I’ve felt the power of reconciliation wash over me. I felt it at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery and at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. I felt it when a family of Black descendants approached me at a book talk, with tears in their eyes, to hug and thank me for telling their family’s story in my book Hattiesburg. It is a feeling that inspires wholeness, human connectedness, historical justice, and internal peace.
And so I was eager—and tremendously honored—when Zócalo Public Square asked me to moderate the events in their new editorial and public programs series, “How Should Societies Remember Their Sins?” I knew that I would have to harness that powerful feeling in this work. Funded with a grant provided by the Mellon Foundation, these conversations spanned two years and three cities—Jackson, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee; and Los Angeles, California. At each site, I moderated thematic discussions rooted in exploring how we might best confront the most difficult and enduring aspects of the American past.
There is no single rubric for facing challenging histories. But the writers and thinkers involved in this project all have something in common: a sense of forward-looking hope. Courageously and ambitiously, they write and think for people and generations beyond themselves.
I have learned a great deal over these past two years. Some of my early feelings toward reconciliation have grown into more concrete ideas. This series taught me three primary lessons about how societies should remember their sins. They have to do with the nature of memory, scalable action, and the question of who should be invited to participate.
The first lesson has to do with the importance of storytelling in shaping our collective memory. People tell stories through many modes—history, fiction, art, monuments, and artifacts. Most importantly, storytelling is available to everyone, which is why it’s the oldest tradition in human civilization and a bedrock of democracy. Stories give lifeblood to our dreams, connecting us with other people from the past and allowing us to imagine and believe. During the fourth panel discussion, “How Does Confronting Our History Build a Better Future?,” Indigenous environmental activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez observed that artists who tell stories “generate the imagination for the rest of the population to begin to see the possibilities of a different world.” This imaginative space, then, can be a form of resistance, an accessible place where even the most downtrodden and forgotten among us can dare to dream. And that is precisely why so many people want to control whose stories get told.
A problem with our past, and part of the reason so many of our nation’s historical sins remain unresolved, is that not everyone has had a chance for their stories to be told. Some have been intentionally excluded, either by law or custom. There are those among us whose ancestors were never supposed to be part of history. But more than ever, new storytellers are folding the tales of marginalized citizens into an ever-expanding American narrative.
Stories of miners engaged in armed resistance help give the descendants of those miners a sense of belonging, and establish a long lineage of labor action in this country. And the stories of lynching victims can exonerate century-old wrongful and racist convictions and foster a sense of compassion for Black defendants in today’s criminal justice system. Stories also challenge us with tales from the past of people who resisted evil and inspire us to do the same. And fiction, the writer Adria Bernardi told us, can provide a space to “dwell with complex moral investigation.”
At their best, stories both welcome and inspire, inviting us into a space of common humanity, helping us to remember and feel. We still do not live in a society that openly welcomes all stories, but we do live in a moment with incredible technologies that make it possible for everyone’s stories to be told, which gives us the groundwork for an infinite ability to heal.
The second lesson is that repair must be local if it is to be urgent and open. National and state-level conversations are important, but repair needs to be driven by local people to be possible and productive. Each community has its own unique needs and challenges.
As panelist Robin Rue Simmons showed us in Memphis during “Why Isn’t Remembering Enough to Repair?,” repair is leading an initiative in Evanston, Illinois, to become the first municipality to approve a formal process of reparations. The people of Evanston did not wait for a national movement. Instead, they moved on their own. They began delivering housing stipends to Black families who have been historically disadvantaged in housing markets, seeking to repair a racial wealth gap set in motion long before our time. Simmons’s organization, FirstRepair, is a nonprofit created to help inform other communities interested in exploring the idea of reparations.
No matter the form it takes, productive repair must include action. Teaching and remembering alone have not been able to solve the problems borne from the sins of our past. Repair requires vulnerability and the shedding of traditional social hierarchies. Wherever one seeks repair, listen to the descendants of the people who have been wronged, and think deeply and hard about what you might say to their bygone ancestors. Their past deserves our attention, and the future desperately needs immediate action.
