Harriet Tubman and the White Man’s God

What does it mean when Egypt puts Moses on its currency?

Harriet Tubman“The white man’s dollar is his god.” So wrote Ida B. Wells in 1892 in Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases. She writes this in a section about what “the Afro-American can do for himself” in the face of lynching, but her words reminded me of the conflict I felt over the news that Harriet Tubman’s likeness will soon be added to the twenty-dollar bill. As social media friends reminded me, the inclusion of an African-American woman on the country’s currency begins to address the lack of representation on something so ubiquitous and, supposedly, democratic.

But because I think Wells is right, it’s hard to share this optimism. Because American money is the white man’s god, its symbolism should be viewed from the perspective of those who regulate this sacred object. In her day, Tubman was viewed not as a symbol of the nation’s ideals but as the embodied threat to those ideals. Those in power didn’t follow her lead but understood their role in opposing her and her fellow revolutionaries by passing the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

There will be many ways that Tubman’s likeness on the currency can be interpreted and I, for one, will be glad to see her face rather than the bill’s current occupant. But there are fewer ways that we can interpret the decision to include her. Either the nation has changed to the extent that it recognizes Tubman’s ideals of freedom and full humanity for all of its citizens, or, as we’ve seen with so many other Black abolitionists and civil rights leaders, we are watching the blunting of this woman’s particular prophetic edge. By placing one of its fiercest critics on its most sacred symbol, the nation intends for us to believe that it has finally come to embrace all this woman represents. It’s a lie that can only be believed by those who choose not to see the continual oppression dealt by the state to its Black and Brown citizens.

For leading exoduses of enslaved people to freedom, Harriet Tubman became known to friends and enemies alike as Moses. So now the face of Moses will grace Egypt’s currency but it’s still Egypt’s prejudiced ideologies and unholy ends that will be served by the white man’s god.

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Postscript: I write all of the above as someone who sees my white male self everywhere I look. And while it’s impossible for me to genuinely know anything else, I can imagine how, despite some internal conflict, finally seeing a personal representation on something so visible and valuable would be worthy of great celebration.

“…white men have a vested interest in upholding the racial hierarchy…”

To people of color like me, the movement toward a more level playing field is occurring at a painfully glacial pace. But to many white men, the change is happening so fast and it all seems so painful!  Sociologists Henderson and Herring note that when white men begin to feel the effects of equality (e.g., they realize that they no longer receive preferential treatment or have power over others), it feels like discrimination to them. Being treated like everyone else is not discrimination (in fact, it is the textbook definition of equality). But when you’ve lived atop the racial hierarchy for your entire life and grown accustomed to preferential treatment and disproportionate amounts of power, it’s emotionally painful and destabilizing when they’re taken away. For this reason, many white men have a vested interest in upholding the racial hierarchy, even if they profess democratic ideals that suggest otherwise.

Trump, the White Man’s last gasp, and the Resurrection by Christena Cleveland. I wrote, less intelligently than Cleveland, about this perception by some (many?) white men that we’re being discriminated against back in 2011 after Newsweek had a cover story about “The Beached White Male.”

The View From Here

After the release of the video documenting Laquan McDonald’s murder by a Chicago police officer, some clergy friends and I worked to pull together a prayer vigil at police headquarters. It was amazing to see hundreds of faith leaders and community members come out on a rainy night to pray for justice. The top photo is my friend Pastor Chris Harris and below is Michelle Dodson, our church’s associate pastor who prayed a powerful lament over our city.

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More photos can be found online, as can some local media coverage. My friend Michael is reflecting more thoughtfully on this event that I currently have time for.

Keep us in prayer; there’s a lot more to be done.

Paris. Again.

I remember the days following September 11, 2001 more vividly than I do the infamous day itself. Or that’s how it seems to me now, a couple of days after the terrorist attacks in Paris. I read the columns and the memories and emotions of that other fall day come rushing back. I hear President François call the attacks an act of war, I hear him promise a merciless fight, and I can hear my own president then describing the attacks in Manhattan with similarly confident adjectives.

Photo credit: The Apex Archive
Photo credit: The Apex Archive

Tonight, waiting to board my flight just 48 hours after the Paris attacks, I read the first reports of the French warplanes that are now bombing Syrian villages. I remember watching the televised reports about my country’s similar retaliation in Afghanistan and wondering what I was supposed to feel as this ravaged country became the target of our collective wrath. I’m sitting on this plane, flying east over darkness broken regularly by small midwestern towns and I’m thinking about those warplanes, raining down fire on a similarly darkened landscape.

Right now. It’s happening right now.

In Lebanon families and friends are grieving their murdered loved ones, victims of a massive suicide attack the day before the attacks in Paris. There were not, as far as I can tell, any American skyscrapers or public monuments lit up in the colors of Lebanon’s flag in the days following the attack. Yet the French red, white, and blue were everywhere, a global response appropriate to our president’s assessment that the tragedy in Paris was an attack on the civilized world.  Lebanon, it would seem, is not civilized enough to warrant our sympathetic outpouring. Or, more likely, we don’t see the Lebanese women and men who now grieve as being like us; we believe them to be different enough that our emotional response is categorically different. We ignore them.

This too feels eerily familiar. Almost 15 years ago we began preparing for two wars -wars that have never really ceased – because the victims of the September attacks warranted an unequivocal and ruthless response. We may not have initially known it, but it became clear as time passed that we were willing for tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis to die. For what? This has never been adequately explained to me.

