Let Them Rest in Peace, But We Must Not

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I am sick, sick, sick of having to pray for the families of black victims of police What are we white people going to do about it? How the hell can we feel patriotic about a country that values life so little?

I would like to suggest that all white policemen in the United States be pulled from duty immediately and given this test, Project Implicit, as well as a psychiatric evaluation before being allowed back on duty or yanked off the force.

You can’t fudge this Harvard-based test for prejudices. It’s not intuitive, and even if you think you’re giving the “correct” answers, it doesn’t work that way. I took it a few years ago, and I’m pretty good at spotting how to “play” a test.

Both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were said to be carrying guns. So? Both of the states they died in allow anyone to carry a gun. Louisiana probably allows 3 year olds to carry guns. They were not using the guns, they were not aiming the guns, they were doing nothing that could ever justify the kangaroo court of idiotic, racist policemen who took their lives.

I hope that no white person ever says in front of me that they couldn’t bear to watch the videos of their murders. We MUST watch them; we MUST bear witness to what white policemen are doing – and probably think they’re doing in our names.

On Saturday, I attended a symposium on the subject of “Driving While Black.” Two black men narrated their experiences of being stopped and the heavy-handedness of the police involved. Thank God Jerome and Jermaine are alive. It broke my heart to listen to them talk about the steps they have to take to try NOT to be killed by a policeman. They talked about their mothers’ fears whenever they left the house. Now they have children, and they talked about their fear for them.

What century is this again? As my friend and activist Maximo Anguiano posted today, don’t forget to set your clocks back 300 years tonight. And tomorrow you’d damn well better start speaking out or you are as complicit as the police in these murders.

 

 

Yuri and Malcolm

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Truth really is stranger than fiction. Take the case of a Japanese-American woman and an African-American man.

May 19 was the birthdate of two people whose improbable lives crossed paths in the battle for civil rights.

Yuri Kochiyama was four years older than Malcolm X and lived 53 more years.

Born in California in 1921 and thus an American citizen, Mary Yuriko Nakahara and her family were imprisoned in Arkansas (“interned,”?? I think not) with the tens of thousands of other Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor.

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Yuri speaks at an anti-war demonstration in NYC

After marrying Bill Kochiyama after World War II, she moved to New York City where she shared the experiences of her black and Puerto Rican neighbors in housing projects. There aren’t too many more dots to connect to her civil rights activism. Her home became a gathering place for activists where it “felt like it was the movement 24/7,” her eldest daughter, Audee Kochiyama-Holman, is quoted as saying in Yuri’s obituary.

 

She met Malcolm X, former small-time hoodlum and jailhouse convert to Islam, in 1963. She learned a radical activism from him and began focusing on black nationalism. The brief relationship ended with his assassination, at which she cradled his head while others tried to revive him with artificial respiration.

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Yuri, in glasses, holds the dying Malcolm X’s head

Yuri’s activism did not end with Malcolm X’s death. Shutting down the war in Vietnam, reparations for Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned and more inspired a new generation of activists and even a rap song by Blue Scholars. It can be found at this link: Blue Scholars sing “Yuri” live

Malcolm X was 39 when he was murdered; Yuri lived to be 93. Both used their life experiences, alone and together,  to try to set right the wrongs in a troubled country. Both were born on the same day. You just can’t make this stuff up.

 

 

American Pieta

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As we approach the commemoration of Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion, I can’t help but think of all the people betrayed by the forces of evil in this country that do not believe in the either the Constitution or the words in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. May the hope of resurrection and reunion bring some small measure of comfort to all the mothers, fathers, children, sisters, brothers and friends of the betrayed.

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Richard Wright’s Heir

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Many people more eloquent and more relevant than I am have written about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son, Between the World and Me.

From the first moment I picked it up and saw from whence the title came, I was brought back to Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, and his most famous book, Native Son.

And I have to come to think that there is much that is similar between Richard Wright and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I discern a similar urgency and impatience and anger in their written words. Mr. Wright had to leave the United States in order to be who he really was and to write what he really wanted to write. Fortunately for us, Mr. Coates is able to live and work and have a voice in the US. He has become possibly the most important voice saying what a lot of white people do not want to hear. That is a good thing; we need him.

After reading the first part of the poem, where the narrator is speaking, I also thought of Father Richard Rohr, an important voice in the mystic side of Christianity. From him I learned the word “numinous,” describing an experience that for a period of time takes you out of the world in shock or awe. Learning of the death of a loved one, for example, or equally, seeing the face of God.

I translate Mr. Wright’s words to describe such a numinous experience. The narrator comes upon the aftermath of a lynching and begins to realize what has gone on here, the “sooty details . . . thrusting themselves between the world and me. . .” How can seeing such an abomination not take one into a place of transcendent shock that erases the background of life? In the narrator’s case, it takes him to a place where the lynched martyr forces himself into the narrator, who then is able to describe the lynching in the first person.

Theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) coined the term “numinous.” For him, it was the basis underlying all religions, and he gave it three parts: a mysterious experience that is wholly unlike anything else in ordinary life; a tremendous experience because it can be terrifying whether it is from God or Satan, and finally a fascinating experience because of its potency.

The narrator’s experience certainly falls into all three of these categories. While we might at first think the experience is from Satan because of the evil of the deed that caused it, an argument might be made that it is really from God. How else can we redeem and restore our history if we do not first face the evil of it? We have to go right into the pain of the martyred and the oppressed in order to come back to ordinary life and say with authority, as Richard Wright did and Ta-Nehisi Coates does, NO MORE! NO MORE! NO MORE!

