Leonard Pitts speaking in York, Pa.: Sometimes, history hurts
Leonard Pitts Jr., whose column appears regularly in the York Daily Record/Sunday News, speaks before a full house at Crispus Attucks.
Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts proved to be as thought-provoking as a speaker as he is as a writer in a recent speech in York. See Pitts gets them talking.
His comments drew a standing ovation at York County Community Against Racism’s annual meeting. See YCCAR.
I’ve broken out a couple of main points below, followed by an edited text of his speech.
Provocative point: I was 19 years old and I liked my anger. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us will admit that there is something empowering about being angry, about being the righteous person who has been done wrong. Being the victim feels good. I also liked the guilt I saw in Dave. Because when you’re angry, seeing guilt in those you’re angry at validates you, confirms you in your sense of being the injured party, the victim.
As I say, I was a teenager and so, a little shortsighted. I didn’t understand that anger is a corrosive thing… . But ultimately guilt is as much a corrosive as anger. After all, anything that makes you feel guilty you will eventually resent.
Incisive excerpt: You know what? Sometimes, history hurts. We need to understand that truth and make peace with it. We all want to partake of history when it makes us feel good, when it flatters our national pride. We have no problem bearing witness for the D-Day invasion and believing this says something about us as a nation. Bearing witness for Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill and believing this says something about us as a nation, bearing witness for the Marshall Plan, the moon landing, and the First Amendment and believing these things say something about us as a nation.
We are less inclined to bear witness for slave catchers and men in white hoods, for voting rights violations and restrictive housing covenants, less likely to want to believe that these things, too, say something about us as a nation. But they do.
Provocative conclusion: If you are an American, can you stare into that picture and know that you are heir to a history that is pain and promise, trauma and triumph and you can’t choose the one and ignore the other. You are not heir to part of the story. You are heir to the whole story.
James Cameron told me that once, in Israel he saw an inscription that said, “To remember is salvation. To forget is exile.”
“An oppressed people,” he told me, “find their strength and identity in remembering their passages.”
Will you help me bear witness for that?
His speech follows:
In 1926, Carter G. Woodson inaugurated something he called Negro History Week. He scheduled it in February to coincide with the 12th and the 17th, the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Eighty-one years later, Negro History Week is Black History Month, commemorated annually in February with commercials and promotions. I have come over the years to be rather ambivalent about Black History Month. It’s all well and good that we talk about the achievements of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the first successful open heart surgery, or Madame C.J. Walker, who was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire, or George Washington Carver, who found hundreds of ways to use a peanut. But it is more important, it seems to me, that we bear witness for them, that we speak to the things they saw and suffered, that we hear the lessons their lives have to tell us.
This is something we have, black and white, largely failed to do. Something, I think, we find too painful to do.
If you want to know what I mean, well, maybe you remember the old miniseries Roots, which aired on ABC television 30 years ago this year.
For those of you too young to remember the days when there were only three television networks and everybody in the family would gather in the same room to watch the same show, it will be hard to appreciate the impact of that show. Suffice to say, it was twice as big as American Idol, three times bigger than Desperate Housewives. In other words, it was a program that was being watched by everyone everywhere at the same time.
The reason I bring it up is that I want to talk about what happened between me and a friend of mine after the first episode was broadcast. It introduced us to a Mandinkan boy named Kunta Kinte. We bore witness as he grew up in the bosom of his family. We bore witness as he struggled with the lessons of boyhood and manhood. Then one day, we bore witness as he ventured away from his village, searching for wood to make a drum.
We bore witness as white men on horseback ran him down, captured him with a net, put manacles on his wrists, chained him down him into the dark and stinking hold of their ship. We bore witness as a free man was made into a slave.
And I’m here to tell you that it hurt like hell.
I was a student then, a junior at the University of Southern California and I worked part time at the student bookstore. My friend and co-worker was a white guy named Dave Weitzel. He and I used to pass the hours on the job goofing on each other and laughing together the way you do when you’re 19 years old.
It was different the day after the first episode of Roots aired.
I remember feeling angry that day. Angry and righteous. There was a lot of that going around. Black people traded knowing looks and grim nods of recognition. Something had awakened in us, something that gave a name and a face to and a reason to this sense of alienation we had carried for so long it had become second nature.
White folks stayed out of our way that day. Something else I remember. The silences between friends. The averted eyes. The conversations that were suddenly formal and stilted where the day before they had been easy and off-handed. Dave hardly spoke to me that day. Wouldn’t even look my way. The air between us was charged in a way it had never been before.
