Dirty Boots: EJI, the History of Racism, and Knowing Better

If you read this blog often enough, you’ll know that I have a real problem with flabby language: words like “interesting,” which is so nondescript as to mean nothing, or phrases like “raising awareness,” which means a person isn’t actually doing anything to solve the problem— they just want other people to. Probably as much as I have a disdain for flabby language, I also dislike flabby activism, the “slacktivism” that looks like work but isn’t. With that in mind, I have to sing the praises of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, two fairly new public acknowledgments of the worst and most brutal flaws in our American Experiment. I had the opportunity to visit these two sites last month, and the sentiments expressed in them, and the backing support to go along, are clear and undeniable, albeit not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for those among us who prefer to look the other way.

Two weeks ago, on an otherwise ordinary Wednesday in late September, four fellow teachers and I took about sixty students to tour the two sites, which opened last April to national fanfare. Not being one for crowds, I avoided the concert – and downtown altogether – for the springtime gala opening, while who’s-who got to see and be seen. Though it meant that I had to wait a few months, it was worth it to me to go in my own good time. Moreover, I wanted to go with students, whose fresh perspectives may not always be on-point historically, and don’t always line up with mine, but which can serve as a good barometer for public sentiment.

I’m not one to spoil surprises, and moreover, people do need experience the sites for themselves, but I do want to share something of my reaction. As we were leaving the memorial (our second stop) and walking to the bus, our Law teacher and I talked about how the imagery of the museum and memorial related to mythic truths, those commonly held notions that can supersede actual facts in the popular mind. Mythic truths often swirl in the air around a controversial subject and prevent us from having the open conversations that need to occur. What I liked particularly about the Legacy Museum (our first stop) was how mythic truths had to take a back seat to facts: the text of newspaper ads, photographs, signage, statistics, all of which ganged up on misconceptions about people who have been reduced to labels like slave or criminal. There, those myths are debunked by a description of a mother weeping wildly as her children were sold; by a photo of a small black girl in bobby socks and saddle oxfords, books in her lap, head hanging, in an auditorium full of white children who left every seat around her empty; by statistics on the American population’s racial balance versus the American prison population’s racial balance, and by life-size bronze statues of chained human beings. What I’m driving at is this: EJI’s museum and memorial don’t allow visitors to deny history by clinging to oft-repeated assumptions. The words and the images are definite, specific, and concrete, and the assertions are supported by facts that must have taken thousands of hours to compile. More than merely “raising awareness,” the museum and memorial educate us, and not on what to think, but on the facts that we need so our thinking leads to conclusions that are aligned with the truth.

By building these two sites for public consumption, Bryan Stevenson’s organization has done more in Montgomery than “raising awareness,” and I don’t see how a visitor could leave these places in a pleasant mood and simply say, “That was interesting.” Walked through the exhibits, the library-like hush of both places announces the seriousness of visitors’ reactions, each of which remains mostly personal. Yes, our awareness is raised, and this material is interesting, but none of it is flabby at all. Certainly, many, or perhaps even most, visitors may leave these sites and do little of newsworthy import about what they’ve seen and learned. Rather, the most likely change will come in private ways that the mass of us will never see or know or notice— and that may be the best effect of all for places named with the words legacy and peace and justice. To be better, we first have to know better.

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