African American History Month

(Personal Note: In recognition of African American History Month, I republish my blog post of February 1, 2015. Characteriologically, I am a person who, in regard to nearly every subject, great and small, upon initial and second thought, consideration and reconsideration, changes his mind, at times, multiply within short spans of time. However, the following word still rings true in my mind and heart, soul and spirit…)

In 1976, as a part of the United States Bicentennial Celebration, African American or Black History Month (AAHM) was recognized by the federal government as an annual occasion, in the words of then President Gerald Ford, to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

AAHM’s forerunner, Negro History Week (NHW), was established in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Observed in the second week of February, coinciding with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, February 12 and 14, respectively, dates since the late 19th century held in honor in black communities, NHW focused on advancing the teaching and study in public schools of the history of American blacks.

I am a 62-year old African American educated in St. Louis public schools. I remember the dearth of system-authorized black history instruction; a glaring deficiency addressed in content and assuaged in spirit by the committed efforts of my nuclear and extended families and my elementary school teachers, all who, in collaboration conscious or unawares, fulfilled my grandmother Audia’s proclamation, “Paul, to know yourself, you must know your people’s history.” Hence, I have an elemental, perhaps eternal affinity for AAHM. More expansively, for America – which, I believe, has still to incarnate the dream of Langston Hughes, who, speaking for all peoples, native and immigrant, white and black, said, “O, let America be America again; the land that never has been yet, and yet must be; the land where every man is free” – to know herself, she must know her black people’s history.

Still, as a pluralist who rejoices in our racial diversity and as an inclusivist who equally relishes our common humanity, my inner inquisitor wonders, worries about AAHM. How fair is it to the concept of our universal humanness to dedicate any period – a day, a week, a month, a year or more – to the history of any one race? And how fair is it to relegate the study of black history to any period when my people’s history, a vivid, inerasable thread in the rich tapestry of our national being and becoming, is American history? (My aunt, Evelyn Hoard Roberts, a college English professor, so cherishing the idea, the ideal of interdisciplinary and interracial, in other words shared, not separate approaches to education, in 1977, published American Literature and the Arts Including Black Expression.)

Yet, as Langston’s prophecy remains to be fulfilled, I continue to pray in his words: O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.

As I believe that true equality is achieved in real part when all of us know the histories of each of us, I will commemorate and celebrate AAHM.


Selma, the Supreme Court, and the Silver Screen – a luta continua

(Note: a luta continua, a Portuguese phrase, translated, the struggle continues, originally a rallying cry of Mozambique’s 1960s-70s independence movement, over time has been employed by a number of activists for a variety of emancipation causes.)

In March 1965, marchers, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., journeyed over 50 miles on foot from Selma to Montgomery and the Alabama State Capitol building in a non-violent demonstration against voter registration discrimination against African American citizens. That same month, President Lyndon Baines Johnson presented legislation, which, on August 6, he would sign into law as the Voting Rights Act (VRA), to a joint session of Congress, saying:

Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

Though I continue to pray, “we shall overcome” all vestiges of prejudice, Johnson’s words that strike within me a more resonant chord of truth, are these: “The battle will not be over.”

On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court issued its decision on Shelby County v. Holder. The Court, voting 5-4, overturned key provisions of the VRA that required federal approval and oversight of changes in state election laws. The Court split along what some hold to be an ideological line. I call it a chasm; an ever-widening gulf in assessments of the history and current state of race in America. It was the opinion of the Court majority that racial minorities no longer encounter barriers to voting in states with histories of discrimination. It is my experience and observation that racism – learned negative perceptions of and projections on another people accompanied by power in the denial of advantages and opportunities – is a consistent element of human nurture, if not nature; thus, requiring constant vigilance to oppose its influence. Hence, siding with the Court minority, I affirm the admonition of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who likened the revisions to the VRA as “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

A luta continua.

On Sunday, February 22, 2015, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) held the 87th annual Oscar Awards. Selma, the dramatic movie based on the 1965 march and surrounding events, was nominated for Best Picture. However, no other nominations were forthcoming for anyone associated with the critically acclaimed film, among them, Ava DuVernay, director, and David Oyelowo, cast in the role of Martin Luther King, Jr. Some viewed the omission as revealing an AMPAS racial bias. I believe that an appraisal of what constitutes art and artistic merit is personal and individual, thus, like beauty, ever is in the eye of the beholder. Still, I wonder how expansive and inclusive in perception is the body of over 6,000 AMPAS voters, which largely is white and male.

