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The Elaine Massacre Memorial dedication: reflections

Yom Kippur concludes the Days of Awe, of reflection and atonement. These high holy days coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Elaine Massacre, and the memorial’s unveiling in the center of town.

Below is the full, profound text of Dr. Catherine Meeks’ remarks there. Rabbi Debra Kassoff blessed the memorial, saying:

“We must not forget where we have come from. As Rosh Hashanah calls us to repent and forgive, to shed the painful distortions of character, the events that the past and our own misguided choices have inflicted upon us, so may this memorial inspire each of us to be the most compassionate, courageous, and patient versions of ourselves.

As the new year calls us together, one human family, everyone created in the image of God, so may this memorial call us together…

May this memorial remind us, our work here is not finished.

We were not finished when slavery was abolished, nor when the 15th amendment passed, not with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, nor the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We are certainly not finished after the dedication of this monument.

This is not the end, but this — this gathering at a sacred time, in a newly created sacred space — this can be a new start, a new beginning. So now, with God’s help… let’s get to work.”

Today’s news included an attempted Yom Kippur massacre in Germany; an attack on Kurdish and Christian communities of refuge; and a dialogue about Botham Jean, black lives, and the nature of forgiveness.

Dr. Meeks’ reflection on the Elaine Massacre feels relevant as ever.

Whether today is ordinary or your highest holy day, here’s wishing us all “Gut Yontif” — a good, good day. May we each strive to tell the truth a little bit better, listen a little bit harder, and be just a little more kind — so tomorrow, we can bravely strengthen that spirit of goodness, and become better than we have been.

The Elaine Massacre Memorial dedication | September 29, 2019 | (c) Shared Experiences USA

On the dedication of the Elaine Massacre Memorial, Helena AR

Dr. Catherine Meeks, Executive Director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing

September 29th, 2019

“It is really an honor to be here today. I was a little bit surprised to be asked to be here, to be part of the program. I was planning to come and be a spectator, but I got conscripted to work.

In 1619, a ship bearing Angolans from East Africa came to Fort Point Comfort in Virginia, which would later become Jamestown. As those 20 persons were pulled into slavery, this act was the beginning of a system that allowed a spirit to be set loose in this country that allowed for dehumanization and the denigration of people of African descent.

It was that spirit, that act, that made possible the massacre 300 years later in 1919.

It was that same spirit that made it possible to sell little black children, babies, to take them out of the arms of their mothers, sell them into slavery. To take little indigenous children and cut their hair, and beat them until they could speak English, to make them quiet enough to be okay. It is that same spirit that has allowed us to take little brown children and put them in cages in our borders.

That spirit is alive.

It is important for us to stay with the understanding that that spirit hasn’t gone away. So when somebody says, “can’t we get over it? Can’t we quit talking about it?” No, we can’t. Until we get rid of the spirit that undergirds the systems of oppression everywhere on this planet.

In 1919, my father was born in Arkansas. My father was a sharecropper. I was born in 1946 in Moro, Arkansas. So we could have easily been in Elaine, Arkansas. My father could have been here as an adult. I could have been here as a child. I could have been one of the massacred ones; my father could have been one of the massacred ones, if circumstances were different. I have no idea why circumstances were not different. Why my father was born in the year that this massacre was happening, instead of having it be where we were. I have no idea why my life was not taken by this same kind of negative, dark energy.

What I do know is, I am here. And there is a responsibility to be here, that all of us have. To be about listening to see what is it that we’re supposed to be doing, and how is it that we’re supposed to be acting.

When I left Arkansas in 1964, I said I wasn’t ever coming back to the South. One should never say what one is never going to do. Because a few years later, I moved to Georgia — where I have lived for the last 48 years. Where I have learned to be the person that God wanted me to be, and learned to do the things that I needed to do. And learned that the struggle for liberation is the most important struggle any human being can engage. And that it is a struggle for all of us.

The only thing that I remember about Elaine is that my father raised pigs, and any time we slaughtered a pig, we got back wonderful pork chops and sausage and bacon. That’s what I knew about Elaine as a child growing up.

I must confess that on Saturday as I left Memphis, driving here, the more that I drove (somehow, for some reason the GPS sent me through Mississippi to get to Helena), the more that I drove, the more traumatized that I became.

