As a part of my commemoration of African American History Month, I remember those whose living witness shaped me as a person of love and justice.
Audia Mae Hoard Roberts (1890-1979). My maternal grandmother. Ever vibrant. Not the proverbial “force of nature,” but, in her intentional, incarnational living in the spirit of the God she believed and knew, verily, she was nature itself. When my older brother Wayne, and then I was born, she made it clear in her kindly, though firmly matriarchal way that she didn’t desire to be called “grand”, asking that all refer to her as “Mom.” So, we did!
Mom, Baptist born and bred, from the moment she learned to read was a Bible student and, until her dying day, an adult class teacher. Many a Sunday, I accompanied her to First Baptist Church on the corner of Cardinal and Bell Avenues in St. Louis. I, in the deference of my youth, sat in the rear pew of her well-subscribed class, awed at her scholarship and appreciative of her encouragement of questions from the attendees, always assuring that “we, in the end, can have no certain answers, for only God knows.” In her personal tutelage, during my brother’s and my much anticipated weekend stays, Mom would have us read aloud a selected Bible passage, invite us to memorize and recite it, offer commentary on its context (“lest we fall,” she admonished, “into the proof-texting pit of error”), and then, ask, “Now, how do you interpret it?” (My cradle-born Episcopal Church liturgies are laden with scripture, but I truly learned the Bible at my grandmother’s knee!)
In 1970, during the post-Civil Rights Era and the beginning of the Black Power movement, I entered high school. At a time when I (thought I) knew everything and, in my omniscience, felt self-assured of the docility of my elders regarding matters of advancements in the cause of racial equality, my mother quietly encouraged me to “talk to Mom.” I did, learning an invaluable lesson, one that has borne resonance within me to this day, though at the time I didn’t know how and possibly couldn’t know how much.
Mom was strikingly fair-skinned. She could have passed for white (in those days, an attribute for blacks who hungered to taste the fruits of the equalities of the then dominant race). She didn’t. Proudly claiming her black heritage (though clearly with ancestors born to master-slave conscribed concupiscence), she, never one of a retiring spirit, took early part in civil rights activism. For more than fifty years, through the St. Louis branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), first as a membership recruitment division leader, and then as an executive committee member, she shared in strategizing and public protests against inequalities in education, housing, and political (minority voter) disenfranchisement.
Looking back, I am ashamed that I, in my youthful arrogance and ignorance, discounted her humble recount of her times and her experiences as not enough; for how could the world, my then current world still be as awful as I perceived it to be if she and others had done all they could have done? Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut, who I quoted in the previous blog post, is right. Even when we humans remember our history, we, as an ineluctable aspect of being alive, will repeat it. For here I stand, having reached my retirement, looking at a church I love and have served for nearly 40 years still riddled with tenacious inequalities regarding age, gender, race, and sexuality. Clearly I didn’t do all I could have done.
Perhaps, then, that is why African American History Month is (and all sacred observances are) fitting and faithful, for they can remind us of our higher vocations of love and justice, the clamor of which our daily preoccupations and predilections often make mute.