Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nunc Dimittis

Nunc Dimittis
“…Whose Name was Simeon”
Luke 2:25-35

Smelling the smoke
                                   he sat leaning
on his stick     no more children     he prayed
enough of the squalling   the rancid odors
the stumbling  nagging parents
                                                     asking God
for what
                  he wondered
sin-free lungs    food   more cloths to cover
withered legs   and dangling useless arms

         more children  only break
the silence   the heart   the hope
leaning on his stick
                                   he feels the air
cool from the outside
sudden   still   shimmering  light
not only from the greening bronze
doors pushed wider
                                    She walks
past him    nearly
                                no more than a child
who will not cry
                                    Oh   how at
last   have you found me
                                             God I threw
away    when all my little hopes
had been buried

He sits in the cloud of dark
                  and she waits

And he says

Give him to us

we will feed
                       and feed

and feed

-- Luke 

 21 December 2014

Sunday, August 31, 2014

"Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down"

Out of the depths I call to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my cry!
May your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.
I wait for the Lord,
my soul waits
and I hope for his word.
My soul looks for the Lord
more than sentinels for daybreak.
More than sentinels for daybreak,
let Israel hope in the Lord,
For with the Lord is mercy,
with him is plenteous redemption…” [Psalm 130: 1-2, 6-7]

And the Psalm continues the act of radical faith by proclaiming over and over that God will hear, God will forgive; God will save.  And in this summer of 2014, yet again:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
and she refused to be comforted,
because they were no more. (Jer. 31:15; Matt. 2:18)

The mother of Oscar Grant, the young man killed at Fruitvale Station, Oakland, California, in 2009, writes to the mother of Michael Brown, the manchild killed in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. Attending to Michael Brown’s mother is the mother of Trayvon Martin, the child killed in Sanford, Florida in 2012.  The old song says, “Mary don’t you weep/ Martha don’t you mourn…”

But we have no one’s permission to tell the mothers of sorrow when and how to grieve their sons. We can only say, "For as long as your heart is full, we are with you."

And also weeping: the grandmother of Kajieme Powell, who was 25 years old, when he was killed, “holding a steak knife” in front of a convenience store in north St. Louis, on August 19, 2014.

And the parents of Gregory Towns, who, on April 11, 2014, in East Point, Georgia, died after police shocked him with a Taser as many as 13 times because he said he was too tired to walk, due to a foot chase.

And those who are weeping over Ezell Ford, of Los Angeles, John Crawford, of Beavercreek, Ohio, and Eric Garner, of Staten Island, New York.

And the children of Rachel are male and female,
 created in the image of God,
 reflecting the beauty of our people.
 All unarmed, all killed by police officers:

Tarika Wilson, 26 (Lima, Ohio); Aiyana Jones, 7 (Detroit, Michigan); Miriam Carey, 34 (Washington, D.C.); Shereese Francis, 30 (Queens, New York); Shantel Davis, 23 (Brooklyn, New York); Sharmel Edwards, 49 (Las Vegas, Nevada); Rekia Boyd, 22 (Chicago, Illinois) Tyisha Miller, 19 (Riverside, California) Yvette Smith, 47 (Bastrop, Texas). [Compiled by Khadijah Costley White, Assistant Professor, Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick]

Let us be truly attentive. For if we do not hold on to this act of radical faith, then our children are dead. Finally dead. Simply dead. And we do not have their permission to leave them unfinished and defamed.  Their names shall not be “scandalized.”

A meditation that might be useful is to consider that when Abel offered a sacrifice pleasing to God, his brother, Cain, grew increasingly angry.  What is often overlooked in this story (Genesis 4: 2 – 16) is that God spoke directly to Cain and said: “Why are you angry and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Cain would not listen to God. Inviting his brother into the country, Cain slew his brother Abel. When God confronted him, asking where Abel was, Cain said, “I do not know, am I my brother’s keeper?”

God indeed did place a mark on Cain – but not a mark of “blackness” as the proponents of racism have maintained for centuries. God marked Cain with a sign that would prohibit others from slaying him. Abel, the innocent, beloved of God, was killed by his brother. And Cain was forgiven. And the world saw that sign.

Today, do we need to pray over the signs that protect those who would kill their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters? We hear the dying gasps of the children, the weeping and mourning of the fathers and mothers, the grandmothers and grandfathers, the children of the slain. And we wonder. We wonder.
Is the mark of Cain today, the police uniform, the badge, and the riot gear? And just what do they protect? And whom do they serve? Those who are captured by their own fears? Their own nakedness? Their own doubts? How deep the source, how thick the wall that must be maintained at all costs – and from the beginning to now, how do we reckon the price, the worth of a child of God?

