Last week, I visited Birmingham, Alabama, to give a talk to a group of photography enthusiasts my friend Carl is involved with. While there, we drove down to Montgomery to experience the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The Memorial, and adjoining Legacy Museum, documents the history of slavery, lynching, and present-day mass incarceration of people of color in our country. Each of the 800 steel monuments (above) represents a county in the United States where a documented lynching took place, over 4,000, between the years 1877 and 1950. The names of the victims are etched into the monuments, which forces us to understand this was somebody, someone's son, or wife, or father; our son, our wife, our father.
As a long-time student of American History, I've visited numerous Sacred Sites around the country - Selma, Wounded Knee, the Little Big Horn, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the Trail of Tears - among many others. My interest in these sites is a desire to understand the truth about our country - how it was really founded and enriched and how it continues to enact laws that continue the oppression of poor people, people of color, and people we simply don't like. This memorial is undoubtedly the most gut-wrenching and powerful I've seen and should be required viewing for all Americans.
I go to these Sites hoping to gain understanding, but my words after each visit are, "I don't understand." I don't understand how people could possible be so cruel. I don't understand people's need to dominate. I don't understand why people think they are better than others. And I don't understand our inability to see ourselves for who we really are and the debt we owe our fellow citizens whose land we stole or who we enslaved to build our country.
This Monument is hard for a white person, as well it should be. It forces us to experience our shared history and recognize our present-day complicity in a system that continues to not value the lives of fellow citizens, fellow human beings. As Carl and I were leaving, we looked at one another, and simultaneously wondered why any black person, or Native American, or Muslim, would want anything to do with whites. Carl answered, "It's because they are better people than we are; more forgiving, more caring, more human."
In this time of increased racial animus, with leaders who encourage the ugliness, it's important for all of us with open hearts and curious minds to resist the return to our hideous, dishonorable, and inhumane past.