When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation, a mission, and a mandate to stand up, to speak up and speak out, and get in the way, get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble [and help redeem the soul of America]. –Congressman John Lewis (February 21, 1940-July 17, 2020).
There seems to be a lot of “hoopla” over the NFL’s decision to have the “Negro National Anthem” sung before every Week 1 game. This holiday weekend is a good to revisit the history of the anthem. Here’s a post I wrote 2.5 years ago about the song. Happy Weekend!
James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938. Poet, novelist, statesman, civil rights leader, lawyer. Artist, Winold Reiss (1886-1953). Pastel on artist board.
The song dubbed “The Black National Anthem” should need no introduction, but I learned last October–moments after I posted an article focused on the University of Florida’s playing the song at the arrival of white supremacists on campus–that many Americans are not familiar with the song. In fact, one (Euro-American) friend uncharacteristically responded by declaring UF’s actions “racist.”
[We’ll save discussion about how that action could not have been “racist” for another time].
My friend’s judgment was based on the title of the article. She had never heard the song.
That surprised me. I’m pretty sure I initially learned the song at the majority white elementary school I attended, so I assumed it was standard for elementary kids in the U.S. Not so, I guess.
So what is the “Black…
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Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.
From its Galveston, Texas origin in 1865, the observance of June 19th as the African American Emancipation Day has spread across the United States and beyond.
Today Juneteenth commemorates African American freedom and emphasizes education and achievement. It is a day, a week, and in some areas a month marked with celebrations, guest speakers, picnics and family gatherings. It is a time for reflection and rejoicing. It is a time for assessment, self-improvement, and for planning the future. Its growing popularity signifies a level of maturity and dignity in America long overdue. In cities across the country, people of all races, nationalities, and religions are joining hands to truthfully acknowledge a period in our history that shaped and continues to influence our society today. Sensitized to the conditions and experiences of others, only then can we make significant and lasting improvements in our society. –from Juneteeth.com
Check out these resources for more information on Juneteenth:
- The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth | National Museum of African American History and Culture
- Google Arts and Culture | Pictorial | The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth by the National Museum of African American History and Culture
- Freedom Songs | YouTube Playlist
- Five Pieces of Juneteenth Art We Adore
- 19 Ways to Celebrate Juneteenth as a Family [written by a former student] 🙂
Have a safe and happy weekend…
Today’s post features a letter to a friend in response to a Facebook post. Initially, I was going to ignore her post, but after much prayer and consideration, I felt obliged to respond. Why here instead of Facebook? Because the views I express in this post require a larger audience than one, and though I would love to share with you all the prettiness and light I’d planned to share last week on the blog, common decency will not allow me to ignore the very present atrocities occurring in the United States. I would ask you to forgive the length, but the original was twice as long.
I want you to know I love you. You are my sister-in-Christ. You are my friend. I hope you will receive this with the love with which it was written.
After a very difficult week, I went on Facebook a few days ago for a bit of mindless respite. At the top of my newsfeed was your post:
Black vs White. Racism needs to stop on both sides. When I look at you I see a person. I am white. I am tired of getting a label because of what some “evil” person did to another. It is an issue of GOOD vs EVIL that we need to be talking about! There are good and bad whites. There are good and bad blacks. I sat in the dirt and played right along with black kids growing up. I am not the same as you, but I am no different. I love me some black people, lots of them. I did not enslave your ancestors either. Someone way back, before I was born did that. I was molested, beaten, slandered and used when I was growing up too. I had to make a choice to move on. I had to make a choice to make it better. Jesus saved my heart. We live in a broken world full of good and evil people. Let us good people get on our knees and pray for the evil ones, the unjust ones, and let’s stop this racism. Jesus said pray for your enemies. If the law is broken someone deserves jail, white or black. These bandwagons and riots to stir everything up aren’t helping the problem to go away. Did you pray about it first? Can we just show some love? Can we just be kind? Pray for the police commissioner when an officer does something wrong. Pray for the judges. Pray for justice, but don’t do it because of black and white, please!! Do it because good is better than evil. Do it because Love is better than hate. –L.K.
On the surface this seems like sound, good counsel. I agree with many of your points. However, it misses the mark in some ways. It fails to realize the complexity of human experience in general and of Black experience in particular. It fails to recognize the unique circumstances of African Americans and all people with brown skin who live in this “land of the free.”
