1619

 

“About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunes arrived at Point-Comfort, the Comandors name Capt Jope, his Pilott for the West Indies one Mr Marmaduke an Englishman. … He brought not any thing but 20 and odd Negroes, w[hich] the Governo[r] and Cape Merchant bought for victuall[s].”

| John Rolfe

Four hundred years ago this month, the first Africans were brought to what is now America’s shores and we are still feeling the ripple affects of their bodies stolen, bodies chained, bodies renamed.  So, we can’t say their names.

“20 and odd Negroes.”

I write to count them among us.  1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10…11…12…13…14…15…16… 17…18…19…20.  These bodies count.  Add them to the body count.  America likes to pile on and today, persons continue the debate about stock piling weapons as a right.  Mass murderers, Americans are the king of the hill.

I write to acknowledge their presence because we are them.  We are what we have done to them.  In the same boat, we sink or swim, float or fall to the bottom, never to rise to the full expression of our human being.  If we cannot see them and frankly every human being as our sister and brother, then we are the real other.

Because they are what is foundational to America– bodies capitalized on, cultures undone, histories shunned, lands seized upon in the name of religion and then race.  But, it was and is always about power.  The others are just nicknames.  The Africans enslaved and those indigenous to what is now the United States of America know the country’s real name.  They know who America really is, which is why their voices were discounted and drowned out right from the start.

Their mouths were covered and their continued silence is evidence of the worst coverup.  Yes, they shout but have these persons really spoken up?  Because we don’t really want to know the cost of this so- called American identity.  We don’t want to know what it truly means to be an American.  How many names have been changed, cultures sacrificed, languages lost, allegiances sworn to America, forsaking all others.

Assimilation in America is assassination.  Who we were, could be, would be and should have the right to be falls to the bottom if we are to rise to the top.  Citizenship in America is the death of self.  No matter how many of your family members came together, whatever your number, we are no more and no less than those “20 and odd Negroes.”  No country of origin, only a color and human beings don’t find that odd.

What year is it?

Here’s a thought and a prayer

I went to bed thinking about the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.  There was talk of a racist manifesto and the murderer writing about the “invasion of Hispanics.”  El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen told reporters, “(It has) a nexus to potential hate crime.”  #WhiteSupremacistTerrorism was trending on Twitter.  This morning, #TrumpsTerrorists has replaced it.  Not surprisingly, persons are linking the 250th mass shooting in America to Trump’s racist rhetoric and the racists chants that followed from the crowd at a North Carolina rally.

The investigation is only beginning.  We don’t even know the names of his victims.  In fact, we know more about the gun he used.  And of course, there are “thoughts and prayers” being offered to the victims and their families.  This word combination has become problematic for many, representing inaction and more of the same from political leaders regarding gun laws.  All talk and no action.

Before persons were finished formulating their responses, finishing up their interviews on local and national news outlets regarding the shooting in El Paso, I wake up to news of yet another in Dayton, Ohio.  It is mass shooting number 251 in 216 days.  We are killing more than days we are living.  And these murders are not the only thing that is on the rise.  Time magazine wrote that white supremacist attacks are increasing in March of this year after mass shootings at two mosques in New Zealand where at least 50 people were murdered.

White supremacy.  George Frederickson wrote in his book White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History, “White supremacy refers to the attitudes, ideologies and policies associated with the rise of blatant forms of white or European dominance over ‘nonwhite’ populations.  In other words, it involves making the invidious distinctions of a socially crucial kind that are based primarily, if not exclusively, on physical characteristics and ancestry. … It suggests systematic and self- conscious efforts to make race or color a qualification for membership in the civil community ” (Frederickson, xi).  Let me stop here and give you a few thoughts.

Ian Haney Lopez writes in White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race in an introduction titled “Notes on Whiteness, “Whiteness is contingent, changeable, partial, inconstant and ultimately social. … Whiteness (is) a complex, falsely homogenizing term” (Haney Lopez, xxi).  He writes later in a chapter titled “White Lines,” “Appearances and origins are not White or non- White in any natural or pre- social way.  Rather, White is a figure of speech, a social convention read from looks.  As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes, ‘Who has seen a black or red person, a white, yellow or brown?  These terms are arbitrary constructs, not reports of reality'” (Haney Lopez, 12).

