Voices from Lafayette's Black community explore the role of education in reconciliation.

Reconciliation takes more than two Hail Marys

Erica Melancon Fox
Erica Melancon Fox is the founder of Maison Creole de Freetown, Lafayette’s first African American history and cultural museum. Photo by Travis Gauthier

I remember my first introduction to the word reconciliation. It’s a term that instantly brings to mind images of Catholic school and going to confession before weekly mass. It was the sacrament of being reconciled to Christ, an outward practice of examining one’s inner self. It was a personal opportunity to search one’s heart and ask forgiveness for offenses committed against God. 

I recall as a 7-year-old child, the priest directing me to say “two Hail Marys and one Our Father” after having confessed in that big, dark box before service. I rushed back to the pew to quickly utter those prayers. “How many Hail Marys did you get,” I would quietly ask my friend next to me, thinking I could deduce if she’d misbehaved more than I did based on the number of prayers she had to recite.

It’s almost humorous now to think that as a kid I believed all it took were a few words to be exonerated and then I could quickly get back to being my same rascally self. I completely missed the mark that transformation was in the act of examination and sincerely resolving to do better, not just rhetoric.

About Reflections on Reconciliation

Reconciliation, and what role education should play in it, has become more than a political hot potato. It has engulfed, even swallowed whole at times, both thought and tendency to acknowledge deeds of the past. We find ourselves in denial, and sometimes entertaining fiction and fallacy.

We asked a wide spectrum of commentators to consider reconciliation in the context of education, using this prompt:

What is the importance of racial reconciliation in today's world, and what role should education play?

Ruth Foote, collection editor

As adults, do we operate in that same naive manner? Do we give lip service to important matters that require a contrite heart? Do we also compare our poor behavior to others’ poor behavior so as to not seem so bad? I wonder if we’re overdue to sit in our own “dark box” and truly examine ourselves. Have we asked what we are becoming as a community, a state, a nation?

I often contemplate if we’ve grown too lax regarding the idea of reconciliation, especially when it comes to racial healing and how we interact with one another. Have we, too, practiced our own holy recitations — “I’m not racist,” “We didn’t know back then” or “I have (insert race) friends!” — as if those statements absolve us from truly going deep or believing it vindicates us from any real work.

Is it time to unlearn some of our tendencies to gloss over tough issues, to choose not to focus on seemingly “unpalatable” topics so as to “not offend” or “make others uncomfortable”? That “ally” who decides to look away from injustice or not get involved in hard discussions is just as guilty as the overt white supremacist. That organization that highlights only the culinary or musical practices of a culture because it's more “uplifting” is quietly minimizing other important aspects of that culture. People who find it “entertaining” to listen to sorrowful expressions like “field hollers,” Negro spirituals, funeral dirges or second lines may need to consider the origin of these cultural expressions. Leaders who make decisions for an entire community without seeking the input of a single person in that community are actively choosing to silence their voices. 

We have to be honest and truthful with ourselves. But how can that happen when we still run to our safe spaces? How can we move closer to understanding when we prejudge people who are different from ourselves? How do we learn tolerance when we still avoid certain neighborhoods? How can we advance as a community when we still choose to teach the same “safe” lesson plans, highlight only the “non-critical” parts of history in school, remove books from libraries, ignore entire populations or delude ourselves that some historical events simply never happened?

It is human nature to want to avoid pain. However, when we avoid having to sit in those uncomfortable spaces, we avoid growth. The healing is in the acknowledgment, and oftentimes that process will be uncomfortable. Once we decide to rip off the Band-Aid, we move closer to reconciliation. When we treat the wound, we advance toward a healthier outcome. But to pretend the cut isn't there creates an infection of resentment and the amputation of a society.

Man cannot be freed by the same injustice that enslaved it.” — Pierce Brown

For me, I am learning it is more uncomfortable to ignore the obvious. To be dishonest about our past, or to avoid questioning the world we live in, is much more painful. To not challenge what I see or help create the solution for a better tomorrow becomes more and more unbearable. Simply put, I can no longer sit by knowing work is to be done and not take action. I shouldn’t expect change to come from outside of myself.

