“A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.” ~ Albert Camus.
I am not sure if I have ever publicly confessed to two sins of my childhood. In one case, the person most affected is still alive, and so I have the opportunity to beg forgiveness (finally). In the other case, my mother is no longer alive to give me absolution. I am sure there are many more offences that I committed, but what made these two things significant was that I persisted in denying culpability, remained silent, kept my peace.
I believe it was Christmastime in England, a day when the family gathered around the dining table for our Christmas dinner. You know how memories are, it may have been later in Jamaica. But at some point during the meal I jiggled the table. Slightly. And only one person noticed and mentioned it. Since no one else felt it, it was as if the person who noticed it was imagining things, and of course she became quite upset at being accused of making things up. I never owned up, as far as I can recall, agreeing with the rest of the family that nothing happened. Deb, if you are reading this, please forgive me!
The second offence was after we had moved to Jamaica. I was learning to write in cursive (‘join-up’ as it was more commonly known back then) and saw a pile of letters sitting on the hall table ready to be taken to the post office for mailing. My mother’s beautiful handwriting had carefully addressed them, they were already stamped. And I could not resist carefully tracing over her elegant cursive, with a red ink pen. When my mother saw them she was irate, demanding to know who had done it! For not only would she have to get fresh envelopes, she would have to find more stamps! I don’t recall if any of them were going to ‘foreign’ (back then air mail stamps were quite expensive) but feeling her anger I promptly denied all knowledge of who had done it. And maintained my innocence indefinitely.
It was much later in life that I learned about Erikson’s stages of development, of the phases we need to successfully navigate through life’s challenges. There is the ‘autonomy versus shame’ stage, then ‘initiative versus guilt’ followed by ‘industry versus inferiority’ those times in your life when you attempt greatness but miss by a mile, and society or family makes you feel less worthy than you are. When I read about this theory I was already a parent, and had to wonder how I had done in shooting down my kids as they strove for independence, as their personalities developed, as their curious minds tried to understand the world. When my four year old daughter carried her infant baby brother out of the bedroom, did I praise her initiative (he was crying, after all), or did I make her feel guilty, reacting to a possibility of both of them falling on the floor?
They say that it is possible to believe lies about yourself. In some cases this is a positive, it permits athletes to achieve impossible feats by simply telling themselves they can do it, they can beat a world record, they can be the fastest man alive. But when we do things that we believe are wrong, that we regret, sometimes the way we cope is to pretend it never happened. Like Shaggy we deny, deny, deny. And eventually we believe that lie, we move on with our lives. Nothing to feel guilty for, nothing to apologize for.
I have been reading a book written by an African American professor, about our current times seen through the life and writings of the African American writer James Baldwin. The author writes about the lie that America is founded upon, that all men are created equal. By denying the origin of the nation, that it was actually founded on stolen land, that the ‘First Nation’ people were robbed of their land, murdered and their culture destroyed, the Founding Fathers were able to craft a New World Order. In reducing the enslavement and dehumanization of a people who were violently kidnapped from their homes to an aberration which was ended by a Civil War, they have continued to live that lie. In pretending that Reconstruction, the ending of ‘Jim Crow’ in the South and other benevolent acts restored justice to those emancipated, the lie continues. In failing to acknowledge that the current disparity of health, of economic and educational opportunities continues as a result of the systematic and systemic racism that underlies this country, we continue to live that lie.
But 2020 feels different. It feels as if there is a movement of people who are finally acknowledging what happened, and that if we don’t actively work to fix things they will continue to poison everyone. All over the country, even as we see heinous acts of violence, of excessive force trying to silence protesters, we are also seeing acts of courage and solidarity. Whether it is Moms who are standing between tear gas throwing men and the protesters behind them, or corporations who are suddenly realizing that they too are a part of the problem, we are seeing change taking place, we are watching history in the making.
So long as white folk continue to say ‘it never happened, or even if it did, it was way before I was born, I had no part in it’, then there is no need to feel guilty, to do something to change the culture. And for those of us white folks who do feel guilty, who have always known that judging a man by the color of his skin is wrong, the only way to assuage the guilt is to act, to work towards positive change.
This Friday morning I embrace all of those things I have done which I pretended never happened. I resolve to continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with my brother and sister, for we are all part of one organism on this planet earth. And I remember once more the powerful words we need to say to each other: ‘Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.’
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!