Benjamin Lay: Abolition’s Prophet

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When I hear people try to excuse historical acts of racism by saying, “That’s how people were then,” I get apoplectic. I think of people who throughout history have clearly demonstrated they knew right from wrong, no matter what the prevailing society was like.

Now I have another weapon in my arsenal: Benjamin Lay (1682-1759) of Abington Township, PA.

Thanks to Marcus Rediker, the general public can know more about this fierce warrior for emancipation through his book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became First Revolutionary Abolitionist.

In 1738, Benjamin Lay walked 20 miles to attend the annual Quaker’s Philadelphia meeting, according to Mr. Rediker. Keep in mind that it wasn’t until 1758 that the Quakers outlawed slave-holding among the brethren. Lay carried with him a hollowed-out book containing an animal bladder filled with red pokeberry juice. When it came his turn to speak,

“Throwing the overcoat aside, he spoke his prophecy: ‘Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.’ He raised the book above his head and plunged the sword through it. . . .He then splattered (the red juice) on the heads and bodies of the slave keepers.”

He was expelled from the meeting.

Lay was not a single-issue prophet, though. It wasn’t just his views on emancipation that caused people to disparage him. He truly believed and tried to bring forth a Utopia where everyone was equal and would live simply by growing their own food and making their own clothes and respecting nature. He himself lived in a cave, subsisting only on fruits and vegetables because of his belief in animal rights, and he refused to use anything that existed because of slave labor.

Mr. Rediker posits that Lay isn’t well known today because was not a “gentleman saint” like William Wilberforce, who led the British abolition movement. Lay was “wild and confrontational, militant and uncompromising.” Sounds like a great many prophets.

Being a little person as well as having a hunched back made people think he was “deformed in both body and mind.” It could be that his own “otherness” contributed to his strong feelings about slavery, but it is obvious that his main inspiration is from his understanding of Scripture and what was revealed to him.

According to Joe Lockard of the Antislavery Literature Project at Arizona State University, Lay also was known to perform what might be considered “guerilla” street theater to try to get people to confront the evil of slavery. He even kidnapped a fellow Quaker’s son to show the pain that enslaved families endured when slave-holders broke those families up.

The one book that Lay wrote, which was published by Benjamin Franklin, is available online at:  https://antislavery.eserver.org/religious/allslavekeepersfinal/allslavekeepersfinal The book is titled All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. It looks as if it will take some effort to read, but may be well worth the fortitude to understand Benjamin Lay’s devotion to the cause.

Lay must have felt well vindicated when the Society of Friends in Philadelphia did decide to discipline and/or turn slave-holders out of the community. He died a year later.

Mr. Rediker’s book is available in audible form as well as hard-cover and paperback. He is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Fellow at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris. He is the author of numerous prize-winning books, including The Many-Headed Hydra (with Peter Linebaugh), The Slave Ship, and The Amistad Rebellion. He produced the award-winning documentary film “Ghosts of Amistad” (Tony Buba, director), about the popular memory of the Amistad rebellion of 1839 in contemporary Sierra Leone.

An essay from his book appeared in The New York Times last year and the last paragraph is relevant to our times:

“In his time Lay may have been the most radical person on the planet. He helps us to understand what was politically and morally possible in the first half of the 18th century – and what may be possible now. It is more than we think.”

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Why I Love Howard Thurman

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I’ve written about my favorite theologian before in this space, but I have to do so again.

Why?

Because no matter whether I’ve heard or read Howard Thurman’s wisdom before, it zaps me in new and different ways upon second or third or even fourth reading. He touches my heart and my soul to a depth where I just thank God for this beloved servant.

Pretty good for someone who died more than 30 years ago! I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have known him or sat in his congregation or been taught by him.

Even the way I was introduced to Howard Thurman has the divine written all over it. I was sitting in centering prayer when suddenly the faces of several older African-American women and men appeared in my vision. The faces sort of circles around until one man’s face came forward and the others faded away. A couple of months later I came across Pastor Thurman’s name during Black History Month. I looked up his writing and it pulled me in from the first. I bought recordings of him giving sermons and leading meditations. I bought his books. I learned everything I could about him.

Yet it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized that his was the face I had seen. I was, quite literally, awestruck. A few days after that revelation came a notice in a diocesan newsletter about a retreat in Sewanee, Tennessee, that would focus on Howard Thurman and contemplative practices. I was signed up and paid within a few minutes. I no longer ignore such synchronicity.

