I read this for Jamie Lapeyrolerie's book club. Unfortunately, due to some kind of weird library snafu, I got my copy the day of the club discussion, so I'm only now finishing it. Yes, it took me about three weeks to read this book, not because it's long, but because it is hard.
Now, the first five chapters, I felt like I wasn't really learning much new stuff. Those were talking about the history of slavery in the US from the early days of colonialism through the onset of the Civil War. And I've read a lot of books about race relations pre-Civil War, slavery, and life in the USA in that era, so... what Tisby was saying made sense, but it also wasn't new to me. If that's not an era or subject you've read and studied about, then you'll learn a lot from those first few chapters.
But the chapter where I really started to learn new things was the sixth one, called "Reconstructing White Supremacy in the Jim Crow Era." And boy, did that open my eyes to things. Not to how bad Jim Crow was, because I've read a lot about that too. But to the way that, after the Civil War, some people in the South started rewriting the collective memory of the South, as to what the Antebellum era was like. And how much of that has trickled down to today. And that's when it got really personal, for me.
My family moved to North Carolina when I was twelve. Until then, my view of the Civil War was very straightforward: North = Good, South = Bad. I didn't want to move there, in fact, because that view had been branded into my brain by my history books, a couple movies that involved the Civil War, and just the general viewpoint of the people I interacted with in Michigan while I was growing up there.
But, between moving to NC when I was 12 and going to college in MN when I was 18, that changed. Because, guess what? I made friends in NC. The people at our new church embraced us. A local homeschool group embraced us. I came to view NC as my home, and I still do. I still love my church family there, and my other friends as well. They are dedicated Christians. Most of them are also white. But... I gradually came to believe that you could fly the Confederate flag as a symbol of your family's heritage as brave soldiers and people who opposed "big government," and not as a statement of white supremacy. That some slave-owners were evil, but most were kind. That the Civil War was really about states' rights and not about slavery. I became convinced of these things, because so many people I encountered were so fully convinced of them.
And here's the thing: I truly believe that the people who changed my mind, oh so gradually, about things like that... didn't realize that those ideas came from people after the Civil War trying to rationalize away the evil they had allowed to exist in their midst. They did not understand. They knew not what they were doing. They were repeating things that they had been taught by their parents, who had been taught them by their own parents, and they are so far removed from the origins of the collective memory-replacement that they have no idea that they're perpetuating something untrue.
By retrofitting the people of the South with a gauzy, rosy view of the past, one filled with delicate belles and stalwart soldiers and happy slaves, those people stopped the healing that the South should have done. You know how, if you open a wound to light and air, it heals, but if you cover it and keep it dark and closed up, it festers and rots? I think that's what happened here. Instead of letting the horrors of slavery be exposed to light and air, and thus healed, people in the South after the Civil War strove to cover it all up and forget it. And so racial hatred got worse, and worse, and worse. Until people can't even tell anymore that the things they think are true about the past, aren't. Until people can't see that the memory that's been handed down to them... is a lie. Is founded in hatred and fear.
Today, I'm convinced you should not display a Confederate flag, unless in a museum, because it's going to cause hurt to someone Black who sees it. It inevitably will. Even if YOU aren't meaning it to be a symbol of hatred, that's what it's become, and that fact needs to be accepted and respected. It's kind of like a reverse version of the cross -- originally, that was a symbol of oppression and agonizing punishment, but Christians have turned it into a symbol of God's unfailing love and redemption for all mankind.
Now, I think the same can be said of the people in the North, actually. What I learned there as a child was that everyone in the North was an abolitionist, anti-racist hero who set out to rescue those enslaved in the South. I can see now that such was not the case there either -- that the victors created their own gauzy, rosy narrative about their role in the affair as well.
Okay, so, that was what hit me the hardest, in this book. I learned many things from it besides that, but that's the lesson I'm going to be carrying with me forever. That you can't separate reality and history and current life the way that has been done so much, because you will just perpetuate hatred and hurting, and prevent healing.
One thing that disappointed me about this book was the absolute lack of any discussion of the Lutheran church, any of its synods. Various Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Baptist, Fundementalist, Reformed, and even Roman Catholic church bodies get talked about, regarding their historic relationship with racism. But there is literally one mention of Lutherans, and it's only that a Lutheran man in Illinois gave wallet-sized pictures of Jesus to his friends in the 1950s as a statement against card-carrying Communists.
I don't know why this is. Have Lutherans in the US, historically, been more racially tolerant or accepting? Do they simply not fit the narrative focus that Tisby had in this book? Are there just not enough of them to matter to him? I am not sure.
I do know that Booker T. Washington viewed Lutherans very favorably as being eager to put their time and money to use helping Black people after the Civil War. From reading Light in the Dark Belt by Rosa Young, I learned a lot about Lutheran support for poor Blacks in the south in the first half of the twentieth century. Being a lifelong Lutheran, I was disappointed to have them so entirely overlooked in this book, as if we had nothing at all to do with this issue in any way. Which, obviously, cannot be the case, since there have been Lutherans here since before the American Revolution.
I was also disappointed by Tisby's seeming attitude that the Gospel message ruined other cultures by wiping out their traditional religions. He never once talked about the Gospel being the only way to heaven, and that bothered me. I understand that attitude from non-Christians, because they don't believe that faith in Christ as the Savior of all mankind is the only way to heaven. But he was writing from the perspective of a Christian, and so, yeah, that bothered and disappointed me.
Particularly Good Bits:
The refusal to act in the midst of injustice is itself an act of injustice. Indifference to oppression perpetuates oppression (p. 15).
The ability to weep with those who weep is necessary for true healing (p. 23).
...if people made deliberate decisions to enact inequality, it is possible that a series of better decisions could begin to change this reality (p. 27).
The "Lost Cause is a narrative about southern society and the Confederate cause invented after the Civil War to make meaning of the devastating military defeat for southern white Americans. The Lost Cause mythologized the white, pre-Civil War South as a virtuous, patriotic group of tight-knit Christian communities. According to the Lost Cause narrative, the South wanted nothing more than to be left alone to preserve its idyllic civilization, but it was attacked by the aggressive, godless North, who swooped in to disrupt a stable society, calling for emancipation and inviting the intrusion of the federal government into small-town, rural life. Confederates reluctantly roused themselves to the battlefield not because of bloodlust or a nefarious desire to subjugate black people, but because outsiders had threatened their way of life and because honor demanded a reaction (p. 93-94) (This is EXACTLY what I learned when living in the South.)
History is about context, so studying history remains vital. It teaches us how to place people, events, and movements within the broader scope of God's work in the world (p. 194).
Those who declare that Confederate symbols represent "heritage not hate" must recognize that part of that heritage was hate in the form of slavery and white supremacy (p. 201).
Black people have somehow found a way to flourish because of faith. It is a faith that is vibrant and still inspires black Christians to endure and struggle against present-day forms of racism. The entire church can learn from believers who have suffered, yet still hold onto God's unchanging hand (p. 203).
If This Was a Movie, I Would Rate It: R. There are multiple discussions of rape, torture, and murder, all the more awful because they all happened in real life.