This time last year the 2016 Election opened a great chasm under our feet in the U.S., threatening to divide us forever. And, according to an April 2017 report published in The Washington Post, there was no greater indicator of the way people voted than their attitudes on race.
Race divided our nation.
And race did one thing: it determined how the polis (the people) would live together. It laid the foundations of American politics by answering the question: Who has the authority to rule?
The first Census in 1790 answered that question when “White” was the only race listed.
And Congress answered that question with the Naturalization Act of 1790, declaring that only free white men could become naturalized citizens. Naturalization gives power—the power to vote—the power to shape the world.
Whiteness has fought to maintain its supremacy through the crafting of race-based Antebellum slave laws, the post-Antebellum constructs of Jim Crow and red-lining, the removal of indigenous peoples, the exclusion of the Chinese, the internment of the Japanese, the exploitation and current-day expulsion of Mexican peoples, the demonization of Jews and Muslims, and the late 20th century explosion of mass incarceration.
This brutal struggle went largely hidden from people deemed white.
A year ago, I sat on my couch watching the 45th president walk to the podium to declare victory. I was rocked to the core—rocked with the understanding that nearly half of the nation believed America was once a great nation. But it was not great anymore. We needed to be made great again.
I sat there shaking, as I poured over my own family’s history. At what point were things “great” for my family? When we were enslaved? When freed ancestors fought for the freedom of others? When we were removed from our indigenous lands? When the colonizing U.S. annexed Puerto Rico; my father’s father’s homeland? When my black Puerto Rican family moved to the U.S., and was among the first to experience white flight in the South Bronx? When my great grandmother fled north to escape the racial terror and ethnic cleansing of the Jim Crow South?
This is my narrative, but not mine alone. It is a common story of heroic survival and determination to thrive, despite systemic forces dead set against rising. I share this narrative with hundreds of thousands of families of color across the United States whose lives and livelihoods were also shaped by constructs intended to secure, protect, and maintain the supremacy of whiteness.
The night of the election, I saw the narrative gap —the gap between the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, how we got here, and as a result, the disparate visions of what it will take to become “great.”
Three months after the inauguration, I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa. The exhibit on the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had three objectives, rocked me:
- Determine who had perpetrated and been victims of human rights abuses.
- Determine the requirements for rehabilitation and reparation.
- Determine which human rights violators would receive amnesty.
In South Africa, two of the three objectives were fulfilled: perpetrators and victims were identified, and amnesty was granted. But reparations were never fully made, so rehabilitation in the nation hit a wall. Although “Whites Only” signs were removed 23 years ago, South African segregation now mirrors American defacto-economic segregation.
I sat on a stone bench listening to the testimonies of the victims and the victimizers, while tears flowed down my cheeks. America has not addressed a single objective of the South African TRC. Truth has never been told. Communities have never been rehabilitated. And violators of human rights have never faced one consequence after 500 years of brutal colonization, enslavement, and exploitation of hundreds of millions of images of God.
No wonder we have a narrative gap in the U.S. More than half of our nation has never been told the truth of what the powers did to secure white supremacy.
What’s more, 70 percent of Americans claim the Christian faith, but the church has oftentimes been the locus of white supremacist scheming, complicity or silence. The narrative gap exists within the Christian church as much as it does within the world. Thus, more than half of all Christians deemed white by the state voted to reach back to a time when America was great.
As I left the Apartheid Museum, the power of narrative impressed me. Although separation and subjugation is maintained by the confusion and silencing of narrative, the sharing and amplification of narrative can weave us together.
Freedom Road consulting group exists to help shrink the narrative gap that prevents communities from moving past talk about justice to doing justice.
We design conversations and experiences that bring common understanding, common commitment, which lead to common action toward a more just world. We lead forums, pilgrimage, trainings, consulting, and coaching to move communities toward a shared vision for a shared future.
Freedom Road, LLC is a proud partner of the Initiatives of Change USA’s W.K. Kellogg Foundation, funded Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) Initiative in Richmond, VA. Freedom Road is working with multiple local faith networks to help design experiences and offer the needed training to help Richmond (the former “Cradle of the Confederacy”) become a model city for just transformation.
There is a way forward. It is forged by the power of story.
For more information about Freedom Road LLC, visit our website at www.freedomroad.us.