History moves in a spiral – in this it is like a galaxy, a hurricane and most organisms when we are deprived of sensory information to guide us. It never lands on a place it has previously occupied, but it never lands far. When we ignore the path of history we inevitably end up taking wrong turns which we could have avoided. When we just imitate what has been done before we are navigating with an out-of-date map.
In social justice organizing we too often think of history as grand narratives, great currents sweeping across the landscape, highly visible leaders emerging to name the moment and provide direction. But its richest lessons are often in the details. We need the details. School children are taught to “stop, look and listen” before crossing a street. We should do this too, as we step onto the path of historical struggle.
In the United States of Amnesia this is especially urgent. Indications of historical truth are attacked mercilessly by the white blood cells of Empire. Like the silences in an abusive family, the silences of an abusive system are policed and enforced. When memories refuse to die they are sanitized and repackaged and marketed as inspirational distractions, robbed of their detailed and complex nutrients.
What does this mean in practice? First, it is not enough to revere those who came before. We must engage them in conversation. We must sit with them and watch their eyes, notice their body language. We must ask, not what they did, but how they decided. How did they balance the need for urgency with the need for patience; the need to speak and the need to listen; the imperative for unity and the demands of accountability; the flames of anger and the waters of generosity? What do they know about sitting with fear and standing with courage? What was life like for them between the headlines? What did they wish they’d done differently? Otherwise we will continue to think of them as something other, something greater than us. We won’t figure out that we’re just them in another time. It is good that they whisper encouragement, but we need their knowledge.
This task can only be accomplished with stories. Read what they wrote – and what was written about them. Watch and listen to them if they lived in a time of recordings. Argue with your friends about what they meant. Forgive their foolishness and devour their brilliance. If they are still living, ask to visit, or call them, or write. Be prepared for unexpected insights and also for disappointments. There are too many elders who look back with nostalgia to when they felt alive in the struggle like you do today. They want to talk about the “good old days.” There weren’t any. Only different days. Days with different pluses and different minuses, but subject to the same natural laws. When you can, seek elders who never left the struggle.
The greatest reward of connecting to the details of history is learning that we’re not alone. I mean not alone in the stuff we struggle with. There are cycles and spirals, ebbs and flows and these can be used to advantage. There are patterns to betrayal; there are rhythms to movements; there are roles that people always step up to fill – for better or for worse. The conflicts within and between organizations echo those that played out a hundred years ago but under different skies. And they are different. We can draw on the powerful, hard-won insights that have been gained since. The changes in our awareness and our environment make each movement moment an echo, and not a repetition, offering the possibility of new outcomes. embodying new possibilities.
When we tap the ancestors for their experience they will stay beside us when we face the struggle – and each other.They will advise and not only inspire. Our determination and strength, though, must derive from those we are moving toward – the ones who will one day call us “ancestor.” Only if we take that leap of faith, that sacred leap of faith, to believe in them can we make them a world.