Language that erases us

Dear President Trump,

There was one fly in the ointment for me with Elijah Cummings’ funeral yesterday. It didn’t have to do with Cummings at all so I didn’t bring it up in yesterday’s letter; I didn’t want to detract from him or his sending. But this bit is still bugging me today so I’m going to tell you about it. Remember how I ended up watching the very end of the service live and so I saw Bishop Walter Thomas Sr.’s piece first? Well, when he was talking about Cummings’ devotion to the Constitution and the importance of the US living up to the Declaration of Independence in relation to African American people he began reciting the “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” part of the Declaration and I braced myself hoping against hope (whatever that means) that he would say “that all people are created equal.” This would have sent such a strong message. But he didn’t. He stuck with the “all men” wording and I felt sucker-punched since I really did think that more likely than not he would be intentionally inclusive since he’d just been talking about the fight to make the country more inclusive towards African Americans.

At first I was angry and very, very frustrated. I still am. But now I’m also sad. Sometimes it seems like we’ll never figure out how to correct course. And sometimes it seems like we’ll never manage to attend to more than one huge oppression issue at a time even though they are all related. I get that people don’t want to tinker with “The Founding Fathers’” language, to mess with tradition. I get that we are a long ways away from undertaking a formal re-evaluation of our founding documents and having a national conversation about whether to update their language so that it recognizes the entirety of the populous. I also think it’s incredibly messed up that this is the case, but frankly, I doubt it’s even going to be a serious conversation in my lifetime, let alone come to pass. But still, I so wish that people who are speaking out about justice and inclusion would make an overt effort to have those values reflected in their word choice.

Really, what harm would there be in saying something like “I know Elijah would want us all to keep lifting one another up, to keep working together to bring this country into genuine alignment with the conviction that ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal.” There’s no law that says that phrase has to be uttered exactly as it was written over two hundred years ago when women and children were chattel, when they had no rights or autonomy, so why do so many people, including people who are deeply invested in working for social justice, keep sticking with the original wording? Are we supposed to just give it a pass and assume they mean “men” in some uber inclusive sense like “mankind” (which, no surprise, I also hate) even though the original usage absolutely was not intended to be uber inclusive and “men” is never actually used that way? I seriously don’t get it unless there is 1) no thought about the real meaning of those words, 2) no sense of the impact on women or people who identify as trans or non-binary or really, on men (i.e., as in continually reinforcing the message that they are ascendant and the only beings that truly count), or 3) they actually believe it is only men who truly count and who get to be equal to one another while remaining above and before all others.

I know, it’s just one stinking little word in what was probably a 20 minute speech/sermon and there were some really awesome things that he said, some important, powerful messages he got across. So I don’t want to throw his babies out with the bathwater at all. I think maybe it’s because he was so brave and forthright in how he was speaking truth to power that it was especially disappointing that he couldn’t swap that one stinking little word for the one that would have clearly, intentionally, brought us all into the fold.

May it be safe to be inclusive and to bring all people into the fold.
May we be willing to re-examine our foundational documents with an eye towards corrective inclusivity.
May we see that a democracy can’t truly be healthy if its old, embedded biases are not meaningfully addressed.
May we not make peace with language that erases us.

Tracy Simpson

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