This video is long, rambling, and about as lo-fi as it gets, and I think it’s pretty great. Pastor Michelle Dodson and I recorded this a few months back for an all-day Faith & Race workshop that our church recently facilitated. I regularly have really interesting conversations about these topics with really smart, thoughtful folks like Michelle so it’s nice to be able to share this one here.
On seeing, and not, in America.
It takes fifteen Chicago blocks to read aloud the names of the women and men murdered in our city within the past twelve months. It might be done quicker under some circumstances, but not these: hundreds of us walked slowly down Michigan Avenue on New Years Eve, our pace restrained by the crowd, the tourists along the Magnificent Mile reaching into the street with their cameras, and the occasional pause while police officers cleared an intersection. Also, the crosses. They were heavier than I expected: hefty beams, the fresh sawdust pressed onto the shoulders of my black coat. A single man had cut and assembled each of the more than seven hundred crosses, affixed a plywood heart to the cross beam, and painted onto it the victim’s name and date of death. We carried the crosses and walked down the street and then back again, the weight of the wood but also something else slowing us down. The names were read through a bullhorn chronologically by date of death and, occasionally, from somewhere within the cruciform waves, someone would cry out in recognition. Otherwise it was quiet, the whole event like a distant kin to a graduation: quiet, names in order, the uncontrollable scream at everything the name has meant.
As we moved I angled toward the curb, walking at the edge of the crowd so I could see the response of the unsuspecting shoppers and tourists. Many of the crosses had photos of the deceased attached, the black and brown faces matching the statistics of who gets killed in Chicago. The sidewalk faces varied in their reaction from puzzled to somber, from annoyed to grief-stricken. None, that I could see, joined our quiet march.
The unexpected emails started arriving in the months before the presidential election. My correspondents were men who could have been my uncles or cousins, if I had a small collection of kind Christian relatives who believed I’d lost my way. My blunt opposition to the next man who would be the president provoked them to write with varying levels of concern and correction. They worried that my polemics missed greater truths about the other candidate, about their own self-consciously Christian support of Donald Trump.
I know these men. They are gentle and modest. They care for their country, but not in the chest-thumping, flag-waving, you-damn-well-better-stand-for-the-anthem way that is sometimes assumed of certain kinds of Christian men. They are authentically pious and God-fearing.
They are also white, though they might question the relevance of this particular fact.
In an essay about his visit to the West Bank, Teju Cole asks, “How does one write about this place?”
Every sentence is open to dispute. Every place name is objected to by someone. Every barely stated fact seems familiar already, at once tiresome and necessary. Whatever is written is examined not only for what it includes but what it leaves out.
He’s thinking about the troubling relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The names of the places, people, wars, and sacred claims have become so common and heavy with assumptions of guilt and innocence that conversation becomes nearly impossible.
Last February, on a rainy day in Israel, I sat in an idling bus with a group of clergy looking across an impressive wall into Palestinian land. The pastors, most of them, were impressed with the wall and sympathetic to its military architect who stood at the front of our bus explaining into the microphone why the separation was necessary. He told us that he hoped one day to lead the work to demolish the wall, once the people on the other side learned to police themselves.
Through the rain-streaked windows, across the border, we could see some houses, small and meager next to the impressive wall. I wondered about the people whose days began in those homes before making the slow walk through tangled border crossings to work on the other side.
Did you know, asked the architect, that some of your politicians have visited our wall to study how to build a similar one on your border?
Seeing is hard. The stimuli enter my eyes and I register, somewhere, the scene as it unfolds. My eyes are exposed to experiences that exist beyond the limits of my body; I take them in as a passerby, sometimes as a confidant. But do I see?
It took a couple of weeks after this election to notice that I’d stopped posting photos of my sons to Facebook. The decision wasn’t deliberate; I’m proud of my sons and delight in sharing their smiles and adventures. I was aware, almost immediately, that there was nothing rational about my unconscious decision, but once it surfaced it became an unmovable fact, a thing I don’t do. The knowledge that many in my digital timeline voted for the man who has made himself a threat to my black and brown sons made posting their images seem, I don’t know, somehow inappropriate. As though I’d be aiding and abetting those who will not see my beautiful boys for who they are. These friends – and they are, still, I think – believe that what is best for my sons is to empower a man whose words and actions menace those who share what will be sons’ tenuous experience of this nation.
There is a lot to which I am blind but, when the emails came, I could see what my correspondents saw. I know the concerns and hopes they feel. I can hear the sermons they nod along to each week. I imagine the dinner-table conversation or the commentary over the latest headline. I see them.
