Facing racism with more than guilt

I hope that many people have seen the movie The Great Debaters, which opened in Asheville on Christmas day. This movie recounts a moment in our racial history that is both exhilarating and deeply disturbing.

Lest anyone think that the lynching scene in the movie was just for show, please know that the Tuskegee Institute estimates that in the early 20th century (the time period of this true story), an average of two black men and women were lynched weekly. This continued for over 30 years!

In the spring of 2007, I attended a phenomenal program called Building Bridges. [Building Bridges] began in 1993 and provides a forum for people to confront our racism through understanding, respect, dialogue and study.

Of all the things I learned, I was particularly struck by information on the relationship between [American] blacks and Irish immigrants (Greens). I had always believed that the Irish—horribly oppressed and discriminated against in their own country and actively opposed to slavery [there]—would arrive here and bond with blacks, understanding cruelty when they saw it and supporting the abolishment of slavery.

On the contrary, I learned there was a very definitive moment when the Greens broke from the black people and used their whiteness to join American society to better themselves and to move into unions and eventually the middle class. This occurred despite the guidance … of Daniel O’Connell, the great liberator of oppressed Ireland, who warned that any Irish who did not stand with blacks in the fight for equality would no longer be recognized as Irish.

My heart was struck heavily by this new information. How could my ancestors do such a thing? How do people who know the horrors of hate and bigotry turn away from each other? How do I, 200 years later, reconcile this part of my ancestral history with who I am today? Do people of color want my apology? … “I’m sorry” seems so little to offer for the millions of lives lost. (Of the 40 to 50 million Africans taken from Africa, only 10 to 15 million actually arrived alive in the New World.) Do we ever mourn their loss?

My heart tells me that, more than apologies, my way to reconciliation is to stand today for what my ancestors did not. To speak up and say: Wake up, Asheville—racism and segregation are realities right here and now. The segregation may not be legally condoned, but it [is] a reality in our neighborhoods, restaurants, churches, festivals and organizations.

There is much more to learn about what needs to be reconciled. Building Bridges is a safe place to do that. I invite you to invest two hours a week for nine weeks starting Jan. 28. Sessions will be conducted at the MAHEC building at 501 Biltmore Ave. You can register online at www.buildingbridges-asheville.org. It will be the best $20 you have spent on yourself in a long time. As our beloved protest poet sang more than 40 years ago, “How many times can a man (surely he meant women too!) turn his head and pretend he just doesn’t see?” Let your heart catch the answers blowing in the wind.

— Jane Kennedy

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