using hashtags to jeer at, and make fun of, white women who call 911 to report alleged suspicious behavior by black men is a denial of the serious racism involved,
and it also signals sexist behavior in that the practice of creating “cute” nicknames when referring to the women–because white men who do similar things are rarely, if ever, labeled this way.
I urge you to read her post about these points–especially her iteration of the role of white women, especially in the South, in creating the “black sexual predator” who destroys white female purity (this system was of course created by white men to keep black men in line while many of the white men sexually abused black women).
But I also encourage you to reflect on her interaction with the young black teen on the D.C. Metro. His instinctive, self-protective action in the face of transit police boarding the train is very revealing, and all too common and necessary for the survival of young, and old, black men.
The “isms” are often, probably always, tangled up together. Part of our task is to untangle and name them, and change our attitudes and behaviors. Hesse helps us here.
Can we dream of a better, a new, a peaceful, a just, world, and if so, how do we make the dream into reality?
A book and an Op-Ed have given me some answers to those always timely questions.
The book is On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (Viking 2018) by Deray McKesson and the Op-Ed, from the New York Times ofSeptember 21, 2018, is “We Are Not the Resistance” by Michelle Alexander.
Each has a distinct perspective and agenda—McKesson reflecting on his experience of being a lead organizer in Ferguson MO protests and then helping form #Black Lives Matter, and Wallace, in a much shorter space, talking about how the term “resistance” is being misused and is damaging efforts to create desperately needed social change.
For me, however, they converge in offering real life ideas and strategies for that change. And they each share truths and history about how those struggling for freedom, work for justice and wholeness in the world help bring about real change.
Let me begin with Wallace. Her powerful essay is classic Wallace (author of the enormously insightful and life-changing book about mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, in that here she again uses history to show it is being ignored, misused and repeated.
A basic observation is that throughout U.S. history, the struggle that has created change is the work of oppressed and disadvantaged people to achieve justice, e.g., African Americans to end slavery and Jim Crow and gain freedom, workers seeking fair wages, reasonable hours, decent workplace conditions, and dignity, women seeking voting rights and an end to rape culture, etc. (none of these yet won, of course).That is the course of history, she says. The resistance has come from the powerful, the propertied, the privileged. In that sense, she writes,
Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and to restrict our field of vision to the next election cycle, leading us to forget our ultimate purpose and place in history. The disorienting nature of Trump’s presidency has already managed to obscure what should be an obvious fact: Viewed from the broad sweep of history, Donald Trump is the resistance. We are not.
When I read her piece I was buoyed up. It makes so much sense. Those who are trying to take us back to some imagined golden time (“fake news”) are the ones reacting to, and resisting, the flow of history which has, here and elsewhere, pushed the world to new levels of justice, dignity, equality, and inclusion (even as there is so far yet to go).
We owe it to those on whose shoulders we stand who worked and sacrificed and died for more justice, more peace, more shalom to continue the march, even as we know many of the privileged and the powerful will resist.
And yet, of course, that means we who want that more have work to do. As former Attorney General Eric Holder cautioned several years ago, commenting on Dr. King’s memorable statement about the moral universe, “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.”
In slightly more than 200 pages, Deray McKesson—using the experience of creating with others a movement in Ferguson, his own personal history, and the dogged and ongoing pursuit by him and others of information about how white supremacy works in this country—gives us both information about right now that we need and how we can go about using what we learn to create real and deep and lasting change.
I learned a lot from this book—about the current realities of police violence against people of color, wisdom of how complicated coalitions are, and the importance of hope and faith (for him, as for others, including questions about whether God is in the struggle any more), as well as important perspectives on organizing and not being quiet—and I encourage all to read it. It is very readable, life on every page, and hope laced throughout.
I want to focus here on McKesson’s thoughts on hope. I have long said I am a hopeful person, a person who does not lose hope even in the midst of great challenges. But after reading this book I think I have been rather passive about hope, seeing it as an attitude, a perspective on life—good things, yes, but not enough.
“Hope is not magic,” he writes, “hope is work.” I saw this in his person when I heard him speak at George Washington University recently—he is a deeply engaged and engaging human being. I felt him reaching out to us, yearning for us to join the struggle.
He observes that many Black folks, and undoubtedly other marginalized and oppressed people, feel it is unfair to require them to carry the burden of hope in the face of huge obstacles to liberation and justice.I have heard this said along the way in struggles for LGBTQ equality as well.
