Black History Month: Future

If you haven’t read the first two posts in this series, you can find them here and here.

Future

  1. The Universe is a House Party,” by Tracy K. Smith (video)
  2. The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack,” by Tracy K. Smith
  3. what the cathedral said to the black boy,” by Clint Smith III

The final installment of this series dwells on “future,” likely the least considered time frame when thinking of black history. Afrofuturism is a term that has grown in public awareness, mostly used in arts and academic circles, and centers on this very idea.

Afrofuturism is a bit of a complex concept, but it’s explained well in an episode of This American Life. One of the hosts, Neil Drumming, says: “What I like about Afrofuturism, it just seems very—it’s like this way of talking about black people in a way that’s really hopeful.” Ira Glass follows up later, saying, “[a]nd for so long, in so many imaginings of the future, in so much science fiction, there were no black people at all—which, as Neil points out, makes no sense. He says, you can tell black people are going to make it into the future because they’ve survived so much already over the centuries.” It’s a way of thinking about the future that takes into account the lived history of black people while also being creative and positive about what’s to come.  These themes can be seen in pop culture in blockbuster movies like Black Panther and the work of musicians like Janelle Monae, whose albums often feature characters and narratives set in futuristic, spacey worlds.

This is the definition I will be using for the sake of this reflection—Afrofuturism as a hopeful, imaginative way of thinking about the future for black people. It’s an approach that is not only important for changing the way we as non-black people can think about black futures, but it also challenges us as the church to change how we think about our own future.

Tracy K. Smith is a poet whose work is thoroughly imbued with this imaginative, galaxy-strewn setting. Both poems I’ve included here explore human themes in universal language. In “The Universe is a House Party,” she says:

“We grind lenses to an impossible strength,

Point them toward the future, and dream of beings

We’ll welcome with indefatigable hospitality:

How marvelous you’ve come! We won’t flinch

At the pinprick mouths, the nubbin limbs. We’ll rise,

Gracile, robust. Mi casa es su casa. Never more sincere.

Seeing us, they’ll know exactly what we mean.

Of course, it’s ours. If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours.”

In this poem, she paints a future in which we are of course hospitable to aliens, to those who come from far reaches of the universe, and we are sincere in our welcome of these other beings. In describing this scene, she reveals the stark contrast to today, in which we find it difficult to welcome other humans with distinct differences from our own communities. She imagines a brilliant future in which we aren’t burdened by prejudice and hate, and it challenges us to do the work now so we can reach that starry future.

She is not deluded in this fantastical future—she tells of incredibly strong telescopes built for no other reason than a deep human curiosity of what is out there. Maybe from here, we can get to a place of equally deep hospitality.

Tracy K. Smith said at an event, “Imagining, for me, is an act that allows for a different kind of engaging with things.” As we look toward the future of the Church of the Brethren, we must accept the challenge to engage with issues differently, creatively, and imaginatively.

Smith said in an interview about one of the poems in her book, Life on Mars, “Part of what I’ve been trying to ask myself to do is think, OK, we belong to the history of the centuries that we span, but we’re also part of something enormous. What if we think about our actions as having some bearing upon the history of eternity? What would we change if those were the stakes that we were cognizant of?

This is the way the church needs to think about our future. We need to be cognizant of the stakes—if there’s anything that our faith tells us, is that our actions have bearing on the history of eternity. We need to take our commitment to racial justice, to true hospitality, to telling black stories, to lamenting our broken past, very seriously, because there are high stakes.

Clint Smith’s poem, “what the cathedral said to the black boy,” stands as a goal for the church in the future. The cathedral that he describes is, unfortunately, not what our church has always been for people of color. We want to be a refuge, but we must recognize the ways we have at times caused pain instead. His words should be a call to action for us all: “ain’t we all just trying to be / some type of sanctuary for someone? for every year we are not destroyed / do they not remind us what a miracle / it is to have lasted this long?” As the church, it should be our primary goal to be “some type of sanctuary” for populations that have long been targeted and oppressed.

What are our congregations not saying to the black boy, and how can we better say to them:

“come inside child

rest yourself

it’s okay to want to be held”

Black History Month: Present

If you haven’t read the first post in this series, please read it here first.

