In my latest book, I wrote these words for the protagonist, Mary.
It seems wise here to interrupt myself to tell you a little about what I knew at that point about history—particularly the history of slavery. My teachers had often talked about slavery, especially during Black History Month, but the conversation was usually very general. We had some dates—The Civil War, The Emancipation Proclamation—and the most ambitious of teachers sometimes played a recording of Lincoln’s famous speech at Gettysburg. We talked about some general ideas of evil, about how slavery meant that people owned other people, about freedom—a concept that is almost impossible for most American humans, let alone most American children, to conceive of. We may have read a little bit of the Harriets: Tubman, Jacobs, Beecher Stowe. But that was about it.
We didn’t learn about the laws around slavery— how debilitating and complex they were. We didn’t talk about whippings or the sale of children. We certainly didn’t bring up rape. The hard stuff was strictly off limits—reserved for our parents or researchers—too risky to bring up in class, even though we saw pictures of the Hiroshima bombings every year, so that rationale really made no sense.
But we didn’t learn more innocuous stuff either. I didn’t know what kind of houses slaves lived in or anything about what they ate. I didn’t hear about what kind of work they did, and I certainly wasn’t aware of differences from plantation to plantation. Nope, slavery was just this big, abstract, bad thing that happened to black people. And thus, it wasn’t very real at all.
Before you get all defensive on behalf of teachers and testing and the time available to them, let me just stop you right there. I love teachers, and I’m not really faulting them. They do have tests to prep for, and they do have limited time. Plus, they probably weren’t taught much about slavery either, so how could they teach us? But I will bring up this one point . . . At five, I could tell you what kinds of dinosaurs once inhabited North America. I could tell you the basic difference between the types of housing that various tribes of American Indians lived in by the time I was eight. And in tenth grade, I had memorized the Bill of Rights . . . so if I had time to learn about these parts of American history—important parts, too—then surely we had more time to talk about slavery in a real way—in a way that included people’s names and stories about their daily lives.
16-year-old Mary doesn’t understand the power that shame can have on people, how it can keep us in the abstract or how it can lead us to avoidance. And she certainly doesn’t understand the white supremacy that systematizes these reactions and makes them “right.”
But I do. . . now. At least one some level, and I have learned one thing – shame serves no one.
Shame doesn’t serve enslaved people because it often keeps us from looking honestly and with open hearts at their triumphs and travails, at their dreams and disappointments, at their loves and loses.
Shame doesn’t serve the descendants of enslaved people because it keeps people from research, from connection, from truth.
Shame doesn’t serve the descendants of enslavers because it keeps them, too, from the truth, from an honest reckoning with their family’s history, and from the healing that can come when we bring all the stories into the light.
So let’s put aside shame. Let’s, instead, hold to honesty, wide-eyed reckoning, and conversation as our ways forward. Let’s not pretend the past didn’t happen or that it happened to some other people who have nothing to do with us.
Rather, let’s reach back and take the hands of our ancestors – enslaved and enslavers – and let them tell us their stories. Let’s whisper to them that we love them, that we thank them for bringing us forward, that we don’t condone all of their choices but neither do we blame them for those things over which they had no choice. Most of all, let’s tell them that we are grateful to be able to stand here, now, and hold all the truth of our history in our hands.
Shame is a shackle. Truth is a path.