“To this I say that the absence of hope, not its presence, is burden for people of color. If anything, blackness is a testament of hope: a people born in and of resistance, pushing against a tide meant to destroy, resting in a belief that this world is not the only one that can be.” (I remember the magisterial collection of writings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope, edited by the late extraordinary scholar James M. Washington).
McKesson says that faith is the burden that gets misnamed as hope. Faith is our choice. Whether we have faith or not is a decision to make—and it can be difficult if not impossible when we struggle and we see others struggle only to be crushed by the dominating powers. He says his faith wavers at times, and I know this to be true for me.
But then he says what caused me to stand up and cheer in recognition of a fundamental truth:
I think that in some ways the hope of black people is the fuel for this nation; that it is the creativity and ingenuity of a people who have had every reason to choose resignation but have not that fuels both the culture and cadence of this American life.
Amen. A truth of black lives and women’s lives, queer lives, disabled lives, elderly lives, youthful lives.
So we have work to do. We have to protest—surely protesting is the work of hope. And we have to keep nurturing and expanding the vision of what a world of justice and joy—a work we have yet to see in the flesh—will be. The world we want, the world we seek, the world to which all are entitled.
I go forward with renewed and stronger courage, and faith, grounded in hope. Read this book, read the essay by Michelle Wallace, and let us join the march forward.
There is another new film to match with Sorry to Bother You, the creative work I have written about previously (see earlier posts, Sorry to Bother You, When Do I Use My White Voice, Scraping More Paint, Unlocking the Trap–Part 2, and Part 1).
The new one is BlackKKlansman, the latest Spike Lee offering. And those two films are parts of a trilogy of recent films about racism/white supremacy, the third being last year’s Get Out (some would add a fourth, Blindspotting, but I have yet to see it and so don’t comment here).
Every white person, and others too, should see all three to learn more about our racialized heritage. Each of these works probes and unpacks truths about the reality of white supremacy/racism in the United States today—instead of reifying that reality as films have done for so long.
I can already sense some white readers saying, “Not this again. Do we have to hear more about something we did not cause and do not like?”The answer is yes, of course, because we have a role in changing the system.
There is so much to write about this film that tells of the true story of the first African American Colorado Springs police officer, Ron Stallworth (played brilliantly by John David Washington, Denzel’s son). In simplest terms, he wanted to be a cop. The film has us believe the chief wants to hire him, but at the same time he is not just sure what to do with him. So his first assignment is to the Records Desk, getting files for other officers. There he encounters considerable racism, especially one deeply racist, white supremacist cop.
What Stallworth really wants is to be a detective, and he gets a chance to go undercover at a rally of the Black Student Union of a local college, an event headlined by Kwame Toure (known to the police and much of the white world as Stokely Carmichael).
Of course, if Stallworth had been white, he would not have been given that assignment. Yet, it is on this basis that the story unfolds. It is here also that a romantic attachment begins, one that will reverberate in many ways throughout the film.
The plot is taken pretty faithfully from Stallworth’s book. Black Klansman: A Memoir (2014), although dialogue is the creation of Spike Lee and others. And Lee adds important background in showing scenes from the deeply racist silent film, Birth of a Nation, as well as news footage from last year’s white supremacy march in Charlottesville, VA (including the remarks of the President about “good people” on all sides.
I have thought quite a bit about what I, as a white person, gain from this film, and what I think other white people could also receive.
First, is the intimate portrait of evil within the KKK (and the wider white nationalist supremacist movements), especially as they are uncovered by Stallworth’s white colleague, Flip Zimmerman (played with incredible power by Adam Driver). Part of that power comes from Zimmerman being Jewish. Indeed, I was left reeling during the scene where he disagrees with other KKK members who claim the Holocaust is “fake news,” by claiming it did a good thing by wiping out Jews—and his newfound allies are supremely satisfied that he really gets the truth.
it is the use of language that kept me riveted, and helps me see how white extremists continue to bury their vile views in acceptable language.
When they succeed, they delude not only themselves but also the rest of us. In this film, members of the Klan are schooled to never use that name; instead it is “the organization.” The local Klan leader seeks to put a pleasant face on the group (undercut by others who relish in virulent language), and David Duke (Topher Grace), the storied leader of the Klan nationally is portrayed as a mild, well-mannered leader who hates no one, just wants white people to live among themselves without the presence of Blacks or Jews or others.
