An Unexpected Lesson

Standard

Have you ever gone on a journey hoping to find one thing and then end up finding something you never imagined instead?

I retired recently and went on walkabout for a few weeks. I carried with me both the grief of having had to euthanize my beloved cat and the cancellation of a bucket list event. Then I drove for two nine-hour days in stifling heat with no AC in my car and sometimes torrential rain.

I arrived at my destination to find that the extended stay hotel with the airy studio apartment I’d booked was actually a mean, dirty, decrepit, dark room with resident grasshoppers and other bugs Oh, and I was the only actual “visitor”; most of the other inhabitants were young women and men who had no other place to live.

My first privileged reaction was to walk out and go to another hotel. I would not get a refund, but I couldn’t imagine staying in this place for two weeks.

My second reaction came from a slap upside my head by my conscious, or the Holy Spirit. A voice said to me, “You think you’re so compassionate and you talk about wanting to help the disinherited. Well, how can you help them if you have never lived like them?”

And though my privilege was there, because I knew I would be leaving eventually, I soon became for a short time part of a community of the marginalized, who welcomed me wholeheartedly and were not only willing, but sometimes eager, to share their stories with me.

There was the woman with a newborn baby and a 2 year old girl whose five other children had been taken from her by social services. She was barely 30 years old. She and the children and her new husband lived in one room. She passed much of her time in a camp chair on the balcony outside her room smoking and talking to her friends.

I became one of those friends and learned that she had her GED and had completed one year of college. She wanted to earn a degree so that she could work for an agency that helped women like her. She wanted to get her teeth fixed because she knew that no matter how intelligent she might be, her appearance would be judged in any job interviews.

She also wanted to get her children back.

Then there was the young woman with the 1-year-old who had a full set of teeth and the biggest eyes I’ve ever seen. She also had a dry skin condition that prescribed lotion was not helping. The mother’s fiancé lived with them there and abused her physically and verbally. If she was talking with us, she would run off to their shuttered room when she knew he was about to come back. She didn’t dare have him her talking to us.

She came to trust me such that when another toddler got out of her room early in the morning, she handed off the 1-year-old to me to hold while she helped the other mother find her child.

Then there were the gaggle of children whose playground in the darkening evenings was the parking lot who offered to help me with my luggage when I first arrived. There was the young woman who laughed a lot and swore a lot and wore T-shirts with somewhat naughty messages on them. There was the handyman who had an advanced degree in linguistics. There was the woman who never smiled and complained a lot.

There were dogs and cats; one cat sat in the window of its owner’s room most of the time, a black cat that looked just like my Onyx, who I had had to watch the life seep out of a short time before.

There were hopes and dreams everywhere, and I listened to them and prayed with and for the women and children who let me in. I was asked my advice, which I gave hesitantly because in the wisdom of the world they lived in, I was a neophyte.

The people I met were of all colors and ethnic backgrounds. Yet whatever issues there might have been in this microcosm of society, none of them were to do with racism. So here are people who have their problems, their virtues, and their faults, out but not down, who could be creating the New Jerusalem. I do not mean to idealize poverty, but as this was during the time of the Kavanaugh-Blasey Ford hearings, and Kavanaugh’s assumption that he deserved whatever he wanted. I celebrated the humility I met in my hotel.

I thought when I arrived that I could barely wait until I could leave. When I left, I didn’t want to.

I don’t know what I’ll do with what I learned, but I believe that it was very important that I learn it and that I will be asked to use that knowledge someday. I hope that I will be up to the task.

Advertisements

The Wisdom of Strangers

Standard

I have been accused of being too friendly and too willing to talk to strangers.

Here’s the thing: I’ve met some amazing people this way and also learned from each of them, and I wouldn’t forego these experiences for anything.

After having to put my cat down last week and then cancel an event that I had my whole heart set on, I was feeling pretty aimless when I drove 1,100 miles to Georgia but decided to go anyway and see what happened.

What I had hoped would happen was fairly clear would not when I arrived in the city I came to. As Bono sang, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” To make matters worse, the place I was renting a “studio” apartment from for a couple of weeks was shoddy and not terribly clean; it certainly looking nothing like the pictures on the Internet.

Still, I thought, okay, maybe I’ll learn something new here.

I returned to my room today to find the staff electrician fixing the two-burner stove that wasn’t working. I was very hot and very tired after an eventful morning and lunchtime and just wanted to lie down and take a snooze.

The stove job turned out to be pretty complicated, and the man was in and out and in out of my room getting more supplies, turning the electricity on and off, and getting even more supplies. I sat down at the little table to check Facebook. Then I heard him humming and asked him whether he was a musician.

The man is probably in his late 30s, dark-skinned, and with what I thought as a Hispanic accent. For the next half hour we talked about our favorite classical composers, blues musicians, and Michael Buble’s CD of Sinatra music. He also told me about getting a French press for his mother and that he would be visiting her that night to teach her how to use it.

It was when I finally thought to say, “My name is Cynthia, by the way” that he told me his name in both Italian and Spanish. Was he both Italian and Spanish, I asked?

“My mother is Spanish and my father is Italian and Native American,” he answered.

Does he have any Cherokee blood? I asked.

“Ottawa,” he answered.

I explained that I had asked because the two times now I’ve driven to Georgia, I’ve been appalled by the way “Cherokee” is used for the names of stores and such that have no relationship to the Cherokee nation.

