On Moving Forward and Owning Our Past

“See that? That’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s church. That’s history,” a mother told her young son, pointing toward Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

A look of boredom came over him; shoulders frozen, pupils move up in slow motion, almost a confused pout. It’s the look a child has reserved for when a parent starts talking about a great aunt, homework, or history. I smiled, my eyes lighting up under a pair of reflective sunglasses, remembering times I used that look as my dad told me about Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was pastor

Moments prior, another mother corrects her son. “That’s PRESIDENT Obama,” she said as they walked into King’s museum. It was a rejoinder to his loose use of “Obama” as a mononymous term, like Prince or Madonna. He knew, he knew; “I mean, it’s obvious,” he stammered, trying to show her he doesn’t need to be chided to remember that Obama is a U.S. president, likely the only U.S. president he’s ever known.

Ah boredom, lack of wonder, and offhandedness; sure signs of normalization. Normal is boring to a kid. Big eyes looking up, almost saying “It’s obvious, right mom?”

But 60 years ago, a black man as president was more of a provocative thought than an obvious concept. Even a decade ago, did any of us think it was possible? A black American leader still feels a bit strange, especially as we watch an election cycle where issues of common decency have turned into “politics.” Have we once again, as King put it, started to judge a man by the color of his skin rather than the content of his character?

But here’s the thing: We have a history of forward social progress as a country. We work to right wrongs. It may not feel like it sometimes, but King’s museum shows just how far we’ve come from separate bathrooms, separate drinking libraries, and “separate but equal.” We’re constantly trying to move toward John Locke’s goal of “preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another,” toward Francis Bellamy’s 1892 goal of “Liberty and justice for all.” At times, it feels close. Most other times, it feels very distant.

The dream of equality sets us apart as a nation. We strive for something we aren’t sure can happen, something many still don’t want to happen. For those of us who believe in equality of mankind, it makes us dream of a powerful nation with a backbone of freedom for all. But for that to happen, we may need to be a society where the inconsistencies and atrocities of the past are recognized and discussed.

Our history is a nuanced, with just as much pain and torture as triumph and grace. There are times it feels like no progress has been made, that all of the negatives cancel out all of the positives. I feel that way more than I’d care to admit. When I get down, I tell myself it just means that now, more than ever, it’s essential to recall what got us as far as we are now and how we can continue.

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King’s birth house

The best way I’d imagine moving forward is for those of us lucky enough to be “white,” to own our past. All of it. To remember the brilliance of the American Revolution just as much as we remember the horrors of slavery. To remember Brown vs. Board of Education just as much as we remember Japanese internment camps. To remember our years-long negligence of taking a stand against Germany’s budding National Socialism party just as much as we remember our brilliance in helping rid the world of Nazis.

It’s not a new idea. Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of my favorite writers, says a brutally honest look in the mirror is needed to heal past wounds. We all benefit and suffer as a country, after all, even those of us who enjoy the spoils of history. Recognizing the past, at the very least, would start a discussion, one that may help us reach a new plateau of freedom and equality.

Our history is our own. It’s violent and ugly as much as it is bombastic and beautiful, and perhaps more rigid and incongruent than we’d care to admit at times. We can punish ourselves for past transgressions or we can think about how tomorrow will be different, but it’s very difficult to do both. One ends up saying “fuck it” and simply mulling something easier. But this is important. This is how people in our own country live, people who could be our relatives, friends or family just as much as anyone else.

No matter how much we wish we could live in a vacuum and say all lives really do matter, there’s a painful history and a sick present standing in the way. Our history now allows the mothers I mentioned to tell their children about black historical role models, but it also allows us to put 2.2 million black men in prison, drawing 35 percent of our inmates from 13 percent of our country’s population. It allows police shootings of black men and women to go unpunished and black families to be punished by a continued history of economic and physical segregation, leading to even more crime and violence in black communities. It allows us to say “The president is black so we must be equal” when 34 percent of black children are food insecure compared with 15 percent of white children.

We’ve come a long way the past two to three generations, but we must remember that there’s a long way to go.

This fight for liberty and justice for all has been a brilliantly beautiful struggle, one that has allowed me to go to school with people from other countries, one that has allowed me to live with people of diverse backgrounds, one that has allowed me to speak out for my fellow man and not be shouted down or beaten up each time. The prior system locked all of us up by saying, “That’s just the way it is,” setting a social norm where one is better than another. It created generational memories and economic struggles, passed down from grandparents to grandchildren. It caged even the most empathetic soul in a social purgatory, one that allowed you to stand in the middle and say “It’s not really my business.” No more.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” King said in 1957. Today, a fading mural just off Auburn Avenue, blocks from King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, shows this quote. Will our desire to speak up for injustice fade as this mural has faded?

I sure as hell hope not.

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