Call of the Ancestors

November 14, 2017 Ian White Maher 2 comments

On November 25th, 1915, a small, group men, robbed and hooded, climbed Stone Mountain in Georgia, to resuscitate the Ku Klux Klan. Led by the charismatic preacher William J. Simmons and accompanied by two elderly members of the original Klan, these men erected a large wooden cross, set it alight with their flaming torches and pledged allegiance to the creation of an invisible racist empire chanting “Non Silba Sed Anthar.” In the darkness of that cold Georgia night, the terrorist nightriders of the fallen Confederacy were brought back to life like some Frankenstein monster. The Klan has lived within us ever since, like a shadow in the American psyche.

It would be easy to say these men are not my ancestors. If I trace my lineage through a bloodline, I am related to none of them. In my conscious world, the world of the light, the world I want to show people, I would never include these men in my pantheon of heroes, mentors, elders, ancestors. I denounce the terrors they brought into the world, I reject their concepts of racial superiority, I disavow any connection to them. I am not like them, I say.

But is that true?

I am not just an individual. I also have a shared identity, one with ever widening circles of connection. I am a product of culture as much as I am a product of family. We are not fashioned into being by blood alone, we are fashioned out of story also. In many respects the story is more important, especially when it is a story about blood. And my story is of a white man in America, at least in part.

Over the years, I have tried to honor those so-called white people who have tried to make the world better, safer, healthier for all people. I have a reoccurring dream where I tattoo the lives of these people on my body. William Lloyd Garrison, Anne Braden, James Reeb, Heather Heyer. I fantasize about using my skin to tell the story of my creation through their lives, like my own Book of Genesis. This is who I am, this is the lineage of my people. This is who God has called me to claim and be claimed by. These are my people. They are my Davids, my Ruths, my Abrahams, my Eves. These people are the story of my creation.

But no family is complete without Cain, without Judas. These men live within me as well, occupying that liminal space between my soul and my cells bringing with them the trauma and horror of the terrors.

Nearly 5000 people were lynched in the terrors, and millions more dehumanized, impoverished and imprisoned. To cover my body in the stories of my reclaimed heroes is only necessary because the skin I want to cover is already laden with the stories of the terrors. It is a dream of covering my body with ink amulets to protect me from the events of those long ago nights, many of them forgotten, where my ancestors tore open creation and brought the so-called white people into being. By praying to false Gods through ritual sacrifice they were offered the knowledge of good and evil, and they chose evil.

This year as I watched torches carried again into public, I heard the voices of our ancestors reified in the world through the open-throated screams of angry men. I watched in horror, wanting to separate myself, wanting to be anything but family. But we are family, related through the great delusion of race. We are white, together. This fabricated identity that we collectively just agree is real, when it is not.

I could say I am shocked by what I’ve seen, but I prefer to be honest. How could I be shocked? I know how close the ancestors are. I know their voices too. And the hero amulets I want hang on my spirit are not strong enough to get rid of them, because I cannot separate myself from culture. To believe I am an individual, creator and created by my own hands, is to believe in an even worse delusion.

The ancestors of terror prayed to the God of separation. I cannot, also, pray to this God if I want to find relief. If I want to find liberation. But I am not entirely sure how to reclaim me, which means reclaiming us, from night creation was torn open, from the night evil was chosen. I want to sing songs of love and union, songs of praise and gratitude. But first I must sing songs of atonement. But where are these sacred hymns of recovery and redemption? Where are the prayers of reparation? How do I prostrate myself and ask for Grace to take the terrors from my body, from our bodies? How do I help these ancestors down from the mountain? I feel like I am fumbling in the dark for relief.

We have watched so many movies, read so many books, we have so much knowledge, about the horrors, but we do not know how to pray for our own redemption. And I want to believe that we are not beyond redemption, that the tear in creation can be sewn together again, that evil is not essential.

So on November 25th, I will climb Stone Mountain for a day of repentance. As my meditation text, I will bring with me the names of the people whose lives where taken by the perpetrators of the terrors, by my ancestors. But my dear ancestors, I will bring your names also in the chance that I hear you tell me that you are tired, that you no longer want to live on this mountain. There is no excuse for what you have done, but if are you ready to come down from this Stone Mountain of hate I want to help. And perhaps, together, we might find a bit of release from this evil.



2 Comments on “Call of the Ancestors

  1. Ian, thank you for this meditation.

    When I’ve pondered how to go about the task of counter-recruitment, I’ve searched for examples of “formers.” Arno Michaelis and Christian Picciolini are two such people. Are their experiences instructive?

    Michaelis writes, “What changed the course of my life was the profound courage extended to me by those I claimed to hate; their kindness, forgiveness and compassion destroyed my narrative of oppression. As ridiculous as it may sound, I had myself convinced that white people were oppressed, and that there was a centuries-old Jewish conspiracy to exterminate us. All of us human beings find what we seek in life. If we seek reasons to believe we’re persecuted, we’ll find them, as I did everywhere once I bought into the white supremacist narrative. Fortunately, people I claimed to hate, such as a Jewish boss, a lesbian supervisor, and black and Latino co-workers, defied my hostility. They treated me with kindness when I least deserved it, but when I most needed it. These examples of how human beings should treat each other ultimately built upon an exhaustion that had me looking for an excuse to leave ‘the movement.’ “

    Picciolini says the exact same thing: “As former extremists from the far right, what changed us is when we received compassion from the people we least deserved it from.” He says that in many cases, “They’ve never met a black person or had a meaningful conversation with a Muslim or Jewish person.”

    But I’m not sure how to reconcile Heidi Beirich’s comment that “That’s how most people get out,” with her caution that the work of reaching out to people from different backgrounds should not fall on people from marginalized groups. “It shouldn’t be on the groups facing this,” Beirich said. “It’s on the rest of us.” That makes me want to ask how I, as a white-identified woman, can help facilitate more contact without misstepping. Hmm…

    I know I can do other things that don’t ask anything of people from marginalized groups, like:
    – I can encourage other white people to read The New Jim Crow.
    – I can recommend the documentary “Race: The Power of an Illusion.”
    – I can share Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” TED talk.
    – As a white-identified woman, I can’t become another Daryl Davis, but maybe by sharing his story I’ll be doing the next best thing? Davis, as some may know, is a black man who has sat down with Klan members and talked with them. He will ask the Klansman, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” Davis observes, “As you build upon those commonalities, you’re forming a relationship and as you build about that relationship, you’re forming a friendship. That’s what would happen. I didn’t convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves.”

    If you or others have more suggestions, I’m eager to hear them.

    Thanks again, Ian.

  2. Ian, Thank you for your thoughts, heart, prayers and efforts…God has woven us together and my gratitude you AR in its incredible and wondrous fabric of humanity.
    in love,

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