There are many ways to tell one’s story, and what we leave out can be as important as what we include. One way I could tell my story is to see life as a series of denial boxes, and the chapters would describe opening those boxes; until, when I’m dying, I can say I’ve opened all the denial boxes.
My husband moved twice for me, then we moved twice for him, landing in Virginia fourteen years ago. I remembering thinking, that’s THE SOUTH, like it was another planet altogether. I hadn’t spent time in the south. I forged my identity as more of a northerner — MD, DC, Rhode Island, Cape Cod in the summer. It wasn’t until August 12 of 2017 here that I remembered a part of my past I had forgotten. When I returned home from that day in Charlottesville, my husband wanted to know why I was adamant about going. I ended up writing an essay of sorts, to myself, really. This is what I wrote. I called it Why I Showed Up.
In my blood runs the complexity common among many Americans. I come by way of Italian, German, English and Irish immigrants. There’s some French mingled in, too. [I recently heard a story from my mom’s mom, Italian Catholic, about living in DC as a little girl and the KKK had a cross-burning rally at night; she said she was worried her family could be next. My dad’s people were a lot of Irish Catholics, making their way, too, with little means. My maternal grandfather was the WASP of the family, Protestant and proper in every way.] My kids are half Turkish; their paternal grandparents came to the United States in the late 60s.
One day during my adolescence I asked my grandfather questions about our ancestry. He brought me a scroll-like document and unrolled it. It belonged to one of our ancestors from Maryland. More precisely, the document called itself Joseph Harding’s “Inventory of Goods and Chattele,” dated 1779. It listed “Goods” such as: a dutch oven, rifles, blankets, and livestock, with detailed descriptions of each item written in hard-to-read cursive. Then, my unsuspecting eyes moved to the bottom of the last page to find the names of people, with significantly less description.
1 Negro Man, Anthony, 28 years old
1 Ditto, Man, Walter, 20 years old
1 Ditto, Lad, Bennet, 15 years old
1 Ditto Wench, Suk, 25 years old
1 Ditto Boy, Charles, 6 years old
1 Ditto Boy, Harry, 4 years old
1 Mulato Boy, 9 years old
1 Negro Wench, 60 years old
The list resumes with a few more items, presumably the goods used by those listed.
On the far right side of the document, beside every inventoried entry, was a value.
The value beside Anthony was 45. The value beside Walter was 50. The value beside Bennet was 45. The value beside Suk was 40. The value beside Charles was 25. The value beside Harry was 18. The value beside the unnamed “Mulato boy” was 15. The value beside the unnamed 60 year-old woman was 3.
Disoriented and incredulous about what I was reading, I looked up the page to decipher hard-to-read script. I could make out the description of a horse, valued at 37.
I attended the inter-faith worship service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Charlottesville on the evening of Friday, August 11, 2017. People gathered in light and love to celebrate what unites and binds us as Americans. A pastor friend leaned over to me near the end of the service to show me her phone - she got word that over 200 people were outside the church with torches. Soon after the benediction we were told to stay put; the church was in lock-down.
On Saturday when taking to the streets arm-in-arm with friends and strangers, singing “This Little Light of Mine,” and “We Shall Overcome,” I wasn’t there only as a clergywoman. I showed up because I am responsible as a human being for correcting what’s wrong; I am responsible for reclaiming space contaminated by hate and beliefs that harm. Mine was also a presence of penance, for that which I’ve inherited and still struggle to face.
[That] Saturday in Charlottesville I witnessed viciousness in the eyes of my fellow Americans — hate in aggregate, armed. I saw Americans outfitted as militia, with armor meant for war. I saw women bloodied by men who threw them to the ground and bashed their heads into pavement.
And I must claim my own culpability in benefitting without protest from an unjust history that continues to abide in the present moment. We are trying to form a more perfect union as Americans. We do so by remembering our past without whitewashed nostalgia. I am remembering Anthony, Walter, Bennet, Suk, Charles, Harry, a “Mulato boy” and a 60 year-old woman who didn’t get named in an “Inventory.” I marched and sang and showed up for them, and those they loved, and their stories that didn’t get recorded. It’s the least I could do.
As a Christian, I also showed up for Jews. Jews taught me about Tikkun Olam — world repair. We are to repair the world. We participate in Tikkun Olam through acts of kindness, and by protecting those at a disadvantage. Too many of my Christian predecessors failed our Jewish brothers and sisters throughout history. Hurt them, killed them. Then, we used our sacred texts to justify or ignore the Holocaust. I am responsible as a pastor to say so.
When I look back at the past I wonder how I would have responded in times that called for risky intervention, for the defense of those who needed defending. Would I have defended the Armenian, would I have protected the Gypsy, would I have stood up for the Jews? Our current climate gives us a chance to test the question, “How would I have responded?”
It is our time to respond.
~ Rev. Liz Hulme Adam