by Abigail Heath, Sankofa Journey participant, Lafayette, IN
We pulled up alongside a beautiful, brick church, and I tried to imagine the scene of bloody chaos that played out there only a couple of decades ago. We walk inside and sit down in pews, showered by the sunlight pouring in through majestic stained glass windows. Some of those windows, blown to smithereens only a couple of decades ago. I look up at the screen, and there they are. Four beautiful, little girls whose lives were snuffed out by hatred and evil…a hatred and evil so many were at least complicit to, if not active perpetrators.
Can you imagine your 11-year-old child, in her Sunday-best, chatting with friends in the bathroom lounge? I can almost hear their gleeful banter, their childlike joy in a place that is supposed to be safe. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The year was 1963, and if ever there was a need for a safe haven, a place for the weary and burdened, it was that day.
We walked down the stairs, turning the corner that would place us exactly where those four little girls chatted gayly. Suddenly, my ears pounded and my chest shook with imagination.
The beautiful building crumbled, and innocent life was snuffed out. The weary and burdened were terrorized and murdered in what should have been their place of rest. Four little girls, snatched from their mothers and fathers and dear little friends. I watch as mothers, decades later, still weep with the pain of it all.
(The memorial marking the exact place where the bomb was placed and went off.)
All this evil, hatred, terrorism…because one race decided they were superior to another.
I am feeling a little lost today, and I can’t rid myself of the images and evil brutality of a history (and ongoing narrative) I walked through this weekend. And truthfully, I don’t want to escape. I want to sit in this lament and brokenness and anger and pain, because the reality that I CAN escape is a privilege many do not have. I am on the “right” side of history, and I despise that I belong to a race that has brutalized other people for decades, centuries, millennia. Today I want to step out of this shell in which I live. I want to disown my own people and our role in a history we don’t even teach or own up to or acknowledge.
But here’s the thing…I can’t shed my white skin. And I can’t distance myself, because to do so, again, is privilege. Conviction has gripped my heart in an iron fist, because I listened to a man of another race look in the eye a man with white skin and say, “You can’t give up on [those who look like you and perpetuate attitudes of racism and white privilege]. Because there are things you can say to [them] that [they] cannot hear from me.” I wept. I wept because I know my tendency. I know how I have separated myself from those of my race, religion, community who just don’t get it. I think, “They will never understand, so why even try to engage them in dialogue?!” And I distance myself.
There are people who cannot distance themselves from racism, evil rhetoric, a ghastly history, and a continued narrative that says one race is superior (more worthy of opportunity, education, safe living spaces, just courtrooms, life) over another. Because this is their LIFE.
So today? Today I will sit in this lament. I will feel the anger and pain and sadness in every corner of my body and soul. I will continue to read books and watch documentaries about a history and narrative it would be far too easy to not see, hear, feel (because we have made it easy to not know). I will choose to speak up and speak out for those we have deliberately forgotten, ignored, and terrorized. And I will remain. I will remain in conversations and relationship with people who look like me but do not think like me. As much as I want to purposefully separate myself, I will not…for those who CANNOT.