Critic Naomi Elias writes, “In his slickest salesperson voice Duke says that he agrees with people who say that “America is a racist country” — but unlike the black Colorado residents using the phrase to call out the racial profiling and police brutality they experience, Duke argues America is racist because it’s “anti-white.” This willful misuse of the word “racism” allows him to reframe oppressors as victims and vice versa.”
Of course, more people than David Duke use this kind of language reversal to make themselves and others in their groups into victims. We can see this in a certain President of the United States.
“Alt-right” is a seemingly harmless way to describe people who are white supremacists and nationalists, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, white racial purists, and its proponents have brilliantly succeeded in getting much of the mainstream media as well as ordinary people to use the term. It even sounds lively and avant-garde, like alt-rock and alt-weekly newspaper.
This echoes the efforts in the 19th Century (and yet today) to claim that the South was only fighting for states’ rights not slavery. This also echoes how many white people say, “I’m not racist,” meaning they do not use the N-word or other ugliness—even as they help perpetuate structures of race-based oppression.
Organizations, business and otherwise, even churches do this sort of thing when they talk about diversity and inclusion while never linking either to our white-dominated national (and global) heritage that remains alive and well. The goals are commendable but they tend to work “feel good” emotions—valuing everyone equally is a worthy goal, but that will not happen until we take our boot off the backs of those unlike ourselves.
We have much to learn about ending the ugliness of the KKK and allied hate groups, and even more to learn about how to undo our denial of what our fellow human beings go through every day. That requires taking the blinders off.
This is much harder than trying to get people to “just get along” better. It requires that we pay close attention not just to good intentions but also to dangerous, damaging, destructive outcomes. In simple terms, I mean paying attention, and proactively working to correct the reality of outrageous levels of incarceration of Black and brown people, the high rates of poverty within Black communities, “food deserts” and lack of health care in minority communities, etc.
The usual practice of denial and dismissal is shown by the action of the Chief of Police who tells Stallworth and Zimmerman and the other officers who have been supportive of them to bury the files. Thankfully, Stallworth wrote his book, and Lee made his film.
We can keep trying to hide, but it won’t go away until we face it, name it, recognize our role in it, repent, change our ways, and make reparations.
Start by seeing this film (and the others mentioned above).
I have now seen “Sorry to Bother You” (see previous post, “When Do I Use My White Voice?“), a film that in my judgment is a powerful commentary on white supremacy and capitalism—and a superb creative achievement.
There are so many powerful, often disturbing moments in the film that is hard to know where to begin.
So I will begin with something that happened to me as I sat in the theater watching. At some point, I don’t remember exactly when, while the screen images dominated the room, I also saw, in mind’s eye, faces of African American friends and colleagues in ministry (clergy and lay people). I felt a sense of awe at how they navigated the white dominant world we share. These are people of considerable achievement and strong personal character, wise people, clear-headed people, who have made a difference in my life.
At the time, I did not know what to make of this moment. Then, in a conversation with one of those people about the film, I shared that experience. They said, “Oh yes, we, people of color, and not just Black people, are used to “commuting” between the worlds of our own lives and the white social system that insists that we find ways to conform if we want to both survive and thrive.”
I teared up, realizing I had never thought about the price this dear friend and colleague as well as so many others in my life, and everywhere, have to pay. White supremacy is revealed by that necessity. But it also is confirmed in its power by the very fact I, with some real background in studies of racism and whiteness, had never had to think about what they go through.
Here are some parts of the commuting map: white voice, white mannerisms, paying attention not only to using the best English but also body language, and tone of voice and even volume. That does not even begin to deal with subject matter—how this friend and others are aware of just how far they can go in describing the pain and anger they have to carry, not only for themselves but also for all the other people in their family, social or religious group, neighborhood, professional orbit, and the world.
All this is revealed in this film through the experience of Cassius Green (powerfully performed by Lakeith Stanfield–certainly deserving of Oscar consideration). This young African American man needs a job. He finds it working for a telemarketing company. His job interview was very odd because it seemed the company would hire anyone. Later, I realized that this signifies how little they think of their employees. Cassius was just another cog in their master profit wheel.
He fits into their money-making system because he needs money. They need him to make them money and he needs them to make his. The filmmaker, Boots Riley, has, in interviews, made it clear that he wrote and directed a film to focus on both racism and the ways it is linked to capitalism.
The title of the film reflects how Cassius begins every call, but it is at the same time an evocation of the system of whiteness that insists that “we” not be bothered to hear the cries and anger of people of color. Over the years, I have heard people say to me, and others, “You may not want to hear this, but . . . “ then going on to describe something I, or another, did or said that was insensitive or worse. Sorry to bother you.
