Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Power of Poetry #2: Headlong

About 18 months ago, a friend introduced me to the poetry of Mary Oliver. As often happens when one is introduced to something new, all of a sudden you seem to see it at every turn. For instance when we bought a red Prius, all of a sudden we seemed to see a red Prius everywhere we went. It wasn’t that red Priuses came out of the woodwork when we bought one; we just became more aware of them.

Well it has been the same way with the poetry of Mary Oliver. I started hearing her quoted in sermons, mentioned by authors, interviewed on the radio and so much more. From that first book of poems I bought another, Felicity (Penguin Press, 2016). On page 9, I found the poem entitled “Moments” which immediately spoke to something deep within me.

There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.
Like, telling someone you love them.
Or giving your money away, all of it.

Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?

There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.

I love the last stanza. How often have I not spoken or not acted because of caution: a fear of rejection, of not being understood, of feeling foolish, or even being rejected. As I move through my 60’s, I am being constantly bombarded with messages warning me about the need to save for retirement, to gird myself against ageing, to prepare for financial constraints, to avoid foolish choices, and prepare for the worst.  At one level this is all good advice. Yet at the same time I find myself rebelling against these messages of fear and caution and opting for freedom from expectations and from what others think is “right” for me. Two years ago a buddy and I participated in an obstacle course called the Goliathon; we were easily twice the age of most the other participants, but we had a ball. In the last few years I  have taken up long range biking, and will hope to ride 100 miles in a day one time at least this this summer. I also am taking advantage of the opportunity to visit Kenya with a group of students; Africa is a place that has always fascinated me. So many people are surprised and wonder if I am running away from the truth of my age. However it is not that; rather its that  I want to grab life for all that is there.
Mary Oliver

This is not to say I am just doing physical things. I also want to be “headlong” in my generosity, in my expressions of both love and outrage, and in my relationships. To the best of my ability I choose to not let anything that needs to be said, remain unsaid and what needs to be done, to be left undone. I want to invest myself in people and causes that make the world possibly a more peaceful, healthy, caring and just place. I want to spend myself in things that matter and people who mean a lot to me. Even, if possible, to excess.

Such a choice is not easy because I have been socialized to be “responsible” and “prudent.” I have been taught to act my age, and behave according to the expectations of my surroundings. I am supposed to be at a place where I “settle down” and "settle in." Yet the Jesus I seek to follow calls me to give it all up to follow him and his early disciple Paul claimed “foolishness” as a positive virtue. That’s good enough for me. So I seek to live a “headlong life” to whatever extent that is possible. I am still living into this desire… and who knows where it will lead; but if Mary Oliver is right, the life I save may be my own.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Power of Poetry #1 – Rilke’s “Neighbors”

Over the last year and a half I have begun to appreciate the power of poetry, the ability of words to create images, capture feelings, speak deep truths that go beyond the rational to the emotional and spiritual. Mostly I have been reading Ranier Marie Rilke, Mary Oliver, Langston Hughes and poems of former students. Here I share a poem that speaks to me about my relationship to God; it is called “Neighbors.”

You, God, who live next door:
If at times through the long night, I trouble you
with my urgent knocking ---
this is why: I hear you breathe so seldom
I know you’re all alone in that room.
If you should be thirsty, there’s no one
to get you a glass of water.
I wait listening, always. Just give me a sign!
I’m right here.

As it happens, the wall between us
is very thin. Why couldn’t a cry
from one of us
break it down? It would crumble
it would barely make a sound.
(Rilke, Book of Hours I, 6)

For a long time I have sensed that God is near but not talking to me. I am particularly taken by the thin wall the separates the neighbors, so much so that they can listen for each other’s breaths. Yet there is no sound, no communication, no acknowledgement of the One on the other side of the wall.

My faith has taught me God is near, God hears my cries and God cares for my deepest needs. God is my neighbor and in my neighbor, and yet like Rilke’s neighbor, God seems silent. Why don’t my cries break down the wall? I am listening for God, but hear only the faint sound of a breath. Is it God’s or is it mine?

I am not sure.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Confession of a Recovering Racist

[On January 29, 2016, I spoke before a gathering of students, staff and faculty at Eastern University, speaking on the topic “White Allies for Racial Justice”. The following is an excerpt from that presentation in which I discuss why I call myself a “recovering racist.”]

Today just happens to be my father’s birthday. Today he turns 89. He lives is a skilled care facility in Minnesota. It just so happens that the year I will turn 89, if I live that long, will 2042. That year 2042 is the year demographers predict that a black or brown or Asian or Native American child will be born, and those folks who identify racially as white will comprise less than 50% of the U.S. population. At the younger age groups that shift has already begun to occur, but in 2042 it is predicted that in the U.S. population as a whole there will be no racial or ethnic group that can claim to be a majority. And most white folks are not prepared for living in a society they are not the dominant group both numerically and culturally; Most folks of color have developed what W.E.B Dubois called a double consciousness; knowing how to code switch so as to be able to operate successfully in a white dominated society. But we who are white folks have very little idea of how to operate in a world where white is the dominant group. We don’t know how to make the shift to living a truly multicultural, multiracial society.

