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.

Train wreck

Laurel, Maryland, 1922
This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID npcc.06782.

A friend of a friend came completely unglued on Twitter last night.  Among the dozens of Tweets were a “colorful” Tweet suggesting something he would rather be doing, others that contained not a single word you would want to say in front of a five year old, and at least two or three that my ninth grade health teacher would have classified as “a cry for help.”  When, in amazement, he Tweeted this morning that he hadn’t lost any followers in spite of his “rants,” another person, with remarkable honesty, Tweeted back, “You just made us curious!”  “Yes,” I thought as I read that comment, “everybody loves a train wreck.”

Which is a ridiculous expression, really.  Nobody loves a train wreck.  Car wrecks, yes.  We all slow down for them, craning our necks to figure out what really happened, looking for vehicles damaged beyond recognition and counting the firetrucks and police cars on the scene.  Train wrecks are rare and horrifying and perhaps interesting at a distance, but the required distance is greater than most of us can manage.

When I was a pastor in southeast Virginia, there was a train wreck on the Norfolk Southern line one night – two freight trains had a head on collision more than five miles from our house.  The locked wheels of the locomotives screamed against the rails as momentum carried them hopelessly forward, intense and inharmonious and impossible to ignore. I was completely awake for several seconds before the dreadful explosion of sound that announced the crash.  The sounds told their story clearly – there was nothing else that would have sounded just like that.  In the morning, I was incredulous – how could the wreck be so far away?  As loud as it had been, I had been certain it had been within town limits.  How frightening must it have been for my friends who lived just down the road from the crash site?  What had it sounded like for them?

It took more than 24 hours to clear the tracks.  The line serviced a paper plant, so there was strong incentive to move fast.  Can you imagine a car wreck bad enough to block a road for 24 hours?  Cars are easy to clean up after – trains not so much.  The proper equipment is not widely available, and the debris is massive.  Especially the engines, which do not break into little bits just because they’ve been rendered immobile.  The tracks may have been clear by the second morning after the wreck — but the engines sat by the side of the track for months.

After awhile, the engines became part of the landscape.  It was a shock when they were finally gone.  “How did they do it?” I wondered.  What had seen impossibly immobile just days before had disappeared.  I had been certain that they would sit there in perpetuity, a monument to how devastating an accumulation of small mistakes can be when the stakes are high.  I was not sure how I felt about their removal – but I knew that those of us who were in the county that night could likely pick out the place along the rails where it happened for years afterwards, even without the physical reminder.

I was once a train wreck too, long enough ago that the landscape doesn’t readily reveal the story, but those who were there, who know where to look, might turn up a bit of charred or twisted debris under the trees along the tracks.

There were none killed that night, and only two badly injured, but many were haunted long afterwards.  I hope for a better outcome – or one at least as good – for the Man of Many Tweets on a Drunk and Lonely Night.

Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison.