When Jack was born, Booker T. Washington was still the principal at Tuskegee Institute. Bernice & Corrine came along later; by the time of their births, Lyndon B. Johnson had already been elected to the House of Representatives. Carrie is the youngster of the group: she was born just as Rosa Parks became active in the NAACP.
None of these senior adults grew up around people who looked much different than they did. And, even if Bernice & Corrine had lived closed together, it’s unlikely that they would have become lifelong friends. There were too many obstacles, too many barriers. Well. It just wasn’t done.
But today things are a little different. Every Thursday at the Senior Opportunity Center in Asheville these folk and others join my exercise class: Jack, a 97 year old white guy who walks with two canes; Bernice and Carrie, African American grandmothers; and Corrine, a cheerful white lady who lives with her kids.
Really, they should not get along. They should not be friends. Their not-so-shared histories should demand a certain distance.
And believe me: it wasn’t easy at first. A senior center in West Asheville closed. Participants who chose to continue in the program had to go to the downtown location, taking the bus further than they had travelled previously. These West Asheville members, almost to a person, are white. Downtown participants come from lots of different backgrounds; many are African American. In the beginning, when I would come to teach fitness, the West Asheville folk would sit on one side of the semi-circle and the downtown folk on the other: divided by a visible color line that would have made Jim Crow proud.
But then one day Carrie happened to be sitting beside a white woman named Mae, each on their own side of course, but right next to each other. Carrie said something funny and Mae laughed. Or was it the other way around? I forget. But they laughed. Together. So the next week, they made a point to sit beside each other again.
And the line began to fade.
They’ve been together three years now, those two groups. In a recent class, Jack sat beside Bernice who sat beside Carrie. Yao—a Chinese lady who speaks only scant English—sat on his other side, next to Corrine. No one seemed to realize that they weren’t supposed to be friends, these relics from a different time. No one seemed to remember that they had once been on opposite sides—and not just in my class either. In fact, no one seemed to notice race, creed, or heritage at all.
“Arms up reaching side to side,” I instructed the class. “Now reach over and give your neighbor a pat on the back.”
And they did. Without hesitation.
May God Almighty bless you . . .
until you become a community of peoples.
(One of my favorite posts of all time, this one was first published in 2011.)
Dr. Sheri Adams led a class on Civil Rights and Religion in May 2009 which included a tour of key historic sites from the Civil Rights Movement. One of the places we visited was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage where Martin and Coretta King lived during their ministry there. This story comes from that experience.
I am standing in my Grandmother Martin’s kitchen. It’s true: Grandmama died nearly 14 years ago and her kitchen was dismantled long before that, but I’m telling you, this is her kitchen.
Her resin dishes are laid out on the Formica table ready for supper—though I remember them being a pale pink, not this mint green. The table setting includes a bowl of pecans. Granddaddy often collected pecans from the yard to be cracked after supper; and for the record, he and Grandmama called them “pea ca’ns,” giving equal emphasis to the first two syllables and letting the third one slip in for free. (Only those uppity carpet-baggers from the North used the term “puhcahns,” spitting out the “puh” just to get to the “cahns.”)
The ceramic napkin holder is new to me. I’m not surprised it’s in her kitchen though since it has strawberries on it; Grandmama did love her strawberries. Her oven, probably still hot from cooking biscuits, looks like it always did and her Frigidaire does too. The coffee pot—a percolator—has not changed at all. The kitchen shelves hold the usual, everything from Jewel® shortening to HotShot® bug killer in the pump and shoot tin can. Granddaddy murdered many a 6-legged intruder with that beastly weapon.
“’Get out of town within three days,’ the caller threatened, ‘or you’ll be sorry,’” The docent’s words drew me out of my reverie. “Martin knew this threat was different.”
“The call had awakened him and he could not get back to sleep, so he left Coretta and newborn Yolanda asleep, and came in here to the kitchen.”