But the power of whiteness is much bigger than denial and refusal to hear or see. It also involves setting the rules for how people of color are to not only speak but also act. There are codes, and they have power. Cassius shows us at a party, thrown by the owner of the company he works for, that there are times when Black people are called upon by white people to perform their blackness (he is taunted until he does rap for the assembled white people, something he really doesn’t do well).
He also discovers through his seat mate in the office (played by Danny Glover) that his white voice on the phone is not exactly how white people sound, but “what they think they’re supposed to sound like.” In other words, it is a caricature designed to avoid causing discomfort for white customers. And Cassius learns to do that so well (in the film it is a voiceover by actor David Cross) he becomes highly successful, and thus a favorite of the corporate hierarchy.
What this says to me is that whiteness is a performance, not only by people of color but also by white people. This is especially so in the worlds of finance and various professional and public environments. And of course, there are always class distinctions. The brilliance of this film is that it shows us all of that.
In that sense, this is a film that unsettles us, white people, both because of racism and capitalism. Indeed, historians, especially Edward E. Baptist, show us that from the very beginning of our national experiment, capitalism and white supremacy/racism are inseparable (see his The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism).
What we see in the film are the high costs that people incur as they seek to rise financially—not only Cassius, but so many others. I won’t give away the many creative plot twists that make this film so distinctive, but I can say that we are shown how the alliance between corporate greed and personal need is disastrous for real people. There is violence in the film, although not the sensationalized violence we so often see of shootings, car chases ending in gruesome death, and the like. Indeed, it shows us how easy it is to become more beast than human as the pressure to succeed accelerates. In that sense, most everyone is a victim of a system designed to squeeze humanity out of the willing and the unwilling.
I urge every white person to see this film—it will challenge you as it seems to go over the top at times but if you stay with it you will find deep wisdom.
A final note: I have entitled this post “Sorry to Bother You,” because of the film and because I realize, given how few people in my intended audience for this series of posts that began with “Unlock the Trap – Part 1“ on May 4 seem to notice and how even fewer ever respond. Many of the white people in that audience probably wish I did not bring any of this up. Sorry to bother you.
Actually, I am not sorry.
Frankly, if we, “the relatively conscious whites” James Baldwin wrote about, do not let ourselves be bothered and challenged, things will never get better. Indeed, the power of white supremacy and capitalism, working together, just becomes more sophisticated, more lethal, and seemingly more hidden all at the same time. There are winners, of course, folks at the top seemingly, but even they pay a price. I for one want to stop paying it.
I hope you will join me on the journey. Feel free to write me at RevDrRobin@comcast.net if you would like to share more dialogue, or post your thoughts on this page.
And to scrape off the paint they used to cover my senses.
I am, like every other human being, a creature of many parts—body, mind, spirit, ethics, priorities, wisdom, knowledge, and more. How they fit together to make me a functioning person is often a working of personal and social forces in my history and my present.
I was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on October 10, 1946. Given the identities of my parents, I was a white baby. I still am.
I don’t mean to be funny. Instead, what I am reflecting is that some things about us do not change.
But context carries enormous power to shape those facts and thus our identities. My earliest context was a small, rural community, Milford, 40 miles northwest of Detroit. Everyone was white.
Well, almost everyone. There were two Black families living about three miles outside of town. I did not know this until I was seven years old, when my parents moved us from town to the country less than a mile from these families. I only knew one of them for a while, because my mother hired her to clean our home once each week. My father had known the family for many years, beginning with his time of serving as Superintendent of Schools.
A few years later, I became more acquainted with the other family, whose two daughters were a couple of years ahead of me in school. We belonged to the same 4-H Club, and they and I, along with another white male, formed a square dancing demonstration team.
I really enjoyed doing this. We had a good time, at least I know I did. There was one discordant note however. On occasion I was asked, as was my fellow white team member, how it felt to dance with “colored” girls (some said “Negro”). I was so unaware the first time it happened, I said, “Why do you ask that?”
The answer referred to how “those people” smell different from “us.” I could only respond that I did not notice any difference—I said something like this: “We all sweat as we dance and we just laugh about it.”
Looking back sixty or so years, I now see that none of the adults in charge of my development—my parents, school, and church– had prepared me in any way to know, let alone understand, racial dynamics. I had not been raised in a home with overt racial prejudice—in fact my father spoke up a couple of times to contest anti-Black remarks by others in our community and among family friends. There is one exception to this: my father bore strong prejudice against Native Americans (he had lived in Montana for ten years and claimed to know all about them). But I did not know this until years later.
