We Can’t Move Forward Without Looking Back

Friday, January 27, 2017 - 5:30 am

We Can’t Move Forward Without Looking Back

“To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue.”

So says Buddha. Which is a fitting way for me to introduce you to Louise, my 78-year-old neighbor and friend. She’s a writer, a teacher, and a Buddhist activist. She’s, quite possibly, closed the gap between how she lives and what she believes more than any other human I’ve ever encountered.

Even when it comes to race — a place where so many otherwise impassioned white activists, especially of a certain age, have deep moral failings. Louise may have failed, she may continue to fail in various ways, but she has no delusions about her culpability or the ways in which her freedom is tied up in taking responsibility.

As this letter demonstrates, she is committed to telling truth about her own family’s story and how it’s wrapped up in the larger national history of racialized violence and economic exploitation. She’s teaching me, through these words and her actions, how to walk the maze of human life with more courage, especially at this cataclysmic moment.

Dear Courtney,

Just last summer we were on the deck at my family’s place in the woods — you and me and your two little girls — waiting for our friends to arrive for a picnic. Enjoying the dry, hot air, cooled just a little by huge spreading live oaks — a perfect northern California day on the edge of the Napa Valley. We were on this futon where my mother used to sleep outdoors with her grandchildren. Baby Stella had sprawled out dozing and I was telling Maya about sleeping here and sometimes seeing wild animals. I was about to go on about bobcats and skunks, when she startled both of us.

“I see a animal,” she said in her confident three-year-old voice, looking out towards the field. Hardly believing her, I turned and followed her gaze beyond the dark arms of the oaks. And there he was, not ten yards away, lying in a patch of shade surrounded by sunlight — a little buck with upright horns. He looked so peaceful, resting there in the heat of the day, and didn’t seem to mind our excitement, how we passed the binoculars to Maya, showed her how to use them, and praised her clear seeing, marveling at her openness to the natural world.

Next time you’re here with Maya, we have to figure out how to tell her some of the history that surrounds this place. It’s hard to know how the land can be so lovely and peaceful. It’s “ours” only because my great, great grandfather bought it during the terrible period after statehood when the early people of California were being hunted down in what we would later name genocide. So far as I know he wasn’t in any of the militias that wiped out peaceful villages, killing women and even babies in ways too horrible to tell Maya.

But he was in the state legislature when they voted to pay those militias, and likely shared the common view that Indians should be “exterminated” from land that hadn’t already been cleared. That was their code for genocide at the time. I’m guessing my ancestor voted in 1860 — right before the Civil War — to strengthen state laws that permitted kidnapping and sale of Native children into indenture — which was really slavery. Even though he was a union supporter, the census for that year listed two people who were likely indentured Indians living in his own home. In a nearby town, an observer said almost every household had one to three Indian child servants.

California was particularly violent, but the story holds true in different ways throughout the country, whether our white ancestors were actually there for the killing or immigrated later and moved into places that had been conquered. Free land, some of them thought. We know the real story in our hearts but don’t want to look at it. There’s too much fear and grief. But not acknowledging keeps us locked into self-destructive patterns. We’re living with the kind of shadow Jung talked about — played out in our political life, denial of climate change, and lack of true respect for darker-skinned people. As long as we don’t look back, the wound deepens and we can’t move forward. Like with PTSD.

Under the oaks last summer, we hadn’t known the election outcome or seen how deeply into this shadow our country would move.  And now, we’re reeling from it, casting about — so many of us — to see how we can step up our good work, our resistance to new waves of atrocity. Now things look very hard, with a government that seems not to care about the earth or understand that none of us can be free (or our country “great”) unless we embrace those who’ve been left out and repair the harm done to them.

You tell me I have wisdom to impart — maybe because I’m nearly 80 and have spent over half my years focusing on this racial karma. Your trust is a little daunting to me. I’m just as subject to dread as anyone else — perhaps because I know too much about what we’re historically capable of, what some of our revered founding fathers specifically did that has never been grieved or repaired. But I can tell you what I’m doing and encouraging others to do.

