The first slave ship arrived on what would become US soil before the pilgrims made it to Plymouth, MA. By the time the country fought a civil war over the systematic imprisionment, torture, and rape of human beings, it had been established as an honored tradition for nearly 250 years. The country spent the next 100 years practicing our own version of apartheid, inflicting a legal form of violence and oppression on the millions of descendants of the slaves we had once imprisioned, tortured, and raped.
The events in Charlottesville are the fruit of this long history and, critically, our failure to deal with our national shame over our past. Let's acknowledge that is shame, too. We all know this history, and white Americans feel a powerful sense of implication. Whether our families were Mississippi plantation owners in 1785 or arrived here from Belgium in 1985, the color of our skin indicts us as surely as the color of skin once indicted black Americans who lived under slavery or Jim Crow. It is our legacy, and one that will never wash off.
This doesn't make us unique or special. Dark legacies are a part of being a human. No country is without its history of horrors, but some own up to them more healthily. In the US, white Americans are unable to even discuss it honestly without deflecting. Some things are just too painful to acknowledge. Imprisonment, torture, and rape are just too much for most of us. Instead, some of us prefer not to think about it (if we still have that luxury), or we shift blame, refusing to accept the national responsibility we all bear.
The most damaged transmute that shame into pride. It is such an overwhelming darkness, so woven into identity, culture, and history, that to accept its substance is to risk annihilation. It's why, for centuries, those who were closest to these unspeakable acts were the quickest to invoke personal destruction, to cite their own grievances, to play victim. They--we--are victims of this horror. Accepting responsibility means accepting an identity shot through with monstrousness.
Shame is so powerful it can turn the mind inside out, and leave the worst perpetrators feeling like the greatest victims. Shame turns to a hard, mean instinct to shut out anything that invokes the original crimes. People hunker in defensive crouches, coagulate with others willing to work as hard as they to shut out this history that is too painful to look at. And in that small, cramped hole of victimhood and fear, people lose sight of the humanity of those around them. Anyone unwilling to repeat the soothing myths becomes a foe--and those once oppressed become an intolerable symbol of that awful shame. How else could a man work up the hate to drive into a crowd of people of gun down a church full of parishioners?
We can't easily extract a better history from the actual one and hope to start over. Our "greatest" founding fathers were slave owners, and we wrote this atrocity into our Constitution. It shaped the way we designed our republic, and in failing to confront slavery in 1776, we ensured we'd inherit its legacy in vivid moments like 1861, 1881, 1954, and yesterday.
There's nothing controversial in our history as a matter of fact; everything about it is well and extensively documented. But its meaning--the stain that can't be washed from our national soul--is the battleground that defines us a country. It is often cast as a problem of "race," but that misses the mark. It's a problem of shame and how to address it. All Americans own this history, it's part of us all. But for those of us who can't accept or acknowledge its true meaning--that we did in fact commit these horrors, that that *is* who we are--the pathologies of our shame will continue to play out like this over and over and over again.
Things will not improve soon, but if anything in this disgraceful episode holds the shafts of hope, it's this: the reason Charlottesville was ground zero for a white supremacist rally was because the city had finally decided to confront our awful past. We are a long way from full, real acceptance of our history, but we are slowly taking baby steps to at least consider it. I hope.