In colonial America and beyond, men, women and children, stolen from their native countries, were stripped naked, beaten, chained and sometimes caged, then sold to the highest bidder. Fathers watched helplessly as their dark-skinned sons were humiliated by potential buyers. Mothers witnessed their beautiful black daughter’s forced to endure virginity tests before they were torn from them forever.
Today, in Iraq and Syria, women and girls are also kidnapped, beaten, caged, forced to undergo virginity tests, and sold to their captors for as little as the price of a pack of cigarettes in some cases. (Virgins sell higher while children under twelve garner the best price.)
Atrocities are taking place in our own time just as they did long ago. Injustices are occurring in Baltimore, Ferguson, and elsewhere in America reminiscent of other travesties (including lynchings) that have occurred in our lifetimes. Black boys and men (as well as girls and women) are being gunned down for walking down the street, playing in the park, selling cigarettes, wearing a hoodie, driving a car.
Recently, in the south, in the 21st century, nine amazingly good people were shot to death by a stranger whom they had welcomed with open arms. Their brutal deaths gave us pause to remember three little girls in another southern church, three young, murdered civil rights workers, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others.
Most of the deeply moving stories of the people in these scenarios we will never hear. But this much we do know: Racism, human chattel, misogyny and stereotyping continue unabated in a country that insists upon seeing itself as a self-righteous model, and in a world growing ever darker, while these blots on our collective soul continue to destroy our common humanity.
I think about this because of a speech I read given by Carlton Turner, executive director of Alternate Roots, an Atlanta-based non-profit arts organization that calls for social and economic justice and works through the arts to dismantle all forms of oppression.
In his speech Turner challenged people to examine how cultural beliefs and practices find their way into personal behavior as well as national policies propagated by a dominant majority. “Categorization and separation [are] long-standing tactics of those in power,” Turner said. “They produce a tangible system that promotes inequity and inflicts deep psychological damage.” Individuals and institutionalized systems that play on these constructed differences, he argues, are complicit in perpetuating harmful dichotomies that encourage, and in some cases condone, violence.
Turner posits that the arts can play an important role in raising awareness and changing social norms. He cites Martin Luther King, Jr. as “a true twentieth century artist” because Dr. King was “adept in his understanding of the Southern oral traditions…masterful in his use of theater…to create dynamic responsive spaces…in the form of public spectacle.” King, he explains, would have understood that the people of Ferguson and elsewhere who mounted the Black Lives Matter campaign were demanding to be seen and heard in the public square, in order to declare to the world, ‘we are human!’”
That is exactly what women of the world were saying when, during the UN Decade for Women, they declared, “We are here. We are there. We are everywhere, and we are not going away!”
It is what slaves sang to each other in their soulful spirituals as they picked cotton in their masters’ fields.
It is what nine good people spoke wordlessly when they welcomed Dylan Root into their church and what one of them said as he was about to be killed: “We welcome you here. You don’t need to do this.”
The testimonials that emerged during the civil rights and women’s movements of the 20th century had much to teach us about the power of truth-telling in public arenas. They and the oral traditions of the African-American community taught us that we are not very different from each other in matters of the heart and spirit. Our journeys are all fraught with pain but they are often filled with stories of hope as well.
The narratives we know, whether they are slave tales, stories of violence against Blacks and women’s oppression, or expressions of faith and kindness in the face of horrific fear help us to realize each others' humanity. They engage us, free of learned judgment, as we begin to realize our common bond in the human struggle for freedom and dignity. They say to us all, “We are human!”
The narratives we don’t know - the stories that are still waiting to be told and which will move us to a place of unity – are urgently in need of telling, because nothing less than our common humanity is at stake. Surely the time has come when we must begin listening – really listening to each other - with open hearts and minds - so that we can be “free at last” from the myths that have burdened us for so long.