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Ron and I had the extraordinary opportunity to join a group sponsored by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship on a trip to the South, an immersive study of America’s brutal legacy of racism. The trip was organized by the Institute in partnership with two excellent organizations, Telos and Arrabon. Our group of thirty people—about half of us Black, half of us White or Latinx—visited New Orleans, Jackson, Selma, and Montgomery. Our goal: to equip ourselves better to help the American church “actively and creatively pursue racial healing in our communities.” I’ll be processing this experience for a long time, but for now I’ll share just a few key words that focused my thoughts during and after the trip.

Sacrifice zone. That phrase began to rattle in my mind on our second day when we visited the Whitney Plantation near New Orleans, a place that presents carefully researched history of slavery and plantation life in Louisiana. I couldn’t help but ponder along the way the roots of modern environmental racism in the Americas.

Whitney was created in 1752 as a rice and indigo plantation. Forget any images of a stately, pillared Big House with avenues of oaks draped in Spanish moss. That imagery, our guide explained, is almost entirely a fiction deliberately cultivated after the Civil War to romanticize the antebellum South. Instead, think of modern, industrial monoculture—except there are no machines, only enslaved workers. The landowners at Whitney lived in a relatively modest house—the one we toured was built skillfully in 1790 by enslaved labor and still holds up to hurricanes—and overseers did the dirty work of keeping the enslaved workers in line. Every square inch of the place was dedicated to producing as much indigo, rice, and later sugar cane as possible. No matter what that did to people and land.

Yvonne Holden teaches our group near enslaved workers’ quarters at Whitney Plantation.

We were privileged to learn from Yvonne Holden, who has just joined the Telos team after working as Director of Operations and Visitor Experience at Whitney. The place has been carefully researched and curated to tell the real story of plantation life in the 18th and 19th centuries. As we toured the grounds and reflected on what took place there, it struck me that both land and people were enslaved together, the same abusive impulse rationalizing both enslavements. All for the sake of creating wealth for White enslavers and building the economic prosperity of (White) America.

On the way to and from the plantation, we passed through the modern analogy: Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.” Louisiana is still a sacrifice zone. This 85-mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is officially called the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor; this is where the petrochemical industry has built miles of plants for processing fossil fuels and making industrial chemicals. We’ve long known that extreme air and water pollution in this region cause health problems, particularly among Black residents, whose property values have plummeted along with their health since the chemical plants moved in. Children, as usual, are especially vulnerable. But evidently, that State of Louisiana and the rest of the country find this sacrifice acceptable.

The Denka plant, formerly owned by DuPont. Image credit: Bryan Tarnowski/The Guardian

Since President Biden took office in 2021, cleaning up Cancer Alley has become an environmental justice priority. You may have read in the news that the Justice Department filed a lawsuit in February against Japanese chemical company Denka. This is one effort against one company. There’s a long road ahead to heal this sacrifice zone.

Continuity. That’s another word that haunted me during our pilgrimage. Abusing land and people, sacrificing some to secure wealth for others—this pattern goes down to the roots in this country and continues to this day. The forms the abuse takes have evolved since the onset of the transatlantic slave trade in the 1500s, but it’s still the same basic story.

Walking the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma on March 4, the day before the 58th anniversary commemoration of 1965’s Bloody Sunday, we soberly pondered the Civil Rights movement as well as continued threats to voting rights, especially but not exclusively in the South. Visiting the Mississippi Civil Rights museum and learning more about the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 and the near-murder of civil rights activists James Meredith in 1962 (he survived) and the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963–among many others–we thought about recent examples of extra-judicial violence and the difficulty of holding police and government officials accountable.

A view of the Edmund Pettus Bridge from our hotel in Selma, Alabama.

The Legacy Museum in Montgomery makes an intentional case for continuity in the story its exhibits tell. In one hall-like exhibit, for example, visitors walk between parallel timelines on the walls that narrate key events, legal structures, and quotations from the earliest human trafficking from Africa in the 1500s all the way to today. Above, hanging from the ceiling, are banners that read “12 million trafficked,” through the millions enslaved, then terrorized, through the post-1970 War-on-Crime era with “8 million incarcerated.” For anyone who has doubts about systemic racism, it’s hard to argue with the historical facts and records demonstrating that, at each of stage of American history, actual people deliberately created structures, laws, and practices to perpetuate the brutalizing of Black Americans.

