Not long after my own beginning I discovered that the land beyond my neighborhood was ruled through some kind of color-based hierarchy. Those with the lightest skin were in command and were nearly the only faces I saw on tv. When I was 5, like so many African American kids before and since, I saw the innumerable images of white faces and thought that I had one too. One day I said to my mom, “I’m white and you and my brother are niggers”. I remember the look on her face - she was stunned, appalled, and distraught. It was obvious that I had done something very wrong and I became embarrassed and ashamed. Through her pain she provided evidence to convince me that I wasn’t white. Before I could name all the colors in my box of crayons the caustic rays of white supremacy had already began to poison my young being.
My family moved from North Carolina to the suburbs of Chattanooga, TN in the mid-80s. We were a black family in a white neighborhood (the first to integrate), who went to an all-black church, and attended white, private Christian schools. I was a social theorist at a young age, and I loved learning. Oddly enough, my favorite tv show was Perry Mason. As a 9-year-old I had good grades and was the chess champ of my class. Yet, I continued to see the magnitude of images (news, tv, movies, etc.) of where people like me were in society and within the apparent story of human history, and It became evident that because I was black, I was supposed to be dumb. I concluded that the education system couldn't be for me and I made a new plan - my way forward would be through extracurricular activities and sports. So, as a 4th grader I stopped studying. My grades fell and I was never the same.
Ultimately, I became a socially successful young politician and athlete, but remained a sub-mediocre student. I had kind, talented, and dedicated teachers and It was in school where I gained my deepest sense of national pride and exuberance about being born in the freest nation in the history of mankind. I was taught that God breathed into America’s founding documents and its Founding Fathers - they were like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And that America was a special, Christian nation foreordained by God before the foundations of the world. We were the neo Israelites - God's modern chosen people.
Slavery was a mere moral accident that was fixed by Lincoln and war, but the ethnic cleansing of natives was the silent sin of America no one ever spoke of. It is common practice in American schools to tell a stunted story of our national sins. In my high school's U.S. History textbook slavery was covered in 4 short sentences. There was not even one conjunction. 246 years in 4 sentences. I vividly remember the moment in class when I first saw those 4 short sentences. It was jarring - I held my breath in shock. I was no Henry Louis Gates, Jr. or Ken Burns but I knew that slavery was too significant and harrowing to be shoved into 4 short sentences (not even one conjunction). What was implicit in the framing was that what happened to Africans was logical and inevitable. Anyone who would've gone to Africa 4 centuries ago would've seen the utter intellectual, moral, and societal void and deduced that Africans (me) were cursed by God and fit for enslavement.
During my time in college at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, I began learning from friends who were taking African American history classes. What they reported was intensely irksome, perplexing, and confusing. Abduction, rape, grand theft, mass murder, branding humans, and violent forced labor, weren't Christian ideals I'd ever heard acclaimed. Nor, did those actions match the purported character of the Founders. Because of my family and church, I'd always known the story was more complex and violent, but I didn’t' know to what extent. I didn't understand why they (school, tv shows, movies, politicians, news, etc.) couldn't just tell me the truth. I felt violated and betrayed. I had to make the choice to either actively dupe myself or to set aside the myths.
One-year campus was stricken with an outbreak of widespread, overt racial strife. My RA and good friend, J.P. Wilson, was a young black man from Des Moines, who in advance happened to theme the year, "Unity in the Midst of Diversity". He was and is an affable, perceptive, caring, astute, pastoral, and an incredibly funny person who has an exceptional gift of putting people at ease. He hosted impromptu discussions on race in his dorm room. I often attended and noticed a few trends. Firstly, my white floormates would say the wrong thing and I could sense it before it happened. It started with the feet and worked itself up and out the mouth. Secondly, my black floormates would often get hurt and would sometimes strike back. In turn, my white floormates would withdraw. Inevitably those conversations could break down rather quickly. The history that my white friends were taught left them ill-prepared to engage effectively - they didn't know their own story. The reality that I and my black friends lived often left us impatient to that learned ignorance. What I didn't know then is that we were all traumatized by our nation's racial sins. It was during that time that I became convinced that a part of my working life was to be spent working within my community toward racial healing.
