Love Reckons with the Past

An excerpt from Kiese Laymon’s classic 2015 essay “Black Churches Taught Us to Forgive White People. We Learned to Shame Ourselves,” published in the wake of the white supremacist mass murder at Emanuel AME in Charleston, SC

Many of us have made a life of hoping to get chosen for jobs, chosen for awards, chosen for acceptance from people, structures and corporations bred on white supremacy. We’re hoping to get chosen by people who can not see us. Knowing that they hate and terrorize us doesn’t stop us from wanting to get chosen. That’s the crazy thing. Everything about this country told Grandma, a black woman born in Central Mississippi in 1920s, to love, honor and forgive white folks. And this country still tells me, a black boy born in Mississippi in the 1970s, to titillate and tend to the emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of white people in my work.

I told my Grandma that we should have chosen ourselves. I tell her that we should have let us in. We should have held each other, and fallen in healthy love with each other, instead of watching shame make parts of us disappear.

What do we make of the shameful work of being chosen? Our family eats that shame, quite literally. Other families drink the shame. All the work that we put into forgiving white supremacy, white power and white people, and then hoping to be chosen by those people, should have gone into talking about – and collectively reckoning with – our familial experiences with sexual violence, food, and trauma.

Shame strangles, I told Grandma; truth sets free. But what does any truth set free look like? I know that I don’t know.

What I do know is that love reckons with the past and evil reminds us to look to the future. Evil loves tomorrow because peddling in possibility is what abusers do. At my worst, I know that I’ve wanted the people that I’ve hurt to look forward, imagining all that I can be and forgetting the contours of who I have been to them.

Like good Americans, I told Grandma, we will remember to drink ourselves drunk on the antiquated poison of progress. We will long for “shall’s” and “will be’s” and “hopes” for tomorrow. We will heavy-handedly help in our own deception and moral obliteration. We will forget how much easier it is to talk about gun control, mental illness and riots than it is to talk about the moral and material consequences of manufactured white American innocence.

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