I have been advocating an apology or statement of reconciliation as a symbolic gesture to finally address incidents of racial discrimination in my home town of Dresden in the first half of the last century. My efforts culminated with a Letter to the Editor published in the Chatham Daily News (see below) this past weekend that has been greeted with typical mixed reaction.
It is my contention that, as with so many other cases of man's inhumanity towards man (i.e. treatment of Japanese Canadians during World War 11 and abuse of First Canadian children in residential schools) apologies by government bodies offer distinct mechanisms for addressing past wrong-doing in our country and facilitating ultimate humane and harmonious relations.
Generally, society today pays lip service to being colourblind and it is an honourable trend. In theory, the motivation to be colourblind is very noble — treating people equally without regard to their skin color, race/ethnicity, or national origin. The problem is that this individual-level motivation is not reinforced at the institutional level, where people of color are still disproportionately underrepresented in positions of power (entertainment and sports the exception) and in fact, still encounter many forms of discrimination and inequality. All of which tends to add fuel to the simmering hurts of years past -- hurts that carry over from generation to generation.
All I am suggesting is a proven official method of levelling the playing field just a bit more and dispensing, hopefully, with many of the inherited hurts. But as you will see in responses to my newspaper letter, not everyone shares my conviction. It is suggested that it is easy to apologize, but more meaningful to put words into benevolent action. There is a popular belief that time will heal the wounds of racial discrimination of the past while there are those who put faith in the ability of society to learn from past wrong-doings and to "extrapolate" that to the world. All very simple answers to what continues to be one of the most complex problems in society today.
Maybe there is a way of packaging all of the well-intended theories into an effective course of action that will be acceptable to all segments of society. If such a magical concept is possible, it will take a super human commitment and energy to implement, far beyond my limited creativity and intellect to comprehend.
I hate to think that this is a challenge beyond any singular human being, or group of humans; but I am leaning in that direction and I admit to a degree of disillusionment. We're talking about something very deep-rooted here and a subliminal resistance that is virtually unreachable. In lieu of something better, all any of us can do is to follow our hearts and to let our consciences be our guide...But isn't that what we've been doing all along?...See what I mean!
I have decided to publish (names deleted) responses to the issue that I have received this past weekend. If studied carefully, I think you will get a feeling for the differing views that exist and how complex and contradictory the matter really is. In all cases I have offered a reply. The fact that I have yet to hear from any Black friends may also tell you something.
*Dick: I was not very familiar with the actual things going on in the 50's. Until I came to Lambton-Kent in the 60's, I wasn't really attuned to what went on in Dresden. As has been said many times, Dresden is a quiet town and everyone is concerned for the welfare of their neighbours but they do not have to shout it out to the rest of the world. Even though a formal apology has maybe never been uttered there have been many apologies expressed in the hugs when they were needed, the words of encouragement when things weren't going right, help with food or babysitting when there was a need. The plaque that was erected this year to honour the National Civil Rights Movement and Hugh Burnett came about with support of the families of the key players of that era. It is very easy to say "I'm sorry" but the actions of many in this community have expressed it more effectively and meaningfully than just the words. For these reasons this is why I feel you are getting little feedback.
My reply: You are right about actions speaking louder than words. Certainly you have demonstrated that time and time again in your personal life and you are to be commended for that. As a family in the 1940s, the Wrights did not have much, but we helped feed and clothe one large, needy Black family in particular and my barber dad cut Black kids' hair in the back kitchen of our home when it was not acceptable to do so in the downtown shop (Fords) where he worked. I speak now for those who were not, and have not been for various reasons, in a position to deliver the hugs and encouragement of which you speak. Maybe I'm being selfish in expressing myself publicly in this way, but it is sincere and I feel better for having done it. Lack of response does not really worry me...My hope is that there are a few individuals out there who will accept my gesture as it was intended.
*No apologies required by anyone. Most of those involved at that time have passed on. There is no doubt it was a difficult time in the old hometown back then, but I believe time has healed most wounds.
My reply: Because I am an idealist I would like to think that time does heal most wounds. The key word here is MOST. It's the lingering, simmering wounds that cut the deepest and pass from generation to generations that I worry about.
*A large part of Dresden was not even born in 1954 and aren't responsible for actions of the 30s, 40s or 50's when popular culture and laws were different. They've been fortunate to enter a period in history when blacks are able to excel in entertainment, sports, business and politics like never before. Man's ignorant inhumanity to man will continue, just change face, so the best lesson is to extrapolate what we learned from the sorry episodes you describe, to the world now and monitor ourselves accordingly.
My reply: Your unsigned message sounds strangely similar to the previous comment (re. present generation not being responsible...). The point I try to make is that, as members of a community, country or group, each succeeding generation is implicated by association and thereby "responsible" for what transpires, past and present. If mistakes are made, it behooves all of us to assume the task of reconciliation and recompense, all in the name of responsible citizenship. We should leave no stone unturned in our efforts to diminish man's ignorant inhumanity to man.