Today, as in 2011, there are loud, powerful voices who demand vengeance. We are told that the only appropriate and honorable response is to make our enemies suffer. But can this be right? I’ve been to some funerals lately for young men in our city who were gunned down. At these funerals there are calls for justice and for peace, but there is something else too. There is grief, mourning, even wailing. There is lament and repentance for whatever role our own selfish apathy played in these horrible deaths.

A funeral deserve a dirge but it would appear that, once again, we’re opting for the drumbeat of war.

How Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal Make My White Life Easier

There is a connection between two people who have recently dominated headlines and news feeds: Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal. It’s not the false equivalency between a transgender person and Ms Dolezal’s wrong-headed idea that she, a white woman, can identify as African American. Rather, the similarity that interests me is how these two individuals and their decisions have become the stories that matter.

JennerIn Ms Jenner’s case the narrative has generally been one of bravery, honesty, and even heroism. In contrast, Ms Dolezal has been portrayed as the villain: deceitful, manipulative, and potentially mentally unstable. Whiteness is what connects these two as their stories are elevated and made important by a predominately white media. In Ms Jenner the media found a privileged person whose radical decisions demand nothing of the beneficiaries of white supremacy. And in Ms Dolezal the media have the convenient opposite- a white person whose sins seem so strange and obvious that the ensuing reprimands risk no actual association. This particular white person can be ridiculed endlessly, her story deemed worthy of repeated news cycles because there is no concern that whiteness itself will be taken to task.

DolezalAnd so, in recent weeks, these two white people have been made ubiquitous as their stories seemingly require the media’s full attention and analysis. Ms Jenner became our example of bravery, a move which allows us to ignore that in America courage is most evident and most often required among those without the so-called privilege of white skin. With Ms Jenner as our hero we don’t have to consider how our own implicit biases and oppressive power are the reasons so many must be courageous in ways that will never be noticed or legitimized by our media. And with Ms Dolezal as our scapegoat we are off the hook for our less obvious racial sins. In contrast to her strange deception, our homogenous neighborhoods, segregated churches, and polite prejudices seem hardly worth acknowledging, much less confessing.

I don’t mean to imply that the issues raised by these two women’s decisions aren’t worth considering. Their public decisions are important and deserve compassionate critique. I doubt, however, that they are the issues most deserving of our attention and whether the ways which our white media frames these issues are legitimate and just. But should we expect anything different? Our white-washed society has always made it clear whose stories are worth knowing and whose need not be told. By accepting that these two people represent the most important stories of the moment, my own white life is made simpler, easier. And once again, black and brown people are made invisible, their stories of heroism and suffering deemed unimportant by a society and its media that care only for its(white)self.

Fear and Defiance in McKinney, TX

And then there is the young woman, pinned to the ground, the officer’s knee grinding into her back as his hand repeatedly forces her face into the grass. Surely she too feels fear; how could she not? But there is something else that comes through more clearly. There is defiance in her voice, courage in her body. She does not lay limp beneath this abusive power. She resists. She is brave.

McKinneyFear. This is what I saw in the video from McKinney, TX. Yes, fear in the eyes of the young women and men as the police arrived but, most evidently, fear in the police. Those with the badges and guns, with the authority of the state to justify their actions and cover their tracks- it was their voices and body language that betrayed the fear most plainly.

The police were afraid of these young women and men and they chased their black and brown bodies into the ground. It makes no sense. What can this be other than a sickness of spirit? What must be projected onto these children to justify such terror?

And then there is the young woman, pinned to the ground, the officer’s knee grinding into her back as his hand repeatedly forces her face into the grass. Surely she too feels fear; how could she not? But there is something else that comes through more clearly. There is defiance in her voice, courage in her body. She does not lay limp beneath this abusive power. She resists. She is brave.

This holy defiance is as old as this country. It is necessary because of this country.

Children's Crusade in Birmingham, 1963.
Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, 1963.

The police officer’s fear is contagious. For many of us it is genetic, seemingly woven into the fabric of our white skin and privileged minds. We ignore it most of the time, telling ourselves that we are somehow uniquely immune to this country’s racist air. But it’s a lie and anything less than telling the truth about our complicity means that we are this brutal officer’s enablers.

We cannot be delicate about this.

The young woman’ defiance points the way forward. We hear it in her voice. We’ve seen it in the eyes of so many other young women and men. Fear need not have the final word. A mustard seed’s worth of faith is our starting point- the conviction that this will not be the end, that Justice himself will prevail.

“Why do we applaud rebellion in film, but not in Baltimore’s streets?”

I posit that the reason audiences fail to see the similarities in fictional uprising (which we love) and what occurs in real life, is the absence of that second element. Excluding the most ignorant and racist in our country, Americans generally get a sense that there is a problem with the unjustified killing of innocent black people by unsympathetic police officers. While they may not fully comprehend the scale of implicit bias, they understand that black people are more likely to be treated unfairly by the criminal justice system. So we can check off the first element.

As for the second, black rioters have been called plenty of things by the mainstream media; “heroic” is not one of them. Instead of being depicted as people who are doing what little they can do to bring attention to injustice, they have often been cast off as looters, criminals, “thugs” and miscreants taking advantage of the political climate.

Broadcast journalists contrast the rioters with Martin Luther King Jr. (white people’s favorite civil rights leader) and criticize rioters for failing to adopt MLK’s supposedly superior method of passive protest. All of this rhetoric is used to firmly embed in the minds of Americans, both black and white, that there is nothing noble about those participating in the riots — that what we are seeing on television is not the type of righteous revolution we associate with the civil rights movement — it’s mere buffoonery.

–  Christopher R. La Motte. “Why do we applaud rebellion in film, but not in Baltimore’s streets?” The Baltimore Sun, May 2015.