Finally, somewhere near the end of the day, he came up to me. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know.”
I remember feeling vindicated by that apology.
Dave felt guilty and I felt angry and neither one of those is a pleasant emotion, something you don’t want to carry with you if you can avoid it. So it’s not hard to understand why people find it hard to bear witness, why they prefer to talk about achievements and milestones: Williams’ surgery, Walker’s money, Carver’s peanut.
But see, those achievements did not happen in a vacuum. Meaning that for me, the thing that makes those stories truly outstanding is the context in which they took place. Daniel Hale Williams performed his pioneering surgery in 1893, two years before a landmark Supreme Court ruling that said it was legal to require black people to ride separate train cars, drink from separate fountains, go to separate schools, be buried in separate cemeteries. Dr. Carver achieved his scientific feats despite the fact that when he was born in 1864, he was the legal property of another human being, with the same standing and rights under the law as a horse or a dog. Madame Walker made her money at a time when it was common to mobs of Christian white people to hang black men by their necks from rope, to burn them alive, to sell and trade their body parts as souvenirs.
This harsh and barbaric reality is what makes lives like their outstanding, and yet, this is what we don’t talk about in Black History Month or at any other time – apparently, because it hurts too much to talk about, because it indicts us as a nation, because it forces us to face things we would prefer not to face and know things we would prefer not to know. And because when we do talk about it, we seem unable to get beyond first base, that uncomfortable place where Dave and I found ourselves the day after Roots aired for the first time:
Black folks feeling righteous and angry. White ones feeling shame-faced and sad.
Maybe we can hardly have been expected to react differently. If you can read this nation’s history of atrocities based on color of skin without being angry, something’s got to be wrong with you. And if you are brought face to face with the fact that your fathers and mothers committed those atrocities or simply benefited from them, it has to impact your view of your forebears and, perhaps, of yourself.
Thirty years ago when Roots aired, I thought these feelings of anger and guilt were a good thing.
I was 19 years old and I liked my anger. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us will admit that there is something empowering about being angry, about being the righteous person who has been done wrong. Being the victim feels good. I also liked the guilt I saw in Dave. Because when you’re angry, seeing guilt in those you’re angry at validates you, confirms you in your sense of being the injured party, the victim.
As I say, I was a teenager and so, a little shortsighted. I didn’t understand that anger is a corrosive thing.
As African Americans, we cherish our anger, this abiding sense of having been done wrong, left on the short end of history. We don’t think about it much, don’t examine it often. It is simply there like air, our sword, our shield, our tether one to another. This should not be a surprise.
Do you know what they did to me and mine, back in the ugly long ago? Do you know about the black child in a cage swinging above the dinner table to fan flies away from the white people dining below? Do you know about the little girl who slept at the end of the bed as a foot warmer for the man who owned her? Do you know about the baby who was torn from its mother’s womb and stomped to death by a lynch mob? Of course there is anger. How could there not be?
And I liked the guilt, too, for the same reason most of us do. Ask any woman who’s husband is in the dog house and she’ll tell you all about it. Guilty people, after all, will cater to you, do what you want them to, say what you want them to say. They’ll do anything in hopes you will finally let them up.
But ultimately guilt is as much a corrosive as anger. After all, anything that makes you feel guilty you will eventually resent. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many white people have written me to say, they don’t want to hear another word about this history. Get over it, they say. Move on. Enough. I’m tired of hearing about it. Or else they tell me it didn’t happen the way it did, it wasn’t as bad as it actually was. Or some other form of denial. I’ve heard this a hundred times or more.
I would never dare – most of us would never dare – say those things to a Jew mourning the Holocaust. Who among us would callous enough to say Get over it, move on. It wasn’t that bad. It didn’t happen that way. I don’t want to hear this any more.
But then, although the Holocaust hurts us, it does not indict us. We have distance from it. You talk about the villains of that story and you’re talking about the people of a nation on the other side of the world. You talk about the villains of this story, and you’re talking about somebody’s mother, somebody’s father, a face in a family photo album, maybe even a face in a mirror.
There is denial because otherwise, you have to face some truths that trouble conscience.
So what do we do, then, with this history? To deny it, to say this is something we must not talk about, is to dishonor the suffering of our African American forebears. I am a firm believer in the axiom that says if you don’t learn from history, you repeat it. So you can’t just say, This history makes me uncomfortable, let’s put it away somewhere.
But by the same token, what is the point of the history if all it leads to is anger? Or guilt.
