Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Professor examines reconciliation

Dolita CathcartCan there be reconciliation between a victim and an oppressor once the repression has ended? The First Year Seminar (FYS) “Truth, Reconciliation and Forgiveness” that Assistant Professor of History Dolita Cathcart has taught for the past two years explores the idea. In the course, she examines the history of repression through the lens of slavery, genocide, the Holocaust and apartheid to consider how groups can move on to build a better world. Cathcart, who has a doctoral degree in American history, mainly researches the political transformation of elite African American women at the turn of the 20th century. She most recently published Crossing Borders, Making Homes: Stories of Resilient Women. The Quarterly asked her about her FYS.

What led you to develop this FYS?
One thing that has interested me is how we as a nation can bridge our differences, specifically, the great racial divide. One of the many bridges we must cross at this stage of our national development is the bridge to reconciliation. But how do we as a people learn to trust and work together for the common good, given our legacy?

Why is this a good subject for first-year students?
Well, first-year students, generally speaking, are developmentally still more like high school students than college students. They face and must negotiate many exciting and frustrating issues in their first year of college. They are frequently concrete thinkers, selfreferent and somewhat judgmental. In other words, they are still adolescent thinkers. Many also arrive on campus shouldering the baggage of past and ongoing trauma in their lives, as well as coping methods that are often past their expiration dates. So, I thought if students could focus on issues of slavery, genocide, the Holocaust, and South African apartheid, then they could put these issues, and their own issues, into perspective. As a class, we practice critical thinking skills in our discussions. For example, we ask, what is truth? Is it so relative that the Holocaust and Holocaust deniers should share the same stage? Be given the same weight in their arguments? This so-called “fair and balanced” approach we see so frequently in our news media that pairs policy wonks with ideologues gets us nowhere. So the students must learn to tease out the truth under the weight of so much false commentary in order to better understand not only what happened, but also how the what has been transformed, reacted to, contested and why. While doing so, we also have the opportunity to talk on a more personal level. Because whether we are discussing issues of truth, reconciliation and forgiveness from a macro level or a micro level—from a larger national level or from personal experience—the steps we have to take to understand what has happened and how to deal with it are similar.

What are those steps?
The first is getting at the truth—exactly what happened and why? For example, was the Atlantic slave trade an exercise in “civilizing” and “Christianizing” Africans? Or was it for economic gain and power? How then did racism develop and why? What was the purpose of “racing” populations of people? Then it gets more difficult. How does the victim get past the pain, the humiliation and the legacy of the past? How does the oppressor come to understand his or her role (or the role of ancestors), come to terms with the actions, and cease to fear retribution for the past so that reconciliation can take place? One step those who feel oppressed must take in order to become active change agents is the development of a group consciousness, or some form of nationalism. In other words, they must depersonalize their oppression in order to constructively contest it. The much more difficult step, of course, is the transformation of those considered to be the oppressor. There can be no reconciliation without the transformation of the oppressor. Forgiveness can follow reconciliation, but it does not mean the transgression is forgotten. Forgiveness is about the victims of oppression moving on with their lives and not getting stuck in their trauma.

Why is reconciliation so important?
We would have far fewer malpractice lawsuits if doctors would simply apologize for their mistakes. World opinion of the U.S. has recently changed for the positive partly because President Obama has spoken honestlyof our nation’s past mistakes. Reconciliation is important because it forces both  sides to recognize and face the truth of their conflicts and their relationships and interrelationships with one another. It is a mature response to dealing with the aftermath of conflict and is necessary for the very evolution of our species. If we do not endeavor to reconcile our differences with one another, then we are doomed to ride a roller coaster of our past traumas indefinitely, and that will surely make us sick. Q