Courage and the Past

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”                                        

                                 ― James Baldwin (As Much Truth As One Can Bear, 1962)

File:James Baldwin 5 Allan Warren.jpg

James Baldwin on the Albert Memorial with statue of Shakespeare. (Wiki commons)

I saw the above quote by James Baldwin over the weekend on social media, and my mind started making connections as to where it might apply. It could apply to personal wrongs and failures, or to wider historical ones, which of course is what Baldwin was referring to. By coincidence, the New York Times had another relevant story a few days ago about the reluctance of the Turkish government (and most of its citizens) to acknowledge the genocide of Armenians that occurred a century ago. It makes me wonder where, exactly, that reluctance originates, and why it can be so stubborn.

Last year, the New York Times (again) ran a collection of short essays on overcoming difficult pasts (“Turning Away From Painful Chapters”). Examples included the brutal murder of a British soldier on the streets of London, domestic violence against women in the UK, the Spanish Civil War, the killings in Rwanda, the Holocaust, and the legacy of American slavery and the brutality of Jim Crow laws in the US.

Four of the five authors felt that directly confronting hard truths – either through Truth Commissions, conducting archival research to document past wrongs, or some other means – was preferable to side-stepping them. One of the essayists, a British photojournalist named Antonio Olmos, suggested:

“It is better to remember painful realities than to forget them. And it is better to see the ugly truths of the present day than to simply hope they will become history.”

But other authors warned that this was not a panacea, and that remembering and forgetting are political acts with the potential to create more resentment. Leslie Vinjamuri of the University of London wrote that:

“Many people uncritically embrace the aspiration to uncover and document the truth, and the belief that doing so will generate societal reconciliation. But confronting the past is ineluctably political, and especially in the absence of a solid democratic foundation, ill-considered efforts to deal with the past may do more harm than good and generate heightened expectations for redress. The assumption that truth or justice can provide a neutral basis for widespread societal reconciliation in the recent aftermath of conflict is at best naïve.”

Omar G. Encarnación, a professor of political studies at Bard College, described what I found to be the most interesting example – the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Unlike the other conflicts, officials in Spain made an intentional decision to let sleeping dogs lie and not dig up the past, at least not during the early stages of a shaky new democratic government:

“Contrary to what the conventional wisdom would suggest, neglecting to confront the past during the transition did not prevent the rise of successful democracy in Spain. Indeed, a common factor cited for Spain’s successful democratization is the decision not to delve into the past as a representative government was finding its footing.”

Perhaps there is no single way to deal with difficult pasts. In some cases, Truth Commissions may foster healing rather than running the risk of letting old grievances fester by burying them. In others, the fear is that picking at old wounds may destabilize things if a society is not ready for hard truths.

In the end, I agree with Baldwin and think there is courage in facing difficult pasts. As I’ve written before, it has been done, including  the Japanese government’s apology for colonizing Korea, the British apology for Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, and the U.S. Senate apologizing to African-Americans for slavery and segregation. And my favorite example comes from 2007, when the Danish government apologized for the Viking raids of Ireland, which occurred 1,200 years earlier. If an apology can be extended (and accepted) after a millennium, then perhaps there is no statute of limitations on confronting a difficult past, for understanding, or even for reconciliation.

Finally, I’m going to tack this on here, if only because it’s Maya Angelou, it’s powerful, and it fits.


History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

— Maya Angelou


2 thoughts on “Courage and the Past

  1. Pingback: Year in Review: Top Posts of 2015 | Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

  2. Pingback: The Allison Center for Peace – Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

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