Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

A conversation…a confession about race

Two men.

Different as different could be. Save for gender. And age. Both 60-something. And stage of life. Both retired. And, both Episcopalians, religious upbringing.

One. White. An attorney. The child of an old Southern family with roots tracing back to mid-17th century English colonists. His mother, a painter of note and an author. His father, a prominent attorney from a long, generational line of prominent attorneys.

The other. Black. An Episcopal priest. Midwestern born. His mother, an elementary school teacher. His father, a postal clerk.

Two men, largely different as the proverbial day and night, in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) encounter in a quiet corner of a coffee shop of a local bookstore, engaging in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) conversation about race…

A conversation that, once he discovered my vocation, became his chosen opportunity for his confession. “I’ve wanted, I’ve needed to share this with someone for a long time…”

He sat forward, clutching his coffee cup in his hands, first, looking down, averting his gaze, telling me of his formative years. His parents had taught him that his privileged life bore an obligation to care for those who were needy, which, he acknowledged, as he understood their instruction, meant those who were lesser endowed with the material blessings of life, which, he further admitted, meant those who weren’t white. His parents, “Good people,” he quickly asserted, did not teach him that they were “better than other people.”

Still, certain moments in his childhood were indelibly, painfully imprinted on his memory.

His nanny, “a lovely, kind lady”, who cared for him from his earliest days, wasn’t allowed to enter their home through the front door. One morning, he, then at the age of 8, seeing her approach the house and turning, preparing “to go around to the back”, opened the front door, happily welcoming her; an impertinence, his parents made clear, that prompted an unpleasant scene of his being corrected and of her being chastised…

On another occasion, he, accompanied by his nanny, rode the bus downtown. He could not understand why she had to leave him and go to the rear when there were plenty of empty seats in the front. When he asked her, she declined to say more than, “That’s the way it is.” When he later asked his parents, they simply affirmed, “She is right.”

But somehow, even as a child, he knew it wasn’t right. “What is right,” he looked up at me, his lips trembling, yet his voice firm, “is that we’re all equal because God made us that way.”

Then, as best as I can recall, he said something like this: “For a long time, I’ve thought about Jesus on the cross asking his Father to forgive those who were killing him. I finally decided if he, who died for me, could do that, I needed to forgive my parents for their ignorance. But,” he held out his hands to me, “I need to be forgiven for my silence. All these years, I’ve known what was right and I never said or did anything to make it right. I promised God I would do something, whatever I can, but right now I want you to ask God to forgive me. Please.”

Taking his hands, we said the Confession of Sin that Episcopalians pray every Sunday. Then, making the sign of the cross, I pronounced the absolution of sin. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He mouthed a silent, “Thank you,” stood, and departed.

For a while, I sat motionless; moved, stunned by the experience of his transparent honesty, his naked humility, his patent sorrow, and his evident need, and by the swiftness of our entry into the depths of our encounter and the abruptness – yet, in its own way, timeliness – of its end. I do not know whether we will see each other again. It’s doubtful, I think. But, if we do, I will say to him, “Thank you.”

is brown the newest black?

Black. A basic (my wife, Pontheolla, truly a fashionista from birth, tells me, “a grounding, foundational”) color in the fashion palate; as such, the basis of the formation of many an outfit. Hence, the meaning behind the provocative title of the acclaimed Netflix comedy-drama, Orange Is the New Black, telling the tale of life in a federal minimum-security women’s prison where jumpsuits are prescribed attire and their color, orange, the new black.

Black, however, for me, as an African American, always bears the connotation of race. And, given my life’s experiences and my sense of American history, always brings a flood of memories of the discriminatory deferral, at times, denial of life’s opportunities and, equally, perhaps worse, the disavowal of God-given human dignity. And, as I believe that race and racism remain constant elements of the American “experiment” (for The Declaration of Independence’s promise of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” has yet to be realized by all at all times), discrimination always, on any given day, at any given time, for any other color painfully can be renewed.

“Annalisa”. I wrote about her before (revelación, June 1, 2016), describing her as “an engagingly convivial twenty-something ambitious college student with a thoughtful vision for her future.” In that prior blogpost, I recounted how I was made freshly aware of the insidious nature of my own prejudice. For I had asked Annalisa how she planned to spend that year’s coming Memorial Day, adding (not assuming she would observe), “an American holiday.” I realized and later asked Annalisa’s forgiveness for my sin, for she, Puerto Rican, was, is American.

In short time, Annalisa has become a dear friend. Verily, Pontheolla and I view her as we would a daughter.

Today, upon greeting, Annalisa had a look. One I’ve seen before. Sadly, many times. In my mirror and in too many eyes of too many others. A look of sudden hurt; the sort of which comes from an unexpected encounter. I asked, “Are you alright?” She answered, with welling tears, “I had incident on the street.” A man, pointing at the decal of the Puerto Rican flag on Annalisa’s car, drove up beside her, gesturing wildly, madly uttering derogatory epithets. Even more, she told us that her fiancé, “Victor”, had had a similar confrontation. A man approached him in a threatening manner, making disparaging ethnic references. Still more, she recounted how she and Victor and their families and friends, in the light and shadow of the heightened racially-tinged tenor of these times in America, had begun having intentional conversations about how to respond with calm and care if, when they encountered discrimination.

