The Reconciliation Must Be TelevisedHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, racism, Truth and Reconciliation
When someone wants to explain where the country’s been since Memorial Day, they refer to The Moment. “The Moment,” at first, seemed to name a finite period, the killing of George Floyd on May 25, and the moments his death comprised. “The Moment” then proved spongy quick, absorbing the bewildering madness of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and expanding into more protests in more corners of the planet than seemed fathomable. (The demonstrations took place during a pandemic; The Moment had swelled inside a Moment.) It appealed to people whose response to such Moments has tended to be less than vociferous — white people. White people marched and chanted. They ate tear gas and pepper spray. White people said “Black Lives Matter,” “systemic racism” and, occasionally, “reparations.”
Questions arose about what The Moment was and what should be asked of it. The Moment brought us new vision to see old wrongs and emboldened us to raze and ruin them. The Moment reversed power. Mayors stood among civilians, the police took a knee, a president had been absconded into a bunker. This Moment was the sort that Black America had been waiting for — when the woke learned to walk, when the Confederate flag ceased official operation as a security blanket, when even a beloved music trio had to concede that “Dixie” no longer becomes them.
So here we are, still in this Moment, tasked to behold the changing of names and the signaling of virtue. Waiting for meaningful legislative reform, seizing matters with civilian hands in the meantime: recasting jobs; reclaiming parks and pedestals and city streets, these local reclamations, seemingly one public space at a time. The speed of change in a country notoriously allergic to it feels like a spree, reckoning as a marathon of “Supermarket Sweep.” We know The Moment is connected to other moments yet there’s a sense in our bones that it differs from them. Who knows when such a Moment might come along again?
Before it vanishes, the centuries and conditions that produced it warrant commemoration. They warrant further confrontation, reclamation and connection. They warrant an event — broadcast across the country, over months, not days — that squares the present with the past, that explains The Moment to those who say they are, at last, awake to it. This Moment of historic holding to account, of looking inward, deserves a commensurate, totalizing event that explains what is being reckoned with, demanded and hoped for, an experience that rubs between its fingers the earth upon which all those toppled monuments had so brazenly stood. The Moment warrants a depth of conversation the United States has never had. It demands truth and reconciliation.
Other countries have undergone such commissions, tribunals and soul searching — among them, El Salvador, Rwanda, Peru, Germany, South Africa. They recount staggering atrocity — inconceivable corruption, organized oppression, genocide. Of their participants, they compel confession and vulnerability. Of their audience, they require fortitude, a pillow to wail into, a strong stomach.
This country has flirted with truth and reconciliation. Reconstruction ended in 1877, a dozen years after the end of the Civil War. It was more political action than ritual, a campaign of personhood and rights that ended when racists intimidated it out of existence. In 1968, in the wake of the racial conflagrations roiling American cities during the mid- to late 1960s, Gov. Otto Kerner Jr. of Illinois presented the findings of his so-called riot commission, whose politically moderate and racially uniform makeup (two of its members were Black; there was one woman) was strategically cast for ho-hum results. What it delivered to President Lyndon B. Johnson was, instead, shockingly, comprehensively grim. The United States, the commission concluded, is a hopelessly divided nation that has locked its Black citizens in impoverishment and swallowed the key, that good white folks were out-to-lunch and therefore as culpable as the white supremacists were malignant.
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