Time to Stop Burying the Past
As I stood at the front of the funeral chapel in August 2007, I struggled through the reading of my Uncle Isaac “Ike” Robinson’s obituary. During our 4-hour drives from Washington, DC to Brooklyn, NY, Uncle Ike would share stories about growing up in Sumter, South Carolina in the 50s and 60s.
Uncle Ike had a friend whom I’ll call John. John was teenager and as happens from time to time, teenage boys get into fights. The problem this time was John got into a fight with some white teens. Word got back to John’s mother that he’d gotten into a fight and she knew it meant she would have to get him out of town before a mob exacted revenge. John didn’t return home that evening. The next day the sheriff stopped by John’s home and told his mother not to worry. The sheriff said they’d given him some money and put him on a bus out of town. She never heard from John again. John was a devout momma’s boy, so there was no way he would leave Sumter and never contact her again. Many believed, my Uncle Ike included, John was caught the night of the fight, killed and buried in one of the hundreds of acres of marshland in and around Sumter County. This was only one of several stories I heard from Uncle Ike that painted a picture of life during Jim Crow segregation.
As I finished reading Uncle Ike’s obituary and wiped my eyes, a reality struck me. I didn’t have a written record of our talks. I didn’t have tape recordings to capture his voice inflection and infectious laugh. The harsh reality was every untold story from Uncle Ike’s life would be buried with him.
This moment of loss planted the seed that led me to create the Creative Tension podcast. With the passing of each Jim Crow survivor in our families and communities, we move further and further away from truth telling about this deplorable period of American history. History has shown, if we do not tell our story, then others will tell it for us. And they will tell it in a way that places them in the most favorable light.
We’ve faced the mis-telling of the experiences of those formerly enslaved as being “happy mammies,” and “loyal toms” who were better off enslaved than free. We’ve seen the mis-telling of the cause for the Civil War as a battle for ‘states’ rights.’ These myths of the Lost Cause of the confederacy are further crystalized in our culture with films like Gone With the Wind, which romanticized the antebellum south.
We are in the midst of another mis-telling of history, as some attempt to re-define and normalize “white supremacy.” Accompanying this push is the continued minimization and erasure of the inhumanity of Jim Crow segregation and its companions: racial oppression and legalized violence.
The current President of the United States won the 2016 election with the slogan, ‘Make America Great Again.’ This slogan harkens to the mythical idea of the post-World-War II ‘Good Ole Days’ of the 1940s-60s: Happy Days. Letterman sweaters. Beach movies.
Those weren’t ‘good ole’ days for African-Americans and we need to tell the world why they weren’t. We need to tell our children and grandchildren why they weren’t. We need to tell them how we survived and thrived in the face of incomprehensible opposition.
One of the ways to combat white supremacy and the mis-telling of history is to tell our stories, on our own terms. There has been so much shame and hurt surrounding Jim Crow segregation that we’ve too fully embraced a culture of silence and forgetting. Jim Crow survivors may not want to share those painful memories, while others may want to simply ‘move forward’ and forget.
However, I can attest to the power and freedom of hearing those memories. It’s one thing to say, “People died so you can vote;” however, it’s something completely different to say, “Your Great Grandfather, Tom Johnson went to vote at the courthouse in Augusta. An angry mob met him near the Confederate Monument at the courthouse steps...”
We must empower the post Jim Crow generations (Gen X, Gen Y/Millennials, Gen Z) with a true understanding of American History. We must name the names of the people on whose shoulders we stand upon. We must eradicate the mis-telling of American History by replacing myths with facts. We’ve allowed the stories of too many Jim Crow survivors to be buried with them. Now is the time to share those memories, re-tell history and empower today’s and tomorrow’s generations.
Rev. Elliott Robinson, JD, MDiv