Squeezing Light Out of Dark in Montgomery, Alabama
For the last few years, Bryan and I have been lucky enough to travel to some amazing places around the world. But neither of us have traveled much in the US and admittedly don’t know a lot about American history, so we decided that 2018 would be the year of US travel.
Though police brutality against predominantly young African American men and women has been happening ever since the police force was created in this country, it sadly hasn’t been part of the collective consciousness until pretty recently. While I can’t claim to know what it’s like to be black in this country, I do have a sense of what it’s like to be the descendant of historically marginalized communities, since our families are Jewish and Japanese-American. Our communities know the pain of being unjustly persecuted against and seen as less than.
Three years ago, we were invited to an annual dinner for Facing History and Ourselves. The keynote speaker was Bryan Stevenson, an African American criminal justice attorney in Montgomery, Alabama. We were so moved and inspired by his talk that we got his book, Just Mercy. In it he tells the stories of clients who are part of our broken criminal justice system. One story I can't get out of my head is the story of a woman who, because of the three strikes rule, is now spending life in prison for a bounced check. He also talks about racial bias, and how our school systems are biased against black and brown students, who end up in the criminal justice system as part of the "school to prison pipeline". Did you know that prisons are for-profit entities, which make more money if more people are in them? I didn't. In the book, Mr. Stevenson wrote about launching the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), and his dreams to create a memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama; we vowed to visit one day.
Then in March of this year, everyone from The New York Times to Architectural Digest wrote about the EJI's museum and memorial openings. It was time for our trip to Montgomery. So we planned a trip the following month and began making plans to visit the deep South.
After visiting the EJI's museum and memorial in Montgomery, I’m convinced that if more Americans visit, we’ll at least be able to start having open conversations with each other about bias, race and our shared history as Americans. Simply put, nothing compares to visiting the city where slavery, segregation and racism started, and learning about it firsthand. Thankfully, EJI has done an amazing job of preserving this history in a way that is so visceral, I left a different person.
The history of racism in this country needs to be confronted. We have to face the truth of what happened: Our country kidnapped Africans from their home countries, separated them from their families and forced them into slavery. If we can't face this, we're never going to understand the larger system that's at play: Slavery, then Jim Crow (state-mandated segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains) followed by Brown vs. Board of Education (the Supreme Court case which eventually declared school segregation to be unconstitutional), and present-day incarceration through the prison system, police brutality and not holding officers accountable for killing unarmed young people of color.
The wealth of the United States was built on the backs of slaves. There's continued wealth being built on the backs of people of color in our for-profit prison system. And because the need is economic, the culture feeds into it: People of color are portrayed as being less than and dehumanized. That's what links all of our experiences together: Forcible incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, Latin Americans at our borders being incarcerated for seeking asylum, banning Muslims and Muslim Americans entry into the US (and the racist rhetoric behind it), young unarmed African Americans being killed or unjustly, mindlessly thrown into the prison system. All are under the guise of "public safety". This is how our country's economy survives. This is a history and truth we all share as Americans, a history we must confront if we are ever to begin healing, and to ensure a just and safe future for the generations to come. As Marcus Garvey says, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, culture, is like a tree without roots.”