I recently returned from a Civil Rights Tour of Montgomery and Selma, along with 50 of my rabbinic colleagues. The trip was organized by my professional organization for Reform rabbis – the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The purpose of the trip was to learn about our country’s history of slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration, with the hope that each trip participant would return to their home communities with a greater sense of urgency and dedication to doing the work of racial justice.
Our journey was titled, “Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation”. Today I’d like to talk about Truth. In subsequent blogs, I’ll struggle through Justice and Reconciliation. I’d like to invite you all to contribute your own thoughts, struggles, experiences, and truths. Email me at email@example.com and I’ll share your thoughts in later blogs, with your permission.
Truth: If you live in Madison, WI, you are on the land of the Peoria, Sauk and Meskwaki, Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), Miami, and Očeti Šakówiŋ (Sioux) First Nations. (find out here what First Nations originally inhabited where you live). When we talk about the original sin of slavery, let us not forget the adjacent sin of the dislocations and acts of genocide against the First Nations.
Truth: Slavery may have ended officially in 1865, but its legacy is still with us and permeates every aspect of our society, from language, food, music, dance, to poverty, mass incarceration, maternal death rates, the education gap, the wealth gap, and much more.
Truth: "Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it." – George Santayana. We in the United States do an abysmal job of teaching the truth of our history. We learn that our Founding Fathers were dedicated to liberty and freedom for all, but we ignore the fact that nine out of ten of our first Presidents were slave owners. The reality is that, in large part, their motivation for breaking away from Great Britain was the fear that the British were moving away from slavery and toward abolition. So, a few truths about our history:
Truth: Between the 16th and 19th centuries, over 12 million Africans were kidnapped from their homes and brought to the New World to be enslaved. About 10 million survived the Middle Passage.
Truth: The Legacy Museum estimates that 40% of those enslaved were separated from their families. After the Civil War, hundreds of ads appeared in African American newspapers, as people searched for their lost relatives. The government did little to help. On one wall of the Legacy Museum, some of these ads are replicated. They are heart-wrenching cries of mothers searching for children they have not seen in years; children searching for long lost parents; siblings trying to find each other. Ads detail changes of names as people are sold from one master to another. How could they possibly find each other when they were no longer certain of their loved one’s name?
A joint project of Villanova University and Mother Bethel AME in Philadelphia is locating and transcribing these ads. So far, over 900 ads have been found. You can sign up on their website to be part of the crowdsourcing project to transcribe these ads for the digital archives, and you can browse the on-line archive and read some of these ads for yourself – Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery.
Truth: There is a direct line from slavery to Jim Crow, to lynchings, to today’s mass incarceration. These are not historical footnotes that we can look back on as relics that are no longer relevant. They are part and parcel of who we are as a nation today.
Truth: These few random facts are just the tip of the iceberg. We must do a better job of lifting up our history and connecting the dots to today’s systems, public policies, and ingrained attitudes that serve to perpetuate racism.
Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice is embarking on an intentional effort to create a Racial Justice Initiative. We need to acknowledge that it is not sufficient to say that racial justice is part of everything we work on. There must be more. For we are explicit and intentional in our work for immigrant rights, as a founding organization of the Dane Sanctuary Coalition. We are explicit and intentional in our worker justice initiative, the Dignity at Work Coalition. And we are explicit and intentional in our Interfaith Community Building initiative. We must be equally intentional and explicit in our work for racial justice. It is at the core of what we believe and who we are as people of faith, and we must name it as such. I do not know yet what this will look like or what form it will take. I invite you all to join us in envisioning this initiative.