Clear The Past To Free The Future: Life Stories Spoken Out Loud Heal Wounds From Our Unresolved Racial War
Charles sat down and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. He looked at the fifteen others in the room and could not decide if he was relieved or simply embarrassed.
Finally John broke the silence by saying quietly, “We really are all truly sorry. Thank you for your honesty and openness.”
That was it.
The moment Charles had been hoping for since he was a little kid. All he wanted was someone to say “I’m sorry.” And now he had fifteen women and men who told him they were sorry for the barbs and taunts and put downs. One by one they had looked at him and said they were sorry.
Charles had just finished telling the story of his life.
Not just his life, the lives of his ancestors. This session of his leadership program was designed to help clear the past to free the future. He had followed the instructions, something he did well. He had learned as a kid to do what was asked of him to garner praise which was like nutritious food. However, as he began to dig deeply into his heritage he found himself getting angrier and more agitated.
He wondered as he put this personal map together if it was a waste of time or really mattered. After all, so many that he talked about were dead and buried, long gone and almost forgotten. They were from different eras and until now had been names without meaning to him.
It felt like the biggest waste of time and money and what the heck did this process have to do with leadership anyway.
When he stood at the flip chart he felt naked.
He did not want to be judged. He decided, as the only person of color in the room, to keep most of what he learned to himself. It was, he thought, none of their damned business anyway.
Keep it short and simple. No emotion. Just the basic facts and then sit down.
However, when he started, it all poured out.
There had never been a time in his life where he had discussed his slave relatives until now. It had always been better to forget, to ignore, to pretend than peel away the shame and sadness. The past, he had been taught by his mother, was over. Live now. Look to the future.
And yet, he felt haunted by fear. There was always a distant drum beat of “what if.” that cast a shadow over his life.
“What if what? ” he murmured to himself as began to discuss his Sankofa Map. This damn map of his history made him lose sleep, become irritable.
Charles worked hard to stay in the present to tell himself that the past is over and cannot impact him. Yet, his body and emotions told him differently.
He is a VP in a great tech firm. He has a family, wife and two daughters, friends, a lovely home, vacations. He does not want for anything.
He is, by all accounts, the vision of the American Dream.
So why, when he told the story of his sixth grade teacher suggesting that he, as well as all the other dark skinned kids in the class, consider trade school and not even think about college, why now did he wince and let the anger of 33 years ago bring him to the verge of tears?
He had spent much of his life ignoring the pain of being black. He hated to hear the “Black is beautiful” bullshit, as he called it. Being black, for Charles was just one more hurdle to jump, and jump and jump.
Until now, he had never done a deep dive to see the courage and the pain, the joy and the despair, the agony and the ecstasy of those from long ago. Most of us never make our ancestors into living, breathing children, teens, adults with their own hopes and dreams. They stay amorphous ghosts. Ancestors, they die but they don’t. Always lurking in dark, mysterious corners to remind us there is work to be done.
The night before his presentation the news blared yet another mindless shooting,
Or was it?
He turned off the news. The manta was now familiar, “Guns don’t kill people, people do.”
“Thank you NRA for your great marketing” he mumbled to himself. Blue people, the police killing black people, black people killing blue people, white people hiding behind the curtains in their homes hoping to “NOT SEE.” (say this fast and shudder).
He read about one smart dark-skinned man, an intellectual type who was moving to Paris because he felt his family would be safe.He thought to himself, “Fool, there’s nowhere to hide.”
He sat down after his Sankofa Map presentation and felt empty and full at the same time.
The facilitator ended the session with these words from Carl Jung:
“I became aware of the fateful links between me and me ancestors. I felt very strongly that I am under the influence of things or questions which were left incomplete and unanswered by my parents and grandparents and more distant ancestors. It often seems as if there were an impersonal karma within a family, which is passed on from parents to children. It has always seemed to me that I had to answer questions which fate had posed to my forefathers, and which had not yet been answered, or as if I had to complete, or perhaps continue, things which previous ages had left unfinished.”
Charles wiped the perspiration from his forehead and said to no one and everyone “I have work to do.”