You Can’t Change the Past: Change the Future

IMG_1394 2There is an unanswered question in our country, one asked when violence first entered human society. Initially put to Cain just outside the Garden of Eden, God inquired: “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” That question is now put to us. And by “us” I mean me, and those who look like me, for we know the bloody history of our own making.

I grew up on land swiped from the indigenous Cherokee people. Though they attempted to adapt to the white man’s ways, it was never enough, for they could not change the color of their skin. They were hunted, caged like animals, savagely murdered, and the survivors were put on a merciless road westward. A few escaped to the North Carolina mountains, among them a young Cherokee girl who would become my fourth maternal great-grandmother.

The freshly vacated, illegally seized land was then put to the plow by white settlers who brought with them African slaves. This I also know to be true, not just because of the witness of history, but because another of my ancestors greedily scooped up this new property, and black men he held in chains died there working the soil. It’s no surprise why the Georgia dirt is red, for it is soaked with the blood of generations.

This is how so much of our nation was built: On stolen land, with plundered resources, and by means of enslaved bodies. Sure, there has been plenty of old-fashioned, back-breaking, fair and honest hard work involved! But don’t kid yourself into believing that the white majority in this country has its disproportionate amount of wealth simply because it worked harder.

I know the objections that are certain to follow: “I had nothing to do with this…It happened in the past…Why can’t people get over it…People shouldn’t be held responsible for wrongs done centuries ago…I earned everything I have.” Yet, none of these defenses actually challenge we who have most benefited from these longstanding injustices to confess as much, and to do our part to correct the haunting legacy that has been left behind.

No, I don’t know how to make all the necessary corrections, but I do know that bigotry and racism are not some buried secret of history. They remain constant thorns in our collective flesh, and until we face this mighty ugliness; until we name and turn from our smug, hateful, systematic prejudice; until we seek solidarity with our black and brown brothers and sisters, and begin to understand their centuries of pain and outrage, nothing will change. The questions will continue to go unanswered, healing will never come, and blood will forever call out from the ground.

None of us – white, black, indigenous, or immigrant – can go back and create a different history. But if we will take responsibility for this present moment that we have inherited, we just might be able to create a better future.

(Photo by Bennett Hobbs)