Let’s pray for atonement.
Three years ago, on a hot summer day, I visited Whitney Plantation Museum, the only museum in Louisiana that told the stories of enslaved people. I never knew that such a museum existed until one of my daughter’s friends told her about it.
On arrival, I was greeted by it’s founder, John Cummings. A New Orleans-based trial attorney, he restored the plantation over 15 years before opening it to the public in December 2014. Cummings told me about his journey in owning the property for over two decades and then building a museum that told the story of enslaved people.
As I toured the Museum, I learned about the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in Louisiana. I also learned how enslaved people were treated brutally as they produced indigo and sugar.
I saw the Big House where domestic slaves performed multiple duties from cleaning, serving food and looking after their masters, always at their beck and call.
I had never seen such a structure in my life and I had never even imagined that such things had happened in America, All I knew about slavery was about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, largely because of his famous “I have a dream” speech that my children learned at school.
After all, why should a non-immigrant Asian on an H1B visa care about the past of this country? You are living in the suburbs in Arizona surrounded by a majority white population and I was in my own ghetto. People never talked about race at any of the places I worked. They still don’t.
Besides conversations about the weather and nice places to eat, Americans seldom talk about race even as they call it the original sin. Not talking about the original sin is in itself a sin.
Fast forward a few years later, I took my citizenship test. I was given a set of pre-ordained bureaucratic questions highlighting the virtues of America’s best export product, democracy, forgetting that the country’s efforts to export democracy to the rest of the world has failed miserably.
The citizenship questions were largely about the constitution, past presidents and their middle names. My Jesuit-school education in India had prepared me well for rote memorization. I aced the citizenship test within minutes, and my interviewer who was already debating where to go for lunch, was so happy. She got me approved in ten minutes flat. The citizenship test was all about rules of democracy that actually changed on January 6, 2021.
The best way to understand your past is to see and feel what had happened and ask the question: why? The lives of enslaved people in America look pale compared to the country’s efforts to promote capitalism, rugged individualism, pseudo-socialism and of course democracy which is being questioned internally.
3 things you can do
1. Immerse yourself in history, take your children with you.
2. Talk openly about race, ask difficult, uncomfortable questions. The original sin will never go away, but we can seek some atonement.
3. Are you a corporate CEO? Instead of hosting another annual holiday party with Covid-19 restrictions, why don’t you take your employees and show them slices of history?