I speak of these things, as also I recently wrote about racialized experiences within my MCC faith tradition (see previous post “Unlock the Trap—Part 1”), to begin a process for unlearning what I was taught, to begin to “scrape off the paint . . . used to cover my senses.“ I write in response to James Baldwin’s powerful insight that “White people are trapped in a history they do not understand.”
If we are to understand our history, first we must know it. We have to scrape the paint off it, examine myths, remove our blinders and whatever else has hidden it from us. We must take it out and examine it, turn it over, look at the underside, dig deep into our personhood to find the landmarks, the formative experiences and feelings. We need to examine our own personal history, and we also need to know the history of our faith community, society and world.
So what is our history in Metropolitan Community Churches?
I address that question to anyone interested in creating a new church, a self-reforming church, a new movement grounded in resistance to institutional racism in our own community and in the world. I address that question to all people in our movement, whatever their own personal and institutional racialized history.
Some people already know their personal and institutional history in this regard very well. Racial prejudice and institutional racism are part of their everyday lives, in church and out. They don’t have to dig very hard to have plenty to share.
But what about the rest of us, the people like me formed in a white dominant environment, trained not to see the pain and anger of people of color, conditioned from the beginning to walk through our days “to not see color,” empowered to ignore anything that challenged our racial worldview. Indeed, for many of us, probably most, nearly all, we never even knew we had a racial worldview. It was the other people who had race. We did not. That is the most effective enforcement mechanism of white supremacy and white privilege.
That justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.
–Langston Hughes, “Justice” in The Panther & the Lash
What I am proposing is that we, whoever we are as people who want to facilitate change in ourselves as well as our church, society, and world, begin sharing some stories—personal as I have done above (and I have many more, and I bet you have a goodly number, too, if you let yourself dig deeply), church (as I did earlier), society and world.
Sharing these stories is a form of confession, without which repentance and reparations are impossible. I hope some readers will write here on the blog where comments are solicited. Whatever you share in this spirit I will approve for publication so others can see the comments too. If that is too much for you at this moment, feel free to write me personally at RevDrRobin@comcast.net
Either way, I hope we can begin. And I hope at some point this could grow into a larger dialogue through either or both online and in person oral sharing.
I admit this is a small start, but I do not know where else to begin other than with my own history and my own commitment to creating change in this moment and beyond.
I close with how I opened the previous post, reminding us of the hope and determination of James Baldwin—that we too might contribute to ending the racial nightmare in which we participate.
“If we- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”
“If we- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world”
― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Note to the reader: This is the first installment in what I hope will become some queer theological conversation, aimed most specifically at the faith community I love, Metropolitan Community Churches, but also available and helpful to any persons or people who seek wholeness and justice for all. I begin with some story, and then in subsequent posts will move to some analysis and theology. I invite your response at any time.
I came into Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in 2001, in my middle 50s, through MCC New York. I appreciated the racial, sexual, and gender diversity of the congregation and the focus on social justice in preaching and mission. Rev. Pat Bumgardner rarely missed, and still rarely misses, an opportunity to connect biblical readings with contemporary events and our spiritual and ethical responsibilities, including racial justice.
But in retrospect I realize that dialogue about white racism, privilege, and supremacy, was not part of congregational life. I don’t mean Rev. Pat and Rev. Kristen Klein-Cechittini, the pastoral leadership during my time at MCCNY, failed to preach about it (they certainly did), but rather that we did not have facilitated, ongoing, intentional conversations within the congregation.
Please understand I am not engaging in after-the-fact criticism of them or other leaders, who did and do so much to promote justice (and may have done much to promote dialogue after I left in 2003), but rather to reflect on why even progressive congregations and leaders so often fail to engage this topic, especially in sustained dialogue, that is so central to the social fabric of the United States. And I wish to hold myself accountable for my participation in this failure.
When I came to MCCNY I had completed a Ph.D. in Theology at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. My doctoral work and dissertation were focused on the theological value, beauty and power of darkness, especially in the writings of James Baldwin and Audre Lord. I had learned a lot about white supremacy, privilege and racism, and was actively engaged with two other colleagues in theology and ethics on a book of essays, Disrupting White Supremacy from Within: White People on What We Need To Do.
But I did not apply any of that to my life in the church, even when I became the Director of Adult Christian Education.
