If I asked you to tell me your history, what would you tell me? Would you tell me about your family, growing up, and adventures and misadventures? Or would you go deeper?
In the picture is my great grandmother. I am the blonde-headed kid with my back to her, crying. I’m crying because I do what kids sometimes do you don’t really know the weathered and gnarled hands that hold yours. I didn’t understand then the history of my great grandmother, whose roots go back to the time of the first reconstruction and Jim Crow. Her presence in my early childhood connects my history to hers.
At times, it’s easier to query the past instead of looking at the present. I can approach the past intellectually, and with empathy, yet remain disconnected and woefully unaware of the events that have shaped me. In my activist work and education, I have been preoccupied with rushing into history looking for answers. I have neglected at the events that occurred within my own 60 years, and the lifetime of my parents, my grandparents, and my great grandmother.
I ponder now how the history of which I am connected through my great grandmother has shaped me – a history of white power and privilege, white Christianity, and American exceptionalism. I realize the oppression, kidnapping, enslavement, dehumanization, brutalization, and murder of black and indigenous persons is closer than dates convey.
The history-of-the-way-back-when of the family members new reverberates in my history-of-the-now. I am a child of the 60’s, not the flower power children most associated with that decade, but a literal child born at the beginning of the 60s. My life has been shaped, unknowingly, by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It has been shaped by the declarative racist acts and words of Governor George Wallace of Alabama. It has been shaped by the Black Panthers, Audre Lorde, and Malcom X. All these events have shaped me, whether I was aware of them or not.
The history of racism from beyond the history-of-the-way-back-when is important to know; that is the history of how the capital “C” church encouraged and upheld the capture, kipnapping, enslavement, and murder of black and brown people, and how colonialism supported these acts, enacting these same brutalities on the Indigenous of the land. The history of the way-back-when of my family is equally important, that is Jim Crow and Civil Rights. But if I am to call to my contemporaries to awareness and activism, it is through the history-of-my-now, and the history-of-their-now, to which I must appeal.
We must see through our collective histories – past and present – and use both to disrupt and dismantle systemic racism. We must draw both and find the courage to speak truth in the streets, in the halls of local, state, and federal governments, and in the voting booths.
Those voices of the way-back-when connect me to the first reconstruction. Those voices of my history-of-now connect me to the second reconstruction of the civil rights movement of my childhood. It is my own voice that connects me to a third and sustainable reconstruction.
In the late 60’s of my history-of-the now, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his Poor Peoples Campaign for equality. The Poor Peoples Campaign is alive and well today in a new incarnation of the same name, calling for not only equality, but equity. We can only study so much, learn so much, and talk so much, before we but feet to pavement.
I ask you again, What’s your story? What is your history-of-the-now? And, what will you do with it? How will you join me in making a difference?