What if we could get to the other side of anger and guilt? What would the world look like then? Would we reach a point where we could mourn together for the sins of the past together and work together for the redemption of the future?
In 1997, a bill was offered in Congress that would have authorized a national apology for slavery as a means of getting past this impasse. I was intrigued by the violence of the response to it. Newt Gingrich said, it was mere symbolism. Which, of course, it was. Just like the Statue of Liberty. Other observers pointed out that they had never owned any slaves, so why should they apologize? But of course, a national apology doesn’t come from an individual. It comes from the country as a corporate body. I mean, I never interned any Japanese Americans during the Second World War, wasn’t even born then, but I certainly wasn’t offended when the nation apologized for that. Most of us weren’t.
But slavery is different, isn’t it? Carries all this baggage of anger and guilt, recrimination and denial. The apology would have cost nothing except the will to give it. But it’s the will that was lacking. The bill was never enacted. And that tells you something about the volatile mix of emotion that is at play.
That same year, I wrote a column about a guy named Joe Hudson, a black man who was a radio talk show host in Detroit. Hudson had his own Roots story; a while colleague named Norman met him at the water cooler the day after the first episode aired and said simply, “If any of my ancestors inflicted harm on any of yours, I apologize.”
Hudson said the effect of that on him was so profound that he began to wonder what would happen in this country if Norman’s gesture was repeated on a large scale, if the nation apologized for its mistreatment of its African children. He didn’t mention reparations. The point of his question wasn’t money. He simply wanted to know what would happen if the country said to its citizens of African descent, as it once did to its citizens of Japanese descent, We’re sorry.
I was not prepared for the response that column. I mean, yes, I was prepared for the hatefulness of some people. And I was prepared for the rationalizations, some of which were the same ones that were spoken when the Congressional bill was introduced a few months later.
What I was not prepared for was the white people who called me crying, sighing and weeping into the telephone in shame and relief. And asking forgiveness. As if I could absolve them in the name of 35 million black Americans.
To tell you the truth, it made me profoundly uncomfortable. I didn’t know these people, yet I had somehow made myself their priest, the object of their confessions. But it struck me that I had apparently tapped a need I had not even known was there. A need for absolution. A need to find a way forward.
I spoke about that with a man named Mark Weitzman, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Task Force Against Hate. Weitzman is a Jew who had spent a great deal of time studying the relationship between Jews and Germans in the decades after the Holocaust. He saw a parallel with the situation in this country. He told me that American whites are like the Germans in the sense that they have never quite come to grips with their historical legacy.
He said, quote, “Jews and Germans are linked in a way neither of them would choose. In some ways the issue is more a German problem than a Jewish problem. Putting it simply, if I had a choice between committing murder and being murdered, I’m not sure about my physical reaction, but I know my moral reaction. The Germans have to face up to the fact that their country chose the path of murder, and that’s a harder burden to carry in a moral sense.”
And he added, “I don’t hold anyone who was not born at the time personally guilty for anything.” But a sense of responsibility? That, he says, is different. “We all have a sense of responsibility based on the past that we inherit.”
We are all children of our fathers and mothers, all heirs to history, its triumphs and its failures alike. And you escape that. As a moral matter, you shouldn’t even try.
I don’t want to leave the wrong impression here. Don’t want anyone to think I’m sitting here waiting on someone to tell me they’re sorry before I can feel whole. As I said a moment ago, it was profoundly uncomfortable to pick up the phone and find strangers apologizing to me. I’m not even making the case for a national apology, which would hardly be a panacea for this country.
All I’m saying is that when someone acknowledges your pain, it validates you. It makes you feel seen. And when someone forgives you, it releases you. It lets you up. When you are able to release anger and guilt, it makes you free.
And if it’s true black people have never been fully free, it’s also true that in a very real sense, white ones haven’t either. For there to be slaves, there must also be masters. For there to be oppression, there must also be oppressors.
Have you ever hated somebody? It’s hard work. It requires you to pay inordinate attention to their lives, to detest their pleasures and plot their pains. So think about the price Jim Crow exacted from white people in this country. Think of the great literature and hot music, think of the friendships and kinships, think of the love affairs and small pleasures, think of the fine meals and lazy evenings, think of the simple, self-evident truths, they were forced to deny themselves in order to protect the fictions of segregation and supremacy.
Truth is, as long as this…thing lies between us, ain’t none of us free.
Weitzman was right. Like Jews and Germans, blacks and whites are bound in a relationship neither of us would ever have chosen.