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” James Baldwin

For every generation of those who are determined to hold on to something larger and stronger than the dark abyss -- otherwise known as the Valley of the Shadow of Death – there has been a song.  The assembly of those who crawled out of the cabins or who slipped away to the hush harbors or who gathered in the yards and kitchens of the grief-stricken, told one another to look for something to cling to:

And today, in the language of the harrowed heart, some of the young are finding out the wisdom of the people:  find your song and bring others within the sound of your voice to the truth you and they will need. 

This is one voice -- among many others -- emerging from the silence after the whirlwind. And he says it is “we” who sing.

J Cole: “LIFE HITS. We become distracted. We become numb. I became numb. But not anymore. That coulda been me, easily. It could have been my best friend. I’m tired of being desensitized to the murder of black men. I don’t give a fuck if it’s by police or peers. This shit is not normal.

I made a song. This is how we feel.”

Once a song runs through the body, the spirit awakens. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

“Deep River…My Home is Over Jordan”

An article in the New York Times for July 7, 2014, dealing with the “surge in unaccompanied minors” across the southern borders of the United States, refers to a law against human trafficking, overwhelmingly passed by both houses of the U. S. Congress in 2008.  The law is called, the “William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008.” 


Another NYT article presents another context for the “surge” in fleeing towards the U. S. borders -- the epidemic of children being killed by gang-generated violence in Central American countries.


The countries that are the focus of this – and most of the -- reporting are El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. 

Each article, each television commentary, each opinion piece that I have read about this wave of sorrow, at one point or another, will creep into a discussion on whether this phenomenon is a crisis of immigration or an humanitarian crisis. My small mind is reduced to an even smaller space when I am confronted with the pictures, the stories, the “noise” that is being generated. My perennial question surfaces, “Who defines the terms by which we live?”  And I would speak that question for the children. But our failure in our long-standing tradition of collective denial has silenced that question throughout whatever it is that we call American history.  Who spoke for the hundreds of thousands of children – children the same age as these suffering migrant children – who were culled from the villages of Africa and harvested for the centuries of transatlantic enslavement?  Who spoke for the children who ran – and Frederick Douglass was a teenager when he ran – from the unutterable cruelty and abuse of domestic slavery?  Who spoke for the Mayan and Aztec and Lakota and Algonquin and Shoshone and Mississippi and Seminole children who crawled out of the woods to see their parents, grandparents and siblings slaughtered by the purveyors of “Manifest Destiny”?

Who defines the terms by which we, by which they, live?

When U. S. military went into Central America years before the Civil War; when much debate in Washington at one time focused on how to invade Caribbean countries for the expansion of slavery; when drugs and guns infested the inner cities; when gangs in Chicago and Detroit and Atlanta and Los Angeles and Houston threaten the same generation of children on this side of the border as are walking northward – then who is defining any term, in any language, that would lift up the children and say, “We stand indicted by our own hypocrisy.” Let not the judgement stand that we do not value the lives of children, anywhere. Not in Nigeria, not in Bangladesh. Not in Chicago, not in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, clear (and, perhaps, surprising) injunctions about tithing are set down (Deut. 25:19 -- 26:15). Setting aside the first fruits of the harvest, the Israelites were to distribute the produce among the Levites (the priests of the temple); the aliens, the orphans and the widows, “so that they may eat their fill within your towns.”  So that they may eat their fill within your towns.  How radically apt is that commandment, especially for the children who are hungry and frightened and orphaned and abused and sexually assaulted all along their flight from home. Much of the hunger is due to those who appropriated their land for the diets of the industrialized north. Much of their fear of assault and death flows from the behaviors of those who scramble in the dung heap of drugs that feed the addictions of the civilized, prosperous nations in control of the resources of the planet.  Our children are aliens in their own home land. Other children, even more brutalized, more abandoned to the engines of death, are meeting them in this desert in which we wander.

Who defines the terms? And how do we live?

The sin about which the Israelites were warned by Moses was of profound importance to all of us who are narcotized by denial. “Do not forget.”  Nowhere is it more clearly articulated than in Exodus and Leviticus. It seems a compulsion of mine to repeat these verses, over and over and over. It is the foundation stone for every act of liberation that we can exercise:

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” [Exodus 22: 21-24] 

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” [Leviticus 19:33]

The sin is to forget.

