We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. —Declaration of Independence, 1776
By Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman
If only those truths were indeed self-evident. Unfortunately, nothing seems obvious in this day and age, when despite pandemic conditions there is much noise at marches and rally venues, political press conferences, and—more than anywhere—on social media.
Black and Brown Americans and their White allies are taking to the streets to make it very clear that the endowed rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, were never truly extended to all, legally and systematically. Not at our country’s beginnings. Not after the abolition of slavery. Not, still, today.
As a Black American woman, even one born with a good deal of privilege, this is a self-evident truth with which I grew up.
What is also clear is there are those for whom these protests are uncomfortable and questionable. Some may find it difficult to swallow as truth, assertions that don’t mesh with their own lived experience, education and sense of history. Even for those open to understanding, it can be difficult.
If it feels like we live in a society headed for a bitter divorce, perhaps it’s because we never fully realized reconciliation after our last separation—a Civil War not yet 200 years in our past. Assuming we really want to get through this period of great difficulty and stay together as a nation, how do we actually do it?
Truth. Reconciliation. We know what these words mean individually, but brought together, truth and reconciliation is, in fact, a term used to describe a specific, accepted practice. It’s a public exercise that seeks to restore stability to a society experiencing instability based on festering historical wrongs. It offers a society of individuals—each walking different paths with diverging worldviews—a collective opportunity to understand the fullness of their shared society, to offer a platform for real action towards the realization of our common potential by owning and rectifying missteps, old and new.
The most famous example of this process occurred in South Africa, when Nelson Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a court-like body. It confronted human rights abuses that occurred during racial apartheid, in order to move towards more peaceful, democratic rule. It allowed victims and perpetrators of abuses to come forward, add their experiences to the official record, and receive rehabilitation, reparation, or an opportunity to atone for their role in the abuses.
This restorative justice model has been replicated elsewhere, including the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed just last year. Delaware’s own Bryan Stevenson (born and raised in Milton, Delaware) in 1989 established the Equal Justice Initiative, whose mission is greatly informed by the concept of truth and reconciliation. It works to ensure our history is understood so that communities can heal—“changing the narrative about race in America.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was formed in 2008 and ran for seven years, with a focus on documenting the history and impact of residential schools in which Indigenous students were boarded, thus separated from their communities. It conducted hearings that offered survivors of this abusive school system opportunities to share their stories. Extensive research was analyzed and compiled, along with 94 related recommendations for action to achieve reconciliation among Indigenous and Canadian people. Four years later, over 70% of these recommendations are either complete or being pursued through active projects and proposals.
What would truth and reconciliation look like in America? Certainly human rights abuses experienced in our own nation are both historical and currently occurring. What if we started here in Delaware? Where would we start?
In this context, we have a ripe moment to commit to reflecting on our local history. We might start with the fact that, in 1865, Delaware was one of only four states to refuse to ratify the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery.
Consider that, despite being a Union state, it would take Delaware 36 years before it ceremonially ratified that amendment in 1901. What must have been the experience of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for Black Delawareans during that period of time? Or in the years since, that resulted in systemic barriers to that pursuit?
It is difficult to piece together a puzzle of who we are and where injustices lie, without a full understanding of the roots of disparities experienced by diverse citizens in their pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. We must all know all of our history to better understand the lives of our neighbors, and how our everyday actions contribute to social integrity, or lack thereof. Is there a systemic connection between the 2015 killing of Jeremy McDole at the hands of Wilmington police to the heroic elevation of Caesar Rodney, a Delaware founder and slaveholder? If so, how do we mend the deep rifts that make this so?
Building common understanding as a society is no easy feat, particularly when, looking along racial and socioeconomic lines, it has never existed before. Not in Delaware, not in America.
But as Americans, we have always touted our strength, and that strength means fearlessness in confronting ourselves, not as individuals but as a nation with a history. We can no longer rely upon self-serving perceptions of our neighbors’ weaknesses to disregard calls to do better. A house on such a cracked foundation can never stand.
Delawareans have an incredible opportunity to open ourselves to reconciliation with one another, by speaking truths and seeking to reconcile conflicting ones into a renewed narrative. Only then can we chart a course to better serve all as we lean into our future.