Do you remember your first day of school? How excited you were to be going? Wondering what new friends you were going to make? Did you walk there with your mom and / or dad, talking excitedly?
Can you imagine being 6 years old and looking forward to school…and on your first day being escorted by four big armed men? Going through a crowd of people shouting hate at you? Arriving at school to discover that no one was willing to be your friend? That you were the only student in your class? And to go through that day after day after day?
Or can you imagine going to a boarding school…excited to learn about another culture? Wanting to understand who these other people were and how you might be able to make friends with them? Only to have your beautiful clothes taken away and be put into a shapeless uniform…to have your hair cut? To be given a new name and told that you were never to use the name given you by your family? To be punished for speaking your own language or worshiping the way you knew? To face the risk of sexual and / or physical assault on a daily basis? To be told that you were worthless?
Or can you imagine standing on a platform with your mother and your siblings, being poked and prodded? Then seeing your siblings pulled away one or two at a time? Seeing your mother’s tears and hearing her cries as you clung to her? And then being separated from her…and never seeing her again? Can you imagine your body not being your own?
Can you imagine being forcibly removed from your home? Told that you had to dispose of your belongs except what you could carry? Forced to live in a somewhat converted animal shed with many other families? Surrounded by high fences that were guarded by soldiers? Seeing your parents cry as they recognized the loss of everything they had worked for?
These are not situations that happened in another country…or centuries ago.
They are us…and they are recent.
Ruby Bridges–the little girl–was born in 1954.
Native American children were still being placed in schools designed to “assimilate” them through the mid-19th century…and until 1924 were not considered to be citizens of the United States. In some states Native Americans were not given the right to vote until 1957.
Ruth Ellis, an LGBTQ activist who died in 2000, was the daughter of slaves.
Japanese-Americans were interned in a number of camps in the United States following the attack on Pearl Harbor, even though there was no evidence of any anti-American behavior. George Takei was one of those 117,000 American citizens who were interned.
We cannot say that “all this” is in the past and we should just move on. It isn’t. We are still dealing with the impact of these events today.
We cannot ignore this history. Nor can we continue to claim ignorance of it. It is our history–belonging to each and every one of us. While there is much to celebrate in the American ideal, it is important to remember that it was also built on the brutal destruction of families, creating trauma that continues to impact all of us today. And unless we are willing to acknowledge that, we will continue to deal with the fallout.
I am reminded that the One I follow told his followers this (using The Message translation of Matthew 18:6):
But if you give them [the children] a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck….Hard times are inevitable, but you don’t have to make it worse—and it’s doomsday to you if you do.
We need to acknowledge our past…with its good and with its evil and brutality. Then and only then will we have the strength and the courage to begin to heal.