Depravity. The depravity of the human heart should be nothing new to any good Calvinist. And I certainly went into this experience with decent knowledge of history’s hall of horrors—the Holocaust, the Gulag, etc. I came in with a solid understanding of America’s history, too. Even so, visiting these museums and sites presses the weight of it all on you.

One is not allowed to take photos in the Legacy Museum. I wish I could show you the data visualization/animation of the transatlantic slave trade, the way the ships poured from Africa to points all over the Americas—not just the South. I wish I could show you the stunning room full of sculptures of enslaved Africans—children, women, men—their bodies seeming to sink into the floor, their necks encircled with hideously spiked iron collars, their faces despairing.

I can show you this photo from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, another sobering and moving place commemorating the 4400 Black Americans lynched from 1877 to 1950. Yes, including women and children. Most horrifying of all is the way lynchings were often regarded as festival occasions by the perpetrating White communities. White families would come out to view the torture, mutilation, and death of these fellow human beings. They would sell concessions and postcards.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

Feeling the weight of human depravity was heavy enough for me and my fellow White participants on our journey. I could recognize, however, that our dear companions of African descent felt this pain viscerally, in their bodies. I can only guess that much of their pain and sorrow simply couldn’t be spoken. I recognize, too, that these folks were generous even to allow us White siblings to glimpse this grief. They didn’t have to. They were allowing this because we were all Christians together.

Truth-seeking, truth-listening, truth-telling. I was accidentally smart enough, before going on this trip, to read the book Fortune by Lisa Sharon Harper. It just so happened that Harper came to Calvin’s campus in February, sponsored by the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing. She visited my Literary Memoir course, so I read her book with students ahead of the trip.

The book turned out to serve as an extremely useful preparation, because it tells the history of racism in America by tracing back four branches of Harper’s ancestry. Harper spent thirty years researching her ancestors’ stories. I was especially moved by her attention to the women in her line and by her research into race laws that amounted to legalizing rape. White enslavers regularly raped enslaved women, knowing that any offspring would legally be enslaved, thus increasing their “inventory.” There’s a reason so many Black Americans have White DNA.  

In Montgomery, we met artist Michelle Browder, whose sculpture “The Mothers of Gynecology” seeks to dignify three of the enslaved women forced to submit in the 1840s to experimental surgeries (with no anesthesia) by Dr. J. Marion Sims, the “father of gynecology.”

There’s plenty about Harper’s family history that she hasn’t been able to uncover; as she notes, one of the most pernicious legacies of slavery is the fragmenting and forgetting of people’s stories. Families were deliberately and routinely broken apart, and we simply don’t always have records. However, Harper’s labors have yielded enough documented facts to enable her to unearth the human experience of many people in her line. For recent generations, she has first-hand accounts. For earlier history, she fills in around what she knows with her playwright’s imagination, letting us as readers know when she is doing this and why: in order to help us feel empathy for these very real people who, somehow, survived to carry on her line.

Harper’s book is mostly compelling story-telling, but it’s story-telling with a point: a call for truth-seeking, truth-listening, and truth-telling. Each of these elements is crucial toward the goal of healing the pernicious racial divides in America. We cannot heal unless we “shrink the narrative gap” between what actually happened and the myths we want to believe—or our apathetic not-knowing. Harper’s last chapter deals—I thought rather gently—with reparations.

Most of my students were deeply grateful for these stories and for Harper’s visit to my class. A few found it all hard to swallow. Harper uses the phrase “White supremacy” freely and her rhetoric can be prickly, and that was enough to trigger some students into a defensive posture and prevent them from engaging. Indeed, truth-seeking can be scary and truth-listening is hard work.

All the participants on the pilgrimage felt the effort of that listening labor, I think. We were all exhausted at the end of each day by the truth-listening we did, even when we were listening—as we were daily privileged to do—to incredible leaders working toward justice, dignity, and healing. These are people committed to “bridging divides and building the Beloved Community,” as in the mission statement of the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth and Reconciliation, where we spent a fruitful day studying the principles of nonviolence.

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where MLK helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

What made this pilgrimage possible and even joyful, however, is that we all shared our Christian faith. Our faith, ideally, gives us the courage to face even the most horrifying truths of human depravity with a suffering Savior beside us and the grace of the Spirit surrounding us. Most beautifully, our group faced all of this together under wise leadership, with constant generosity toward each other and solidarity of hope. I think all of us came home changed: lamenting, inspired, determined to be better truth-tellers and better witnesses to God’s redemptive work.

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” — Ida B. Wells

Header image: MLK’s Montgomery residence.

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