The Inconvenient Truth

Inconventient Truth

In 1903 W.E.B Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” Over 100 years later, that statement still rings true, it is playing out in the incidents in our cities, in disparities in education, healthcare and wealth, to name a few. Race, Racism, Systematic Racism, White Supremacy, Slavery, White Privilege and the nearly four century history and legacy of the abuse of the black body are not conversations for the faint at heart. These are not easy topics to explore, unpack and grasp if we are not ready for the truth, the whole truth. I’ve had the opportunity to hear from some of the nation’s foremost thinkers and historians talk about these things openly. I have also had the chance to discuss these topics with a dynamic group of community leaders who are committed to unpacking this hard truth and moving toward reconciliation. Despite our 400 year history and recent events in our nation, this gives me hope that we can look problems of the color line in the face, if we commit to facing the truth.

On Saturday, John Franklin from the Smithsonian who is involved in the efforts to build the African American History and Cultural Museum in Washington, DC spoke to the participants of the Community Trust building fellowship of Hope in the Cities. He gave us a brief history, with maps and numbers, of the transatlantic slave trade. He said that the Smithsonian wanted to begin the story of African American History with acknowledging that enslaved Africans stories did not begin when they arrived in America. His map showed the dispersal of African Slaves from 1500-1901 and it displayed how 15M+ people were dispersed around the world, only %5 of which went to the US. He noted that “the slave trade was one of the first forms of globalization,” and indeed his maps showed how the institution was a global enterprise.

The week before, I went to a talk by Edward Baptist, author of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalist.” Baptists’ premise is that slavery contributed to the rise of capitalism, that slaves were commodities, the labor and collateral that allowed the US and other western nations to flourish. Cotton was like gold a few centuries ago and enslaved Africans cultivated and picked it free of charge to be bought, sold and processed all over the world. Baptist gave the audience a history lesson on the slave trail that enslaved persons frequently walked from Virginia to places west and into the Deep South. He spoke aloud the 49 names of specific enslaved persons who walked hundreds of miles, nearly starved and in chains during a particular 6 week journey. This reminded us of their humanity, how they would never return to their families, friends and previous ways of life. This happened to people over and over again for centuries, and this is the labor force that built our nation. Our entire nation has and continues to benefit from what slave labor build. Conversely, we also suffer from the consequences inherited from Slavery and Jim Crow, like racial disparities and the wealth gap. I left holding another nugget of truth, glad it was being told.

This Thursday, I went to a MLK Celebration at the University of Virginia with Ta-nehisi Coates as the speaker. Coates wrote The Case for Reparations article which appeared in the Atlantic Magazine last year. The article was astounding, so I was glad to hear him speak in person. He began with a Thomas Jefferson quote about how whipping slaves in front of one’s white children is passing down a legacy and normalizing the abuse of black bodies. He noted that we are shocked by the killings of unarmed black boys by white police officers without consequence because “we do not have knowledge of the country we live in.” What we are facing is a 350 year legacy and heritage of abuse of black bodies and that legacy is what we are seeing played out in our cities today. “When we see a man chocked and there are no consequences, we say something about who lives matter.” Coates said that we would do better if we “acknowledge our 350 year heritage in conversations on race.”

He thought the wealth gap was an obvious issue to tackle in our time. He pointed out that whites have 20X the wealth of blacks, “for every $1 of wealth whites have, blacks have 5 cents.” He also noted where we live matters, “nobody is asking why Micheal Brown lived in the neighborhood he did, why are the conditions there the way they are.” I am reminded that almost every neighborhood I have lived in was one divided by a color line. The best neighborhoods I have lived in were all white and the worst were all black and severely under-resourced. Again the problem of the color line shows up, its embedded in our history, our minds, the contours of our neighborhoods.

When asked what educational institutions should do, Coates replied “so much of the problem is education,” “students need a serious understanding of American History” and “freshmen at UVA should be reading Jefferson’s notes on Virginia, particularly the section on slavery.”

When asked how whites could get other whites to understand white privilege, he spoke of moving away from talking about white privilege (he doesn’t like the term and uses white supremacy, racist and racism), the “focus on individuals is myopic, we need to talk about systemic things… we have a systemic problem of heritage and legacy.”