  • Gather with others. We need to sit down with other people, especially other white people — in person if possible — to share our fears, our heartbreak, and the steps we’re taking. As you know so well, this is where real understanding develops, and the power to move forward.
  • Look even more deeply for colonial mind in ourselves. No matter how many friends, courses, or roommates of color we’ve had as white people, there’s more to learn, ways to grow beyond guilt and discomfort into compassion and understanding. One good way is to look back into our own histories on the continent: when did our people immigrate and how did their stories mesh with the narrative of colonization? This makes for great discussion when we gather. After all these years, I still need more looking deeply. Right now I’m stuck about talking to a particular white person whose superior attitude caused some real harm. Why can’t I just tell her about it? To me this says I, myself, still have some of that same colonial mind that I see in others. When I can forgive my own mistakes and love myself, I’ll be free and able to talk with love and equanimity to anyone. But it’s a long process.
  • More action than before, especially local action. I don’t mean we should all get busier, but these next four years call us to keep our history in mind in every action and to find new ways to focus our longstanding interests. I’m rethinking my own projects and looking for ones that bring it home to where I live. I’m excited that young friends have returned from Standing Rock fired up about what tribes lived here in our area, what their issues are now, and how to support as allies. The Ohlone people have been organizing for years here to gain a land base and preserve the oldest sacred site in the Bay Area from development. Now many new supporters are showing up to help.
  • Remember that positive change is happening. Watching how racial karma affects our body politic and researching family history in the light of genocide can be discouraging, but when you look closely, there are enormous shifts in consciousness. We’re not stuck. Looking back to some of the little known stories of the Civil Rights Movement and the women’s movement, people before us changed some very deep attitudes. And when I worry about how hard it is to decolonize the very mind of a society, I think about how it’s actually been happening over the generations in my own family. Starting with the great, great grandfather who bought this land — so deeply grounded in the racist thinking of Manifest Destiny. Nothing changed much in the next generation, but then my grandmother’s views shifted just a little, and her sons began to express some real questions. On the other side, my mother — descended from slaveholders — became the only white mom I knew in the 1950s who would speak up against the “n-word” whenever she heard it. Consciousness changes are happening right in our own families. Seeing these slow-moving changes in collective consciousness humanizes my ancestors for me and even makes them lovable. Some traditions even say these ancestors are trying to help us undo the harm of their legacy.

And what a time to be doing decolonizing work in America! Dozens of groups are finding remarkable new ways to look at white peoples’ complicity, without the guilt-tripping of the old ways. Ta-Nehisi Coates has affected us; white people really are starting to wake up.

Many say we wouldn’t be doing these things with the same passion and urgency if another candidate had been elected. We wouldn’t be finding the ways to deal with our founding wounds that I think we’ll see in the next four years — not in the headlines maybe — but in our hearts and our grassroots institutions. Four years from now — 2020, when our next president is inaugurated — will also be the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s landing at Plymouth, a time that was far more traumatic for both colonists and Indigenous than our schoolbook histories say. As we hold the ground in our democracy, this coming four years will be a good time for us to collectively look back and change the public narrative, which will mean we can really move forward.

And I hope that will be a story we can share with Maya the next time we’re up in the woods.

Louise Dunlap reads a book with Courtney Martin and her daughter Maya.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

is a fifth-generation Californian, who has taught writing for 53 years at UMass Boston, Tufts University, MIT, U.C. Berkeley and more. In quiet ways, she is active on many environmental and social justice issues and author of Undoing the Silence, a book for writers. She is now writing about land and her settler-colonial ancestors. (Photo by Skip Schiel)

Share Your Reflection


  • Parker J. Palmer

    Thank you, Louise, for all the wisdom in your letter to our mutual friend, Courtney, and for all the well-lived life that shines through it. At age 77, I’m only a year younger than you—though I’ll soon “catch up”—but I’m adding you to my list of wise elders, people I want to be like if and when I grow up! I deeply admire the way you hold the paradox of acceptance of your own history and divine discontent that keeps you speaking and acting on behalf of love, truth, and justice. Thank you!

    • Amen!

    • Louise Dunlap

      Thank you, Parker. You’re on my list too. And isn’t it wonderful there are so many wise ones in the younger generations coming along? We really need each other.

