Posts tagged black history
American Mythology

A few weeks ago Moody Bible Institute found themselves at the center of a twitter storm for an all too familiar reason: a white person denying the existence of white privilege. To find more on this story, you can read the background Here in the Chicago Trib or search the hashtag #MBIprivilege.

The story essentially died down over the last few weeks, but the same person, a professor, dug his heels in deeper. Last week he penned a letter to the editor in The Moody Standard defending his remarks (and apologizing for his tone) in five points which can be found here

Truth be told, there is nothing surprising in the remarks. These are all familiar reasonings for resistance to the term white privilege. Some of them Peggy McIntosh had herself just before she popularized the term! The reason I turn to his comments here is because it is quite rare that someone takes the time to write out the reasoning where I can take a screenshot. Usually these are statements made in workshops and classes, in hallways and forums where the best I can do is paraphrase the exchange. But since we have been provided the ability to screenshot the argument, I figure we should use it. There is one particular point that really makes my skin crawl in how commonly its used and how problematic it is. Please note it is not my desire to have a conversation about the professor. I dont know him at all. I want only to use his comments to showcase how American Mythology is used to replace history when discussing the devastating effect of racism in this country. Following is the point I wish to address:

I was going to take this apart piece by piece but I got annoyed and couldn't do it. So I will just make 3 points to all of this and go enjoy the beautiful weather! 

1. God didn't have anything to do with the historic racial injustice that afforded white Americans their economic privileges. God didn't sanction slavery. God didn't sanction black codes. God didn't sanction jim crow. Trying to spiritualize the level of injustice that is America's history simply because you enjoy the results of that injustice is gross.

2. No ones American story is created in a vacuum. Whenever arguments like this are made, do you notice how insular the story is? Its as if there was nothing happening in American history other than the life of the grandparent toiling away to make ends meet. As if all of America was a neutral "playing field" if you will, white folks just happened (by the grace of God, of course) to do well in life. The assumption is: as long as your ancestor wasnt a slave owner, then racial injustice couldn't be a part of your family's story. Incorrect. Lets revisit history, shall we? 

My ancestors have worked hard for centuries in this country, but were not paid for it. While white folks (as defined at that time) could apply for jobs anywhere, mine had to avoid signs that read "coloreds need not apply". While white people were earning a living wage, mine were being paid far, far less with absolutely no legal recourse. My grandparents would have loved to finish college. Some of them did graduate from universities- all of them with the word "colored" in the title. While white people were purchasing homes, my grandparents were navigating legal discriminations that would not offer them loans, would change the terms of contracts on a whim, only allowed them to live in certain neighborhoods through redlining and housing covenants, and refused to grant them homeownership altogether. My great grandmother who lived in a West Virginia mining town was evicted from her home every few years because of her gorgeous gardens and hard work to make the house livable. As soon as she did, she would find herself evicted, having to start all over, with no legal recourse and no equity or wealth gained from the home. My ancestors would have loved to pass down the amount of wealth they generated, but instead it lined the pockets of the white people for whom they worked, paid a mortgage/contract and really attempted to avoid whenever possible. The wealth that should have profited black families instead became part of the "stewardship" of white families- of business owners and real estate agents, of government workers and factory owners, of landlords and bankers, of lawyers and home owners, of court officials and many others who followed the "rules" of America's policy of discrimination in every area of American life. You're welcome, by the way.  

So forgive me for not being impressed by the "morality" and "hard work" of any ancestral tales that ignore the systemic injustice that is America's history. Forgive me for not being impressed by families who didn't own slaves. Forgive me for not being impressed by family stories overflowing with privileges not given to my family and millions of other families of color. You can celebrate the ease with which your family earned its wealth in the midst of legal discriminations of all kinds against people of color, but please don't tell me that God celebrates with you. 

3. I am so sick of these underhanded insinuations that black people (or people of color) just need to work harder, that we are lazy, unethical and selfish. That your families are the hard working ones, that your families are the ethical ones, that your families are the self-sacrificing ones. There is nothing moral about slavery. There is nothing moral about jim crow. There is nothing moral about legalized discrimination. There is nothing moral about the centuries old, two-tiered system America created for whites and for others. There is nothing moral about how white privilege came to be. This moral high ground is sinking sand. There is nothing "right" about it. 

