Saturday, February 16, 2008

On History and Healing

In Earnest Gaines' A Gathering of Old Men (a novel that appears more brilliant each time I teach it), each of the men can share a heartbreaking story from his family history that explains why he is standing up today. The stories are deeply scarring incidents of racial violence and injustice, and they are both personal and historic. And these stories must not be forgotten, but should be remembered by all.

At the end of the novel, though, we have healing. "Salt and Pepper" play together and LSU wins. Charlie is killed, but so is Luke Will. The judge gives everybody the same sentence without punishment. Lou Dimes and Candy hold hands.

A common lament I hear is that Americans are woefully ignorant of history. As a teacher in the humanities, as a history minor, as a pacifist who wonders when the lesson of the folly of war will be learned, I can join that lament. It's particularly frustrating too how some people, when discussing race in America, speak as if there is no historical context whatsoever, as if a history of racial injustice and inequality is irrelevant to current race relations.

However, I also don't think we need look for our model those peoples around the world who have nursed centuries of grudges and hatreds (as a practical matter, that appears too often to be a source and justification of violence). We must confront our history, but I believe we must do so with an effort toward healing. Ignoring or even downplaying history will not bring healing--the wounds and scars are too deep. But when we engage in history with social purpose, when we acknowledge the atrocities and injustices of the past, it should be with the intent of moving forward positively. Perhaps we can look to what Australia is doing now as an example: confronting the horror of history to move forward to a better contemporary reality.

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