Before I left Chicago, I began studying economics around the time of the 2004 presidential election season, which for me are like the Olympics, NBA Finals, Super Bowl, fresh snowfall, puppies, and my mama's macaroni and cheese combined. I've missed only 3 debates since 2000 and that includes the primaries. One trend that stood out was how the loss of manufacturing jobs due to automation and relocation effected many American communities. As the son of a former factory worker, former labor organizer, and longtime entrepreneur I became obsessed. I saw that that trend first hit inner cities and that those losses destabilized what were once vibrant communities in New York City, Memphis, Chicago, Birmingham, Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis, and Gary among many more. It had been difficult for me to reconcile the state of many African American communities post the legislative victories of the 1960s.
Before the Civil Rights movement began the jobs where millions of black folks worked were being automated out of existence or began moving out of their communities, first in the North and then in the South, into white suburbs where they couldn't legally purchase homes. The fastest way to a complicated individual and communal crisis is the economic crisis that rapid structural changes in the economy yield. What was troubling beyond these facts, was that there was essentially no national mention or empathy. Poor African Americans were simply portrayed as being lazy, welfare queens, morally unchaste, and government dependent, or were pitied. Yet, the 2016 election was largely one of lament and mobilization for the white communities that were ultimately (later) devastated by the same kinds of massive job losses. Those communities were rightly seen as victims of bad economic policies, corporate interests, and automation.
In my attempt to be responsible to what I began to see in college, over the last 5 years I've read thousands of pages, had hundreds of conversations, facilitated tens of discussions, and presented to numbers audiences. Beyond our many myths the story of the United States is not for the faint of heart. Tragically the American house was built upon stolen land and its foundation by the hands of stolen labor. Our genesis was genocide – the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous and the mass theft of billions of acres of their ancestral lands, the grotesque and grand abduction and enslavement of millions of Africans, and the unsavory subjugation of women and the poor. We like many other nations sold our soul for stolen soil and free labor. I Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”.
A double-minded nation is unstable in all its ways, as is double-minded church. We were founded with a moral and psychological schism within our soul and our national sins have traumatized us all. Our golden rule, our great commandment, our thesis was and is greed (an insatiable lust for money, land, and power) through domination and control. Can freedom and liberty spring forth from enslavement? Can life and the pursuit of happiness spring forth from mass murder? We have a longstanding tradition of dehumanizing groups of humans in order to morally justify taking their lives and liberty. How long can our divided house stand? Will we ever relish the warmth of a unified home?
We are being haunted by our past. Despite the efforts of our greatest citizens the vast shadow cast by unaddressed racial wrongs and unhealed racial wounds makes bleak the brightest ideals expressed by the Founding Fathers. I do understand that the only unalienable right my family had in 1776 was the freedom to labor in bondage for the emancipation of white, land owning men. The evil effervescence of racial strife hid its public face from some for term but abounds anew. The scope of our profound divisions has dulled our collective, creative capacity to imagine and labor together toward freedom and healing.
We are being undone by or present. An immense and consuming pressure is mounting in the midst of a mass redistribution of wealth, political pettiness and gridlock, demographic changes, and a great technological awakening. Our advancements have brought increased efficiency and life for some but have also wrought devastation and death. Many have been displaced and many more fear that there is an inevitable tide of loss and economic drought soon to vanquish all that their families have built. Our chattel mass incarceration, our opioid crisis, our mass shootings, our tent cities are not merely chimes blowing in the wind but clanging bells warning that these winds of change are a hurricane of upheaval and instability.
We are not what we once were, but we are not yet what we can be. It is not too late for us to set aside the untruths of old which were concocted to bury in the deep our great shame, to take up the liberating burden of owning the truth of our national story, and to turn from the legacy of our original sins. Until we reckon with our genesis there can be no revelation of liberation and re/conciliation.