It is an American myth that racial injustice ended with slavery. It is an American myth that the fruits of slavery died on the vine of abolition. It is an American myth that Jim Crow was nothing more than some really mean signs on parks and swimming pools, water fountains and bathrooms. It is an American myth that there are families who were somehow untouched by Americas system of inequality. It is an American myth that God has only blessed "hardworking" folks and that people of color would be wealthy, too, if we just learned the value of hard work. It is an American myth that the wealth incurred in the midst of tremendous injustice is simply a blessing from God.

And this is the brilliance of a racialized society that for hundreds of years has benefited whites at the expense of people of color: you can still tell yourself that you are innocent, untouched and excused from the harm, the trauma, and the gains of racism.

For those who wish to go beyond understanding jim crow in particular as more than random signs on buildings, please begin with Ta-Nehisi Coates's article HERE. You might hate the title. Thats okay. Read it anyway. Its longer than a blog post, but shorter than committing to a book. I re-read it yesterday and it took me about an hour with a couple interruptions. Its an introduction to understanding just how thorough systemic discrimination in an era of jim crow truly was. After you finish reading it, check out his bibliography for more in depth books.

This is important. We must get beyond the idea that racial injustice ended with slavery. Its simply not so. And to pretend that there aren't vast wealth differences as a result of this legalized unequal system that lasted more than 300 years is, quite frankly, dishonest. So lets commit to truly understanding the larger American story in which our family stories sit, especially if we are going to talk about God's view on the matter. 

America's Story

We all know its going to happen. PBS is going to change its lineup a little bit. OWN is going to have a special. Black boys and girls around the country will stand before their congregations and repeat the speeches of Sojourner Truth and MLK. Colleges and universities will bring in special speakers. We will soak it up, the learning, the celebration, the centering of black history month. But inevitably, someone somewhere is going to ask the question, "Why isn't there a white history month?"

Some will ask sincerely feeling excluded and confused. Many will ask out of sarcasm, believing themselves to be making a novel point about double standards. Most will not expect a response. Usually this "question" is asked not to talk seriously about the history of whiteness, but to avoid celebrating blackness. In the past I have responded to this question by discussing the importance of black history. I've also explored the ways whiteness created the need to center blackness in the first place. But this year, I'd like to try something new. I'd like to respond to the request... Below is your white history calendar. 

Now I'm not sure if folks really want a white history month. Because that would require telling the truth. It would require giving an honest account of America's story. In order to have a white history month, we would have to talk about white superiority. Ya'll know I'm not usually down for centering whiteness, but in this case, I think it is important that we understand the history of white superiority- how it started, how it has morphed, how it impacts today. So for one month, please feel free to share with anyone who displays a desire to connect history to today. 

Don't forget to lay ground rules though! I suspect there may be a little resistance by the time you get to Day 10 (or sooner). Keep scrolling for my list of online articles, essays, and videos. All you need is an internet connection to partake!

* I cannot guarantee how long these links will be active. Also, please be aware this is not chronological. I tried to group events together generally, but links certainly overlap in what they cover. I hope the overlap helps tie things together. Lastly, there is sooo much more to history than whats listed here, of course. Nonetheless, I hope this offers connection- between events and from Columbus till today.

This Little Light Of Mine

Okay. So I know we've already talked a little about Selma, but you all know me. It takes a while for the deep emotions I feel to wrap themselves in words. I wanted to give voice to how impacted I was by the Selma movie, but knew it would take time for me to share the extant to wish I was moved. It has taken a few days, but I want to share with you one of the gems I will carry with me for a long, long time. 

When the credits rolled, and the song Glory transitioned into This Little Light Of Mine I realized I was viewing this movie as a black woman. I know that sounds silly because I watch everything in this body of mine, but I was so utterly aware of my embodied experience in America. Ava's opening scene, listening to the little girls discuss hair, immediately drew me in. For the rest of the movie I was identifying with black women- young and old, overwhelmed and frustrated, persistent and strategic, fiery and intelligent, loving and defiant, crying and fighting on. I was all in, friends. 