This kitchen: this kitchen that looked so much like my Grandmama’s.
“He made himself a cup of coffee, but says he never even took a sip. And he sat down at his kitchen table. By the way, most everything in the parsonage here is authentic; however, this table is not the one that was here at that time, but it is very much like the one Martin sat at that night.”
(And it’s very much like the one my Grandparents sat at in their kitchen in Georgia during those very same years.)
My divinity school colleagues—19 of us counting students and professors—crowded into the parsonage's tiny kitchen and stood around the little table. Studying civil rights and religion, we were travelling to significant sites in the South, learning more about faith’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. Coming to the end of this tour of the Birmingham parsonage of Martin Luther King, Jr., we found ourselves spellbound by our guide’s retelling of the famous “kitchen table epiphany.”
“Martin sat here, full of despair. He thought of Coretta, and baby Yolanda. He thought of all the threatening phone calls. He thought of all he had to lose. He sat here in the wee hours of that morning and cried out to God, confessing his own doubts, his own weaknesses.
“When Martin recalled the story, he said it was at that moment of confession that he heard the voice of Jesus say to him, ‘Martin Luther stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ He heard Jesus tell him he would never be alone, no matter what.” The docent looked up to heaven, lifting her hands as if in thanksgiving. Then looking down, she shook her head slowly.
“And he didn’t give up. Not even three days later when his house, this house, was bombed. You see Martin was right: the call he got that night was more than just a prank. It was a real threat. What a blessing that Martin had just reaffirmed his calling and his faith right here in this kitchen.”
This Montgomery, Alabama kitchen that belonged to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an African American Baptist preacher and the leader of the Civil Rights movement. This kitchen:so familiar to me that it could have been in the Albany, Georgia home of Mrs. Mabel Louise Martin, my white, Southern Baptist grandmama.
My pastor and his wife have been in Ireland for the past couple of Sundays and so, while I'm not usually the one delivering the message, I have been the last two weeks and will be again this coming Sunday. I love to preach and am so grateful to be in a church that welcomes different voices in the pulpit. But this week . . . With the incidents in the US this week, I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of proclaiming the Gospel in the midst of this national crisis.
Yet, I am glad to be fully aware of my inadequacy, to be reminded that Christ's strength is made perfect in my weakness. Thus, leaning into that promise, I approached the task of proclamation, beginning with the morning prayer (below). I preached from Colossians 1:1-14. You can find the audio of the message here, or you may download it using the link below.
Loving God, Holy Lord: you are our strength and our shield. You are the God of Mercy, the God of Peace.
We ask Lord that in this place and at this moment, Oh God, let your Kingdom come; let your will be done. So that right now on earth, we will experience blessed peace, divine mercy, and Kingdom justice.
Lord we ask that you will remind us from whom our help comes. Remind us that you are the source of all provision.
And forgive us.
We ask, Lord God, that you would guide us through the temptations of our lives.
Deliver us Lord, from our selfishness, from our knee-jerk reactions, from our mindless pursuits.
Remind us once again that we are called, through your infinite love and unyielding grace:
Bring us into this moment unfettered by our own egos.
Make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.*
Lord, in your Mercy, Hear our Prayer.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Please welcome back guest blogger, Trellace Lawrimore. In this piece, she reflects on a little something her mom taught her (and a few folks at Georgetown) about Race in America.
On April 9, 2015, Georgetown’s “Ignite the Dream: Race and Socioeconomic Class in America” series presented a panel conversation on privilege and oppression, “What is Race? What is Class?” The panel, moderated by Georgetown professor Marcia Chatelain, featured Vox.com journalist Jenée Desmond-Harris (biracial), the once undocumented immigrant and former VP at Goldman Sachs Julissa Arce (Mexican American), Senior Counsel of the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education Saba Bireda (black), and Georgetown Law student Ryan Wilson (black). Panelists reflected on the ways race and class have shaped their personal and professional lives, and how they have chosen to fight injustice. The ICC auditorium audience, about 1/3 white, challenged the speakers with questions on the media’s portrayal of black America and how to stay hopeful in the face of ever-present injustice.
