Over the past few months, I’ve heard variations of this comment a number of times: “Why dredge up old stories? Why not just let the past stay in the past?”
The problem with that kind of thinking is that it ignores the impact those stories of the past are still having today.
On a recent trip, I listened to the audio version of the book Blood at the Root, read by the author, Patrick Phillips. He became interested in the history of the county he grew up in as a child–Forsyth County, Georgia…an all-white county.
The event that caused it to be a “sundowner county” occurred in 1912, but the impact of that event lasted beyond 1987. It was a heritage of hate, fear, bigotry, and intolerance that lasted for generations, passed down from father to son.
It was a difficult book to listen to. It would have been difficult to read in print, but hearing the words that were spoken…the graphic descriptions of the violence perpetrated against innocent people…made it a powerful experience.
There is evidence that the impact of trauma can be passed down through the generations genetically and through the ways those parents and grandparents deal with those traumas. That means that these “old stories” don’t just die away and should be put aside. We are still living with the results of those traumas–and that can help us understand what is happening today with the seemingly sudden explosion of racial anger.
It’s not coming out of nowhere. It’s been building for a long, long time. We’ve just been doing our best to ignore it.
So how do we get rid of the impact of these stories?
Yael Danieli and Brent Bezo, psychologists who have been studying this question, both say one of the most important steps is to acknowledge and discuss the atrocities. Doing so allows the survivors to process their pain and helps the families understand and make sense of their parents’ and grandparents’ behaviors.
So are we ready to do so? It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to require those of us who are white to rethink a lot of what we’ve learned. It’s going to require us to hear uncomfortable truths–to acknowledge our own complicity in creating a society which has perpetuated trauma for minorities.
But unless we do so, unless we are willing to truly listen to those stories we would rather keep hidden away, nothing will change–and we will continue to be a society that perpetuates the rights of a few against the cries for help and change of the many.