The month of February often takes me back to my daughter’s third grade class at a predominately white, magnet school in New Orleans. During Black History Month, she repeatedly was sent homework about “slavery this” or “American slave girl that” and my personal favorite the “slave who mailed himself in a box to freedom” — assignment after assignment about one very specific period in American history. 

I questioned why they weren't learning about significant Black events in education, literature or art? Was this what white people thought defined us? Where were the assignments on African American inventors, civil rights activists or Black American firsts? Finally after receiving a permission slip for the class field trip — need I mention, a visit to a plantation — I’d had enough.

Read more Reflections on Reconciliation

I requested a conference with the teacher who quickly pointed me to the principal. I then asked the principal if she’d reconsider the location. I was curious if she’d considered the ramifications this visit might have on all the kids, especially being so young. I questioned their empathy about visiting a place of such tragic history for African American people. Were they prepared for the many questions to follow or the trauma it may cause? Would counselors be on hand to help navigate those questions, thereafter?

I reminded her that every day the handful of Black kids enrolled are educated from a very “Euro-centric lens.” And the few times they get to see themselves in the narrative, it is in such a painful, diminishing light. I pleaded for her to reconsider. However, she refused my request and doubled down, saying they go every year and have done so for the last eight years. I remember her words vividly, “It’s always been a great time, had by all!” In my mind, it was definitely time for a new location, a fresh perspective, so I kept her home that day. Instead, we went to a cultural museum and celebrated by learning about the likes of Mary McCloud Bethune, Langston Hughes and Mae Jemison. Now that was “a great time had by all!” 

It’s cliché to say life is about choices. But I was reminded in that exchange that we do have a choice to either keep playing the game or create our own rules. 

Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said, “If I am truly free, who can tell me how much of my freedom I can have today?” That is the freedom that we already have and should not seek from outside ourselves. It is a power we already possess and must activate. For African Americans wanting to truly reconcile, it means calling out injustice. We can’t continue to allow non-Black voices to determine how our history is told, how our books are written or when our stories are shared.

When will we question white panelists who give public discussions on Black experiences they never lived? When will we demand for comprehensive Black history curriculums in schools or home school our own children in non-biased settings? When do we establish our own boards and organizations instead of pushing to be in mainstream groups with no real agenda to effect change and that are only concerned with checking off DEI requirements? When will we question “Afro-centric” events, cultural merchandise or appropriated commercial products that have no actual BIPOC representation or business partners? When do we stop seeking validation from outside of our communities? Discontinue clambering to insert ourselves in spaces for personal gain or self approbation? 

Racial reconciliation has to start with us, and it means self examination within our own communities. It means posing those hard questions, especially when they're uncomfortable. We may not have all the answers yet, but we can at least start the conversation. We cannot expect for someone else to do the work that is ultimately ours. I must do more than say the “right words,” as I did as a child, if I want to experience real transformation. It must truly be about the work. 

I am hopeful as I see today many of our community leaders and neighbors in Lafayette doing the work and fighting “the good fight” toward equity and change. They understand that we must continue to question antiquated practices, challenge accepted norms and be willing to be held accountable for the part we all play.

We can’t be content with those two proverbial Hail Marys, especially knowing we’ll be back to short-coming ourselves later. To reconcile with oneself means to come to terms with the issue no matter how troubling.

Martin Luther King said, “True peace is not just the absence of tension, but it’s the presence of justice.” To not address those hard questions is the real sin. It’s definitely time to sit in that “big, dark box,” and rather than wait to be told what to do, we must listen to the still voice inside that leads to true deliverance.

Acknowledge the past to heal the present. Our advancement is dependent on each other. Racial reconciliation is a practice, it is work, it is an active desire to grow and move forward. But it must start from within.