally ran to their cars.
Reconciliation, which has been misconstrued and maligned at times, scares individuals on both sides. It has brought forth fear, guilt, anger and wrath from those who believe and those who don’t believe that it should come to pass.
Like Langston Hughes’ dream deferred, it has festered. But we do not want to see it explode.
I recently joined a group reading The 1619 Project, namesaked for the year that the first ship brought slaves to the colonies. We’re taking a few chapters each month. Needless to note, we’ve had some interesting discussions. Composed of both Black and white members, our group always welcomes the opportunity to share views and feelings with one another, and we have an energetic facilitator who doesn’t mind prodding us if we don’t.
It has been a learning process for everyone — not only in regard to what the author wrote, but also in our feedback. A white member shared how lost she felt, and how much catching up she had to do, because she had never been taught any of this history in school.
You might be thinking that was then, this is now. But in recent years, white public and private school teachers have shared how they were shunned, limited and even forbidden to incorporate Black history into their teaching. They told a nonprofit committee that blowback came from both the parents and the administrators. They noted that even school programs observing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday were no longer supported and quietly abolished.
But we should not be scared of the past. Upon it, we build a better future because the Good Book warns us that a house divided cannot stand.
The bottom line is that we have to agree to disagree. Let’s please put that back on the table. And scold anyone who tries to take it off again.
But before we can reconcile with one another and our past, we must learn to reconcile within ourselves, within our own hearts. We must not paint with broad strokes and generalize or stigmatize others. We must always be aware that we are all individuals, and everyone has a right to their own views.
In other words, we must see and hear one another.
As we contemplate reconciliation, W.E.B. Dubois’ words are quite fitting: “Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season.”