Forgetting the past, or refusing to see it, to understand it and to grapple with it, is as sure a path as there is to tearing the present apart.
It seems that today, as we mourn the death of the novelist Toni Morrison, we should reflect on this terrible strain of forgetting what is infecting our country. Some are turning back toward a past of racism and violence that one could only accept by refusing to understand in any honest way what we have done as a people.
Morrison was not one for forgetting. She would not let the past slip away and let us slip away with it.
She faced, ferociously and luminously, the horror of America’s racist sins and the waves of pain and destruction that washed over the generations that followed.
They are washing over us now, as we mourn the innocent people cut down for no reason but hatred and that they wouldn’t acknowledge the lie that they were less for the place they were born, or the color of their skin or the language that they spoke.
Morrison’s most famous novel, “Beloved,” is a ghost story, and it tells of the haunting of a mother by the child she killed to keep the girl from being returned to the bondage of slavery. The child’s spirit is embodied and haunts the story, as the horrors of the past haunt us still.
Morrison didn’t want us to turn away from the truth of that horror.
“It is not possible for me to be unaware of the incredible violence, the willful ignorance, the hunger for other people’s pain,” she told The Paris Review in 1993.
We need to see the past for what it is. We need to understand the pain and destruction it caused and that it still causes.
Morrison was so finely attuned to the unreality cast into too much of history and fiction about slavery and racism — and the risk of letting a false understanding obscure the true meaning of the past to the present.
“I wanted it to be truly felt,” she said in that same interview. “I wanted to translate the historical into the personal. I spent a long time trying to figure out what it was about slavery that made it so repugnant, so personal, so indifferent, so intimate, and yet so public.”
We could apply those same sentiments to our struggle to understand what drove a man to walk into a Walmart and just murder people going about their lives.
That past will haunt us too, and we must let it. It is part of America now.