“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”
–Edmonde Burke (1729-1797)
At the age of fifteen, my physical appearance was altered forever. On April 8th of 1970, my sister, the driver of the vehicle, my two brothers, and I were going to church for the Wednesday night Bible Study. We were running late. My sister decided to pass an eighteen-wheeler on the narrow two-lane road we were on but she forgot that in this area, there was a dip in the road where you could not see a car if it were coming in the opposite lane. Sure enough, as she got halfway around the truck, a car appeared in front of her and she barely had time to hit the break. The two vehicles collided head-on and since my sister’s 1957 Chevy had no seatbelts, I was projected into the windshield from my position in the front passenger seat. I would spend over six hours in the operating room as they stitched up severe lacerations to my head, my eyebrows, my face, in my mouth, on my right elbow and wrist (instinctively, I throw my right arm across my eyes so that was what keep me from damaging my eyes). In all, I had almost 200 stitches – most to the left side of my face where two deep gashes ran from the left corner of my mouth where it was cut clear through up to my left eye.
Both cars involved in this collision were totaled. However, the good news is that the lady driving the other car broke her ankle from hitting her break hard – that was her only injury. My sister had internal injuries, a broken collarbone, and a broken arm but quickly healed with no after effects. My older brother had a compound fracture of his right arm that was set and healed very well. And my little brother just had minor cuts on his hand from flying glass so he was actually sent home the night of the accident.
As you can imagine, we had a lot of visitors come to our home to check on us the next couple of weeks as we all slowly healed. I took great pleasure in answering the door when they would ring the doorbell. With the number of bandages on my face, my right arm wrapped on a board so I did not bend it and pull the stitches out of my elbow, and my left arm was in a sling because somehow the wrist had been strained, I always solicited that weird look you get when someone wants to look away but they know it would be considered impolite. As the visit when on, I would eventually be asked what it was like to go through this experience and I would be able to tell my story – and by the end of my story, they would be laughing and enjoying themselves. That’s right, God blessed me with a wonderful sense of humor that allowed me to make them feel comfortable enough to laugh at my situation (I will save that story for a future article).
Of course, not all were enjoying my story. My sister and two brothers got quite angry with me and it all came to a head about a week after I had returned to school. We were eating dinner and my little brother said to my mom, “He thinks being in the accident is funny. We could have been killed, you know!”
I looked to my mom for guidance. She nodded her head indicating I was free to respond. So, I looked directly at my little brother and began, “You are right. We could have been killed but we weren’t. That alone should be a blessing to you but instead, the three of you wish to mope around here like you will never be the same because of this one event in your life. So, let me ask you. Show me the scars you cannot hide. That’s right, you had minor cuts that were washed with soap and water. You did not even spend a night in the hospital.” Pointing to my older brother, “This one here had a bone sticking out of his arm but he can wear a long sleeve shirt if that bothers him and no one will know.” Now I turned my attention to my sister, “And she had internal injuries that healed without complication. They put pins in her arm and the two little scars she has on her elbow can easily be hidden with a three-quarter length sleeve if she is really concerned about them.
See, time will fade this from your memory and you will soon be back to your old way of life because you will not be reminded of this accident. But what me? What am I to do? Wear a mask or put a bag over my head. Every day of my life, I will look in the mirror to brush my teeth, comb my hair, shave, and wash my face and I will see these scars. I will be reminded every day that we were in a very serious accident. Why, when I returned to school, I was called ‘scar-face’ within five minutes of arriving. So, I, too, have made a choice. I choose to laugh. I choose to celebrate the fact that we lived through this accident. I choose to not let this one event dictate the rest of my life.”
As you can guess, the kitchen was silent. The subject was never discussed again and in time, my sister and brothers began to laugh about the accident also. When I started driving, the scars on my face took on another important mission. They reminded me the importance of being a really safe driver because the vehicle I would be responsible for controlling is capable of doing harm. And although time has faded these reminders of a long-ago trial in my life, they are still there and every once in a while, I notice them and remind myself to be careful because life is full of “accidents.”
Today, there is a big movement to have all the reminders of the dark days of slavery, especially statues of those who owned slaves or who fought to keep slavery a part of our law, removed from our sight. Building named for our founding fathers, who we all must thank for the freedoms we have in this great country of ours, have had their names removed from the building or there is a request to have it changed. The cry from those who had ancestors who endured the horrors of being considered the property of another is that these things offend us by their very existence because they “glorify” an act that must be condemned and forgotten. But, based on the quote from Edmonde Burke that I cited at the start of this article, wouldn’t that be a mistake?
Just as the scars on my face helped me develop a strong character whereby I could ignore the cruelty of others because I was confident in who I was as a person and helped remind me of the grave responsibility I have to be careful every time I slide behind a steering wheel, the reminders of our past mistakes in this country we call home can be viewed in a manner that can unite us instead of dividing us a people. So next time you see a name, a statue, or any other reminder of the time of slavery in our country, stop and consider these thoughts:
◾️ At the right time in our country’s history, men and women began to realize that slavery was contrary to the values our founding fathers had put into writing in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. If we were going to ever be the great nation they envisioned, we needed to end this horrible practice.
◾️ At the right time, men of vision and leadership like Abraham Lincoln realized that the only way to correct this injustice was to enter into the political arena and introduce the laws that would bring this practice to an end in this country forever.
◾️ At the right time, men (and now we know that some women) were willing to put on the uniform of the Union Army and go to war against their fellow countrymen to enforce the new laws and bring about the freedom of those in slavery – a people they did not know – a people they had not seen – but a people they knew desired and deserved to be free.
◾️ At the right time, General Lee realized that the war needed to come to an end and the nation needed to be united once again. So, he surrendered and the nation began the process of becoming one again.
◾️ At the right time, new men of courage and leadership, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, stood up and held up a mirror to our nation. They did it to clearly demonstrate that the ideas that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights were still not a reality and that, we as a nation, needed to bring about greater change to live up to our heritage.
◾️ At the right time, men and women of all races and creeds worked diligently to create equality in every area of our lives so that every person who calls this country home would be able to dare to chase the American Dream. We still have so much more work to do and we need everyone to commit to stamping out injustice wherever it raises its ugly head.
◾️ But, and this is important, the only way we can ensure we never lose our focus is to have a few “scars” that remind us of the dark days when our nation lived in hypocrisy by enslaving another human being, by segregating others by physical appearance, and by forgetting that we are called to treat others as we wish to be treated. We need the reminders around us, not to offend others, but to remind us we must never allow the ignorance and injustice of our past to ever enter into our future. We need these “scars” to ensure we grow into the people our founding fathers envisioned.
In today’s toxic political climate, we need leaders who are willing to look in the mirror and see the scars on our face so that we are reminded of things that must never happen again. We need leaders who challenge the status quo and bring about the changes that ensure all people are presented with the tools they need to be successful. We need leaders who will welcome diversity because it creates a workplace that is more innovative and productive. And we need these leaders now because this is the right time. But, to do this will take exceptional leadership. Are you willing to be the exceptional leader that tears down injustice instead of the reminders of our injustice? Be exception – be a leader – create change.