Unsealed Memories

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Melissa W. Bartholomew

April 6, 2014, was the twentieth anniversary of the start of the genocide in Rwanda, where over the course of about one hundred days, an estimated one million people were killed. Twenty years later, while not a perfect society, Rwanda is a transformed society—one actively engaged in the difficult work of forgiveness and reconciliation and trauma healing.

One of the ways Rwandans have been able to heal is by not forgetting their past. Memories of the genocide still linger and remain an active part of their lives. My ministry focus is racial reconciliation and healing through forgiveness, so I traveled to Rwanda to study forgiveness and reconciliation. While I was there, I visited one of the genocide memorials, at a site where fifty thousand people were killed and are buried. The memorial contains several rooms where the exhumed skeletons of hundreds of the dead are laid on tables, still frozen in the positions in which they died. Rwandans maintain these open graves so that they will never forget that painful part of their history. They fear that forgetting will create the space for it to happen again.

We have no open graves in this country to remind us of the genocide of the indigenous people of this land, and of the people who were enslaved, or of the millions lost at sea during the transatlantic slave trade. Our memories have been sealed. I recently participated in a program in a Harvard Divinity School graduate seminar, in which we engaged Emilie M. Townes, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, and her work Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil. In reading and reflecting on this book, I realized that Townes is inviting us to join her in the work of unsealing our memories and dismantling the evil that is designed to keep them shut. I also felt that our ancestors are talking through Townes’s book. They are crying out to us, to wake us up from our collective sleep. Our silence, the “forgottenness,”1 is keeping them from resting in peace. They are beckoning us to remember. It’s the only way to save our lives.

Emilie Townes’s text is a call to action. It is a summons to gather the strength and the courage to face ourselves, and the world we have created, by going through our past. It’s our time to do the work, but, in order to do it, our painful memories must be resurrected. We have to face the truth—that our country was birthed in deception and fear, through genocide and slavery—and that there are centuries of evil productions that need to be dismantled. But where do we begin?

We can begin by looking back at our own history. For example, in 2007, there was an undergraduate research seminar at Harvard whose aim was to research the historical connections between Harvard and slavery. The students’ findings are summarized in the document Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History. Their research reveals that slaves accompanied the children of prominent slave owners to Harvard and labored on campus, and that Harvard faculty and presidents also owned slaves. As their work shows, “slaves were part of daily life at Harvard.” The document captures the magnitude of the impact of slavery on Harvard, reporting that “For the first 150 years of Harvard’s history, slaves not only served Harvard leaders, slave labor played a vital role in the unprecedented appreciation of wealth by New England merchants that laid the foundation of Harvard’s status as a world-class educational institution.”2

The group’s findings also demonstrate that there were some abolitionists within the faculty and the student body. In May 1838, a group of students decided to openly debate the issue of slavery. Students from Harvard Divinity School who belonged to “The Philanthropic Society” had planned to debate abolition at one of its meetings. But on the day of the meeting, Harvard’s president, Josiah Quincy, “sent a letter to Divinity School faculty members requesting that they reconsider the ‘wisdom and prudence’ ” of such discussions, which would be open to the public, as many of their meetings were. In a second letter, President Quincy used the public accessibility issue as grounds for forbidding the students to hold the debate. He stated that “it was not prudent to debate abolition ‘in a seminary of learning, composed of young men from every quarter of the country; among whom are many whose prejudices, passions and interests are deeply implicated.’ “3

Thankfully, the issue of slavery is no longer a legal issue requiring debate. What is still pressing for all of us, however, are the lingering effects of the trauma that the brutal life of slavery produced in the mind, body, and spirit of enslaved people and their descendants, and on the psyche of every person who breathed in the tainted air of that time. These lingering effects are real and are revealed in many areas of our society, such as in the disparities in our criminal justice system, which results in the mass incarceration of black and brown people. All of us, whether we were born here or not, are living in a country that experienced a cosmic disruption4 caused by slavery and genocide, and we are living in the breach that has not been repaired. Whether we realize it or not, we are all the walking wounded.

