“Reconstructing Our Common Past” in East Texas and Poland

I’m launching this blog as a way to include the larger community in the process of completing our documentary film, Resurrecting Love.  When we say “Resurrecting Love,” we’re really talking about resurrecting community.  We’re doing this out of conviction and instinct.   Conscience.  Resurrecting community is also a strategy for transforming conflict.

A New Excerpt from the Documentary-in-Progress

Dr. Ysaye Barnwell (www.VocalCommunity.com), revered singer-composer formerly with Sweet Honey in the Rock came to East Texas to sing with us and celebrate the Ancestors at the April 2014 Love Cemetery cleanup . Here’s a short video from the event. It opens with Shundrika Love, a descendant of Della Love, who donated the land for Love Cemetery in 1904, talking to the multiple generations of descendants present for the event. Four generations of family members and friends from far and near turned out for this amazing event.

Wrestling with the Angel of History

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s cover story, “The Case for Reparations,” in the Atlantic Monthly, June, 2014, marshals a powerful argument for having the discussions I’ve long said are essential and deeply connected to our work around Love Cemetery.   For those who don’t know, Love is a 175-year old African American cemetery in the rural countryside of East Texas, outside of Marshall, near the Louisiana border.  Eleven years ago, descendants asked me to join them in reclaiming it.  They had the deed to the land, their families were buried there.  There were headstones.   But in the 1960s, during Civil Rights movement, someone put a lock on the gate, posted signs saying “Keep Out. Trespassers Beware,” and cut off their access.  For over 40 years, despite Texas law, they had no access to their own cemetery.

In telling this cross-cultural story, I’ve been confronted with some of our country’s deepest racial wounds.   Resurrecting Love documents the contemporary struggle for a human right recognized the world over:  people honoring their dead – telling their stories.

 “It is, then, not simply a question of black power or white power, but of how meaningfully to reenfranchise human power.  This, as I think Martin Luther King understood, is the real point, the real gift to America ….In accepting the humanity of the black race, white people…. will be receiving into itself half of its own experience, vital and indispensable to it, which it has so far denied at great cost.”

Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound

The tag line for Coates’ article states his case: Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.  

I agree.  We’ve reached a crossroads in this centuries-long conflict we call our country.   “Our choice is simple,” Milan Kundera tells us, “Memory or oppression.”  Memory requires that we summon history and remember our past.  The truth can indeed set us free.  Coates draws on a history not widely known but well documented.

It’s time we reckon with our history, wrestle it to the ground.  Like Jacob wrestling with the Angel in the Old Testament/Torah, we need to take hold of our contradictory history and refuse to let go even if we are wounded by it.   We have to hold on until we are given a new understanding of ourselves.   That new understanding is the basis for our future as a country.   We have a common past we’ve refused to claim.   Acknowledging the horrors of enslavement and theft, studying it, considering how one can repair such great harm, talking about it, can instruct and unite us as a people able to meet today’s challenges.

I used late historian Manning Marable’s encapsulation as the epigraph to my book, Love Cemetery, Unburying the Secret of Slaves:   “In order to have a common future, we have to reconstruct our common past.”

I also turned to Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States, who laid out today’s challenge at a commencement address at Stanford years ago.  Pinsky spoke of the difference between “a great people” and  “a great nation.”    A great people, he said, is “…defined and unified not by blood but by shared memory – a people is held together and identified by what successfully gets passed on from the old ones to be remembered by the young.  A people is its memory, its ancestral treasures.”

I salute Ta-Nehisi Coates and urge you to read his article for yourself.  Read John Conyers H.B. 40 too.   Making reparations of any kind will be a process.   Out of the willingness to face our history will come the knowledge of what must be done to repair such great harm.   First the stories.  Thank you, Ta-Nehisi, for yours

Bill Moyers interviews Ta-Nehisi Coates  Full Show: Facing the Truth: The Case for Reparations | Moyers & Company | BillMoyers.com

Poland’s Road to Reconciliation

crooked mirror cover

The poet, Jane Hirshfield, wrote and insisted that both my husband Corey Fischer and I read Louise Steinman’s new book, The Crooked Mirror, A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation.   In our decades-old friendship, Jane’s never written me point-blank like this.   I immediately got the book and quickly understood why.   Jane knows how profoundly Poland impacted my life.  While researching my book Longing for Darkness, I walked 226 miles from Warsaw to Czestochowa on a pilgrimage with members of Solidarity when the Communists were still in power.   I returned in 1988 to interview Lech Walesa, as he rose to power as the head of Solidarity and the Polish government fell apart.   I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau.