That’s not totally right. I know this; there’s so much that I miss and Jesus says this discomfiting thing about beams and motes that chastens any assumptions about how clearly I see. Still, I’m willing to say this: They can’t see, not really, the experiences I try to explain- the ones about my sons, our friends, this segregated country, the good things being led in our city by people whose race renders their stories uninteresting to those with the power to tell them. In America, seeing happens through tinted lenses. What is made visible by dint of proximity and friendship is rendered perilously opaque to those who lack these basics. Seeing accurately requires closeness and familiarity.
The choice, such as it was, to stop posting photos of my sons is probably misdirected. Silly even. But it’s instinctual, a spasm provoked by bad eyes. These eyes are blinded to the flesh and blood village in front of them as they look to the gleaming, reality-defining wall in the distance.
In 1955, Mamie Till Mobley, upon hearing that the lynched and mutilated body of her 14-year-old son had been recovered from a Mississippi river, decided that Emmet would rest in an open casket during his Chicago funeral. About this decision, Claudia Rankine writes that “Mobley’s refusal to keep private grief private allowed a body that meant nothing to the criminal-justice system to stand as evidence.” Her decision, steeped in a courage I cannot grasp, was a mother’s demand to be seen. For her son to be seen. Photos were taken and articles written. But, as Rankine writes,
We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and going. Dead blacks are a part of life here. Dying in ship hulls, tossed into the Atlantic, hanging from trees, beaten, shot in churches, gunned down by the police, or warehoused in prisons: Historically, there is not quotidian without the enslaved, chained, or dead body to gaze upon or to hear about or to position a self against.
In this land, seeing demands more than an open casket and a mother’s deep resolve. We cannot be made to see. The white gaze blinks, even weeps at these moments – Emmet Till in the Tallahatchie River, Michael Brown on Canfield Drive, Tamir Rice at the Cuddle Recreation Center – but somewhere deep in the racialized reptilian subconscious is the anticipation of these scenes. This is the dark traumatic screen upon which whiteness has projected itself for centuries. We know the rituals and act them out; some will grieve and others will explain the violence away. But we do not see. We do not want to see.
It has long been this way. Sixty years before young Emmet’s funeral, Ida B. Wells published A Red Record, an account of American lynchings between 1892 and 1894. The book was “respectfully submitted to the Nineteenth Century civilization in ‘the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.'” It is a brave and gruesome book, the fruit of Well’s brilliance and incomparable will. Chapter after chapter documents the sad and brutal cases in which black bodies were desecrated and hung under the most speculative of pretenses. Then, toward the end, Wells describes a trip to England in support of her anti-lynching crusade. While there, Wells was asked about another American Christian, the Rev. Dwight L. Moody who was an internationally known evangelist and founder of a well known Bible college. Unlike Wells, he was white. Her English supporters were curious whether Rev. Moody had supported Wells’ efforts to stop the rampant lynching of black women and men. She replied, “Mr. Moody had never said a word against lynching in any of his trips to the South, or in the North either, so far as was known.”
In a forward to one of Wells’ previous books Frederick Douglass praised her work.
Brave woman! you have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured. If American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever you pamphlet shall be read.
But, as Rankine observes, the scream never comes. The white Christians indicted by Douglass cannot see, or rather, what horror they do see slides from consciences that were generations ago hardened to the violence inflicted upon black bodies. There is no whiteness without the juxtaposition of black bodies and, in America, those same bodies have always been interpreted through the lurking threat of state-dependent violence.
So the white gaze sees the unending assault but not the associated horror of any human encounter with violence. The suffering black body becomes black-ness, a disembodiment requiring no empathy or reflection, certainly no confession or repentance. The gaze can survey a ruined landscape, decimated by violence of its own making, and feel no complicity for the damage, no compassion for its victims. Within this devastation, Rankine writes, black citizens are asked, “What kind of savages are we?” But the legitimate question, she writes, the question grounded in truth and history, the question invisible to the white gaze, is different: “What kind of a country do we live in?”
My sons are black and they are brown. The oldest can tell you what continents and countries his ancestors came from. How they came here and why is unfolding before him. They must learn to see clearly for the critical reason that they cannot expect the same from those whose hazy sight has not hindered their accumulation of tremendous power.
“Every sentence is open to dispute,” writes Cole, but it’s more than that. Vision itself is contested. The gaze renders specific bodies invisible; it replaces flesh and blood with specters of an ancient, terrified imagination.