I find such solace in his words, whether he is writing or talking about contemplative practices, racism and the disinherited (Martin Luther King Jr. considered him a mentor), humble ruminations about his own failings, his ecumenicism, and most of all, his deep, deep conviction that we are all united by a loving God who has a dream of whom we are to become.

The passage that prompted this outpouring is “God is making room in my heart for compassion: the awareness that where my life begins is where your life begins; the awareness that the sensitiveness to your needs cannot be separated from the sensitiveness to my needs; the awareness that the joys of my heart are never mine alone – nor are my sorrows.”

Thurman grew up in segregated Fort Lauderdale; his grandmother had been enslaved. He was the first African-American to matriculate at Colegate College’s seminary. He walked the walk, and he also maintained the gentle humility of someone who knows his own worth as developed in him by God.

tagoreIt also gave me great joy to see how Thurman’s witness often coincided with the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. I would read a passage by each man every morning and sometimes be amazed at the similar sentiments behind the Christian’s and the Hindu’s words. Tagore’s Gitanjali (Song Offerings) also came to me by chance long, long ago. They are short poems that can be appreciated by people of any and all (or even no) faiths.

“Thou hast made me endless;
Such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou carriest again and again
Yet fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed
thou hast carried over hills and dales
And hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
My little heart loses its limits in joy
And gives breath to utterances ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine.
Ages pass and still thou pourest,
And still there is room to fill.”

 

 

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Julian of Norwich

Tagore was the elder, and perhaps Thurman gained inspiration from him. They both, I would dare to say, gained inspiration from Julian of Norwich, the 14th century prioress who had a series of divine revelations that she chronicled in “Showings.” Such a flow of love for all of humanity and all of creation can be felt in each person’s witness that one truly can’t help but feel that “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

Film producer Arleigh Prelow has spent years making a documentary, “The Psalm of Howard Thurman,” which is now in post-production. She first conceived the idea after Thurman’s death and, amid other producing and directing work through the years, she has interviewed Thurman’s wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, and many other people who knew and loved and worked with him. Actor Sterling K. Brown provides the voice of Howard Thurman. Funds are still needed to complete the work and donations may be made here.

Published At Last – Barracoon

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Can you imagine being known as the last living African kidnapped by slavers and brought to the US 50 years after the outlawing of the slave trade?

Zora Neale Hurston, novelist, playwright, essayist, and anthropologist, did try to imagine, and her curiosity drove her to patiently tease out of Oluale Kossola (slave name Cudjo Lewis), the story of his ordeal.  When she first met Kossola and told him what she was hoping to learn, he said, “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and somebody say and callee my name and somebody sayn ‘Yeah, I know Kossola’,”

Part of the sadness of Hurston’s book, Barracoon, is that it was never published until this year, when it is so unlikely that anyone in West Africa would remember Kossola’s name. Several publishers refused it when she finished her last draft in the 1930s.

Kossola was a member of a sub-group of the West African Yoruba tribe. The US banned the slave trade in 1808, but people found a way to continue to smuggle enslaved people through the Middle Passage. A major supplier of slaves was the king of Dahomey, who acquired wealth and political dominance through the trade. Kidnapped Africans were held in bondage in barracoons (Spanish for barracks) along the coast, and Ouida (or Whydah) in Dahomey was a major shipping point.

It was there that, in 1860, Timothy Meaher and William Foster sailed the Clotilda to bring 110 lost souls to the “New World.” The 19-year-old Kossola had been captured in a raid on Bante; his family and most of the citizens were slaughtered outright. The young men were yoked and brought to the barracoons of Ouida.

Though Kossola at first expressed joy that Hurston wanted to know his story, in 1927 when she traveled to Plateau, Alabama, to meet him, he was often reluctant to talk to her. He was 86 years old, but his grief at never having been able to go home was still upon him. Some days she would bring peaches and watermelon as bait to get him to sit down with her; other days he would just ignore her presence and continue to garden or pursue other hobbies while she waited patiently.

Her persistence paid off. Reading Barracoon, one feels as if one knows this elderly man who has undergone so much pain, outliving his beloved wife and his sons and daughter. His voice is rendered perfectly, and you can hear him saying “you unnerstand me,” his oft-used interjection.

After emancipation, the Clotilda slaves had no way to earn the money to go home. And home didn’t exist anymore, though they couldn’t have known that. When they were kidnapped, their rest of their entire tribe was killed, and there was no Bante anymore.

So they re-created their home where they were, calling it Africatown (now Plateau). It was meant to be a place for only those born in Africa, but because of intermarriage among slaves there were many black people who were born in the United States as well. Renting land from their former owner until they could buy it, 11 families “created a community that embodied the ethos and traditions of their homeland,” writes editor Deborah G. Plant in her afterword.

Thank goodness this book has finally been published! Most memoirs of formerly enslaved people were born into the “peculiar institution.” To hear firsthand from someone who was actually born in Africa 200 years after the first enslaved people were brought here is to learn more about the horrible mechanics of slavery and how one little band of people created their own homeland in Alabama.

It also teaches about the persistence of memory and the longing for that place called home. This should be an important part of our national conversation about dismantling racism. I have recently seen people who consider themselves “progressive” basically say that African-Americans today have no right to say they are victims of slavery.

Yet, knowing one is descended from people who knew no other home than a slaveowner’s plantation does cause soul damage. Knowing that one’s ancestors were considered sub-human does cause psychic damage. Knowing that the whole history of white supremacy gives white people today a feeling that they the right to trample on the freedoms of African-Americans – whether they’re having a barbecue or mowing someone’s lawn or waiting for someone outside a store – yes, that is victimization. We can’t stop it until we own it

The Cross & The Lynching Tree

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I didn’t know anything about James H. Cone until the day he died, April 28, 2018.

I was at a “Dismantling Racism” training in Georgia. His name was on the syllabus. When I went online at the end of the training, the first thing I saw was Dr. Cone’s obituary.

I subsequently learned that he was considered one of the fathers of Black Liberation Theology. It was recommended to me that I read his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011).

As the title suggests, Dr. Cone makes the case that “until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”

Others have written about the nexus between Christianity and the avid way in which the oppressors’ religion was taken up by slaves. But Dr. Cone is the first I have come across to directly identify the broken body of a lynched person with the broken Christ on the cross.

He says that the cross has always been central to African-American worship because “the cross inverts the world’s value system” when it turns death into hope. Death doesn’t have the last word.

Enslaved blacks seized on the transcendent power of the cross; the cross is God’s critique of white supremacy, he claims.

This may seem like cold comfort at first, but for people whose lives were made to seem meaningless, the cross gave meaning to life and promised a life after death. And it did give hope. Dr. Cone quotes Richard Wright as saying, “Our churches are where we dip our tired bodies in cool springs of hope.”

Dr. Cone gives a long chapter to discussing how black artists were often able to make the connection between the cross and the lynching tree better than theologians and pastors. The blues were another way to transcend suffering, he says, and the poets, particularly Countee Cullen, who wrote about the “Black Christ” recrucified are many (see a portion of the poem below). He also writes about the famed Billy Holiday song “Strange Fruit,” written ironically by the Jewish Abel Meeropol many years before the Holocaust. Mr. Meeropol and his wife were the couple who adopted the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

A long chapter is given to the most famous theologian of the lynching era, Reinhold Niebuhr, who was well-known as a social justice activist but who never spoke out personally or theologically about the sin of lynching. Many white supporters of equal status for blacks still used the argument at the time that “their day would come.” Martin Luther King Jr. would later say, “It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure.”

Of course, a whole system of theology cannot be explained in a one- or two-page blog. I hope to give readers a curiosity to read The Cross and the Lynching Tree for themselves. But as Dr. Cone says, “Though we are not fully free and the dream not fully realized, yet we are not what we used to be and not what we will be. . .We continue to seek an ultimate meaning that cannot be expressed in rational historical language and that cannot be denied by white supremacy.”

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Chokehold, Literally & Figuratively

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The Paul Butler who appears often on MSNBC as a legal expert has a very different voice from the Paul Butler who wrote Chokehold: Policing Black Men. Both voices are critical for our times.

All I knew about him was his role as a legal commentator on shows such Joy Reid or All In With Chris Hayes, where he has mainly been asked about the Trump-Russia investigation. In this book, he is a passionate revolutionary fighting for social change.

Mr. Butler is the Albert Brick Professor in Law at Georgetown University and was formerly a federal prosecutor. The awards he has received and the scholarly articles and other books he has authored lead me to the conclusion that this is a man I need to listen to. His latest book came out last July, but it took me a while to catch up with it.

