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Fenwick History: How can we reconcile?

Note: Some members of the Xavier community have begun to discuss the issue of reconciliation after reflecting on some of the insights expressed below.

Please forward any other texts that might be used for reflection on reconciliation to Dr. Gollar (

Ta-Nehisi Coates

“American prosperity was built on two and a half centuries of slavery, a deep wound that has never been healed or fully atoned for—and that has been deepened by years of discrimination, segregation, and racist housing policies that persist to this day. Until America reckons with the moral debt it has accrued—and the practical damage it has done—to generations of black Americans, it will fail to live up to its own ideals.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” Atlantic vol. 313, issue 5, (June 2014), 54.

James Cone

"Just as the Germans should never forget the Holocaust, Americans should never forget slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree. As a nation, we are in danger of forgetting our ugly lynching past. As Fitzhugh Brundage reminds us, “Perhaps nothing about the history of mob violence in the United States is more surprising than how quickly an understanding of the full horror of lynching has receded from the nation’s collective memory.” Because Emmett Till was remembered, the civil rights movement was born. When we remember, we give voice to the victims. Many white religious leaders, scholars, and churches have done everything they can to forget the vigilante violence unleashed on African Americans. But other white and black scholars, especially historians and writers, are helping us remember. Whites today cannot separate themselves from the culture that lynched blacks, unless they confront their history and expose the sin of white supremacy.

The cross of Jesus and the lynching tree of black victims are not literally the same—historically or theologically. Yet these two symbols or images are closely linked to Jesus’ spiritual meaning for black and white life together in what historian Robert Handy has called “Christian America.” Blacks and whites are bound together in Christ by their brutal and beautiful encounter in this land. Neither blacks nor whites can be understood fully without reference to the other because of their common religious heritage as well as their joint relationship to the lynching experience. What happened to blacks also happened to whites. When whites lynched blacks, they were literally and symbolically lynching themselves—their sons, daughters, cousins, mothers and fathers, and a host of other relatives. Whites may be bad brothers and sisters, murderers of their own black kin, but they are still our sisters and brothers. We are bound together in America by faith and tragedy. All the hatred we have expressed toward one another cannot destroy the profound mutual love and solidarity that flow deeply between us—a love that empowered blacks to open their arms to receive the many whites who were also empowered by the same love to risk their lives in the black struggle for freedom. No two people in America have had more violent and loving encounters than black and white people. We were made brothers and sisters by the blood of the lynching tree, the blood of sexual union, and the blood of the cross of Jesus. No gulf between blacks and whites is too great to overcome, for our beauty is more enduring than our brutality. What God joined together, no one can tear apart.

The lynching tree is a metaphor for white America’s crucifixion of black people. It is the window that best reveals the religious meaning of the cross in our land. In this sense, black people are Christ figures, not because they wanted to suffer but because they had no choice. Just as Jesus had no choice in his journey to Calvary, so black people had no choice about being lynched. The evil forces of the Roman state and of white supremacy in America willed it. Yet, God took the evil of the cross and the lynching tree and transformed them both into the triumphant beauty of the divine. If America has the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy with repentance and reparation there is hope “beyond tragedy.”"

James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis, 2011), 165-166.

bell hooks

“Talking to a university audience recently I expressed my faith in the power of white people to speak out against racism, challenging and changing prejudice—emphatically stating that I definitely believe we can all change our minds and our actions. I stressed that this faith was not rooted in a utopian longing but, rather, that I believed this because of our nation’s history of the many individuals who have offered their lives in the service of justice and freedom. When challenged by folks who claimed that these individuals were exceptions, I agreed. But I then talked about the necessity of changing our thinking so that we see ourselves as being like the one who does change rather than among [the many] who refuse to change. What made these individuals exceptional was not that they were any smarter or kinder than their neighbors but that they were willing to live the truth of their values.”

bell hooks, All About Love—New Visions (Harper, 2000), 89-90.

Wendell Berry

“I wrote The Hidden Wound in the Bender Room of the Stanford University library during the Christmas holiday of 1968-1969… The book was conceived and written under the influence of the civil rights agitation of the time… The immediate issue on the campus was the establishment of a black studies program, but the issues talked about were mainly national and abstract. I attended a number of outdoor meetings called by campus blacks at, I believe, the noon hour. The blacks, mostly young, sat or stood along a low stone wall, confronting an audience of whites, faculty and students, who sat on the grass. The blacks, one by one, accused and berated the whites, sometimes addressing them by obscene epithets, and the whites cheered and applauded. Speakers and hearers seemed to be in perfect agreement that the whites were absolutely guilty of racism, and that the blacks were absolutely innocent of it…

Although I was not a racist, I was fully aware that I belonged to the history of racism, and had the influence of it in me. I felt that I had a stake in the outcome. And so I observed these encounters with interest—indeed, with fascination. It was obvious that the presence of such feelings in the nation could not be without political results, and that the results might be to some extent good. But the implicit agreement on the historical scheme of white guilt and black innocence, white victory and black defeat, seemed hopeless to me. In this public life of the issues of racism and civil rights, one felt the possibility of an agreement of sorts, but nowhere the possibility of the mutual recognition of a common humanity, or the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, or the possibility of love. If love was present at those public meetings, it was the self-love of self-righteous anger and the self-love of self-righteous guilt.

I did not speak at any of those meetings, and I cannot imagine how I might have done so. They did, however, cause me to want to say something too complicated and laborious to say at a public meeting then, or perhaps now. I wanted to say that, though I knew that American racism had put whites and blacks into roles of oppressors and oppressed, I had not experienced it as a victory for the oppressor. I knew well that racism had caused pain to black people, but I knew too that it had been a cause of pain to white people—it had been a cause of pain to me—and not just because of guilt. I knew that for white people it had involved a loss of spiritual disfigurement. And I knew, from my own experience, that it had involved love.”

Wendell Berry, “Afterword” (written in 1989) to The Hidden Wound (originally published in 1970) (Counterpoint, 1989), 109-111.