“We can’t just forgive and forget. I think to forgive is very important, but I don’t think you can just forget and bury all the negatives of the past. We do need to focus on how to use these traumas of the past to really create that philosophy of ‘Never Again’, so that we can move [forward] and we can live in a much more constructive and positive way.” ~ Bonita Bennett, Director District Six Museum*
I heard a little bird ‘tweet’ something last week that saddened me and harkened my thoughts back to another time. Growing up an enlisted military brat I wasn’t cognizant of racial inequities at first, the split in the society I knew was defined by the military; your dad was either enlisted personnel or an officer. Being one or the other determined not only your dad’s pay but where the family lived on base. Not that I knew anyone with a mom in the military, I found out later officers couldn’t marry enlisted persons. And that’s the way it was.
Later still, I became aware of the world outside the insular base installation barricades. Barricades that mind you, I grew up believing it was a privilege to enter. Living on base housing as a little kid was, in one way, magical. Kids were kids and we all played together, I never realized we were already segregated. I could ride my bike and run from one house to the other with relative freedom as long as I was at home on time for dinner. I felt the walls protected us. Never mind periodically we had to be locked inside our homes while the base practiced disaster drills complete with costumed and ‘bloody’ injured lying in the yard awaiting medical team responses. It felt scary, but we were told it was pretend.
The differences between black and white was less noticeable to me because black kids lived where I lived – on base, in our protected world. We seemed the same. But around middle school, I became aware of my own racial bias when I remarked to a classmate that I thought she was pronouncing a word incorrectly. I must have noticed a difference; I don’t remember trying to hurt her feelings, but it did. Pronunciation over the word dog – d o g – differentiated us. The girl was black, and I was told by the adults ‘resolving’ the issue that I was correct how to say the word but I shouldn’t have said anything. Neither she nor I were well served by the intervening adults.
So ill-served, felt her older brothers, that they took it into their own hands to teach me a painful, harsh lesson. I was too young to recognize or remember any ripple effect my beating may have had upon the small and remote base community, but hush hush, after it was over, I had less friends to sit with at lunchtime. How tragic. I’d hurt my friend in a way I didn’t understand, so her brothers tried to hurt me in a way I would. Shall the cycle continue or where do we stop and take a look at what’s really happened?
I hope in sharing my story it makes it easier to realize why a relatively quick visit to a place would have such a profound effect on me. That was just one of the things on my mind at the District Six Museum – I easily related to Joe Schaffer’s description of an integrated neighborhood. I thought my childhood community was integrated, till I found out it really wasn’t for so many reasons. I write today in resolve of Bonita Bennett’s ‘Never Again.’ Her quote resonates with me, not words about ‘suburban lifestyle dreams’ that do not exist in reality. I pray that we ourselves do not become buried by the negatives of the past.
The Education Officers at the District Six Museum are former residents of just one of 40+ neighborhoods in Cape Town eliminated by apartheid. Here in the U.S., we knew about apartheid, watched it on TV but how did South Africa’s suffering pertain to us? We’d waged Civil War, abolished slavery, integrated – but did we really and truly? And just how is it conceivable to comprehend collective trauma of which you did not experience? What happened between me, the girl and her brothers was a symptom of the greater problem of systemic racism not addressed properly fifty years ago and one we as a society continue to bypass. To heal the chasm we as adults we must teach our children to know and hear and use appropriately words of difference, patience, tolerance, unification and restoration.
I believe it’s imperative to draw in a personal past history to grasp tragic events not your own. Too often, I feel exists an attitude “It didn’t happen to me, what can I do?” What must be done is to take it upon yourself to empathize. Joe Schaffers, Education Officer and former resident of District Six is quite right when he says, “Pain is part of recovery.” Your story may be in stark contrast to being forcibly removed from your home, yet it’s likely that any trauma you’ve experienced (and your subsequent reaction to it) can align your understanding closer to his – like bumper pads narrowing in to the strike zone.
The spirit of Bennett’s quote to “focus on these traumas of the past…so…we can live in a much more constructive and positive way,’ these words can be applied to everyone who’s endured any trauma, any injustice. I suggest trauma and dealing with unfairness is one thing everyone understands the same. What’s different is how we recover from the trauma, and if we choose to dwell in retaliation and anger, or move forward like Director Bennett suggests. There really is SO MUCH pain in this world, SO MANY injustices, so many wrongs done to one, and to a million plus one. Small misunderstandings as in my personal example and large like the corporate example of District Six are there to learn from so that ‘Never Again‘ is not a pipe dream.
History essentially builds foundations of trauma upon trauma. While at the Cape Town museum I recalled visiting Alicante, Spain and seeing evidential remains of churches that provided foundations for synagogues that were flattened for mosques, and now are churches again. How do we rectify past pain and differences? Conquer, destroy and build over it. We take precious little time to study painful history enough to learn from it, enough to change from it. We are all too soon laying freshly made bricks.
Trauma cannot be undone. Forgiveness, post trauma, is a process that takes time. And in that meantime let us NOT suggest we simply forget it. It will repeat itself if we do. We ought NOT forget to try and understand one another’s pain. Let us remember and share our stories so as to live in Bennett’s “constructive and positive way”.
*2010 BBC Sport
See Director Bennett and Joe Schaffer in the original BBC broadcast about District Six: