Guest Column: The past is still present tense

Published 8:45 pm Friday, February 11, 2022

Guest Column by Joel Erickson

“History is not there for you to like or dislike. It is there for you to learn from it. And if it offends you, even better. Because then you are less likely to repeat it. It is not ours to erase. It belongs to all of us.” — from Tammie on Twitter

Joel Erickson

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

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Exploring the past is not for the purposes of instilling guilt or establishing blame but to stop 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? 

The last speech that Abraham Lincoln gave was April 11, 1865. John Wilkes Booth was standing in the crowd. Booth was against making negroes voters and jurors. Negroes should never be voters by his estimation. Three days later Booth assassinated Lincoln. 

In 1933 Albert Einstein became a citizen of the United States. He escaped Jewish persecution of the Nazi regime. Einstein knew firsthand the danger of systemic racism, a caste system based on race. While serving as professor at Princeton University, he showed empathy and compassion to Marian Anderson, a renowned Black opera singer. Even after performing to an overflow crowd at McCarter Theatre, Marian Anderson was refused a room at the Nassau Inn in Princeton. When Einstein learned of this, he invited her to his house 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 broke through this invisible race line two times. He never received a white majority vote, receiving 43% of the white vote in 2008 and 39% in 2012. Invisible gender lines are drawn also as women seek to progress in their professions and garner equal pay. When will there be a woman president? 

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

What is it in a human being that causes him or her to live with a convinced heart that another person’s existence will never be right, that the person is inherently flawed, not of equal worth, even insufficient as a human being? In 2016, Pam, a West Virginia official, called Michelle Obama on Facebook an “ape in heels.” In response to that post on Facebook, 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 his or her color, gender or creed or sexuality is insufficient, or worthy of dehumanization?

Even though the 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 obstacles were established to prevent Blacks 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 at the voting booth. And even after women began voting after 1920, Blacks were still waiting for the privilege until 1965, 45 years later. For 176 years Blacks could not vote. When my German and Norwegian ancestors arrived on these shores in the late 1800s and became naturalized citizens, their votes were counted without question. 

In an address to the National Urban League in 1946, Einstein said, “We must make every effort (to ensure) that the 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 pointed out time and again that the exclusion of a large part of the colored population from active civil rights by the common practice is a slap in the face of 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 creed from 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 is all any of us need to know to affirm a person’s humanity and the person’s right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Joel Erickson is an Albert Lea resident.