In 2003, I was elected pastor of MCC Richmond, Virginia. The city proper has a very significant African-American population, approximately 60% in 2000. The suburban counties around Richmond were far more white, 20% non-white, or even less depending on the jurisdiction.
Among other things, the Search Committee and Board charged me with diversifying the congregation. When I arrived there was one person of color, an Afro-Caribbean woman, in regular attendance.
I included racial analysis in my sermons, made a vow to myself to include each week a quotation by, or reference to, a person of color, and I laid plans for observing Kwanzaa right after Christmas. That first year, all but one of the readers in that service were people of European descent. One young African American man who had started coming with his white husband shared in the readings. We put kente cloth on the communion table.
I do not know if those steps, which I continued for the remainder of my time as pastor, had anything to do with slowly rising African American attendance at worship and the gradual inclusion of African American members in leadership. What I believe jump started that trend more than anything was that several transgender African American women, some would say “divas,” started attending church.
Their presence was visible—they did not shy away from being very much noticed. When one, who was widely known as a performer in the community, was murdered and I was asked by her mother to offer the eulogy and our church to host what became a standing room only funeral, there was a noticeable uptick in attendance and involvement. The death was tragic and awful, but it did open some doors for others.
I prevailed on some of our white leadership to join me for the post-funeral repast in the neighborhood, usually avoided by white people as an unfriendly and dangerous area, where she had lived and been shot. That opened the eyes of some of them—they discovered that these neighbors were good people and that they need not be so fearful.
Those changes did not necessarily alter the reality that most white members did not socialize outside church events with Black people, or have close African American friends. In fact, a reality I discovered during my candidacy to become pastor—namely that white people danced at one gay club and Black people at another, and the white people did not even know the name or location of the other venue—continued to be the norm until I left the pastorate in 2013. There were individual exceptions, but they were few.
I knew the name and location of that club (although I do not remember it now) but I never visited it, never even asked any parishioners or others about it. I decided at one point to seek connection with African American clergy but after a couple of less than satisfactory forays I did not persist. I did try to build some connection with the dean and faculty of the seminary at Virginia Union University, an historically Black institution. But I did not put much energy into it, mostly attending an event from time to time. And other than members and leaders of the church, I did not seek out African American friends.
What I am hoping to discern and convey in this personal history are the dynamics at work in me, in the congregation, and possibly in those in the African American community to whom I reached out. I do this not merely as an historical enterprise but also as a way to better understand how white supremacy/racism/privilege worked, and works yet, in my life–so I can live now in ways that diminish their power. As a queer theologian, I think stories, actual lived experiences and bodies, are vehicles for creating understanding and change.
As Baldwin said elsewhere, “White people are trapped in a history they do not understand.” It is possible that my story here may also help other white people in the MCC movement, and in other contexts, to examine their own stories and unpack the dynamics at work in them—in order for all of us to do more concrete, effective work to overcome the power of white supremacy, to dismantle the trap, in our church and our world.
In my next post here, I will offer some reflection on this history, sharing what I see as some of the underlying power and privilege dynamics at work. In the meantime, I invite you to ponder these observations and to reflect on your own stories—as part of beginning to understand the history in which we are trapped and to learn how to break free of it and change ourselves and the world.
I found this wonderful reflection this morning, from Tammerie Day. She tells the truth about white privilege.
This is the part that caught my attention:
Without conscious intention, white bodies will incarnate and replicate this demonic history. While we grow up fractured, detached, unaware, history can continue to use our bodies to retell the same old stories, reinscribe the same old powers, reconstruct the same inequities. We have to know different to choose different. We have to choose different to live different. We have to live different to live. The alternative is that our death-dealing history will continue to recruit us unaware to live into a story that is killing us all, even as it makes some of us into killers and some into victims.
But you can access the rest of it (not long) here .It is well worth your time.
Last Sunday, our church music director opened worship by saying, “It’s been a rough week. Not only the cold, but I have been dealing with two suicides–one an 8th grader at my school and the other a leader of the Black Lives Movement.”
I did not get a chance to ask Tyrone about the young student, but I learned about the activist through a Washington Post article a couple of days later (click here for the story).
His name was MarShawn McCarrel, 23. He shot himself on the steps of the Ohio State Capitol in Columbus on February 8. A few hours before the shot, he posted a Facebook message, “My demons won today. I’m sorry.”
By all accounts, this was a talented young man, dedicated to liberation and justice. He started several nonprofit organizations, a mentorship program called Pursuing Our Dreams and a charity for homeless people called Feeding Our Streets. He had become a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement in Ohio, following on other activism and writing poetry.