When I was a child, my mom taught me the secret to spotting 21st century racists.
She had learned this herself working at a community college in an office in which she was the only white professional; her colleagues in the office were black. When white faculty or administrators had issues with black students in my mom’s department, they consulted her, rather than her black coworker across the desk.
“Aileen,” the speaker would start out in audible tones. “I’m having trouble with a student. She’s,” pausing to look around for listening ears and dropping her voice to a whisper, “blehck.” The single syllable adjective would be drawn out such that it sounded more like an expression of disgust than a descriptor.
At this point, mom would interrupt to say, “You can say the word aloud. It won’t come as a surprise to my student that she is a person of color.”
Blehck. Try sounding it out for yourself. Then start to notice how often people are uncomfortable using “black” or “white.” Sure, this habit may be easier to spot south of the Virginia border, but it’s not uncommon elsewhere. Of course, many college-educated liberals like to think that they understand the complexities of the race problem in America. But we’re often hesitant to talk about the daily realities of racial injustice with simple and accurate descriptors like “black” and “white.”
At the “What is Race? What is Class?” panel on April 9, 2015, journalist Jenée Desmond-Harris responded to the first question about race by reflecting on her experience with the anxieties surrounding race conversations. She said that although she grew up in a progressive community, she also “grew up thinking that mentioning race was a bad thing, that it was taboo. I found that one of my biggest challenges is that I still bump up against it with readers. Every time I write something I find myself anticipating the comments I’ll get, even if the piece isn’t polarizing.”* Her peers on the panel echoed this sentiment.
Without invoking the term, Desmond-Harris intimated the pervasiveness of “white fragility” in our country. Robin DiAngelo describes “white fragility” as the anxiety white people experience when approached with the reality of racial injustice. White fragility sustains itself through white privilege, as white people can opt when to engage with social ills and when to pretend like they don’t exist. In contrast, people of color don’t get to elect when to acknowledge injustice—they live it everyday. Oppressive institutions are perpetuated by this disconnect between the amount of race dialogue white people tolerate and the amount necessary to change the system.
Julissa Arce, former undocumented immigrant and VP at Goldman Sachs, affirmed the importance of white people overcoming this fragility and taking prominent roles in social justice efforts. She remarked that the audiences in these conversations are often people of color—the people who are already well acquainted with the struggles of non-white status in America. “We’re never going to get anywhere just complaining to ourselves,” she said. In response to a student’s question, “What gives you hope?”, Arce said that it was the number of white students in the audience.
Now, I’m not one to pet the egos of privileged white students (I being one of them, of course.) for their social justice efforts, but I agree with Arce. America’s minorities are not going to be able to overhaul oppressive institutions without help from the majority. So white leaders need to habituate themselves in the mechanisms of racial prejudice. That challenge begins with disregarding political correctness, manifested in our widespread sense that “mentioning race [is] a bad thing.” And the white population isn’t going to make any progress until it addresses how white fragility colors their language. White Americans must shake off their fear of the word “black” before the country can move in a more just direction. We need to get comfortable with the realities of the black—not “blehck” or African American—experience in America.
*This quote is not verbatim as I do not have a recording of the event. I did my best to maintain the integrity of her comments.
Trellace Lawrimore is a junior at Georgetown University in the School of Foreign Service, majoring in International Political Economy. She has an extraordinary mother. (Pictured here on the left with mom and younger sister.)
You might also enjoy these pieces on Race in America:
I ask myself this question whenever I am faced with difficulty or conflict. The answer I give points to where my control lies.
Here lately, I’ve been asking myself the question, “What part of eliminating racism is my responsibility?” As a result of this self-evaluation, I am developing the following habits.
