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.
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?
“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
I’m deeply troubled by the great racial divide in our country. This is not a black thing or a white thing. This is a people thing and we really have to do better.
If I were to trace the problem of race in America, I would go back through Jim Crow laws and legalized discrimination. I would go back before Ruby Bridges and Dred Scott. I’d go back to the end of the Civil War when slaves were set free, homeless and penniless, to live in a world that refused to hire them and rushed to oppress them.
But I would not stop there.
I’d go back to 19th century Charleston, SC where shackled men, women, and children shuffle across the auction block as white landowners place a price on humanity. I’d hear the clanging of chains, the crack of bull whips slashing across tattered flesh, the cries of beloved torn from beloved.
But I’d keep going.
I’d go all the way to the coasts of Africa where 18th century opportunists snatched up human beings and stacked them like cheap cargo on ships bound for American shores. I’d want to look away, knowing as I do that so many of them will die on that trip, their bodies discarded with the galley garbage.
Instead though, I’ll look in the face of this imbecilic, barbarian behavior and say, “Here it is! Right here. This sin will fall from father to son, mother to daughter, through generations. This treating people—people created by God Almighty—as objects in your sick game of immediate self-satisfaction is the very essence of evil.”
Think about it. That wrong, that undeniable injustice, has created a culture of oppression and corresponding mistrust that has characterized race relations in America for millennia.
So what do we do about it?
I don’t know. I really don’t. But I believe we absolutely must do something. In my next few blog posts, I’ll be reflecting upon this issue. Will you join me? I’d love to hear your thoughts as we muddle through the mess we’ve made to find solutions for a more just world.
July 16, 2013
It really, no kidding, could have been my son.
My 17 year old boy, broader than many and taller than most, must seem imposing, threatening even. I know this because a few weeks ago, when my son was in a place he had every right to be, doing something he’d been asked to do by a responsible adult, he raised the hackles of a concerned neighbor (I’ll call that person Watchdog). It was dark, and Watchdog caught sight of my boy and panicked. Rather than going home and calling 911 though, Watchdog approached and confronted my son, warning him to leave the property. Luckily, my husband happened to be with our son that night; he addressed Watchdog, reassuring that all was well.
The next day, Watchdog (who is actually a nice person who seems to have only the best intentions at heart) expressed to the homeowner—the one who had hired my boy in the first place—concern about the events of the previous night. After implying ownership of a firearm, Watchdog then said something like, “This could have turned out very differently, perhaps even tragically.”
It didn’t though. My son wasn’t shot. Watchdog didn’t have a weapon on him at the time, so there’s that. Plus my son is Caucasian, the same ethnicity as Watchdog. And we’ll never know what could have happened that night if circumstances had been different. I can’t help but wonder though.
Consider the findings reported in this video. It’s a clip from the television program What Would You Do with John Quinones. This show creates public scenarios involving moral or ethical issues; hidden video cameras record the reactions of observers. In this clip, two different actors hired by the show attempt to steal a bicycle in a public park. Both men—one Caucasian, one African American—are similarly attired, appearing much like my son would have looked the night Watchdog challenged him.
Here’s what you’ll see when you watch the video. The white male is occasionally questioned, but most people walk by and say nothing. The black male, though? He’s on the verge of being attacked. Witnesses become downright aggressive. People are snapping pictures, taking video, snatching his tools. Are you kidding me? It’s unbelievable. Or it would be, if it were not so frighteningly common.
Racism. It’s pervasive and it's deadly. See, no matter what you think about the recent verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, two things will not be changed: 17 year old student Trayvon Martin will still be dead, and Zimmerman will still be free. What can be changed though, is the mindset that led to this tragedy in the first place. Let’s put ourselves on trial. Let’s ask ourselves convicting questions.
And if we find ourselves guilty on any counts of racism, let’s sentence ourselves to life with a new attitude—an attitude of mercy, love, and grace. Now that’s justice.
. . . and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8 NRSV
You won't find many folk more Southern than I am. I was raised in North Carolina by people who were raised in South Georgia. I say “ y'all” when two or more are gathered; “all y'all” when “y'all” just doesn't seem to be enough. I like hot grits and sweet iced tea. I love the smell of honeysuckle and the sight of white fields of cotton ready for harvest. I greet every person I see; say yes ma'am and no ma'am, yes sir and no sir; and call people I hardly know “honey.” But unlike Brad Paisley, I won't be displaying the Confederate flag on my clothing or otherwise. Ever.
Accidental Racist, a duet by Brad Paisley, a Caucasian country singer and LL Cool J, an African American rapper, makes some great points. The lyrics encourage all of us to get to know individuals instead of judging entire races. Mistakes have been made in this country and the song admits to some of those made between African American and Caucasian citizens. Plus the very fact that these two artists came together on this project, promotes cooperation. All that’s good. Really good.
But then, there’s this.
Paisley sings about the Confederate flag and the misunderstandings and unfair judgments that surround it. He says essentially, “Look, it’s just a symbol of the South. I’m proud to be Southern, I like Southern things (some of which are adorned with the Confederate flag). So don't call me a racist just because I'm sporting this Southern symbol on my clothing or accessories.”
LL Cool J commiserates with Paisley by saying, “Yeah sure, I can look past the flag if you won’t judge my head gear. Deal?”
NO! No Deal!
There is no such thing as “just” a symbol. According to webster.com, a symbol is “something that stands for or suggests something else . . . especially: a visible sign of something invisible.” A visible sign of something invisible? Hmmm. So what is invisible in the symbol of the Confederate flag? Well let’s see. Let me think. Oh yeah. HUMAN BONDAGE! And don't give me that brouhaha, “The Confederacy was formed so Southerners could hold on to their agrarian way of life.” That’s just another way of saying, “The South seceded so they could hold on to their slaves.” Really. The whole agrarian lifestyle of the South was built on the broken backs of humans who were considered property.
But let’s acknowledge that the Confederacy wasn't all bad. Here’s something. Did you know African American Soldiers in the CSA (Confederate States of America) were paid the same as white soldiers? Not so in the Union, where African American soldiers earned roughly half what white guys were paid. And I'm sure during those four years (that’s how long the CSA lasted by the way: roughly 48 months) the South enjoyed an increased sense of community built around a common goal to defeat a common enemy. That’s good.
But get this: there were good things that happened during the Third Reich as well. Unemployment was low. The economy was strong. An entire race was annihilated, but that was only part of the history of the Third Reich. So why don't we see German trinkets emblazoned with the Nazi flag? Because that symbol has become synonymous with the Holocaust, that’s why. It’s offensive: because it’s not just a symbol. It’s a visible reminder of something invisible. It matters.
So if Brad Paisley is really “proud of where [he’s] from but not everything we've done” he should wear the NC flag and adorn himself with pictures of the palmetto tree. Heck, he could drape himself with kudzu. But don't promote the Confederate flag. It represents a travesty that makes proud Southerners ashamed.