As fate would have it, I helped officiate a funeral just off the square in Graham today. As early as 9:30am when we travelled through that square in route to the funeral home, people carrying Confederate flags and clad in clothes of the same design stood around the statue of the Confederate soldier. When the funeral service ended shortly after noon, my curiosity inspired me to walk two hundred yards to the square and to the outskirts of the demonstration. The scene seemed surreal and standing close to it made me feel as if I had stepped out of my world and into something strange and foreign. Of course, I knew all too well that what I was witnessing is always a part of my world, albeit more visible on this day.
Of course I wish the statue was not standing near a place associated with the seeking of justice. Frankly, I wish the statue were not standing at all. Nevertheless, I still have had difficulty identifying my emotions since the controversy was born. When I turned to walk away, and since nausea is not considered a “feeling word,” I felt for the first time something I could name. It was something in the family of pity. It was not the sort of pity one would feel for a hapless victim of circumstance but the sort one might feel for someone lost in their own delusion after refusing to see it over and again. Eventually a form of blindness sets in and one will never see what one will never see. I walked away no longer believing that those of us who long for progress are on a collision course with these who seem determined to live in a regressive state of being.
I am of the belief that the people who gathered in Graham today are more farcical than formidable as we long for progress. In fact, while I interpret history quite differently, I find myself agreeing with them on one matter. History should be remembered although they seem more determined to glorify an illusion than to remember with honesty. The history of the South and an economy built on the backs of black slaves should not be forgotten. An institution which set up the demonic relational dynamic which defined some human beings as property and some as owners of that property should be remembered in vivid fashion. A way of life sustained and defended by Christian churches and mis-used biblical precepts which separated black families from one another and allowed white owners to increase their number of field workers by raping black women and fathering their children, should not be forgotten.
Mostly what we must remember if we are to heal the breach is that we are only four to five generations removed from these atrocities. Our lives, the blood shed on our streets and the economic disparities which continue to cripple many of our citizens grow up out of the soil of slavery as surely as did the cotton picked by people forcibly removed from their African homes. When I pass through Graham I will remember that my grandfather’s grandfather might well have owned slaves and their blood continues to course through my veins. I will not allow myself to be steeped in the shame of that but I also will not allow myself to be fully removed from it.
The most formidable enemy facing the citizens of Alamance County is not a group of flag wavers who have lost the capacity to self-reflect or to hear the voice of prophets who call for true justice. The real enemies of progress are the voices who would claim that this dark blot on our history does not continue to shape our contemporary world. There remains repentance to be done, honest conversations to be had, affirming and affirmative action to be taken as a result of those conversations and increased awareness that the seeds of racism exist in us all. As long as symbols remain, we must speak truthfully about the visceral responses those symbols induce.
I may be convinced to walk in some protest which lifts up a message counter to the one we witnessed today, but it is not my first inclination. I am first inclined to link with the people courageous enough to call out of the closets all those secrets which keep us separated from one another. As a clergy person I want to talk more often and with more honesty to my black colleagues. I want to see the groups who long for progress, equality and racial reconciliation walk less diverging paths and to find a kind of unity we have not yet found.
I wish that monument would be taken down but as long as it is standing I suggest we go out of our way to ride by it; to be reminded of where we have been and to be reminded of where we must go together.