A lot of people misuse the word “racism.” They use it as if it is synonymous with prejudice, but it is not. Racism is “prejudice, bigotry, stereotypes, and discrimination that is systematically enforced by people with more institutional power, authority, and resources than others to the advantage of that group over others” [Patti DeRosa, ChangeWorks Consulting]. To be racist one has to have access to institutional power—the kind of power that affords one the benefits of all the systems in place [almost] without question. The kind of power that presumes one is indeed innocent until proven guilty and is at least entitled to a fair trial. The kind of power that allows one to be treated humanely and even make it to the prison cell alive and not have one’s life weighed in the balance by trigger-happy police officers and emboldened citizens taking “the law” into their hands. Black people can hold prejudices, but we cannot be racist. Why? Simply because we lack access to institutional power. This was the case even when the President of the U.S. was Black.
While it might be a question of good and evil in the spiritual realm, in these United States no matter how good a Black person is, in interactions with “the Law” and in the court of media and society, he or she is considered evil. Indeed, within a few short moments of the revelation of the unequivocal guilt of a white person in the murder of a Black person, media outlets go far and beyond to uncover some stain in the victim’s character or record that serves to justify the brutal murder. In the cases of the murder of Black men, women, children at the hands of white men or the word of white women, too many feel the need to vilify the victim to make the heinous act less villainous.
Have you noticed how the trials of murderers of Black people are entitled against the victim and not the assailant—e.g. the Travon Martin Murder Trial??? As if the dead victim committed the crime and is indeed on trial?
I’m not sure how slavery entered this particular conversation, but since it has, we need to recognize slavery as America’s deep, dark, wide-open secret. We are in this particular situation because [as a nation] we don’t want to go to the place of our original wound and really have the dialogue about the horrors of that system and about its consequences some 155 years after its purported end. The fact of America’s defective past is very much part of its present. It is not, then, that Black people can’t “move beyond” slavery; that horrific past is very much a part of our present in this nation. The abuse Black people suffer did not end with slavery. It is ongoing–continual.
I’m incredibly sorry about the pain and abuse you experienced as a child. That was horrible, but please, please, please be careful not to assume that because the two situations are alike in one way, they are alike in all ways and must be met with the same antidote. This is a logical fallacy, a “false analogy,” to be exact. Private, individual pain—though horrific—cannot compare to 400 years [and counting] of ritualized, systemic abuse of an entire body of people because of the color of their skin.
Imagine experiencing the abuse you suffered as a child every day of your life. Imagine all of your progeny for generation after generation experiencing what you went through every single day because of a genetic trait.
You decry the idea of people making assumptions about you based on the color of your skin. Imagine walking with assumptions every waking minute of your day. Imagine the danger of those assumptions when you are Black in America.
Recent events give many, many examples of the dangers of those assumptions—Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man out for a jog murdered by white men based on an assumption; a white woman using the fact of state-sanctioned murder of Black bodies as a weapon against Christian Cooper, a Black man bird-watching; George Floyd, a Black man smothered to death in plain sight of others by a police officer who was comfortable enough with the status quo that he murdered an already incapacitated man with the same carelessness with which one would swat a fly. No remorse. Whatsoever.
Because of such assumptions, Black people are not safe. No matter where we are—in our homes sleeping like Breonna Taylor or playing video games like Atatiana Jefferson; walking home from the store like Trayvon Martin; driving in our cars like Philando Castile and Sandra Bland; playing as any little boy would with a toy gun like Tamir Rice; sitting in our grandmother’s backyards like Stephon Clark. I’m not sure we’ve ever been safe while sitting in church.
We breathe with the knowledge that someone, somewhere at any moment of the day can decide that we don’t matter, that our lives don’t matter. We. are. not. safe.
While your pain was/is real, it is not the same. At some point, you were able to extricate yourself from your abusive situation. To make a choice. To pray. To heal. To give your family a better, healthier experience. Black people have little to no control over what happens when other people’s racist attitudes and behaviors clash with our will and right to live healthy, whole lives. No matter how good our beautiful sons, daughters, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, nephews, nieces, cousins, friends are, no matter the right choices they make, no matter their prayers, someone can still decide they don’t matter. Their lives don’t matter.
So please be careful, my friend, how you hold the conversation with those of us who are racially oppressed. If you are to be an ally and exercise the kindness and compassion you advocate, be careful to release any inclination to counsel oppressed people on how to respond to oppression.
It seems to be a trend to fling the nice and easy words of Martin Luther King, Jr. into the faces of Black people in times like these. He was far more radical than the pacifist many believe he was. I invite you to look at a fuller selection of his body of work. Riots may not be the answer, but they are what happens when people are in complete despair and have run out of capacity for the overwhelming stress and emotion. All of the exhaustion, anger, sadness, weariness, and powerlessness spill over and there is no other response to the steady blows of trauma. King spoke about that too.
