By Valerie Elverton Dixon
teacher, founder of JustPeaceTheory.com
On Wednesday, the United Nations observed the first annual International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It marked the 202nd anniversary of the end of the transatlantic slave trade. Wednesday also was the day that John Hope Franklin left us to live with the ancestors. The African-American historian, soft spoken man of dignity and grace, was a man of remembrance.
Remembrance is an important ethical moment. It is right to remember. It is important to remember. It is right and important because to deny the facts or to forget them is an assault upon the truth. It is an erasure. We want to forget and to pretend that these things never happened so that we can maintain a sense of our own moral purity. Let it go. Get over it. Move on.
However, such prescriptions are cheap and ineffective anodynes to keep us from the hard work of remembrance. We want to avoid responsibility and what that would mean. We want to avoid the shame of victimhood and facing what that means. All such avoidance is deception because the horror did happen.
The Old Testament commands us over and over to remember. It commands us to remember what God has done, to remember one’s own failings, to remember one’s own history of slavery. God commands an open hand to the poor. God commands liberation of slaves after six years of service. God commands that the liberated slave not be sent away empty handed. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD, your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today.” (Deuteronomy 15:15) In Christianity, we take communion in remembrance. We remember the death and the resurrection of Jesus. We remember the teachings, the life and the work of Jesus.
Faith communities have developed other kinds of worship services to help us remember. A few years back, my church in Dayton, Ohio, Omega Baptist Church, took the time and trouble to recreate the experience of the hold of a slave ship during the Middle Passage. It was part of a Maafa remembrance. Maafa is the Swahili word that roughly translates into disaster, tragedy. Maafa not only remembers the horrors of the Middle Passage, but it remembers the horrors of slavery, racial apartheid in the United States and colonial oppression of African peoples around the globe. The groans and screams of the middle passage became slave songs, poems, dance and drama that helped us remember what our ancestors had lived through.
When I told my mother about the day, she thought such a re-creation was a good thing. “I still don’t drink enough water,” she said. My mother, now living with the ancestors, had a logic far beyond my own. Her response seemed to be a non sequitur. What does the Middle Passage have to do with an African-American woman in her early seventies in the early 21st century not drinking enough water?
With infinite patience, she explained to her confused child with the PhD. “Remember,” she said to me, “I grew up in Jim Crow. I couldn’t use a decent public toilet. Water fountains were segregated. Remember slavery days when people spent long hours in fields and kitchens. Imagine having to lay in your own filth on some slave ship. You would try to hold it.” Her wisdom understood the generational impact of the trauma of the Middle Passage and slavery and the near slavery of share cropping and Jim Crow segregation. I started to think whether or not I drink enough water.
While faith communities develop worship services to help us remember, scholars study to give us historical narratives worthy of remembrance. This was the life work of John Hope Franklin. He worked inside the academy, but his scholarship had consequences far beyond the classroom and the academic guilds.
According to the Associated Press, he was the first African-American to serve as department chair in a predominately white institution, Brooklyn College; the first African-American to hold an endowed chair at Duke University; and the first Black president of the American Historical Association. His book “From Slavery to Freedom” put African-Americans back into history, showing how they were present in the battles of America’s wars, present during the Lewis and Clark expedition and present in the day to day life and building of America. His scholarship helped Thurgood Marshall and the legal team of the NAACP dismantle the doctrine of separate but equal in America’s public schools in the Brown v Board of Education case. He conducted much of his research at a time when he could not use the men’s room in the libraries where he studied. President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Human beings of all races have suffered much and have perpetrated much suffering. It is in the remembrance that we can find our way to a better place, to remember not to forget so that we do not make the same mistakes twice. We remember so that our knowledge of the past helps us to recognize the same thing in different clothes when we see it today. Ethics understands that people do harm out of their own pain. When we remember and acknowledge the pain we have caused and suffered, from which we have benefitted and lost, then we may find a way to resolution and to peace. Thank you John Hope Franklin for your work and for your example. We will remember you on the day that we remember the legal end of the transatlantic slave trade and rededicate ourselves to the end of slavery as it exists today.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar and founder and author of JustPeaceTheory.com. She taught Christian Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, MA and United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.