And at the end of the day, the question is not, what happened in history: that’s settled and known. Rather, the question is the one Martin Luther King once asked: Where do we go from here?
I would hope those of us who are African American would go turn anger away from hatred, cynicism and mistrust of people just because their skin happens to be white. Turn it toward a passionate impatience with the unfairness of status quo.
And I would hope those of us who are white Americans would go to an understanding that you don’t need to feel guilty, but that we all bear responsibility to the history we inherit, are all morally obligated to do what we can to fix sins that were committed in our names. So if this history sits on you like weight, turn that weight in the same direction, toward a passionate impatience with the unfairness of status quo.
I would hope we would go to a place where white people of good will are welcomed again into the discussion of racial inequity, where it is possible for them to speak honestly and compassionately about race without being subjected to knee jerk, boy-who-cried-wolf calls of racism. I would hope we would go to a place where those same white people realize that African America’s emotional scars are grievous and not always immediately visible.
Most of all, I would that all of us, every father’s daughter and mother’s son of us, would come to understand that history is not simply about where we were, but also about where we are and where we hope to go. And our history is also a command to be brave.
I find it interesting in the last few years that so many old white men are being hauled in court and thrown into jail for murdering black women and men a lifetime ago. We’ve seen the killers and alleged killers of Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner, Medgar Evers, the four little black girls at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., all brought, in their walkers and wheelchairs, to face the judge. Here in York, former mayor Charlie Robertson was tried – and acquitted – for a murder that took place 38 summers ago.
People keep telling me I should be impressed by this flurry of activity. People keep telling me it’s a wonderful thing to see justice done at last. Me, I tend to agree with the jurist who said “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” It’s also telling to me that it takes 38 years, 40 and 45 years before we can find the courage to face this history straight on, before we can muster the guts to bear witness for the voting rights activists, the NAACP man, the preacher’s daughter from South Carolina, and four little girls blown up in the basement of their church. I don’t think that’s anything that deserves a pat on the back. If anything we should be shamed that it takes us until now to face what we should have faced long ago.
You know what? Sometimes, history hurts. We need to understand that truth and make peace with it. We all want to partake of history when it makes us feel good, when it flatters our national pride. We have no problem bearing witness for the D-Day invasion and believing this says something about us as a nation. Bearing witness for Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill and believing this says something about us as a nation, bearing witness for the Marshall Plan, the moon landing, and the First Amendment and believing these things say something about us as a nation.
We are less inclined to bear witness for slave catchers and men in white hoods, for voting rights violations and restrictive housing covenants, less likely to want to believe that these things, too, say something about us as a nation. But they do.
Understanding that is not about guilt and it’s not about anger and if that’s all that we black folks and white folks take from those stories, then we disserve our history and ourselves. Because this is about bearing witness for that which is not so pretty, about speaking for our forebears and allowing them to speak to us. Because history has lessons to teach us if we only have ears to hear.
So I ask you to bear witness for Mary McLeod Bethune and wonder what she would say to a black child who thinks doing too well in school is a crime against blackness.
Bear witness for Elijah Lovejoy, the white preacher who lost his life in the struggle for freedom and wonder what he would say to white people content to jeer from the sidelines as that struggle goes on.
Bear witness for Viola Liuzzo, the white housewife who was killed in the struggle for voting rights and wonder what she would say to African-Americans who refuse to vote.
Bear witness for Sam Hose, his body torn apart by a white lynch mob, and wonder what he would say to white people whose hearts seep with the poison of racial hatred.
Bear witness for Martin Luther King, Jr. and wonder what he would say to rap stars who describe one call one another by an ugly name that brings joy to the hearts of the Ku Klux Klan.
Bear witness for Malcolm X and wonder what he would say about a culture of acquisition and greed which tells us that material wealth is the only wealth that matters.
Bear witness for Frederick Douglass and wonder what he would say about fatherless black homes.
Bear witness for Marcus Garvey and wonder what he would say about black men who hold their neighborhoods hostage to violence and fear.
Bear witness for James Byrd and wonder what he would say about white people who rationalize racism and deny the transcendence of hate.
Bear witness for some slave whose name history forgot and wonder what he would say about opportunities and advantages black people fail to exploit.
Bear witness for resolve over anger and commitment over guilt.
Bear witness for faith.
And bear witness for the hope that we Americans of diverse heritage can find common ground in our common pain, can know our history yet not be bound by it, can be rooted and yet fly.