I was in that 16 year old child, who lived in a place that was oppressive and repressive — and sent me the message that I could not be who I was put on earth to be.

But now as a grown woman, I have to encounter that spirit, understanding that I defied it, and I have become who I was put here to be.

Or I should say, I am becoming who I was put here to be.

It took a lot of energy just processing those memories, and thinking about-- I was challenged by how much cotton I saw. I remember picking cotton. I remember how much my father would go year after year, hoping as a sharecropper that he would get ahead. He never did.

I watched my illiterate father die as a penniless black man, who hoped every year to be out of what I call glorified slavery, which is what sharecropping was.

So I understand that the people who were trying to organize so they could have a life that was better than the one that was happening as a sharecropper — I understand what that was all about. I understand because I lived it.

And I understand the thirst that they must have had for wanting to have a little bit of liberation, a little bit of economic independence, a little bit of a sense of being in charge of themselves.

My work for racial healing is undergirded by that understanding.

And understanding something else that’s very critical: that the white people who killed the black people also died that day.

And when they did die, they did end their lives, it was as Dr. King says, “a belated announcement of an earlier death.” Because you cannot engage in those kinds of practices and activities and not be injured, and not have your soul wounded, and not be killed.

So healing is not only for black folks; it is for white folks. And we have to be clear about that.

This event today contributes to that healing process. This event today helps us to open up a little bit more space. So we can tell the truth just a little bit better. So we can listen just a little bit harder. So we can be just a little more kind.

And so we can take those folks who were killed, and those folks who were killers, into our hearts. And we can be forgiving and compassionate, because we know we’re not any better than them.

It is so easy to get on a horse, the horse of superiority, for all of us. It is so easy. But there is nobody in this room that is there yet. We are wounded, and we are seeking hopefully to be well. Hopefully. All of us, even though we are in different places on the journey, we are all on the journey.

Often times when I’m working, people will say to me, “Well you know you’re just speaking to the choir.” Well let me proclaim today in Helena Arkansas, there is no choir. There is no choir.

All of us are in this together. All of us are called to try to understand where each other stands.

Black and white people have got to learn to listen to each other. And white people have to learn to listen to black people without telling us what our story should be. It is time we hear each other.

Events like this are wonderful. We have got to be grateful for every one of them. What they do is interrupt the negative energy. There’s so much of it walking around right this minute in the U.S.

This is a way to interrupt it. This is a way to say there is something more than negativity, and fear, and polarization, and an inability to listen. This event says we stand in a space where we want to tell the truth, and we want to be brave.

Let me be clear. And let me join the rabbi in saying, this is not an end. This is a beginning.

We love dog and pony shows. We love celebrations. We love events like this, so we can go home and be proud. Well today we go home I hope asking deeper questions about, what is it that I need to do now — because I was here, now. What is it that I need to do? Here’s what I need to do.

Let us not be complacent. Because the spirit that would like us to be polarized and pitiful and fearful and hate-filled is alive and well.

But it is not as powerful as the spirit that wants us to be well.

I believe in the spirit of goodness, that God is greater than darkness, and that we can be better than we have been.

I think that it’s a wonderful commentary that so many of you have gathered here on this hot day to participate in this event. But don’t let it be just an event.

If you don’t remember anything else that I say today, remember that I said it’s a beginning. And that you individually have to figure out how it is a beginning for you.

You cannot wait for what other people think, how other people feel, what other people say.

If I had been waiting on other people’s validation, I would not have heard who I was supposed to be, and what I was supposed to do, and I wouldn’t be doing it.

So here’s this little girl. This little girl from Arkansas, whose illiterate sharecropping father used to let me sit on his lap and read to him, though he did not know a word of what I was reading.

This little girl sits here with her PhD from Emory, with her leadership in this community.

Because God is greater than the cultural voices of negativity and darkness.

So let us go in peace. Let us go in peace with new hearts. Let us go in peace with our hearts emboldened, to stand up and be brave, and not to be seeking to be safe, but to be brave.

Let us go forward in that spirit. Let us interrupt negative energy everywhere we find it — in others, and in ourselves. And let us be the people that God imagined when we were sent to the earth.

God bless you.”


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