David Roediger writes in The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, “White labor does not just receive and resist racist ideas but embraces, adopts, and at times, murderously acts upon those ideas.  The problem is not just that the white working class is at critical junctures manipulated into racism, but that it comes to think of itself and its interests as white” (Roediger, 12).

Nell Painter writes in The History of White People, “Were there ‘whites’ in antiquity? … No, for neither the idea of race nor the idea of ‘white’ people had been invented, and people’s skin color did not carry useful meaning” (Painter, 1).

James Baldwin pointedly says, “As long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you.”   He also said this in The Price of a Ticket in 1985, “The reality, the depth, and the persistence of the delusion of white supremacy in this country causes any real concept of education to be as remote and as much to be feared, as change or freedom itself.”

Whatever is true and liberating, whatever is authentic and facilitates our wholeness, whatever makes peace and increases our fellowship, whatever keeps the lies of whiteness and race away, let us think on these things.  And then let us pray like Frederick Douglass who said: “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”

Keep it moving.  Amen.

True Justice

In June, I visited The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.  It is part of my work with the Louisville Institute for which I was awarded a pastoral study grant to examine the sociopolitical construct of race’s influence on the malformation of Christian community.  My project centers around the work and witness of Southern Baptist minister Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia.  I felt drawn to Montgomery, Alabama as part of my pilgrimage to healing communities of faith.

I attended the 75th anniversary of Koinonia Farm’s founding last year.  Walked the grounds and walked around in search of Jordan’s spirit with us.  He believed that his Christian witness compelled him to break the laws of segregation, commanded him to work with persons socially colored black and to pay them a fair wage for work in the 1940s.  His life was threatened.  His businesses boycotted.  His faith no doubt challenged.

He was even kicked out of his church.  His sin– loving his neighbor.

Jordan held up a mirror when churches were expected to be a reflection of the broader society.  Who else was doing this kind of work, challenging the stories we tell ourselves and daring to live into them?  “We hold these truths to be self- evident…”  Bryan Stevenson.  The grounds that now house The Legacy Museum was a “slave warehouse.”  The experience in the space for one present and available to experience this truth is indescribable.

This is not a tourist attraction but a space for truth- seekers.  It tells another side of the story: the human cost of building a “great nation.”  It did not come easy and there was much sacrifice.  The sad and unfortunate truth is that the sacrifice was paid heavily in African and African American lives.  The greed for power and wealth was worth their lives by the thousands.

Still, we talk about it as if it is “water under the bridge.”  But, it is blood in the ground.  Blood that is crying out much like Abel’s (Genesis 4.10).  Likewise, God is looking for answers: “What have you done?”

The answer that is stuck in between our teeth or manifested by the lump in our throats is what gets in the way.  Still, I am going my own way, the only way I know.  Up and away from this train crash, this culture clash.  I’ve seen this one before.  It is a rerun hundreds of years old.

I am seeking hallowed ground, sacred space that challenges the dominant narrative of division, that laments our losses and keeps a record of them.  Lynching in America is one that has been overlooked.  Bryan Stevenson, the visionary for the museum and memorial, wants to make sure that we cannot look away.  Thousands of people were lynched for one reason or another and no reason at all: “refusing to run as errand for a white woman,” “for organizing black voters in Choctaw County,” “for not allowing a white man to beat him in a fight,” “for performing the wedding of a black man and white woman.”

“A lynch mob of more than 1,000 men, women and children burned Zachariah Walker live in Coatesville, Pennsylvania in 1911.”

“Walter Johnson was lynched in Princeton, West Virginia in 1912 by a mob of 1,000 people.”

“Dozens of men, women and children were lynched in a massacre in East St. Louis, Illinois in 1917.”

Mary Turner was lynched, with her unborn child, at Folsom Bridge at the Brooks- Lowndes County Line in Georgia in 1918 for complaining about the recent lynching of her husband, Haynes Tuner.”

And there is more.  Connected to American slavery, later convict leasing and now the prison industrial capitalist venture, Bryan Stevenson ties it altogether.  He aims for equal justice under the law and makes a strong case that the American judicial system continues to miss the mark.

