Lydia Koltai

Lydia Koltai is a mother, an herbalist and a civil rights activist in Oxford Mississippi. She is active in a local movement to remove a Confederate statue from the lawn of the local courthouse.

“If something bothers you, if you know something’s not right, you have the power to work towards making change. You don’t just have to sit back and be upset about things, but you actually have the power to impact your community

“I’m kind of drawn to places that are complicated, but beautiful. I just feel drawn to places that hold a little bit of the heaviness of the history of Mississippi. And part of my calling is to do some of that healing work to kind of lift some of that heaviness so that we can move into the future and move together in a good way. So I just find that I feel closer to the history, the difficult, complicated history of Mississippi when I come to places like this that are really holding it.

When I was younger, I always wanted to leave because it’s a lot to carry, especially as a child, but I always knew that I wanted to come back to Mississippi and help make it better.

In 2015, after Charlottesville happened, all around the country there were a lot of people working to get rid of flags and statues. And that was like the first time we tried to get something happening here. And that was pretty much deflected. And then when different things have happened throughout the years, there’s been another push to take [the statue] down. I don’t think just moving the statue is enough to heal that history, but it’s a huge step in the right direction to say, we’re not going to glorify this history in the center of this [town] anymore. And that’s what we really are wanting for Oxford to do.

The patience is hard to find sometimes because, you can have a very clear vision since childhood of what’s right and what needs to be done and understanding the history. And it’s very frustrating when adults are so resistant to making moves in the right direction or just acknowledging what needs to be done. I do have a recognition of how human nature operates and that people are very resistant to being pushed or forced into doing something. And a lot of what I’ve learned about building relationship and dialogue and building trust and really hearing each other has led me to see that it is possible, but you do have to be very patient and willing to put in a lot of work on the front end. It’s not something that’s likely to be forced or pushed through rapidly, at least not until younger folks are in those positions of power. Like the people coming up the generation under my generation. I feel like a lot of them have a much clearer understanding. And they’re not as tied to those old stories from what I’ve seen.

My parents, they also grew up in Mississippi. They actually both grew up in Mound Bayou, which is the oldest all-Black town that’s still in existence. So it was a very special history growing up near there and visiting my grandparents and being on their farm. And just from the things that they taught me about the civil rights movement, as a young child, probably five or six years old, it’s just kind of mind boggling the things that people would do to each other based on something so seemingly insignificant as the color of someone’s skin. I always had a really strong vision of what justice is and what right and wrong is. And I can never make it make sense in my head, how people justify doing things like that. And it’s the same with the statute. It says, some of them gave their lives for a “Just and Holy Cause” on the front of the statue.  

And so there’s no part of me or my ancestors that can sit with that on any level. I do understand that different people have a different story and history and relationship with the civil war, but I also feel like there should be enough empathy and understanding of the actual facts of the history that we can’t allow something that has that message to stand in the center of town. And it harms people. It’s a wound that gets reopened when you’re seeing that your community is standing behind that kind of message.

I’m a pretty loving person. I really want to love everybody and understand where people are coming from. What is upsetting is when it feels like people can’t give that back because they don’t really fully understand your humanity and the humanity of the actual people who were enslaved.  

I was very happy homeschooling my kids, gardening and creating this little safe space for all of us. I’ve always been aware of these issues, but really had devoted myself to that sort of thing. And then really it was when Trayvon Martin was killed, and then after that, Tamir Rice. I mean, it’s been like a deluge of incidents like that ever since that’s really been very visible. And so I started participating in community vigils and things of that nature that were happening in response to those things. And then at a certain point, I realized, we can’t just get together and grieve every time something like this happens, we really need to work on making systemic changes. I needed somewhere for this energy to go, I can’t just be angry and sad and sit in that anymore. So that was really what pushed me into action.

[We have] our local effort to memorialize lynching victims here in Lafayette County. And that’s a project that we’re doing in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative. Their mission around doing that work really spoke to me because they’re working to change how our judicial system treats Black people and young people and poor people today. They realized as a part of that, they needed to educate about why is this happening and how our history ties in with what’s happening in the present day. So I started out working with the lynching memorialization efforts and that’s something I’m still doing and it’s been very powerful work and ongoing. And you know, it is very much a part of that land healing. One of the things we do is soil collection and honor of each victim that EJI has identified.

And we have, I would say ritual, but it’s like ceremony where there’s prayers said, there’s singing, we did an ancestral acknowledgement. We’d laid out stones and we did all sorts of things that are just meant to really bring some peace and comfort to the people who were killed unjustly and to the land that holds that trauma. I believe there’s an energetic transference of pain that comes around this history. That is part of why it feels very heavy being in certain parts of Mississippi as compared to other parts of the country

You know, if you think in terms of healing, I feel like truth and reconciliation is really at the center of the type of healing we’re trying to do. You can’t reconcile—you can’t get to healing— without telling the truth, telling the stories, exposing the wound, opening it up, letting it breathe, let it get some air. And what’s happened in Mississippi is people are uncomfortable with that history. And for good reason. I think it makes sense that people are uncomfortable. And there’s a real desire to say, let’s not bring that back up. Let’s leave that in the past. You know, there’s a lot of shame, I think for white people, that they don’t want to be connected to it, that they don’t want to have to think about it, that the grief and the sense of responsibility is a lot to have to carry.

And I think also there’s a fear that our society and our culture is changing. People are afraid, well, if we admit to this, then what are we going to have to give? What are we going to have to give up? What’s it going to cost us, the idea of reparation exactly. Of making a tangible effort to actually acknowledge and repair. You can’t reconcile until there’s been repair work and some tangible way of saying that this was a harm. It’s not enough to just erect the markers or to have the ceremony, but there also needs to be actual repair work done. And how that looks, can be a conversation between people who are in relationship, but it it’s an essential element. And that’s part of what people are afraid of.

I think there’s a sense of scarcity and a sense of what am I going to have to give up? What are my children going to have to give up to heal something that, well, it wasn’t me, I didn’t do it. You know what I mean? And those are all feelings that I can understand on a logical level. But I also just feel like sometimes you have to pay for things that weren’t healed. Weren’t taken care of in the moment. The impact is ongoing and it doesn’t get smaller by you not looking at it and not tending to it.

I think it’s directly related to restorative justice. Reparations. Repair. Restoring. I would even say transformative justice because I don’t think there’s anything to restore with the history of African people in America. Isn’t something that can be restored because we’ve never really been at a place where we want to get back to, but we need to transform some relationships and transform the ways that we’re interacting, the ways that we’re supporting and being in community together. And really that starts with recognizing and acknowledging the history, moving away from this mythology that America is some grand experiment of democracy, that’s always been pushing forward for everyone’s betterment. There’s a piece of truth in that, but that’s not the whole truth. So we need to really examine who are the people who’ve been left out of that experiment and why and how, and what needs to be transformed so that we can live up to what I think is a beautiful vision of what we could be, but we’re not.”

Lydia Koltai interview

Discussion questions:

-Are there places that you have felt close to history?

-Have you been to places that “feel heavy” as Lydia described it?

-What is the healing work that you have been called to?

-Have you ever wanted to leave a place because it was too difficult to be there?

-Do you recall grappling with the notion of right and wrong as a child?

-When have you been called to action?

-Have you explored the idea of reparations?

-Why do you think our country has struggled to move toward reparations in any meaningful way?

-What would real racial healing look like in our country?

-Talk about your notion of The American Dream. Does it still exist? Who has access to it?




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