And this would have been enough. It would have been enough to see myself so represented on the screen. Its not often that I go to a movie and identify with so many characters. Feeling seen, known, respected, understood is not typical of a movie-going experience for me. So this was a gift all by itself. But then something about the movie sunk deeper.

It happened as the movie grew increasingly dramatic. The focus shifting to MLK and the desire of various government officials to convince him to end the crusade, to drop the demonstration. I was not surprised to witness the various tactics used to stop MLK: insertion of fear, promises of compromise, weight of responsibility. There was a never ending onslaught of strategy to silence him. And each time he resisted. 

The President of the United States has never called me. The FBI is not recording me. No one has bombed my home. US government officials are unconcerned about my... blog. So I do not suggest here today that I am living MLKs life in any way. What I do want to validate, on a smaller but important scale, are the ways in which black women continue this work of strategy within the Church.

"If you would just slow down, I really think that pastor is closer to moving on that decision than you think. Don't ruin it." 

"I appreciate your passion, and I get it, but you have to know we are just not there yet. Perhaps if you tried something else- changed your tone perhaps- you would see more movement." 

"You are just so strong. Thank you for your strength as you push this conversation to the forefront. We hope you will continue to use your strength..." but there is no talk of change.

"This campaign of yours is starting to get a little toxic. Are you sure you this is the place God really wants you to be?" 

"You know how much I care about this issue. I just have a number of other values to juggle, too. We just cant move on this right now. But why don't you think about MLK Day and what might be done then?"  

"Our congregation has already moved so far on this issue. What else would you like us to do, exactly?" 

"Perhaps you should read more about MLK and really understand how he... [something incomprehensible]." 

I could go on and on, friends. While these certainly do not amount to the pressure, the fog of death, described in the movie, these experiences are no less real. At first they are disheartening. We bend trying to find the hopefulness buried in the words. And then we recognize them for what they are- political maneuverings, self-protection of the organization. This is the point where my disappointment, frustration, and yes anger become overwhelming. But then I watched Selma.

Ava let me watch MLK resist taking on responsibility for the deaths of civilians and hand it back to a government who refused to demand police protection over police brutality. Ava let me watch MLK remind the white power structure that the subject of the conversation was not the noise of the demonstrations but the lack of action on their part. Ava let me watch MLK strategically reframe every "legitimate" reason to stop. Ava let me watch MLK remain resistant not just in the big ways- huge demonstrations and soaring speeches. She let me see him on the phone, in meetings, in small rooms, in one-on-one conversations. She let me see him where I live my life, where I love the Church. 

As you participate in holy resistance, I hope you, too, will be invigorated by these small but signifcant scenes. I hope you will see your role as quite political. I hope you will see yourself as capable of strategizing and reframing. I hope that you will own your power to see clearly. I hope that you will speak truth to power, fully embodied in who you are and what you have been called to do. I hope you let your little light shine. 



Violence of Whiteness
"Running the negro out of Tulsa"

"Running the negro out of Tulsa"

It is not hard to look at mainstream media and find all kinds of images of "scary" black people. Just last week we all watched #pointergate unfold in which a black male activist was turned into a monstrous gangster after posing with the mayor of Minneapolis The image created around his person and work was not one of community builder, activist, or, you know, human. Instead the media was all too excited to make him a body worthy of fear. 

With the violent murders of Trayvon MartinRanisha McBride, John Crawford, Mike Brown and far too many others, America continues to witness the devastating, deadly effects of the fear of the black body. In each instance of the deaths above a white person cites "fear" as the reason or provocation for taking a life. Over and over America believes this is enough. "I was afraid of that big black body, wouldn't you be too?" is considered a reasonable defense. It perhaps holds the best chance for success. It always has. 

And yet I find this image of the monstrous black body puzzling, because it is the violence of whiteness that has proven itself worthy of fear. 