Let me tell you a final story. It’s a painful one. It’s about a lynching that took place in Marion, Ind. In 1930. A survivor of that lynching, a man named James Cameron, told me the story.
How he accepted a ride from two of his friends, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. How the two of them started talking robbery. How they drove to the local Lover’s Lane. How they gave him a gun as they walked up to the car. How he recognized the white man who opened the car door. His name was Claude Deeter and sometimes, he came to get his shoes shined at Cameron’s stand at the train station.
Cameron told me that broke the spell. He dropped the gun and ran. He was two blocks away when he heard the gunshots ring out.
Cameron, who was 16 at the time, ran home. He spent two or three hours pacing in his bedroom. When he heard police at the door, he jumped into bed and pretended to be asleep. The officers hauled him out of bed and took him to the police station. A crowd of about 15 or 20 people stood on the sidewalk, watching.
Cameron was interrogated by Sheriff Jacob Campbell, who demanded details of how he had shot Claude Deeter and raped Deeter’s girlfriend, Mary Ball. Mary Ball would later testify that she was never sexually assaulted. Cameron spent two or three hours telling the police he wasn’t there. As he spoke, he said, the sheriff was writing a document out by hand.
Then, said Cameron, the sheriff gave a nod to the officers in the room. They knocked him out of the chair, threw him to the floor and, he said, “started tromping on me like I was a snake or something.” After a few moments, they put him back in the chair and the sheriff shoved the paper toward him and told him to sign it.
Cameron leaned forward to see what he was signing and he said he was hit upside his head so hard it felt like a wrecking ball against a building. The cop that hit him said, “The sheriff said sign it, not read it.’’ So he signed it. He found out later that it was a confession.
All the next day, the crowd outside the jail grew bigger. Somebody hoisted Deeter’s bloody shirt on the flagpole. At 1:30 that afternoon, Deeter died. Shortly after 8 that night, rocks began slamming against the jailhouse windows and the mob came forward. Sheriff Campbell ordered his men not to shoot because there were women and children in the crowd.
Four men took sledgehammers to the jailhouse door. It took them an hour, but they loosened the mortar around the casing and then snatched the door right out. Their hands were bloody.
Shipp was the first to die. He was beaten to death. Then they took Smith and rammed a crowbar through his chest. They wrapped Shipp in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hanged both men in a tree. Then the cry went up: “We want Cameron! We want Cameron!”
James Cameron told me, “I thought the blood would freeze in my body. They walked in and said, ‘All you niggers get on this side of the jail and all you other guys get over there.’ They said, ‘Cameron is in here and if you don’t tell where he is, we’re going to lynch every goddamn one of you niggers.’”
“And man” – this is still James Cameron speaking – “what did they want to say that for? Half the blacks in there fell down on their hands and knees and started to crawl like trained animals. They were hugging the white men’s legs and kissing their hands, slobbering just like babies, ‘Lawdy Mister White Man, please don’t hang us! We ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of poor niggers in here for train’ ridin’. Ain’t no James Cameron in here.”
Cameron started crying as he told me that story. He said, “I’ve had eight movie offers, but how in the world they gonna film something like that? All those black men crawling around on their hands and knees?”
Finally, the leader of the mob threatened to lynch every black man in the jail. And a man who was in that cell with his 16 year old son finally broke and said, “Naw, Mister White Folks, please don’t lynch us. There he is, right there! That’s him.”
Cameron told me they beat him senseless and had him under the tree with the lynch rope around his neck when somebody yelled out that he hadn’t done anything and they should take him back. That voice has never been authoritatively identified, but Cameron always said until he died just last year, that it was the voice of God.
He was allowed to go back into the jail. Meantime, a man named Lawrence Beitler, who owned a camera shop, came out and took a picture of the remains of Shipp and Smith in that tree. As was the custom back then, thousands of prints were made and sold as souvenirs. Beitler’s picture is one of the most famous of all the lynch photos. One of the most horrifying, too. The thing that makes it horrifying is not seeing Shipp and Smith hanging there beaten and broken and beyond all pain. It is, rather, the crowd below, Christian white men and women smiling and laughing and behaving for all the world as if they were at the county fair.
After I interviewed Cameron in Milwaukee, I drove down to Marion to see the place where this happened and I spoke to some of the old people who were living there. I remember a couple of black women, Sarah Weaver-Pate and Clara Jeffries, and a white man, Jack Edwards, who was the mayor in 1930. The thing that strikes me about all of them is that, the moment they fo