A Bitter Pill
History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.
— Maya Angelou
Last week I read the horrifying news that South Carolina brought back the firing squad as an option for capital punishment. They are also considering bringing back the barbaric electric chair. What really discouraged me was reading an article about the state-sanctioned murder of George Stinney Jr. the very same day. Most Black people who grew up in South Carolina have heard the story of the 14-year-old who was falsely accused of murder and became the youngest person to be executed in the electric chair. When I heard that that method of execution could return it harkened back to a time where there was no due process nor protections for Black bodies. As I read this story again, the only thing I could think about was; how could we go backward?
I’m not ignorant about the history of South Carolina. I moved there as a kid and lived there for over 20 years. My mom and half of my family are from there. I know about Confederate Memorial Day and the flag that once sat atop the flagpole at the statehouse. I know the ugliness that is in stark contrast to the beautiful aesthetics. I also know that it’s a state that has never confronted its past nor present, and its inability to be truthful about itself has caused it to regress.
South Carolina never told the truth about its past. Growing up, we were never taught in school the horrors the state inflicted upon our people. If you go to the state museum right now, only a small section on one floor (of a three-story building) is dedicated to Black history. Think about it, the state that was built by enslaved Black people (including my ancestors) and home to America’s major slave port — has only dedicated a section of a single floor to slavery. To add insult to injury, they don’t even mention any of the Civil Rights advances by Black people in the subsequent years. They would want you to believe in the false “benevolent master” trope — that seems to now be re-emerging its ugly head.
I bring this up because South Carolina is not alone as many states lie or hide their history. It’s why intolerant people hate Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project. It’s why we are hearing an uproar from a certain segment of this country about “critical race theory”. What many call “critical race theory”, I call the truth. And the truth should uncover the atrocities, both past and present. They fear that shining a light on the evils of the past, will now force them to relinquish hold of their power and make way for progress.
This is the same spirit that empowers the “Lost Cause” — the false belief that the Confederacy fought for the cause of state’s rights. And one might ask… a state’s right to do exactly what? The refusal of this nation to eradicate this mindset and its enablers, after Reconstruction, led to 100 years of terror against Black people. It led to the lynching and burning of Black bodies. The violent silencing of Black voices. It’s the same spirit that feeds police brutality and breathes life into voter suppression. It’s the same spirit that allowed the execution of an innocent 14-year-old Black child in the summer of 1944. As long as this spirit is allowed to survive, so will the albatross around the neck of this nation that prevents it from living up to any semblance of its creed.
We now have an increase of the same ignorance; where certain states don’t want to teach children history, or when they do, they water it down. The racism and hatred are so deep-seated — even during a pandemic, recession, and reckoning on police misconduct — the main focus for some people is opposing the truthful teaching of this nation’s past. It has become a new proxy war. A war, in which a corrupted party and its followers have put up a defense against anything that resembles a critique of white supremacy or acknowledgment of Black pain and triumph. This in turn has led to willful ignorance, in which their followers know they’re being fed lies but could care less.
The inability of the nation to eradicate the lost Confederate cause and to rebut their lies led to a certain defiance — an inability to acknowledge defeat or wrong. The same defiance that ignored government interference during Civil Rights and tried to fight integration. That same defiance remained alive and refused to acknowledge the citizenship of its first Black President. It gave some supporters — of a corrupt and bigoted President — the gall to storm the Capitol, an act for which those who look like me would have been killed.
James Baldwin once said that “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them”. Our past is entrenched in every part of our life. History is not only who we were, but a stark reminder of who we may become if we don’t quickly reverse course. We must not ignore it, for ignoring it would be to not only ignore the pain of our ancestors but to surrender to the notion that our stories (nor the lessons we learned) matter. We then allow those same forces to creep back in and take hold.
Our yesterday is who this nation has been and — to a certain extent — still is, but it doesn’t always have to be. In my Christian faith, we always talk of grace and redemption. Redemption can only come about through repentance and repentance is the acknowledgment of one’s sins and a vow to do better. If America cannot come to terms with its realities, there will be more George Stinneys and Trayvon Martins. More Latasha Harlins and Sandra Blands. If this nation cannot tell the truth, it will continue in a cycle of violence and terror, doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. The truth is a bitter pill to swallow, but must be taken to eradicate the disease that plagues us.
I don’t say this out of despair — I actually feel more resolute than ever. The stories, the memories, and the horrors cannot and will not be hidden forever. Those who stand against the truth will find out what so many have learned before — the truth will always win in the end.