The sin that today infects so many of our souls, I think, is to deny that we ever knew. But some of us are part of the unbroken story, the unending song: 

Of course, James Baldwin understood sin, and the price one paid when one chooses denial. But he also speaks, prophesies about salvation:

Salvation is as real, as mighty, and as impersonal as the rain, and it is yet as private as the rain in one’s face.  It is never accomplished; it is to be reaffirmed every day and every hour. There is absolutely no salvation without love: this is the wheel in the middle of the wheel. Salvation does not divide. Salvation connects, so that one sees oneself in others and others in oneself…It is a mighty fortress, even in the teeth of ruin or at the gates of death. It protects one from nothing except one thing: one will never curse God or man. [“To Crush a Serpent”, in James Baldwin: The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, edited by Randall Kenan, p.203]

We do not dare trample the children as if we and they are not the same. We define the terms by which they live. Or do not live. And they define us, when they stare at us and cry.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

“Little David, Play on Your Harp”

Learning to listen to the radical hope embedded in the Spirituals we discover that long before theorists in Communications Studies drew the contours of the field of “performance studies”, the Old Folks (known hereafter as the “Old Folks”) had been hard at work, telling each other that the sacraments of salvation had much to do with acting out the reality they believed was not only possible but necessary for their continuance as human beings and their transcendence out of enslavement. 

When we refresh our memory of the Kongo Cosmogram as it has been taught to us by (most notably) Robert Farris Thompson, we are humbled by the spiritual genius that gave them a strategy for becoming the ancestors of themselves – replacing the ancestors erased from the circle by the devastating disconnect of transatlantic enslavement.
The place on the circle where midnight is located is also the place where the “living dead” the ancestors reside. People always “knew where they stood”, where their cultural foundation could be found. Going into the burial ground, singing praise songs, presenting gifts of bread and wine, asking for guidance, protection and confirmation, the people taught their children what the elders and ancestors had taught them: No one is dead as long as you can sing their names and tell their stories.

And the dislocation of the slave trade erased that surety, that comfort, that coherence.  The “bottom was taken away from them.” They no longer had ground to stand on. When it was their transition time, where would they go? Who would welcome them? Meaning had been forever corrupted. And who could they call upon in times of confusion? Upon whom could they rely to provide them the texts from which they could draw the lessons needed for righteous and generous living? Losing the place of the ancestors was as traumatic as any other aspect of racial enslavement.

So they became the ancestors they and their children needed. When they chose to survive, “strangers in a strange land,” they placed themselves upon the altar of sacrifice – the alien earth that could not whisper to them – and offered themselves to be the past from which wisdom could be harvested.  Once they learned the names of the new God and the new heroes of that God’s faith, they appropriated their identities, their communal functions and their power to make things happen (the “ashÄ—”, as RFT describes it).  It should be no surprise, therefore, that Moses and Elijah and Ezekiel and Joshua and Daniel and David and Mary and Martha and John; and Sweet Little Jesus Boy and his mother, Mary; and Jacob’s angels are all called into service by these wonder-workers.

What those Bible Folks did, what they “stood for” is something “we need in our lives, right here and now,” the Old Folks decided. So they tried to be what they read and heard about and made songs to make that appropriation as thorough as possible. And then they performed a grand discernment of spirits. If they saw someone with a certain gift useful to the community, they anointed that person with the name of power. No one better exemplifies this dynamic than Harriet Tubman, who we are often told was called “the Moses of her people.” It might be time to clarify that title:  was called “Moses” by her people. Any mother who survived childbirth could have been soothed by “Mary had a little baby, born in Bethlehem/ and just as soon as that baby cried/ She rocked him in a weary land…” Or “Go Mary, Ring them bells…I heard from Heaven today.”  Or, most importantly, “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”

But at the season of remembering the anniversary of the U. S. Supreme Court decision, in 1954, of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, it is the David of the Spirituals who hums in our heads. [Paul Robeson:]

The long, long struggle to bring the quest of freedom through literacy into the 20th century was fought by one generation after another.  The apartheid of Jim Crow segregation began in the United States, long before it was exported into South Africa. The energy utilized to keep a people chained in ignorance was a tragic waste of human gifts, for all concerned. The savagery inflicted on those who fed their hunger for knowledge was relentless, all-encompassing and did as much --  if not more – damage to the perpetrators of the ever-failing strategy to withhold literacy from those who lived out what Douglass discovered: that which some most feared, others most desired. And when the post-Civil War emancipators filled the legislative halls and established public schools for the formerly excluded, black and white, the South was transformed as thoroughly as was the “West” by the Homestead benefits.