Shall we begin with the violent institution of chattel slavery? Beginning in 1619, Africans are brought to the shores of America, denied even basic human rights and made to be perpetually submissive to owners. For 246 years white America upholds, defends, and sheds blood in an effort to protect the institution of slavery. The historic willingness of whiteness to sacrifice its own humanity and in process deny the humanity of black people, is terrifying. It is white supremacy that has been historically violent.

While America loves to pat itself on the back for abolishing slavery and ushering in the reconstruction era, in doing so it chooses to forget. It chooses to forget the violent institutions that were set up to "keep blacks in their place". In some states the black codes were developed the same year the constitution abolished slavery. For another 100 years, white supremacy is carefully guarded by ensuring black people occupied a permanent second-class status thanks to Jim Crow. But this systemic power was not enough to satisfy. So it perfected mob lynching. Kidnapping black men, women and children, whiteness made a sport of killing black bodies, taking pleasure in lifeless bodies swinging from branches. Daring to take pictures and send postcards once the deed was done, this act succeeded in intimidating and oppressing black bodies. Of the 4,743 recorded lynchings in the US, 3,446 were black according to the records of Tuskegee Institute. The white supremacist propensity for taking pleasure in the destruction of black bodies is terrifying. It is white supremacy that has been historically violent. 

When Jim Crow was finally abolished, white America was not yet done with its desire for violent containment. Race riots in America were yet another invention of whiteness. No longer content to target just one black body at a time, white mobs determined instead to do harm to entire black families, neighborhoods, communities. Mostly happening in the North, whites would terrorize black communities by beating and killing residents and then destroying their property. In 1919 alone, there were 26 race riots that broke out all over the country, leaving more than 100 black people dead, thousands wounded and many homeless. It is white supremacy who has long considered it a right to take the lives and property of black families. It is white supremacy that has been historically violent. 

As African Americans continued to fight for civil rights, white power structures continued to find new ways to practice systemic violence. Contract housing extracted huge amounts of wealth from black communities, leaving them shells of their former selves. The governmental practice of redlining  clearly told black communities they were unwanted, non-members of the cities where they lived. Developments in transportation were often used to physically segregate back communities away from other areas of the city. The right to vote was kept out of reach by a number of evolving laws and policies. How do we even summarize the damage the criminal justice system has done to black communities over the course of American history? It is white supremacy that has found ever creative ways to shut out and shut down black folks from being considered fully American, fully human. It is white supremacy that has been historically violent. 

It was not blacks who enslaved millions of people for financial gain. It was not blacks who lynched thousands of people for entertainment. It was not blacks who regularly invaded the neighborhoods of other communities to wreak havoc. It was not blacks who created laws to disenfranchise others. These are the violent inventions of white supremacy. 

And this is why we sit in anticipation of every decision that involves unarmed, dead, black bodies. This is why we sit on the edges of our seats and wonder whether or not America will acknowledge our humanity this time. This is why we anxiously watch Ferguson. 

It is not African Americans who need to be feared. It is white supremacy that keeps inequality alive, that strips white folks of their humanity, that continues to take the lives of black folks largely without repercussion or consequence. It is not the black body that needs to be resisted but the lie that white equals safety. The lie that white needs to defend itself from blackness. The lie that white means just. We must look at our past and how that past is connected to today. We must choose a new way forward. A way that resists violence, that chooses equality, that finally surrenders to humility, to repentance, to love. We must believe that every win for white supremacy is a loss for us all. 

And I believe it is why Ferguson will march, will be witness, no matter the decision to indict or not. Ferguson has chosen to give voice not only to Mike Brown's death- but to the mass violence of whiteness against black bodies. We wait. We watch. But know this, we do not do so idly. We never have. It is not in our nature to wait without working. Past generations died to enact the rights we have today. Now, our generation seeks equal enforcement.

In Ferguson and across the country we will give voice to unjust systems. Whatever the coming weeks bring, of this you can be sure: we will fight on. 


*I want to acknowledge this this post was limited to African American history. But the violence that white supremacy has enacted over the course of American history includes far more people groups. I also want to acknowledge this is not the entirety of African American history in this country. My purpose is not to explore every area of black history, but instead to reposition the focus of historic violence. I hope I have accomplished this.