The Role of Public Humanities in Reconciliation

There’s a type of generosity that exists, that causes me to tear up when I see it. It’s the type of generosity of spirit that is so magnanimous that it doesn’t require recognition because it simply is pure generosity for its own sake, and there is no other way it could be described.

Let me back up.

Last week, I attended a roundtable event about the failures of Reconstruction at the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall in Franklin, Tennessee. The roundtable was comprised of three black intellectuals: public historian Dr. Learotha Williams of TSU, documentary filmmaker Frederick Murphy, and the first Director of African American Studies at Nashville’s Belle Meade plantation, Brigette Jones. It was attended by a mixed crowd of all ages and races.

To understand what this means, consider Franklin, TN for a moment. It is in Williamson County, the third-largest slaveholding county in the state. Residents of Williamson County enslaved more people than that of Davidson County, home to the state’s capitol, Nashville. It still is the wealthiest county in the state, and was in the top 10 richest counties in America. Most of that money is old money. Much of it is slave money.

The Masonic Hall itself, alongside most of Franklin’s downtown, was built by the enslaved. You can still see their fingerprints that are impressed in the bricks and mortar if you look closely. For hundreds of years, white masons gathered there to network and increase their wealth. Now, it has become a site of learning about history, dedicated to the stories of black Franklin, which have been kept from the public for so long.

Brochure advertising the event, courtesy of the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall Foundation.

Part of this mission, is reconciliation.

In our current political climate, this is a purposeful and radical decision.

The event opened with plainly stating the crimes this nation has committed against indigenous and black people, and started the conversation with the understanding that we all were there to find a way to press forward and learn to respect one another and live together in prosperity, no matter how uncomfortable we got. In Franklin, TN, this felt nothing short of revolutionary.

Throughout the Q&A, my brain was in overdrive as I scanned the room for body language, and listened carefully for hidden meanings in the phrasing of questions. As an educator of enslavement and public humanities advocate in a white supremacist society, I’ve heard my fair share of words and phrases that, if allowed to proceed without clarification, lead to bigotry and the shutting down of open dialogue. These phrases include, but are not limited to:  “they sold their own,” or “both sides,” or “reverse racism,” or “what about all the poor whites who didn’t own slaves?” or “weren’t the Irish slaves?” (Note: It is absolutely appropriate to seek clarification about these topics around which much misinformation has been spread. It’s all in how those questions are phrased.)

Those phrases never came, however. As I watched, it became clear that many of the people in attendance that night were regulars of the Masonic Hall’s programming, dutifully taking notes, jotting down book recommendations, and being considerate in the asking of questions. I recognized that the employees of the Hall had, through thoughtful programming and moderation, created an environment of good faith. The white people in the room were not there to deflect the feelings of guilt or shame that might come up in conversations around race- they were there to better understand and process those feelings. They were showing up with their very best selves. The teacher in me wanted to hand out gold stars.

So that was one type of generosity- the willingness displayed by white people to be uncomfortable in order to learn about the ways in which black people often are made to feel uncomfortable.

The second type was that of the speakers. All three work with sources that describe, in vivid and gristly detail, racial terror against people who share their skin color. All three have experienced a wide variety of racist speech and actions against themselves and loved ones. All three have studied the systemic issues which face black people in the US today. And all three opened themselves up to questions which necessitated them digging through these memories and applying a critical lens to them in order to explain them in ways which people who have indirectly benefited from black oppression could understand.

This is a type of generosity that is often expected of black people by those of us who don’t understand how difficult a thing it is. It must take a magnitude of emotional labor to publicly process a lifetime of memories, experiences, and primary sources of corrosive racism that has affected ones family and ancestors. I can’t speak for our panelists, of course, but I wanted to tell them that I saw them: I saw how deeply they valued education, and how deep they were digging for the people in that Hall in order to provide them with it.

Now, as a white someone who hears many black people’s stories through the Fort Negley Descendants Project, I’m a big believer that black people don’t owe white people the stories of their racial trauma. When the stories are given anyway, in a space that has been built on trust and good faith, it is a gift that promotes growth and understanding. And it is incredibly generous, because this is the gift that keeps on giving down the generational line. It is a gift from people who believe that hate is learned, and can be unlearned, too. It’s a gift that says “I’ve seen the worst of your kind, but I believe that you can be the best of your kind.”

I’m just left in awe of this public place in the heart of Tennessee’s slave country, that is willing to carefully curate space for this type of generosity to exist. The conversations at the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall Foundation are not always going to be smooth, or easy, or fun, but they will always lead to understanding and healing. The transformational effects of such a space, and the people dedicated to its protection, cannot be overstated.

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