Living in Omelas – The Need for Truth and Reconciliation in America

July 24, 2018  • Nike Irvin, Jay Coen Gilbert, Sharon Graci & Michael Allen

“The Ones That Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 – 2018) has been a cornerstone text in the Challenge of Leadership seminar for decades. Telling the story of a utopian city whose success and stability is predicated on the misery of one small child, it has provoked some of the most important questions about privilege, complacency, and the foundations on which society is built. For many, these issues come to a head in the state of race in America, and in 2016, a group of Fellows came together at the Action Forum and pledged to start a movement of national healing, truth, and reconciliation.

“We pledge to support a national truth and reconciliation process, initially focused on addressing slavery in the United States, and culminating in an annual Day of Reconciliation, where diverse groups can come together for dialogue, healing, shared humanity, and civic engagement to develop a pathway forward. We recognize that there are truth and reconciliation efforts underway already in the U.S. and seek to build this work with those who are leading those efforts.”

Since then, much has changed – in politics, culture, and society. Yet, the work ahead remains. In this piece, the leaders of the truth and reconciliation movement detail their journey of exploring the question: are we living in Omelas?

“How can I tell you about the people of Omelas?”

While the people of Omelas live lives of joy, celebration, and comfort in their towered paradise, a hideously neglected small child is left to suffer, alone, in a dark, dank cellar. The devil’s bargain of Omelas is that the people of Omelas know the child is there, in fact “it has to be there,” because they know their happiness “depends wholly upon this child’s abominable misery.”

To cope with this knowledge, most in Omelas look away, and some walk away.  Our societies have offered similar bargains. How do we, as leaders in our communities, respond?  Here, we share how some of us are choosing to examine hard truths about the children who have been – and still are – in our cellars, in the belief that reckoning with these truths might be an important step toward reconciliation.

“One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.”

Spurred by Deep Dive Dialogues on Race in America at the Action Forum – and inspired by our readings of Chimamanda, Coates, Tutu, and Landrieu and by Bryan Stevenson’s call to “get proximate” to injustice in 2016 – we pledged to facilitate a process for a national day of truth and reconciliation. In the two years since we began, we have watched our country advance and retreat on the issues of race, bias, and equity.  We imagined “rivers of reconciliation,” inspired by Georgetown’s apology for its sale of 272 slaves to bolster its finances. Instead, we witnessed tiki-torches in Charlottesville.

“To embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else.”

While that was a reversal, we learned of Kellogg Foundation’s plans for a national day of healing. January 16 is now a day when the country focuses on race and bias and works to heal old and festering wounds.  Responding to yet another instance of presumed black guilt or dangerousness, Starbucks’ recent closure for racial sensitivity training joins a series of headlines about African-Americans having the police called on them for barbecuing with charcoal, taking a nap at Yale after  late-night studies, and shopping in Nordstrom Rack. The new meme “everyday racism” logs many examples.

We choose to do this work because we know, like the people of Omelas know, that… “like the child, [we] are not free.”

2018 has brought new currents to our work. Through self-moderated “truth talks” and “truth walks” in Philadelphia, Charleston, and Montgomery, several Liberty, Henry Crown, Catto, and Pahara Fellows, with other allies, are envisioning ways for Americans to participate in a national grassroots movement for American Truth and Reconciliation. One simple first step could include millions of Americans signing a Declaration for American Truth and Reconciliation (in draft form now) in which we honor the sacrifices made to build this nation, and have the courage to acknowledge that enslavement, racial terrorism, segregation, and mass incarceration are also part of the whole truth about our shared history and its legacy.

At McCleod Plantation in Charleston, where the skills and ingenuity of the enslaved built wealth for their “owners” through rice cultivation and cotton picking, we faced hard truths about our history and attempts to whitewash it. Descendants of McCleods’ enslaved lived on the property until 1990, when the death of 104-year-old William McCleod led to the gifting of the property to the local park service for preservation. This is Omelas.

The plantation house and grounds were “restored” by the McLeods in the early 20th century for tourism – in addition to its current educational purpose, Charleston County Parks hosts weddings there now.

A massive “witness tree” – centuries old, draped in Spanish moss, eerily echoing the “old moss-grown gardens” at the end of “avenues of trees” in LeGuin’s opening of Omelas – could tell truths of brutality. Several well-worn, one-room buildings were “slave quarters” for as many as 16 people in a space not much larger than the cellar for the Omelas child.

AGLN Fellows and allies in front of the McLeod Plantation ”witness tree”

Mere miles away, on June 17, 2015, in the quiet worship of a Wednesday evening bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, nine descendants of the enslaved were murdered with their eyes closed in prayer by a young man bent on instigating a race war. The “Holy City” of Charleston, the port where 48 percent of enslaved Africans came and through which 99 percent of African-Americans can trace at least one ancestor, still works to transform the poison of that hateful act.

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city … even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

Bryan Stevenson – celebrated for his Equal Justice Initiative recently opened National Memorial for Peace & Justice and Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration – challenged us to recognize the brokenness in ourselves. In Omelas, becoming proximate means acknowledging the defiled child in the basement. In Montgomery, Alabama, at EJI’s Legacy Museum, we became proximate by listening to the truth stories of incarcerated men and women, sentenced to die in prison for nonviolent drug crimes, or surviving on death row for decades for crimes for which they were later exonerated. At the nearby sister memorial, we became proximate by bearing witness as we walked amid and under the “strange fruit” of the hanging weathered brown pillars with etched names of more than 4,400 victims – children, women, and men – of racial terror lynchings. Some were lynched in a festival-like atmosphere complete with street vendors, photo-takers and “souvenir”-seekers in the public square in front of thousands, like Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie were in Duluth, Minnesota, on June 15, 1920 – the northernmost lynching in the U.S. More than one person was lynched on Christmas Day, like Anderson Callaway was in Leon County, Texas, on December 25, 1907.

We are sewing our broken pieces together. Perhaps we defy LeGuin’s suggestion by not walking away. Perhaps we invite allies to stay in Omelas – and to look at the brutal truth of enslavement and its evolution, and American wealth built on the misery of those captured violently, terrorized, segregated, incarcerated, disenfranchised, and marginalized. We dare NOT walk away from ourselves and our painful shared history if we want to create a new communal future that lives up to the true meaning of liberty, justice, and equity for all Americans.