*Thanks for the hook-up to your article on Racial Discrimination. I read it and found it interesting, especially in this present-day atmosphere. I watched the little film you had embedded on your site and while watching it, I recognized my mother and her sister coming out of the post office. What a surprise. So I sat her down and we watched it again together. She recognized a few people, and she was very surprised to see herself. She doesn't even remember them making the film. Thanks for all the research you do and for all your blogs and stories. They really help piece together the times and memories of a home town that is the heart of your family.
My reply: Much appreciated ---. I know for a fact that your grandfather and uncles were very much synonymous with "heart" in Dresden for many years. Say hi to your dear mom.
*Dresden would not be Dresden if it was not interracial because when the slaves went there it only got bigger. People may disagree with me but I have never been a racist and never will.
My reply: Good for you young man. At least I have made you think about how you relate to other races of people. I fail to grasp your initial point, however.
*My mother-in-law's childhood friend is Trish, Hugh Burnett's daughter. Myself, my husband, my three step children, and my mother-in-law and her friends all went to the ceremony for the plaque unveiling this summer. It was a nice ceremony and I was blessed to meet some very interesting people and share in some good food. There was music, speakers and native costumes. My husband and I went there to support Trish but also to expose the kids to the past and let them get a taste for what happened so long ago. I hope they learned something. I'm glad that I went. My father was born in Dresden but didn't grow up there, yet I still feel a strong tie due to a lot of my ancestors being buried there. They obviously dealt with these issues as well. I have no idea if they took part in any of this but I definitely feel bad if they did. I think it's terrible to be judged for the colour of your skin. It's truly what's on the inside that counts.
My reply: You are truly someone who cares. I am sure your support and friendship was most appreciated by the Burnett family and others. Your children, too, will be the better for having had the exposure.
*Thanks for the courage of your convictions Dick. You've got guts to find the words to express what has been on my mind since we were classmates but have been unable to adequately express. With your experience, I am sure your are prepared for some backlash because there will be those who fail to understand your point, I'm sorry to say. Your position is valid. Do not be deterred.
My reply: I hoped I would hear from you ---. We had talked before about how we could deal with this issue long after the fact. I know of your sincerity and interest in the welfare of your fellow man. I am glad that you approve of my public expressions but doesn't it all seems so very insignificant now? At least we tried. I'm sleeping a little better at nights...How about you?
A CONCLUDING NOTE: I do not want to beat this subject to death and for now will not be publishing any further comments or reaction. I will be taking a blogging break for a while, but owe one last apology -- this time to my wife for my being so neglectful and distracted these past few weeks as I immersed myself in a period of history that I was unable to influence 60-65 years ago and am still not able to influence today.
I now have a somewhat better feeling of what it is like to be in a minority -- to be insignificant and inconsequential.
My published letter has also drawn some reaction from detractors on the web site of the Chatham Daily News and I am left a bit disappointed that somehow I have failed to make my point understandable. I get the distinct impression that there are those who would deny me, and be critical of, my right to express myself on an issue of such historical importance. Is there something wrong in planting a conciliatory seed and to offer a challenge? I would never think to dismiss someone else's personal, heartfelt expression because it does not necessarily apply to me as I perceive life today. I respect and validate opposing views and have always tried to look at both sides of an issue and seriously consider circumstances as they have unfolded with due compassion and understanding. I am disillusioned by many of the views expressed in this awkward debate where personal idealism, generalities and irrelevancies have prevailed. I honestly felt that, as Canadians, we were capable of owning our past, acting on that past and moving beyond the past. Sorry to say that the more things change, the more they have remained the same. Buying in to the philosophy of several who would have nothing to do with ownership of the past because of where we stand today, I might well say to Black friends, "We (Whites) have created a more accepting world where you can and do excel. Of course it has taken years of struggling on your part, litigation, legislation and overcoming untold obstacles and belittlement, to get to where you are today. But aren't we wonderful for extrapolating experience and allowing you to gain a semblance of your rightful equality in the world. We've never told you openly, but as God is our witness, we apologize in our hearts every day for the injustices that you and your forefathers have endured over the years. And in case you haven't noticed, we have been acting differently too. We have never actually asked you, but we are sure(?) that you and those who have gone before, have put aside more than a century of deep hurts and resentments and that you are now as proud of yourself as we are of ourselves." I speak, of course, with forked-tongue. But heaven help us, generally we could never reveal ourselves in that way. We are too aloof and superior, too caught up in self-righteousness. We think that our actions, real or imagined, speak louder than words and that's where we get into trouble. None are so blind as those who cannot see...and are unable to speak with the courage of convictions.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ANOTHER NOTE FROM A FRIEND
HI DICK: For what it is worth, be assured you have a vote of thanks from me for all your efforts. I think you have done a great job of making a difference. Thank you for giving us in Dresden your thought-provoking insights the last few years. I have enjoyed them a great deal.
Well done, Jarv C.