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Love will keep us together

August 4, 2015

I was invited to speak at the America: Love Will Keep Us Together rally in Crossett, Arkansas on August 1. There was a small turnout, but a lot of love.

Thank you, Chrissy Cone, for inviting me here today. I am honored to be up here with this great group of speakers. And it’s inspiring to see so many people out celebrating peace and understanding. I have moved around a lot. I started college in Lafayette, Louisiana and I moved here from Columbia, South Carolina. So I have been saddened and angered by the shootings and church burnings, not to mention the police brutality. I watched via my friends on Facebook as Lafayette mourned the loss of Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson. I woke to the news of the shooting of Senator Clementa Pinckney, and yes, I’m going to say there names, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor, during our annual archeological training program. I had met Senator Pinckney while I was working in South Carolina and I was appalled that someone could take his life in his church. I have been a proponent of removing the confederate flag from the state house grounds for a long time. My partner’s band played a rally for its removal in 2010, so I stayed up all night following the House of Representative debates about removing it, and I admit, I celebrated when it came down.

I was in Columbia when the KKK rallied on those same grounds spewing hate. So when I heard that the KKK was gathering in Monticello my heart hurt. And I was annoyed, because I lack that southern gene that says if you don’t talk about it, it will go away. So when Chrissy contacted me while I was on vacation I said yes to be here today.

I believe that individuals acting toward a common good create change – not silence. State Trooper Leroy Smith is a great example. You probably saw his photograph on the news or on Facebook. Mr. Smith, an African American state trooper, helped an older white man wearing a swastika suffering from the heat of the day up the stairs of the South Carolina state house to cool off. Someone snapped a photograph and it went viral. When Mr. Smith was asked why he thought the photo resonated with so many people. He responded, with a simple answer: Love.

“I think that’s the greatest thing in the world — love,” said the burly, soft-spoken trooper. “And that’s why so many people were moved by it.”

I’m an archeologist and an anthropologist. I study culture; particularly what we can learn about people from the things they made and used, lost or discarded. I have worked on projects like you probably think of when you envision archeology. I’ve excavated Mayan sites, a pre-Incan site in Argentina, and lots of Native American sites in the southeast. But I specialize in the study of the more recent past. I’m particularly interested in the ways African Americans responded to emancipation and the building of African American communities and towns during Reconstruction. When I started my first project on this topic in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, it was something I had never thought about before. What kind of determination did it take for these former slaves to acquire land and build communities and towns? And how did so many of these places become erased from the landscape or blighted? Through archeology I was able to connect descendants of the people who once inhabited this small community with the things that their ancestors had made or used long ago. That is a cool feeling, because there is a joy in holding things that your ancestors may have used years ago. But I also had to write about the difficulties of these families – the lack of schools and the racism they faced in a community surrounded by white families during the Jim Crow era.

I will save this long complicated history for another time. But I bring it up to quote William Faulkner. He said, ‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.’ As President Obama notes in a 2008 speech on race, It is important to remember that so many of the disparities that exist in the African American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

One of my favorite thinkers and writers is Maria Lugones. She is an Argentinian American writer. When I was asked to speak today, I kept thinking about her concept of world traveling. She argues that we learn to love each other by traveling to each others’ worlds. She doesn’t mean this in a literal sense, although I would argue and I’m sure she would agree that visiting new places and seeing how people live makes people more compassionate.

To be a world traveler, you may read books by authors from different cultures. Or listen to salsa or Congo music. You may venture into a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant or learn another language. You may attend a religious service different from your own. But it also requires digging a little deeper, to use an archaeological metaphor. It requires you to see yourself in someone who is different from you. This can be difficult because when we step out of our comfort zones, we can feel vulnerable. The first time I traveled abroad alone, I got off the plane to be surrounded by people who didn’t speak English. What if I get lost? Hurt? How am I going to find my way? How am I going to communicate? But I learned to make fun of myself when I had to ask directions in broken Italian. It was through this playfulness or ability to make mistakes and sound foolish that I met people who showed me the way, who shared a cup of coffee, or a tidbit of local knowledge. In this sense, we met halfway. It was years later that I realized that some people experience this dis-ease or comfortableness everyday in the places that they live. When they walk into a room and everyone turns to stare, because they look or dress differently. When they speak with fear of not being understood, because English is their second or third language.

Traveling to someone’s world is a way of identifying with them. It is a way to see what it is like to be them. And what it is like to see ourselves from their eyes. It is by this knowing that we can love.

The removal of the Confederate Flag from the SC statehouse grounds was one way that people showed love and respect for the people who experienced that flag as a symbol of hate during the civil rights movement. Mr. Leroy Smith, the SC state trooper, who aided the swastika wearing man, shows another way that people look beyond difference to love. On a smaller level, I think archeology as a tool for connecting people with their past is another. Everyday we make choices to love and to stand up for what is good and kind.

So now in the trend of all of these ten ways to do x, or the top five ways to become a better listener. Are you familiar with these? Well here is my list of 8 ways you can become a world traveler without leaving Arkansas.

  1. Learn more about history and culture. There is always more to know. You could visit a museum, take one of my anthropology courses, or come out on a dig – we have lots of opportunities for you to try your hand at uncovering the past.
  2. Attend a cultural or historical event. Okay, I admit I am plugging some of my own things here. I host a monthly speaker series about archeology and history at UAM. I am also hosting a cool event called Bend in McGehee about Japanese American internment camps. I have fliers if anyone is interested. We are always doing new things and are looking for people to get involved.
  3. Watch films that make you think, like Selma, and Milk, or Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Read novels from authors from far away places, or taste some new foods.
  4. Assume that the people you meet have good intentions. The media spreads too much fear; it is up to us to find understanding.
  5. Build community and get to know your neighbors. The next time you are in line at Walmart, greet the cashier genuinely; ask her about her day, say hi to the person in line next to you, or offer a helping hand to someone in need.
  6. Look beyond skin color, cultural and religious differences, or clothing and see people as individuals with experiences just like you.
  7. Speak up about injustice. Say their names. Silence does not create change.
  8. And most of all continue to do what you are doing today. Love and celebrate life.

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Jamie Chad Brandon's Home on the Web... an anthropologist living, researching and teaching in Arkansas

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