As a Bible-believing, fervent-praying Christian, you will get no disagreement from me about the power of prayer, but I’m compelled to remind you, in the face of injustice, scripture doesn’t tell us to pray. Scripture directs us to act:
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. –Isaiah 1:17
It is because I know Jesus Christ—He who is at once the Lamb of God and the Lion of Judah—that I am compelled to pray and act.
Sympathy and prayer are not enough. Protests are useful but not enough. Termination of the officers is a start but not enough. Arrest of the murderers is a beginning but not nearly enough. It is time to “turn over some [figurative] tables” and do more than ask, “Can we all just get along?” It’s time to do the hard work of undoing what centuries of social conditioning have done to convince far too many that Black people are only like real people—a little less human than the rest. It’s time for our nation—individually and collectively—to muster the courage and have the excruciating conversation so these atrocities can stop repeating and we can finally heal.
Yes, ultimately, we are involved in a war of good versus evil, but good is already defeated if we keep losing the battles to racism, injustice, and the like.
If you and I are to meet on the other side of Jordan, then we are to do exactly what God requires of us—
to be just, and to love [and to diligently practice] kindness (compassion), And to walk humbly with [our] God [setting aside any overblown sense of importance or self-righteousness]. –Micah 6:8 AMP
Love to you as we march onward…together.
Thanks to the Academy of American Poets’ “Poem-a-Day” program, I was pleased to find “The Rainbow,” a poem by Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960) in my email this morning. Even though I studied and taught early African American literature for many years, I’m pretty sure I have not read any of her poetry before today.
Smith produced three books of poetry–Songs of the Months (1904); Rhymes from the Cumberland (1909); Rosemary and Pansies (1909)–and was even published in the highly regarded Harper’s Magazine. I downloaded Rosemary and Pansies, and will be reading it over the next few days.
“The Rainbow,” from Rosemary and Pansies, is a sweet poem, and perhaps that’s the one I should share today, but “Preparation”–from the same collection–spoke to me, as I’m working on being more intentional about taking time for the things that matter most.
Effie Waller Smith
“I have no time for those things now,” we say;
“But in the future just a little way,
No longer by this ceaseless toil oppressed,
I shall have leisure then for thought and rest.
When I the debts upon my land have paid,
Or on foundations firm my business laid,
I shall take time for discourse long and sweet
With those beloved who round my hearthstone meet;
I shall take time on mornings still and cool
To seek the freshness dim of wood and pool,
Where, calmed and hallowed by great Nature’s peace,
My life from its hot cares shall find release;
I shall take time to think on destiny,
Of what I was and am and yet shall be,
Till in the hush my soul may nearer prove
To that great Soul in whom we live and move.
All this I shall do sometime but not now—
The press of business cares will not allow.”
And thus our life glides on year after year;
The promised leisure never comes more near.
Perhaps the aim on which we placed our mind
Is high, and its attainment slow to find;
Or if we reach the mark that we have set,
We still would seek another, farther yet.
Thus all our youth, our strength, our time go past
Till death upon the threshold stands at last,
And back unto our Maker we must give
The life we spent preparing well to live.
Today would have been Langston Hughes’ 118th birthday. Some of my Hughes books are in my [work] office; others are unfortunately buried in one of my many unpacked boxes, so I didn’t have the pleasure of revisiting my precious books and slowly inhaling the pages.
Like so many other Black poets, I fell in love with Langston Hughes through the books on my older siblings’ bookshelves. I took a course focusing on Hughes in graduate school and was sorely disappointed by the instructor’s style. He was knowledgeable but not an effective facilitator. He missed Hughes’ brilliance in his focus on the “celebrity” and ambiguity of Hughes.
I accidentally shot the “abstract” photo this morning while finishing up a letter to a friend. It pairs well with the closing lines of Hughes’ poem, “As I Grew Older.”
It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun—
And then the wall rose,
Between me and my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky—
I am black.
I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
–Langston Hughes, “As I Grew Older”
Many read this poem and see disillusionment. The speaker of the poem dismisses the idealism and replaces it with the realization that in America his Blackness stands as a barrier to his dream. However, there is hope here too…He has “almost forgotten” the dream, but he recognizes that thick walls of racism can be breached, toppled even, by his dark hands.
Dark hands united with other hands can “shatter the darkness…into a thousand whirling dreams of sun.”
Jesus gave us a new norm for greatness. If you want to be important, wonderful. If you want to be recognized, wonderful. If you want to be great, wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.
