By Sarah Cheshire
As we cross the Virginia-North Carolina border, moving south towards Greensboro, I look at the faces around me. Each person on the bus has a story. I have spent the past few days listening to these stories, trying to soak them all in. There are stories of hardship, stories of strength, stories of bravery, stories of defeat, stories of passion and of humor, of loss and of gain, of oppression and of privilege, of the past and of the now– we are all here because we are grappling with the now, and we all have stories that we bring to this struggle.
My story starts here, in this soil.
I was born in North Carolina and raised in North Carolina, as was my father, and his parents, and his parents’ parents, and generations of ancestors beyond that. I know my history because I’ve heard prideful stories about it from relatives, who’ve heard about it from relatives, who’ve heard about it from relatives, and so forth. There are stories of cavaliers, of founders, of plantation owners, of generals and of intellectuals.
These are the people who I read about when I open history textbooks.
I rarely hear about the slaves who toiled endlessly in the cotton fields. I rarely hear about the cheap labor exploited to build our country’s infrastructure. I rarely hear about the women who worked behind the curtains during movements and protests and wars. In the telling of our collective history, these stories have frequently been omitted. The fact that I can trace my ancestry back to Jamestown, the fact that the narrative of history is told through the lens of people who bare the same skin color and cultural background as me, has made me privileged in America.
As we walk through the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, I see pictures of lynchings and bombings and firehosings, of men in white cloaks setting fire to erect crosses. I am tempted to avert my eyes. I think that often it is easier to look away than to face the pains and shames of the past head on.
For me, the first step towards reconciliation is the ability to look at pictures such as these–to really look at them– and in doing so to look at ourselves. By critically examining our own relationship to the past, and applying the lessons learned from the past to the present, we can begin to articulate a holistic narrative of America; a narrative inclusive of every voice, of every individual story.