Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Reflections of a Troubled Rebel

These are difficult times. Every day the news is full of acts of violence and disasters. It feels almost overwhelming, and I am glad I can retreat to my small house in my cats and not have to confront new story after news story unless I choose to do so. Still, social media seems to keep me informed as to the latest goings-on, sometimes more than I actually want to know. It's not that I don't want to know it's just I want to know gradually and not be faced with everything all at once.

One of the things that I find most difficult right now is knowing what to think, what to feel, and what to say. It seems like there aren't any right words that will satisfy everyone and so it's easier to try and stay quiet and out of sight. If I open my mouth and say what I think I'm going to offend people right and left, while at the same time I'm being encouraged to hold difficult conversations with people of different origins, ethnicities, and cultural dissimilarities. I have no objection to that at all; I like talking to one-on-one, but it seems that it's very hard to know where to begin and how to begin. One does not want to appear insensitive but what can you say that will not sound offensive..

I was raised in the South. I wasn't aware of white privilege although I knew there was a difference between people like my family and others in the neighborhood have brown skins. I was introduced to history almost with my first steps. I lived in a historic town, famous for having witnessed Cornwallis's surrender to Washington that ended the Revolutionary war in the south. It wasn't just monuments or plaques, it felt like the history was in the air we breathed, the soil we walked on, and the whisper of the trees that sang of what they had witnessed. But it was not just the ghosts of revolutionary times, as we were also affected by what has been called the Civil War. Gravestones, burial grounds, minnie balls that were dug up when my uncles would plow their fields, and sort of a racial memory or perhaps a cultural one. At any rate those wars were never far from our consciousness.

I remember desegregation, and working hard to overcome feelings of discomfort with the history of racism in my family, neighborhood and state. I didn't hate African-American people, and I didn't always understand why we could live next door to them but not allow the in our schools and churches, much less using the same restrooms or drinking fountains. It was accepted that that was the way it was until desegregation came and we had to adjust to a new norm. It's taken me a while; I admit it's been hard for me and even now I find it difficult to admit that my heart is divided. No, not because I don't believe that everyone should have equal rights and full equal rights, or that much of what is perceived as the sin of the South, namely slavery, is actually true. Where my heart is divided is in the memory of respect for those from both wars who were buried in mass graves, marked usually only with their nationality and unit number. I don't know if blacks and whites were buried separately in those graves; I'm sure the heat of battle and the numbing aftermath would blur burial of corpses of enemy dead or brothers in arms.

My heart is divided because I want to remember the good things about the South that I grew up in. I lived in a small town where everybody knew everybody else from the time I was a small child until I went to college, I knew people were watching to make sure I didn't get into trouble or danger. We never locked doors; if we accidentally did, all the neighbors had exactly the same key that we could borrow to get back in. If someone were sick, everybody knew about it and the parade of casseroles, soups, and desserts would begin to arrive. The same after a death in the family. Black or white, it felt like the community was somewhat united, although divided in other ways. I was taught to be polite and not to use certain words that were considered disrespectful or rude. My parents were products of their generation and upbringing and I inherited some of that. A lot of the divided heart is because of that. It's an ongoing struggle.

Lately I've been exposed to news, posts, emails, and just about everywhere else, that makes me feel I have no right to feel as I do. I feel I am being compelled by outside forces to wear sackcloth and ashes as reactions to the actions and beliefs of my ancestors over which I had no control. Not just African-Americans,  but Native Americans, Orientals, different religious groups Hispanics, and basically anyone of a different skin color, different culture, or different nationality were included. I feel guilty that those groups have suffered at the hands of people of similar ancestry to me, but what can I do about that now? Should I go up to every person that I see with a different skin color and express my apologies for what my ancestors have done and what members of my race continue to do to their people? It sounds like a simplistic question, probably rather a dumb one, but what am I to do?

Last year in our Education for Ministry program, we studied multiculturalism along with readings from the Bible, history and theology basis of our curriculum. We studied power and powerlessness, and identified times when we ourselves felt powerless or powerful. We learned the importance of discussion, respectful and mutual discussion with active listening on both sides of the conversation. Coupled with what I read in the news, I'm conflicted as to exactly how to put all this into action? Does one just walk up to a group of people and say, "Hey, want to talk about racism or culturalism or privilege ?" My mother would be horrified, not just because such conversations in her lifetime were never about these topics but because it would seem like such a rude and crass opening to what is supposed to be a productive conversation. We were taught manners, and felt statements like that were not polite. Something else I missed about growing up in the South. People had opinions, but most of the time we tried to say them politely, no matter to whom we were talking.

So now I have to face a problem of reconciling my heart and figuring out the right thing to do. I understand that we have a long way to go and healing rifts caused by my ancestors, not just with the African-Americans, but with the Native Americans, Hispanics, Oriental Americans, LGBTQI and everybody else. It feels like I am supposed to be apologetic, repentant, and wear sackcloth and ashes for the rest of my life to atone for things done by my race to that of others. I acknowledge that great wrongs have been done and continue to be done. I tried to discourage wrongs when I encounter them, but what can one person do? I'm not Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Junior, Desmond Tutu, Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, or any of the unsung heroes who have struck blows to help level the playing field.

Sometimes writing can be therapeutic, but even this moment of self disclosure, I can't really my thoughts and feelings with any level of comfort. I have been chastised for saying that I am proud of relatives who fought in the Confederate Army for a cause they believed in and to protect their homes and families, but I do respect the views of those who criticize me. I wonder how many of those who are so interested in chastising the South are aware of their own history of slavery in the north and other places? History is written by the winners which means they can point out all the flaws of the losers and gloss over their own shortcomings and sins. We all have apologies to make and are sentenced to repent, but it's so much easier to minimize our own sins and magnify those of others. I know that I myself bear guilt for my own sins of omission and commission, and I am willing to work with others to try and right the wrongs. Where to begin, how to begin, though, is a question I can't answer. I'm looking, and praying, but the answers seem very elusive.

I am a Southerner, and will always identify as a Southerner because to me that's home. I make no apologies for loving that area, despite its checkered history. I sincerely regret the actions of my forebears who came to this land and truck and took over. I appreciate the contributions to this country by all those who have lived, died, and continue to live and die to build meaningful and productive lives and contribute to the general welfare. Despite the fact that our guiding documents were written by white men of privilege who sought to establish a country that would be a reflection of their own lives and philosophies, I would like to think that those documents are living documents, able to be read with the fresh eyes of each new generation and acted upon to benefit all people, not just those of wealth or privilege. I would like to live in a world like that.

Maybe in a world like that I wouldn't have to feel I need to walk about in eternal mortification but could smile at everyone regardless of race, creed or color, and know that their lives are full and productive, that they have access to all the necessities of life, and the freedom to reach their maximum potential. I know that it has to begin with conversation and that it needs to begin now. I will wear my sackcloth and ashes for a while, inwardly anyway, but I don't want to get too comfortable with it.

The whole point of such a punishment is to irritate the skin in a noticeable way as a reminder of something. But one can get used to discomfort, just as one can get used to privilege, wealth, and power. I don't want to glory in humility since that's kind of an oxymoron. I want to be a person who can be myself without trying to tiptoe around others who are different from me. I want to know the right words to say and the right conversations to participate in to make this world better.

God help me, I want to live in a guilt free world. I really wonder what that would be like, for me and for everyone else.

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