As far as I know, no one in my family was ever a member of the KKK. (Extended Family: If you know differently, please let me know.) What is true is that my ancestors owned at least one slave. My ancestors were not wealthy people but they kept at least one human being as a piece of property that was actually passed from one generation to another according to the last will and testament of someone in my family tree.
I wish this was not true but it is. And if I dug deeper, I would surely find even more difficult information about my family because we tend to keep difficult information secret. We are brag about the war heroes and the achievers. We hide the cowards and the rounders.
You know that moment when something you always believed to be true turns out not to be true?
- M & Ms actually do melt in your hands.
- President Washington never wore wooden dentures.
- Slave owners did not treat their slaves like family.
Clearly, one of these things is more serious than the others. It’s time to consider serious things in our country.
In these days when people who look like me publicly chant “Jews will not replace us” with tiki torches and other people who look like me say that Black Lives Matter is a terrrorist organization, I am committing time and money to educate myself on the history of African Americans in this country. Education must lead to action, or else it’s merely a selfish endeavor.
What I am learning is difficult. What I have believed to be true about our country (“If you work hard, you can be successful in America.” “All people are created equal.”) is not necessarily true, especially if your skin is not the color of my skin.
After reading everything I could get my hands on about Emmett Till and the Underground Railroad and slavery in my home state of North Carolina, I spent Friday morning at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC and then I spent Sunday morning at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, LA. Both visits changed my life for good.
You may have heard about the NMAAHC which is about to celebrate it’s first anniversary. But the Whitney Plantation (no relation to the New York Whitneys) is the only plantation in the United States devoted wholly to the life of the enslaved people who lived and died there. My little tour group included a couple from London, a couple from Denmark, and a couple from India. It’s curious that international travelers would venture to this out-of-the-way spot in rural Louisiana while only a single American made the trip. I’m assuming this was an anomaly for our particular tour group.
Here’s the thing: Slavery was evil not only because we (White People) perpetuated a system that dehumanized God’s children. But it’s was also evil because myths continue to this day that continue to dehumanize people. The images from the Whitney Plantation’s memorials tell the true story of life as an enslaved person. If we open our eyes today to the inequalities between “white neighborhoods” and “black neighborhoods” in certain cities or the stats on incarcerated African Americans compared to census data of African Americans, we cannot help but be mortified and ashamed – especially if we call ourselves people who take God’s commandments seriously.
I know that it’s easier to share fun family photos and lighthearted feel-good stories, but we are at a crucial time in our nation’s history. We see examples of people helping their neighbors in Houston and it feels good, doesn’t it? But there are everyday moments when we are called to notice those hampered by systemic injustice all around us.
“Everyday’s a school day,” my friend AAM says. Sometimes we learn difficult but true things. And as another friend said long ago, “The truth will set us free.”
Images from The Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana. The sculptures are by Woodrow Nash.
Thank you for a thoughtful post about issues we continue to wrestle with. My granddaughter’s youth group from St. Philip Presbyterian in Houston went on a civil rights pilgrimage as they traveled to and from Montreat this summer. Whitney Plantation was one of the stops. You might enjoy reading some of the youths’ reflections on their experiences along the way at https://saintsonpilgrimage.blogspot.com/?m=1
Thanks Tricia. I love that St. Philip did this trip. I have dreams of doing the same thing and I guess I am but not in an organized way.
Thank you for highlighting the Whitney Plantation. More people need to know about that one. And thanks, always, for your insights.
I commend you for writing about Whitney Plantation. It’s important to know the full history of the US, both the good and the bad, and there is plenty of each. What I question is is your apparent shame that one of your ancestors was a slaveholder. What does that say about you? Nothing.
Some years ago my aunt studied the genealogy of our family. She found that one ancestor came to the colonies before the Revolutionary War. Should I be proud of that? If so, should I be ashamed that this same ancestor was actually asked to leave the colonies? (Something about a big red letter ‘A’ on someone’s chest.) Neither of those facts tell you anything meaningful about me.
We would all be better off if we measured people based on the character of that individual and forget about what group they belong to and what their ancestors did, whether right or wrong. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That’s true of you and me and all of our ancestors.
Thank you Keith.