We are in a time when white supremacy's terror has become so vivid that we cannot easily avoid seeing it. It is a time that excites strong reactions. I have not avoided talking about what is going on in the streets and in the pulpit. I have made sure not to ignore these events in preaching and in teaching. We have had lively Sunday School and seminary classroom discussions. I have tweeted and Facebook statused some of my sentiments in shorter form. I've had coffee to ruminate with friends. I have read and listened to many opinion pieces and scholarly discourses.
But I have had specific reasons to resist writing lately. One thing that happens when events turn attention to racism is that we white people who consider ourselves sensitive to and appropriately positioned toward racism feel a need to remind people of our credentials. In a more crude way, we are anxious to make sure people know we are "the good white people." But this anxiety tends to subvert the very purpose we believe we are pursuing. Rather than focusing on work necessary to overcome the structural and systemic forms of white supremacy that shape every part of life, we are caught up in making ourselves feel better, assuaging white guilt, and sustaining the pretense that at least around us, things are soooooo much better.
So in part, I have been inclined to believe that it is better to shut up and listen. (I would hope that in explaining myself here, I am not simply doing what I described in the previous paragraph. I guess I can't avoid it completely.) To that extent, I have set aside writing about what is happening on purpose to hear other voices. But that is only part of it. I have also found it hard to write. I have worried that I would simply be making noise when there is so much need for insight. I have feared that in such intense monologue and dialogue all around, I would say something stupid, reveal from somewhere within my misunderstandings and my formation in a culture of domination. I don't want to be that writer.
This subconscious or semi-conscious fearfulness about writing something stupid comes at a very inconvenient moment for me, in that I promised to write an essay on race and theology with the title "The Deformed Imagination of Why We Are Light and What We Call Darkness." But last night, the writer's block on that essay finally broke, and it is underway. Somehow, that opened the floodgates and I decided to write a brief comment on Facebook concerning a post about the Declaration of Independence. That turned into a poetry analysis of a song by Kate Campbell, bringing together the insights of W.E.B. DuBois, Cornel West, and some things J. Kameron Carter and I were talking through over coffee. After a while I realized that I was writing a blog post. So I might as well copy it here. Here's hoping I'm making my way down the road to get my essay written.
I found this article about the ambiguity of the Declaration of Independence to be worth sharing. It echoes the equally powerful words of Frederick Douglass concerning the paradox and travesty of Independence Day in a system of slavery. It also got me thinking about a song by one of my favorite songwriters.
A very moving song by Kate Campbell tells the story of a fire one night in the late twentieth century, burning down an old mansion with its "sixteen stately Doric columns." Anyone would recognize it as a plantation house, iconic of white domination in a landscape populated by enslaved workers of African descent. Yet the narrator tells the story from the point of view of a child who had not known the horrors and terrors of that system of trading and debasing human beings.
I was taught by elders wiser,
"Love your neighbor. Love your God."
Never saw a cross on fire;
Never saw an angry mob.
I saw sweet magnolia blossoms.
I chased lightning bugs at night,
Never dreaming others
Saw our way of life
In black and white.
Yes, it is naiveté that speaks such words. It comes from a life privileged to avoid seeing what others have no choice but to endure. One might say that it is early formation in the "normative gaze." Yet both black and white parents often seek to shield their young children from the worst of the world. Since Sanford, Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, and now Emanuel AME Church, it has become so much harder to hide from these realities. This is the world we live in. This is the world given to us by our parents. This is the world produced by the centuries of European-American world domination.
I mention this song because it shows something that is not always present in the reflections of dominant culture. W.E.B. DuBois wrote about the "double consciousness" of being African American, being both and yet neither. He wrote it in the context of knowing that "American" meant white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. This double consciousness exists in contrast to the forgetfulness of a singular consciousness. It is the privilege of some to forget that "one ever feels one's twoness:" Irish and American, Italian and American, English and American, Scottish and American, French and American, both and yet neither, living in a land claimed, annexed, appropriated, "reaping where you did not sow."
Kate's song illustrates the dawning of such double consciousness in the narrator, and its eschatological orientation toward the possibility of community to emerge from the dismal swamps of human cruelty to one another. Parsing out the death and life in the structures and systems around us forces one to face what James McClendon said of theological reflection, that "the line between church and world passes through each Christian heart."
Part of me hears voices crying.
Part of me can feel their weight.
Part of me believes that mansion
Stood for something more than hate.
But it is not promoting the assumption that one can go back to a pristine golden age when it was possible to pretend everyone knew her and his place and rank. We must, in fact, retreat from our falsehoods and retreat from our forgetfulness. We want to forget the repression of the black churches through laws making them illegal, through domination by white church leaders, through burnings and massacres. But Charleston won't let us forget.
Forgetting is deadly for our souls, and it is deadly for the bodies of those whose lives are considered not worthy of preserving in the streets or in the prayer meeting. Learning our twoness is also learning that we need to be made whole. But we cannot be made whole by a purifying ideology of triumphalism, which only makes of us tools of those who benefit from such violent systems. It is an eschatological hope, but I don't mean pie in the sky by and by. I mean a hope that looks for and longs for and works for the beauty and goodness of that promise to be done "on earth as it is in heaven." That's why
It's a long
And slow surrender,
Retreating from the past.
It's important to remember
To fly the flag half-mast,
And look away...