Good words will not give me back my children: Truth telling and historical recovery as the foundations for racial justice

Prof. Yohuru Williams faced a tall task: How, in a single speech, do you set the stage for a decade-long, faith-based initiative of truth telling, education, and repair with Native American and African American communities in Minnesota?

Williams, an author and Founding Director of St. Thomas University’s Racial Justice Initiative, was one of two keynote speakers invited by the Minnesota Council of Churches to help launch its effort: Truth and Reparations: Dismantling the Structures and Repairing the Damage of Racism in Minnesota.

The talk, given Sept. 25 at Plymouth Congregational Church, brought in many voices from the struggle: James Baldwin, Isabel Wilkerson, Frederick Douglass, Stokley Carmichael and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It included a number of historical and personal stories as metaphors for our current work of addressing racism.

His talk would return to a central theme: “Good words are not enough.”

Prof. Yohuru Williams

Williams opened with the following:

Today, what we want to do is go through the process of thinking through what James Baldwin talked about: The world changes according to the way people see it. And if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way that people look at reality, then you can change it…

I don’t expect that I am going to tell you much that is new today, but I hope that I am going to alter the way that we’re thinking about this moment and what we can accomplish together in  community, as we reimagine what it means to be warriors for truth in the hopes of accomplishing justice.

Accomplishing justice includes stopping racism’s ongoing harms. Williams compared quotes from both Douglass and the Rev. Al Sharpton, showing how this nation has struggled to take this step.

Frederick Douglass (photo Buaidh/Wikimedia Commons). Al Shaprton (photo: Lorie Shaull)

At the Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston, April, 1865, Douglass gave a speech that foreshadowed the next 100 years of U.S. history, Williams said.

What shall we do with the negro? I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us … All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own two legs! Let him alone! If you see him on his way to school, let him alone, don’t disturb him! If you see him going to the dinner table at a hotel, let him go! If you seem him going to the ballot box, let him alone. Don’t disturb him.

Frederick Douglass

In giving George Floyd eulogy, Sharpton echoed that message, but in starker terms:

“George Floyd’s story has been the story of black folks. Because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed to be is you kept your knee on our neck. … What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country, in education, in health services, and in every area of American life, it’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say get your knee off our necks.”

Rev. Al Sharpton
Isabel Wilkerson. Photo: Miller Center

Williams cited Wilkerson, who compared racism to living in an old house.

Unaddressed, the ruptures and the diagonal cracks will not fix themselves. The toxins will not go away but rather, they will spread, leach, mutate, as they already have. When people live in an old house, they come to adjust to the idiosyncrasies and outright dangers, skulking in the old structure. … Live with it long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal. Exposed over the generations, we learn to believe that the incomprehensible is the way life is supposed to be.

Isabel Wilkerson

Speaking from personal experience with an old house he once owned, Williams said you can’t just paint over toxic black mold in the attic and expect it will go away. Like racism: “You need a response to the toxin that is stronger than the toxin itself,” he said.

Williams referred to his work as historical recovery. This nation’s stories of racial injustice aren’t lost. They’ve been there all along, waiting to be recovered.

One such story is the 1861 lynching of Jacob Hamilton in Delaware. (Williams had previously taught in Delaware. He learned the local history, including the ignored history of lynchings waiting to be recovered. He published an article on the Hamilton lynching in Delaware History.)

Hamilton was a free, Black laborer. His lynching was connected to Belmont Hall, an historic building with a political pedigree. Someone had broken into Belmont Hall one night in 1861 and was chased off. The family accused Hamilton.

News accounts at the time said Hamilton was trying to ravage the daughters. In fact, it looked like a botched robbery, Williams said. There was no evidence to indicate Hamilton was guilty.

Prior to trial, a mob grabbed Hamilton and hung him from a willow tree in the middle of the day. Men, women and children watched, yet the coroner’s inquest cited Hamilton’s cause of death “as strangulation by person or persons unknown,” the article said.

Here’s where the story has currency today. When William’s article was ready for print, the publisher ran it by Friends of Belmont Hall as not to catch them off guard. Williams learned that one relative responded: “Oh my goodness. We’ve been waiting for this. We always knew this day would come.”

The family apparently agreed to keep quiet about the lynching, worried about the negative publicity.

“That sickened me,” Williams said. “Because the mold, the evil, was there. And they knew, and they just put it in the attic.”

Chief Joseph. Photo taken in1877 by O.S. Goff and provided courtesy of Dr. James Brust.

Williams spoke of the need for the nation to make repairs both with the African American and Native American communities. He quoted Chief Joseph’s 1879 speech to U.S. leaders in Washington D.C., which “articulated every issue that we talk about today with the clarity and directness that cannot be avoided,” Williams said.

Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father’s grave. They do not pay for all my horses and cattle. Good words will not give me back my children. … Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take of themselves. I am tired of talk that comes to nothing.

Chief Joseph

Williams shared a transformative story from his youth. In 1988, Doug Williams became the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Washington beat Denver 42-10. The young Yohuru shared a last name with the quarterback. The game was played in Minneapolis, where Yohuru lived.

“I was over the moon,” he said. “We had never seen any Black people play quarterback.”

He immediately asked his father for a Washington Reds*ins hat. And for the first time in his young life, his father disappointed him. “You will not wear that hat in my house,” his father said.

You need a response to the toxin that is stronger than the toxin itself

Prof. Yohuru Williams

“I said, ‘Why, Dad? I’m hurt.’”

“Because of what’s on the hat, and what that team represents,” his father said.

“That was the first time I even thought to think of someone else’s pain,” Williams said. “In that moment in 1988, all the celebratory joy over Doug Williams winning the Super Bowl, my daddy had to remind me in that moment that suffering is real.”

The story boiled down the challenge of addressing racism to a basic level: Can we think about someone else’s pain?

At the same time, addressing racism is complex. It’s not only telling the truth and thinking about someone else’s pain, but making economic repair. Near the end of his talk, Williams reflected on Dr. King’s words:

We made a grievous error in the way we approached the issue of civil rights in this country. We focused so narrowly on access and opportunity that we missed one consistent kernel of truth: What good is it to have the right to eat in a restaurant if you can’t afford anything on the menu. Civil Rights without economic justice are dead rights. What good is it to have the right to go to university if you can’t afford tuition? Civil rights without economic justice are dead rights. What good is it to have the right to live wherever you want if you can’t get a mortgage?

In a post-speech interview, Williams was asked about his comment: “You need a response to the toxin that is stronger than the toxin itself.” What is the response to the toxin of racism that’s stronger than racism itself?

Williams again quoted King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” (It continues: “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”)

“The light is shining a lamp on the uncomfortable parts of our history so that it can’t continue to do its work in the darkness,” Williams added. “We expose it and go after it in our system.”

For a video of Williams’ speech, click here.

Christine Diindissi McCleave, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, gave the first keynote address, Sept. 24. Click here for a video of her speech.

To follow the Minnesota Council of Church’s work on Truth Telling, Education, and Repair, click here.

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