Saturday, June 20, 2015

"Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child..."

Charleston, South Carolina.

Too many people have said almost all there is to be said.  Any meditation on the spirituality of Black people in the United States of America must contemplate the scene (as St. Ignatius would advise in the Spiritual Exercises). And what do we see? Mothers and sons; sisters and brothers; preachers and teachers and community elders gather in a circle, making where they sit truly sacred space.  The intuition vibrated in the circle when the grotesquely twisted soul imprisoned in the young white man announced itself to them.

They made room for him. And they composed themselves and shared their faith. This was not a preternaturally wise young boy losing himself in the Temple long ago. This was not a sojourner returned from the wilderness to share the vision that would benefit the people. This was the fire that came to destroy the earth.

Never sent by God.

But the light shone in the darkness. We can see it.  The dead eyes that stare at us in every picture he took of himself was a true “black hole” of the universe sucking in all matter, all light. But this darkness could not quench that light.

It was as much an eternal flame as any ever lit upon this soil.

Starting with the men satiated with and sick from the poison of slavery who gathered, began their song and their march across the Stono river in 1739, a long time ago; to the whispering men who sat in a similar dark circle in 1822 with Denmark, an elder of the church, and decided to yank their lives out of the dehumanizing machine of oppression, knowing the consequences, and just as surely knowing the death that attended them if they did not act; to those who bent the trees and met in secret, always singing, “Come by here…hear the cry, the song, the groaning…Come by here.” 

They built, they forged, they plowed and planted and plotted. Always for the freedom defined from the beginning – the freedom that was the first great assault on the darkness and the void, when the first word was uttered: “Let there be light.”

They knew.

And in song and word and gesture and lives integrally lived, they never doubted that death would push itself into whatever refuges they could construct, no matter how brief or long.

For more years than I can feel, I have returned to the book my father sent me for my birthday. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin makes a statement that has caused me to tremble mightily, trying to make sense with his prophetic certainty while holding on to what Resurrection must mean in my life of struggling faith.  In “Down at the Cross,” he says:  

Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.  It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.  One is responsible to life:  It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us."

But there is something beyond that darkness. If there was not, then I would not be reading and talking to and thanking James Baldwin from my first encounter with his words in 1963, with the evening of conversation we shared in 1983, to this day when I am seeking some rock in a very weary land.  Baldwin is light, for me. All of my ancestors; all of the singing and speaking and thinking voices that I collect on paper and in every other medium; all of the children who tell me, clearly and confidently, just how they intend to own this world when it becomes their inheritance: they are light.

And so are the 9 Slaughtered in Charleston, South Carolina, June 17, 2015. Mr. Tywanza Sanders.  Ms. Cynthia Hurd. Ms. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton.  Ms. DePayne Middleton-Doctor. Ms. Myra Thompson.  Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr. Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney.  Ms. Ethel Lee Lance.  Ms. Susie Jackson.


When they said, “Young man, come and sit with us,” they knew – and on this point no argument is possible – that they were responsible for life. They knew, as surely as any of us can know anything on the level of intuition, that from the beginning of our existence in this place we have earned our death by the lives we have lived.  So their children, and daughters and siblings, and mothers and fathers stood up in the assembly and said, “Young man, you have ruptured our hearts, severed our bonds. You have taken away our loved ones, our heroes. And we forgive you.”

That is the act of complex love that has been just as much a part of our lives and our history as has been the rage that seeks to obliterate whatever is decent, hopeful and redemptive.


And yet the light endures.  Let us, in this struggle to find rest in the storm that seems to be raging over and over and over, let us pray. As our sisters and brothers in Charleston are teaching us to pray. For ourselves; for strength. For those who are sought out by the wolves of chaos and claimed as “sons and daughters of darkness.” For those who teach hate and violence.

For those who show us how to be more than we could ever dream of being. Light. And as such, inheriting that unfathomable strength, we must say it: This madness, this death must stop. This death must stop. Why else do we pray for strength, except to join together to say: “Death you shall not have dominion. We are children of light.”