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Remembering the past, while living in the moment

President Donald Trump speaks after touring the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum on Dec. 9, 2017 in Jackson, Miss.
President Donald Trump speaks after touring the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum on Dec. 9, 2017 in Jackson, Miss. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

On Sunday, I heard a well-educated black woman in her 30s talk of recently traveling to Harper’s Ferry, W. Va. My ears immediately perked up when she uttered those words. That’s where the abolitionist John Brown led a raid in 1859. But, no, she had not gone to Harper’s Ferry for that. In fact, she told me later, she’d never even heard of John Brown. She’d gone to Harper’s Ferry in search of fall foliage.

A few days before, while colleagues and I mulled over the news that the only daily news show on television aimed at a black audience had been canceled, a bright, engaged journalism student in his 20s said, “good” — as in “good riddance.” As he saw it, black people make a mistake when they focus solely on “black issues” and make their blackness the focal point of their lives. He did not appreciate the rich history of black media in the United States that goes back to 1827.

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The greatest threat to a healthy black culture and consciousness today is an inability to see beyond slaveholding. I say this as a second cousin, seven times removed, of President George Washington — and as a black man.

Both instances raised for me, as they would for other students of history, the challenge of navigating a space between honoring history and moving on, or, as some would say, “living in the moment.”

I am, in case you missed it, unapologetically black. I see the present primarily through that lens. That makes me neither racist nor a relic. I am also unabashedly southern — born and raised in Georgia among people who, regardless of race, are more culturally tied to me in some regards than the black New Englanders whose roots predate the Great Migration. My curiosity has led me to prefer skiing in the Alps to skiing in Vermont. My contrarian streak perhaps dates to my decision as a child in Conyers, Ga., to become a fan of the New York Yankees. I love jazz and food adventures and my cats. Church has been a part of my life since birth, but my willingness to call myself Christian is in a state of flux, given all that is said and done in the name of that religion. In each of these aspects of my identity, I am a part of networks of similarly-interested people.

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Only one facet of my identify, however, has implications for life or death. Being black in the United States can get you killed when people who are not black feel threatened by your very presence and find ways to eliminate you and your kind — sometimes in ways as obvious as shooting you, but more often in such circuitous methods as pulling the plug on health care or depriving your community of decent housing and public education.

Knowing history makes me aware of potential physical harm, but it also protects me from being bamboozled when President Donald Trump travels to Mississippi, ostensibly to honor civil rights heroes at the opening of a new museum, and mouths words that — taken out of context — seem laudable: “The civil rights museum records the oppression, cruelty and injustice inflicted on the African American community, the fight to end slavery, to break down Jim Crow, to end segregation, to gain the right to vote and to achieve the sacred birthright of equality.”

With the long eye of history that someone recently said I have, I saw hypocrisy and ignorance. Mr. Trump’s presidency is all about suppressing the vote, for which Mississippian Medgar Evers gave his life, and, in myriad ways, denying millions of people “the sacred birthright of equality” that Mississippian Fannie Lou Hamer made her life’s work.

Knowing history arms me for battle, but it does not blind me to possibilities. And, so, I debate how to react when I’m around some members of my family who are diehard fans of the Bulldogs football team at the University of Georgia. They did not suffer the pangs of integration that I did as a student there in the 1970s. Or when I see blacks flocking to Stone Mountain Park near Atlanta for amusement rides and family gatherings. Carved into the mountain is the world’s largest bas-relief sculpture — a monument to the Confederacy. That was still sacred ground to the Ku Klux Klan when I was a child. Do I risk being a spoil sport by reminding them that the more things appear to have changed, the more they probably haven’t?

Preserving memory can leave us mired in the past or it can help propel us forward. For sure, a collective memory can help keep us alive. I’m striding toward the future while very much aware of what’s behind me.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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