Slavery, sin, and death

Dr. J. Kameron Carter often referred to Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in his Theology lectures, but it took me almost 4 years to make the time to start reading the book. Jacobs led a relatively privileged life, for a slave in North Carolina. She could read, she lived with her parents in the early part of her life, she was in one town for the length of her imprisonment, she didn’t work in the fields. But none of that “makes up for” being owned by another person. Sexual and emotional degradation and manipulation, and coercion and abuse of every kind was integral to the system of slavery. Holding an entire people in bondage for generations was only possible within a society based on fear, on the threat of violence and loss of liberty — and the Civil War did not dismantle this social order. This is who we are as a nation, and we cannot understand ourselves until we acknowledge what slavery was and how it continues to impact us. I pray for the day when this book becomes required reading in every high school throughout the country.

I grew up as a White person in the South, so I heard a lot about how it wasn’t as bad for folks under slavery as it was afterwards for sharecroppers. Which even if it had been true (which it pretty clearly could not be), was no recommendation for slavery. Seriously, if the only thing you can say in defense of something is that it wasn’t the absolute worst thing that ever happened to a group of people…? Which again, was a stretch. Sharecropping was an extension of the slavery mentality, and like slavery it was White people who structured this bad way of life, and who chose to use their power to continue the oppression of their Black neighbors.

But my imagination had failed to fill out the contours of the torture that was life as a slave. That required data. In order to really understand how bad slavery was, I had to stop and listen to a woman who had been a slave. Go figure.

Perhaps your “education” about the realities of slavery was similarly slipshod. If so, Jacobs’ book is a good starting place as you turn over a new leaf in your understanding of race and racism in this country.

In order to love someone, we need to begin by listening to them. We cannot love someone we do not know, and we cannot know someone we do not listen to.

After Michael Brown was shot, someone in my feed – I wish I remembered who, so I could attribute this sentiment properly, and so that I could thank her – said that the most important thing that white people could do to help was to count how many people they were following altogether, calculate 10% of that number, and add that number of Black women and men to our Twitter feeds. For me, this has been the most transformative thing in thinking about race in the U.S. since picking up Jacob’s book. I’m not imagining what Black people might think about this or that event, and I’m not pedantically extrapolating what they must think. I’m not relying on one “Black friend” to represent the “Black point of view.” Instead, I’m listening to dozens of Black individuals: people of many different ages and genders and religions and ages, activists and journalists and professors and politicians and novelists and musicians and pastors, each bringing their own experiences and insights to the table.

But there is a common thread there – the thread of living as an oppressed group, living as suspect on the grounds of ancestry and physical appearance, in a country that claims “liberty and justice for all,” but has never even attempted to live up to that promise.

About 100 days ago, thinking about my Whiteness became an everyday thing, thanks to my Twitter feed. I’m 41 years old. If I were Black in this country, thinking about my Blackness would have been an every day thing starting around when I entered elementary school, if not before. But I’m White, so I didn’t have to think about it. Here in the U.S., we White people have too long been like the folk that God describes in Isaiah 6:9 – we “keep listening but do not comprehend, keep looking but do not understand.”

Repentance – turning away from our fear and self-interest and towards our Black sisters and brothers – is long overdue. We cannot say we are sorry for something that we do not understand, much less for something that we still have not stopped doing.

God, like a potter you formed our ears: prod us to listen, not for affirmation of what we want to hear, but to comprehend something new; You formed our eyes: correct our vision that we may look, not to see what we have always seen, but to understand someone else’s experience. Lord, we cannot hope to find justice without truly seeking it – kindle the desire for justice in those of us White women and men who fear that we have the most to lose. Loosen our grip on all that we have wrongfully taken, in order that we may be seized by the love that would bind us all into one family. We pray this in the name of your Son, who by the Holy Spirit made his home and ministry with a subjugated people, in defiance of the earthly power that put him to death. Amen.

Winners and Losers

watching Ghana play the United States, World Cup 2014 Two young soccer fans watching Ghana play the United States, World Cup 2014

“I’m glad the other team is losing,” the young soccer fan said, munching on a tortilla chip as she waited for her quesadilla. Her friend sitting next to her nodded solemnly in agreement.

I felt the pang that precedes motherly admonition, but I quickly squelched it. Yes, it is “less polite” to the point of “not being a good sport” to be glad that the other team is losing – and yet we are encouraged to cheer on our own team – to be happy that our team is winning. These seven year olds could tell you that there really is no difference between the two. To be happy that your team is winning necessarily means being happy that the other team is losing. Why is it impolite to say one, but not impolite to say the other?

I realized that I was not willing to defend this sort of polite dissemblance. I refused to insist, “Don’t say that; say this other thing [that means the same thing, but in a more oblique way.]”

I’m not a big fan of rooting for a particular team. I enjoy the game itself. I enjoyed watching Ghana and the U.S. alike. Rooting for someone doesn’t tend to increase the enjoyment for me. And so instead of correcting the girls’ “rude” but accurate speech, I tried to model delight in cunning fakes and beautiful passes and amazing escapes from seemingly impenetrable defenses. I gasped as goals were nearly made and blocked at the last minute – without regard for whose goal was being defended, much less who was ahead and what was the score.

I guess it is an Arminian way of watching the World Cup. Just as single predestination is a pedantic hedge for double predestination, getting excited about a particular team winning requires being glad that the team they are playing is losing. If you can’t stomach one, how can you stomach the other? So I, for one, am going to steer clear of speculating about who Pope Francis is rooting for, and hope that the official Vatican answer represents the Pope’s true feelings: nobody.