Leftover learning, discarded texts, inadequate resources were piled up as barriers to success. The integrity of the minds of black folks was unassailable, though. The Old Folks kept singing more and more Little David’s into existence. From Du Bois to Booker T; from Anna Julia Cooper to Countee Cullen to James Weldon Johnson to Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley; to Langston Hughes and  Paul Robeson and Zora Hurston: the brightest of the bright got into the school-room, the library, the church hall, the universities. Whenever they found a giant standing in their way, they hurled a stone word across the chasm. And the threatening giants and the walls began to tremble and eventually come tumbling down.

So what has happened to us all?  The ancestors who made the circle whole again, by becoming the Joshuas and Esthers and Daniels and Hagars and Elijahs and Marys needed to restructure the circle of our survival: where are they remembered? Their lives, if mentioned, are reduced to postage stamps, calendar inserts or voiceovers for public service announcements. The songs are wrapped in muslin and kept on the shelves, often not gently circulated at family gatherings. Far too often there are no family gatherings where a song of hope can be chanted.  Separate and unequal is the description of our public schools.  The chasm of disparity is widened by lack of jobs, lack of intact families; increasing over-reliance on medicating the youngest of our children because of perceived and annotated “behavior problems”; the reliance on property taxes to fund our school systems. The forest of alienation grown deep these last four decades separates the “haves” from the “don’t deserves”. 

And the victims are blemished by a mark far worse than that imprinted on the brow of Cain. He, after all, was marked so that none would murder him, in retaliation for his murderous rage. Today, those who are marked and obligated to wander farther and farther away from their dreams often do not know that they have been signed in failure and washed in despair.

But the need is still there. It never disappears. And the sounds the Old Folks murmured, shouted and moaned linger still in the air we breathe.  Little children, such as Linda Brown, in Topeka, Kansas (1954), and Sylvia Mendez, in Orange County, California (1946), were the elder siblings to the teenagers who constituted the “Little Rock Nine” (1957), and to Ruby Bridges (1960; the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South) and the bewildered, trusting and courageous children of Maryland, North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee. Virginia, and the unnumbered legion who started on down the path to today.

No matter how many times the same soul-stealers – in whatever guise they assume – come into the places where we dwell, to hold our dreams hostage, just that many times – and one or two more, for necessity – are we obligated to grab whatever we have been given, or whatever we could quickly grab, and hurl defiance and re-commitment at the shadowy demons who tell us our efforts will not change. We cannot sacrifice our children to ignorance, abuse, neglect and denial. Too many of our sons and daughters are put into the solitary confinement that suffocates their imaginations. [A recent survey of the reestablishment of segregated schools, the UCLA Report is of great help:]

The Old Folks made a way out of no way. We are the Old Folks for the children being born to us today. And we need a resurrection of our minds and souls and bodies, so that we can shape those who will have to lead us, once again, through deep rivers, be they the Red Sea, the Jordan or floods that seek to wipe away the roads we trod.

What was true then is true now: we have to see beyond: There ain’t no grave that can hold my body down.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"To See What the End Will Be..."

(In honor of Sr. Eva Regina Martin, SSF, 1939-2014)

They told the first one
                                             and then
year after year another   no   until
the house was built  the clothes were
stitched   the old castaways  and the invisible
babies were fed  and soothed

and then
                   there were enough faces to form
a choir of hope   healing their own hearts   they
twisted scorn into praise
                                                and then
dispossessed into the wilderness
they planted  harvested  and shared among
the restless wandering spirits
a little light   a little music   and
little by little
                            the world found them
and then   they all said   yes

                                              it was how
she walked up the path
                                             mother prayers
grandmother secrets    the dreams
of babies had been rolled up carefully
in remnants from the quilts    packed
into the satchel
                               she dragged along

                   touching   holding  more
tightly  the very ones most afraid
                                                               the world
became a festival of heroes   where not
even dreams could root

But when the lightning flashed that summer morning
And the corrupted sermon that had long silenced
The mother-wisdom and ways of her house
came hurtling back the air
                                                  she screamed
her loss
                 another old woman
                                                       (placed there
I know   by the one who refused English to ever
touch her  teeth)
                                 said, “But you learned it all
any way you could"

