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  • Kimberley Guillemet

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that

by the good people.”

― Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It is easy to get so caught up in the rigmarole and routine of life that we miss and ignore human suffering all around us. Many of us have become desensitized to horrific events because we are inundated with them on a daily basis through our smart phone news feeds, social media and 30-second sound bites on the evening news. We are so surrounded by negativity, that it can be appealing to tune it all out. In some instances, ignoring it may feel like an act of self-preservation.

I am a proponent of boundaries and mental wellness, but we have to know when and where to really tune in to what is happening (or what has happened) around us. Every so often I will have a moment when the gravity of the suffering of other humans stops me in my tracks. I had several of those such moments during a recent visit to Charleston, South Carolina.

While I was there, I learned that between 40 to 55% of Africans who were brought to America during the transatlantic slave trade were brought through the Port of Charleston. At the recently opened International African American Museum, my family and I viewed an exhibit that demonstrated how the bodies of the captured Africans who were being transported to the Americas were subhumanly arranged in the bowels of ships during the Middle Passage.

While I was there, I was also able to see and touch the forever-immortalized fingerprint impressions made by enslaved toddlers, who were forced to turn freshly formed bricks in the hot southern sun, so that they would dry properly, while their mothers labored alongside them.

I was able to visit auction blocks where countless ancestors of African American people were bought and sold like horses, mules and other chattel.

I was able to visit the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest Black churches in the United States, long known as a center for civil rights organizing, which was the location of a 2015 mass shooting by a White supremacist who killed nine African American parishioners.

On an intellectual level, I am well aware of the existence of slavery, racism, race-based hatred and oppression in the United States. I grew up with the awareness that my great-grandparents were born into slavery, and that the condition of their slavery had long-term generational repercussions on our family. My own father, who was born in 1950 in Arkansas under the heavy thumb of Jim Crow laws and policies, grew up picking cotton along with his mother and siblings to make ends meet.

I knew all of this, but when I experienced and visited the locations where many of our ancestors were forcibly arranged side by side, shackled together while lying in human excrement and breathing in the stench of death, the places where enslaved toddlers were forced to form and turn bricks in the heat, and the church where nine innocent people were killed while studying the Bible and engaging in worship--essentially places and circumstances where human beings were subjected to tremendous suffering, all because they were Black--it felt different. My heart broke (again) for what my people had been through. The emotions that I knew they had to have experienced felt palpable. Fear, bewilderment, intense anger and helplessness, all ran through me at different points during my time in Charleston.

After all of the stirring I felt in my soul settled down, I realized a quiet truth: those people, my people, had never lost hope. They kept fighting. They kept standing. They continued to live their lives with resilience and determination. After surviving unimaginable atrocities, they continued to soldier on. They did not stop. They did not lie down. And because of their resistance and defiant will to survive in the hopes of a brighter day for their descendants, their stories and their legacies live on through those of us who benefit from their sacrifice.

Our World Changer of the Month, Septima Clark, a native of Charleston, whose father had been born into slavery, is the quintessential example of that resilient defiance. Despite growing up in abject poverty, and being actively prevented from accessing an education for herself and from educating others, she not only secured her own high school, baccalaureate and post-baccalaureate degrees, she created opportunities and schools for African Americans so that they would not only have access to education, but would be able to access their right to vote. She did all of this with minimal resources while navigating racism, sexism and oppression with grace; never with anger. Known for her perseverance and steadfast nature, she was quoted as saying,“I never felt that getting angry would do you any good other than hurt your own digestion, keep you from eating, which I liked to do.”

So what now for us when we see human suffering, oppression and injustice happening all around us? How are we charged with responding?

Do we close our eyes and try to ignore it? Do we steel our hearts and intentionally desensitize ourselves to it? Do we create a story in our minds to justify the behavior? Or do we take action in a way that is true to ourselves, honors our history and calls us higher?

I know in my heart what the right answer is for me. The right answer for you is a personal matter, but I will leave you with this quote from Septima Clark as final food for thought:

“I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than to believe, to inquire rather than to affirm.”

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