Our New Years Eve memorial ended about two hours after we first gathered in the December chill. Family members were invited to keep the crosses bearing the names and photos of their deceased. The rest of us placed ours near the trucks that had brought them; they would be delivered far from the Magnificent Mile, to an empty city lot as a larger version of the memorials that dot certain neighborhoods throughout the city. We left then, our ranks replaced by window shoppers and tourists ready to welcome a new year. Some looked over curiously, quickly. But mostly they walked on, their sight attracted to the shimmer and sparkle ahead.
Now, months later, I try to remember the name of the man whose cross I carried. I imagine it, scrawled across the plywood heart, but in my memory I see only a blank space where his name should be.
If you not already heard it, this Fresh Air interview with New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones about public school segregation is essential listening. A taste:
The original mission of public schools … is this understanding that no matter where you come from, you will go into the doors of a school and every child will receive the same education.
And no, my daughter is not going to get an education that she would get if I paid $40,000 a year in private-school tuition, but that’s kind of the whole point of public schools.
And I say this — and it always feels weird when I say it as a parent, because a lot of other parents look at you a little like you’re maybe not as good of a parent — I don’t think she’s deserving of more than other kids. I just don’t. I think that we can’t say “This school is not good enough for my child” and then sustain that system. I think that that’s just morally wrong. If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?
When I started what I kind of call the segregation beat about five years ago … I think we had stopped talking about this as a problem. If you look at No Child Left Behind, which comes out of the Bush administration, that was all about giving up on integration in schools and just saying, “We’re going to make these poor black and Latino schools equal to white schools by testing and accountability.”
So no one was discussing integration anymore. I think it’s because … we never really wanted this. … It’s always had to be forced, and as soon as … our elected officials and our courts lost the will to force it, most white Americans were just fine with that. …
One of the things that I really try to do with my work is show how racial segregation and racial inequality was intentionally created with a ton of resources. From the federal government, to the state, to city governments, to private citizens, we put so much effort into creating this segregation and inequality, and we’re willing to put almost no effort in fixing it, and that’s the problem.
Chicago is arguably the capital of black America. The legacy of African Americans reverberates from the Johnson Publishing Company, with its flagship publication Ebony, to multiple black hair-care companies to the first black US congressman elected in the north. All of this before Oprah Winfrey set roots here.
It’s not by accident, then, that the country’s first black president came from Chicago. It was preordained. Chicago, notably the South Side, where most black folk live, reeks of soul. That soul dances in the air in the form of house music, gritty blues, the plumes of smoke from barbecue joints, lounges that cater to “stepper sets”, a unique partner dance.
I imagine none of these scenes registers as what black Chicago is or has to offer to outsiders. The dominant narrative is that the city is full of wartorn corners, with gun-toting black and brown people. Violence has been the singular elephantine story ever since Obama took office in 2009. It’s a fetish. It’s reductive. It’s an incomplete story. We are not Chi-raq, the inane phrase that compounds “Chicago” and “Iraq” in an attempt to describe shared levels of violence.
Chicago murders may make the headlines, but our problems of violence actually stem from something larger, something many other American cities face: racism, segregation and inequity. Chicago is a microcosm of a larger American story. Uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore illustrate the racial tension that’s in part defined by deep-seated housing segregation.
Natalie Moore in The Guardian.
Also, what do we mean by “white”? Historically, the category of “whiteness” has been very flexible, gradually extending over various groups not originally included in that constituency. In the mid-19th century, the Irish were assuredly not white, but then they became so. And then the same fate eventually befell Poles and Italians, and then Jews. A great many U.S. Latinos today certainly think of themselves as white. Ask most Cubans, or Argentines, or Puerto Ricans, and a lot of Mexicans. Any discussion of “whiteness” at different points in U.S. history has to take account of those labels and definitions.
Nor are Latinos alone in this regard. In recent controversies over diversity in Silicon Valley, complaints about workplaces that are overwhelmingly “white” were actually focused on targets where a quarter or more are of Asian origin. Even firms with a great many workers from India, Taiwan, or Korea found themselves condemned for lacking true ethnic diversity. Does that not mean that Asians are in the process of achieving whiteness?
Meanwhile, intermarriage proceeds apace, with a great many matches involving non-Latino whites and either Latinos or people of Asian origin. (Such unions are much more common than black-white relationships.) Anyone who expects the offspring of such matches to mobilize and rise up against White Supremacy is going to be sorely disappointed.