How can we begin to heal? Townes reminds us that “we need each other.”5 As students of religion, we can decide to face our fears and address the cultural production of race and racism. I propose two ways for us to consider. First, we can create safe, sacred spaces for intimate dialogue where we can share our own personal stories, which will help us to peel back the layers and expose our connectedness. In these intimate spaces, we can share the ways in which we each know God, or the ways in which we interact with the Divine, or however we define that space in our lives where we experience peace and love. Engaging with each other in this way will help us to begin to know each other through our own particularity, and this will animate the spirit of love that binds us together. In a part of our memory that we have forgotten—a piece that has been engulfed by the pain and division—is the knowledge that we are love. We can use these intimate spaces to rediscover that truth, through each other. Loving each other is our first action step.

Within these intimate spaces, we can begin to have more courageous conversations about race and racism. We can create a theology of interracial dialogue that is designed to help us explore the dimensions of these complex issues through a method that leads with love and integrity. As Townes contends, it is our theoethical responsibility to engage in “critical dialogue that enlarges the boundaries of our humanness.”6 And she urges us to remember that we cannot just frame the discussion in a black-and-white binary, because doing so does not describe the reality of who we have become as a richly diverse nation. She also compels us to explore “how whiteness has been constructed and how it is maintained as a largely uninterrogated phenomenon of alleged neutrality.”7

Another step that we students can take in furthering this work is to connect with other academic institutions that are engaged in dialogues on race. Last fall, Tufts University’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy convened its first National Dialogue on Race Day. The center invited institutions from all over the country to send representatives to attend and encouraged participating institutions to hold their own local dialogue events during the same time. The goal of the dialogues was to create recommendations that would result in substantive public policy changes at the local and national levels. Harvard Divinity School could join this program and stand in solidarity with the other institutions engaging in this work. This is one way that we, as members of an academic institution, can begin to heed Townes’s call to commit to a more “rigorous theoethical analysis of race and racism.”8 When we are no longer students, we can continue to seek out these kinds of programs and events in our workplaces and communities, and, if we discover they do not exist, we can work to initiate or create them.

There are signs of hope. When I visited Rwanda, I observed a reconciliation and healing workshop involving young people who were babies, or were not even born, at the time of the genocide. During the workshop, they learned about the history of their country, of a time before the European colonizers, when the Hutus and Tutsis were united. The team leading the workshop stressed that the young people needed this work, as they had inherited a country of traumatized people. The young people heard that their elders are relying on them to ensure that the country never falls back into despair.

I have the same hope for the young people in our country. I have the privilege of working with young people in a racial reconciliation and healing program at the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center in Massachusetts. It is a model of racial reconciliation and healing that connects health to racial and social justice. The students, who are from various racial backgrounds and cultures, meet twice a week throughout the school year to learn about the history of race in this country and about the current inequities resulting from structural racism. They engage in dialogue and in interactive role-playing and healing work. The program empowers the youth by giving them the tools they need to become agents of change. These young people are so brave. They courageously address critical issues, such as white privilege and internalized oppression, and it’s not easy. There is emotion, at times even tears, but they are committed to this work and to each other. Their work demonstrates love in action. Each week, they actively engage in dismantling the cultural production of racism. They are my inspiration. If they can do it, I know that I can do it. We all can do it. Will you join me?


  1. Emilie M. Townes, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 26.
  2. Sven Beckert, Katherine Stevens, and the students of the Harvard and Slavery Research Seminar, Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History (2011), 7–8.
  3. Ibid., 19, 20.
  4. David Gordis, “Jewish Reflection,” in Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War, ed. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 70.
  5. Townes, Womanist Ethics, 114.
  6. Ibid., 76.
  7. Ibid., 72.
  8. Ibid., 77.

Melissa W. Bartholomew is a third-year MDiv student at Harvard Divinity School. This was adapted from a talk she presented at “The Role of the Student of Religion in Dismantling the Cultural Production of Evil,” a special program engaging Emilie M. Townes and her work, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, during the April 9, 2014, meeting of the HDS course Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion.

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