He smiled ruefully, and then told me that his mother being Spanish came from a heritage that was partly to blame for the ravaging of his father’s ancestors in the Americas.

He spoke softly and succinctly. “I did research on all the countries that were responsible for that for my master’s thesis.”

“What was your degree in?”

“Linguistics.”

I kicked myself even as I asked, “What are you doing working here?”

“A lot of people ask me that.”

“I take it back, I take it back! I’m not trying to demean your job. God knows, not just anyone could do what you’re doing. I was just thinking that you have so much knowledge and wisdom to share; you would make a wonderful teacher.”

He spoke ruefully again, and slowly. “I do think of myself as a teacher. I do try to engage people and show them how that history repeats itself.”

“And is repeating itself right now.”

“Yes.” We agreed that corporations were enslaving people all over again.

Then he told me about a 16th century monk who had seen what went on in the “new world” and had tried to get the ear of Isabella and Ferdinand to stop the plundering and depredations.

“You have a calling,” I said. “It’s almost a ministry.”

He nodded.

He was done by now fixing the stove and putting all the supplies back on his cart.

“Thank you for all I’ve learned from you today,” I told him.

“It was my pleasure.”

And he rolled the cart away.

For the curious, here is what Wikipedia has to say about the monk he told me about, Bartolomé de las Casas:

Bartolome de las casasBartolomé de las Casas (Spanish: [baɾtoloˈme ðe las ˈkasas] ( listen); c. 1484[1] – 18 July 1566) was a 16th-century Spanish colonist who acted as a historian and social reformer before becoming a Dominican friar. He was appointed as the first resident Bishop of Chiapas, and the first officially appointed “Protector of the Indians“. His extensive writings, the most famous being A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and Historia de Las Indias, chronicle the first decades of colonization of the West Indies. He described the atrocities committed by the colonizers against the indigenous peoples.[2]

Benjamin Lay: Abolition’s Prophet

Standard

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.”

Why I Love Howard Thurman

Standard

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.”

 

 

julian

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.

Never Forget Hiroshima, Nagasaki

Standard

I tell myself never to forget the horrible things of history that we must not let happen again.

Despite years of participating in Hiroshima Day memorials, this year August 6 made no impression on me.

The havoc and chaos of following the daily outrages of this vile regime have warped my brain into a single, obsessive thought: What will it take to bring these criminals to justice?

But today I did remember that President Barack Obama made a historic visit to Hiroshima to lay a wreath and meet survivors of the atomic bomb just a little over two years ago.

In his reporting for The New York Times, Gardiner Harris wrote on May 27, 2016:

“President Obama laid a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial on Friday, telling an audience that included survivors of America’s atomic bombing in 1945 that technology as devastating as nuclear arms demands a ‘moral revolution.’

“Thousands of Japanese lined the route of the presidential motorcade to the memorial in the hopes of glimpsing Mr. Obama, the first sitting American president to visit the most potent symbol of the dawning of the nuclear age. Many watched the ceremony on their cellphones.

” ‘Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed,’ Mr. Obama said in opening his speech at the memorial.”

A 91-year-old survivor, Sunao Tsuboi, met the President. ” ‘I held his hand, and we didn’t need an interpreter. I could understand what he wanted to say by his expression.’ ”

The world has changed again, just since May 2016. An immoral revolution took place and we have heard the regime say that it will strike North Korea with “fire and fury” and threaten Iran with a disaster never before unleashed on a country. I have already documented many, many of the other daily outrages and high crimes and misdemeanors wrought in fewer than two years.

This is why I must never forget August 6. Tomorrow, August 9, is the 73rd anniversary of the day when the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

 


 

Crimes Against Humanity

Standard

Do you believe the regime when it says that it has reunited all “eligible” children with their parents?

I don’t, but when I saw that volunteer civilians were involved in the work of reuniting families, I felt much better about it. Knowing that neither the ACLU, nor the judge overseeing the lawsuit against the regime, is letting go until every last child is with its parent(s) helps as well.

What bothers me more is the term “eligible.” What a useful term for the government to use. “Eligible,” as if each child had ticked off the right boxes or come up with the right number or fulfilled some other benign requirement.

What “eligible” really means is that the government can’t return hundreds of “ineligible” children because it deported the parents and doesn’t have the will or the care to find them.

Then there’s the children who’ve been sexually abused while in detention and the ICE agents who have told them things such as, “Your mother doesn’t want you anymore.” That’s because they deported Mom and made her sign a complicated form that says she would give up her child without telling her that she had a right to legal counsel to determine whether she would leave her child with relatives in the US and go back to face the horrors of her own country alone.

Of all the scenes of hell that our national nightmare has introduced us to in the past year and a half, surely this one is the most “eligible” to be called a crime against humanity. Since it involves more than one country, I say this crime should be prosecuted in the Hague. Stephen Miller, from whose Satanic mind it was birthed, and Kiersjten Nielsen, who oversaw the program, should be the first defendants.

The attorney general belongs in the dock for avowing that this was a “law” that needs to be upheld. No, it wasn’t a law; it was a policy change that never saw the light of day in Congress and never saw any repudiation by the GOP. So perhaps international lawyers should be questioning Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell as well.

And when they all cry “I was just following orders!”, time for the head of the regime to take his turn in the dock.

 

Published At Last – Barracoon

Standard

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