“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)

Present

  1. Your National Anthem” (2018), by Clint Smith III
  2. litany” (2016), by Mahogany L. Browne

“Your National Anthem,” by Clint Smith III

Both Clint Smith’s and Mahogany Browne’s poems begin with “today.” They immediately place us in the current day, the present, such as the start of a news story that has just occurred. Whether they actually happened today or not, the situations described in each poem still circle around us daily, asking what we as a church can do for justice in this very moment.

For Smith:

“Today, a black man who was once a black boy

like you got down on one of his knees & laid

his helmet on the grass as this country sang

its ode to the promise it never kept”

For Browne:

“today i am a black woman in america

& i am singing a melody ridden lullaby…”

They were written two years apart but, in many ways, coexist in the same space. Smith is thinking about what it means to be a father raising a black child today, and yet, the question of tomorrow is factored into each thought. He says about this poem: “This is part of a series of poems […] thinking through what it means to watch my son discover the world for the first time [and] what it means to watch the world discover him. How [people] who call him adorable now might very well call him dangerous when he’s older.”

Smith spoke at a performance in 2016 about how, when he was in college, he was looking for “work that spoke to the urgency of now,” and how he found this in spoken word poetry. Now as a poet himself, his work definitely speaks to the urgency of now. In “Your National Anthem,” which acts as a letter to his very young son, Smith speaks to this in his reference to Colin Kaepernick’s protest while also speaking to the impending future that presses on his mind as a father.

“I know that you will not always

be a black boy but one day you may be a black man

& you may decide your country hasn’t kept

its promise to you either”

In “litany,” Browne is reflecting on what it looks like to live as “a brown and black & / bew woman dreaming of freedom.” She says, “today, i am a mother, & my country is burning/ and i forget how to flee.” Browne wrote this poem as a response to “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” as sung by Nina Simone.

“I sat with what that meant, years later—when I am still wishing for a certain type of freedom. To think of the time passing but of senseless deaths of black and brown bodies remaining. The poem is mulling all that has changed and all that has not,” Browne says of her work.

This is truly what it means to reflect on the present, today, the current state in which we live. All that has changed and all that has not. The urgency of now.

Today’s movements for racial justice and equity are not separate from the civil rights and abolition movements of the past that we now honor. Yes, today’s movements are tied to politics, but, most fundamentally, they are made up of everyday people who are yearning for freedom, for safety for their children, for trust that their country values their lives.

The 1991 Report of the Committee on Brethren and Black Americans says: “Because racism is built into our way of life, it is extremely difficult to unmask it and honestly face the radical changes that need to be made in ourselves and our institutions if it is to be eradicated. […] Many of us benefit from racist practices, without being direct participants, because of decisions and policies already in place in our religious, economic, and political institutions. The Church of the Brethren has affirmed that war is sin. It is time we acknowledged racism as sin—sin against God and against our neighbors—and mount a concerted effort to combat it.”

What does it mean for the church to speak to the urgency of now, keeping in mind what has and has not changed in all these years?

I don’t have an easy answer, but I do know that if we pat ourselves on the back for holding up lauded figures in black history such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman, perhaps we should also ask about lesser-known black history that is being written as we speak and what we can do to add our voices to the call for justice in this very moment.

This is not about simply remembering heroes of the past or imagining some potential day in the future that calls us to action. This is about looking at the world around us and asking ourselves how we can support our brothers and sisters—who right now are afraid for their families, yearning for freedom, and demanding justice—in such a time as this.

Black History Month: Past

For the end of Black History Month, I have curated three small collections of poetry, each with an accompanying reflection. The three reflections will dwell on the ideas of “past,” “present,” and “future.” Too often, it seems people and events must be decades old to be documented by the mainstream as “black history.” We must remember that black history is being created today, shaped by the past and informing the future. Looking at black stories from our past, present, and future requires us to think critically about how the church tells its own stories, as well as which stories we deem to be “our own.”

Langston Hughes, April 1942. By Jack Delano.

