Recently I submitted an essay to a Journal that had previously published my work. This time it was respectfully rejected. I had written about a personal experience of discriminatory treatment in 1980 and my involvement many years later with the very man who had earlier stood in my way. It was clear to me that in the intervening years his opinions, his world view, had altered significantly. I wrote of my appreciation for his evolved thinking. Then I concluded more broadly that certain sexist and racist statements and behaviors, of both little known and prominent individuals whose offensive words and actions dated back years, sometimes decades, and who in the years since lived lives of proven merit and enhanced sensibility, should now be accepted for who they had become. I did not use the word “forgiven” but that was certainly implied.
Recall the Governor who wore blackface thirty years ago when in his early twenties, or the Judge accused of sexually aggressive behavior at a drunken fraternity party when in his teens, or even the far less egregious actions of the Senator who offered unsolicited pats and hugs at political events. Are these men (for they are mostly men who are so treated) to be forever damned no matter how they may have advanced in their thinking and what they have accomplished in the life they lived in the years that followed?
The journal editor, several generations younger than me, is very accomplished and someone I admire and respect. She offered to discuss the matter, so we set a time to talk it over. She told me of her concern that members of their organization who had been victims of sexual assault, or those who would be significantly distressed by any reference to mocking displays of blackface, would be wounded anew by my article. She disclosed that fleetingly she considered asking me to delete the conclusion of the essay, but she did not do so out of respect for me, and I appreciated that. I found her allegiance to the members of her organization understandable so could empathize with the quandary she was in and told her that was I in her sensitive position, I might well have made the same decision. But I was left wondering whether the decision was evidence based. I still wonder and ponder ways to figure this out. And I wonder, would forgiving an egregious harmful event long in the past be perceived as suggesting that such actions did not cause legitimate and lasting harm? And if that was the message received, might the publication have led to a useful discussion and even mutual understanding?
The experience brought to mind some of my shameful actions many years ago.
I vividly recall a time in 1946 when I was 17 years old and a senior in high school. A friend and I traveled to NYC to visit a classmate who lived on the upper east side, an affluent neighborhood. The doorman of the building opened the heavy glass door to the lobby, and we walked to the elevator, but he then approached my friend and said, “You will have to use the freight elevator. Follow me.” My companion was black. Quietly she turned and followed him out of the building. Never missing a step or making a comment, I entered the elevator and within minutes we were together again at the apartment door, knocked, and entered. Neither of us spoke of the indignity she had born, then or later. This was life as we both knew it, and we did not question the air we breathed.
I have another clear memory, that of my trip by train from New York to Ohio, on my way to begin my college years. I chatted amiably with the middle-aged woman with whom I shared a seat. Sometime into our conversation she made antisemitic remarks that were abhorrent to me. I may have fallen silent for a moment, but I said nothing, and our conversation continued uninterrupted.
The movie theater in the college town in which I lived for the next five years required that black patrons sit in the balcony. I went to the movies, nevertheless, and never joined the protest that later took place in front of the theater.
Fair enough, mine were sins of omission, rather than commission, that happened many years ago, so perhaps even those who would judge me poorly for such lapses would forgive me. But in every case, I knew better, and the memories do not fade as most others have. And perhaps that is the point. It seems reasonable to me that the very fact these failures remain such stark shameful memories may well be a contributing force behind my more mature determination to actively pursue the cause of equality and inclusion and to no longer remain silent. How many warriors for justice and equality today are motivated, at least in part, by shameful acts, long past, but never forgotten?
Is there a time to forgive even serious past misdeeds that can never be erased but that have been eclipsed by years of enhanced awareness, actions of proven merit and contributions made to society? I think so.