Category Archives: Race and Culture

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.

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.

Asking for a generation

What could the Church in North America do if it put its hands together across cultures, if it desegregated its pews and pulpits, if it reflected the changing community outside its doors?  Who would we become and what witness could we offer the world if we chose our baptismal identity in Christ over and against racialized identities, if we adamantly rejected this superficial categorization of flesh?  What would we be saying if we lived within the counter- narrative of belonging in spite of class, gender and cultural lines, if we did not remake Jesus as a politician or political party leader?  Where could the Church in North America’s leadership go if it did not masculinize leadership, if we really believed that God was in control?

These are genuine questions because I don’t understand the color- coded scenarios of our relationships, these skin- incentivized experiences in North America and specifically its Church.  Segregation is illegal.  But churches break this law every Sunday at 11 a.m. and in some places three times on Sunday.

We sit in so- called white churches and black churches, segregated while identifying as the body of Christ.  We sit in so- called white churches and black churches, worshipping God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4.24).  We sit in so- called white churches and black churches, claiming to be siblings in Christ and all apart of God’s family.  Then why the continued separation?

Oh, I know.  It’s the worship style.  We like our music this way.  It is about control.  Because Christianity in America has a paternalistic bend with persons who feel the need to oversee the movement of other Christians.  “Don’t clap.  Don’t respond to the preaching.  That’s not what we do here.”

The question of why the Church in North America remains segregated is fully answered by Henry Mitchell in his work Black Church Beginnings, where he offers priceless intel.  The “Black Church” was started under the surveillance of so- called white people.  Their time for worship was managed, no longer than two hours.  Their messengers were predetermined and approved by European American spiritual overseers, as it were, to ensure that the narrative of their conditional belonging in America was not questioned or challenged.  Their churches were funded by these spiritual overseers, another means of control and manipulation.  Dependent upon their financial support, African American people in “leadership” did not stray from the scripted responses of race, which brought the plantation into the Church.

Things haven’t changed.  There remains the mindset that African American bodies need to be controlled, evident in the continued murder of unarmed African American people who are “living while black.”  There is a continued devaluation and judgement of their worship practices, style and length of their spiritual services.  There is also a financial dependency in some denominations for their survival that maintain the roles of American slavery.  In my opinion, the Church in North America has yet to be started.

The colonizers did not seek to bring God’s kingdom near with chattel slavery as its foundation.  Those persons called “founding fathers” gave birth to nothing new but reproduced the slavery of their homeland, though far worse.  And while there are those who would shake their heads in agreement with me, their mouths tells a different story.  They continue to accept the answers that race gives them while what I hear is largely questionable.

The Exonerated Five, the Emanuel Nine, and why we can’t lose count

Ava Marie DuVernay’s documentary “When They See Us” tells the story of four African American boys and one Latino American boy falsely accused and mislabeled “The Central Park 5” after a female European American jogger, Trisha Meili, is viciously attacked and raped in April of 1989.  With contrived confessions but no DNA evidence to link the boys to the crime, they were found guilty and sentenced to between 7 and almost 14 years in prison.  They would later be exonerated when the actual rapist came forward, Matias Reyes (Central Park 1), confessed to the crime, providing details that only the perpetrator would know and had the DNA to match.  Still, those young boys were put into a criminal justice system that forever changed not only their lives but the lives of their family members.  They received no apology and no explanation.  They are owed both and not surprisingly, those who should apologize include Donald Trump, who took out a full page ad in a number of newspapers asking that the death penalty be reinstated and that these children: Raymond Santana, 14, Kevin Richardson, 14, Antron McCray, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, and Kharey Wise, 16, be executed.

We don’t have time to act surprised.  Lives are at stake and hands that cover our faces in dismay are needed in voting booths, raised in solidarity and clearly visible for all to see, linked together on country roads and city streets that march to the drum major for justice’s beat, folded in intercessory prayer to God.  Because it’s going to take a miracle for change to come.

We’ve got to learn a new tongue because there is a need to rename and reclaim our stories.  We must be our own narrators.  Because we have heard this story of injustice before.  The Exonerated Five, as they are rightly called in an Oprah interview, were not guilty of the awful crime committed that day and deserve a new narrative, which begins with a new name.

We have to start telling their story and in turn, our story differently.  They were and are innocent.  But, they were not the first innocent men proven guilty in an American court of law and they will not be the last.  Kalief Browder, 16, was held at Riker’s Island for three years without a trial.  After his release, he would commit suicide.

