The Power of Memory

Presumpscott River

I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer, a powerful novel set in the days of slavery and the underground railroad, told through the voice of one young man who is among “the tasked.” There is so much I could say about this story.  Starting with this word, “tasked.” Coates never has his characters who are in bondage call themselves “slaves,” but rather, “the tasked.” And this subtle shift of language helps to transport us beyond the familiar words (of the masters) that have been written as history, into the direct perspective of those who were counted as property.

Even though I learned about slavery from my early days in school, it was easy to discount (even by benign repetition) the pervasive way this institution shaped the whole of our nation from its beginnings, it was easy to mask its reach and extent and corruption.  I grew up in the north, and it was easy to think of it as something far away, other.  But in recounting exploits of folks in the underground railroad, Coates makes clear that people in the north weren’t safe from slavery, or immune to its power. Any person of African descent could be captured off the streets of Philadelphia and transported away into bondage. A person of European descent who devoted themselves to ending slavery risked being murdered.  It was everywhere in this country.

It is not that the novel opened my eyes to some new knowledge, but that it helped me remember what I have already known, and bring it alive in a vivid way.  The whole practice and institution of slavery makes a lie of any notion of “greatest country” or “good old days” or “American dream.”  From the earliest settler invasions in 1619, through the creation of the “United States,” through the Civil War, up to 1865–246 years–the country was bound up in these practices of forced labor, torture, separation of families, sexual abuse. We are part of a horrible legacy that still shapes everything about our country, even though there are strong incentives for us to “forget.”

In The Water Dancer, the central character, Hiram Walker, has a magical gift that is tied to the power of memory.  He was a precocious child with a photographic memory of everything, except for the memory of his mother, who was sold away from him when he was only a young boy.  That trauma erased all memories of her from his consciousness. But later, crossing a bridge over the river Goose, the bridge where so many people had been lost into the deeper south, he sees a vision of his mother dancing with a water jar on her head.

The story begins here.  On the first page he says,

“knowing now the awesome power of memory, how it can open a blue door from one world to another, how it can move us from mountains to meadows, from green woods to fields caked in snow, knowing now that memory can fold the land like cloth, and knowing, too, how I had pushed my memory of her into the “down there” of my mind, how I forgot, but did not forget, I know now that this story, this Conduction, had to begin there on that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost.”

He doesn’t come into the power of his own magical gifts until he can awaken the full memory of all that he has lost, and the painfulness of that loss. And perhaps we too will never find healing for all that we face in our world today, until we open our minds to the painfulness of what we call the “past,” (because it is never “past”), until we are willing to face it as it lives within the “down there” of this land we call home.

The Water Dancer creates that kind of magic, conjures the power of memory to transform all that we are.

Missouri Germans in the Civil War

I felt an odd sense of relief and satisfaction to learn that my German Missouri ancestors were on the Union side of the Civil War.  While recovering from my latest gardening exploits, I was watching episodes of the Ken Burns documentary “The West.”  I was surprised by the series’ level of truth-telling in stories about colonization, about racism, about the violence endemic to the history of the United States. It has been quite an eye-opener about the “settlement” of the West, and I recommend it to all students of decolonization.

In the episode about the lead-up to the Civil War, I learned that Missouri and Kansas were the site of the heaviest civilian conflict and bloodshed before and during the war.  Earlier, in 1820, Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state, in conjunction with Maine being admitted as a free state, in the compromise to keep a balance between the free and slave states.  When the Kansas territory was “opened for settlement” in the 1850s it was decided to let the residents vote on whether they would be a slave state or free state.

[“Opened for settlement,” of course, meant the removal and theft of the land from the Arapaho, Comanche, Osage, Kansa, Kiowa, Missouri, Otoe, and Pawnee peoples, plus a dozen more eastern tribes who had been relocated to Kansas/Oklahoma in what was to be their land forever. But moving on for now to the slavery question…]

This new Kansas territory turned into a tinderbox of the national tensions between slavery vs. freedom for African-Americans–white Abolitionists from New England, and white pro-slavery Missourians (with their enslaved people with them) were among those who rushed to live in Kansas to influence the direction it would go.  Eventually, after much bloodshed, burning, looting, and turmoil, Kansas joined the Union in 1861 as a free state.

