Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Crossing Over: A Jesus-Lovin' White Boy Listens and Learns

In 1994, I played my final college basketball game at Southwest LA College. Before the game, instead of the usual Star-Spangled Banner, they played Lift Every Voice, the so-called ‘Black National Anthem’:

Lift every voice and sing,
'Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on 'til victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast'ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
'Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

I’d never heard this before. I was confused. We lost to the all-black team…badly.

Fast-Forward to the heated Presidential election of 2008 when Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, responded to questions about Barack Obama’s chances of winning by telling the interviewer that because he is light-skinned and as long as he doesn’t speak in a ‘Negro dialect,’ he has a great chance of pulling off a victory. Of course, Obama won and at the Inauguration Civil Rights legend Rev. James Lawson quoted from Lift Every Voice in his prayer. Reids words reveal that it is virtually impossible to measure the pressure, indeed the demand, for African-Americans to act and talk like their white counterparts. They must conform to make it in this society. Yet, a white-boy from suburban Orange County did not even know there was a Black National Anthem.

As we approach the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, EasyYolk would like to ask a few questions in a series of posts about the continuing perplexity of race relations in the United States, King’s vision for something different and how white suburban Christians can and should respond to such a call. In light of Reid’s recent analysis of the electability of a black man in a country with a 75% white population, we ‘white moderate’ followers of Jesus should consider making African-American Christianity normative for our faith. This is not an original or fresh proposal. Last summer, Cornel West proposed this sort of thing at a larger, societal level in an interview with Bill Moyers:

Because here you got this leaven in this larger American loaf been sitting here all this time. These young white brothers and sisters, they want to get into hip hop. They want to be able to move their bodies. They want to have an orality that is smooth like Jay-Z. There is something about the black experience in America, at its best. We know we got black gangsters like anybody else. At its best that speaks to these kinds of issues. You've got Martin as the best, in many ways, in the political sphere. You got Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin. So much of the best in the cultural sphere. Now the young folk are hungry for it. We'll see. We're in a new transition.

In West’s analysis, the African-American experience has been percolating, fermenting, waiting for white America to take notice of its rich historical and contemporary offerings. Like Jesus' words in the Gospels [Matthew 13:33ff] comparing the mysterious growth of the Kingdom of God to the tiny sprinkling of yeast in a baker's bread dough, so too is the African-American community to the United States. West points out in another talk that white Americans should hug every African-American they meet and thank them for the curious absence of a black al Qaeda even after centuries of abuse, lynching and second-class citizenship. The words of Emmitt Till's mother at the funeral of her son are hugely symbolic for the gift of the African-American community to the United States: : I don’t have a minute to hate. I’ll pursue justice the rest of my life.

Euro-American theologian James McClendon also beckons his white counterparts to embrace the African-American Christian tradition. In the final chapter of his 3-Volume Systematic Theology [Ethics, Doctrine, Witness], he analyzes three key differences that highlight why African-American faith is vital for white followers of Jesus: biblical interpretation, culture and church. Black Christians have always read Scripture differently than whites. For African-Americans, the Bible is a story that we find ourselves in. God is a liberator who works tirelessly with his people. Like the Israelites in the Old Testament and like the diseased and oppressed in the New Testament, the black freedom struggle yearns for justice and liberation. Their earthly leaders [from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King] have always played the liberators: Moses and Jesus. They fought against the biblical reading strategy of their slave masters and white pastors who chronically told them the story of Philemon, the runaway slave who Paul sent back to his master. Instead of being story-formed, white Christians have consistently utilized 'frozen reading strategies' that locate truth in our minds ['beliefs'] and creates convenient ways out of the hardest teachings of Scripture, equating biblical faith with spirituality, instead of socio-political and economic revolution. McClendon, writing from the postmodern Anabaptist tradition, advocates for some white Christians to 'cross over' and join African-American communities in order to be formed more deeply into the way of Christ.

