1619-2019: Never Forget

I remember the day 9/11 happened. It was a gorgeous, sunny day in Michigan and I was on my way to work when I heard about the planes crashing. I remember parking my car and seeing people jumping out of their cars to run into the office to hear more about what was happening. This was all pre-social media, but we still had the internet. But going online was a mess because the website traffic made finding out anything impossible. Eventually, my boss found someone with a TV and we heard for ourselves what was happening: We had been attacked on our very soil with our own property. It was a surreal day. We were allowed to leave early from the office and life was so strange and mournful for quite awhile. And though I was not affected by that day directly, the repercussions of that moment are still felt today throughout everyone’s life in America. No one denies the horror of the day and how much that changed our nation. 9/11 is a sacred cow to many. Fervent patriots loudly exclaim, “Never forget!” and many proudly declare their allegiance to God and country. I love my country. It is my home. And I love it enough to recognize that we should be striving to make it a “more perfect union.” Because as our divisive climate is telling us, we are not very united. The genesis of America has sowed seeds of discord and the fallout was always inevitable.

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In 1619, more than 20 nameless Africans came here by way of Virginia. This past August marked 400 years since the first African slaves landed on American shores. And ever since then, our country has paid a heavy price for its sin. The consequences are paid by the descendants of these said slaves and the turmoil our fractured country suffers because we’ve never collectively dealt with the past. But when we talk about the ugliness of the past that Americans have inflicted on its own citizens and those who were brought here by force, there’s a resounding chorus of “It’s in the past.” or “Let it go.” Let’s not live with false illusions that capitalism wasn’t the driving force for the reason slavery and Jim Crow existed. The wealth and prestige America has enjoyed is due in great part to this history. And the very descendants of those who helped build this nation still suffer untold injustice on incalculable levels. We can’t forget what happened because it’s still affecting us today.

When Jews speak of the Holocaust, they declare, “Never forget.” And their pain and history is widely respected and rarely minimized. But so many times, blacks are chided like children if we even whisper about our history. No one would dare silence someone memorializing D-Day. It’s been 75 years since that landing in Normandy became a turning point for WW II and it’s honored around the globe. In 2003, I visited Pearl Harbor. I walked onto the living memorial and experienced its eerie quiet and solemn silence. It was sobering to know that it’s still the watery grave to countless members of our military since 1941. December 7 is Pearl Harbor Day and that moment is considered a “day that will live in infamy.” That hull and its remains are treated as sacred ground. But when we discuss a 400-year history of oppression and all the evils that resulted, defensiveness rises to the surface. Maybe it’s because we can’t point a finger at another country or invader for the horrors of the past and the aftereffects. The blame rests squarely on America’s doorstep. And that’s hard to admit. The best option for many is to ignore or minimize it. It calls for work many of us opt out of doing. When slavery ended, there were no counseling sessions held, no town hall meetings arranged, no person-to-person accountability or “come to Jesus” moment. People were angry, filled with rage that their way of life had been taken away. Families had been destroyed, men, women and children violated and abused on every level but lacked provision, restitution or a way to cope with the past. The slave trade, Jim Crow and the horrific legacy of it are like the disfigured brother of America. He’s hidden in the basement in the dark, not to be disturbed or mentioned for fear of revealing the shame of itself. As Jim Crow ensued, it continued to codify slavery but by another name. We marched on as a country broken, bleeding, scarred with no physician or therapist to patch us up. So in many ways, we’ve become a Frankenstein, patching together revisionist history that never addresses the fact that we’ve been botched from the very inception of this nation. Just ask any Native American how they feel about the history of this nation to hear their story too. 

Many times God ordered the Children of Israel to create memorials to acknowledge His hand in their lives so as to “never forget” His works on their behalf. Remembering and memorializing is a powerful tool to acknowledge the past and all the lessons that come from it. As the images of 9/11 unfolded over the days and weeks that followed, I can’t help but remember seeing faces draped in shock, covered in ash. People of all races came together. Every color helped each other because on that day we were one, we were humans in a shared horror story. We weathered that devastation together — white and black, brown and blue. We faced a mutual enemy from without. And now that the darkness of our past loudly haunts us today, many vociferously deny its existence while our nation implodes from the inside out. If we can muster the courage to personally address one of the biggest issues of our nation, we may begin to resemble the best parts of us we demonstrated on September 11, 2001.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” — Ephesians 2:14

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” — 1 Corinthians 1:10