In late summer of 2015, my sister, niece, and I made our second genealogical Southern tour. This time it was precipitated by the news that one of our forebears, John Justus Grovenstein, was to be honored by the DAR at Oak Grove Cemetery in St. Marys, GA.
St. Marys is a lovely little seaside town just across the Florida/Georgia state line, and is where my grandfather was born and grew up, and where many of his family (including his mother) are buried. While there, we also planned to visit some other family gravesites, as well as the town of Ebenezer where our ancestors first settled in the mid- to late-18th Century. We also planned to finally meet up with a long-time Facebook friend and attend services at his church, have dinner with a cousin, and – one of the highlights – actually have a tour of the house that my great-great-grandfather lived in after the Civil War.
We were able to do all of these things and more, and had a wonderful time. One thing I had hoped to do, but didn’t know if we could, was to visit Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. This was just a few months after nine people were murdered by a White Supremacist as they met for prayer and Bible study. Since my great-great-grandfather’s old home was also in Charleston, I had high hopes.
In fact, we did visit Mother Emanuel, and as we gathered, there were a large number of other people arriving as well. The gates were locked and we weren’t able to go inside, and there were obvious signs of construction and repair following that hateful and horrendous act. There was a man there who had created great signs with sheets of plywood, and he invited each of us to sign our name, leave a few words, to honor the memory of the victims. I can’t remember how many hundreds of thousands of signatures he told us were there, but it was impressive.
As we stood there on a hot southern summer day, I began to weep. Looking back, it was similar to the spontaneous and uncontrollable weeping I had experienced at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC several years before. A weeping not just for the awful loss of life, but for a society that allows such things to occur, that at times seems to foster the very hatred that is represented. An African-American woman who was there saw me and opened her arms to me. We embraced, and through my tears all I could say was, “I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry.” But I felt her consolation even though I should have been consoling her. It was a sacred moment in a sacred space.
This week I am watching “O.J.: Made in America,” a documentary film that won an Academy Award this year. It’s long – five episodes, each about an hour-and-a-half long. I’ve just finished the second episode, and it’s gut-wrenching. You see, it isn’t just about O.J. Simpson. It’s about the Watts Riots and Eulia May Love and Rodney King. It’s about all the things I was too busy to pay close attention to when they were happening, but that were telling people of color over and over and over and over again, “You’re not important to us. Your lives aren’t as valuable as ours. You are disposable.”
It’s about Mark Fuhrman (remember him?) saying, “What do they think they’re proving by burning their own businesses? I don’t understand it.” It’s about Police Chief Daryl Gates defending the indefensible, and blaming King for the excessive force that was used against him. It’s about all the ways we as a nation have failed the most vulnerable among us. Perhaps if Mark Fuhrman had read history, had seen that generations of our fellow citizens had tried every method available to them to achieve parity, only to be spurned at every turn, perhaps then he could have understood the anger and frustration that leads people to set fire to their own neighborhoods, to break and destroy, to loot and to crush. Perhaps he would have understood that when the wall of injustice is falling on you, you do whatever it takes to get someone’s attention, even if it seems unreasonable and counterproductive to passers-by.
I can see that. I don’t like it and I don’t condone it, but I can understand it. I’m just sorry it took me so long.
And now we are living in a time when people are being banned because they’re Muslim or Mexican, when cemeteries are being vandalized because they hold the mortal remains of Jews, when a White Supremacist sits in the highest halls of power in this country. I may have been busy working and raising children in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s and not paying close attention, but I’m paying attention now. And I’m using my voice in whatever way I can – postcards and rallies and marches and town halls. Tweets and emails and Facebook posts. Learning how to be not just an advocate, but an ally. Learning to put aside my natural inclination to speak in favor of listening and learning – and then speaking the truth of what I’ve learned. That’s why I #RESIST.
And I think often of that kind, embracing woman in whose arms I wept on a hot summer southern day. And I wonder if she ever thinks of me.