Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Cristina Comer

Cristina Comer is a 2010 graduate of Duke Divinity School and participant in the Caux Scholars Program. Her involvement with Initiatives of Change continued while she was living at Richmond Hill in Richmond, VA. She is currently a preceptor and research assistant at Duke Divinity School and is working on an historical memoir about the Comer family in Alabama. Here she writes:

It was not until November 2009 that I learned of my family’s involvement with a brutal system of torture and death. From that moment on, I knew I would never be the same. Slavery By Another Name tells the story of the convict leasing system and debt peonage labor that was employed all over the South to create a cheap, if not free, workforce for wealthy landowners, mine and mill owners in a time when slavery had been outlawed.

On February 13, 2012, the documentary, Slavery By Another Name, directed by Sam Pollard and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas Blackmon, was aired nationally on PBS. The making of this documentary and the story behind it would be responsible for changing my life.

Slavery by Another Name

People like my great-great- grandfather, Braxton Bragg Comer, and his brother, John Wallace Comer, worked with local officials to have black men arrested and imprisoned for minor and nonexistent crimes so that they would have a pool of fresh convict laborers from which to pull. Once the laborers were sent to the work camps, they were often never heard from or seen again. Living in squalid conditions and worked literally to death, these black men helped to build the fortunes of families like mine, while their families were punished with the loss of a husband, father, brother, or son.

The information I learned about my ancestors in Slavery By Another Name was in direct opposition to the stories I had been told about them. I could no longer operate out of the same paradigm. The former paradigm that included hardworking, smart, benevolent Christian men had to shift to include racist murderers.

I began to realize my own complicity in the system of which I was a product. On a daily basis, I reap the benefits of white privilege and wealth, and while I can’t change the color of my skin, I can change the way I choose to live. I chose to participate in a documentary that speaks the truth about U.S. history instead of continuing to gloss over horrifying realities because I believe in reconciliation. I believe in reconciliation because I have been on the receiving end of radical acts of forgiveness that have transformed my heart and mind. Knowing the disturbing realities of my family history and upbringing, my community of black friends has loved and encouraged me in ways that defy my understanding. I have learned reconciliation from the very ones from whom I sought forgiveness.

Slavery by Another Name Team

The story of oppressed peoples building the empires of the wealthy is timeless. It continues today all over the globe. We see it in the U.S. corporate prison structures that imprison more black males today than were enslaved in 1850. We see it in Sierra Leone where children are dismembered because of the diamond trade. We see it in Filipino textile factories where sweatshop labor enables a multi-billion dollar clothing industry.

The need for choosing to live in a way that is respectful of the rights and dignity of all humans is as relevant today as it ever has been. If the arc of the moral universe truly bends toward justice, then I believe that Slavery By Another Name helps to weigh that arc. I pray that a reconciling spirit captures the globe! What needs reconciling in your life today?

To view the film Slavery by Another Name

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