Earlier this summer, on our way to tour Jefferson’s Monticello, my teenage son and I passed through Charlottesville, Virginia. I didn’t pay the town much attention. My thoughts were too much on my driving, and too much on the complicated past we would soon encounter at the plantation, only five or six miles ahead. Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Proponent of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Slave owner. Keeper of a sex slave. Sire of slave children. Architect of the government’s policy of forcibly removing indigenous people from their homelands to make room for white settlement….
Like I said, complicated.
After last weekend’s horrors in Charlottesville, it should be abundantly clear, if it wasn’t already, that the “complicated past” is still with us. And it’s downright ugly. Stunningly so. The overt racism now afoot in this country robs my breath, drops me to my knees. It fills me with bewilderment, sorrow, rage—perfectly natural things to feel, but they can be paralyzing and destructive, unless I work at transmuting them into acts of compassion, justice-seeking, peace-building.
The last few days I’ve been studying photographs of the people who clashed at the “Unite the Right” rally. I keep looking for eyes. Such images are elusive, but I keep searching. White supremacist. Counter-protester. Police officer. Medic. Clergy. Car driver. Victim. Hat wearer: “Make America Great Again.”
I want—need—to see deep down in the eyes. Glimpse a flash of soul, perhaps. What happened in Charlottesville was terrorism, plain and simple. The eyes remind me of the complicated part: that I share something fundamental with everyone who was there, even with the Nazis, even with James Alex Fielders, who wielded his car as a weapon, likely hoping to commit mass murder. The eyes remind me, We’re all trying to be human together. And I dare to believe what all terrorists refuse to: That because we’re all trying to be human together, we have a responsibility to one another.
I imagine that white supremacists find themselves quoting Thomas Jefferson on occasion. After all, he was into having an armed citizenry, and thought a little rebellion (with bloodshed) could be good for the nation, now and then. A fairly close relative of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general whose statue was at the center of the Charlotteville clash, Jefferson was also, frankly, a racist.
But at least he recognized the possibility of his own limitations. “Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind,” he wrote. “As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.” Institutions, and citizens.
So here’s a message to my white supremacist brothers and sisters: You’re not keeping pace. You’re living in the past, and the rest of us aren’t going back with you. To quote the Declaration of Independence, “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” to nonviolently drag this country, and if necessary its leadership, into a future where the equal rights and worth of all people (including you) are recognized and celebrated. It might take us generations as a nation to get there, but that’s the prize, and our eyes are fixed on it.
Oh, and just so you know, I refuse to hate you. I don’t need to hate you in order to resist what you stand for. Besides, I don’t want to hate you—for moral and spiritual reasons, yes, but also for strategic and tactical ones. To quote your possible hero Jefferson one last time, “Nothing gives one person so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances.”
So, a friendly warning: You’d better watch out. Because my kinda people, we’re cool as a solar eclipse, and we’re unruffled as ducks on water. Go ahead and try to “Unite the Right” if you want. You’re wasting your time. All around you, we’re uniting the light.
Don’t be scared of it. Come on over. Let’s look each other in the eye.