Singing What We Know

My friend Rev. Kate Murphy has graciously allowed me to re-post this here. Read it. It’s really good.

My youngest daughter has forgotten her ABCs. She’s been out of nursery school for more than twelve weeks and, turns out, little children don’t just pick up everything they need from Sesame Street. She sings loudly and confidently, but she can only get up to the letter P. Once she hits halfway, she triumphantly sings, ‘Now I know my ABCs, next time you can sing with me!’

When I gently suggest that there are more letters, she just laughs and sings it louder. When I ask her where the letter Z is, she shouts, ‘That’s not a letter!’

When I remind her that her sister’s name starts with a Q and that’s missing from her song, she just starts over and sings what she knows even louder. The more I tell her she’s missing letters, the more triumphantly she sings.

That’s a metaphor.

Right now a lot of white Americans are discovering that we only know half of the fundamental truths that define our country. Our whole lives we’ve been loudly singing that we’re proud to be Americans ‘where at least I know I’m free,’ as if it were the whole truth—but we’ve left the out the truths of the 13th Amendment of the constitution which permits slavery of imprisoned people, the school-to-prison pipeline and the ‘negro codes’ all of which were deliberately designed by the white leaders in power to ensure Black Americans will never be free.

We’ve sung the Woodie Guthrie protest song this land is your land, this land is my land…this land was made for you and me as if it were a verdict instead of an indictment, because we were raised on the thanksgiving myth, the heroism of Christopher Columbus, manifest destiny and the illusion that ‘the land’ was empty before ‘we’ got here.

We’ve left the terrible truths of the trail of tears, the Indian Removal Act and the systematic betrayal and genocide of Native Americans out of our songs and our national memory. Our whole lives we’ve been loudly pledging our allegiance to the flag of the nation where there is ‘liberty and justice for all.’ And who wouldn’t swear loyalty to a nation like that?

But we leave out the truth of the Tulsa and Wilmington riots, red-lining and that George Washington’s dentures weren’t made of wood but the teeth of slaves. And anytime someone points out that we are acknowledging half of our history—we just go back to the beginning and sing what we know louder.

A thought experiment: Imagine German citizens waking up one day and discovering that 80 years ago their nation elected a fascist dictator whose regime perpetrated genocide against Jewish citizens. And many of the songs they learned in nursery school were the folk songs of that regime. And the leaders who carried out the genocide are enshrined in marble in front of courthouses, parks and traffic circles all over the country. The news would be unbelievable because it would contradict everything they’d ever believed about the history of their nation. And it would be deeply offensive because it would call into question the character of their own grandparents and great-grandparents.

It’s worse than that for white Americans. Because it’s not ‘just’ one genocide or murderous administration, it’s the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the song of American history. And it wasn’t hidden from us—the evidence and testimonies were around us all along—we just chose to sing over it.

Many white Americans still think this movement is about the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. But, God help us, it’s incalculably bigger than those tragedies and once we begin to see that our culpability is deeper than we can stand to imagine. This moment is the beginning of a reckoning of the deliberate and systematic genocide and massive theft perpetrated by white Americans against Native Americans and Black Americans.

Learning to sing the whole song

We’ve been loudly proudly proclaiming the history we know about our country. But we only want to know half of the American experience—the white half. People have always been proclaiming the whole truth—but we didn’t want to integrate it into our understanding of ourselves and our country. So we just shout what we learned in pre-school even louder. For centuries, white Americans have been telling Black and Native Americans that we know the truth of their lived experiences better than they do. In our songs, in our stories, in our history curriculums, in our statues, we’ve been telling Black and Native Americans that their truths don’t matter.

My daughter has forgotten half her ABCs and she gets angrier and angrier every time I try to teach her that there is more to the song, more letters she HAS to learn. But she is three. The majority of white Americans are not. Our understanding of our nation and of ourselves is dangerously incomplete—we need to grow up and learn the painful and shameful truths about our ancestral history. We need to do the work of integrating those historical truths into our understanding of the present moment. We can’t change the past, but we can stop lying to ourselves about it.

America is not the land of the free or the home of the brave. But—it could be. There is not and never has been liberty and justice for all here. But—there could be. If white Americans really were brave and faced the truth, learned the whole song of our history, repented, made amends, paid reparations, sought reconciliation and followed Black leaders—there’s a chance we could finally become the nation we’ve always believed we already were.

Rev. Kate Murphy is the pastor of The Grove Church (PCUSA) in Charlotte, NC. You can listen to more of Kate on her podcast: 2 Pastors Take a Walk

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