Saturday, May 3, 2008

Past, Present, and Remembrance

Yesterday while trying to catch up on my journal reading, a recent entry in Carly's journal caught my eye. She wrote about heritage, about the long road to the very real possibility that a black person could become the next president of these United States. She wrote about the history of black people in this country and her belief that she was casting her vote for Obama for all of those generation who preceded her, who fought, struggled, and often died to achieve the present in which we live.

One of her readers left Carly a well-intentioned comment that reads:
Who you vote for is your choice but vote for the future and not the past. I'm not sure which Democrat should be in office but I know that whoever it is will not change the past but will impact the future. Look forward with hope for change for this country certainly needs it. Hugs

I didn't take offense at the comment and neither did Carly. I know because she left her own comment that reads in part:

"I think my vote is for the future as well as the past. If you don't know your past you sure can't see your future."

Her words stuck a responsive chord in me. I share Carly's feelings of pride and hope and connection to my ancestors who are not here to see this new day in America. The past cannot be undone, but neither can it be ignored or forgotten. The blood shed, the tears cried, and the sacrifices made by those who came before me are not abstractions to be dismissed as no longer of significance. The past informs the present.

The commenter is right, the past cannot be changed but it can be repeated, played out over and over again unless we remember it truthfully and learn from it. On my first visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. I was struck by the importance of remembering, of recognizing the horrors of the past as a way of honoring those who suffered and memorializing that such horror must never happen again. However, in the flawed world that we live in, such horrors continue--Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, the list is long and seemingly never ending. Yet we must continue to struggle to remember, if we are to break the cycle of inhumanity to others whom we perceive as not us, as a "they" who is less than human, and fair game for destruction.

So I too will think of my African forefathers and mothers as I cast my vote for Barack Obama. But I also take pride that for the first time, a woman may be elected to the presidency. A piece of history that many of us choose to ignore or forget is the struggle that previous generations of women endured to achieve the relative equality that women now enjoy. The amendment giving women the right to vote nationally wasn't ratified until 1920, less than one hundred years ago. Strong women, brave women defied the conventions of their time to fight for a right that we now take for granted.

In 1913, a women's suffrage parade was attacked by a mob and many of the protesters were injured. The police stood by and did nothing to intervene and no one was ever arrested for attacking the protesting women. Alice Paul, a leader of the suffragette movement, was imprisoned for her audacity in advocating for women having the right to vote. Kept in isolation for two weeks, she was fed nothing but bread and water in an attempt to break her spirit. In response, Alice went on a hunger strike; other imprisoned suffragettes followed suit. Can you imagine having the men in your family, your husband, brother, son, turn against you, physically chastise you, for daring to participate in the suffragette movement, for having the audacity to believe that women were entitled to full citizenship and participation in the governing of this country?

Remembrance isn't living in the past; it is honoring those who sacrificed so much to make our present. We can have no future if we allow ourselves to forget the past.

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