Mar 292012

On Sunday a friend of mine told me the story of a time she went down to South Carolina to visit some of her people.  They took her to a forest thick with trees; and as she walked toward the edge of them, she said, she just felt like something wasn’t right – like something bad had happened there.  My friend isn’t particularly clairvoyant that I know of, but she said she just felt…off. She asked her hosts what the story was with the forest, and they told her to look up to the higher branches.  When she did, she saw the remnants of chains – the trees had grown around them over the last 50 years, but they were still there – chains from old lynchings.  To be honest, my first thought was about why they hadn’t cut the trees down. I then stopped myself and realized that there are some memories that are so painful, some versions of ourselves so ugly, that to try and cut them down is to try and forget something that should not be forgotten, to cover something up that needs to be revealed if it’s ever going to be healed.  

I’ve been reading a lot lately in the news that makes me think about the ways people keep trying to keep hidden the dark underbelly of racism that is still very much a part of our national identity.  This is something that people of color know about every day – deal with every day.  Every day.  As a white person, I don’t have to think about it if I don’t want to, because the system is set up for people who look like me, by people who look like me, and was built on the backs of men, women, and children whom people claimed they had the right to own.  I keep trying to find a nice way to say that we white people are foolish to even begin to tell ourselves that we do not live in a racist society; but, I don’t think things like that can or should be said in a nice way – as in, not in a way that cleans it up, or in a way that allows us to sweep it under the rug.  Only if we can start to be honest about the things that make us most ashamed, about the things that scare us the most, can we begin the process of healing.

The poem below, “What Kind of Times are These” was written by the poet and activist Adrienne Rich, who died today at the age of 82.

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
Check yourself.  When you find yourself getting anxious, or scared, or angry when you see some stranger on the street, be honest about why that feeling comes up – what is it about them that gets to you?  Is it their skin color, their nationality, the way they dress, who they date, the way they identify themselves?  Then remind yourself that the person you’re looking at is a child of God – just like you.  They have had different life experiences from yours, but they are part of the human family with you.

We are all in this together, my friends.  I know that it may seem easier to only love people who look or act or dress like us, but I don’t think God works that way (and….come on, that gets kinda boring, doesn’t it?).  Open yourself up to the opportunity to be amazed by the power of the Spirit moving through you and connecting all of us.  Let yourself be opened up.  Be honest. Say what scares you.  Say what gives you hope.  Say what makes no sense to you – ask questions.  Listen when people talk – try to hear them, even if what they say makes no sense to you.  Recognize their humanity.  Know that they are a beloved child of God.  Know that you are, too.

Mar 252012

Thinking about Trayvon Martin today, and all of the conversations going on around his death. There is a whole lot to unpack on that, but I want to try and keep Sunday for poems. So, below are two things: a poem by Nikki Giovanni about the vision of Abraham Lincoln, and an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address.

At this moment

Resting in the comfort of the statue
Of the 16th president of the United States
An equally impressive representation
Of his friend and advisor
Frederick Douglas

We come

On this day

Recalling the difficult and divisive war
We are compelled
With a prayer in the name
Of those captured and enslaved
Who with heart and mind
Cleared the wilderness
Raised crops
Brought forth families
Submitted their souls
Before a merciful and great God
To acknowledge that The Civil War
Was fought not to free the enslaved
For they knew they were free
But to free the nation
From a terrible cancer eating at our hearts

At this moment

In which we are embarrassed
By the Governor of our fifth largest state
Who appoints a man to the United States Senate
To which both he and his minion agree:
The Letter of the Law
Is more important than
The Spirit of the Law


When we are dismayed that the accidental
Governor of the Empire State can find
Just one more reason to rain pain
And rejection on a family that has offered only
Grace and graciousness

After two hundred years
When we rejoice that another son
Of the Midwest has offered himself
His wife and his two precious daughters
To show us a better way

We gather

In recognition and understanding
That today is always and forever today
Allowing us to offer this plea
For light
And truth
And Goodness
Forgiving as we are forgiven
Being neither tempted nor intolerant of those who are

We come

At this moment
To renew and refurbish
The American vision
Of Abraham Lincoln

And, excerpts from Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully….. 

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

We still have a long way to go.


Mar 252012

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Trayvon Martin, both the tragedy of his death and all of the conversation that is going on around it.  Today I read this article by Elizabeth Rawlings, who is a blogger and graduate student at Pacific Lutheran Seminary in Berkeley, CA, on the Sojourners website and realized it’s really important to keep the conversation going.  Just to quote a bit of the article:

Every once in a while, we (by we I mean my white brothers and sisters) wake up from our little racism-doesn’t-exist slumber. When a celebrity says something out loud that we know is something you just don’t say (inner voices, white brethren) we get all up in arms and demand an apology. Then we go back to sleep. While we sleep, some of us clutch our purses on the train, lock our doors when we drive through minority neighborhoods or cross the street when groups of dark-skinned men stand in our path. We tell ourselves that we are doing it for our own safety, if we realize we are doing it at all. We make assumptions about people’s intelligence, responsibility, work ethic and a whole host of other things based on the color of a person’s skin. I do not exclude myself from this description. I do it too.

Then, in the middle of our nice black-man-is-president, post-racial dream, a young black man is killed for walking through a neighborhood in a hoodie carrying some Skittles, an iced tea, and talking to his girl on the phone. We wake up. We are sad, we are shocked (really? shocked?), we are horrified. We call for the ousting and jailing and public shaming of all involved. Our eyes are getting heavy. All of this sadness and dismay about racism is tiring. We’d like to go back to sleep. 

Race is a tricky thing to talk about, because it inevitably brings up questions of privilege, which brings up feelings of shame, which often just leads to a lack of conversation, a lack of recognition.   In her essay, Rawlings cites a list of markers offered up by Peggy McIntosh from an essay titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” as a means of recognizing privilege. I’ve included the list below, and will leave it there today.

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area, which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
10. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of my financial reliability.
11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
12. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
18. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
19. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
20. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
21. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
23. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the place I have chosen.
24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my race will not work against me.
25. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
26. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.