– Philip Jenkins, “White Christian Apocalypse?” I’ve noticed a fair bit of commentary about how changing demographics (related to age, ethnicity, and immigration) mean that the recent presidential election will be the last of its kind, a kind of final gasp for the blatant racism and xenophobia that was on display these past many months. Jenkins adds a couple more compelling reasons to the list of why this idea is far too optimistic.
An offensive mascot demands more than critique.
Chief Wahoo, the mascot of the Cleveland Indians, is a racist depiction of Native Americans that never should have been used by the baseball team and certainly can’t be justified in 2016. There’s nothing complicated about this. The decision to keep the mascot (and, I would argue, the team’s name) is indefensible and made even more obviously offensive by the current desecration of Native American land in North Dakota.
During the World Series my social media feeds have been full of commentary in this vein. Well and good. But some of this critique has veered into familiar territory, where the critique itself absolves the critic. I’ve seen this critique expressed with sentiments by sports fans along the lines of, I could never be a fan of Cleveland because of their mascot. I get the instinct – especially by a white person – to distance oneself from such blatant racism, but this move only gives the critic the appearance of purity. It’s a good thing to point out Chief Wahoo’s offensiveness, particularly to those who’ve somehow missed this painfully obvious fact. But this can’t be where we stop.
Consider the other team in the World Series. The owners of the Chicago Cubs support the Republican nominee for president and have contributed to his campaign. The team’s recent success is bound to expedite the gentrification that radiates from Wrigley Field, displacing those who can’t afford rising rents and property taxes. In a relatively direct way, a fan who buys tickets or merchandise is connected to a presidential candidate whose racism and sexism has been well-documented and to a neighborhood dynamic that impacts poor and working class people.
None of this is to say that people – and I’m thinking about Christians particularly – can’t root for the Cubs. (White Sox fans will debate this point.) It is, however, to question what we identify ourselves with – or distance ourselves from – as evidence that we are with it, that we’re not like those culturally insensitive, backward, racist people. Not being an Indians fan doesn’t place me above those who are. In fact, focusing only on a racially offensive mascot (politician, celebrity, pastor, etc.) can end up distracting me from the more subtle but no less destructive racial injustices associated with my own team (neighborhood, school, organization, etc.).
Granted, if I lived in Cleveland it’d be hard to get excited about their baseball team as long as they keep the name and that terrible mascot. But as a Christian, the injustice associated with that particular team deserves more than critique, it also requires personal reflection about how the logic that makes sense of Chief Wahoo has lodged itself within my own heart and mind as well.
OK, back to the game. And despite my south side pride… Go Cubs, Go!
Ida B. Wells and the Incarnation as Theological Exemplar and Rationale for Racial Justice
The following is a paper I wrote for a recent theology class. The themes in the paper are resonant to much of what I post about here, so it’s possible a few readers may be interested in what I explored in these pages. I welcome your feedback and suggestions; these are themes I expect to return to regularly.
At 2:30 A.M. On March 9, 1892, three Black men were dragged from their jail cells in Memphis, Tennessee by “seventy five men wearing Black masks.”[i] Tommie Moss, Will Steward, and Calvin McDowell, targeted for their resistance to mob violence against Moss’ grocery store, struggled against the vigilantes as they were led to the railroad. Along they way they were shot and mutilated before arriving at the scene of their lynching, an event that one newspaper described as having been “done decently and in order… with due regard to the fact people were asleep.”[ii]
Ida B. Wells was the publisher of Free Speech, a Memphis newspaper that focused on Black life in the city. She was away when her friend Tommie Moss was lynched. After an initial response in her paper in which she urged her peers to “leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property,[iii] she followed up with an even more direct editorial on May 24th. “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape White women. If Southern White men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”[iv] Wells was correct that public sentiment toward the lynching of Black bodies would eventually shift, though at this point she couldn’t have imagined how long it would take or what a pivotal role she would play. She also didn’t foresee that this editorial, with her indictment of White fear, would provoke serious enough threats in Memphis that she would need to flee for the relative safety of Chicago where she would commence her anti-lynching campaign in earnest.
Any reckoning of Wells’ life and impact must consider many things: her gender and race; her move from Memphis to Chicago at a time when many African Americans were doing the same; her varied and influential roles as a publisher, editor, writer, and activist; and her relationships – sometimes friendly, often not – with influential leaders in the civil rights and suffragist movements. But Wells was also a self-consciously Christian person and it is this aspect of her life in which this paper is most interested. Despite regular, sometimes life-threatening, opposition exacerbated by her race and gender, Wells was singularly focused on raising the public’s awareness about the tragic injustice of lynching. What role did her Christian faith play in her courageous activism? Continue reading “Plundered Bodies”