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Racism: Working at Harmony Across the Great Divides

November 4, 2015

Freedom of expression is a wonderful gift we have in this country and Canada as well (a tip ‘o the hat to my Canadian followers). With the ease of instant world wide communication when anyone, including me, can publish an opinion—or hundreds of them all day long through places like Twitter—freedom of expression is not only a gift, it quickly becomes a threat, a goad in the side, a source of much discord. The opposite of harmony, the underlying theme of this blog.

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Ever since the Confederate flag came down in the wake of the despicable killings at the Wednesday night Bible Study in Charleston, S.C., many of us have noted an uptick in the number of Confederate flags flown on trucks, cars and front yards. On that dreadful Thursday morning as full news of the horror of that shooting rolled out, I listened on the radio feeling the precious spirit of an ordinary Wednesday night Bible study fellowship shattered forever. That could have been my church, my small Wednesday night group.

I will always remember how and when I first became aware that the Civil War was not over. It was 1969. My family moved from the north to the deep south and I was a senior in a high school that had been forced to fully integrate that year for the first time. I was teased because I was a “Yankee” which did not really hurt, because I was white. But my jaw dropped when one kid added “Damn” in front of his taunt and uttered the line that still shocks me to this day: “If we could fight ‘cha again, we’d win this time.”

Huh? What?

Yeah. That was 1969. Fast forward to a high school parking lot in 2015 in Virginia.

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This is a recent photo I took at my kids’ former high school. My mother, living in Indiana, talks about seeing loyal Confederate flags from lawns and trucks there in “Yankeeland.” And I get that for many, the old flag is history, a piece of cultural and family heritage, reminiscent even of a certain elegance—the mansions, the parties on the lawn, the Gone with the Wind era genteel society. As whites.

People say it is freedom of expression to display the Confederate flag. But no matter how loudly people remind us that the Civil War was more generally about “state rights,” it was, fundamentally, the right to own slaves that people fought and died for.

As the old saying goes, “My freedom of expression ends where your nose begins.” And the painful, deeply divisive cut of racism through our country’s heritage sometimes means leaving history and cultural heritage for museums, books and films. We need to continue the painful, ongoing reconstruction of a better society. We must reach across history, misunderstanding, war, murder, and mistreatment to build new relationships. The good families of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston have already shown the way in their early, amazing expressions of forgiveness.

My father and mother did a wonderful thing in moving our family 900 miles to a new culture. I’m grateful for that difficult year—difficult not only because of new awareness of how blind I’d been to the deep continuing discord of racism, but also because I was simply lonely as a new girl my final year of high school.

My friends and family in the south still live every day in a more racially mixed culture than I currently do. We have to make an effort to step across racial boundaries in my part of Virginia (not so much in Richmond, Hampton, Newport News, and points south, with much larger African American populations). Our churches in the Shenandoah Valley are still largely segregated places. Many of our work places are not racially mixed. Perhaps our factories and fast food joints and nursing homes are the places where black and white and brown rub shoulders, working together, today. Our challenges to get along as long time immigrants (mostly from European countries), forced historical immigrants (mostly African), and recent economic immigrants (mostly from Central and South America) are huge. We are all, except for native indigenous peoples, immigrants here.

We know Jesus reached across cultural and racial boundaries. The times he lived in were no less prejudiced and racially divided than we have today. The conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman (racially despised by Jews) at the well (John 4) continues to give me hope today. As we go about our daily lives we can work to get to know just one individual at a time on a human level. We need to converse and find out what makes them tick—or ticked off. These are simple ways each of us can begin to change and maybe heal the scars that slavery brought upon our dear land. And don’t expect smooth sailing. I will get into that in future blog posts.

***

I’ve used one of my freedoms to open my heart on a tough subject. I’d love to hear from you, even if you don’t quite agree. Stories? Your own experiences?

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10 Comments
  1. Appreciate the courage in opening this conversation! I have friends who as children hunkered down with their families, behind sofas or under tables, when a truck with a confederate flag raced through their neighborhoods. The truck occupants sometimes threw bricks, sometimes yelled threats, or just revved and raced around for the kick if intimidation. I have other deeply caring, friends who love the confederate flag as a symbol of the genteel south and all that is loved there. Opposite worlds and stories. Healing and transformation comes from simply listening to stories from both sides and recognize a little bit of ourselves in all of them. Or at least our human failings, biases, unconscious prejudices and ignorances.

    • Sharon, thanks so much for adding these memories. Wow. Not sure where you were living then, but I too have friends and family on both sides of this issue. What helped give me courage is knowing how many have suffered gravely–even to death–over these issues. Thanks for the affirmation and thoughts.

  2. Of course I agree with you, Melodie. I guess I’ll always have the Mennonite bent toward peace-building and justice.

    I have two stories: After I left PA for a teaching job in Charlotte, NC in the 1960s, one of my roommates originally from Philadelphia advised me, “The Civil War is not over here.” And unfortunately I found this to be true.

    Even more appalling, when our young family accompanied Cliff in the early days of his school assembly programs (1970s), we drove through a town in Georgia where the Ku Klux Klan were marching with their conical hats. I will never forget the spooky, sinister feeling viewing the scene. We immediately locked the van doors and zoomed out of town as quickly as possible.

    Thank you for voicing your opinion here. Spreading love and understanding one person at a time is the best way to start.

    • I know that one person at a time is not fast enough for some, but I do believe as we meet others, talk, share together, that change happens, however slowly. Thanks for adding your stories from earlier days.

  3. annbrandt permalink

    Living in Colorado–far from the South, I have not had much occassion to encounter the issue of race, I have an African American son-in-law and a mixed race grandson, whom I love dearly. Thank you for bringing up this issue and making us face it.

    • It truly does feel differently in different parts of the country. Thanks for adding your voice and your particular personal experience!

  4. Elsie Hannah Ruth Rempel permalink

    In my region, addressing racism has a lot to do with recognizing the injustice our white ancestors imposed on the indigenous people, sharing those stories, adding them to our curriculum, and showing solidarity with our indigenous neighbours as they walk toward healing and strong new identities. We also have a lot of immigrants who live with racism, especially if they are Arab or Muslim.

  5. I like your addition of how to share the stories–especially in education and curriculum materials, and the racism towards Arab and Muslim peoples. I also find it fascinating that one Old Order writer in eastern Canada says she now feels “less stared at” as she goes to Toronto, for instance, because of Muslim women with their various headdresses. 🙂 Thanks Elsie.

  6. Hi Melodie – The personal approach you describe is something that we can all do as we meet various others in our lives. I think it’s important as well to work at education as Elsie mentions in her comment, and to address other structural/more systemic issues in churches, neighbourhoods, and the world at large. Here’s to working toward and finding harmony in all of these many ways and more. Thank you for starting the conversation here on your blog.

  7. Yes, April, I know the structural and systemic issues are huge and crucial in this effort. Thanks for challenging me on that. I hope to get to those in the weeks and months ahead.

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