Past

  1. Frederick Douglass,” by Robert Hayden (1913-1980)
  2. Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
  3. I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store,” Eve L. Ewing (1986-)

We begin with past—the time with the clearest tie to the concept of history—and with Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass.” Hayden’s words are a perfect framing for the way we should approach the past. He asserts that this incredible man, a former slave turned renowned abolitionist, will be honored not by the typical trappings of American remembrance, but instead by “the lives grown out of this life, the lives / fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.”

The past is not some dusty relic to be pulled out of a dark cabinet for a few days each year. It is something that we tell and retell every day, choosing which stories we highlight and the language we use to tell them. The people who make up today’s movements are the “lives grown out of this life,” the flesh on the bones of an idea that was once only a dream.

In Langston Hughes’s famous poem, “Let America Be America Again,” he challenges the narratives America tells about itself—narratives of freedom for all, where dreams are lived out and opportunities are ripe for the taking, if only one does the hard work to snatch them up. Hughes instead repeats the refrain, (America never was America to me.) He not only refers to his own identity as a black man, but also dons the identities of other oppressed peoples, such as Native Americans, farmers, immigrants, and poor. He rewrites the story, not saying that he doesn’t belong in America, but rather that America first and foremost belongs to those who built it.

Brethren openly condemn this dangerous type of American nationalism that ignores injustice and calls for blind obedience. In the 1967 statement “The Church, the State and Christian Citizenship,” Annual Conference asserted: “The church must warn against idolatrous nationalism in foreign affairs and call people to broader horizons of concern. In relation to domestic policy the church will try to help and to protect those who have been deprived of their rightful voice and are neglected or injured in some way.”

Eve Ewing takes a different approach to the past. In her quiet poem set in an ordinary grocery store, she imagines an alternate past in which 14-year-old Emmett Till was not brutally murdered. Instead, he has grown old, become a familiar face in the community, lived a long life. This is a moment of peace for a story that is only one of extreme violence and tragedy.

“How are things going for you,” she asks.

“Oh, it goes, it goes.”

By telling this story, one which was never allowed to happen, she manages to tell Till’s story all the same. His story is one of a young life brutally cut short by men so deeply entrenched in racism that they took the life of an innocent boy. It is the false memory of this ordinary moment in the grocery store, a brief glimpse of warmth, that brings the harsh reality of the past rushing in. She references everything Till’s life and death represent without saying it. “It goes, it goes” suggests the echo that, in fact, it does not.

As Christians, and as people in community, we use stories from the past to help us define who we are. We tell and retell the stories from the Bible to provide the foundation for understanding our identities and the world around us. All three of these poems by black writers ask us questions about which stories from the past we tell and how they inform us now. As we remember black history, perhaps we need to be creative about imagining new ways for the church to tell its stories and grapple with its past.

What you should know about #PrisonStrike2018

Image courtesy of incarceratedworkers.org

Hebrews 13:3, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

On August 21, incarcerated people across the country began what has become the largest prison strike the U.S. has ever seen. “We are demanding humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform, and the end of modern-day slavery,” their website says. Their full list of demands call for these ten actions:

  1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
  2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.
  3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
  4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
  5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.
  6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
  7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
  8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
  9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
  10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.

The demands of the strike place a strong emphasis on access to rehabilitation, something that the Church of the Brethren has supported through pushing for restorative justice and an end to mass incarceration. Our commitment to God’s peace is a radical one, one that we should carry to everyone, especially those in prison. The U.S. prison system is one of deep violence and trauma, and rehabilitation is a healing balm we should offer to all who seek it. 

The demands also call us to recognize that prison labor is a form of modern-day slavery, paying workers little to nothing and forcing them to work in horrible conditions. We must turn to see the most invisible laborers in our society and the injustices they so consistently endure. As we said in our 2008 Annual Conference resolution on 21st century slavery, “We commit to educating ourselves and others about modern-day slavery and initiating and supporting anti-slavery action at home and abroad. This includes measures to prevent enslavement, to end slavery, to care for those who have been victimized by slavery, and to change our personal lifestyle habits that support it.”

Furthermore, the strike laments the extreme disparity between the treatment of people of color and white people in the current criminal justice system, with many laws on the books that target black and brown people. Mass incarceration and racial injustice are two issues tightly woven together.

