Growing up, I was fascinated by stories from the past. I have so many great memories of visiting relatives, sitting on the porch with them, and talking non-stop about so and so and how our family history is connected to this and that. It was fascinating and, I suppose, partly why I became a history major in college.
But in college, I was a hypocrite. Or perhaps I was just naive. Looking back, I’m really not sure, so maybe I was naively being a hypocrite. Regardless, I know I wanted to find “truth” in a global context, but was not remotely interested in finding it in my own context. I was proud of my heritage and anyone who disagreed with my understanding of Mississippi history, well, they were just mis-guided. And some of them probably were. But others were decidedly not. I just didn’t have enough discernment to know who to listen to and distrusted any narrative that threatened mine.
But two experiences after college resulted in major personal growth:
- I became a member of a Bible believing inter-racial church
- I realized that my ancestors were just as capable of evil as anyone else
As far as the first point, I didn’t want to join an inter-racial church. Not because of racism, but because the church was new and it felt like the “cool” thing to do. But my future husband was already a member, so I joined after we got married.
The church I joined was not perfect. But the longer I attended, the more conversations I heard involving race relations in Mississippi (from slavery to Jim Crow to Civil Rights and beyond). At first, these conversations were second hand. But after years of listening, I began engaging in the dialogue as well. I’ll just say this: it’s one thing to dismiss a second hand conversation, but it’s an entirely different thing to dismiss a person, their understanding of history, and their experience just because it is painful hear.
As to the second point, I have held to the doctrine of Total Depravity my entire life. But practically, I struggled to fully apply this doctrine to myself and my heritage. “Others” were capable of extreme evil, but “we” were not. Therefore, whatever horrible experiences African Americans endured at the hands of white people “must” have been blown out of proportion. I’m very ashamed to admit that this was my perspective of the African American experience for many years. I would love to blame this on living in an echo chamber, but the sources were always there. I just didn’t look at them.
But, why am I just now talking about this on a personal level? It’s simple. I finally realized that I’m not responsible for defending my ancestor’s reputations whether good or bad. I’m responsible for telling the truth*. My actions are not theirs and their actions do not define who I am today. But it is my heritage and I need to own it.
In addition to that, I should NEVER seek to silence those who are laboring to make the truth about our shared history known OR reinterpret their stories in a more favorable light. To do so will at best allow historical evil to hide in the shadows and at worst, allow it to masquerade as good.
Of course, I can sit here all day and say that what my ancestors were involved in (or complicit in) was reprehensible and barbaric. But until I can, in the same breath, affirm that “But for the grace of God, go I,” saying these things will ring hollow in my own ears. Please hear me, I am in no way superior to my ancestors or the culture they lived in. If I were alive under the same circumstances, I can’t guarantee that I would behave any differently than they did. I shudder to think that I might even have behaved worse. So in case you question my motives in writing this post, know this — God’s grace and his strength would be my only hope to behave differently than how the culture of the time dictated. And the same holds true today.
To some, it may look like I’m betraying my heritage and following a so-called trend. But I keep thinking about the disciples and the patriarchs in the Bible. Were their sins hidden to save their reputations? No. Their sins and their obedience were both displayed accurately so that in all things Jesus would be preeminent and worthy of all praise for his atoning sacrifice.
Of course, I’m not conflating Southern heritage with Biblical patriarchy. I’m only noting that Scripture seems to be pro-truth even when that truth reveals the worst in the people whose reputations we are most tempted to uphold, including our own. How else can Jesus be praised unless we are honest about the very sins he saves us from?
Others may wonder what has taken me so long to see this. I really don’t have an excuse except to say that even the threat of personal or familial shame creates a complex mental state that breeds avoidance, confusion, defensiveness, anger, fear, and silence. I have only recently begun to recognize it for what it is and that only by God’s grace.
Of course, there are wonderful things about Mississippi’s heritage that we should be thankful for — we are a resilient and capable people! And I know there were faithful Christians in Mississippi during this time (hopefully some were my ancestors). But every epoch in history harbors significant evil and during this particular time, my ancestors were on the side that perpetrated it.
So, to me, acknowledging that truth is no threat to Jesus, his “reputation”, his church, or his gospel. And, therefore, no threat to me even though it’s my heritage. Instead, it’s an opportunity to affirm a biblical understanding of sin, ask for forgiveness for current racial sins, repent, and pray that our African American brothers and sisters are willing to be reconciled with us despite the horror of our shared history and the many cultural sins that came from it.
*I don’t know if my ancestors were personally involved in the atrocities spoken of here (I hope and pray not), but the article below describes the cultural climate and horrors of life post-slavery in places like Mississippi.
Warning: this article contains graphic content —
The reason why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exibition