But my own curiosity shifted from Kansas over to what happened in Missouri, where my Heisler/Gerling ancestors had settled in the 1850s. I had thought they were on the side of the Union, so what were they doing in a slave state?  Ken Burns didn’t tell their story, but I went hunting on the internet to sort it out.  There I found the rather satisfying news that the German emigrants in Missouri were in fact opposed to slavery, and avid supporters of the Union.  They had emigrated after a failed revolution for democracy in 1848 in the German lands, and held dear the ideals of freedom and equality.  According to Patrick Young, in an article that was part of a series, The Immigrants’ Civil War,

[German Americans] saw parallels in the military coups in the German states in 1848 that ended the democratic dream in Europe. One of the exiled revolutionaries, August Willich, wrote after the attack on Fort Sumter that Germans needed to “protect their new republican homeland against the aristocracy of the South.”

Their influence was part of what kept Missouri in the Union.  According to another article by Patrick Young,

Missouri was a border state. That meant that it was a slave state lying between the Confederacy and the free states of the North. In the 1850s, Missouri had been the staging ground for pro-slavery terror raids against free soil towns in Kansas, but by 1861, the state’s wealthy slaveholding class was being challenged for power from an unlikely quarter.

German immigrants had moved into the state in large numbers in the 1850s. Most crowded into the fast growing industrial metropolis of St. Louis. Others started small German-speaking rural communities, [Note–that would include my ancestors] where they found themselves expected to defer to nearby slaveholders who expressed their worth in the number of humans they owned. The Germans had come to America for freedom, and they resented both slavery and the power it gave slaveholders over Missouri politics. When the Germans became citizens, they quickly formed the state’s most consistently anti-slavery electorate.

Thomas HeislerWhen I look at the lists of Union and Confederate soldiers from Missouri, none of my direct ancestors are included, though there were two Heisler men listed as Union soldiers. It’s possible that my great-great grandfather, Johann Heisler, was too old to enlist–he would have been 40 years old in 1860, with young children. My great grandfather, Thomas Heisler was born in 1857–only a toddler when the war began. Maybe they just tried to farm their land, and keep the peace with their neighbors.  One family story says the four Heisler brothers had left Germany to avoid being drafted into the military there. [Note: see addendum about another brother’s service in the Union Army.]

But it sounds like the war came to everyone’s land.  From the same article:

Even before the war, pro-slavery raiders had tried to drive German farmers out of rural Missouri. Now bringing about the submission or eradication of the Unionist German community became an imperative for Confederates.

Historian Ella Lonn wrote that after the Germans foiled the takeover [by the Missouri Confederates] of the [St. Louis] arsenal and fired into the mob:

“The hatred that Missouri Confederates felt for the Germans was frightful…German farmers were shot down, their fields laid waste, and their houses burned.” 9

German immigrants responded by supplying nearly half the soldiers raised by Missouri for the Union cause over the next four years.9 In that state, the war would take on the vicious character of a guerrilla struggle between Germans trying to make a place in a free America, and native-born Confederates trying to drive them out.

The Germans refused to leave.

So, in the midst of so much that is soul crushing about the history of this country, that’s a satisfying story to learn! There were many other stories about the Germans in Missouri of that time–too numerous to include, but check out the series, The Immigrants’ Civil War. I am inspired in my own work against racism to know they were carrying those values of equality and freedom from their homeland.

 

The One Who Lifts Up the Lowly

 He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Luke 1:52-53

April 4th will be the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Earlier this year, I invoked his presence to explore how the values of partnership and nonviolence were important to find an experience of wholeness.  I spoke about the concept of the Beloved Community, a goal to which we might strive in the process of reconnecting to our fellow human beings.  I want to focus for the next several days on further reflections about his life and faith, and how our connections to each other are related to our experience of the Mystery at the heart of life, that some have called God.

