When History Makes You Sick

“I was oblivious to what I didn’t even know. I was blind, but I didn’t know I was blind. And that’s the most dangerous blindness of all.”
– Daniel Hill, White Awake

A Phone Conversation and a Stomachache

My stomach is rumbling. Not in a good way.

Is it the donuts I ate for breakfast? My regular homemade biscuit and Golden Eagle syrup weren’t available on our trip. So when we left the hotel and the “Hot Now” sign was on at Krispy Kreme on route to the museum, we stopped to get ours.

But now, a few hours later, something is not settling right. I’m feeling worse and worse.

So I hang up the phone.

I’ve been “talking” with Anthony Ray Hinton in prison. He lived on death row for over 30 years for two murders he didn’t commit. 

Hinton looks me in the eye. He asks me questions like this:

  • What would you do if you were sentenced to almost 30 years on death row for a crime you didn’t commit?
  • How would you survive?
  • Who would you be?

I had read Hinton’s life story a few months earlier. (Read his incredible autobiography, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row.)

His book gutted me then. His questions here gut me now.

Our “conversation” today is in a prison visitation booth. I’m in Montgomery, Alabama, at The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Hinton’s exhibit is one of the many personal stories I’ve been invited into today, seeing him on a screen, waiting for me to pick up the phone.

I know it’s only a recording, played for every visitor.

But it doesn’t matter. It’s still truth.

My stomach hurts worst.

Don’t Just Read About History

Earlier that morning, when we first entered the museum, I felt fine.

We’d anticipated this museum visit for months. Jeff and I are both big fans of Bryan Stevenson’s work at the Equal Justice Initiative.

legacy-museum

But the more we walk through the museum, reading the words of formerly enslaved people, staring at photos of lynchings, watching hologram reenactments of mothers searching for their stolen children, it weighs heavier and heavier on me.

I’ve seen movies about slavery, about the battles for Civil Rights, about the ongoing quest for social justice today. I’ve read lots of books too. They’re hard to take.

But here at this museum, I don’t just see and read.

I am feeling history.

And it doesn’t feel good.

The_Legacy_Museum_Lobby_at_The_Legacy_Museum_-_From_Enslavement_to_Mass_Incarceration

by Soniakapadia – The_Legacy_Museum_Lobby_at_The_Legacy_Museum

But *I* Didn’t Do It!

Perhaps this is why some people are opposed to critical race theory. And to the 1619 Project. It hurts to learn about the terrible atrocities that humans inflicted on other humans in our country.

Perhaps pain avoidance is also one reason many white people say:

It wasn’t me that had slaves! I never participated in a lynching! I never insisted on separate water fountains!

So why do we have to talk about it so much?

Because we’re still living in it.

Racism may have changed forms, but it still exists. 

Just ask African-Americans. Ask other minorities. Ask anyone that looks or talks differently than white-skinned Americans.

They’re the ones with eyes to see it, ears to hear it, skin to feel it.

True, this generation of white people didn’t start racism, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t benefited from it, consciously or otherwise.

And just because we didn’t start it doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility to help end it.

I admit I don’t understand critical race theory. It’s complicated. (Read more about critical race theory here from Education Week.) But CRT has been around since the 1970s. It’s not new. Only the attention to it is new.

And the uncertainty of it.

But there’s value in uncertainty, if we wield it wisely.

Uncertainty can prompt us to think more openly about an issue, not close our minds tighter. To look into it, not away from it.

When Uncertainty Is Good

I want to use uncertainty to my advantage. I want uncertainty to propel me to dig deeper for the truth.

Question a little more. Change a little more. Take one step closer to understanding the narrative of racial difference.

The opposite of uncertainty is thinking I know all the answers already. That kind of certainty hinders me from finding better answers.

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As I continued walking through the museum in Montgomery that spring morning, I ask a security guard: Where’s the closest bathroom? 

I walk into a bathroom stall. I close the door. I bend over the toilet.

And I throw up.

  • I throw up the indignities that Blacks endured from the hands of whites for hundreds of years.
  • I throw up the shame of complicity in the continuation of racism, even if unconsciously.
  • I throw up our arrogance of wanting to erase history instead of repenting of it and moving forward together.

Sometimes we have to throw up our white trauma before we can get better. Racism is a sickness. It hurts everyone.

The ones who started it are dead.

But the ones who can stop it are very much alive.

I don’t want to be afraid of history. Even when it’s heavy. Even when it’s ugly. 

Even when it makes me sick.


Who are the voices you respect on this topic? Two voices I listen to frequently are Jemar Tisby and Bryan Stevenson.

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Click here for a list of books I recommend.

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24 thoughts on “When History Makes You Sick

  1. blankJoanne Viola

    Lisa, while I have not been to this museum, I have been to the Holocaust Museum in DC and it left me a mess. I have never forgotten the things I read and saw there. And you are right – we need to feel history.

    1. blankLisaNotes Post author

      We only saw a little of the Holocaust Museum in DC, but it was enough to leave me a mess too. I’m grateful for the artistic and empathic vision of those who create these museums for us, despite the horrible, horrible things they must have to sift through to create the collections.

