ONCE UPON A time, I hated a man. He was a friend who became a betrayer, and I hated him good and strong, hated him so that hate became a weight in my chest and my stomach tightened like a knot every time I passed his house.
Until I couldn't stand it any more. I did the only thing I could think to do. I forgave.
I did it though the man had not asked and would have scorned the gesture. That didn't matter.
See, I didn't forgive him so we could be friends again. Nor did I forgive him so I could forget what he did.
I forgave him so that I could be free.
Freedom is what happens when you forgive. Or apologize. Which was the point of a question I recently posed in this column: As a means of healing racial animus, can white apologize and can black forgive?
Hardly any of those who responded were black. The overwhelming majority were white. Some cried, some spoke of misguided "shame," some simply exhaled grateful sighs into their telephones, as if the question itself had lifted them.
Others were angry, though, outraged at the gall of me for even raising the question. "Slavery was a long time ago!" they said, as if chains left no mark and we had never heard of Jim Crow and Texaco.
Apologize for what?
"Why should I apologize for crimes someone else committed?" they demanded. Hardly the prevailing argument when the nation expressed remorse for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. It says something about the irresolution of white feelings that the apology to the Japanese raised relatively little ire while the barest suggestion of asking black forgiveness sets hearts afire.
The idea cuts too close to the bone of self-image, challenges too directly our sense of yester-greatness and current enlightenment. So, many of the same people who wave sparklers and American flags on Independence Day, who claim as their American birthright the greatness of Jefferson and Lincoln, suddenly declare nonownership, nonmembership, ignorance, when it is observed that the birthright also includes hatred, murder and rape.
Our comprehension is often selective, which is not surprising.
"We all want to be proud of our family," explains Mark Weitzman, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Task Force Against Hate. And his perspective matters here because he is a student of a similar dynamic: Germans and Jews facing each other across the living memory of the Holocaust.
Like American whites, he says, Germans have never quite come to grips with their historical legacy. "Jews and Germans are linked in a way neither of them would choose. In some ways the issue is more a German problem than a Jewish problem. Putting it simply, if I had a choice between committing murder and being murdered, I'm not sure about my physical reaction, but I know my moral reaction. The Germans have to face up to the fact that their country chose the path of murder, and that's a harder burden to carry in a moral sense."
Which echoes both in the confessional whispers of white women and men bemoaning their moral burden and in the indignant thunder of others denying it. Each is a sound of unease, of people unable to come to terms with what happened back then. What happens still.
As Mr. Weitzman puts it, "I don't hold anyone who was not born at the time personally guilty for anything." But a sense of responsibility? That, he says, is different. "We all have a sense of responsibility based on the past that we inherit."
It is a fine line, then, that white Americans walk, a tightrope stretched across the crucible of history. I can't tell them how to walk it, only that guilt is a useless reflex and denial an act of foolishness and delusion. Only that white, like black, must learn to let go of those things that do not move us forward, that shackle us to mendacity, pettiness and rage.
Watching white folks cross their tightrope, it occurs to me that they have more in common with their black countrymen than either might think possible.
Black or white, we have never truly known how it feels to be free.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Pub Date: 2/18/97