“You can’t plow straight if you keep looking back.” What this Spiritual says in this line is true, and at the same time deceptively problematic. If we do not look back, we cannot know how we got our hands on the plow, in the first place. The path through this seeming dilemma is the oldest strategy of Africana culture. You carry the past within you. Don’t look back. Look within. This is also the meaning of the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Catholic traditions: “When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death…until you come in Glory.” It is also the essential ritual question of every Passover observance: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” “This is the night when the Lord God brought us out of the land of bondage…”
Because we enact our defining moment, over and over and over. And we are renewed and made stronger for the next part of the wilderness wherein we find ourselves journeying. In a late-night conversation filled with anger and anguish and desperation, one of Faulkner’s heroes says, “It is not past…” The crumbling of that white hero’s sense of privilege led him to that anguished cry. But the bone-marrow deep understanding of how we carry our “infinite past” (to use Toni Morrison’s description) as a gift and not as burden is what makes those who accept our African-American roots capable of miracles of survival every day.
Now we stop for a moment in this “journey from can’t to can” (Mari Evans), and we shudder with exhaustion as we do look back, at an entire year (August 9, 2014) since Michael Brown was shot on a street in Ferguson, Missouri, by then-police officer Darren Wilson. Exhaustion. Weariness. Undigested sorrow. Wonderment and worry. More and more young (and not as young) women and men have bled in streets and jail cells, on porches, in cars. And the death of some have been recorded; while the deaths of others have been subjected to the predictable, convoluted and twisted narrative of “inconclusive proof of wrong-doing” – on the part of the one wielding the instrument of death. The cry of the soul is “Why? And how long? And, where are you, Delivering God?”
Keep our hands on the plow? Why?
What do we plant? And what do we hope to harvest?
Will there be any following behind on this path, to be the harvesting promise of our dreams?
And then I hear the singing: “I know my wings are gonna fit me well/ I tried them on at the gates of Hell.”
So. We crawl and moan and mourn. And then we breathe the air sent to us by our ancestors. And the twisted limbs and wounded hearts and crippled hands push at the wall and we begin to lift up our eyes.
And what do we see?
The children marching, and chanting and clicking and typing and recording and becoming the flesh-and-blood drums and grapevine of this space and time. For them the prayer services and the “peaceful protests” and the marches were angry, focused and unrelenting. More than at almost any time in our American story of racial oppression and cultural domination, the collective power to define the terms shifted; plucked from the lips of the predictable purveyors of power, the words that mattered flew from the mouths of the children.
For as long as there have been photographs, there have been records of lynchings and riots and other acts of domestic terrorism. Justified by the laws that protected the inheritors of power, those who murderously rushed into the streets of East St. Louis and Springfield, and Atlanta and Detroit and Tulsa in the early days of the 20th century and who continue on today, cloaked and disguised in costumes of respectability, have now been confronted across the generations by the children who hold up their cameras and telephones and demand that the contemporary patrollers and vigilantes and ad hoc militia be seen for what they are and have always been.
Bob Moses, the quiet, determined, grace-filled sojourner for justice, once said that United States history was written by the children and young adults who were known as “runaways.” One of the enduring themes of the documents called “slave narratives” is that once the writer/subject learned to read and write, a strategy for self-liberation was quickly formed. These actual “liberation narratives” were published to speed the process of liberation of the thousands of others, left behind the veil. Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Henry Bibb, and so many others could not rest until every effort and every possible resource was put into the freeing of this nation. No one could be a better face for this than Harriet Tubman. Her return journeys to bring more and more from the wilderness to the oases of freedom were followed by her service as a true “soldier of the Cross” as she actively fought in the Civil War.
That “Moses of her people” and the Moses of Mississippi in the 1960’s put themselves into the middle of the host of those who began to wade in the very troubled water. What Robert Hayden said of Tubman, we hear in the full-throated cry of our young today: “Rises from their anguish and their power….Mean mean mean to be free.” (Hayden, “Runagate Runagate”)
In the valley, where there is darkness, on the mountain top where there is fire and smoke; in the intersections of Ferguson, Cleveland, Cincinnati, or Baltimore, where there are all of those conditions – there are our children. So on the exact year-anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, the blessing and charge has to be invoked by all of us who have been in the storm so long: we must do more than weep and worry. We must see in the young of this moment, the reincarnation of those who wrestled control of slave ships; of those who slipped through brambles and water and wilderness; of those who returned to be a Joshua of their moment. And we must see -- and tell them -- that they are the light shining in this darkness. Fighting every battle on their behalf we must demand that their lives be seen as the most precious “bread from heaven” ever given to a wandering, desert people. We fight to protect them. We struggle to understand them. We gift them with our protection if possible, and with our gratitude in every possible circumstance. They have been raised up as answers to our prayers.
The most wonderful of poets, Gwendolyn Brooks said this:
“In the precincts of a nightmare all contrary
wild thick scenery subdue.” (To Disembark, “Another Preachment to Blacks", p. 60)
And she also said this, and we all bear witness:
"It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud.
Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.“ (“The Second Sermon on the Warpland”)
So, precious gifts, one and all, hold on.