Throughout the course of my life, people have advised me that I should just forget about the past, that I should not worry about what happened long ago.
Some have casually stated that I, and an entire race of people, should not look back but ahead to greater things. Yet the same people are silent when it comes to identifying what those “greater things” might be.
Some would be as specific and callous to declare, “Slavery was in the past and should be put to rest once and for all. Just don’t bring it up, for discussing it only makes it worse, and it has no relevance in today’s world.”
It intrigues me to know that people of color, black people, are asked to forget about our histories and stories more than any other race. I even hear people say directly to me, “It’s not where you come from, but where you are going.” This always stimulates my cognitive process and makes me wonder if other races of people are also burdened with this “act of forgetting,” so to speak.
Then I ask myself further, “What part of my history should I forget?”
Let us explore that for a few moments.
I can vividly recall divisive “For Coloreds Only” and “For Whites Only” signs plastered on the doors of restrooms and water fountains that were almost always broken and filthy.
I can distinctively remember standing up at the lunch counter of restaurants in certain department stores to eat while my white counterparts sat at the booths to enjoy their meals.
Are these the memories I should suppress?
Should I forget the uneasiness that creeps into my subconscious on my weekly treks to empty my household garbage, and I pass the place where barns are still standing, barns holding my memories of being a child cropping tobacco? I helped to hang tobacco in those now-barren sheds and performed other jobs associated with the same! I was vexed by worms, snakes and piercing heat but my strongest recollection is the disdain and disrespect I received. What part of that should I forget?
Should I forget being bused way across town to another school to fulfill an integration policy that, even in 2019, is not yet complete? Or should I forget my bicycle being taken back a month after Christmas, because Mama and Daddy could not make the payments and the store owner would not show grace?
Maybe I should forget having to wait on Mama to come from her domestic duties at someone else’s house as they celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas before we could have our holiday celebration at home. Perhaps I should just be grateful that Mama had a job and brought us nice “hand-me-downs” from her boss’s children.
Tell me what part of my history I should forget!
Maybe I should forget about our family Sunday outings when we would ride to Atlantic Beach joyfully only to discover that we could not go beyond the fences on both sides of the beach that extended into the ocean because it was a “Whites Only” sea with “Whites Only” water! Dear Lord, should I not remember?
Should I forget the night as a small boy when my mother and I were walking in our own neighborhood, about to cross Maxwell Street, and my mother spotted a man with a white mask on his face? Should I forget the terror that crippled me then and breaks my heart now as I hear her faint words, directing me to hide behind the bushes away from her for my own protection?
Do you know what it is like for a small child to hear his mother tell him to run speedily home and do not look back when he knows his mother is in grave danger behind him? Mama knew she was unable to run fast enough to escape the man. Perhaps I should just erase the fear that plagued me when I had left behind my mama as she hid behind a bush and prayed for both of our lives to be spared.
Should I just casually pretend that the next morning a black woman was not missing, never again discovering her whereabouts? I wish I could forget, but so much of it beckons me to remember, lest history repeat itself.
As strangely as the fruit hanging from the poplar trees that Billie Holiday sung about is the fact that some of the people who believe that African-Americans should just forget slavery, that I should forget, are the same people who believe that I, and all people, should always remember the Confederacy. To forget my history and remember the history of others gives credence to the myth that my history is less important than that of others.
If I am to be meticulously honest, the Confederacy is as much a part of slavery as slavery is a part of the Confederacy. They both happened long ago, yet they both had an impact on our country simultaneously. So tell me again: Why am I supposed to forget slavery but honor those who fought for the Confederacy?
Ironically, we are all the culmination of our shared experiences, and whatever happened to Americans individually, happened to Americans collectively, be they slave or free. Whatever our past has shaped us to become is the reality we now live today. Our humanity and liberties are products of our inhumanity and enslavements. It is both the good and the bad, the honorable and the treacherous, that have brought us to this place in time, and all of us can attest to the fact that both good and bad have taken place in this country.
We cannot only remember the noble events that have shaped our greatness while forgetting the immoral acts that have also impeded us as a society. Simply stated, we cannot just remember your history and forget mine. As Langston Hughes states so eloquently in his retort to Sir Walt Whitman, “I, too, sing America!”
Now, in our emerging political process to discover the course America shall now go, we are often admonished in rhetoric given by politician after politician to just forget the past, for it was a long time ago and it should not have any bearing on our lives presently. Interesting to think that what happened in the past does not have any bearings on our lives today, and yet so many of us reflect on things that happened in our past or in the past of others daily.
Some people seem to suggest that slavery is the only thing from the past that we should forget. However, I say that if even the minutest trinket of history is inconsequential, then let us remove it from our curriculums, let us empty our museums filled with historical diamonds that define who we are as a country and people.
If it is not important for us to remember history in its truth and totality with integrity, embracing even that which makes us ashamed, then we can never see ourselves as a whole, because we deny a part of our humanity the honor of being.
If we do not remember from whence we come, we shall surely go back there again. We all came from some place. We all did some things, good, bad and indifferent, but together they make us who we are.
I love America, even when I do not like the actions of some of her citizens.
So today, I wonder, what part of my history should I forget when it is OUR combined history that connects us. We have been intricately woven together all throughout the bowels of time, and I shall never forget my journey, for it is what defines who I am and who I choose not to become.
And I respect the histories of others enough to not want them to forget theirs!
Terry Alexander, a Democrat from Florence, represents District 59 in the S.C. House of Representatives. He serves on the House Education Committee and the Education Oversight Committee.