Transform or Transmit?


“If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” — Richard Rohr

Last week I traveled to Washington, DC. It was a trip that had several parts including a board meeting for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and reaching at the ordination of a new UU military chaplain. The trip allowed me one free day, which I spent at the new African American Museum of History and Culture.

The experience was remarkable. I even learned some new facts, though I consider myself pretty well educated on this history. I did not know that the vast majority of enslaved Africans were delivered to South America, primarily by Portuguese ships. The US was the destination for the smallest number. That number was still huge…almost 500,000…but the Museum reports 12,500,000 million Africans were sold into slavery in total. (Some of you may have heard total numbers of upwards of 20,000,000. Many died in the crossing, called the Middle Passage.) The slave trade infected the entire Atlantic world, fueling the success of Europe and its colonization enterprise.

The Museum exhibits begin three levels underground, starting first with the enslavement, and moving forward in time as one ascends toward ground level. The journey upward is metaphor for the difficult path toward freedom from enslavement and then toward our current and continuing challenges. The exhibits honestly and directly tell the story of the brutality of slavery and the aborted promises of abolition, the withdrawal from the work of Reconstruction, Jim Crow and its contemporary embodiment, the terrorism of the KKK and lynchings, and the success of the exceptional few following the Civil Rights struggles of half a century ago.

The emotional power of the Museum must be different for different people. Perhaps half of those with whom I shared my visit were African American, by sight. But at least half were white, by sight. In terms of identity, we should all remember the limits of what is visible. There are more people in our church who claim an identity as people of color than most of us would probably recognize.

I left the Museum not rocked by the story it tells. I know that story. It is my story and the story of my family. I left encouraged and even hopeful because my story, through that Museum, is now undeniably recognized as central to the story of this nation. That museum will be…can be…should be a resource for generations of Americans of all races.

One of the primary reasons we are still wrestling with race in this country is that we have never transformed the pain of racism. We have never engaged in a Truth and Reconciliation Process. Nor have we even engaged with the question of what reparations might look like.

Many Americans persist in “honoring” this nation’s heritage of hate. Robert E. Lee was not a hero, but a brutal slave owner and traitor to this nation. Whether he was less brutal than other slave owners is not the point. Slavery was brutal. And he chose to spend hundreds of thousands of lives defending it.

We have attempted to move beyond racism without acknowledging the extent to which Black lives and Black bodies built this nation and the wealth of which we are so proud. Nor has our national story recognized how much of “our” world is built on and designed to perpetuate racial difference.

Today we speak of intersectionality, how the various “isms” interact. The many stories of privilege and oppression all need telling. What is undeniable, is that what we now call the “culture of white supremacy” is not just about race. It includes structures of privilege for men over women, straight over queer, able bodied over those with physical limitations.

The culture of white supremacy is our culture. Each oppression has its place in that culture. That culture presses down on people with various identities in different ways, but it presses down on all of us, including those who are white, and straight, and male.

The new museum will not do the work for us, but it can help. Part of our collective work is knowing where we have been, so that we can effectively choose the direction for our future.

“The arc of the universe is long. I can see but little ways…” Theodore Parker was being honest. We much prefer the shortened and more optimistic version of his statement that the arc bends toward justice.

There is no guarantee that the Beloved Community is our destination. The new museum increases the odds that we can transform some of our collective pain and perhaps stop transmitting so much of it to our children and our children’s children.