When I have reunions with my brothers and sisters, at some point we start telling stories about growing up. Invariably, we will remember events, good and bad, from different perspectives. We each tell the same story slightly differently. In the retelling, we sometimes get a fuller picture of what happened. Or we realize that as children, we didn’t fully understand at the time what was taking place.
We also invariably come to realize from our adult perspective what our parents were dealing with. In a house full of kids and pets and a mother-in-law, they were human beings meeting big challenges, a condition that we all in adulthood can relate to now. The humanity, the courage and, yes, occasionally, the flaws of our parents become more distinct in the stories we remember.
Our family history grows more complex with the retellings, the different perspectives, the different experiences. Our appreciation and love for each other grows as well.
This month, I’ve been thinking about history and the stories we tell ourselves, the narratives we recite. For this June we as a nation are marking two events I knew nothing about growing up.
The first is Juneteenth, the African American celebration of June 19, 1865, when the nation’s last slaves were emancipated in Texas.
The second is the Tulsa massacre, when a white mob burned a thriving Black neighborhood in 1921, killing an estimated 300 people, burning 35 square blocks of businesses and homes, leaving thousands homeless. No one was ever prosecuted.
One is the celebration of the end of the forced subjugation of an entire people brought to our country against their will. The other, proof that the racism and inhumanity that led to such subjugation did not end when slavery did.
As a child, I was fascinated by history, but what I learned was incomplete. Whole swaths of the story were left out: the experiences of African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, the experiences of women. I learned one story that was both aspirational and partially true, but I didn’t hear the experiences of the whole family.
Recently, our nation has been recovering some of these stories. We are hearing other narratives. We are seeing the flaws of our forebearers as well as their accomplishments.
There is some pain here. Hearing the memories of the survivors of the Tulsa massacre, it is impossible not to be appalled by the grievous wrong that was done and the manifest hatred it revealed.
The freeing of the last slaves, itself a celebration to mark, reminds us of a most shameful part of our history. Yet it cannot be avoided, since we live still with its consequences today.
Some people say history is boring, but I think it is boring when it becomes disconnected from who we are. History is our family story. In studying it in all its complexity, we learn about ourselves. We learn about each other.
Two recent movies of the Black experience were “Harriet” and “Hidden Figures.” They are reimagined historical narratives adding depth to our memories. “Harriet” tells the story of Harriet Tubman, a woman ferociously unbowed by slavery. “Hidden Figures” tells the story of three black women, including the remarkable Katherine Johnson, who played critical roles in the early U.S. space program.
If slavery and racism are part of our national story, so too are these stories of bravery, of wrongs overcome and success achieved. History is full of light and shadow. As a family, as a nation, we are both richer and wiser for the stories we are learning, the stories we are sharing today.
Greg Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at [email protected].
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