He admonished the audience to “make a commitment to struggle for struggles sake.” That though it’s a hard truth to face we are responsible to our grandparents who went before us and our grandchildren that will inherit our country because “things we look away from the next generations sees.” Coates denounced the idolization of past leaders because it makes the kind of progress they achieved seem unattainable; “Martin Luther King was a man…and the men and women in the civil right movement were no smarter than we are.” He finished by saying “at some point we will have to decide we want a different heritage.” I came away enriched, inspired and determined to be a part in facing the truth of the past and building a different heritage moving forward. I read an editorial in the Richmond Times Dispatch on Sunday morning about Baptiste’s book and his visit that had the same sentiment that I was feeling that “there is hope in the cities, and we shall never hope in vain.”

I was encouraged by these events that the truth is beginning to be told, the whole truth. I mentioned to a friend that “our nation needs to do some shadow work, we have to wrestle with the dark corners of our soul that we would rather deny.” Denying these things does not make them go away, they persist and rear their ugly heads in other ways and wreak havoc on our nation, in our cities and our people, both black and white. Baptiste, Franklin and Coates reminded me that reconciliation cannot happen without truth, embracing the whole truth of our shared past. The truth will set us free if we let it be told in its entirety. In that telling and reckoning, I believe we will move toward healing and wholeness.

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A Walk Through History

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During the third week in November, I finished Ben Campbell’s book, Richmond’s Unhealed History, went to the Library of Virginia’s Exhibit “To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade” and walked Richmond’s Slave Trail. I learned many things, but what sticks out is that Richmond had one of the largest slave markets in the country. It is said that nearly 10,000 Africans a month were transported into and out of Richmond. This history was literally buried until a few decades ago and now it has been uncovered and highlighted. I was overwhelmed by the hypocrisy, cruelty and racism that is at the foundation our city and country. Facing the truth is not easy but uncovering these wounds seem necessary to move toward healing, toward reconciliation.

The same week, I attended the 2nd session of Hope in the Cities’ Community Trustbuilding Fellowship, a 5-month training for individuals interested in building bridges of trust over divisions in our community. The focus of the module was the impact of history. We explored how history is always in the room when community building, and it is also entrenched in our land and culture. One of the key things that always comes to my mind as a City Planner is how the interstate highway system, urban renewal and the housing boom of the 50’s and 60’s laid the way for white flight, suburbanization, sprawl, public housing projects and disinvestment in the city. In Richmond, I-95 went right through the city and obliterated, Jackson Ward, a prominent African American neighborhood. That and other highways paved the way for whites to leave the city for the surrounding suburbs. Richmond currently has the highest concentration of poverty in the region and Church hill has almost all of the public housing (which is slated for redevelopment) in the City. This is just one example of how the past and present are connected. It’s taken many of years of racism to get to where we are in America’s racial history. We can not continue to ignore the impact of past traumas on our current situation.

On Saturday, the thirty of us took a walk through history. We started at a confederate monument at Libby Hill Park. Libby Hill was likely a sacred place for Native Americans before colonization and we could also see the docks which would have unloaded enslaved Africans. How do we reconcile the story of Native American genocide and the establishment of the US, of Confederate soldiers and enslaved Africans? I am not completely sure, but we can tell both stories. Maybe we can even acknowledge the other’s hurt and/or ill will. We do not have to agree, but we can understand, forgive and move forward.

On the other side of the river at the Manchester docks, we traversed the woods enslaved Africans would have we walked through bruised, battered and traumatized. to be auctioned off. We joined hands as we walked, descendants of slaves and slave owners, Black and White, Latino and Asian. It was cold, uncomfortable and harrowing to think about, but also a testament of how far we have come. The disparities that continue to mar our landscape speak to how far we need to go. I hope we can go that distance hand and hand, linked together by a desire to build a community of equality, trust and mutual understanding.

While at the reconciliation monument, our last stop along the slave trail, I ran my fingers over the sankofa bird embedded in the sculpture. Sankofa can mean “reach back and get it” or represent the need to reflect on the past to build a successful future. As I think about the Africans who endured hundreds of years of slavery and the racial disparities and police brutality that exist today, I believe we need to fly on the wings of Sankofa instead of embodying ostriches with heads buried in denial and half-truths.

Thirty people begin to do that on a cold Saturday afternoon as walked through history together, hand and hand. I am encouraged that there is a diverse cohort of change agents interested in transforming the hearts and minds of disparate groups through dialogue that can lead to collective action. I believe acknowledging our history and hurts and entering into honest dialogue can begin to break down the stereotypes that lead to racial divisions, tensions and disparities that plague our cities. I was encouraged by these brave trustbuilders, their ability to face the past and willingness to move forward together.