Four years ago, I heard Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell speak at the MLK Breakfast in my city. She is a professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Princeton University, and also studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York. I was struck by her comments about the amazing faith experience of black people in America—how black people “came to believe in a loving, benevolent and just God when there was so little empirical evidence to support that world view.”

After being stripped of every vestige of human dignity, forced to abandon their languages and religions, and cut off from their families, they were compelled to adopt the religion of the slave-holders. And while the masters used the Bible to justify slavery, within the stories of Moses and the prophets black people began to find a message of hope and liberation. They were inspired and encouraged to believe in their own worth and dignity. She said,

It is humbling to remember that women and men who were born into slavery, and never expected anything but slavery for their children and grandchildren, nonetheless believed that they were equal human beings worthy of the love of a benevolent and intervening God. It is a different kind of knowing, one with at least as much power as reason and evidence.

220px-Runaway_slaveThey were inspired to rebel against the masters, to escape from their bondage, and seek a path to freedom. And really, what were the slave-holders thinking? The central story of the Jewish scriptures, and also adopted into the Christian bible, is the story of Moses leading the slaves out of bondage in Egypt, on a journey toward freedom and the promised land. If you take away that story, you don’t have a story. The God of Moses, the God of the Bible, was willing to intervene to help a suffering people find a new life.

Now, I want to interject a comment here, to say that there is no way to prove that this kind of God exists. How could anyone prove that God intervenes on the side of the poor and the outsider? We can’t. In fact, historians and scholars will argue that there is no historic evidence that the exodus of slaves from Egypt ever happened. We are moving outside of the realm of reason and evidence and into the realm of mythic truths. As Harris-Lacewell says, “It is a different kind of knowing.” But we do know that the slaves in America created their own kind of exodus. They found some kind of power in the stories that strengthened their hearts and lifted up their spirits and set them free.

Quotes from Harris-Lacewell are from “Progressive Bible Study,” and “Our Jeremiah.” 

Broken Histories

Mab Segrest, in her book, Born to Belonging, examined the effect that the institution of slavery has had on the self-understanding of people in America, particularly the white people of her own family. She believes that a kind of spiritual anesthesia developed—a cutting off of compassion and connection—in order for a person to own slaves.

She ponders what it did to a man’s soul to sell his own children. Though it was not openly discussed, it was true that many of the children born into slavery had been fathered by the owner of the plantation. White people had to cut off their emotions, deny their relationships, and numb their spirits, to maintain this horrible institution for four centuries.

Segrest believes that the emphasis on individualism in America is an expression of our spiritual distress. We are all born into families, each with their own histories of disconnection or oppression that can cause a numbing of the soul. It feels less painful to imagine ourselves as separate, than to acknowledge the abusive and traumatic relationships that have closed our hearts. But when we close our hearts, we also lose our capacity for deep joy. We are not fully alive without each other.

Shortly after I first came to Maine, I visited Indian Island, home of the Penobscot Nation, in a trip sponsored by the Four Directions Development Corporation. During a beautiful traditional lunch that was prepared for us, we heard about some of the long history of brokenness between white people and indigenous people in Maine, as researched by Donna Loring, who at that time was the Penobscot representative in our State House of Representatives. Near the end she spoke of her belief that America needs to remember its roots. She wasn’t speaking of its ideals of freedom and democracy. Rather she meant that we cannot find the way to peace until we revisit our brokenness.

It is uncomfortable and painful to embrace our brokenness. But if we hope to find wholeness, we must be willing to hear the stories that we tried to forget. To return to wholeness is not to paint over the past with easy brush strokes, but to make awkward and painful attempts to cross over into the experience of the other. It takes a long time, and a lot of courage. In my experience, it is often easier to feel at one with nature than to feel at one with our fellow human beings. But I have also experienced, after the awkwardness, moments of grace and connection. Moments when we talk and share from our hearts, and feel a sense of wholeness restored.

Broken Rock DSC00135

Photo by Margy Dowzer