February 2, 2023

Of past and present

Sam Smith – Unlike a lot of my liberal friends, I do not consider us prisoners of our past. We should learn from the past but act in the present.

The way our African American past is being handled by both black and white liberals is quite different. The past allegedly defines us. We are slaves of our history.

If you look into the past, you will find few examples of societies doing significantly better than they do now. This doesn’t mean we don’t have a long way to go but it also means that even evils  such as ethnic cruelty are not as bad as they once were.

Yet one of the curious things about our discussion of black history, for example, is that figures and movements that caused that change take the back seat in our minds to the evils themselves.

One example is the reparations movement. If your grandfather murdered someone, should you go to jail for it?

No, we are not responsible for the past; we are responsible for changing it.

Historically this change comes from a small number of souls with the heart, minds and courage to challenge the present. Yet liberals today tend to prefer talking about slavery than, say, about the methods used in the 1960s to improve civil rights.

Growing up in a dysfunctional family I learned early to put the past behind me and build my own present and future. And I have learned to search history not to become a victim of its evils but to discover ways in which others made things better. To have a successful multi-cultural society we must learn from the past but not be a prisoner of it.

And we must learn from the present. When I think of the positive view I have of black culture, I realize it comes in no small part from experiences to which we give far less value than we do the evils of past and present. My high school introduction to black jazz, living fifty years in a black majority city, sharing activism with those of a different ethnicity, having black friends whose own stories were powerful in part because I could learn not only of the past but  of the individuals it had produced. 

We obviously need to learn from the evils of the past, but we need to spend more time figuring out ways to replace them and including our own lives and attitudes as part of a new story.

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