The man was a poet. On paper. And in life. Poets are people for whom words matter. Each word matters. And for this poet, lives mattered, too.
Except he could not sustain his own. He pulled the trigger.
But so did we. We–and when I say “we” I mean all of us who call ourselves white who have so far failed to undo the strangehold white supremacy, white privilege, white racism, have on our national psyche and day in and day out living in this land we claim is free and home to the brave.
As sure as anything, I believe his depression–which had plagued him for some years, after the death of his grandfather–was undone or minimized, but also deepened, by his activism.
His ability to write and speak and organize and give hope to others helped to keep him going, but it was not enough to overcome the relentless–r e l e n t l e s s, let me say that again, relentless–drumbeat of negativity in his life and the lives of millions of other African American men, women, and children (remember that 8th grader?).
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his magnificent, also relentless (in a similar but also different way), letter to his son about growing up Black in America, “Between the World and Me,”
To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.
Coates tells us that much of the posing and braggadocio of Black boys and young men on the streets, and the posing and efforts at creating distinct identities for the Black girls and and young women, is really in response to fear, fear for their very lives in the face of what feel like, and are, overwhelming odds against survival for many, if not most, of them in a world run by and for those who call ourselves white.
I cannot speak for MarShawn McCarrel, this lost prince of Black personhood, but I can imagine that he, like many other activists in the Black Lives Matter movement (and many in other movements for human dignity here and around the world), was brought down, depressed, by that fear, and by how little long-term deep, intentional attention is paid to the continuing violation of African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, etc.
I know I feel that, and I am not (yet, anyway) on the front lines of that struggle. He was on the front lines, and I know from experience on my own front lines (for LGBT equality, e.g.) that there is hope, even exhilaration at moments, when you watch others see new truth, but there also is exhaustion and fear when you realize how many people aren’t paying attention and how many of those who claim they are show no signs of caring (and may even express animosity).
What Coates’ book, and the unnecessary death of MarShawn McCarrel push me into is somehow to join the front lines. I have no desire to do what we who call ourselves white so often do–move in to take over the struggle, or even to make it about me or us. And yet, I know I have and can claim my place to support McCarrell’s surviving colleagues in the movement more than I have done, and to more directly engage my siblings in white privilege so that we all may learn why and how to give it up.
I don’t want to be part of pulling the trigger any more.
I don’t want to participate, even at a distance, in snuffing a life, or silencing a voice, as magnificent as that of MarShawn McCarrel.
It is my belief that he has found peace with the God who loves him unreservedly. But I have yet to find peace in my grief for this beautiful man, and perhaps I will not any time soon, knowing–as I have chanted more than once on the streets of Richmond, New York, Boston, and will undoubtedly do so again on Washington boulevards, and maybe elsewhere–No Justice, No Peace! Know Justice, Know Peace!
The good news, if there is any in this, may be that I have found, thanks to his friends, a powerful poem of truth and life by MarShawn McCarrel. May he have the final word here, today.
These wintry days in the northern hemisphere mean layers of clothes even inside and more darkness, too.
As someone who likes to wear as little as possible as often as possible–barefoot is always my desire, and nakedness often a delight–this is not good news.
And yet the darkness can be a joy. I appreciate slowing down as dusk descends, preparing for dinner and an evening of quiet at home. Also, I most definitely enjoy morning darkness in which to meditate before dawn, and even to go walking in the winter grayness, seeing the tree limbs arched gracefully against the sky.
But more in these days of angry talk about people from other places and locking up more of our own citizens–usually people whose skin is darker than mine–I am cherishing even more darkness. I mean the darkness that actually expands our awareness of life, the beauty of cultures and lands and people and beliefs that have their own integrity, and challenge and enrich my own.
It seems no accident that in a nation built from the ground up on the architecture of white supremacy there is little valorizing of darkness. Of course, this is in line with so much Christian theologizing that turns to light to overcome darkness. I have not done sufficient research to determine the intertwining history of all this, but clearly neo-platonic dualisms, Euro-American colonialism, manifest destiny, theological paeans for light over dark, all help produce an ideology of dark/black/native as less worthy than its “opposites,” and even downright bad or evil.
A key element in the work of those of us not dark–by whatever definition–to heal our nation is to begin to celebrate what is dark. It is right to oppose the targeting of immigrants and the mass incarceration of black men, and many other policies and attitudes built on negative views of darkness, because we believe in justice and equality, but we must go further: we must valorize, we must celebrate that which we have ignored, belittled, and oppressed and tried to kill. Even more, we must let darkness change us.
