Sarah Shipman

"History is a pain in the heart"

Sarah Shipman

“History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another's pain in the heart our own.” —Julius Lester

This year’s Juneteenth (also known as yesterday, from where I’m writing) reminded me, again, of our tragic and dysfunctional relationship to history. The same way we often reenact the abuses and traumas done to us in our individual lives (particularly in our early years), the human collective (and sub-collectives within that greater one) reenacts its own troubles. Over and over.

Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Legally—very techinically—that began with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Legally, techincally—said proclamation completed its work in June 19, 1865 when Texas announced the abolition of slavery. It was the last state in the former Confederate States to do so. 

Many of you reading this know that just because slavery ended on paper didn’t mean it ended in practice. After the abolition of enslaved African-Americans, there was a nationwide cultural zeitgeist of anti-Black propaganda. Newspapers and entertainment promoted and cultivated the idea of a dangerous, inherently criminal Black man and woman. These toxic stereotypes have been embedded in the consciousness of white Americans for more than several lifetimes.

The Otherization of nonwhite peoples—calling them criminals, unworthy, unintelligent, animals—is a coping mechanism. Possibly our worst coping mechanism of all, driven by our instinct to find a group with whom to feel safe. You’ve heard that humans are social creatures. But this instinct also drives us to point to a source of danger from which (or whom) we have to protect ourselves. 

And, you know, it’s not all bad to protect yourself. It’s good to listen to your gut when you are in danger. You shouldn’t ignore those feelings. So, maybe, the instinct to want to find safety in a group—in a family—isn’t all that bad. But also: examine. Examine. Examine. Be honest. Reflect. If you’re feeling threatened by another—maybe a whole group of people—where’s this coming from? 

I wrote a bit in the introduction to the guidebook of Our Tarot about my acknowledgement of my white privilege in a systemically racist society. I included many women of color, particularly those involved in the abolition of slavery and civil rights, because of my desire to facilitate space for Black and Brown women’s voices in particular. I want to help facilitate, promote, and protect that space, while stepping away from the podium and redirecting your attention to the voices of those who have been victimized by the racist values and policies in the United States. 

In the previous weeks we’ve learned that the United States government is detaining many, many immigrant children in Texas who have come to Mexico. I’ve seen some folks claim that this is because the children have shown up unaccompanied, but it is becoming more clear daily that immigration officers, and the local and federal governments, are abusing children and families by separating them. Children are being held in unhealthy and traumatic conditions. 

If you don’t know, you should know that the United States is founded on ripping children away from their parents. It’s a way of draining the adults of hope. It’s a way of assimilating children so that they may reject their heritage. On this Juneteenth, I’m reminded of… a lot. I just said that humans want to feel safety within their chosen groups. Within their families. To systemically take apart families is psychological, emotional, and spiritual abuse. It eats away at a being’s ability to feel safe. To feel safe to speak up, to live, to thrive.

And now, as I write this, an executive order has been issued to end the separation of families, however, the order also criminalizes families seeking asylum. The parents of young children can now be charged with a crime and then separated from their children in the name of ‘protecting’ them. The executive order is merely optics; an illusion crafted to calm the masses so they will avert their eyes—which is the easier thing to do.

I can’t imagine the pain that these parents and children must be experiencing. It sounds like a nightmare I’ve had, but I’m lucky enough to have been born into a life where I get to wake up from nightmares. I’m lucky, because when I wake up, I’m someone who happened to be born in the United States with white skin, to Protestant, middle-class, college-educated parents. And I get all the “luck” and privilege that affords me.

I’m lucky enough to wake up from nightmares and then pick up books like Julius Lester’s To Be A Slave, which is full of firsthand accounts of Americans who were enslaved. That’s lucky because I’m able to connect with the generations before me who experienced something so vastly, wildly different from my current life. I can read their words and maybe begin to understand how it felt to be there. I’m lucky because I can just put the book down if it becomes to much. No matter how much I empathize, no matter how much I close my eyes and imagine myself in another’s place, I can still open my eyes. I can place the book on the shelf and forget it’s there. 

From To Be A Slave, Chapter 2, “The Auction Block”:

My brothers and sisters were bid off first, and once by one, while my mother, paralyzed with grief, held me by the hand. Her turn came and she was bought by Isaac Riley of Montgomery County. Then I was offered … My mother, half distracted with the thought of parting forever from all her children, pushed through the crowd while the bidding for me was going on, to the spot where Riley was standing. She fell at his feet, and clung to his knees, entreating him in tones that a mother could only command, to buy her baby as well as herself, and spare to her one, at least, of her little ones … This man disengag[ed] himself from her with … violent blows and kicks … I must have been then between five and six years old. Henson, pp. 12-13.

Many apt comparisons have been made between the current fascist practice of keeping families and/or children in cages and the policies of Nazi-controlled Germany in the 1930s and 40s. The Holocaust was only one full lifetime ago. Here in the United States, the legacy of slavery prevails not only visibly in Confederate monuments, but almost invisibly in the racist justice system. The trauma of depriving children of their parents, of depriving humans from their heritage, is still being felt and lived. And now, in our social media newsfeeds, we see it playing out again. 

I don’t really know what else to say. I have felt pretty numb and helpless about this, mostly. Luckily, there are organizations on the ground who are doing good work to help migrant families. I encourage anyone who can to donate their money and/or resources to the following orgs.

First, I want to mention El Refugio (http://elrefugiostewart.org/), which is close to my heart as it is based in my home state of Georgia. From their about page, “El Refugio is a hospitality house located at 655 Main Street in Lumpkin, GA – right outside the gates of Stewart Detention Center. Our purpose is to serve the family and friends of men detained and, thus, separated from their loved ones.”

RAICES (https://www.raicestexas.org/): This Texas-based organization offers free and low-cost legal services to immigrant children and families. 

Pueblo Sin Fronteras (www.pueblosinfronteras.org/): This organization provides humanitarian aid and shelter to migrants on their way to the U.S. 

Together Rising (https://togetherrising.org/): This Virginia-based organization is helping provide legal assistance for 60 migrant children who were separated from their parents and are currently detained in Arizona. 

Al Otro Lado (https://alotrolado.org/): This bi-national organization works providing legal services to deportees and migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, including deportee parents whose children remain in the U.S. 

The Florence Project (https://firrp.org/): This Arizona-based organization offers free legal services to men, women, and unaccompanied children in immigration custody.