“Are you going to Whitney Plantation next weekend with our church?” I asked my friend over lunch.
“Lanie, my husband and I grew up hearing stories about what our families experienced during slavery. I’m so glad the church is going, but we know more than we want to know already.”
“Mmmm.” I nodded in agreement with lips buttoned.
Our church would take a trip the following weekend to Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, on a sweltering Saturday in June. The plantation opened in December 2014, and it is the only plantation in the state that tells the story of the Antebellum South from the perspective of slavery.
As I drove home after lunch with my friend, I realized she possessed a proximity to our nation’s dark history of slavery that I did not possess. Although I grew up in Mississippi where plantations and Civil War sites abound, Whitney Plantation would be my first time (with the exception of an African-American literature course) to listen and learn from this perspective.
I grew up twenty minutes away from Shiloh National Military Park where the Union and Confederacy fought a major battle in the Civil War. I went to one reenactment as a child, and I do not recall any stories of slavery–only large men around a campfire playing poker and women in hoop skirts with embroidered hand fans.
My friend is also from Mississippi. On the interstate after our lunch, I imagined stories my friend’s great grandmother might have shared about their family’s history, and I knew why I needed to go to Whitney Plantation.
In their book Reconciling All Things, Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice warn against “reconciliation without memory.” This approach to reconciliation ignores the historical wounds of a place where there is no peace: “This shallow kind of Christianity does not take local places and their history of trauma, division, and oppression seriously. It abandons the past too quickly and confidently in search of a new future.”
Whitney Plantation is a place to remember, not from the vantage point of the Big House’s second story, but from the grounds of the plantation where 234 children–freed after the Civil War–relayed their memories of Whitney Plantation for the W.A.P.’s Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, now etched in stone and told through tour guides today.
Restoration in a place requires memory, and people vary in their proximity to these memories.
I’m sure you remember at least one time as a child when your parents answered a complex question with this explanation: “That’s just the way things are.” As followers of Christ, we recognize that there are many broken places where that answer does not mean those things are how they ought to be. The local church is a foretaste of God’s kingdom, but values of God’s kingdom manifest themselves in very specific ways to specific places with specific memories.
This is why we we must remember before we rush into the work of restoration in our communities. A better description might be to re-member, piecing together exactly why things are the way they are and answering the question of what happened here.
Some of us have more pieces to this puzzle than others; my friend, for example, does not have to go beyond her great grandmother’s kitchen table to learn about the injustice of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights Movement.
In the movie Justice League, Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams) explains to Superman’s mother why she is a journalist: “Stories just makes sense. It [is] about more than the puzzle. It [is] about the truth.”
Memory requires the hard work of gathering puzzle pieces much like an investigative journalist in order to gain a more accurate understanding of the truth of history that perpetuates division and injustice today.
Does your city have a history of redlining? Did your university or seminary deny minority students admittance in the past? Do “white flight” schools exist where you live? What history does your city honor or not honor with its monuments and museums? What is the history of your church’s relationship to its community?
We do not inherit a blank slate. Andy Crouch writes in Culture Making, “When we set out to communicate or live the gospel, we never start from scratch.”
We are culture makers who inherit a preexisting culture or cultures with a complex history of beauty and pain.
It is a history that calls us close.