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Knowing our history opens true dialogue

By Ed Wolff • Nov 29, 2017 at 12:00 AM

The United States has shown its greatness from time-to-time, especially as our nation came together to defeat the forces of evil during World War II. However, such greatness, as stated in the Preamble to the Constitution, glosses over and leaves hidden some of the darker characteristics of our nation’s soul.

Slavery in America began when the first African slaves were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, to aid in the production of such lucrative crops as tobacco. It continued, officially, until April 6, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was passed. However, even then slavery was permitted by that amendment as punishment for a committed crime.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Bacon’s Rebellion occurred in 1676, which created an alliance between indentured servants and mostly enslaved Africans. The ruling class was disturbed by this unification. Virginia passed slave codes that hardened the caste system based on color and divided people even more so. Maryland followed with similar laws that intensified the differentiation between caucasians and people of color. This differentiation continues to exist in the character of our nation.

The First Nation’s Trail of Tears was a series of forced removals of First Nations from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States to an area west of the Mississippi River that had been designated as Indian Territory. The forced relocations were carried out by various government authorities following the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830.

The relocated people suffered from exposure, disease and starvation while en route, and more than four thousand died before reaching their various destinations. In addition, forays by our nation’s military against these indigenous people could be classified today as genocide.

Up until the Great Depression, children were useful as laborers because their size allowed them to move in small spaces in factories or mines where adults couldn’t fit, children were easier to manage and control and perhaps most importantly, children could be paid less than adults. Child laborers often worked to help support their families, but were forced to forgo an education.

Because of the Great Depression, adults responded favorably to eliminating child labor because of the need for jobs. In 1900, 18 percent of the workforce were children.

Women could not vote until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Women still experience less pay than their male counterparts, along with a perception that men know more about what’s best for women.

On Feb.  9, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9006 that began the internment of Japanese Americans in the United States during World War II. These Americans were forced to relocate and were incarcerated in camps in the western interior of the country. This Executive Order affected 110,000 to 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom lived on the Pacific coast.

In 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was enacted as a law, classified as the War on Drugs. Among other things, this changed the system of federally supervised release from a rehabilitative system into a punitive system. Furthermore, minor offenses for drug possession were converted to major offenses with stiffer sentences. The African-American community was primarily affected.

Anti-semitism and Islamophobia also remain prevalent in our culture

I continue to ask myself, “What is the true soul of our nation or what will it become.” While I realize such efforts as African-American and Civil Rights Museums are important, along with other well-intentioned efforts, these actions produce only an awareness of our history with minorities, marginalized and scarred people who are seeking the blessings of liberty. Such actions also might falsely promote an attitude that we are close to achieving the goals stated in the Constitution’s Preamble. More commitment is needed.

For example, in Northeast Tennessee, there is a small group of individuals meeting monthly to converse on a much deeper level. It’s called “Black/White Dialogue.” Our discussions are helping us all to lay bare our misunderstandings, lack of knowledge of the depth of the issues of racism and bigotry, and the hidden pervasiveness of white majority privilege.

Let me provide an example. The Dialogue members were asked to converse with another person on a deeper level. My effort led to a discussion where I became aware of the Slave Trail of Tears that stretched from Richmond, Virginia, to New Orleans, Louisiana, in the early 1800s. These forced marches of slaves dwarfed the size of the First Nation Trail of Tears. Over 1 million slaves were involved, wearing manacles and chains. Yet, I had never heard of this part our nation’s history. Furthermore, I can’t remember reading about it in any history book.

History is influenced by power and privilege. Thankfully, there are those who diligently strive to find out our truth, and persist to inform us of who we truly are. It is no different when we hear each otter’s personal story. The opportunity is open to all of us, if we’re willing to open our hearts and minds and listen to one another. When we emotionally can walk in the shoes of the other, our national soul will begin to heal.

The Rev. Edward Wolff of Jonesborough is a retired Lutheran minister and progressive activist. You can reach him at esw0407@gmail.com.

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