Guest column: The past is always present – Albert Lea Tribune

Guest column by Joel Erickson

“History isn’t there for you to like or dislike. It’s there for you to learn from. And if it shocks you, that’s even better. Because then you’re less likely to repeat. It’s not ours to erase. It belongs to all of us.” – from Tammie on Twitter

Joel Erickson

When addressing race, gender, creed, and sexuality in American culture, some people say we should forget the past. A dangerous line of thought because the past has not yet left us. The past is always present. Please read these words with an open heart.

Exploring the past is not about making people feel guilty or establishing blame, but about stopping the suffering of human beings. For me, the driving force behind exploring the past is the question: how can we love our neighbors as ourselves?

Abraham Lincoln’s last speech was on April 11, 1865. John Wilkes Booth stood in the crowd. Booth was against making niggers voters and jurors. Negroes should never be voters in his estimation. Three days later, Booth assassinates Lincoln.

In 1933, Albert Einstein became a citizen of the United States. He escaped Jewish persecution from the Nazi regime. Einstein knew firsthand the danger of systemic racism, a race-based caste system. While a professor at Princeton University, he showed empathy and compassion for Marian Anderson, a famous black opera singer. Even after performing to an overflowing crowd at the McCarter Theater, Marian Anderson was denied a room at the Nassau Inn in Princeton. When Einstein learned of this, he invited her to his home to stay. And whenever she was in town, she stayed at the Einstein Residence. Marian Anderson received an act of kindness from the Einsteins; they ignored the invisible line drawn by white American culture. The election of President Obama has broken this invisible racial line twice. He never received a majority white vote, getting 43% of the white vote in 2008 and 39% in 2012. Invisible gender lines are also being drawn as women seek to advance in their professions and earn equal pay. What about a female president?

In the 1860s, Native American children as young as 5 years old were taken from their parents and placed in boarding schools; they cut their hair and sprayed it with DDT. Some 100,000 children were placed in these schools and were only allowed to speak English. This continued for over 100 years. My father grew up speaking Norwegian and English.

What is it about a human being that drives them to live with a heart convinced that another person’s existence will never be fair, that the person is inherently imperfect, does not have the same value, even is insufficient as a human being? In 2016, Pam, a West Virginia official, called Michelle Obama on Facebook a “monkey in heels. In response to this Facebook post, a former mayor said, “You just made my day, Pam.” What bridge must a person cross to reach a place where another human being, by virtue of color, gender, creed or sexuality, is insufficient or worthy of dehumanization?

Even though ratification of the 15th Amendment occurred in 1870, making it legal for citizens to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”, it was still necessary to pass the Voting Rights Act. of 1965. From 1870 to 1965, endless barriers were erected to prevent black people from voting. And for 131 years, women couldn’t vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in August 1920, giving women the right to vote. From 1789 to 1920, blacks and women shared the same fate; they could not vote. For 131 years of American democracy, these two groups were absent from the voting booth. And even after women started voting after 1920, black people were still waiting for the privilege until 1965, 45 years later. For 176 years, black people could not vote. When my German and Norwegian ancestors arrived on these shores in the late 1800s and became naturalized citizens, their votes were undoubtedly counted.

In an address to the National Urban League in 1946, Einstein said, “We must make every effort (to ensure) that past injustice, violence, and economic discrimination will be known to the people. The taboo, the “let’s not talk about it” must be broken. It must be repeatedly emphasized that the exclusion of a large portion of the population of color from active civil rights by common practice is a slap in the face to the Constitution.

What will it take for each of us to love all of our neighbors? If you were blindfolded and then asked to determine a person’s race, gender, sexuality, or beliefs by shaking their hand, what would the handshake tell you? It would tell you that you were holding the hand of another human being. And that’s all each of us needs to know to affirm a person’s humanity and right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Joel Erickson is a resident of Albert Lea.

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