The satchel

once again
                     went away
                                            and came back
overflowing for our feast

Was she conjure woman?
No one
                knew how  deep her eyes
could see

the    yes   that was merely static
in the streets
                          spoke loudly in
iron  stone  remnants  beads  and   feathers
and whispers never failed to satisfy

and now it is our   no   that we know

fallen to the floor
                                 we demanded the miracle
that exhausted her
                                      at the last

And  no   was prayed and sung and caressed
in the vigil of those weeping before the tomb
was readied


the first one
flung the light
and dissolved the shadowed room
her hand    she said    now
and the gentle sister of us all




9 April 2014

Sr. Mary Eva Regina Martin, SSF.Born in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, in 1939.  Entered the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family on September 8, 1959, professed First Vows on August 15, 1962, and Perpetual Vows August 15, 1967. Masters in Black Theology from Xavier University. Doctorate in African American Studies from Temple University (1994).  Educator and Administrator of Catholic schools in Louisiana and Texas. Curator, Archivist, Consultant.  Sr. Eva Regina was elected to leadership in her Community and served as a General Councilor, Vicar General, and succumbed to death, April 7, 2014, while presiding in office as Congregational Leader.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

"Sometimes It Causes Me to Tremble"

When we gathered in the conference room we were bringing pocket crumbs of hope. Or maybe we were bringing a loaf each; or a small fish – hoping for someone to transform our fragmented and tightly squeezed dreams into a full meal. The great-souled artist brought a blocked-out quilt presenting the panorama are eyes hungered for: East St. Louis. July, 1917. Mass graves. Ida B. Wells. Du Bois. Garvey. Daisy Westbrook. Survivors with burn scars and amputations. News accounts leveling the blame squarely on the perpetrators.  The woman who refuses to let all our journeys from “can’t to can” be forgotten, flung her bag of possibilities into our minds like grains of wheat. The man who led the rescue of the books, the papers, the memories of our childhood learning was wheeled into the circle to remind us that the past is never past. The veteran teacher who still reads something new every day and challenges all of us to speak and teach and write with the eloquence which is our communal charge. The man who has spent a life praying and working for justice brought his steadfastness as a balm. Young professors who accepted a call to gather the reflections of their peers and explain to us all what we may have never really known – or admitted. The woman who was slain in the spirit of the stories she found and flashed them on the screen carries the pictures of indomitable stubbornness and grace from one side of the country to the other. Oh, and there was the no-longer little boy who heard his old folks say, often, “Yes. It was terrible. We hid people under our porch.”  His haunting also needed to be freed, released.

Anecdotes and snippets of genealogy worked to get us to the table, better than any security guard at a metal detector.  “Who are your people? Who were your teachers? Why do you still care about this city?” These are the East St. Louis identifications that are conducted at almost every gathering. Quietly and politely, but carrying significance nevertheless.  The man entrusted to be the steward of the city was the prayer he called for, to start the meeting. Because he knows the story has to be told in multiple layers, multiple rhythms and multiple tongues he said, “It must be so. It must be right.” And we sat ourselves down to the task. Even those like the griot and the judge, who could not attend, hovered in the room.

Oh, the story has never been told. For at least an entire year back then, the unrest in East St. Louis simmered, bubbled and flared up, repeatedly. From the meat-packing plant workers in 1916, to the laborers at the Aluminum Ore Company in in the late spring and early summer of 1917, the elements were being assembled. The factors affecting what would be called the “Race Riot of 1917” seem frighteningly familiar to us, today. Fear of gun-carrying “interlopers”; accusations of waves of scab laborers and an influx of “colonized” black voters to rig elections in favor of Republicans (the political party favored by many African Americans of that era).  Hysteria was ramped up and seemed as pervasive as the influenza outbreaks that would cripple the U. S. just months later.
So, white citizens stocked up on firearms. Politicians engineered more and more restrictive and intrusive schemes to limit the ability of African Americans to vote in local elections. Trains were met by mobs. Black workers were taunted as they entered and left the workplace. Any suspicion was elevated to fact.

Every doubt was transformed into certainty:  the city must remain white and the Negroes must be forced to leave.
Those gathered in the room with the windows showing the late morning rainstorm knew that finally, if the city were to be honored for surviving relentless efforts of social, political and economic eradication, there had to be a healing of the land and a healing of the memories. How does a city survive 100 years of post-traumatic stress? By dressing with elegance; by conjuring up acolytes to trumpet-playing Gabriel himself. By teaching every child as if that girl, that boy, can someday advance medicine, negotiate treaties, make words slap the ears and the hearts with intensity and truth. By telling the world that, yes, we were there; yes, when we even tiptoe near the story of that awful time in July, it causes us to tremble, tremble; tremble.  By preaching – sometimes, even, by words – and reminding one another and total strangers standing on the corner of 25th and State -- that “We are here not to be the failures that everybody expects, but to be the harvest that everybody needs."

