My father was a learned man. As a child I once asked, ” Dad, after finally escaping slavery, how could the Jews get lost in the desert for 40 years? That’s a long time to be lost!” “Son,” he replied, “While fleeing slavery, our people got scared and built false gods out of gold. Others wanted to return to Egypt, the only existence they knew.” He continued, “Moses did not want our people to enter the promise land dragging along with them the scars and mindset of slavery – that generation would have to die off in the desert so a free people could start anew.” “Hmm,” I thought. It sounded harsh.
I accept that the devastation of slavery runs deeper than can be measured, beyond the cellular level of scars, all the way to spirit.
I also accept that the story of slavery in America does not mirror that of ancient Egypt. Journeying to a promised land for a new beginning cannot be compared to evolving in the shadow of reluctant oppressors. But can America ever become a promised land for all?
Today, in my hometown, well meaning people armed with bats, guns and rage are guarding the statue of Christopher Columbus. They see in him all they have been taught about their parents, their customs, their heritage. By his removal they are being called upon to betray their ancestors, to renounce lifelong loyalties, in essence, to leave home. I have compassion for their rage, struggle, forced awakening and loss.
Those who wish Columbus removed see something quite different. A constant reminder in the public square of one who set foot on an already occupied land, made its inhabitants his servants, rounded up thousands of Taino tribal men, women and children to be shipped to Spain and sold off into slavery as mine workers. A man, still worshipped, who once imported over 400 Africans into slavery.
I am reminded of the story of a group lost in the woods for years, devastated, hungry, sick. Finally, they come upon a sign, THIS WAY OUT! Overjoyed, they make camp around it, worship it each day and never leave the woods.
Enlightened symbols have their place of importance. Not all symbols are enlightened. The significance of statues has evolved. Some carry false narratives from generation to generation – narratives that many would prefer remain untold. Narratives that presently oppress. Narratives with the potential to unlock truth and force disorienting and painful awakenings.
To me, learning from our dark past is best achieved through accurate documentation, books, the arts, song, museums and education. Not through the worship of golden calves, signs in the woods or statues constructed in times of darkness, now viewed in the light of a new day.
We’ve entered a period of awakening that will drag our country from its admirably idealistic, yet decidedly shameful adolescence into the maturity and awareness of young adulthood. It will be painful. It will be messy. It will be worth it. 🌿
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