And so while I hope what I have to share is relevant to every one of you here today, I particularly want to speak to those of us here today who identify racially as white, and what this changing demographic is challenging us to be and do.

But I want to begin with a confession: I am a recovering racist. I was born a white male into a white community that is part of a racist society and racist political structure which gave me privileges and access denied to others. I did not know I had these advantages, I didn’t ask for them, but from the day I was born doors were opened to me, opportunities presented to me, resources made available to me simply because I am white that gave me leg up on many others. I worked hard and people said I earned what I had achieved. And I didn’t know the game was been rigged, and because I was white, I had a huge head start.

 I grew up in a community in suburban Minneapolis where most the people looked like me, thought like me and had advantages like me. I didn’t know any better. My parents were moderately progressive folks teaching me to care for others and for the world at large. We attended progressively minded church, where even in the 1960’s, our predominately white congregation had a partnership with a predominantly African American congregation. We were concerned for the suffering of people of color in our city, and beyond. Yet subtlely, almost imperceptibly, through things that were said and unsaid I was taught and socialized into thinking I was just a little bit better, a little further advanced. It was a progressive form of white supremacy, a liberal sort of racism where we were concerned and even willing to help as long as it did not disrupt our safe and comfortable world where we, the whites, still were in control.

I said I was a recovering racist. If any of you have been through a 12 step program or know those who have, you know that when a person completes the 12 steps, he or she never says they are a “recovered” alcoholic, or drug addict or gambler. They say they are “recovering”, because staying straight and healthy and free of addiction, is a daily commitment. 

When I was in my 20's doing youthwork I met a youthworker from Knoxville, TN named Jabo Cox. Jabo had been a heroin addict in his 20's, but got clean, and hadn't used in over 30 years. Yet he confided to me: "Drick, even though I haven't used in 30 years, every morning I wake up and I want to take a hit, and I have to decide not to use." That's what it means to be recovering; it is an ongoing, daily choice to live and think another way.

Like a baby born to a drug addicted mother, I was born into a white culture addicted to the privileges and power of whiteness. And for the first 20 years of my life I didn’t realize how addicted to my privilege I was until I started to  become aware of my own racism, and for the last 40 years I have been working on my addiction.

So I don’t come before you as one who has things all figured out, but one in the ongoing process of recovery from the racism I was born with and born into..

But why do I say this, why do I share my struggles? I suspect that many of the people in this room, particularly those of you who identify as white, like me you are committed to fighting racism. However, if we are ever going to be able to contribute significantly to the fight against racism out there, we need to start by confronting and dealing with the racism in here. We have to confront our own blindness, our own ignorance, and our own fears and prejudices that we rarely speak, but know are there. We have to acknowledge and analyze our comfortable white bubbles that have been constructed all around us, and then burst those bubbles.  I think it’s virtually impossible to grow up white in the United States and not be racist.

William Sloane Coffin said many years ago:  “Racism is America’s original sin,’ and we and our white ancestors are the perpetrators and beneficiaries of that sin. We like to think of how great our nation is, but what we don’t want to admit is that it was built on stolen native lands with slave labor, on the backs of Latino and Asian, poor White laborers in a culture that used and degraded people of color all the while treating them as less than full citizens.  Part of our repentance and our healing is to learn and acknowledge that history, and seek find another way to live that doesn’t perpetuate the racism at the heart of our institutions and our culture.

Anti-racism activists such as Ewuare Osayande  and Mark Charles contend that the truth about the history racism in the US is a truth that has been largely denied by our education system and hidden from most of us. That history contains some hard truths we have yet to come to terms with. That truth of history and the reality of our present are painful to face.  That’s why so many of us White and even some persons of color run away from it, rather than face it. Dealing with our addiction to racism begins with acknowledging and grappling with the truth of who we are and where we came from historically and personally. Only then can we truly enter into our recovery.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Beyond the Burning Bus - A Review and Reflection

In the process of researching and writing my book, White Allies in the Struggle for Racial Justice, I came across several stories that I was not able to include but where worth honorable mention. One such story is contained in the book Beyond the Burning Bus: The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town  by Phil Noble (New South Publishers, 2003). What follows is a review and reflection on this book and the story it tells.

On Mother's Day, May 14, 1961, group of young people, both Black and White rode on a Trailways bus through the small town of Anniston, Alabama on the route from Atlanta to Birmingham. These Freedom Riders, as they were called, were seeking to make a point of challenging Southern racism by defying So customs of forced segregation on commercial buses. The ride had started in Washington, DC and up to that point, had been relatively calm. As they approached Anniston, they were met by an angry mob of White citizens connected with Ku Klux Klan, who set the bus on fire and then beat the frantic riders as they exited to safety. All of the riders escaped alive but many were badly injured. This horrific event made the national news and put Anniston on the map as place noted for violent racial hatred.

