First, it is a favorite soapbox of mine that we should be celebrating Black Future Month (Women's Future Month, Native American Future Month) instead. There's a Confederate History Month, too, but you can't really do Confederate Future Month. That should give you some idea why Future months are a better idea in general. I love history, but most great events are ambiguous. Battles won mean battles lost for someone else. Tragic events should not be forgotten, but should be specific: The Holocaust, slavery, Holodomor. Everyone in general needs a future more than a past, and that goes double for previously oppressed people. I'd like to visit the Negro League Hall of Fame in Kansas City, because it's a completed era. But to celebrate the ongoing story of blacks in baseball, I'd like to see a lot of that energy devoted to their present and future.
ESPN tries to do its bit for Black History Month. I am only a touch queasy about that, because it is culturally true that blacks have excelled in this area, and great changes have occurred within living memory. I have some interest in what Oscar Robertson went through at Crispus Attucks and how he compares it to today. But what Robertson's grandfather went through interests me less. It might interest Oscar, and there's no particular reason to ignore it or bury it, but neither is it all that valuable to know.
Today's story is about two coaches in Abbeville, SC. The great grandfather of the white one lynched the great-grandfather of the black one. Parts of the linked story are interesting, worthy of remembrance and reflection, and poignant. But a major focus of the story is simply insane, and it is a common insanity. It's this huge uncomfortable deal that the white guy is supposed to feel some guilt about, and the black guy some resentment. How they "deal" with this is the center of the story.
No. That is nuts. I understand the connection at least a bit, but it is a connection of feeling and impression, not logic. When feelings are allowed to masquerade as thoughts, no resolution is ever going to be possible.
List of caveats: I know I partly don't get this because I'm not from the south. One of the white guy's friends mentions early in the story that he would have trouble forgiving someone who had done that to his family. This whole "my family" thing, probably coming down from the intense clan culture of the Scots-Irish, doesn't resonate with me. It's your damn great-grandfather. He's irrelevant. It's a little less crazy on the black man's side, but it's still basically insane. People have cultural identities, and we do sort of root for the people who were "ours" in some way when we read about them in history. When I read about the persecution of Christians in any past era, I do put myself in their shoes somewhat, and feel some personal twinge for them. Women reading about the trials women endured have some identification with that. Fine. But to hold it against some person living today just doesn't occur to me.
Also, I get that an example of oppression in the past that has some continuous connection to a prejudice of today is worth contemplating and evaluating. These things are measuring sticks, report cards - and valuable. But it's not you it happened to. It just isn't.
Let me show you why this is with some counter-examples. I am one of the keepers of the family genealogy. But I only have to go back one generation to find a perpetrator. My father molested one of my female friends when I was about 6. If I were to meet her now, I can see feeling embarrassed. I could understand if she did not even want to speak with me because of the associations. I feel sorry for her, and I hope it wasn't traumatic and she quickly forgot it. But I feel absolutely zero guilt or responsibility. I can still ache over people I myself have hurt.
Similarly, there is a man who cheated my grandfather badly - ruined him during the depression. Were I to meet one of his descendants I wouldn't feel the least resentment, and I wouldn't expect him to feel the slightest guilt. If I can't see legitimate guilt over two generations, or even one, for Pete's sake, where does three generations come in?
Second example: Let's reverse the situation in Abbeville. In this alternate universe, it's a white man who went into a black section, felt he was being cheated, and hit a black guy with a hammer. One of the black guys standing around stabbed him in the back, then a group of them dragged him out to a tree and hung him. Terrible. Tragic. Food for thought. Why would the descendants of those people feel responsible a hundred years later?
Last example: A Hungarian policeman in Derna, Romania killed a Romanian in 1916. Descendants of both still live in the town. Wouldn't we as Americans think there was not only something sad, but somewhat ridiculous about anyone feeling either victimized or responsible now?
There are real issues extending into the present day that might deserve consideration. Heck, even reparations can be tied in theory to measurable losses, however impossibly complicated it would be to sort out now. That's only three-quarters crazy. If there is ongoing prejudice in Abbeville, then that's the problem that needs solving. If black people today have been cut off from true events and deprived of honor, then that's the problem that needs solving. The story of the lynching is legitimate fare for newspaper stories, plaques, school discussions.
But to personalise it makes no sense. The feeling of identification is no logical connection. Legitimate complaints draw much of their emotional power from these irrelevancies, but they make the problems forever unsolvable. Let the legitimate complaint stand or fall on its own.
It's easy to imagine a movie ending that makes it all right. The white guy's family puts up a plaque in honor of the black guy who was lynched. A great gesture, everything's put to rest. In the movies. But in reality it still doesn't end there. All players from 1916 have multiple descendants. What if one branch of the black guy's family is just mean and unforgiving, and says it's not enough? Or one of the white guy's family objects and makes a big deal about not going along? So now we've got a new generation of insults: We tried to do the right thing but you won't drop it, versus You made a big show and now you think it's all fine. With human beings, this will never end. There's always something to be offended by.