Brian Blount, an African-American bible scholar at Princeton, wrote Then The Whisper Became Flesh to model an alternative biblical ethical strategy to the dominant white version: the claim of self-evident, objective, universal, timeless truths mined out of Scripture. Blount says that each person [or community] reads from a unique 'space' that shapes their interpretation and corresponding ethic:

Whether we are considering something as significant as a community’s evaluation of a momentous event in world history or something as isolated as a private individual’s reading of a newspaper editorial…one’s spatial and political location in life determines what one sees, or at least how one sees. Thus our space, like the space of the first readers in the first century CE, influences how we read that Jesus event. That is to say, our space becomes a communal and/or personal lens that influences how we read through the event lens that provides a sense of constancy for the NT’s moral reasoning.

The recognition of our space brings humility to our quest to do 'what the Bible says.' But the Spirit of God speaks differently to different communities and has always emphasized liberation and humanization to the suffering African-American Christian communities throughout American history. This contextual, competitive situation must lead Christian communities [white, black, brown, yellow, red] into dialogue. Unfortunately, white Christian communities continue their monologue as they numerically and financially dominate and supress this minority report of the American body of Christ.

Mostly what I hear in regards to race relations in white America today is a triumphalistic proclamation that racism is over. Most point to the election of Obama as proof that we are no longer a society plagued by discrimination. Some whites even claim that a reverse form of racism is plaguing our society, as programs like affirmative action and other so-called minority privileges have made things harder on the majority population. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor at Princeton reflecting on the recent Reid embarrassment, points out the continued structural racism and oppression that cripple black America:

Reid's assertions about "Negro dialect" also should raise structural justice questions far more important than his offensive use of an antiquated term for black Americans. Because of generations of lower class status and legal barriers to quality education, black children are far more likely than their white counterparts to be raised by parents with inadequate literacy skills. But rather than acting as a leveling ground, many public schools only reinforce these disadvantages. These are the same children relegated to schools with fewer expert teachers, larger classroom sizes, fewer educational resources, and fewer literacy support tools.

This is the racism that should worry us: millions of black American children attend and graduate from public schools that leave them utterly unqualified for public office for their entire lives. As adults these children will always be second-class citizens, unable to participate as rule makers rather than simply rule followers in their own country. Not only does this deprive whole group from full participation in government, it also deprives our country of the skills, talents, and ideas that these citizens might have offered, had we not initially deprived them of the capacity to communicate their ideas effectively in the public realm.

A recent Harris-Lacewell column called on white Americans to embrace the black Santa:

I'd love to see far more African American Santas in multiracial public spaces. Just as white Americans are learning to experience a world with a black man making foreign and domestic policy, so it is time for white children to wait with unrivaled anticipation for a black man to bring benevolent gifts. It is time for white mothers and fathers to snap smiling photographs of their sons and daughters on black Santa's knee. Just as a black man took the oath of office in January, so it is time for a black man to hail "Merry Christmas" from the final float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

(And for all of you who will want to argue that President Obama is "multi-racial" rather than black, I disagree, but I'd be happy to take a mixed race Santa too.)

Black Santa will not cure the fundamental inequalities that shape the lives of black children and poor children of all races. He does not bring justice in his sleigh. Still, racism's assault on black life is not just substantive and economic; it is also symbolic and psychological. Navigating the symbols of whiteness during Christmas always makes the holidays a little harder for many of us.

Voices like Harris-Lacewell are what white Christians, protected by the geography and preferred media [Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Palin, Dobbs, Beck, etc] of the suburbs, rarely understand, let alone hear. Most white Christians I know are sincere and their own ignorance [like the mysterious racism that continues to plague African-Americans] is structural, symbolic and psychological. They do not understand the deeper, systemic causes of the continued economic and social displacement of African-Americans who suffer 20-50% unemployment in various innercities throughout the United States. For whites like me, the road to enlightenment must come through leaders in suburban Christian communities who unfortunately tend to paternalistically donate time and resources to innercity churches instead of listen to their black and brown brothers and sisters. On this MLK holiday weekend, may white voices be silent as we honor the prophet by listening to the voices of our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ.

--Theological Autopilot

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