Those are just a few of the things I do in my life to help make a difference in the race problem in America. Here’s what I don’t do. I don’t list things African American people can or should do differently to reduce racial tension. As a white woman married to a white man and the mother of three white children, I really can’t participate in this method of eliminating racism. I just can’t.
So I do what I can do, what I should do, the things that fall within my scope of responsibility. What about you? What do you do to help eliminate racism?
But I believe that if we are to find real solutions to racial tension in America, we must find ways to bridge the distance between opposing views. It seems to me that one way to do that is to identify a point where we all agree. Let’s take the Ferguson situation. There are a number of facts in this case that few would dispute. Here are a few of them.
Agree? Okay. Now, while we are all on common ground, let me make one more statement that I don’t believe anyone will contest.
So let’s just start there. What can we do to see that all the baby Michael Browns grow up to become the men we all want them to be? Well that depends on who you are. But let’s say you are a person of a different race not directly connected to the baby. Here are a few things that might make a difference.
What else? How can you be a part of the solution?
So far, I know my posts about Race in America have been one-sided. In truth, I know many more African American people than I do police officers. Indeed, even most of the police officers I know are African American. Because I want so much to be a part of discussions that lead to solutions, I'd like very much to hear from police officers and other law enforcement professionals. Would you share this with those you know who fit that description? I'll be compiling the information an presenting my findings in an upcoming blog post.
Thanks so much for your help!
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“What’s that,” he said, adjusting his Jansport® backpack. Nathaniel, a first semester community college student, had a solid A in my class due to his impeccable study habits and his professional approach to college. That day, he looked no different than he had every other time I’d seen him—like a stereotypical Ivy League co-ed: short hair, styled fashionably; wire-rimmed glasses; starched button-down shirt; dark blue jeans with a leather belt; and dressy shoes--Sperry’s® I think.
The question I had for Nathaniel arose from a conversation I’d had with an acquaintance the previous day. That month in our community, a 19 year old African American man was shot and killed by a police officer. The young man was allegedly breaking and entering, and officers believed he was carrying a gun. (When he was shot, he was in fact unarmed, though he had been carrying a weapon earlier. You can read the full story here.) This shooting death hit close to home: AJ Marion had graduated with my oldest daughter. He’d been a promising football star and by all accounts, just a really nice guy. Undoubtedly, he’d made some poor choices along the way; most assumed though, that he’d right himself sooner rather than later.
Anyway, I’d seen a mom I knew from my kids’ elementary school days. Her son was about the same age as my kids; I asked if he’d been friends with AJ. She explained that indeed her family and AJ’s were connected through church and family ties and that they were all shocked and devastated.
We talked for a while about the prevalence of police shootings of African American men and then she said, “Oh yeah, I tell my son that if I ever catch him out without his id, I’ll take him into the police station myself.”
Huh? “Um, say what now?”
She repeated herself, but it didn’t help. I had no idea what she meant.
“You don’t make sure your son has his id when he goes out?” she asked me.
“Well, I mean, I tell him not to drive without his license if that’s what you mean.”
“No. What I mean is a police officer can detain anyone and ask for identification. If you don’t have your id, they can take you in for questioning.”
“Absolutely. So I just randomly ask my son for his id just to make sure he always has it with him,” she laughed a little cuz-I’m-the-mama-that’s-why laugh.
“Oh my gosh. I had no idea,” I said, as realization dawned. “I guess I didn’t have to know though. My son is white.”
She nodded. “Mothers of African American boys live in fear of our sons being wrongly accused or worse.”
Heartbreaking. Unbelievable. And in 21st century USA.
I thought of my student Nathaniel. Could this be his reality as well?
“It’s a nosy question, Nathaniel, so feel free to tell me to get out of your business.”
“Sure Ms. Aileen, what’s up?” (Despite the fact that I invite my students to call me by my first name, Nathaniel never did, opting for a title he deemed more respectful.)
“Have you been stopped by police and asked for your id?”
He laughed, “Today?”