True justice, this is what he is after.   A more just fellowship, a kindred faith relationship is what I seek in North American churches.  We both have our work cut out for us.  We were made for it.

HBO has created a documentary on Stevenson’s work.  You can watch it for free right now.

Infestation

It is the word that the so-called president of the United States used to describe the city of Baltimore while attacking Congressman Elijah Cummings.  Trump wrote on his official Twitter account: “Cummings’ district is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous and filthy place. No human being would want to live there.”

Victor Blackwell, a CNN journalist, later recounted the disturbing pattern of the use of the word when Trump is talking of persons not socially colored white.  Blackwell is in tears at the end.  Baltimore is his hometown.  There are human being there that he knows and loves.

Infestation.  Such an interesting choice of words.  Of all the words at Trump’s disposal, he chooses this one again and again.  It harkens back to Nazi Germany and its use of propaganda to re-create the Jewish people as the enemy.  Its leaders chose this word too.  This word is on the side of extermination.

We would do well to stamp out its use.

Persons who would employ the term or speak indifferently about its use are not students of history and have not considered the danger of having a full circle moment.  Author and activist, James Baldwin wrote in an essay titled “On Being White… And Other Lies,” “… America has paid the highest and most extraordinary price for becoming white.”  Who one has to reject and how often the distance between us and them must be created in order to be accepted into this exclusive community is incalculable.  But, also, how far removed one is from their true self.

White is a lie.  There is no being in it and no belonging for any culture of the world.  Baldwin says, “America became white– the people who, as they claim, ‘settled’ the country became white– because of the necessity of denying the black presence, and justifying black subjugation.  No community can be based on such a principle– or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie.”  No human beings can live here.

Infestation.  It’s more than a word.  It is the subtle suggestion of an act so egregious but necessary for the protection of the lie of whiteness.  And it is no little white lie for millions of lives are a stake.

Words we cannot send back

Today, Donald Trump sent another divisive message to his followers via his official Twitter account regarding Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.  For those who would make excuses or who are praying that his racist comments will just blow over, they won’t.  Telling people not socially colored white to “go back home” or to “go back to where they came from” is not a new directive and deserves a response.

But we don’t need a history or geography lesson to point out his failings or flawed argument.  While the media struggled to label his words racist, we don’t have to wait for them to use the adjective.  It was racist.  Because this is not really about one’s place of birth or even country of origin.  Not simply telling someone to leave the country but believing it is within your right to do so is the problem.

Where does this confidence come from?  It is colonial in origin.  It is proof of America’s continued possession by the spirit of conquest.  It is the belief that socially engineered white people have the power to determine the belonging or dis-belonging of another group not given the privileged label.  It is the assertion that said persons have the power to move bodies anywhere around the world as they so choose, for their pleasure and to maintain their comfort.  It is a historical habit, never changed or challenged.

Colonizers went to ancestral homes and relocated African bodies for labor and exploitation during the Trans- Atlantic Slave Trade and destroyed indigenous bodies, belonging to what is now the United States of America, that received them on their shores, is what needs to be named.  Neither group told European settlers to “go back” or to get back or to keep off their land.  The locals were hospitable; these strangers were hostile.

Still, in the crowd of thousands, persons chanted, “Send her back” at Trump’s recent North Carolina rally.  But send Congresswoman Omar back where exactly?  What address do they have on file?  They talk as if she is a package to be returned due their dissatisfaction.  She is not what they want in American society.

It is their choice to make, their right to refuse her though she, too, is an American citizen.  Is she is not American enough and where does she need to go to get more American?  Because there are levels, grades, rungs to this identity.  And Congresswoman Omar has apparently been outranked.

That rally was like a committee meeting and all Americans got to watch persons reject other Americans not socially colored white on live television.  The chant lasted seconds but long enough to echo back centuries.  We’ve heard this all before.  This is not a new request.  When formerly enslaved Africans were freed and stood as a visible reminder of the barbarity of their enslavers, they wanted to send them back to.

No longer reflecting the relationship of oppressor and oppressed, the mirror that African faces became was more than their enslavers could stand.  And today it is tempting to look away, to change the channel or the conversation.  But, it won’t change what Trump and thousands of his supporters said.  We can’t send those words back.

They are fully present; now we must account for them.