At its very core, the strike is calling for the recognition that imprisoned people are humans. “We must see that the denial of basic human rights and the violence and counter-violence that terrorize humanity are all related; we cannot address one without addressing the others. They are connected” (Making the Connection, A.C. Statement 1986).

Getting Involved

The strike ends on September 9 and, with less than a week left, there has been little national news coverage and an increase in punishment for the prisoners who organized the movement. This is a rare moment when prisoners themselves—not simply outsiders speaking on their behalf—are trying to make their voices heard. During the second week of the strike, organizers released a statement saying:

“Right now we know that thousands of prisoners are risking torturous repression to bring this agenda forward, and we do not take their sacrifice lightly and neither should you. Prisoners are facing repression right now as we speak and it is our duty on the outside to do whatever we can to shield them from that violence of the state.”

This is simply a call to action—with only a few days left to the strike, there is still much to be done. A list of ways to take action (as well as many more resources and information on all relevant issues) is on the strike’s website, and the strike’s statement on August 28 lists the states with prisons with known participation. Call your representatives (202-224-3121) to tell them you support the strike and the prisoners’ demands, specifically to be implemented in your state’s prisons. Follow the strike on social media with #August21 and #PrisonStrike and make your support known by amplifying the voices of those involved.

We are called to release the captives, let the oppressed go free, and when our brothers and sisters behind bars desperately ask for peace and rehabilitation, who are we to deny them?

 

2016 Christian Citizenship Seminar on Mass Incarceration

2010 Annual Conference Resolution on Torture

2008 Annual Conference Resolution on Slavery in the 21st Century

1986 Annual Conference Statement on Making the Connection

National Religious Campaign Against Torture

 

With Actions and In Truth: An introduction to OPP’s new racial justice position

New BVSer Monica McFadden joins director Nathan Hosler and current BVSer Tori Bateman at the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy.

“If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. “ — I John 3:17

In 2007, the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference adopted the Separate No More statement, which challenges the church to intentionally move toward being more intercultural and ethnically diverse.

In 1994, Annual Conference adopted the statement Community: A Tribe of Many Feathers, which sought to show support for Native Americans and reckon with the role the Brethren have as a part of the colonizing power in America.

In 1991, Annual Conference received a report on Brethren and Black Americans, which carefully examines how Brethren have engaged, or not engaged, with Black Americans and how we will seek to address systemic racism in our denomination and our society.

Back during the Civil War, Brethren grappled with their relationship with this oppressed “other,” asserting that “it would be best for a follower of Jesus Christ to have nothing at all to do with slavery,” a very controversial topic in the church at the time.

While it’s clear the Brethren have long been considering these issues, adopting a number of statements discussing racial discrimination and our relationships with minority groups, these statements have yet to be fully realized. In order to pursue the goals of these statements more intentionally, the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy created a new Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) position dedicated to the topic of racial justice and reconciliation as it applies internally to our denomination and outwardly to our society.

I’ve just finished up my three weeks at BVS orientation and am excited to delve into all the work this new position requires—working alongside minority communities in food deserts through Going to the Garden, teaming up with the interfaith community in criminal and racial justice working groups, leading visits and workshops for Brethren groups in D.C., and everything in between. The Church of the Brethren has a long history of standing up for justice, peace, fairness, and mercy, and this is no time to slow down.

In his book Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer advocating on behalf of those sentenced to death row, says:

“I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

Our nation’s complicated history with race is often tied up in how we decide who is poor, who is disfavored, or who is accused. Through Christ, “who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14), we can seek God’s justice to help break down those barriers. The beginning of this new position on racial justice stands as an open call for church members or youth interested in racial justice-oriented tours of the D.C. area, workshops, or museum visits to contact our office.

Sometimes, it is easier to look across the globe at people being oppressed than it is to look within our own communities and neighborhoods, our own states and districts, and open our eyes to the people suffering right beside us. This position is one step toward seeing our brother or sister in need and witnessing racial discrimination, and then seeking righteousness with actions and in truth. I hope that you will join hands with me for the difficult work ahead.

 

Monica McFadden is the new Racial Justice Associate at the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. She graduated from the University of Denver in June with a B.A. in Political Science and Art History. Contact her at mmcfadden@brethren.org.