He uses the term “chokehold” both literally, as in how Eric Garner was murdered, and figuratively, as in the chokehold that official (read white) society has over the lives of African Americans.

As someone who has been arrested for a crime he did not commit, Mr. Butler knows whereof he speaks. He also knows how fortunate he was to have had legal colleagues to help him get out of his dilemma. The vast majority of African-American men and women who are wrongfully arrested, if they are not outright killed by police first, do not have such resources.

And the point is not to make those resources help, though in the short term they are needed. Mr. Butler is looking at the long term and calls for a revolution that will completely reform the way policing is done in this country.

This is from Elizabeth Hinton’s review in The New York Times last July:

“ “Cops routinely hurt and humiliate black people because that is what they are paid to do,” Butler writes. “The police, as policy, treat African-Americans with contempt.” “

We have seen that with our own eyes, but still police are rarely held accountable and Supreme Court decisions have given them the impunity to do what they do. When SCOTUS decisions support racial profiling, how do we think those in our society who are already racist will behave?

I can’t help but agree with his argument that a complete transformation, not incremental steps, is what is needed in this country. “The United States of America must be disrupted, and made anew,” he writes.

Not only do incremental steps not help in the long run, they are an obscene insult to people whose entire history is one of oppression and inequality at the hands of white society. I’ve heard the “Why can’t they be patient?” argument in every decade of my life. It was an appalling argument in the 1950s and it is an appalling argument now.

Systemic racism, which leads to chokeholds and police violence against African Americans, has been a cancer on this continent for almost 500 years. No matter whether there’s someone we love in the White House or someone we hate, American society has a rot within it that needs to be surgically removed.

I will let you read Mr. Butler’s vision of solutions for the problem for yourself. Some seem shocking at first, such as abolishing prisons. But when you look soberly at our history and where we are now in equal protection under the law, you might start thinking along those shocking lines yourself.

Ruby Bridges Through Her Eyes

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Having grown up in the area where Norman Rockwell painted some of his most famous works, I remember not only the actual photographs of the little girl, but also the iconic painting of the girl in the white dress flanked by four federal marshals.

The white dress, white socks and shoes emphasize the darkness of her skin. On the wall behind her is a racial epithet. Smashed tomatoes lie at the foot of the wall. You don’t see the marshals’ heads, but their fists are clenched as if ready for battle.

Friday I had the privilege of hearing the woman who grew out of that little girl speak. Ruby Bridges’ name is writ large in the history of civil rights. As she came onto the stage at Smith College, the crowd jumped to its feet with thunderous applause.

ruby nowMs. Bridges is a reluctant speaker. She never meant to spend the last 20 years of her life giving public addresses, she said. But this is what she has felt called to do. She uses no notes, just says what she believes God wants her to say. Her soft voice is mesmerizing as she speaks, reaches back into the memories of her six-year-old self in 1960, as she tells us what it was like through her eyes (the title of her memoir) in segregated New Orleans.

Though Brown vs. the Board of Education mandated the integration of public schools in 1954, it took years for segregated school systems to comply. When the NAACP knocked on doors in the New Orleans projects seeking children who were in the first grade, Ruby’s mother was enthusiastic about letting her daughter be used to integrate the schools. Mrs. Bridges had grown up in a sharecropping family in Louisiana and going to school was a rare occurrence; she regretted not having a chance to be educated.

Ruby’s father had a different point of view. He had served in the segregated Army of the Korean War. He might be on the front lines with white soldiers at one moment, but when they returned to base, he had to go to the “colored” barracks and the white soldiers to the white barracks. He did not want his daughter to experience the shame he had known.

Ruby’s mother overrode his wishes. Ruby was taken for all-day testing and passed. Since she hadn’t been told anything about what was happening, she got it into her head that she was going to skip from first grade directly to college.

Then came the first day of her new school. Creating a new ritual, neighbors came to her house to help get her dressed in her beautiful new clothes (though she hated the coat her mother made her wear). Four white men came to the door, put her and her mother into a car, and her journey began.

Seeing all the people lining the route to the school, hearing them shout, seeing them throwing things, seeing police on horses and motorcycles, Ruby thought she was in a Mardi Gras parade, even though it was November. The white men told her mother that when they got out of the car, the men would surround her and Ruby and they should not look around them. They entered the school and went to the principal’s office. And there they sat all day long as white parents entered the school, angrily pointed at Ruby, and then took their children home.

