The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism —the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft. -- Roxanne Dubar-Ortiz in An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (Revisioning American History) (p. 2, Kindle edition).
I wrestle with questions about black dignity in a world of white supremacy because I believe that the cultural and religious resources in the black experience could help all Americans cope with the legacy of white supremacy and also deal more effectively with what is called “the war on terror.” If white Americans could look at the terror they inflicted on their own black population—slavery, segregation, and lynching—then they might be able to understand what is coming at them from others. Black people know something about terror because we have been dealing with legal and extralegal white terror for several centuries. Nothing was more terrifying than the lynching tree. -- James H. Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Kindle edition).
Slave trader's business in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864. Photo by George N. Barnard [Wikipedia]
Earth has a long and troubling history of oppression and exploitation -- humans against one another, the land, air, water and other species. Fortunately, humanity has many ways to bring love and justice to bear on the consequences. As a justice activist, I’ve engaged in a lot of them, but the focus that has inspired me most and longest is that of healing and transformation, both personal and planetary.
Events that have unfolded or intensified in the past few months -- police brutality and resistance to it emerging with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Native American and First Nations resistance to the KXL Pipeline, corporate land grabs and other challenges to sovereignty and protection of sacred lands -- lead me to believe it’s time for another leap into the deep end of the pool. I’m thinking that this will take the form of a personal truth and reconciliation (honor and healing) process.
Specific ideas about this came in moments of introspection, but they clearly were infused with voices calling from the frontlines of the resistance. I thought about my connections to these struggles, connections beyond those that have come as a result of involvement in social and environmental justice work.
Photograph from the mid-1870s of a pile of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer. [Wikipedia]
Among my ancestors were settlers who arrived here on the Mayflower. And some who were slave holders. I am a descendant of colonists, people who anchored ideas and values of white supremacy into this land and built a nation upon them. Sometimes it's difficult, in light of ongoing oppression and exploitation in the United States and elsewhere, to integrate the realities of my lineage. But for reasons that I’ll explore in a future post, distancing from ancestors delays transformation and healing -- for everyone.
I’ll also detail in a future post how I determined where to jump in. For now, the short story: on November 27th last year, while others came together to celebrate Thanksgiving, I curled up alone with An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Just before Christmas of 2014, I found the portal into the past of my slave-holder ancestors through The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by James H. Cone.
The ideas in these books don’t support the version of American history or the “American Dream” I grew up with. As I write this post, I have finished both books. The places they took me were intense and, some of them, unexpected.