Between the World and Me
Richard Wright

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled     suddenly upon the thing, Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly     oaks and elms And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting     themselves between the world and me….

There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly     upon a cushion of ashes. There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt     finger accusingly at the sky. There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and     a scorched coil of greasy hemp; A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,     and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood. And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,     butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a     drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick; Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the     lingering smell of gasoline. And through the morning air the sun poured yellow     surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….

And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity     for the life that was gone. The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by     icy walls of fear– The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the     grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods     poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the     darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived: The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves     into my bones. The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into     my flesh.

The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and     cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red     upon her lips, And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that     my life be burned….

And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth     into my throat till I swallowed my own blood. My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my     black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as     they bound me to the sapling. And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from     me in limp patches. And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into     my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony. Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a     baptism of gasoline. And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot     sides of death. Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in     yellow surprise at the sun….

Richard Wright was only 52 years old when he died after suffering a heart attack in Paris. Ta-Nehisi Coates is 40. Let us pray that he will have many, many more years to force us to look at ourselves and dare to visit the belly of the beast of racism in order to conquer the beast.

The following link is a filmed narration of “Between the World and Me”: Richard Wright on YouTube

 

Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. in Style

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I have gone to commemorations of Martin Luther King Jr. Day for years and years, but until Sunday, I hadn’t experienced an actual celebration of Dr. King.

For the first time at one of these events, I was the minority in the room, and it felt good.

I should have put it together earlier, but I didn’t. When my friend Maggie of the NAACP announced the 30th annual event at her church, the Second Congregational Church of Pittsfield, MA, something should have rung a bell, but it didn’t.

When I stepped into the building housing the 170-year-old congregation, however, the light bulb went off. This was the church that had been served in the 1800s by Samuel Harrison, who later became the chaplain to the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment, the African-American regiment led by Robert Gould Shaw. I’ve written about Samuel Harrison in this blog; it was largely because of his efforts that African-American soldiers in the Civil War finally received the same pay as white soldiers.

That the church should still be largely an African-American parish wasn’t something that had occurred to me. Whether it should have or not, I don’t know. I do know that there is nothing wrong with white people commemorating Dr. King’s birthday and legacy; indeed, it should be encouraged. His larger message was to all people, as he himself said, and should ultimately have benefited all people, black, white, Jew, and Gentile.

Yet there has been something missing for me at the mostly white commemorations I’ve been at; a certain authenticity lacking in our white liberal do-gooding group. It has seemed, some years, as if the African-Americans present were tokens rather than the people most directly affected by the civil rights movement past and present.

From the moment the guest choir of the Macedonian Baptist Church of Albany, NY, processed in singing and dancing, I knew I was where I wanted to be. The program took on its own life as the expected emcee had not been able to make it and Maggie took over at the last minute. A tall, graceful woman who retains the voice of her Southern childhood, Maggie called for song when she felt like hearing songs and speakers when she felt like hearing speakers. She called twice for the choir to sing, and they had everyone on their feet, arms raised in exultation, and the Spirit reached right into us. A man did an impromptu dance up and down the aisle, and we smiled at his jubilation.

There were serious moments as well. One of the speakers, a young man who works with youth, called upon not only restraint and justice on the part of police across the country, but also on African-American youth to take pride in themselves and pull up their pants. This elicited many cries of “Amen” from the elders. A group of youngsters called Kids 4 Harmony played classical music on violins; the children study two hours four afternoons a week to perfect their talent and are provided the opportunity to participate in student orchestras and musical competitions around the state.

After the offering was taken, Maggie remembered we hadn’t yet sung “Lift Every Voice,’’ and she jumped up to remind us. Without prompting, we all reached for the hands of the people nearest us and without missing a beat began the African-American anthem written by James Weldon Johnson and his brother, John Rosamund Johnson.

The main speaker was a former pastor at Second Congregational, the Reverend Leonard Comithier, who now serves the Macedonian Baptist Church. He began by yelling out, “I’m not a speaker!” Voices responded, “Preach it!” And boy, did he. Adhering to the theme of “Reawaken the Dream,” he preached from 1 Kings Chapter 13, the story of King Jeroboam pointing to a prophet and calling for his arrest. The prophet had challenged the king’s evil reign and sacrifices at the altar of God. As the king pointed, “the hand that he stretched out against him [the prophet] withered so that he could not draw it back to himself.” This is what happens, Pastor Comithier said, when you speak truth to power as Dr. King did.

“Where are the prophets now?” he asked. We can only reawaken the dream when we all begin speaking truth to power and refuting the hateful rhetoric that abounds in our national life, particularly coming from Presidential candidates. When we demand justice, when we demand equal rights, when we give ourselves to the will of God as Dr. King did, even unto death.

As the “Amens” died down after Pastor Comithier’s preaching, Maggie, again touched by the Spirit, called on a woman she knew to sing “Precious Lord,” Dr. King’s favorite hymn. And oh my goodness, what a perfect way to end. Her voice reverberated throughout the large sanctuary as bodies swayed back and forth.

I was still swaying as I went out into the freezing cold night to make the hour-long drive home. I had a lot of food for thought on my way along the route that I could almost drive blindfolded. It had actually felt good to be a minority in that celebration, though I was treated as a full participant. I know I can never know in my gut the depth of pain and desire and frustration of those who have been oppressed by white people. But I do feel I know a little bit more now about how to counter it, how to speak truth to white privilege and power, and, yes, how to celebrate.

 

A Journey Toward Light

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Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
. . . and what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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