Amadou Diallo. Sean Bell. Walter Scott. Charley Robinet, Lavall Hall. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Freddie Gray.

These are just a few of the black men and boys recently shot dead by white police officers. But the list of black people killed by white people is so much longer. It stretches back for centuries and stains the history of this country with blood and hatred. Men hung from trees. Boys chained to the back of trucks and dragged to their deaths. Women and girls raped, beaten, humiliated. An entire race of human beings treated as if they were not human beings, as if they were something less. The most recent deaths are a tragic reminder that we cannot outrun our own history, especially if, as a country, we have never apologized for it.

That sounds quaint, I know, but I think the value of an apology is immeasurable. Not just the words, but a deeply felt ownership of the sins that were committed, of the evil that was sanctioned by government and the governed. There actually was a resolution in 2009 that passed both the Congress and the Senate, apologizing to black Americans for slavery, for Jim Crow laws, for the inhumanity that was regarded as business as usual. But it didn’t get that much attention, and it certainly didn’t filter through the country. The truth is still that white America has never said to black Americans, “We’re sorry.” One woman during the recent Baltimore riots yelled at the cameras, “We are not the enemy!” Yet for generations, black parents have had to tell their children that many will regard them as exactly that.

The wounds of one generation are passed on to the next…and the next, and the next. Time is irrelevant. History is an imprint that remains on the collective soul of whatever group of people were ravaged and victimized and demeaned. The only possible healing is if those whose ancestral hands are bloodstained bow their heads and say, “I’m sorry. I apologize for what my ancestors did to yours.”

Apologies are hard; they require courage and a vulnerability of spirit. When Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe was just here, he spoke of his “deep repentance” over Japan’s actions in World War II, but he didn’t apologize. That omission was noted by veterans who still bear the scars of torture at the hands of Japanese soldiers. An apology was what they wanted to hear.

In his novel The Prince of Tides, Pat Conroy wrote, “Violence sends deep roots into the heart. It has no seasons. It is always ripe, evergreen.” Apologies can travel deep into the heart also, can quell ancient anger, plant the seeds of forgiveness and break the chains of the past.



  1. Mick Bysshe says:

    Patti–your remarks here echo what you wrote in your Nov 2014 post on Ferguson–I bet there will be more outbursts after injustice in poor black communities…Kim Hampton on her wordpress blog East of Midnight offers good perspectives on the black experiences of racism and injustice. One of the few blogs I read regularly. She articulately expresses what blacks need and want from the predominant white culture.

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