this one word

thinking

I am 65 years old. In my lifetime, I have been referred to (and I have referred to myself) successively as Negro, Black, and African American. Throughout my lifetime, there’s another word, whatever my age, to which I have been referred, though never by me about me (and, here, I will not use the pseudo-polite euphemism, the n-word): nigger.

I can remember the first time I heard (or perhaps more accurately stated, I can remember the first time I recall hearing) this word. I was 13. On a crisp autumn Saturday, my St. Louis Boy Scout troop was on a 5-mile hike near the town of Hillsboro, Missouri. On a remote backcountry road, passing by a lone house, four white children standing on the porch called out, pointing, laughing, “Look at the niggers!” All of us were angry. A few of us doffed our backpacks, preparing to race toward that house and confront those mean-mouthed children. Our Scoutmaster, Willie Chapman, surely mindful of where we were and alone against whoever might be in that house, commanded, “Keep marching!” We did.

I can remember the last time I heard this word. Early September, a bit more than a year ago. I stood in the checkout line (all those well acquainted with my “indoorsman” housebound tendencies might be surprised!) of one of the local hardware stores; my cart laden with tools for some garden projects. A young man was in the adjacent line; his head swathed in a sweaty bandana, his shirtless sinewy frame draped in bib overalls, the cuffs, hanging over scruffy steel-toed boots. A construction worker, I reckoned, inspiring my instant admiration for one, far surpassing me, skilled with the use of his hands to build. Leaving the store, we crossed paths, our carts nearly colliding. He grunted, “Nigger.” Surprised, I looked at him. “Yeah,” he snarled, “that’s what I said.” As calmly as I could, I answered, “I heard you” and walked away.

Today, in Charlottesville, Virginia, violent skirmishes broke out between white nationalists staging a “Unite the Right” rally and counter-demonstrators, leading to multiple injuries and, as I write, one fatality.

I believe in the free speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. I also decry the hatred embraced, embodied in the principles and practices of racial supremacy. Whenever the two collide, as they have in Charlottesville, in countless incidences in the past, and doubtless in times to come, this one word, nigger, ringing in my consciousness of history and my experience, offending my every righteous sensibility, and reanimating my passion for the justice of equality summons me to stand against any and all who dishonor humanity by claiming any inherent or inherited superiority.

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the penance of penitence

thinking

I closed my most recent blog post (February 21, 2017: to bear or not to bear) with these words – Lent is my life…My life is Lent – by which I meant that the penitential character of this annual pre-Easter season resounds within my soul, boring down to the core of my viscera. Since then, I’ve been given, called by some inner urging to ponder why. Today, reflecting on some aspects of my life that I believe I have known and some new insights, which arose as I pushed, punished myself through at least one sleepless night to discern something, anything new, I write…

I was raised in a household encompassed about by the expanse and limitations of American history (true, of course, for any person or family, though each and all, by necessity, I think, need define the nature and range of each)…

lolita-william-c-1940

My father, William John Abernathy, discouraged by a society and his family, each and both constrained by racism, to pursue his dream of becoming a mathematician (as he was possessed of a highly analytical mind), for the sake of providing for his family, settled for being a postal clerk. Moreover, his father, my paternal grandfather, Pedro Silva, was Cuban; that identification, evidenced outwardly in my father’s dark complexion and straight black hair added to his exclusion from circles white and black. My father lived a frustrated, melancholy, and angry life; his essential and volatile ire fueled by his alcoholism (also a symptom of his essential ire). He also was a deeply religious man, given to daily Bible study and prayer (his pietism and alcoholism being, for me, two contrary dimensions of existence that were difficult, well-nigh impossible for me, as a child, to comprehend; though, as an adult, I can conceive and, in my own life, perceive a similar discomfiting coalescence of contradictory elements of human ontology)…

My mother, Clara Lolita Roberts, raised in an austere Baptist household, a schoolteacher by vocation and by avocation, under the strict tutelage of her mother, my grandmother, Audia Hoard Roberts, always to be a saint-on-earth-in-training, was, in her quiet and reserved, but no less demonstrative way, a puritanical disciplinarian.

To these two folk, I was born. Each, in his and her abiding care and near constant reminders that I be upright in my behavior, my doing (though, in my view, much less, indeed, seemingly little concerned for who  I was, my being) held for me a certain awe, in reverence and in fear.

My father, raised a Methodist, and my mother, believing the adage that “a family that prays together stays together”, determined that the Episcopal Church, with its ordered liturgy built on a biblical foundation, was a fair, middle-way compromise.[1] All Saints’, St. Louis, was our parish home; during my youth, a vibrant community and the largest African American Episcopal Church west of the Mississippi River. There, I was tutored in The Book of Common Prayer 1928, through which I was steeped in the annual custom of a 70-not-40-day Lenten season beginning not on Ash Wednesday, but including the three prior Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima,[2] by which, my parents having instilled in me that I was defined by my good-doing (which never would amount to enough that I might become good), I found an oddly discomfiting solace, indeed, likeness. Penitence was my life. My life was penitence.

soren-aabye-kierkegaard-unfinished-sketch-by-his-cousin-niels-christian-kierkegaard-c-1840

As I reflect, long possessed of (by!) a brooding spirit, it is little surprise to me that I, seeking to see and to know myself as a self, gravitated toward the discipline of existentialism with its central concern for the meaning of existence and its core questions of identity (Who am I?) and destiny (Where am I going?). It surprises me less that, in my ongoing pilgrimage toward my understanding of life and myself, one of my chosen companions, verily, champions is Søren Kierkegaard;[3] philosopher, poet, theologian, considered the Father of Existentialism (and, along with Hamlet, a melancholy Dane!) whose life’s vocation was his apprehension of individual truth and whose life’s journey was that of always becoming a Christian.

