Reading of the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. reminded me of the most difficult thing I saw when visiting the Holocaust Museum last May.
There are so many heartbreaking things to witness in that archive of brutality and inhumanity, what I will describe may seem less consequential, but for me it summed up everything, from the piles of shoes of concentration camp martyrs, to the railroad car used for their transport, to the various devices used to end their lives, not to mention the multiple ways intended to dehumanize them before their incarceration.
These things brought tears to my eyes, but what made me want to cry uncontrollably was seeing a youth—maybe 15—sitting quietly on a bench in a side pocket room intended for rest and reflection. He looked so disheartened, so disillusioned, so overwhelmed by what he saw, I felt for him.
This is what our various histories do to young people: histories of anti-Semitism, racism, ethnic hatred, sexism, classism, heterosexism, mistreatment of those with disabilities, religious intolerance, and so on and so on—this is what we do to the innocent, not only of times past but of the present day.
“Woe to anyone who causes one of these little ones to stumble…” Jesus admonished.
Yet frankly, my own disillusionment as a youth, learning of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, lynching, racial hatred, bigotry, and prejudice made me a better citizen. My own disillusionment in American foreign policy around Vietnam and Latin America made me a better patriot. My disappointment at the inequality and mistreatment of women made me a better person. (I say disappointment rather than disillusionment in this case because I never had the illusion that women were treated fairly.)
And the disillusionment that led to my involvement in the reformation of the church around LGBT inclusion made me a better Christian.
I’m glad to learn that there will be a room in the new museum in which to reflect and recover after visiting the exhibit devoted to Emmett Till, a black youth brutalized and lynched after being accused of whistling at a white woman.
Whenever I am able to visit that museum, I expect that I will see another youth sitting in that room with the same downcast and forlorn expression that I saw last May.
I posted this on October 5, 2016, and post it today in observance of Black History Month in the U.S.
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