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Black History Meditation: Remembering The Presence Of Our Ancestors

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EMMETT TILL
AP

First initiated as Negro History Week in 1926 by the black historian Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History to remedy the wide-spread ignorance, neglect and distortion of African-American history due to racism, the observance was extended to a month in 1976 (and every year since) by Presidential Proclamation. Groups, like persons, have memories that serve to preserve their identities as groups. Our nation, constituted by diverse ethnic, racial, and religious groups achieves a unified identity, not only through a set of shared principles articulated in civic institutions, but through memory. A prime source of American identity is history, construed as a set of interlocking stories that we tell one another about our origins and our past (Lincoln's "mystic chords of memory"). Our sense of common history changes over time to accommodate our expanding awareness of the variety of who we are ethnically, racially, and religiously. Usually this expansion of historical vision occurs in response to social pressure from a group whose story has been left out of the national story. So responding to successive and vociferous complaints by African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and women; books, curricula, and the media, have changed dramatically since the 1960s.

The flexibility of our culture to include the stories of the invisible or the forgotten, disguises the fact that their stories have been included, but not fully incorporated. We, black and white, suffer a form of partial amnesia, which distorts our perceptions because we have not adequately remembered and mourned what we have suffered. I am talking about a mourning that is not an episode, but an attitude, a state of awareness. I experienced a poignant example of our need for memory and mourning during Black History Month several years ago. PBS broadcast a documentary on the murder of Emmett Till, focusing not only on his death, but on the crusade of his mother Mamie Till Mobley to achieve justice in her son's case. A few minutes after the program ended, the telephone rang and a voice at the other end of the line asked to speak with me. It was a college classmate whom I hadn't seen in years, a Jesuit priest and psychologist. He began to sob uncontrollably, as he stammered out an explanation that he had just seen the film about Till. He couldn't stop crying because he was so upset at the atrocity he had glimpsed, a crime committed over fifty years ago, but recalled by vivid images on the T.V. screen. And, in his grief he reached out to me (perhaps because we first met when I was only a year older than Till at the time of his murder.) During that same week a radio interview on NPR featured a panel discussion of race relations during which a black participant (a black historian) broke down in tears when he recalled the question his parents had never been able to answer for him as a child: "Why did white people hate us so? When they lynched us, why did they mutilate our bodies?" His tears brought to my mind Howard Thurman's assertion that black people carry the memory of lynching in their bodies and that the nation as a whole still has not healed from the wound of race. In Brooklyn, St. Paul Community Baptist Church sponsors an annual pilgrimage to the ocean in Far Rockaway to mourn for the millions of Africans who died in the transatlantic slave trade. "We have not properly mourned nor repented past atrocities afflicted upon us as a people of color," the pastor of St. Paul's explains. "Clearly, a trauma of this magnitude in the life of a people must be acknowledged and mourned."

Our nation has need of tears, tears for all those lynched, maimed, whipped, shamed, and debased by our history of race hatred. Our country has need of tears for those who suffered and for those at whose hands they suffered. For they, by denying the humanity of others, denied their own. We remain connected to the past by memory, and the nation, like individuals, must come to terms with the past. There is a way out of the evasion and willed amnesia of our racial trauma -- listening to the voices of our ancestors, expressed in story, song, sermon, and texts, offers one such way as a telling of memories, an expression of mourning, and, by means of listening and mourning, to begin the process of healing the wounds, personal and social, inflicted by racism.

In my work over the past forty years on African-American religious history, I have encountered texts that resonate powerfully within me, stirring up deep memories and awakening mourning. In this series I offer five of these texts for reflection, discussion, and common mourning, as a way for us to move toward re-membering our still riven communities. The first, by way of introduction to the series, is a poem by the Senegalese poet and storyteller Birago Diop (1906-1989), a poem about the ongoing presence of the ancestors in our lives:

Spirits
Listen to Things
More often than Beings,
Hear the voice of fire,
Hear the voice of water.
Listen in the wind,
To the sighs of the bush;
This is the ancestors breathing.

Those who are dead are never gone;
They are in the darkness that grows lighter
And in the darkness that grows darker.
The dead are not down in the earth;
They are in the trembling of the trees
In the groaning of the woods,
In the water that runs,
In the water that sleeps,
They are in the hut, they are in the crowd:
The dead are not dead.

Each day they renew ancient bonds,
Ancient bonds that hold fast
Binding our lot to their law,
To the will of the spirits stronger than we
To the spell of our dead who are not really dead,
Whose covenant binds us to life,
Whose authority binds to their will,
The will of the spirits that stir
In the bed of the river, on the banks of the river,
The breathing of spirits
Who moan in the rocks and weep in the grasses.

Listen to Things
More often than Beings,
Hear the voice of fire,
Hear the voice of water.
Listen in the wind,
To the bush that is sobbing:
This is the ancestors, breathing.

Source:
The Negritude Poets, ed. Ellen Conroy Kennedy. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1989. For the complete poem: www.hu.mtu.edu/~dshoos/HU3262/Negritudepoems.htm

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