Saturday, August 01, 2015

Be careful what you pray for and what you ask for...

I prayed for more wise women in my life. I prayed for women of color who know history and who are patient with me, someone who doesn't know much history and can't remember many details of what I used to know. I said I wanted to learn more history, more about the history of the south, and more about the history of the fight for civil rights in the south. Somebody said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. This week four new teachers appeared in my life.

First there was Dr Joy DeGruy - I posted a link to a lecture of hers earlier in the week. Here are two more - one in which she talks about a visit to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and another in which she discusses a trip to the supermarket with her sister-in-law. This woman is powerfully articulate, provocative, and unflinching in her convictions. I plan to watch many more of her videos and read her book - Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.

Then last night, three new faculty members at UMH (university of my heart) sat together on a panel and schooled me and the crowd on the hatred, racism, terror and brutality that the confederate battle flag represents.

Qiana Whitted is a professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia - which I learned last night has the dubious distinction of having the most slave-built structures of any university campus in the country. She said that she is looking forward to the many conversations and events that will take place when school reopens after the summer vacation. The massacre in Charleston and the removal of the flag from the state house grounds will be discussed widely. In response to someone else's comment about the naming of buildings and streets on campus for confederate "heroes," she remarked that those conversations will be harder but are certainly necessary.

She spoke eloquently about the need for ongoing discussions on all levels of education in this country. She said that during a recent rally of white supremacists in Columbia, there was a hashtag going around that said #ignorethem. Impossible. We cannot ignore them, and our local, state, and national government should not ignore them. They are domestic terrorists. Period. Hers was a gentle voice, but a strong one, and her position at the university, in the academy, is crucially important if we have any hope of teaching our children, our young adults well.

Following the panel discussion, I asked if I could have my photo taken with her. She furrowed her brow and said, "Do you really want your picture taken with me?" "Yes, I do," was my reply. Why wouldn't I want to have my photo taken with such a beautiful woman, such a well educated woman, such a passionate, committed, concerned, and inspiring woman?

Michaela Pilar Brown is an artist in Columbia, South Carolina, and was one of the speakers at the rally in the capital city four days after the massacre. She spoke about the crucial importance of removing the prominently displayed symbol of hatred.

Last night, she challenged us to speak up and speak against the dishonest stories being circulated about it's history. Nowadays, she reminded us, it is considered more racist to call someone a racist than to fly the battle flag. Conversations about our nation's history, the tragedy of slavery, and the continued battle for full citizenship of all of the inhabitants of the United States are easily and frequently derailed by declarations such as - But I'm not a racist. This doesn't have anything to do with me. What about black on black crime?

Not acceptable. She reminded us that we have to challenge the narrative that is swirling around us related to race and racism in this country. We have to push through resistance to change. We have to recognize that ignoring these problems is no longer possible.

One of Michaela's most poignant and thought-provoking statements related to her feelings about non-violence. She said, "I don't feel non-violent. I'm tired of turning the other cheek." I applaud her honesty and understand her anger, the anger of many thousands, perhaps millions of people in this country who are tired of, frustrated by, and increasingly unwilling to abide ongoing injustice and repeated attacks on the voting rights and civil rights of black people in this country. She is not the only thought leader I have heard talk about the problem with quick forgiveness of those who perpetrate violence against innocent people - like the nine who died at Mother Emanuel AME Church.

The third woman on the panel was Bree Newsome, that courageous young black Charlottean who shimmied up the flagpole in Columbia, SC, a few weeks ago and took down the confederate battle flag.

Such bravery. Such strength. Such faith. Such knowledge. Such wisdom. And she's only 30 years old. She talked about going to the slave market in Charleston with members of her family and being aware of the fact that her ancestors had entered that very market, been sold into slavery, and never saw each other again. As she stood with her parents and other relatives, she wondered what it would be like if they were separated from one another that day and were never reconnected.

In response to a question about whether the removal of the flag matters in light of all the other problems that black people face in this country, she answered with a resounding, "Yes, it does matter." Yes, one can argue that a flag is only a symbol, but symbols matter. In its most basic sense, her act that day was nothing more than the removal of a piece of fabric from a piece of steel, but the responses to her action prove that there is more at stake than merely "a piece of fabric." These painful conversations, the backlash that is happening here in North Carolina and all over the south (any beyond) demonstrate the ongoing desire by some people to terrorize and intimidate other people based on the color of their skin. If the flag doesn't matter, if symbols don't matter, then get rid of it. Take it down. Remove it from cars and houses and every other public place. Get rid of the confederate monuments as well.

Bree insisted that we not shy away from comparing the confederate battle symbol to the swastika. She pointed out that there would never be a panel discussion about whether or not the nazi flag should be flown in Germany. No one would be able to claim that its original designation thousands of years before it was appropriated by the hatemongers in the early 20th century made it okay to fly that abomination in the 21st century. There would be no government equivocation about its removal from public buildings or even private ones. That flag is a symbol of hatred, terror, genocide, and evil. Period. No questions asked. No turning back. No turning back.

She made us laugh and she made us groan when she talked about the difficult moment in which she made the decision to be the one who climbed that pole. First they went around the group and each had to answer the question: "Can you be arrested at this time?" Very difficult question indeed. She said she had to peel off from the group to pray, to read Scripture, to think it through - and then to come back and say, "Yes, I will do it." She spoke of the deliberate choice to have a black woman climb the pole and a white man stand at the bottom. They were both arrested. Her trial was recently scheduled begin in November.

Sitting in that hall last night surrounded by more than 100 people, including my husband and daughter, listening to those women speak truth to power, truth about power, truth from a place of power, my soul was soothed. My heart was encouraged. My mind was stimulated. There is so much more to learn, to read about, to talk about, to sing about, and to do in response to the ongoing legacy of inequality, hate, and terror that has plagued this country.

This is heavy stuff, I know, but if there is any hope for true peace, for true community, for a just future, we have to talk about this stuff and we have to act together to change ourselves, our families, the stories we tell, the ways in which we interact with each other, and not be afraid to name our own wrongdoing and complicity with unjust systems. Each of us. All of us.

I will never forget where I was when I heard the news about the first plane hitting the first tower on September 11, 2001. I will never forget where I was when Karen called me from Sandy Hook on December 14, 2012, and asked me to pray because there had been a shooting at an elementary school not far from her house.

Now I know that I will never forget where I was when Heather called me on my cell phone and told me about the horrors of this past June 17th in that church in Charleston, South Carolina. I have been forever changed by the senseless deaths of those God-worshipping people by that angry, deluded, racist young man. His actions there broke my heart on a level that no other tragedy has during my lifetime.

I am grateful for the gift of the four women that have appeared in my life this week to teach me, to challenge me, to push me forward in my seminary studies, in my thinking, in my teaching, in my reading, and in my faith walk. I am grateful for the gift of answered prayer. (But I need to be careful about what I pray for... Stuff happens. It really does.)

Thank you, Bree, Qiana, Michaela, and Joy.
Thanks be to God.

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