By Allison Tanner
I was deeply moved by the discussion of “unsealing our histories” during the recent Alliance Gathering. The discussion emerged from Robert Jones and Michael-Ray Mathews’ public conversation about “White Supremacy in American Religion” and was continued with the responses by the listening audience. A challenge was extended to local congregations to think strategically about what it would mean to unseal the histories of our congregational engagement in and/or benefits from white supremacy.
I was particularly taken by this idea as I have recently undertaken my own work of unsealing the history of my ancestors and their engagement with, benefit from, and occasional challenge to white supremacy in the United States. It has been a painful and poignant unveiling of where I come from, what has been passed down to me, and what it means to take responsibility for my own family story and all that I’ve inherited. This has not been an easy process, nor one that I’ve completed. I pray I continue to live with this work for the rest of my life. It has been a humbling process, a truth-seeking process, and ultimately a freeing process in that truth has the ability to set us on a path to find redemption.
I undertook this project as part of a four-month intensive training I’m going through with the Anne Braden Anti-Racist Organizer Training Program for white social justice activists. The program is for white people who want to take seriously the work of becoming “accountable, principled anti-racist organizers building multiracial movements for justice.” In addition to re-learning the history of this country through the lens of racial capitalism, colonization and militarism, one of our assignments was to research our family history to examine how our ancestors directly and indirectly benefited from white supremacy.
My unsealing work began with hearing stories that had been passed down through the generations as well as listening for the silences of what wasn’t being told. It entailed asking hard questions, applying my expanding lens of how white supremacy functions to my family lore, and doing my own historical research to fill in the gaps. In addition to the multiple ways my ancestors found their identity through military service and benefited from the racist distribution of government benefits like the G.I. bill, I saw how many of them, poor, white immigrants, were willing to accept the racial bribe that it was better to be poor and white than identify with non-whites enduring poverty at the expense of racial capitalism. Beyond the broad strokes of white supremacy, I learned that the revered immigrant of my family, fleeing religious persecution and finding safety in pre-U.S. soil in 1738, wasn’t exactly the benevolent Mennonite Bishop of old. A man of some wealth, he was able to buy a plot of land and build a fort that exists to this day, a celebrated refuge that sheltered up to 60 people in the midst of war. “What war?” was the question I’d never asked—the French Indian war that robbed the indigenous people of their ancient homeland. And it was reading from Wikipedia, of all sources, that I unsealed the horrific account of how my beloved immigrant forefather forced his daughter to kill a native woman with a knife, while he watched. That the young woman was part of a plot to burn down the fort didn’t assuage my shock that this leader in a pacifist tradition could demand such cold-blooded brutality.
I share this story as an act of truth-telling. I name this horror because the unnamed native woman’s story needs to be told. I acknowledge these inhumane actions as an attempt to unseal the history of my ancestors who participated in and benefited directly from the genocide of the native peoples of this land. This story doesn’t begin to unravel the multiple ways my ancestors benefited from the plunder of native people or the enslavement of black people in this country. But it is one ugly piece of my heritage that I’ve recently learned and refuse to silence. It is a piece of history that needs to be unsealed for me to more fully understand the ways my ancestors are connected to the evils that have taken place in the creation of the wealthiest country in the world.
I believe in the power of healing, repair and restoration. I believe there is hope for justice and equality for all who call this land home. But I also know that healing and repair cannot fully take place unless white people are honest about the harms we have committed on this soil. Truth-telling is a necessary first step in the process of acknowledging harm, and it is only after acknowledgement of harm that accountability can be discussed. Repair and reconciliation cannot become reality until white people do the hard work of unsealing truth that has been long silenced. Healing and hope for new relationships are possible, but only after the work of truly coming to terms with the evils of white supremacy and the ways all white people have benefited from these evils. What might it look like for historically white congregations to do their part, leading by example, in this powerful work of unsealing our histories, naming past (and present) evils, truth-telling and repentance? How might the salvific work of God come to us as we undertake such efforts, and how might white congregations find liberatory truth that can set us free?
Engaging in the work of unsealing our histories is not easy, and it will inevitably be messy. It names the ugliness of the past that continues to live on within us, whether we are aware of its harms or not. As with all cycles of violence, seeing harm and naming harm are essential to addressing harm and moving beyond harm. As I finished my initial foray into this work, I found comfort in ritual cleansing. I cannot change my past, but I can say with confidence that the silence of the harms committed by my ancestors ends with me. And I can commit to finding ways to repent, seek repair, and find healing. Finally, I can find hope in the courage of other ancestors who challenged white supremacy—the young man who walked away from his slave-owning family in Virginia in 1840 and fought in the Union Army, or my great-grandfather whose home was shot at because he took a stand against the school board. I can hope their moral courage continues on in me, even as I do my own brave work of disrupting and dismantling white supremacy. And I can continue to research the rumors that the Light Fort, the very scene of the murder of a native woman so long ago, became a spot on the Underground Railroad decades later. I believe in the transformative power of healing, when white people can do the hard work of unveiling our histories, seeking repentance, changing our ways and allowing ourselves to be transformed in the process.
The Reverend Dr. Allison J. Tanner is a pastor, educator and organizer working for justice and healing in her community. She currently serves as the Pastor of Public Witness at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, in Oakland, California.