“Ms. Aileen, I’m stopped several times a week, sometimes every day. I get stopped walking from my car or downtown. I’ve even been stopped walking away from this campus. If I have a ball cap or hoodie on, I know I’ll be stopped.” He patted the pocket of his designer jeans. “Got my id right here.”
“This is outrageous!” I said, “How do you not stay furious every single day?”
“Oh, I used to,” Nathaniel said, shaking his head. “But it really doesn’t help to get angry about it. I just figure I’ll keep working on myself, keep going to college, keep moving up, ya know?”
Actually, I didn’t know. I could not imagine how hard it would be to keep a positive attitude while facing such blatant discrimination. “You’re a fine man Nathaniel. I’m so sorry you have to deal with this. I had no idea.”
“Thanks. It’s all good. Gotta go to class. See ya Thursday.”
My son, a 6’3”, 18 year old who regularly wears hoodies and ball caps, has never been stopped by the police. Never.
Nathaniel, a 5’8” twenty something who looks for all the world like a future lawyer, doctor, or banker gets stopped weekly, at least.
It’s not all good. Not even close.
*Nathaniel's name has been changed to protect his identity. I asked my daughter to give me a man's name that sounded like a doctor's name. This is what she chose.Still think racism doesn't really exist? Take a look at this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ti5ZFmglzV4 Want to know how big the problem is? Then watch this video: http://youtu.be/tkpUyB2xgTM
Please welcome guest blogger Rev. Dr. Jim McCoy of First Baptist Church of Weaverville. In this month's letter to the congregation, Dr. McCoy reflects on recent events, both national and local. I was challenged by his words and asked if I could share them with you here. Be blessed.
Dear Loved Ones,
Two high profile funeral services were held this past weekend. On Sunday, a congregation gathered at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Rochester,New Hampshire for the funeral service of James Foley, the photojournalist who was murdered by radical extremists from a group called ISIS. On Monday at the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, another congregation gathered for the funeral of Michael Brown, the teenager shot and killed by a police officer under disturbing circumstances that are still under investigation.
Given the fury of the events themselves plus the bright glare of a 24 / 7 media, the funeral services provided not only some much-needed context but also profound insights into what these agonizing events mean. The Bishop who preached at James Foley’s funeral reminded his parents of the blessings they received at their eldest son’s baptism, and how the priest at that time had prayed that they would “see hope of eternal life shine on this child.” Then the Bishop told Diane and John Foley, “Rarely do we recall those words, but I bring them to mind for you, as they are more poignant and prophetic.” Imagine that – the remembered vows and promises of baptism provide the mooring when, years later, the floods of chaos threaten to overwhelm.
A cousin of Michael Brown said that Michael had told the family that one day the world would know his name. “He did not know he was offering up a divine prophecy,” the cousin stated. “He did not know how his name would be remembered. But we are here today remembering the name of Michael Brown.”
The funerals of these two men also offered direction and challenge on how to move forward. Foley’s photojournalism calls us “to see the world through a different lens” and to “hear the cries [of those suffering in war-torn regions] that are a world away.” Michael Brown’s death in the week before he was to begin college brings to a head a host of long-simmering realities of racial inequities. “We will not accept 3/5 justice,” the family attorney said. “We will demand equal justice.”
There was another momentous event this weekend, one that for me was even more intensely personal. I sat by the bedside of Geneva Cheek and sang hymns shortly before she departed this earthly life. The death of this dear sister in Christ, the blessing of her presence in this church family, and the unshakeable hope that all our lives are woven into the larger story of the Gospel, are a part of the brightest light of all that shines in the darkness. As we prepare for her funeral, Tom Long’s unforgettable words come to mind: A saint has died, and is traveling to God, continuing the baptismal journey toward the hope of the resurrection of the body and God’s promise to make all things new. We have been given the blessed burden of carrying a child of God to the waiting arms of God, singing as we go.
Thanks be to God!