The Light of Truth
“How our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.” Bryan Stevenson
On September 11, 2001, when the towers fell, every American felt the terror. Everyone felt attacked. Everyone felt the uncertainty. Everyone felt vulnerable. But the American people knew that power was on their side. Americans knew that law and government would respond and, despite the great loss, they need not despair.
Every black body beaten, mutilated, burned, and hung was a tower falling for black Americans. Everyone felt the terror. Everyone felt the pain and loss. Everyone felt attacked and vulnerable. From the years 1877 to 1950 there were 4,084 documented lynchings in twelve southern states. Imagine at least one tower (sometimes multiple towers) falling every week for 73 straight years. Despite this epic terror campaign there were no troops deployed. There were no public addresses to reassure the afraid. Government did not promise safety or that those responsible would be brought to justice. No counselors or mental health professionals were made available. There was no healing and, until now, there was no memorial other than the ones kept sacredly in hearts and minds.
I am thankful for and fundamentally heartened by the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It is both a reverential declaration of our connectedness to past sufferings and a resounding siren of outrage at the continuity of injustice in America.
Those of us who live enclosed by razor wire and electric fences are brutally aware of connectedness and continuity. We know the chains of 2018 – cutting wrists and bruising ankles – are just like the chains of 1818. We know the lines on the floors of the hallways in W.E. Donaldson, which we are compelled to always walk to the right of while free people walk down the center, are no different from the sidewalks of the segregated south in 1960. We know the dehumanization and economic exploitation to which we are daily subjected are justified by a doctrine of inferiority via criminality, which is a mere evolution in semantics from the notion of inferiority due to race alone. We know that most of us were herded and funneled into criminality by designs as calculated as those which filled the foul bellies of slave ships. We know the mechanisms that swallow us up only become more sophisticated and more efficient.
To look at mass incarceration, police violence, or crime and violence in general, without properly considering our “… compromised… commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice” is to examine the problem out of context. It is to scrutinize bad fruit while ignoring the tree.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice properly frames the discussion of recovery by resolutely, unequivocally, and permanently acknowledging the connectedness of past injustice to present suffering. In America, people of color have consistently experienced law and government adversely prepositioned – against us, on us, over us, behind us, at us, or something done to us, but rarely for us. There exists a profound mistrust and, in many cases, a deep-rooted dislike between the law and people of color. It is history, which colors day-to-day interactions between the two, which informs and deforms the expectations of each, and which will continue to fuel discord and societal dysfunction until it is honestly and effectively dealt with. I believe the memorial will stand as more than just a geographic landmark. Generations to come will look back and recognize it as the point where a crucial prerequisite for healing was achieved.
As I write, a picture of the memorial hangs at the head of my bunk. It stirs my faith. Most of my 26 consecutive years locked up have been spent in a constant cycle of paralyzing regret and remorse and an against-all-odds striving for self-actualization. In this process of trying to make sense of myself and my life while also trying to be my best self from where I am, I’ve come to understand the necessity of an honest and complete narrative. Traumas cultured in the darkness of silence bloom in and out of season; they bear tragic fruit filled with propagating, painful seeds. To end the immeasurable cycle of suffering, those traumas require the “light of truth” of which Mr. Stevenson spoke. Without the light which a complete narrative shines, there can be no healing. With it there can be justice. With it there can be peace.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a vital statement in the narrative of black people in America. At once solemn and inspiring it connects us all to the past and shakes us awake to the responsibilities and great challenges of this present continuous moment.