A luta continua.

of birds & lilies

Absalom JonesAn African American History Month commemoration of the Reverend Absalom Jones (1746-February 13, 1818), first Black priest of the Episcopal Church

Look at the birds of the air…Consider the lilies of the field…” Jesus contemplates carefree birds that sow and reap not and contented lilies that toil and spin not, yet are robed more splendidly than Solomon.

Really, Jesus? Countless are my cares and concerns – upon which I, more realistically, contemplate – that make this idyllic image unintelligible. Yet as soon as I utter my protest, I hear the voice of Jesus say, “Yes, Paul, really!”

Jesus doesn’t ask me to forget my troubles. Such amnesia is escapist unreality. Rather Jesus, who was troubled unto death, therefore, in the words of the spiritual, “knows the trouble I’ve seen,” points to  birds and lilies to remind me to trust God. If God provides for birds and lilies, God provides for me.

Now, I know that I am to trust God. But I also know what Isaiah knew. God’s ways are not my ways. And what the Apostle Paul knew. God’s ways are inscrutable. Hence, God sometimes needs supervision! Sometimes I need to tell God what I need, when and where. (Truth to tell, I sometimes pray like this!)

But whenever I do this, I rediscover that God is incorrigible, refusing to play by my rules. So, I confess, I trust God, but waver between faith and fear.

This, I think, is why Jesus counsels “strive first for the kingdom of God.” The cure for care about many things is to care for one thing: God’s kingdom. No earthly or heavenly domain, but rather God’s very life. Of justice, fair dealing one with another. Of compassion, shared living and loving in suffering and in joy.

Today, on the 197th anniversary of his death, I remember Absalom Jones as one who trusted God, striving for God’s kingdom of justice and compassion. Never one or the other. Always both.

Absalom knew that justice shapes fair policy, but without compassion can fail to see the individual hungering for liberation. Absalom also knew that compassion cares for the individual, but without justice can fail to see the corrupt system that needs transformation.

Absalom trusted God, striving for God’s kingdom of justice and compassion, helping to establish the Free African Society, and later the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Philadelphia, for the spiritual and social, political and personal redemption of God’s people.

Thus Absalom is honored as: “Zealous for the prosperity of the Church, unwearied in doing good…especially beloved as a consequence of his devotion to the people of God, particularly the poor, the sick, and the longsuffering” (from the Reverend Dr. George Freeman Bragg’s Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, 1916, page 7).

Absalom, therefore, is a trustworthy mentor for me who longs to sing God’s kingdom song of justice and compassion in the foreign land of this world, whose moral economy often is bankrupt and whose political currency remains power in the hands of few exercising control over many. As this is all too true of this world, I know that my trust in God will wane in my fear that the “what is” will continue to overwhelm the “what ought to be.”

Today, remembering Absalom, I say, “Nevertheless!” In the face of my fear, I will sing God’s song; daring to see the world from the point of view of the victory of God’s kingdom already achieved in Jesus’ life of justice and compassion for all. As Absalom knew, then I will know that when I dare to sing God’s song, striving for God’s kingdom, I never truly can be afraid.

African American History Month – reflection 9, concluding this series

FullSizeRender (1)Celebrating African American History Month by commemorating those who have influenced me most. In this my closing reflection, who more than William John Abernathy (1911-1986) and Clara Lolita Roberts Abernathy (1915-2015), my father and my mother.

The parent-child relationship is fertile ground; capable of producing the grandest outward fruits of ethically-conscious, societally-contributing adults and the greatest inward frustrations, imparting to that next generation long-enduring complexes of guilt and shame and struggles of self-worth. So mixed is the legacy of my formative years.

I am grateful to my parents for the gift of my life. Even on my worst day, I rejoice to be alive in this world.

I am grateful, too, for treasured lessons my parents taught me. Exposing me, in my earliest years, to music and literature, history and science. Exhorting me to apply my gifts toward the development of an inquisitive mind. Sharing their witness of faith in God and in the life of the church so to form my soul in the likeness of love’s virtue. Instilling in me a present consciousness of life’s inequities rooted in discriminations based on color, not character; so to arm me with an awareness that though I dare never assume that the world would treat me with fairness, that was a value I was expected to practice.

Looking back over my 62 years, I now see more clearly what, for so long, I did not comprehend. I understand my father’s bitterness in being denied opportunities because of his race. I understand my mother’s quiescent acceptance of life’s injustices. She was not possessed of the passionate temperament that compelled my grandmother and my aunt toward civic activism. Rather, embracing an inmost spirituality of an abiding trust that God somehow would provide, her soul’s belief was given voice in words like those of James Weldon Johnson:

God of our weary years,

God of our silent tears,

Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;

Thou who has by Thy might led us into the light,

Keep us forever in the path, we pray…

Home life with an angry father and a compliant mother was oft rancorous. As my disposition was, is more akin to that of my grandmother and my aunt and not at all like that of my mother, I, too, understand how, in my customary contesting against my father, I contributed mightily to our domestic unrest.

Still, I am grateful for this, my mixed, at times, mixed up family life into which I was born. For from this mélange of light and shadow, quiet and tempest, goodly, godly counsel and furious passion, I was formed as a person of love and justice – one who lives to share active benevolence and fairness with all, unconditioned by differences of culture, color, or creed, and unconstrained even by my most heartfelt opinions and soul-deep prejudices.

African American History Month – reflection 8

Continuing my personal reflections on African American History Month, I have become who I am through the helping hearts and hands of so many. Yet another…

Verna Josephine DozierDr. Verna Josephine Dozier (1917-2006). Teacher and theologian. Preacher and prophet. Author and mentor.

September 1975. The beginning of my second seminary year. I remember a classmate, the late Wayland Edward Melton, who one day would be dean of Philadelphia Cathedral in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, returning from summer break with a breathlessly exuberant report about Verna Dozier. “This itty-bitty Black woman biblical scholar” had conducted a late summer retreat for clergy and ordination candidates.  “She was brilliant”, he enthused, his face abeam with wonder, “and she is a lay person who schooled the clergy about the Bible!”

I carried that memory until the moment I met Verna in 1992. She was the guest instructor on the Book of Genesis at a week-long teaching series at the former College of Preachers of the Washington National Cathedral. I especially recall her lecture on the Creation story. At the close, a member of the audience asked, “Dr. Dozier, scripture tells us that shortly after God completed his work of creation, he commanded of the woman, saying,” reading from his pocket Bible, he lowered his voice for emphasis, “‘your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ As I read it, Dr. Dozier, this is a part of God’s plan. What do you, particularly as a woman, say?” The standing room only crowd fell silent, both in response to the inquirer’s impertinence and with bated breath awaiting Verna’s reply. She bowed her head, sitting still, her hands clasped on her lap. After several moments, she looked up, turned her head to face her questioner, saying, her voice soft and low, rich with resonance, “Yes, that is a part of the story, but it was a condition of life after the Fall.” Another hush fell over the gathered throng, our voices stilled by the implication of her answer, plain to hear for all who would receive it, that the subordination of women was the result of human disobedience and defiance of God’s plan, thus not an aspect of the genius of creation. After another several moments, Verna said, her voice rising in conviction, “And it is our work, the people of God, with God’s help, to correct it!”

Later, Verna, who in the mid-1950s was the first African American member of St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill, where I served as rector (1998-2015), became a treasured mentor. Always sensible. Ever sagacious. Verna was one of very few in my experience in whom common sense and uncommon intellect dwelled in daily harmony. In this, she was equally adept in offering the encouragement of candid praise and the correction of principled critique.

Verna’s lessons of God’s love and justice live in me. Whenever I need a refresher, I reach to my bookshelf to retrieve, read, and reflect anew on her writings, particularly the autographed, dogged-eared copy of her seminal work, annotated with sundry self-inscribed marginal notes, The Dream of God: A Call To Return (1991). In these pages, Verna speaks with the timbre of her favorite biblical figure, the prophet Amos, who declared, “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Decrying how the Christian church has abandoned God’s dream to follow (and not merely to worship) Jesus, she advocates for the reclamation of this truest of callings. Through these pages, I always hear Verna’s voice, saying, “Paul, do not tell me what you believe. Show me the difference it makes, the difference you make that you believe.”

African American History Month – reflection 7

A blessed remembrance of another who, in love, invited me to be more than I was and to become who I was meant to be.

Janice Marie RobinsonThe Reverend Janice Marie Robinson (1943-2012). Friend and fellow priest. Sister and soulmate.

In the fall of 1988, I, the newly-called rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, arrived in Washington, DC. Janice, having spent years in the fruitful fields of nursing, therapy, and health care administration, followed a call to her new vocation of ordination. Meeting at an annual conference for new clergy in the area, how could we have known that would be the beginning of our love story?

