The World Is a History Book
Never forget - seriously - never forget
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Today is all about history — and the post was inspired by being on St. Simons Island during the Martin Luther King holiday.
What we do can alter the course of history, especially the small histories we all inhabit as our everyday lives. We are able, if we are willing, to be partners in creation.
— Bp. Steven Charleston
(Note: Today’s post includes a reference to suicide)
I spent last week on St. Simons Island in Georgia. It isn’t a huge place. Geographically, it is about the size of Manhattan with a population of about 14,000 people.
But this marshy island is full of history; on nearly every corner there’s a plaque commemorating some episode of Georgia history. I love history plaques. I pull over to read them whenever possible. Their brief — often spare — sentences remind us that we live in layers of stories. What we see isn’t all that is. We are wanderers through time, often stepping into stories of great triumph and grief-filled tragedy unawares. Those little roadside signs open windows into the history that makes up the world around us.
I learned a few things on last week’s trip. Archeological evidence suggests that St. Simons was occupied as long as 3,000 years ago and was home to successive cultures of tribal peoples. There’s a native burial mound in the middle of the town park. Once Europeans arrived around 1600, the island became an outpost of the military and political conflict between Spain and England. The Franciscans established a mission among the native peoples and gathered a community of more than eighty converts by 1680.
In the 1730s, John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism, were the first Protestant preachers to serve the island’s Anglican colonizers. On St. Simons they met with nothing less than miserable failure — including the local doctor’s wife attempting to kill John Wesley.
Eventually, the English gained control of the island and it was divided up into fourteen plantations and included thousands of enslaved people. St. Simon’s was home to Fanny Kemble, the controversial English wife of Pierce Butler, grandson and heir to one of the largest slavers in the entire state of Georgia — controversial because she emerged as a kind of southern Harriet Beecher Stowe with the publication of her abolitionist diary and its whistleblower account of plantation violence. When they moved to Georgia, Butler had hoped to convert his wife from her anti-slavery views. Instead, the couple divorced in 1849.
There are innumerable important reminders of enslavement on the island, including three quarters on or next to Epworth-by-the-Sea, the Methodist conference center where I stayed.
Indeed, the two dominant histories of St. Simons are are of the Wesleys and of slavery, an odd conjunction of events if ever there was one. John Wesley himself hated — despised really — slavery even as his church eventually would be complicit in it. On St. Simons, the Wesley statue at Epworth looks out toward a small restored building that housed the forced domestic laborers on what was once a plantation. Wesley preached some of his first American sermons here; yet St. Simons will become deeply entrenched in slavery. In many ways, the place geographically embodies the conflicts, tensions, ambiguities, and compromises of white American religion and enslavement.
But down the road from Epworth there is another plaque that is in no way ambiguous. It is not about a white preacher’s moral struggles with slavery, nor does it reek with complicity. It is a story of Black resistance.
The plaque commemorates an episode in 1803. A group of seventy-five enslaved people, en route to St. Simons Island, seized control of the ship and killed their captors. The ship went aground in Dunbar Creek, where the people turned away from dry land and walked into the marshes back toward the river and sea, some drowning themselves. It has been called a mass suicide; others consider it the first freedom march: “The water brought us here, the water will take us away.” Only thirteen bodies were recovered, however, and no one really knew what happened to the rest of the Igbo people leading to myths — especially the “Myth of the Flying Africans” — growing up around the event.
Indeed, many believed the entire story was a legend until serious historical work began in the 1980s to try to trace what occurred. Through good research, what is believed to be the site of Ibo Landing was finally identified, honored, and consecrated in 2002. Twenty years later, in 2022, an historical marker was finally erected near the site (the actual location is on privately-held land) for public remembrance.
Most white Americans don’t know this story even though many Black Americans know some version of it. But now, duly marked and historically noted, it should haunt us all. The land — in this case, the marsh and water — holds secrets, ancient memories of hopes and dreams and sorrows of those who went before. Letting the world around us speak its stories is an invitation to know ourselves better and to do better for the future. Understanding history is one way we can alter the course of history.
So stop and read the signs. It seems like a small thing — those little history plaques. The truth is that we all live on “islands” chock full of history. Knowing those stories is the first step toward creating a better future.
Professor Anthea Butler first shared the history of Ibo Landing with me. As always, I’m grateful for her and her work.
Think about that incredible line: “The water brought us here, the water will take us away.”
Of course, those words are specific to the story of Ibo Landing and Black history. Yet they also carry a wider wisdom.
What does that mean to you spiritually or theologically? Do those words speak to the idea of baptism or other religious rituals of water? Understanding evolution? Concern for global warming? How you experience suffering and freedom?
What do these words teach you today?
And that is what frightens you.
We refused to languish in longing;
you hear our reverberating answers echo
through the water, slow lapping sounds,
waves creeping on the land, our avowals.
We consecrated our commitment,
how we said no with our lives,
for our lives, how we refused
that hell on land, making generations
of grist for the hideous mill of rogue
capital, the codified caprice of robbers
we brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, clear-willed
strong-souled, liberty-led, freedom-fed,
returned to mother water, singing a way
— Akua Lezli Hope, from “Igbo Landing,” please read the entire poem HERE
All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.
— Toni Morrison
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