Archive for August, 2017

Forgive and Remember

amywink August 25th, 2017

[Love] does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

1 Corinthians 13: 6-12

Among the artifacts of my grandmother’s life, my mother and I found one of her high school yearbooks, a mid-1920’s collection of youthful Jazz Age faces living in a Texas oil-field town, about as far from West Egg as anyone might imagine. Yet there, in the curated view of her generation, bound in a single book to commemorate the year, my grandmother the flapper seemed to dance out of the pages, the daring girl ready for adventures beyond the dirt and derricks of her surroundings.

From my vantage point almost three-quarters of a century later, I looked through pages and marveled at the styles, thinking of my grandmother in her girlhood, surrounded by classmates, high school activities, the ubiquitous football coverage. Her girlhood culture, illustrated with photos, stories, jokes, and student drawings, a genial and benign book of high school life in the mid-1920’s. And I keep turning the pages until the page is a rudimentary drawing of a hooded boy, on horseback, staring down a hill at a burning cross and I stop on another reality of my grandmother’s girlhood.

“Maybe it is a joke” my mother sighed, half-heartedly. But of course, we both knew it was not a joke. This is not the moment of our awakening. This is not a revelation.

As much a part of my grandmother’s girlhood as the flapper clothing and oil derricks, the unrepentant image of white supremacy bound in the pages of her high school yearbook reminds us again of what we know.

It is moment of reckoning.

It would be easy enough for me to close the book and let the image fade from my consciousness. I could ignore or deny the weight of it, allow nostalgia to gloss my perspective on my grandmother’s life and separate her from the surrounding culture. The drawing of the hooded boy, looking down on a burning cross makes that impossible.

I cannot make this story beautiful.

I could choose to see history dimly, like a mirror hazed by willful ignorance.
But I want to see completely, as sure as Eve chose to understand the knowledge of good and evil.

I cannot make this story beautiful.

A dear friend once said “I don’t know what I’d do if I found out my ancestors had slaves. I’d just be so ashamed.” I wondered how we could look at our ancestry through such rose-colored glasses. Of course, as a descendant of Russian Jews who arrived after Emancipation, she had that privilege, if few others.

I am four generations from the Confederate soldier my grandmother knew as her grandfather just as I am four generations from the Union soldier whose grandson married her. I know the names of my slaveholding ancestors. I have the photographs. I know the plantation was “lost” in Sherman’s March to the Sea. I know there are African-Americans with whom I share more than one ancestral name.

I do not fool myself with the ignorance that keeps rising in every generation, drawing us back into the primordial sea of our nostalgia before we are pushed further onto shore. I wonder when we will desire the land enough to be redeemed from the sea.

Jack Kornfield writes “extending and receiving forgiveness is essential for redemption from our past. To forgive does not mean we condone the misdeeds of another. We can dedicate ourselves to make sure they never happen again.” We also have to know the past, to understand the complexity of history, to know fully what we remember and what we choose to forget, personally and culturally.

In his poem “[the] north [ern] [of] ireland” Pádraig Ó Tuama writes:

And at the end of the day
the reality is
that whether we
or whether we stay
the same

these questions will remain.

Who are we
to be
with one


How are we
to be
with one

I have to ask myself now the same questions. How are we to be with one another? How do I hold this ugliness in memory along with what beautiful? How do I rejoice in this truth?

Ó Tuama’s only answer is present action:

I wake
You wake
She wakes
He wakes
They wake
We wake and take this troubled beauty forward

We wake. We.

We must rejoice in the truth of our waking. We must recognize this troubled beauty of our history. We must reckon with the troubled beauty of our past, dedicated to making sure it never happens again.

John Lewis, interviewed recently by Krista Tippett for said “You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And in the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being. We, from time to time, would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person — years ago, that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? Something go wrong? Did the environment? Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being. And you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.”

My grandmother was a human being, flawed and wonderful, petty and generous, frightened and brave. She loved and feared. It is my recognition of her complexity, acceptance of her humanity, remembrance of her whole life that allows me to see her face to face, to put away the childish delusion of wistful nostalgia that she might be less complex but also less human, the childish hope that she not contain the “and.” She went into the world and grew. She did not remain bound with the hooded boy looking at the burning cross. She put an end to childish ways. She loved. She opened her life with love, welcoming black, white, gay, straight, Buddhist, Christian into her family. For all her human foibles, she never closed her heart. She never gave up on her own divine spark.