I knew something of the long and difficult history of Polish-Jewish relations.  Steinman’s book affirms of the importance of reclaiming lost history and, to my surprise, reveals that Poland and Germany have much to teach the U.S. about how to do that.

I was surprised and heartened to discover that restoring Jewish cemeteries in Poland is one of the ways Poles are working  with the Jewish community today towards reconciliation.  As one of the non-Jewish Poles in the book says, “It’s central to reclaiming the history the Nazis tried to obliterate.”   Their work to reclaim buried Jewish history gives me a new way to talk about the necessity of marking and preserving our African American cemeteries.

The Nobel laureate Czesław Milosz was the staunchest supporter and mentor of the young Polish couple who created the Borderlands Foundation in Sejny, Poland.  In 2001, Borderlands published Jan Gross’s hugely important book, Neighbors, which chronicled, for the first time, the massacre of Jews by their Polish neighbors  in the village of Jedwabne during World War II.    The attempts to erase the Holocaust – to obliterate the historical memory of what happened in Poland – stopped with the publication of Neighbors. 

Borderlands preserves “what is valuable from the past” and that valuing includes what gets written off as problematic. Steinman writes that when she visited Jedwabne, “Borderland artists, together with the town’s youth, were still in the process of renovating the town’s Jewish cemetery, neglected for … fifty years.” [i] Krzysztof Czyzewski, the non-Jewish co-founder of Borderlands, said, “This reclamation was central to the Borderland’s philosophy of ‘taking responsibility,’ which meant…’learning what really happened in this place.’” He also told Steinman that “Yes, it will be very painful….We have to take this relatively peaceful time to look at what is cruel and painful in the past.  It is the only way to build a democracy.  We cannot lose this time.  We must be honest.” [ii]

The parallel is striking.  In the United States, we have to re-build a democracy that never existed if you were black or “of color.”   We have to tell the truth about what really happened in this place.   Resurrecting Love, the documentary we’re completing, may be set in East Texas, but it belongs to a much larger, longer, and deeper effort of which we’re all a part.

[i] Louise Steinman, The Crooked Mirror, A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation,

[ii] ibid p. 54

About China Galland

China Galland, M.A., is the prize-winning author of several non-fiction works including "Love Cemetery, Unburying the Secret History of Slaves" (HarperOne), "Longing for Darkness, Tara and the Black Madonna" (Penguin). She’s completing a documentary film, "Resurrecting Love," about an East Texas African American community’s struggle to reclaim Love Cemetery, the historic burial ground they own. "The Bond Between Women, A Journey to Fierce Compassion" (Riverhead/Penguin), was chosen as one of the best five books on Spirituality by the annual “Books For a Better Life Award.” Galland has been a Professor in Residence at the Center for the Arts, Religion, and Education at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, the largest consortium of Christian schools of theology in the U.S, as well as a Research Associate, and adjunct faculty. “Art, Darkness, and the Womb of God,” the graduate level intensive, grew out of her pioneering work on the Divine Feminine cross-culturally. She has been affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union for over 20 years. A riveting storyteller and public speaker, Galland has lectured at Harvard University, Columbia, Cornell, Bowling Green University, and Prescott College among others. She led pilgrimages to the Divine Feminine in Nepal, India, France and Spain, appeared on “Good Morning America,” Bloomberg TV, PBS, NPR, and PRI's "To the Best of Our Knowledge."
This entry was posted in American History, Documentary Film, East Texas, History, Poland, Race, Reconciliation, Reparations and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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