Pontheolla, Annalisa, and I joined in caring embrace. Pontheolla and I, thanking Annalisa for sharing with us, expressed our sorrow, and, later, when she departed, bade that she “take care and be careful.” This last counsel, I feel, I fear is all too necessary in these times.

having done everything they were supposed to do…

On July 18, 2016, in North Miami, Florida, a 23-year old man with autism eloped from a residential assisted living facility. Police were summoned by reports of an armed suspect threatening suicide. Upon arrival, the officers espied a man sitting in the middle of the street and another man lying on his back, his hands empty and raised in the air in view. That man, Charles Kinsey, a behavioral therapist and an African American, called out, “All he” (referring to his client) “has is a truck. A toy truck.” At some point, one of the officers “accidently”, it has been alleged, shot Mr. Kinsey, who, by his posture and proclamation to the police, did everything he was supposed to do. Moments later, asking the officer, “Why did you shoot me?”, Kinsey received the reply, “I don’t know.”

On August 12, 2016, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Stanley Vernon Majors shot and killed his next door neighbor, Khalid Jabara, a Christian of Lebanese descent. This after years of Majors’ harassing, terrorizing the Jabara family, calling them, “dirty Arabs” and “filthy Lebanese,” hurling racial epithets at gardeners who tended the Jabara family lawn (read: the “N-word” at African American workers), and, in 2015, driving his automobile, running down Jabara’s mother, Haifa, out for a jog, for which he was to be tried in March 2017. In 2013, the Jabaras filed a protection order forbidding Majors from having any contact with the family, which he repeatedly violated. This past May, against the wishes of the district attorney, Majors was released from custody with no conditions on his bond. Now, Khalid Jabara, having done everything he was supposed to do, is dead.

Two incidents among sickeningly, for me, too many that, for me, illustrate a couple of sadly, strikingly salient realities. One, aggrieved minority parties and persons doing all that they are supposed to do, all that they have been instructed to do in relation to legal authorities is no guarantee that the worst of their fears will not be realized. Two, bigotry, immune to the instruction of reason, insensate to the calling of compassion, thus, invincibly ignorant, obeys no boundaries.

rooting for the reboot of ROOTS?

roots 4 forest landscapes, Paolo Neo (Public-Domain-Photos.com)

Last night, I watched the first of four installments, running on consecutive evenings on the History Channel, of Roots; a remake of the history-making, award-winning 1977 ABC miniseries. Based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the movie traces the journey, verily, the founding of a family from Kunte Kinte, the progenitor, from West African shores via the brutal Middle Passage of slave ships across the Atlantic through the horrors of institutional slavery in the United States and the rise toward freedom of subsequent generations.

In 39 years, there are differences (the barest thumbnail sketch)…

Viewership, a (the) measure of commercial success.

In 1977, millions upon millions of viewers tuned in.

In 2016, this new edition, airing on a cable channel, won’t be, can’t be seen by as many folk.

Race, a measure (one of my chiefest barometers) of social progress.

In 1977, one could look back to the previous decade to the hopeful signs of the legislative victories of the Civil and Voter Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, respectively, and to the gloomy specters of the race riots of the mid-to-late 1960s as long-simmering black rage exploded, engulfing mostly northern American cities and the reactionary era of the dominant culture’s retreat from social reform (aka white backlash). In 1977, though black-white economic disparity remained, one could look around and behold progress, largely, I think, in the worlds of academe and the professions as schools and businesses actively sought to integrate and diversify their student bodies (doubtless, a change from which I benefited personally) and employee ranks.

In 2016, though pointing to continued advancements toward inclusion in the fields of politics (our 44th President Barack Obama being a frequently invoked exemplar of progress), education, and business, in this era of the rise and power of the Black Lives Matter movement, law enforcement and judicial impartiality, job prospects and economic viability remain present concerns, plaguing thorns in the American flesh. Moreover, to enlarge the spectrum, Arab and Hispanic Americans continue to face the unrelenting glare of discrimination under the bright, yet often unfocused light of our national passions, prejudices about terrorism and immigration.

Me, a (the) measure of my sense of self.

In 1977, when Roots originally aired on January 23-30, I was in my final seminary semester. I watched, largely in tearful silence, the visually, viscerally disturbing depictions of the human savagery of slavery. I watched, still largely in silence, yet with tears of hope, the painstaking pilgrimage of Kunte Kinte’s progeny from bondage to emancipation. I listened, again largely in silence, to the responses of viewers and film critics, news reporters and social/political commentators debating the accuracy of the history Roots portrayed, the necessity of the unvarnished representations of inhumanity, and the efficacy of the film’s purported subtext in elevating the racial consciousness of America. Then I shouted in exultation, for Roots, a visual, visceral validation of my American experience, inspired me in the quest and discovery of my familial roots.

In 2016, I half-watched last night’s episode. Throughout the evening, I switched back-and-forth between Roots and the National Basketball Association’s Western Conference game 7 final between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Golden State Warriors. Yes, I am a rabid sports aficionado, yet, also true, I found the scenes of slavery’s debasement and defilement of black folk too upsetting and more disturbing than in 1977.

Why?

In 1977, at the age of 24, I had begun to formulate my belief that, as institutional slavery was a key element of the economic, political, and social foundation of America, racism remained an indelible and virulent strand in our national DNA.

In 2016, nearly 64 years of age, my belief that too many Americans, in tenacious opposition to the ardent plea of Martin Luther King Jr., continue to teach and to learn to judge one another not on the content of one’s character, but by the color of one’s skin has become a certainty. Therefore, I do not believe that Americans, no matter how tolerant, even celebrative of diversity (and in my view of history, our national welcome and embrace of pluralism is, at best, cyclical and fragmentary, and, at worst, susceptible to suppression by the repeated rise of nativism, so evident in this current political season) ever can escape the necessity of dealing with race. Hence, I do root that the reboot of Roots may spark and strengthen another and deeper round of our national conversation.

 

Illustration: roots 4 forest landscapes, Paolo Neo (Public-Domain-Photos.com)