Ways of Seeing: We must not look away from the past

What do you do when you are confused? Lately, difficult events at Middlebury College have left me reeling, as I struggle to expand my mind and heart to include everyone’s perspective. I am reading every article and blog post I can find, talking to college faculty, staff and students, and, of course, looking to my yoga philosophy. Sanskrit words encircle my upper arm, two of the yamas, or ethical precepts of yoga. The words are Ahimsa, which means nonviolence, and Satya, which means truth. I got this tattoo when I turned forty, after thinking about it for ten years. (Just so you know it wasn’t a hasty choice, or one of those spontaneous body art decisions made after a long night of drinking!)
I wanted the tattoo to remind myself to live guided by these two principles, and over the last five years, since the murder of Trayvon Martin, the words on my arm have acquired a deeper meaning. In the amazing James Baldwin documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” which many of us saw in Middlebury earlier this month, Baldwin’s words about the atrocities perpetrated against African Americans were sometimes juxtaposed over film footage of white Americans doing wholesome American things, like having picnics, and dancing cheek to cheek. This serves to perfectly illustrate the illusion of white innocence. Most white Americans pretend not to be influenced by racial bias. They say things like, “I don’t see color,” or, “Why do you have to make everything about race?”
People who say things like this, while they may not have the intention to hurt others, are committing harm. Imagine a terrible atrocity was committed on the street where you live. Someone broke into a house, killed some of the people who live there, terrorized the others, stole most of their possessions and wrecked the home. Then imagine that law enforcement did nothing to help the victims, and the survivors never got any of their property back. Imagine the traumatized family, with hardly any resources other than their own physical and mental strength, and determination to survive, carrying on as best they could.
They patch up their house, and work as hard as they can to rebuild their lives. Now imagine that all the neighbors on the street pretend the attack never happened. They didn’t see the violence with their own eyes, and they were never really friends with “those people” anyway. That broken gate, crudely patched roof and dismembered car in the front yard make the neighborhood look bad!
This is our America. Not only were generations of people forced into servitude, they were literally worked to death. The average life span of slaves forced to work on plantations that grew cotton, indigo, rice and tobacco, was five to seven years. Slavery officially ended after the Civil War, with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. But after Reconstruction, white dominated Southern state legislators passed laws called Black Codes.
These laws essentially criminalized Black life, and provided a pretext to arrest and jail Black people who often lacked the resources to pay even small fines. The author Douglas Blackmon investigated these laws, and discovered that forced convict labor was used by coal mines, lumber companies, plantations and even corporations like U.S. Steel.
The wealth of this nation was built from land and resources stolen from native peoples. The wealth of this nation was built from the brutality of slavery. Slaves built the White House. And even after slavery “officially” ended, stolen, forced labor continued to build up the wealth of American companies. Today we have mass incarceration, where Black families are ripped apart, and private prison corporations make profits by denying prisoners exercise, healthcare and decent food. If we look away from all of this, we are just like the neighbors on the imaginary street above. Yes, the history of this country includes inventors, explorers, educators, and innovators. But it also includes slave owners, lynch mobs, segregationists, and plenty of people who claim that the only reason Black Americans have so little wealth and power today is that they are lazy.
James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” At this moment in history, people of color and other communities that have been marginalized are expressing solidarity with one another like never before. People are making connections between contaminated water in Flint, Mich., and treaty-violating pipelines on native land. The Black Lives Matter movement calls for an end to state violence against Black people, but it is much more than that. It also affirms the rights of queer and trans people, disabled people and the immigrant community. This is what it looks like when we stand up for each other. If we identify as white, we have an important choice to make. Will we face our history? Or will we look away?
Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works. Joanna lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys taking walks, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: [email protected].

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