What I know about trauma is that when you’re in the middle of a trauma, it’s much more difficult to process it than it is once even a modicum of safety has been established. I anticipate that as the pressure of the pandemic begins to lessen, the reality of the trauma that we’ve been through [will sink in]. We have some pretty hard days ahead of us as the fact of what’s happened begins to come out of us and come into the public. You think that it can’t get much worse than it has been, but, in fact, some of the hardest days with respect to conflict and pain are ahead of us, as we get the space to grieve and mourn and feel the rage of what we’ve been through.
You referenced coming to terms with your grandparents’ participation in a lynching. I can imagine that would be a horrifying, gut-churning revelation—one most people would not be inclined to talk about if they discovered it. How did you unearth that bit family history, and why did you decide to go public with it?
In my case, it came quite unexpectedly: I came upon a postcard of a lynching of a young woman named Laura Nelson that happened in 1911 in Okemah, Oklahoma—a small town where my family basically comprised half the population. [In the photograph,] many of the people in town were standing on the bridge off of which Laura and her son were lynched.
I was horrified. And I don’t have any direct evidence of who in my family was involved, but it’s impossible to imagine that they weren’t. I grew up knowing that my grandfather was quite a racist. He didn’t try to hide it. And I also know that Woody Guthrie, who grew up next door to my grandfather, has written about this particular lynching extensively, and even wrote a song about his father’s role in leading the lynching mob.
I decided to go public with it because when it comes to looking at white supremacy and the legacy of chattel slavery and Jim Crow, it’s something that far too many white people project into the far past [instead of] part of the reality that you are still living in. That shift is not going to happen until people realize how close—and still in the middle of those legacies—we still are. Until more white people start telling these stories and unearthing them, it’s going to continue to be repressed.
I’m wondering how you reconcile the love that you perhaps feel for your family members with the reality of their participation in a lynching.
That’s a very hard question. In my case, the grandfather who would have been most directly connected to it, there was no love lost between us.
Being tied to those legacies of terror does have a corrupting effect on people’s souls. Even if it’s hidden or never spoken of, it’s not something that you can ever forget with regard to who you conceive yourself to be and the evil that you’ve done.
That said, this is where my faith comes in. I believe that human beings in general are a mixture of the glorious things they’re capable of and the horrible things that they’re capable of. None of us can claim to be pure. And the more honest one can be about one’s brokenness and the sins one has been responsible for, the more freedom one finds from that. I never have a pure understanding of who anybody is—most especially myself, but definitely my family.
In the U.S., the history that we—particularly white people—have told ourselves about our past has been much too pure for it to be real. Reckoning with its horrors is only going to make it more real. And history, as it becomes real, shows us the path to healing.
On the topic of history, I’ve heard you say that you see a massive cultural shift underway around the globe and have likened it to what happened 500 years ago during the Reformation. First, what specifically do you see? And second, the Reformation happened in part because of the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press, and was followed by decades and decades of religious wars throughout Europe. Do you think that what we’re seeing now is a result of the advent of the Internet—the printing press of our era—and if so, should we expect a few hundred years of religious wars in our future?
When the Reformation happened, we had new technology—the printing press allowed anyone who knew how to read to pick up a book and read. We had the emergence of the nation-state, new political alignments. We had the emergence of nascent capitalism, so we had a shift of economics. You could just go on and on.
These types of seismic shifts in how the world is ordered are manifest in profound spiritual shifts. When the world gets reordered, your imagination with respect to the reality of the divine, transcendent and who you are gets recomposed. That’s happening now: The old orders are breaking down, and our imaginations are being forced to think of the transcendent in new ways and to tell new stories about who we are.