Rev. Phil Noble was a young and relatively new pastor at the First Presbyterian Church. Like many Southern towns, Anniston was economically, geographically, culturally, politically and religiously divided along racial lines, and the burning bus only heightened the racial tensions in the community. Shortly after  this incident two black ministers, Rev William McCain and Rev Nimrod Q. Reynolds,  called on Rev. Phil Noble to discuss how their churches - Black and White - could work together to bring racial justice to Anniston. The pastors had interacted casually in professional circles, but over the next six years they became partners in the struggle for domestic peace and racial justice in Anniston.

 This book tells the story of the courageous men who made up Anniston's Human Relations
Council (HRC) and relates the first two years of the Council's work made up of five Whites and four blacks who sought to bring down the walls of segregation. For Rev. Noble and the other White members the goal was to avoid the violence that had enveloped other Southern towns like Montgomery and Birmingham. For the Blacks the goal was racial justice. The burning bus incident revealed to both that Anniston could erupt at any moment  into all-out chaos if leaders did not act to address both the immediate and underlying issues. As Noble relates the story, for Whites the fact that there was no further outbreaks of violence was progress, but for the Black leader the progress toward desegregation was too slow but still enough to keep them engaged. Noble’s account shows that when courageous Whites and Blacks collaborate to work for the justice, reconciliation is possible. At the same time Dr. King was decrying the inaction of the White moderates in Birmingham in his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", the White moderates in Anniston stepped up and were able to bring progress with relative peace (there still were many acts of violence and people killed) even in the face of strong segregationist opposition. This is a story not often heard in the days of the Civil Rights South and so is worth exploring.

One of the things that comes through clearly in this book is the different objectives of Blacks and Whites in the Civil Rights period. For the Black community in Anniston and throughout the South, the goal was clear: tear down the walls of segregation and the double standard for Blacks and Whites in all areas of life. For Whites the goals were equally simple: keep order and quiet with the least amount of disruption to their “Southern way of life.” While there may have been many Whites like Noble who had begun to understand the essential wrongness of segregation, it was only when horrific incidents like the burning of the Freedom Riders bus obliterated  the myth of Southern tranquility, that such Whites acted. It is a classic case of what Derrick Bell,  the reputed founder of Critical Race Theory (CRT), calls “interest convergence.” CRT assumes that Whites only act for racial justice when somehow it is in their self-interest. Anniston’s Mayor and Chief of Police and other leading Whites in Anniston did not have a dramatic conversion to racial equality, but rather were persuaded by the specter and threat of violent outbreak to dismantle their segregationist culture. Furthermore they were convinced  by Phil Noble and other moderate Whites that working for racial justice was not only good for the Black community, but also good for the business community and the town’s image in the state and nation.

While I found the book interesting and encouraging, I think  two additional aspects of Phil Noble’s account would have added needed depth to the story. First, throughout the book he makes reference to the quiet resistance and passive acceptance of his congregation toward his  involvement in the HRC’s desegregation effort. He describes how his church exchanged preachers with black churches and that there were occasional comments for or against his efforts. However, he never discusses his efforts to address the segregationist attitudes within the congregation. For many anti-racist Whites the most daunting and difficult challenge is confronting the racism in their own family and friendships. The question I am most often asked is how to talk to one’s networks about racism; in many White circles such conversation feels difficult if not impossible to address. I would have liked to have heard how Noble sought to address it, regardless how successful he felt his efforts were.

Denmark Vesey
Second, after fifteen years Rev. Noble left Anniston to pastor a church in Charleston, SC. Historically, Charleston has been a hot bed of racist activity and attitudes. Charleston was a major port for slave ships, the place where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, and the site of landmark court cases challenging disparate pay for black teachers and challenging all white primaries. Denmark Vesey in 1822 led a failed rebellion of slave and free Blacks. And of course, this past summer, a young white man Dylan Roof shot and killed nine Black parishioners of the Emmanuel AME church while they gathered for a prayer meeting.  When Phil Noble went to Charleston how did he take the lessons from Anniston and apply them with his congregation in Charleston? Most certainly there were many opportunities, though less dramatic, to continue to address racism in that church as he had in Anniston. Addressing and struggling against racism is not a temporary project but a lifelong endeavor.

Beyond the Burning Bus raises the interesting question of how one addresses racism both on a personal and systemic level. Noble was moved to act because of his personal relationships with Black pastors, which in turn led to his involvement in changing the policies and culture of a small town in central Alabama. Even today I suspect in Anniston the struggle continues to address racist attitudes and the systems that support them. Yet it is always important to remember that the actions started 
first because people knew each other and acted out of a personal concern that led to systemic change.

Beyond the Burning Bus is an interesting read of challenging story that illustrates that with persistence, courage, and committed  relationships, racism in its many manifestations can be addressed and in some cases overcome.