I am a follower of Jesus through the story of his life and ministry, death and resurrection. A story made my own, revealed to me and incarnate in me through the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. A story I daily strive and fail to live fully, for which I am grateful for the grace of the correction and the consolation of penitence.

 

Illustration: Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, unfinished sketch by his cousin, Niels Christian Kierkegaard, c. 1840

Footnotes:

[1] Earlier and during my parent’s era, The Episcopal Church, historically the church of many of America’s “founding fathers”, also for some middle class (both aspiring and having arrived) black folk was “a destination church” (long before that term became popular to describe a religious community’s raison d’être to fill a particular cultural/societal or theological/liturgical niche).

[2] Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, derived from the Latin meaning “seventieth”, “sixtieth”, and “fiftieth”, respectively, were the names given to the Sundays coming seventy, sixty, and fifty days before Easter Day. Because of this, for most, esoteric knowledge, I recall handily winning an elementary school Spelling Bee when the final word was Quinquagesima!

[3] Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

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.

imaginary conversation about real questions

“Really, Paul, tell me what you think. Do you believe America wages war on black youth?”

That’s what I call a direct question! Put to me by a friend this morning over coffee. We were talking about last evening’s announcement of the St. Louis grand jury’s declination to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson for the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Brown’s death sparked local community and some regional and nationwide protests, some violent, and confrontations with law enforcement officials. These demonstrations have continued for three months and, last night, took on renewed fervor.

“Really, Paul, do you believe that?”

Looking across the table into my friend’s earnest eyes, I, perhaps oddly, for he is someone I trust, felt compelled to inquire, “Why do you ask?”

Because,” he was quick to answer, “I value your opinion and, well…” he hesitated, “you’re black.”

Somehow I thought that – not so much his first reply, but his second – was it. I, the good friend, and the older, sage black man might debunk some disturbing urban mythology. “May I ask you a question?”

Another one?” he smiled.

I chuckled at his swift repartee; just the sort of reply I might have given. “Yes, another one.”

“Sure.”

“Do you believe America is waging a war on black youth?”

He pursed his lips, clearly perplexed. “Well, I’d like not to think so. That would be a terrible…a tragic thing. But I just don’t know. I’ve followed the story since August. And so many of the people in Ferguson and in other places, along with charges of racial profiling and concerns about policing of minority communities, claim the police are gunning literally for black kids.”

“Which, if true, would make it systemic, not situational.”

“Yes.”

“Which, if true, would make it about America, not one community or neighborhood here or there.”

“Yes.” He leaned forward, clasping his hands tightly together.

I sighed. “I don’t know either. I, like you, would like to believe it’s not so. But I don’t live in Ferguson. I live on Capitol Hill. And I’ve not been in St. Louis for years. And since graduating high school, I’ve never again lived there year-round. Too many racially-charged memories. All that said,” I shook my head, “I just don’t know, but I don’t, I can’t discount the experiences of those who believe it. Something…many things form their perceptions. I also confess I have a built-in racial lens. Eventually, I see everything through that lens. My parents raised my brother and me to know the difference between white and black and that society favors whites. I grew up with that teaching, and, I have to say, it’s served me well. To be aware…to be wary at times, not to be naïve about expecting fairness from individuals and institutions. And what’s sad, very sad to me is that Michael Brown’s parents have to be at least two generations younger than mine and, clearly, they sought to teach their son the same lesson that America isn’t fair…and in Michael’s case not safe, even fatal. So, no matter what you or I believe, we haven’t progressed much as a nation in terms of the disparity of our perceptions across lines of race.”

“So, Paul, where’s the hope?”

“Another good question. Right now, my hope, really, my wishful thinking…my desire in the face of things I can’t control, is that the rioting in Ferguson will end, that there will be no loss of life, that looted businesses can recover. And my hope, my conviction about possibilities, is that the protests will continue for change in the system to address racial profiling, minority policing, and, yes, what we’ve been talking about, which for some is untrue, for others, an open question, and for still others, a living reality…a living hell.”

He nodded. “Then I hope you’re right about all your hopes.”

“Well, here’s another one. That you and I do something.”

“What can I do?”

“Yet another good question, which begs another. Do you wake up in the morning or at any time during the day and think about being white?”

“What does that mean?”

Do you?”

“No, why would I?”

“That’s my point. I wake up every day and within five minutes, if not sooner, I acknowledge to myself that I’m black. It’s something I don’t risk forgetting especially when I step out into the world. And I think for you consciously to see yourself as white is for you to be aware of your American privilege. The opportunities America affords you that…”

You don’t have? C’mon, Paul! You’re not being honest about your privilege.”

“Fair enough. Yes, I do have privileges. I have a good education. A job I enjoy. I’m well-read and well-traveled. I have credit I can use to get things I want. I have a wide circle of friends. I live in relative security. Yes, I am privileged. I also have memories of being denied credit because of where I lived or of being asked a few more questions than seemed obligatory before it was granted, and, in some cases, still denied. And there were jobs I didn’t get because I was black. In more than one case, it was patently obvious. Have you ever felt you were denied employment because you’re white?”

“No, never.”

“Not that that, in and of itself, proves anything, except that, for me, it does, even if only because you’ve never felt or had to feel that way. I have. But more to the point, no matter what advantages I have, I also have little doubt that the Michael Browns of America have less, and that disadvantaged status is rooted…remains rooted in race.”

“So, what you’re saying is that the situation is hopeless.”

“Nope. What I’m hinting at is that more folks who are conscious of the disparities…and let’s broaden it beyond race to class, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, pick an issue…and who act wherever they are, doing whatever they can, whenever they can, whether individually and, even better, in union with others, to address inequalities not only can make, but also do make a difference.”

“Like I said earlier, I hope you’re right about your hopes.”