The final and most difficult lesson I learned has origins in our first panel, “What Is Our Responsibility for Our Government’s Wars?” Held in July of 2022, this program convened an incredible group—Lt. Gen. (ret.) Robert Schmidle, Air Force veteran and social worker Noël Lipana, and the foreign war correspondent Farnaz Fassihi. It took me over a year—and the experience of moderating all the other panels—to realize the most important lesson from this conversation: the concept of “moral injury.”
Broadly speaking, moral injury is the psychological trauma that comes when a person realizes that a cause or nation they supported was immoral, and that they contributed to that immorality by way of their participation. It’s a term commonly used in veterans’ circles, especially among soldiers who fought in Vietnam and America’s recent wars in the Middle East. As the psychologist Jack Saul wrote, “Moral injury has been described as a ‘wound to the soul.’” It is emotionally crushing to come to the realization that one has committed or condoned violence on behalf of a side that is not just.
In every panel since the first, I have asked our speakers to comment on those who resist the idea of grappling with the sins of our society. Few tried to answer that question, as it’s difficult for those of us engaged in this work to imagine offering a place for people who seemingly want to shut down open dialogue. The people banning books and blocking history lessons, we so often think, are the enemies of progress.
In many cases this may be true. But it is also true that exposure to the sins of America’s past can lead to a form of moral injury among some of our fellow citizens, which makes it psychologically traumatic for them to process new lessons that reveal the dark sins in the American past. Hundreds of millions of Americans have been told since birth that the United States is a moral nation—the most ethical in the world—and that our shared history has been one marked by the advancement of human rights and freedom. During the fourth panel, journalist Krista Tippett said that America has been seen as the country of innocence, but its sins have been left to fester, unresolved and ignored. Some are even celebrated. Slavery, segregation, and war have been described as blemishes, or even revered in twisted ways that celebrate those who have killed and enslaved. These deep, dark American sins, then, must be pronounced and discussed with great care, especially for those they disabuse.
If we are serious about creating a more usable past for a better future, then we must take seriously the collective psychological trauma of citizens who learn new and disturbing things about America’s past. People cannot merely be ambushed by waves of negative histories that fundamentally alter their view of America. They—like the veterans who have experienced moral injury in war—need to be considered and cared for. As Saul writes, our citizens need an “emotional toolbox,” one stacked with the practices of “convening with care and purpose; listening with compassion; grounding, reflecting, and responding; and integrating a view or action and moving forward.”
And so, the final lesson is that there needs to be greater care for the psychology of those who face having their worlds shattered by new information about—and a persistent confrontation with—America’s complicated past. Care is needed even for those who fight societal efforts at reconciliation and repair. In fact, those are the people who might need it the most.
In Mississippi, Patrick Weems of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center told our audience a story of a white man who came out to protest the erection of a historical marker to Emmett Till. Faced with a tense and difficult circumstance, Weems made a gesture of care for the man by listening to his perspective—to “dignify him with space,” Weems explained—that allowed for a more productive conversation. A breakthrough came when the man realized that his own child today was the same age that Emmett Till had been when he was murdered. Moved, the man became involved with the unveiling of the marker.
“I believe in humanity,” Weems concluded.
So do I. It is for that reason that I believe that any effort to remember our society’s sins must operate with a hope that is generous enough to welcome even those who resist the difficult processes of healing.
It is a great American tradition to refuse to confront our society’s sins. But to ignore the opportunity for repair is to simply pass the onus onto the next generation. As a historian, I have always thought about the past. Now, like the writers and thinkers in this project, I think ever more steadfastly about the future. About the need to tell better stories in order to remember, and remember better, and to act on the basis of these histories—always with generosity and care.
We owe far more to the future than we do the past.