And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct,” Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, February 4, 1968 [Based on Mark 10:35-43]
About the image: The image above features the pulpit from which Martin Luther King, Jr. preached and led a movement. The passionate “How Long? Not Long” speech was also delivered from this lectern on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery at the conclusion of the famous Selma to Montgomery March. The pulpit now rests in the basement of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. I had the privilege of placing my hand on this pulpit during a research trip with other educators a couple of summers ago.
Without love for my fellow man and respect for nature, to me, life is an obscenity. –Ernest Gaines (January 15, 1933 – November 5, 2019)
I had a different blog post planned for today. but then I learned Ernest J. Gaines, my favorite Louisiana author, passed away today.
I’m pretty sure that Gaines was the first African American writer with whom I came in contact–through one of his earliest works, Miss Jane Pittman. Much later, as a young professor, I began to include his A Lesson Before Dying on the reading list for my composition courses. After reading A Gathering of Old Men, my hubby was hooked. Gaines became his favorite author.
I don’t normally swoon when I meet “celebrities,” but I gushed when I met him at the Short Story Conference in New Orleans some years later–he was personable, wise, humble. I squealed when one of my colleagues gave me an autographed portrait of Gaines for my birthday one year.
I’m saddened over the loss of another elder, another critical voice in the American literary scene, but I am grateful for his life and works, his bringing to the fore the complications of personhood, race, life, and love in rural Louisiana.
Yesterday, I shared some brilliant first lines, but today I’m sharing literary wisdom from some of Gaines’ works:
Ain’t we all been hurt by slavery? —The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
I think it’s God that makes people care for people, Jefferson. I think it’s God makes children play and people sing. I believe it’s God that brings loved ones together. I believe it’s God that makes trees bud and food grow out of the earth. —A Lesson Before Dying
How do people come up with a date and a time to take life from another man? Who made them God? —A Lesson Before Dying
Sometimes you got to hurt something to help something. Sometimes you have to plow under one thing in order for something else to grow. —A Gathering of Old Men
The artist must be like a heart surgeon. He must approach something with sympathy, but with a sort of coldness and work and work until he finds some kind of perfection in his work. You can’t have blood splashing all over the place. Things must be done very cleanly. —Conversations with Ernest J. Gaines
If you haven’t read any of his fiction before, I encourage you to add Gaines to your reading list. Click here for a list and overview of his novels: Gaines’ novels.
To hear Gaines talk about books, writing, and his own story, be sure to watch “Conversation with Ernest J. Gaines” produced by the National Endowment for the Arts:
Rest in Peace, Dr. Gaines.
Children, who made your skin white? Was it not God? Who made mine black? Was it not the same God? Am I to blame, therefore, because my skin is black? …. Does not God love colored children as well as white children? And did not the same Savior die to save the one as well as the other? –Sojourner Truth
I chuckled to myself when I realized the reason for today’s Google Doodle. Initially, I wondered why Sojourner Truth. Did the google gods discover today is her birthday? Then, it occurred to me today is the first day of Black History Month (BHM).
Why the chuckle? Because it’s predictable.
Sojourner Truth–like Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman–is almost always brought up when discussing anything related to Black history.
Do I mind? Not really.
I like Sojourner Truth. I like her moxie. I love how she stood up for herself when the odds were most certainly against her. There are a lot of amazing lessons in her life.
Today, I opened class by talking briefly with my first-year students about not allowing themselves to be so focused on the mountain in the distance that they render themselves incapable of taking the tiny day-to-day steps that make conquering the mountain achievable.
I wish I’d thought to weave some of Sojourner Truth’s life into that brief talk.
Sojourner Truth didn’t look at the mountains in front of her and freeze with fear or run in the opposite direction. She didn’t see the obstacles of her skin color, her gender, or her status as enslaved person as barriers to conquering the insurmountable. As a result, among many other “unlikely” accomplishments, she won a lawsuit against her former “owner” who sold her son into slavery after the State of New York had declared slavery illegal. And while we haven’t quite figured out whether Sojourner Truth said “Ain’t I a woman?” or “Ar’n’t I a woman?” in her famous speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, the reality is even if she never said a single word, the fact that she showed up to a party she wasn’t invited to and insisted on her Black presence and humanity says enough for me.
She literally walked the path to freedom in her own truth and with a righteous insistence on her own humanness. As long as she held on to the essential value of her personhood, no racial or gender mountain could stand in the way of her truth.
The art above is part of the “Celebrating Women” banners that were on display at The Lower Eastside Girls Club’s Celebrate Cafe in New York City when I visited several years ago. If I remember correctly, each piece of art added to the banner was created by a young woman who was involved in the Club.
If you want to know more about Sojourner Truth, click any of the links above, particularly the Google link.
An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.
–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”