Around the room the ideas flew into the air like hummingbirds.  Overlapping call-and-response was a much better guide than Roberts’ Rules of Order. But no one was disrespectful – after all, we had a mayor, two ministers and several legendary teachers on site and in sight. Several times, the recognition moment occurred. Yes. That is exactly what “I/We” have been saying for 5, 10, 20 years.

No one disappears as long as their prayers linger in our souls.

But the questions that have surfaced are these: Will we be commemorating the riots (massacre, lynching, terrorism) so that we may finally begin to know enough to heal the land and restless souls? Will the commemoration in 2017 be a turning point in the life of the city, one that will be good for those who remained, who survived, who grew into magnificence? Or will the events actually do more to prepare the city for an influx of people for whom history is an inconvenience at best, or a nuisance at worst?  In the Sunday, April 6 edition of the New York Times there are two stories that attach to these questions. One, a photo essay about reconciliation in Rwanda is compelling and humbling. Some of the perpetrators of the violence sought out some of their direct victims and asked for pardon. []  Both perpetrator and victim are pictured, close to each other; looking at the camera, formally posed, they ask the viewer: “Can you step where we stand?”  

That will be a question for all those whose souls still tremble when they realize that parts of them are “still there” where ancestors were crucified and where ancestors carried out the killing. The other NYT entry reports on the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, to be opened in 2017, and which has already done much collecting of artifacts and spirit-filled texts concerning the bloody history of that state, of those people. [] The Museum is under the control of the State of Mississippi and many of the survivors and relatives of those who perished are of mixed minds about the eventual story that will be told, and about who will control the telling. But they, too – like the men and women of Rwanda who have walked to the place of forgiveness – say that they cannot live – perpetrator and victim, both – unless the truly liberating story is told. And then, just maybe, the song will heal us all. []

Let us pray. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

"Run, Mary, Run, I Say..."

In the great meditation on community, isolation, and the grief and madness that springs from nearly unbearable suffering that is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the character of “Amy Denver of Boston” appears. In the woods, at the point when Sethe is most desperate to rejoin her sent-along children across the Ohio River: 

“On a riverbank in the cool of a summer evening two women struggled under a shower of silvery blue.  They never expected to see each other again in this world and at the moment couldn’t care less.  But there on a summer night surrounded by bluefern they did something together appropriately and well. A pateroller passing would have sniggered to see two throw-away people, two lawless outlaws – a slave and a barefoot whitewoman with unpinned hair – wrapping a ten-minute-old baby in the rags they wore.  But no pateroller came and no preacher. There was nothing to disturb them at their work. So they did it appropriately and well.” (Morrison, Beloved, 84)

Some of the particulars must be changed in order to adapt this story to the present moment. “Two throw-away people” can remain. The shared responsibility of bringing a child to life in the most desperate of environments can also remain – with some adjustments -- in the telling of this story.  We might even keep the “rags they wore” as a variation on the swaddling clothes of Jesus in the manger – even though in Sethe’s story, it is an abandoned rowboat in a river’s cove. In the variation that will be sung here, it is a 4th floor set of offices at a school that was as determined to thwart a birth and hinder throw-away people as thoroughly as could have been attributed to the forces of humiliation and indifference that infect the air of Morrison’s novel.

My mother prayed me into the job of Director of Black American Studies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.  When I mentioned to her that I had applied for the job (at a school less than 100 miles from her house), she said, “My…I didn’t know that. I guess we’ll have to pray about that.”  When I was not selected for the position, I figured that Mama’s prayers didn’t work. And then the chosen candidate’s negotiations fell apart and I was asked, as the only remaining option, if I were still interested in the job. My mother’s prayers became the challenge. I had to say, yes. It was obvious that I had (from the university’s perspective) answered wrongly. No one involved in my hiring wanted me to say yes. One indignity after another accumulated to choke my integrity. But my mother said it would be so; and in August of 1997 I crossed the river from exile (of being jobless in New Orleans) to being isolated near to home.