  • Roy Reichle

    From what I have read here, I can see much of your troubled soul arises from taking on what does not belong to you. Why do you feel guilt for colonizing events that happened hundreds of years ago? Do you also claim all the good those ancestors did for yourself? That kind of thinking resembles the way bigots attribute guilt to a race for the actions of one member of that race. You are only ever responsible for your personal actions–no one else’s. Even if you and I benefit from what happened then, it is not our fault. We could not have stopped it. We can not time travel and change it. We can try and alleviate the current problems that have stemmed from past action, but that does not imply guilt, nor should we act out of guilt. We need to act out of need to heal our current hurts. To do otherwise is hateful of yourself, Which, I know as a depressed person, is never helpful. It taints whatever I do with a sense of not acting out of good will and wanting to help others, but rather selfishly acting to somehow erase my own failings and prevent my being judged evil.

    “Gather with others. We need to sit down with other people, especially other white people — in person if possible — to share our fears, our heartbreak, and the steps we’re taking. As you know so well, this is where real understanding develops, and the power to move forward.”

    I don’t think you need to do this–just act. If you are sincere and only seek to do good–not blame–people will see your actions, which are so much more powerful than words. Just act–don’t waste time trying to convince. If people want to follow and act with you–they will. And if they don’t–no amount of talk will spark action in them.

    There’s so much more that could be said, but so little time to do it. My only hope is all of us let go of the past, like what has been done in South Africa, that is the only true way to peace–reconciliation and forgiveness. Anything else only breeds guilt, hatred, and blame, which perpetuates the problem even longer.

    • Gabby

      Roy, I think your strong focus on acting to undo hurts and to help others is part of who you are, genuinely interested in those who share the planet with you, whether or not you were responsible for their plight. I sense no selfishness in it.
      I think many people do benefit from sharing their fears with others, and many wonder what steps they might now take beyond their usual talking with people just like themselves or posting their laments and views on social media. Hearing the way others are choosing to act can both give people ideas of what to do and embolden them to climb out of their safe places and get to work in ways they haven’t before. You and many others may have the strength and drive to move forward without a team around you, but not everyone does. And, of course, some people find it a lot more fun to do things in the context of the social. People often are more ready to sacrifice if they see others around them are as well and less likely to sacrifice if others aren’t.
      You are right that people don’t have to gather with others for this, but for some people it makes acting much, much easier and more likely. The only risk in it is for people who get so distracted by the social that they lose sight of the need actually to do more.

    • susan

      Roy, Louise has not said that her ways are THE ways. She has said these ways have helped her and others respond to our common past of racism in America. I suggest to you that hers a is feminist view that you might explore– a view that we do not “let go of the past.” We explore it, understand it and use that understanding to change how we act in the future.

    • Louise Dunlap

      As an author new to this venue, I want to thank you, Roy, for responding. It’s helpful to see how readers understand my words–sometimes not the same as how I understand them. As a writer, I can see that I need to say more about guilt. I actually think it was guilt (and some shame) that kept me from writing about these things in earlier years. More recently, I’ve seen that for me these feelings do not help me or anyone else but that looking directly at the truth of what happened in this country can free me from them to move forward in more wholesome ways. It’s terrible to look at genocide, but when I do–with the help of spiritual teachings, other seekers, and allies–I can express my sorrow and move forward free of it. I can do my best to make amends, to help undo the harm. But the starting point is acknowledgment not forgetting.

      One of the models that helps me most is the South African Truth and Reconciliation process, which you mentioned. As I understand it, what they did in South Africa involved perpetrators looking directly at past harms and acknowledging their role. The transformative stories from this process show how important it is to acknowledge before you try to “let go of the
      past.” The new ways for white people to work on racism that I linked to emphasize how white people living today, did not create this system–though we do have the power to change i.

  • Skip Schiel

    louise, your letter, so articulate and impassioned, provokes me to contact my ancestors—and their contemporaries—again (after i tried during the “work that reconnects” workshop you and others offered last summer). perhaps a part of my interest in native people, shared so intimately with you during the big foot ride to wounded knee in 1990, is this desire to reconnect. probably not in my case to any ancestors in my lineage (who probably had no contact with native people) but in some sketchy, imaginative, mystical way, with native people themselves living then, suffering then, surviving then, flourishing for a period then. and perhaps to my ancestors living in germany and austria, my origins, who may have committed atrocities.

    your list of what we can do in the face of the new dispensation helps me refocus my energies. thank you for your voice and being.

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