We have been dishonest about the past, so we’ve become fearful of the truth, too fragile to respond to the present reality. This week many people in the United States reflected on independence, realized or withheld. But for people of color, a piece of the story is missing. Independence Day is not an inappropriate time for remembrance. But it is a remembrance that is deliberately incomplete. Omission infects our interactions. It increases our aversion to vulnerability, a necessary function of friendship that is hard enough as it is. Acknowledging our country’s full history requires a cure to the ailment of selective honesty. The cure to Independence Day is the truth.
Philando Castile was murdered in cold blood a year ago; July 6th, 2016. With recent news of the officer that killed him being allowed to walk free, the supposed freedom of Black Americans to live was not the only thing shrouded in doubt. Our humanity is called into question when neither employment, good citizenship or compliance can save us. Marking our murderers as innocent betrays a long entrenched apathy to our lives. History reveals a national dependence on the death of Black pride.
Racial terror was critical to founding of The United States. Twelve generations of Black people labored to build this land into a global superpower, their contributions muted by legalized deprivation. With Native lives destroyed or made invisible, Black bodies became the sacrifice for a fabricated peace. We are diseased by the construct of supremacy.
July 2nd was the 100th anniversary of a national disgrace, a massacre brought on by racial terror.
In East St. Louis in 1917, a mob of white people massacred Black residents. It was terrorism labeled a “race riot”. Read more about it here.
As I read different accounts of those days, it was clear that the event was eventually investigated by the Federal government because Congress found that it had a severe impact on wartime industry and production. Commerce controls all.
Here is a portion of the federal commission’s report, given in Washington some time after the tragedy:
“Your committee has made an earnest, nonpartisan effort to determine the basic cause of the riot. We endeavored to pursue every avenue of information to its source, searched the hearts and consciences of all witnesses, and sought the opinions of men in every walk of life…. but the overwhelming weight of testimony ascribes the mob spirit and its murderous manifestations to the bitter race feeling that had grown up between the whites and blacks.
The natural racial aversion, which finds expression in mob violence in the North as in the South, was augmented in East St. Louis by hundreds of petty conflicts between the whites and the blacks. During the year 1917 between 10,000 and 12,000 negroes came from the Southern States to seek work at promised high wages in the Industries of St. Clair County. They swarmed into the railroad stations on every train, to be met by their friends who formed reception committee and welcomed them to the financial, political and social liberty which they had been led to believe Illinois guaranteed. They seldom had more than enough money to exactly defray their transportation and they arrived dirty and hungry. They stood around the street corners in homesick huddles, seeking shelter and hunting work.
How to deal with them soon became a municipal problem…But as rapidly as employment was found for those already there, fresh swarms arrived from the South. until the great number without employment menaced the prosperity and safety of the community.”
[The congressional record can be found here in index form. The excerpt above is taken from page 8827 (left hand column). ]
“How to deal” with the Black and poor, “a menace to prosperity and safety” is still an issue in the St. Louis region. Our governor believes that paying poor people a living wage is too costly. Some of my own neighbors agree; “people who are just going to spend all their money on fireworks don’t deserve a good paycheck.” is a growing attitude.
Apathy to poverty should be a worthless excuse for dehumanizing our neighbors. But the partial history of our nation paints over apathy as business savvy. We reward each other for treating humans like machines who do not hunger or thirst. It is easier to dehumanize the most marginalized when their contributions are considered worthless in the first place. When only privileged lives matter, it is easier to withhold a living wage from the poor. When Black babies are innocent but Black teenagers are dangerous, it is easier to “protect” one and discard the other. No matter the contradictions, we only fight for the things we value. And we protect our presumed rights to value only the things that we choose.
“It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. Something positive must be done. Everyone must share in the guilt as individuals and as institutions. The government must certainly share the guilt; individuals must share the guilt; even the church must share the guilt.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Supremacy is about the power to incentivize exclusion. This is why racism and sexism cause such sickness. Any institution that defines freedom as the right to decide who matters (or who matters more) is guilty of making itself into the image of some god. The Church in America must repent of the same. We may appear to be diverse, but one look at a list of all the voices we trust will make clear that only white men matter. Those who disagree are not welcomed in the spaces they have built.
Such places that shun people for seeing things differently must worship some other God. The God of the Bible is so powerful that he can handle every disagreement, and bring unity where only dissension seems to dwell. Perhaps this is why we evangelize the American way. We are the thing that we worship, so we preach dependence on ourselves. We have chosen the American sickness. We must desire the gospel cure.
A word to household of God: The cure is truth.
Believe the truth about your story. People of faith, it must be telling that we live in a country where we are conditioned to become the center of every narrative, yet we live by the blood of a man we have never seen, whose narrative centers his labor on our behalf. Go and live like him.
Swallow the sugarpill of inconvenience. Start occasionally if you can’t handle all the pain. 13th is included in your Netflix subscription. I Am Not Your Negro is included in AmazonPrime. In St. Louis, there is a learning event or an opportunity for action almost every week. Look beyond the things you know so well. Embrace not knowing something and be sure that it is better for your health to not be in control at all times.
Learn about the history of your region. If you discover the history of your own communities to be deceptive, share the truth about them. The St. Louis region is riddled with racial terror and the truth about my home state is being uncovered gradually every day.
Support truth-telling agencies. The Equal Justice Initiative – EJI.org – has developed a curriculum for schools and churches. Resources for dialogue and action are available through various national and local campaigns.
Know your own heart, find your blindspots. Do not be surprised at the failures of your forefathers. This is one of the reasons I believe so many freedom fighters have been dedicated to a life of faith in God. When faced with my own need for redemption and reconciliation, I am less surprised by my failures. I become more committed to speaking out on the change that needs to happen around me.
Teach the children. Psalm 78 reminds us that we must not hide the whole truth from the coming generation. Saints of America, we must remember the babel we have made. If we do not raise our children to glory in God’s work of destroying dividing walls, we will weep when he joins us across race, culture and language in the day of the great jubilee.
Wash. Rinse. Repent. Repeat. Cease doing evil, learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause (from Isaiah 1). All of these things require humility. Should anyone think they are something, when they are nothing, they deceive themselves. They poison themselves. But the remedy is at hand. You need only reach for it.