There are so many unnamed before him and many more to come after him.  Emmett Till was fourteen years old when he was executed by a mob after being accused of “whistling at a white woman.”  In 1931, the Scottsboro Boys, as they would come to be known, were accused of raping two “white women” on a freight train.  Their ages ranged from 13 to 20 years old.  For fear of lynch mobs, They had to be guarded by the state militia.  Same old story.

Tomorrow, I will visit the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) museum, where the founder, Bryan Stevenson, set out to tell the African American story from slavery to mass incarceration as well as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.  The first of its kind, the memorial says the names of thousands of women, men and children who were lynched in the 19th and 20th centuries.  On the website, they keep a calendar of the injustices suffered by African American people.  Today’s post reads “On this day, June 18, 2015,

White Man Arrested for Racial Attack Killing Nine in Charleston Church

Tomorrow night, I will see the movie “Emanuel,” playing in select theaters for two days only and say their names again: Clementa C. Pinckney, 41, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, 54, Susie Jackson, 87, Ethel Lee Lance, 70, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, Tywanza Sanders, 26, Daniel L. Simmons, 74, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45 and Myra Thompson, 59.

Like DuVernay and the producers of the movie “Emanuel,” Stephen Curry, Viola Davis, Mariska Hargitay and Mike Wildt, we must not lose track of the truth.  We’ve got to tell their stories, no matter how numerous.  Because maybe we’ll get tired of days marked by injustice and become sickened by the number of lives lost tragically and say, “Enough.”  Because it’s easier to forget and tempting to lose count.

Tongue tied

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do I proclaim a raceless gospel when there is so much faith in race?  Why do I scribble over words in books that color- code our shared humanity and repeat the appropriate cultural designations aloud?  We are not black but African Americans.  We are not white but European Americans.  We are not yellow but Asian Americans.  We are not red but indigenous people who live in what has been renamed the United States of America.  We are not brown but Latino/a Americans (The racial category also includes Southeast Asian people, North African people and a few other cultural groups).  We are not beige, the color chosen for those who are bi- cultural but we share in the diversity of our humanity and represent what it looks like when cultures come together.  We are love bridges.

Because race will not tell me what I see or who I can see or how I must see others.

Because human beings are not colors, a collection of attributes and physical characteristics.  Because race does not even come close to expressing who we are in the world and in relation to each other.  Because race is not a witness to my human being or yours; it can never testify to seeing us.  I may not be colorblind but I am certain that race is blind.  Race captures what we feel about our flesh and its findings are literally superficial.

Race is not a hypothesis.  It is an uneducated guess about our humanity as its creators had no idea what they were saying or how their words would be used hundreds of years later.  And yet it is informed for the purposes of economic and political advantage.  Persons who use the racial categories to their advantage, use it as a means of oppression, as a leg up and a foot down on those who would attempt to rise above the fray.  Because who is willing to give up their privilege, their head start, to reject the title of whiteness?  Because we are not really taking away whiteness but social benefits, immunities and protections that go ahead of us, clear the way for us.

Because race is about competition and calling persons black slows us down.  Persons who are socially colored black are deemed lazy.  They cannot keep up and yet their ancestors built up this nation.  It doesn’t make sense.  One should cancel out the other and yet, we choose one over the other.  Because it serves us well and serves us best to think of another as less than us.  Because race is about pride, our insecurities and wanting to be so much more than human.  So rather than work hard, we think the worst of others to make ourselves feel better: lazy.

Laziness is a stereotype, a rock in the shoes of those who would attempt to make strides, who would try to cross the color line.  This is why it hurts when they have to “jump higher and run faster” than their counterparts.  Because they don’t have to deal with a word that is meant to trip them up and tie their tongue.  Because it is hard to say anything good about being black, which is why some persons talk white.

This need to be white is a mental transformation, a metamorphosis, a conversion of sorts.  Race has a life of its own, separate and apart from who we are and were meant to be.  Race is another story, a smaller narrative and a diversion.  It is not the way, the truth or the life (John 14.6).

Because the creature- created and run racial identities have no spiritual benefits and no eternal value.   Instead, the sociopolitical and economic construct of race is a kind of currency.  Our belief in race continues the need for this skin trade.  Nearly four hundred years later with the approaching anniversary of the first Africans enslaved and brought to the Virginia shores, we are still in bondage.  Tongue tied to race are most of us and me to the raceless gospel.