No budget, no permanent staff. No job security. No academic standing for the program. Quite soon after arriving I hit a thick wall of low morale and confusion among the teaching staff; and tiny acts of sabotage from the temporary clerical workers.  The most well-intentioned veterans in the college’s central office supported me in my efforts to find some permanent solutions to seemingly deep-rooted obstacles. Finding a secretary I could trust became a nearly year-long quest.  The first trustworthy person soon grew tired of the emotional guerilla warfare in which the teaching staff engaged.  And then our “Miss Amy Denver. Of Boston” arrived for a job interview.

At the time she was Ms. Tish (NOT “Patricia” and NOT “Trish”) Emmett.  Within a few years she became herself, returning to the name of Ms. Tish Whitlock. During that interview, it was a foregone conclusion that I was going to hire her. She had a mind for budgets and contracts. She was simply honest. She needed permanency, and she needed consistency. But I soon found out that it wasn’t all that clear that she would “hire” us.  As she told me, soon afterwards, she was worried that she was a white, Baptist woman moving into a nearly all-black workplace, working for a Roman Catholic priest.  She asked her mother, “Suppose I saying something crude? What will his reaction be?”  When she told me this story, she said that she informed her mother, two weeks into the job, “Oh, I don’t have to worry about my language. He’s worse than me.”  (Did I mention, “throw away people”?) As to the issue of cultural comfort, my response to that
concern was to say, “If you can keep the budget in good shape, you will fit into this office quite nicely.”

And then we became family.

She and my mother talked. She brought the greatest gift imaginable to the labor of keeping the academic program on life-support until it could be regulated into a formal department. She brought clarity. She brought honesty. She brought a mystic’s gift of being able to read people.  Early on she asked me if I thought it would be appropriate for her to take classes from each of the faculty in our program. She wanted to know what we did so that she could offer an educated perspective to our deliberations and so that she could challenge students when they had questions or complaints.  She decided that any student we employed (or who showed up with great regularity), either undergraduate or graduate, needed to be successful, professional and a positive reflection on our program. Undergraduate students became graduate students or successful in other careers. Graduate students moved further into academic careers or quickly found employment in their chosen fields. And the visitors were stitched into the quilt also.

Tish spoke truth to power, not ever once knowing that it was her prophetic obligation. A little woman with an immense heart, she could gather people into a circle – or, if need be, put individuals into “their place.” Clarity.
Loyalty to the dream of a first-rate academic center motivated her to learn all she could about Africana Studies and to push faculty, staff and students to levels of accomplishment that reflected well upon the program.

On many occasions when I wondered why I let my mother’s prayers pull me into “trials and tribulations,” Tish Whitlock was there, in the boat, helping to keep the other side of the river clearly in mind. What old song brings its rhythm to this praise letter? “Run Mary, run, I say/ You got a right to the Tree of Life.” The referenced scene from Beloved is about the Underground Railroad. The characters in the scene display the historical truth of socially marginalized people bonding in the effort to bring life where there could be darkness and despair.  All that matters is that those running to a dream, be it the reconstructed family of Baby Suggs in Ohio, or velvet cloth in Boston, help each other for the little time they are together. Getting on to freedom. With clarity.

Tish Whitlock died on the 21st of February, 2014. She worked in the Black American/Africana Studies office for 14 years until she officially retired (in 2011). She and my mother are sitting now, in the shade of the Tree of Life.  And I am the better for their prayers. We all are. ‘Cause we all got a right to the Tree of Life. This version is sung by my dear friends Kim and Reggie Harris. All of their music is worth knowing:

Saturday, January 18, 2014

“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child: for MLK”

“Man has strayed to the far countries of secularism, materialism, sexuality, and racial injustice. His journey has brought a moral and spiritual famine in Western civilization. But it is not too late to return home. Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength To Love (1963; p. 92)

Those of us who would wish to commemorate the life, the struggle, the death – in essence, the reality – of Martin Luther King, Jr., might make a commitment to read more than a few paragraphs of the “I Have a Dream” speech as part of our engaging in any public gathering on either the federal holiday honoring his birth or the day in April when we are confronted by his death.  For far too long we have allowed several generations of young people to become reflexively bored with “MLK Events” and in some measure their (and, truth be told, our) disengagement with the man and the rituals in his honor might be due to a misreading of the usually quoted words in “I Have a Dream.”  If we do not understand the old songs, as has been mentioned before, then we will no longer wish to sing them. If we do not live with all the significant texts and contexts of King’s thought, we risk losing him altogether.