“College is easy!” Ms. Bridges said she thought when she went home that day. She ended up having school alone with a teacher, Mrs. Henry, all day every day for the rest of that school year. She loved Mrs. Henry and she learned a lot, but she was so lonely for the company of other children. She slowly came to understand what was happening and that she was alone in her class because of the color of her skin. She could hear the voices of other children when she hung up her coat in the cloakroom. She could smell food from the cafeteria but had to bring her own lunch because of threats made to poison her food.

Eventually, because she kept asking about the children’s voices, Mrs. Henry took her to the cloakroom, moved a cabinet that revealed a door, and took her to a room where white children were playing. She sat down next to a little boy who told her, “My mother said I can’t play with you because you’re a nigger.”

His words gave birth to what she now emphasizes when she speaks in public. “Racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.” It is adults who have failed, she said, and brought us to where we are now, by “robbing children of their innocence.” Children aren’t born racists; they are taught to be racists. We must raise them a different way, encourage their dreams, and truly follow Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dictum to judge others not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

There really is an “us” and a “them,” she said. “We all have a common enemy and it is evil.” Sometimes the evil looks just like us and is hard to recognize, she said as she talked about the murder of her oldest son, who was killed for trying to find out who had shot into his younger brother’s car.

Ms. Bridges noted at the beginning of her talk that she gets many letters from children telling her how brave she was when she took those historic steps into a white school. “I have to set the record straight,” she laughed, “I wasn’t brave at all because I didn’t really know what was going on.”

But it is bravery, and it is courage, to follow her faith and tell her story over and over again all these years later. Her insistence on inclusion at all points is sometimes not popular – as when a student seemed to seek her approve for the effort to get all-black housing at Smith and Ms. Bridges said she did not approve of black separatism – and her refusal to hate the little boy who said he couldn’t play with her show courage indeed.

I have cried over the picture of the beautiful smiling little girl who was in effect offered up to be the face of integration. Having seen her in person, and heard her words, I will just smile and celebrate her from now on.

 

Who We Are, Who We Want to Be

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In the aftermath of the Charlottesville tragedy, amid the outrage and grief and disbelief, I had to re-learn a painful lesson for a white American.

Most of the people I follow on Twitter are African-American journalists, politicians and activitists: Charles Blow, Bree Newsome, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Vann R. Newkirk II, Jamelle Bouie.

Ms. Newsome, the woman who climbed the flagpole in front of the South Carolina statehouse and took down the flag, put what the others were saying in one form or another most succinctly.

As white Americans cried, “This is not who we are!”, in fact, this is exactly who you are and have been and all black people know it, she said.

I know it too; I’ve been writing about it for some time now, but it hasn’t stayed at the forefront of my attention. White America is a racist society and has been since the first white European stepped foot on this continent and had the arrogance to claim it as a white man’s (and I do mean man’s, not human’s) paradise.

To make that paradise, however, meant neutralizing one way or another the indigenous peoples. Usually by slaughter, often by treaties that were never meant to be kept and to this day are not honored.

Then came the importation of Africans to actually do the work of building an economy. Next came the battles to seize land from the indigenous Mexicans, Polynesians and Inuits and Aleuts.

In every era, white “Americans” have taken something away from someone else, right up to the present time. Now, it’s not only enough to take something away, but white American society wants to bar others from coming in, based solely on religion. And even the liberal arguments in favor of immigrants more often than not points out their economic worth rather than their worth as human beings.

What happened in Charlottesville is not new to its black citizenry; Mr. Newkirk’s most recent article in The Atlantic spells it out briefly and powerfully.

We cannot say, “This is not who we are!” We can, and must, say, “This is not who we want to be,” but only if we’re willing to follow up words with action. Mr. Newkirk quotes Charlottesville-Albemarle NAACP President Emeritus M. Rick Turner: “People want to have a conversation . . . But see we’ve had conservations, ever since the Civil War, every time something happens. That’s why nothing ever gets done beyond that, because the courage stops right there.”

I could say that the counter-protestors in Boston and other cities this weekend prove this thesis wrong. But we have not heard the last from the white supremacists. Do we, who consider ourselves non-racist, have the courage to go beyond the conversations?

Heather Heyer did.