Called Upon to Remember

The days of bondage—
And remembering—
Do not stand still.
Go to the highest hill
And look down upon the town
Where you are yet a slave.
Look down upon any town in Carolina
Or any town in Maine, for that matter,
Or Africa, your homeland—
And you will see what I mean for you to see—
The white hand:
The thieving hand.
The white face:
The lying face.
The white power:
The unscrupulous power
That makes of you
The hungry wretched thing you are today.

Langston Hughes, “Remember”

Somehow, all too often, we do not see ourselves as part of the problem, but often seem to take on the cloak as victims, which is clearly a lopsided view of history and experience. For all of our desire for reconciliation and letting the past be the past, we find ourselves face to face with the past, which we did not necessarily create and do not know how to discontinue. In the 60s it was a call to reconciliation, but again that failed because all too often reconciliation obliterates the past and only wants to live in the present. 

The tragedy here is that we all want to move past what has so sorely afflicted us, but do not know how. Jennifer Harvey, in her critical book, Dear White Christians, calls for a Paradigm of Reparations, which I confess we’ve not heard about much since the issuance of the Black Manifesto in April 1969—some 51 years ago by James Forman at Riverside Church, New York, NY. Reparations considers three dimensions: 1) race as a social construct, 2) an emphasis on racial particularity, and 3) a focus on the repair of unjust structures. This was raised again for the first time in years during the Presidential Primaries earlier this year. And now we are faced with responsibility to consider this as a way forward.

 As a social construct, race is not only about color but carries with the it the implications about day-to-day living, educational attainment, propensity toward criminality, sexual and personal ethics, social interaction, trust, and so on. Where we get stuck is that we must absolutely and unequivocally the describe what it means to be “white”, before we can effectively converse with another persons of color about what it means to be Native, Hispanic, Black, Asian, etc. That’s often where the communication breaks down. There is a dangerous assumption about own unique sanctity about which we have not had to think. For me it was about what does it mean to be gay? It’s called “coming out”. There’s no denying that history dictates our understandings through the material structures which have constructed by race and identity, sexual orientation or otherwise.

It is crucial to bring forward and acknowledge the intersection between white supremacist structures and our own racialization as white people, straight people, normal people; a journey to be sure. Then we are called upon to target the criminal justice situation, which is why people are on the streets today, and one begins to see how our dangerous and lethal white assumptions cripple, maim, and contort the exceptions and rules of the supremacist system held in the hands of a majority. Not to preach here, but it is clear from the data and our experience that we bring an enormous load with us when trying to understand why the rage is so bitter after 401 years of slavery.             

Langston Hughes

Through this notion of social construction—White US American citizens can begin to understand the unique and considerable disparities between the “White Experience” and everyone else’s, because history brings us the understanding of both benefit and liability. What invariably happens when considering the impact of these structures which have bound us all, is that we must target them for immediate disruption and cessation of the terror. That is what we have been seeing across America on the streets. The work of repair (as in the Biblical notion of “repairing the breach”) will take several lifetimes or even longer—it did take four centuries to get here. We must attend to the structures for repair and then also provide redress of long afflicted injuries. As part of our national sin it is also essential to fall on our collective knees and repent. Redress must become part of the national conversation and part of the national budget, no less than defense or health. Enough said for now. Once again I turn to Langston Hughes:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes,

2 thoughts on “Called Upon to Remember”

  1. Martha Puryear

    Thank you, Ted for bringing the strong words of Langston Hughes & you for us to read & contemplate. May we absorb them into our marrow & dedicate each day to bring about justice, mercy & love for each & every person we meet. Especially, let us we be mindful of the wrongs done & still being done to our friends of color & do everything in our power to change & right these wrongs!

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