Why did he need to dream, and why did he need to exhort others to dream on that day in 1963? The speech is constructed as a model of black ritual. The great black sermonic tradition produces texts that are often conservative; simultaneously comforting and challenging; and effective in capturing the imagination of the listeners into seeing hope where previously there had been only the “shadow of the valley of death.” Beginning with marking the place where his congregation was gathered as being holy ground -- The Lincoln Monument, the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, the pilgrims becoming the multitudes marching into Zion: King evokes all of these necessary images at the outset of his remarks. And because, in his own wilderness encounter with the cries of the oppressed and crushed, he accepted the call to return to the city and proclaim what he had seen and heard, he uses Pentecostal rhetorical strategies to capture the attention of the entire world – which was listening that day; and since.

With very little warning, we are told that one hundred years after “emancipation,” “the Negro still is not free.”  King lays out his vision of the valley of oppression by enumerating the broken promises of a republic that denies full citizenship to men and women who had (and have) as much claim to the land as any other inhabitants.  He indicts those who use violence, legal manipulations and economic exploitation to maintain privilege over the victims left in the “dark and desolate valley” of segregation and indifference.  But, in keeping with his reflections in Strength To Love, King will not allow the perpetrators of injustice to continue unchecked and he does not allow the victims of oppression to justify taking up the tools of the oppressors:
“But there is something I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred…..Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

Black Theology is liberation theology, grounded in the experience of the believers and confirmed by the truth of scripture.  Martin Luther King, Jr., knows that one must dream, not on the mountain top, not on the “majestic heights”, but in the very basement of darkness and near despair.  “I know my wings are gonna fit me well/ I tried them on at the gates of Hell.”  Identifying with both Jacob’s children enslaved in Egypt and with the heroes like Moses, Joshua, Daniel, and David, those King called “my people” would return to police brutality, mob violence (both daylight public and night-time anonymous) and more years of nearly impregnable resistance to all calls for justice, freedom and respect for human rights.

The universality of King’s vision is rooted in the genius of Black Theology, among other sources. Those who claimed kinship with the Hebrew Children used their voices to become agents of their own liberation and added their voices to the prophetic choir of the Bible.  Needing only the truth of their experience and the power of the Spirit to proclaim the liberating truth of their visions, the elders of the hush harbors did something that receives far too little attention today. Motherless children could nevertheless shout, “True Believer.”  Those who felt that no one could possibly understand the trouble they had seen, nevertheless found deep within them a “Glory, Hallelujah!” to open yet another tomorrow. Those who spent many grief-filled nights abandoned and abused could still taste the banquet they would receive from the Welcome Table. []

But most importantly, they had the audacious confidence to supply what was lacking in the Covenant Statement of Exodus.  God told the Israelites that they must embrace with compassion, mercy and remembrance all those who are the “widow, the orphan, the stranger” in their midst.  Every time one of the old songs is sung, the singers become the strangers, the orphans, the widows, privileged by the attention of God. “A long ways from home.” A motherless child.”  “Went into the valley and I couldn't hear nobody pray…”  No, they tell us: you will bow down in grief, but you will not be broken by it. You will be called everything but a child of God. But you better live the truth as it has been revealed to you. You “been in the storm so long,” we know. But the Old Ship of Zion has room enough for all.

Use whatever it takes to get your head back up into the air.  Even if it means dreaming that the children of the woman who just spit in your face and called you a nigger will someday clasp your children’s hands in friendship. Dream if you need a reason to walk up the rough side of the mountain; and dream that those who set the dogs upon you in the streets of Birmingham and Macon will someday join you in singing, “Free at Last” because they have found that your freedom brought freedom to their frightened and desiccated souls.

Dream, Martin. Because you had been beaten, imprisoned, shadowed, threatened and slandered – sometimes by those you would call brother and sister. Dream, Martin, because you knew that if you let your soul take flight while you stood high above the crowd, you would find the strength to walk among those who sought to slay the dreamer before too long. Dream, Martin, that those who hear your voice only faintly will find in the stillness after the storm they must endure, the hope that is built on the truth. I only feel like a motherless child…sometimes. Sometimes I feel like I can go on.  And do.

Martin Luther King, Jr., means nothing to us if we do not understand that, even in his loneliest and most isolated moment, he knew that he had been the dream of those who long ago had looked over Jordan, and hoped for him. And it was never his dream alone. Can we tell our children we need them to be our dreams? And tell the world that we will never let them be anything less?