In a recent article in the Birmingham News, several white residents of Montgomery said, when asked their opinion about the newly opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice, some version of “let sleeping dogs lie.” A few even used that exact phrase. What they went on to say centered around their objection to the new structure and adjacent Legacy Museum: from Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, reminding the interviewer that “that was in the past; we don’t want to go back there, we want to move forward.” The more conservative responses doubted the veracity of the reported number of lynchings taking place in this country. They also said putting up the memorial could make “them” angry and that might cause new trouble, “who knows”?
Once I’d seen the old saw about not waking canines, I couldn’t shake a sense that this axiom needs to be examined in light of the current resurgence of white supremacists and acts of blatant racism against people of color. So here’s the etymology: In the early 14th century, the French coined a phrase “n’esveillez pas lou chien qui dort” or “do not wake the sleeping dog.” In his long poem Troilus and Criseyde, written late in the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer says this about his famous heterosexual lovers: “It is nought good a slepying hound to wake.” So people have been cautioning against stirring the pot for a long time. But when directed at black people, I think it takes on fresh significance. First of all, it’s yet one more animalistic reference leveled at blacks who have had similar epithets hurled at them by whites who needed to make them sub-human and therefore subject to any abuse by their “betters.” When Chaucer says “hound” rather than “dog,” he underscores the danger implicit in the saying–we don’t wake the sleeping dogs because we are worried that they might turn on us. And why would we fear retaliatory behavior unless we’d treated the dogs badly to begin with?
This putatively benign axiom, then, becomes just one more example of how hard we white people have worked and continue to work to erase history and elide truth whenever it touches on our explicit or implicit participation in the institution of slavery, Jim Crow law, and (currently) mass incarceration of (especially) young black men. So I want to applaud Bryan Stevenson for persevering with his idea to create a graphic memorial to all the lynchings that have taken place. He refused to be euphemistic or verbal. Rather he has installed tangible metal strips with specific names and dates etched on their clay-colored surfaces. He compels me/us to connect with the human beings who were so brutally tortured and killed and left hanging literally. What he’s done took courage; it will take courage for us whites to enter the space he has shaped. But the possible outcome is worth whatever pain and shame have to be met.
I cannot heal from some action, feeling, or thought unless and until I admit that I have committed that action or entertained that thought or had that unbidden emotion. Just saying I know there were lynchings and that was horrible isn’t enough and Mr. Stevenson cites Germany and South Africa as two cogent examples of what is possible for a country/culture if its members will face their past, name it tangibly, and then set about making reparations in whatever way possible. So I want all the dogs that are sleeping and, in this particular case, may well be haunted by very bad dreams, to wake up. And, once awake, I want them to go to any lengths to “stay woke.”