Hindsight: Recognizing When You're Stuck on the White Channel
If you read this blog often you know it's not autobiographical. In fact, most weeks I try to keep my private life off stage, but today I'm changing things up. To begin, I'm involved in a working group on my campus called "Doing the Work." It's an off-shoot of six-month study to help members of our community understand and combat racism wherever we see it. Last year, it was structured on readings, video, and discussion. This year, it's focused around personal projects on campus in the hopes that we can each influence the spheres in which we work, whether it's Special Collections (me), the Library, the classroom, residential life, you name it. All that is to say, that I am currently hyper-conscious of my behavior, my words and my choices, trying to re-center a privileged, white outlook toward something more empathetic and wholistic. Most importantly, I'm conscious of what's missing, since so often here in the genteel northeast, what's left out is as telling as what's included.
So that's the back story, but not the main event/ There are a lot of creepy, wrong things about Facebook, but it's not entirely without merit since it allows us to hear from colleagues we might only see annually at a meeting. In my world one of those people is Omar Eaton-Martinez, the Assistant Division Chief for Historic Resources in Prince George's County, Maryland. If Omar and I have met once, it's a lot, but I grew up in Maryland, and started my career about a billion years ago working for the Maryland SHPO's office so reading his Facebook posts pulls at my heartstrings. I know the region. I know some of the places although most not well, until last week. Last week Omar posted a video from the Maryland Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recent hearing in Allegany County, Maryland. Why is that important? Well, I moved from Washington, DC to Cumberland, Maryland, the county seat for Allegany County, in sixth grade. It's where I went to middle school, and where I returned after graduate school, and where I had my first full-time job as director of the Allegany County Historical Society.
The Maryland Truth and Reconciliation Commission's hearing, sadly the first of many, tells the searingly sad story of the October 6, 1907 lynching of Robert Hughes, an 18-year old Black man, arrested for an altercation in a local bar resulting in the death of a White police officer. Awaiting trial in the County jail in Cumberland, Hughes was abducted from the jail, beaten and shot while local officials stood by and allowed it to happen. Needless to say many of the town's residents came out to watch as if seeing a man killed in front of the courthouse is akin to seeing the circus come to town. Like many of this country's lynchings, the murderers were never charged, Hughes' family never received an apology, nor did the town provide funds for Burns' sister to take his body to Pittsburgh for burial.
Apart from the obvious pain of the story, the sadness in the voices of Burns' descendants speaking about their family history, here's what struck me: As the historical society director, why wasn't I thinking about race in Cumberland, Maryland? And to add insult to injury, all of this took place less than two blocks from where I lived and the Historical Society headquarters. No, it wasn't the digital age, when I could have Googled a ton of information from my home laptop, but it was there. Where was my head? And here's what's even weirder. I didn't have an easy time in that position. I was fresh out of graduate school, and almost messianic in my zeal to make change. But questions of race, weren't the questions I was asking. Why? Perhaps I thought I knew the narrative although clearly I didn't. In the end, I think everyone engaged in re-centering ourselves needs to ask these questions. Not everyone will be brought up short as I was, but everyone needs to look to their pasts and acknowledge what was left undone, unsaid, and unexplored. You can think of yourself as the kindest most empathetic human in the world, but if your world view is stuck on the White channel, you'll never ask the necessary questions. Maybe you don't even know what questions you should ask, but start by "doing the work." Acknowledge the work left undone, the questions left unanswered. If you work for a heritage organization look for the stories left out of the narrative. Who's not present? Who in today's BIPOC community can help reconstruct stories that are missing or covered over because while it's your obligation to make sure the story is told, it's not always yours to tell.
So, it's decades late, but kudos to Maryland for creating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and for the hard work of historians and genealogists in Allegany County in uncovering this story. And a big thank you to Omar Eaton-Martinez for posting the video.
Be well, be kind, and do good work.