  2. blankDonna

    Lisa, thank you for sharing this. I have visited places like this museum in South Carolina where my mother lived for almost 20 years. Like you, at first I looked forward to the visit, but found my thoughts and feelings much like yours, sick to my stomach at the heinous treatment of human beings. Then outrage over the callousness of society, and my visits were 18 years ago. It grieves me that not much has changed. May this history be like the blood of Abel crying out to God for justice not to be silenced. until it’s heard.

    1. blankLisaNotes Post author

      Yes, we had the whole range of emotions too, Donna. It was a very sobering place to visit, yet one that I recommend to anyone who is around Montgomery to go to. What a poignant example you give of Abel. I so appreciate your heart and your work to make the world a more caring place.

  3. blankLory @ Entering the Enchanted Castle

    It is terrible that this museum has to exist, but it is amazing that it does exist. Good work is being done. May we continue to work toward a future in which it truly a historical museum. That’s going to involve a lot of hard visits to the past and the present.

    Other books I would mention are Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the memoirs of Maya Angelou, and The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu.

    1. blankLisaNotes Post author

      “…truly a historical museum.” I totally agree with you, Lory. May we one day have this in the past only. Thanks for the book recommendations! I’ve read some from Maya Angelou but I don’t think I ever read Invisible Man or The Book of Forgiving.

  4. blankLauren+Renee+Sparks

    Oh, you sweet spirit. Thanks for continuing to write about this. The museums and memorials in Montgomery and Birmingham are on my list. My best friend lives in Montgomery but the last time we were there and planned to go, my daughter had a seizure and changed our plans. Maybe next time.

    1. blankLisaNotes Post author

      I hope you will be able to go under better conditions the next time you visit your friend in Montgomery, Lauren. We still haven’t been to the places along the Civil Rights Trail in Birmingham and it’s not that far from us. We did go to Selma after we left Montgomery and that was also very sobering to actually walk across the bridge where the marches took place with such tragedy.

  5. blankJean Wise

    wow injustice swirls around us and is part of us. I felt that way in the Holocaust museum. So will written – you had us with you there.

    1. blankLisaNotes Post author

      Jeff and I talked last week about going back to DC one day. We didn’t fully tour the Holocaust Museum the last time we were there, so we need to do that, plus go to the African-American Museum. It wasn’t even built the last time we were there.

  6. blankLinda W.

    I found your link on Random-osity. Excellent post.

    At James Madison’s Montpelier, the basement exhibit has multimedia presentations on the enslaved people. I was in tears. Madison’s intent was to free his slaves, but after his death, his wife retained a few trusted people to help her as she aged. Unfortunately her son’s debts resulted in the “property” being sold. When there were debts, the slaveholder was forced to sell people even if they did not want to, resulting in broken families. Tragic for all.

    1. blankLisaNotes Post author

      I can’t even imagine how families felt watching their children, spouses, siblings, being sold, never knowing if they would see each other again. I haven’t been to Montpelier but sounds like it’s a visit we need to make if we’re around that region anytime. Thanks for sharing about it, Linda.

    1. blankLisaNotes Post author

      It’s an experience that hasn’t left me. And it’s just a tiny of the tiniest percentage of what those who really experienced it had to go through every single day. My mind isn’t big enough to even grasp it. 🙁

  7. blankLois Flowers

    What a powerful experience, Lisa. The way some humans treat other humans is horrifying, and it’s so sad that world history has so many examples of this happening on broad scales. Learning from history is the only way to keep from repeating it, and I pray that we do.

    1. blankLisaNotes Post author

      It is definitely sad that there are so many examples all around the world of humans mistreating other humans. You’d think we’d learn that it’s to everyone’s advantage when we work together instead of fight each other, but we can be stubborn and selfish and fearful creatures under the wrong circumstances.

  8. blankLydia C. Lee

    Great post. We have a similar thing going on over here, and it’s sort of weird the people that want to fight it so much. Personally, I had my eyes opened to my oblivious ableism at a talk once, where they showed a lot of buildings and asked why they were a problem for the author talks. Then she pointed out the stairs and said no one should have to enter through the back door or be unable to attend, so now she only gives talks if everyone has access though the front. I genuinely didn’t see the problem until she pointed it out. Now I see it everywhere. I think the same is for race issues, LBGTQ discrimination and a raft of other things I am not personally affected by. I do however learn, and I admit I often need things pointed out to me to see them. That is why it is important. #AnythingGoes

    1. blankLisaNotes Post author

      You make such a great point, Lydia. Until things are pointed out to us, we often don’t notice them. I’m sure I’m very blind in so many areas. We once traveled with a partially-disabled friend to take a cruise, and I learned so much from the experience. There were so many things I took for granted that he was unable to do. It was quite eye-opening. May we all learn to be more empathetic toward each other, for we rarely know all that another is dealing with.

  9. blankCorinne Rodrigues

    This is such a powerful post, Lisa. In India, we’re living through times of terrible injustice based on religion and race. I know I can pray, and I do. But I also know this is not enough. There’s sometimes I just want to wish it all away. But I know that I need to do something more than that. What it is, is the question? Uncertainty? Definitely.

    1. blankLisaNotes Post author

      I love your heart, Corinne. I’m sure your presence in India is a daily answered prayer to those you are around. May the Lord keep revealing day by day the work he wants you to do. It’s been so painful to watch the news about the covid outbreak in India right now too.

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