I don’t know how or why Janice, a Philadelphia born, New York City bred woman of tender heart and tough mettle, and I, a native of more provincial St. Louis, bonded as friends, and, with the speed of the Marcan gospel’s characteristic action-narrative word, immediately. But we did. Within nearly the next instant, we recognized our kinship. We, siblings born to different earthly families, were united by our baptism in Christ and ordination in the church, but also by an equally sacred, inarticulable soul-deep fellowship, even spirit-ship.

We were June-babies; our natal anniversaries two days apart. Geminis. Twins to each other and unto ourselves. Each of us, publicly gregarious and deeply private and guarded. The restlessness of our hearts disclosed through our spoken words, but also intuitively conveyed and perceived one with another through a nod, a look, a gesture.

Concerning that restlessness, though clergy we were, in the face of the reality of the resident iniquity in the world and in humankind, we oft wrestled to hold steadfast to the faith and hope in and love of a God of omnipotent benevolence. Theodicy was our shared Pauline “thorn in the flesh” for which we prayed release, yet through which we, as the Apostle, learned the sufficiency of divine grace. In that confidence Janice, between the two of us, was more faithful, hopeful, and loving. Always. Once, after one of my dispirited and wildly arrogant declarations of unbelief, she challenged me in her indescribably sympathetic, yet unmistakably persuasive way: “Paul, that’s b——t! You do believe! Admit it!” Yes, Janice, I did and I do.

Christianity is an incarnational religion; at its heart, the story of divine spirit enfleshed. A truth expressed in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s postulation of our ontology. We are not so much human beings in quest of spiritual experience, but spiritual beings immersed in human experience. This, I believe, is also the heart of the Christian gospel. Through the indwelling of God’s Spirit, one becomes, as Janice was for me, as Jesus is – an embodiment of God’s logos, a living word of timeless love and endless justice.

African American History Month – reflection 6

Continuing my commemorative pilgrimage through African American History Month remembering those whose life witness and tutelage formed and shaped me…

All Saints' Episcopal Church, St. LouisThe Reverend Joseph W. Nicholson, Ph.D. (1901-1990). Rector of my home parish, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, St. Louis (1949-1972). The priest who baptized me, presented me for Confirmation, and, through his incomparable intellect and surpassing pastoral presence, planted within my soul the earliest and, for me, at the time, secreted seed of what would bear fruit years later as a call to ordained ministry.

Dr. Nicholson, before arriving at All Saints’, had served as the professor of Pastoral Theology (1945-1949) at the Bishop Payne Divinity School, founded in Petersburg, VA, in 1878 to train African Americans for ministry in the Episcopal Church. Earlier in his career, Dr. Nicholson co-authored with Benjamin Mays, a Baptist minister and later professor, then president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA, a study, The Negro’s Church (1933), the first sociological treatment of the black church in the United States.

I have marvelous memories of this influential man (who, in his post-retirement years, often encouraged me to call him Joseph; something, out of respect, I never could do, for he was and always will be Doctor or Father Nicholson). One among many…

I was, am an inveterate and, at times, intemperate questioner. Mrs. Beryl Stuart, my 5th grade Sunday School teacher, one morning, charged me with being “disruptive,” dismissing me from the class and directing me to the rector’s office. There, the great man awaited sitting imperiously behind his massive desk. Sure to receive a reprimand, one which I knew would be reviewed and reinforced by my parents, I hurried across the floor, quickly slumping with hunched shoulders into an overstuffed wingchair. What happened next surprised, stunned me. Dr. Nicholson asked me to tell him why I was there. I recounted that the class had been reading the Genesis creation stories, quite familiar to me from Bible studies with my grandmother, and I had wondered aloud and repeatedly, “Why are there no dinosaurs?” Hearing Dr. Nicholson’s chuckle, timidly I looked up into his smiling countenance, his large hands folded, seemingly in prayer. He said, “That’s a good question. I want you to do some study on that and come back and tell me what you find. Now, go back to class.” With wide-eyed relief, I rose, moving to the door. “Paul,” he called out in his stentorian baritone, “keep asking your questions. It’s one of the best ways we learn.”

Hmmm, over 50 years later, I offered similar counsel to a 10-year old who had reminded me of the power of inquiry (January 7 blog post: fair enough: a 10-year old reminds me how we learn – a personal reflection). Verily, contra Santayana, there are some historical lessons that, in our remembrance, we are encouraged, even blessed to repeat.