We must claim our own darkness.
I have written elsewhere about how my mother and my aunt repeated many times to me that my grandmother was “the first white child born in Stanton, Michigan.” (map left) Somehow that was seen as a mark of distinction for her, for us, a heritage of which I was to be proud.
As a child, I suppose I did see it that way. But along the way I began to think about all the babies born there before her, and after, who did not, do not, meet the definition of “white.” There were, are, beautiful babies, too.
And more to the point, our ancient heritage, black, white, native, brown, is rooted in Africa. We are all, at base, African.
Perhaps it is time go home, not as missionaries, to change people there, but as pilgrims on a spiritual journey to be changed, to come into our own deep, dark selves.
And absent the opportunity for that, we can open our borders, our minds, our hearts, to those who have much to teach us right here, right now.
We celebrated Hanukkah these past days, including a party offered by the religious school at Congregation Mishkan Torah last evening (the final night of this eight-day feast). I say we celebrated it for past days, but not eight because I could not find our menorah until time to light the third candle at home!
In ten days, we will fly to Michigan to celebrate Christmas with our extended family. In between, we will observe the winter solstice on December 22. Muslims will observe Mawlid, the birth of the prophet Mohammed on December 23 to 28 (depending on the branch of Islam). Then there is Kwanzaa (December 26-January 1) and of course New Year’s Day.
This is a time of year marked by celebration.
Hanukkah is often called the Festival of Lights because of the centrality of lighting menorah candles each night (beginning with one the first night and then adding another each evening). And Christmas is marked by bright lights as well, on Christmas trees and on the exterior of many homes and other buildings. This surely is a reflection on the star that guided the magi from the East to the stable in Bethlehem. Both of these holy times are dear to me, and I know to many others as well.
But light is not central to two other celebrations, namely the winter solstice and Kwanzaa. In fact, they are really celebrations of darkness.
I cherish darkness–skin tones to be sure–but more, too. I value the dark of night, I value being in the dark, meaning not being sure of exactly where I am or where I am going or what is around me. I have a feeling this is not how many, probably most, people feel.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes
I cannot remember the last time I heard someone use “dark” to describe something good. Fear of the dark has been sanctified in so many people’s minds . . . without constant reminders that darkness is not a synonym for mortal or spiritual danger, most people I know revert to the equation without even thinking about it. (Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 54)
I don’t meant to suggest, any more than Taylor does, that there is never danger in the dark. But in a world where terrorists randomly kill and behead people and fly planes into tall buildings, police shoot people even as they lay dying, and people drive cars into crowds to express their frustration–all in broad daylight or on well-lighted sidewalks and streets–I am not convinced that being in the light is all that much safer than being in the dark.
We can learn from the dark. Do you realize that if you are outside at night and you shine a light on something that you will see it in some ways better than without the light, but at the same time that the light will block out what is around the object and around you? Light actually limits the range of your vision.
That limited vision is reflected in white racism and white privilege, too–many of us are conditioned to not really see the darker-skinned people in our midst as full members of the human race. If white, or light, is the norm, is the preferred coloration, we devalue our siblings and all the richness, truth, and beauty of their divinely created humanity.
And at this time of the year, in the northern half of the globe, we are given the opportunity to slow down, as the plants and trees and many of our fellow animals are doing, and rest, letting go of our need to see everything and be everywhere. I am not a big fan of cold weather–and really dislike snow–but I do value the opportunity to burrow into the cocoon that is our home and feel enveloped by darkness that is longer each day.
Of course, we have moved into a more urbanized area than our former neighborhood in Richmond, and the porch lights of neighbors, perhaps 100 feet away, seem perpetually on–but still I have the great joy of taking Cocoa out for a dark walk at 10 pm or so (most people do not leave their exterior lights on and the tree-covered walkways of our two-hundred-plus acre co-op are wonderful for walking). I also cherish going out before sunrise to walk with him. If you do this, perhaps you too notice how much more clearly the bare trees stand out against the night sky. They are a great joy to my soul.
I don’t want to stop celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas, but I want to put more emphasis on the Solstice and Kwanzaa–I want more balance in my life, and that means more dark, less light.
Spiritually speaking, I take my cue from the Hebrew writers of Genesis. Creation started out as void and darkness, and then was given more shape by the creation of light. But the light did not erase the darkness, and both were judged to be good.