Our national Sankofa journey

One of the opportunities offered by the the Evangelical Covenant Church (and some other churches) is Sankofa. As the linked page explains, “Sankofa” is an African word that means going back to retrieve something.

In the ECC, Sankofa is implemented as a bus tour into the American South. You are paired with a fellow traveler of another race, and the ride provides lots of time for conversation about what happened at the historical sites you see in places like Birmingham, Jackson, and Memphis, and what has happened since, and what is still happening now.

The ECC’s Sankofa is something I’d like to do, though at this stage of my work life I cannot imagine when I’ll have time for it. But whether we think we have time for it or not, we’ve all been thrown into an unplanned and chaotic nationwide Sankofa journey. Many have been thrown under the bus, and many have been pushed on board unwillingly, and we’re barreling down the road with a drunk driver to an unknown destination. And it’s impossible to evade the conversations about race in America.

Well, no, it’s not impossible. There seems to be a lot of mostly over-50 white people sitting together in the back of the bus, by turns trying to force the emergency exit open, or pretending that there’s nothing to see, or that they’re not on the bus, or repeating over and over, Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Will we be there soon?

It’s hot on the bus. The seats aren’t comfortable. We’ve maybe never had a lot of conversations with Those People we’re with on the bus, and we’re not so sure we want to talk with them now, and some of them aren’t so sure they want to talk with us, and if we do want to talk we don’t know how, and we’re sure to say the wrong thing and be left trying to figure out how to get our foot out of our mouth, or someone else’s foot out of our backside.

Oy, the noise from the back of the bus won’t stop: Why do we even have to talk about this stuff? It was done in the past. My people weren’t even here yet. Or they were but they didn’t have anything to do with it. Or if they did, I don’t. I have not benefitted from the fact that other white people in the past enslaved blacks or kept them disenfranchised and excluded from the economy and the society that my people lived in. I have worked hard for what I have! [As though some others have not worked harder for what they do not have.] And I am not a racist! [As though it were that simple.]

American history is built on two great negations. The negation of the People Who Were Already Here—mostly made extinct by white diseases and white guns, and forced by white power onto “reservations” under treaties that the whites repeatedly broke. And negation of the People Who Were Brought Here and Enslaved—forced to work for the enrichment of whites for 250 years under inhumane conditions never before systematized on such a scale in the history of human slavery, then supposedly emancipated, but not really, then ground under white heels for another century beyond that, and still conveniently criminalized and imprisoned in numbers that dwarf the imprisonment statistics for any other Western democracy.

We have only just begun to acknowledge and talk about these two great negations, these two virtual (?) genocides. And at least half of us can’t stop griping about that fact that anyone wants to talk about them.

A line penned by Anselm of Canterbury in another context keeps coming back to me: “You have not yet considered what a heavy weight sin is” (Cur Deus Homo, book I, ch. 21). Anselm was arguing that “as sin so small as one look contrary to the will of God” constituted an incalculably great obstacle to reconciliation with God. How trivial an obstacle do we think our two great genocides—not to mention other smaller-scale negations—are to the reconciliation of all our people in one unified nation?

Is it not worth a bus ride? Some conversation? Whence the desperate urgency to shut down the conversation before it’s my turn to listen or to speak?

How far do we have to ride on this bus? Until every drop of blood drawn with the lash is—at least acknowledged. Until there are no longer white people whose prosperity relative to black people must be attributed in part to the enslavement and oppression of the blacks’ forebears by whites for three and a half centuries.

How far must we ride? Far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found.

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