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I point the finger – at myself

March 1, 2010

When it comes to our nationality, none of us can claim the moral high ground.

We all have chapters of shame and bloodshed in our history. These are not attractive narratives; not stories we want to use to define ourselves or our country.

It is tempting – and commonplace, as our Spanish colleague pointed out – to present only the positive face of our homeland when speaking with foreigners. Even more so when we’re in a setting that is designed to foster intercultural understanding such as the conference on Freedom of Expression we just attended. We love our countries and want so much for them to shine.

But if we fail to acknowledge our own weaknesses and the shortcomings of our nation, we hamper and compromise our ability to speak out against injustice when we see it.

Distancing ourselves from history or editing it so it is more palatable to us is the enemy of truth. Uncomfortable as it is, we have to shine the harsh light on ourselves.

“What about Northern Ireland?” I’ve heard people ask during British demonstrations on Gaza. “What about slavery?” South Africans asked during American protests about apartheid.

The message here is “Don’t point the finger at us – look your own country’s problems.”

It is hard to argue with that. It is tempting to back down. But I believe that backing down is not the answer.

So I point the finger – at myself.

Two years ago my family and I drove down to Old Point Comfort, Virginia to see the place where 400 years ago one of our English ancestors first set foot on American soil.

In America this carries a certain social cachet. Families – like mine – who can claim they were among the early arrivals to this country are proud of their history and heritage. But as we made our way south, past pine woods, sunny fields and small towns, I began to have a strange feeling.

It started with the signposts. Many bear the familiar names of the English counties and towns from whence my ancestors came: Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Hampton and Gloucester.

But there are other signs, too. Signs for roads, towns and rivers bearing Indian names like Poquoson and Powhatan, Chickahominy, Rapahanock and Appomatox.

I began to realize that my celebrated ancestors were settlers. And I have always maintained that settlers – growing up in East Jerusalem, I heard that word a lot – are no better than thieves.

There is a lone ancestor from the Pamunkey tribe somewhere in our family tree, so later we sought out the Pamunkey reservation. It was well off the beaten path, down a narrow, rolling road that seemed to go on forever. We traveled far from Virginia’s ubiquitous colonial-style homes and shopping malls and fast food restaurants. And finally we found ourselves in a beautiful, serene and unfamiliar place.

The Pamunkey live quietly on what remains of their land. They fish in the river and make pottery from its clay. Eagles wheel overhead and the splendor of nature is all around.

This is what it was like, I thought, standing there. Before the land was named Virginia, after England’s Queen Elizabeth I. Before we came here and lied to them and took their land and denied them their heritage. My one drop of Indian blood cried out for justice – for the Pamunkey and for Native Americans everywhere who have struggled so long for basic rights and recognition.

My white blood cried for shame.

Did my family also own slaves? I don’t know. But that doesn’t let me off the hook, according to John Vanderstar, a white lawyer who helped draft a resolution in which the Episcopal Church – of which I am a member – formally apologized for its association with slavery.  

In 2008 – the same year my family made its pilgrimage to Point Comfort and the Pamunkey reservation – the Episcopal Church held a service of repentance for slavery at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia.

And this brings me to my point. We need to acknowledge our own sorry history. Mine – and yours, too; our Holocausts and Nakbas and Inquisitions and invasions and massacres and ethnic cleansings.

But more is required. To truly honor those we have wronged, we need to point the finger – at injustice.

                                                                                                           — Lucy Chumbley

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary Creamer Feddema permalink
    March 1, 2010 11:18 pm


  2. March 2, 2010 4:24 am

    Lucy, your post sent a chill through me and I agree with everything you write here. I was thinking something similar this morning during my workout (its the best time to think).

    Yesterday I interviewed a young articulate Palestinian woman from Beit Hanina, you can read the story and she talked about living under Israeli occupation. She also talked about the terrors of going through checkpoints and being arrested three times even though she is only 25.

    I felt v. uncomfortable but afterwards I thought that I had experienced no less terror. I have lived here 15 years, gone through four wars and witnessed hundreds of terrorist attacks, one very very first hand. But counting up all the awful experiences in our lives does not solve anything, it only makes us angry.

    I realized this morning that no one is blameless, even though one side or the other likes to think they are or say it was the fault of the other that caused whatever event (if that makes sense). At the same time, it is only once we let all these experience go… let them pass through our memories and move on, will there ever be a chance for peace and harmony. If that is what people really want, then they have to let go of bad memories.

    Sadly in this part of the world everyone knows someone or is related to someone who has been hurt, maimed or killed by this conflict… but powerful and smart people know how to forgive. Forgiving is much harder than staying angry.

    Anyway, I’m glad you brought all this up… I just wish others could too…

    Wow! This is very philosophical for so early in the morning… anyway, have a great day

  3. March 2, 2010 10:39 am

    Thanks so much Ruth and Mary. Ruth, does this make me a self-hating WASP? 🙂 You are so right about forgiveness being harder than staying angry. So much of the “never forget” stuff we are fed fuels anger and hatred. Yet there is such a fine line to tread, as we can’t forget, yet we can’t afford to look back in anger (channeling Oasis here). There is something very powerful about making an apology, on a personal, institutional or national level. It allows people to remember, forgive and move on. Though not perfect, I am very inspired by the work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
    Now I am going to read your story!

  4. March 3, 2010 4:39 am

    Lucy, of course we must never forget the past. (And I say this as someone whose grandfather went through the concentration camp of Auschwitz) There is so much we can learn from the past and how not to let the same ugly monsters raise their heads… however, I am really beginning to think that not forgiving is holding us all back collectively. Wish more people would see it like that, but unfortunately not.

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