Happy World Cup everybody – enjoy the spectacle!

Give ME Liberty!

Look into America… see that Negro, fainting under the load, bleeding under the lash! He is a slave. And is there ‘no difference’ between him and his master? Yes; the one is screaming ‘Murder! Slavery!’ the other silently bleeds and dies! ‘But wherein then consists the difference between liberty and slavery?’ Herein: You and I, and the English in general, go where we will, and enjoy the fruits of our labours: This is liberty. The Negro does not: This is slavery. Is not then all this outcry about liberty and slavery mere rant, and playing upon words?  – John Wesley, on the American Revolution

Rev. Kara Slade shared that quote on Facebook this morning, and I read it here in my hotel room in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I am vacationing with my family.  This past April, Andrew O’Hehir wrote a wonderful piece for Salon on the changing face of Colonial Williamsburg.  I grew up in Virginia, making the circuit of the historic sites, and I can attest that slavery, while mentioned, was not prominent, much less examined here (nor at Mount Vernon, nor Monticello, nor or any of a dozen or more similar places for that matter) twenty to thirty years ago.  My critical engagement with the institution of slavery was encouraged nowhere until my high school AP history class.  Two years later (in 1991!), it was still possible for me to hear a sociology professor (in a freshman seminar on “the immigrant experience” at a northeastern university) compare African-Americans unfavorably to “other immigrants” who had overcome “similar” barriers to social and economic advancement in less time.  This professor dated the emigration of African-Americans to the end of the Civil War – ignoring the incomparable backstory of generations of chattel slavery. It seemed too clear to me: “We have talked about how other immigrants came to America with a dream of this being the ‘land of opportunity,'” I argued, “but for those released from slavery, they had already experienced America as a land of zero opportunities.” (This is not even to address the greater staying power of discrimination against African-Americans as compared to the Irish, for example.)

I am glad that the narrative tide is turning in Williamsburg. For instance, when we were getting a backstage tour of the stables (for my little animal lover) – the guide said to us, “The carriages can give you the impression that everyone here was well to do, but at the time of the Revolution, half of the people who lived in this city were enslaved.” They used to end similar sentences with “most people walked.” Instead, “half of the people… were enslaved.”  The guide at the Governor’s mansion echoed this line in another context; later, when discussing the flight of the governor with his family and most of his white servants, she wondered aloud what would happen to the people who had been his slaves – would they take the opportunity to escape? Or would they immediately be seized and sold – perhaps separated from their families? When I asked her later what had actually happened, she said it had largely been the latter – families were split up as individuals were sold.

As a native Virginian who grew up going to these historical sites, let me tell you – it is a lot different to hear about “people who were enslaved,” than it is to hear about “slaves.” It is all too easy for “slaves” to become abstract.  Just as Simone de Beauvoir famously said that there are two kinds of people – people and women, in historical homes in the South there are too often two kinds of people – people and slaves. By saying, “enslaved people” instead of “slaves,” the interpreters at Williamsburg are disrupting the old white narrative (and modern white temptation) to make “slaves” exceptional – to exclude slaves from the category “person.”

At Powell house, when we were waiting for a tour to begin and I inquired about who had lived in that house, the guide answered Mr. and Mrs. Powell and their two daughters, as well as a number of slaves.  The number varied, she said, because he owned a few slaves, and rented the rest from the jail. “Rented them from the jail?!” “Oh, yes!” she replied – and told us about how the jail was mostly populated with runaway slaves, as well as a few runaway indentured servants and runaway apprentices. “They don’t just sit there idle!” she said, adding that it was one of Mr. Powell’s responsibilities to assess new prisoners at the jail – so that a fair rental price could be set based on their skills and industry, and so as to determine how likely they were to run again.  When outside of the jail, prisoners who had run away from their owners could be identified by their large metal collars – sometimes with metal posts sticking out from them to make them even more unwieldy.  “They cannot get much work done while wearing those collars!” she said. “They are so heavy and uncomfortable.”

I had never heard that before – prisons were for runaway slaves? But upon reflection, it made sense. How many horse thieves could there have been, really? And it was not long before I was making the connection with our modern prison system, and with the “stop and frisk” abuses in NYC, and with how (in general) whites’ impressions of who looks suspicious has not changed much over the centuries (hint: if their skin color is darker than mine, they are probably up to no good.)

Patrick Henry’s speech is stirring, but it behooves us to remember that when he said, “Give me liberty or give me death!” he was speaking for himself – and other white male landowners who agreed with him that the King of England was seeking to “enslave” them.  Everyone else – white male landowners who had no problem with the King’s policies, women, African-Americans (both slaves and “freedmen”), children, apprentices and indentured servants, and other whites of the servant classes – all of these either lost or were at least unhelped by the events of the Revolutionary War.

Yes, I will be going to see fireworks tonight, but not as a celebration of the fruits of a long ago war. Instead, I am going because my six-year old daughter celebrates any opportunity for sanctioned rule-breaking – for her, the Fourth of July means “I get to stay up late tonight!!!” On this day of national conformity, I am doing my part to facilitate a little anarchy, a little transgression, a little reversal of traditional power dynamics. Or maybe I just enjoy seeing gunpowder used not for killing, but to decorate the night sky.

Either way, this day means something different for me than “liberty and justice for all.” Our state and federal governments still haven’t shown any interest in delivering on that idea. I’m not holding my breath – anyone with earthly power does no differently than King George – anxiously grasping at their fragile sovereignty.