Stepping Out of Our Comfort Zones: Combating Segregation in the U.S.

This is the fourth reading in the joint program “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We will be offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.

Written by Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in OPP


When picking a church, people try to find a church where they “fit in.” It may be that they attend a church that has a strong children’s program because they are a young family. It could be they attend a church with opportunities to share their musical talents or offers services with their preferred style of music and worship. If your Brethren, you make sure to find a church that has a lot of fellowship activities with awesome potlucks. Regardless, most people try to find a church that matches their beliefs in God and meets their needs and wants. What if one of those “wants” is that the fellow congregants are the same race as they are?

The most segregated time of the week is Sunday morning, when many citizens of the United States are attending church. As people choose the church they want to attend, they choose one where they “fit in.” We tend to “fit in” at churches where people look like us, act like us, and have similar customs. The race of people in our congregations often influences our choices even when we are not aware. We may feel comfortable in a congregation because of specific practices and traditions, but those traditions come from cultures. Different ethnicities and different cultures practice their faith and live out their faith in unique ways. For example, I teach as a college professor, and a student of mine from Puerto Rico shared how she was reprimanded in high school for wearing her rosary beads around her neck. In Puerto Rico, wearing one’s rosary was a symbol of faith! In the continental US, in a predominantly white Catholic high school, it was a sign of disrespect. So what type of church is she going to feel most comfortable attending? One where she can proudly wear her rosary or one where she feels condemnation for doing so? If you were Catholic, where would you want to attend?

Where we “fit in” at church ends up being segregated by race, which at face value may not sound like a bad thing. However, history has taught us that there is no such thing as separate but equal. What ends up happening is instead of simply coexisting in different churches, we become unaware of different churches. We become unaware of how others live out their faith. We become unaware of other customs, traditions, and ways of knowing the Divine. We become unaware that our way of knowing God is not the only way, and we forget how to learn. When we stop learning, we end up being the ones who criticize a young girl for how she wears her rosary beads.

When we practice our faith with people of different races, customs, and traditions, we learn more about who God is. The Lord created people of all races, cultures, and ethnicities to worship him in their own ways. As we practice our faith with people of various backgrounds, we learn more about who God is because different cultures connect to different characteristics of God. As a young white woman, the images and characteristics of God I have grown up with are different than the images and characteristics of God that a person of color may connect with. For example, for many people of color, the Lord is a God of liberation. God used Moses to free the people of Israel who were enslaved and oppressed. During his life, Jesus liberated people from oppressive forces in society: the sinners, the outcasts, the foreigner, the poor. He gave them a new life in a society that had pushed them to the margins. In Luke 4:18-19, we read that Jesus stood up in the synagogue and read from Isaiah, “‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’…’Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’” (NIV).

Jesus did not choose a church because he wanted to “fit in” nor did he spend time with people he fit in with. He chose to spend his time with the marginalized and the outcasts, but it was not solely for the purpose of healing. He broke bread with, lived with, ministered to, and was ministered to by those who were marginalized in society. He lived alongside the oppressed getting to know them, who they were, and what their needs were. If those in positions of power struggle to even learn about who God is from people who are oppressed, how are they going to learn about the person being oppressed and what their needs are. If I, as a young white woman, who is in a position of power simply because of my race do not live alongside people who are oppressed, I may never learn. If I never learn, then I will continue living a segregated life perpetuating discrimination.

Segregation is no longer considered illegal, however much of the U.S. is segregated by race including housing developments, schools, workforce, and employment. Even though a company may employ people of different races, quite often the jobs and duties are segregated by race. Even with affirmative action, there are various struggles that people of color disproportionately encounter. For example, a position that requires a master’s degree is often considered a high-level position, and these positions are disproportionately held by people who are white. The difficulty comes in attaining a master’s degree. Higher education in general is costly for people in the United State, including expenses beyond tuition such as room and board, textbooks, travel, etc. People of color have a greater likelihood of experiencing financial insecurity than people who are white. An undergraduate education often is a huge success and huge financial toll for anyone. For those who experience financial insecurity, education beyond undergraduate becomes even more difficult and may seem unattainable. This results in predominantly white affluent people achieving graduate level education, so the applicant pool for an upper level position requiring a master’s degree is predominantly white. Even with affirmative action, the monetary toll of graduate level education and the need to provide financially for one’s family limits integration in these areas of the workforce.

How do we know money is one of the hindrances to integration? It requires that people live and work alongside those who are oppressed, listening to their stories and learning from them. If people do not step out of their comfort zones and remain on the outside looking in, incorrect assumptions will continue to be made, assuming that people who are oppressed do not have the drive for graduate level education, or they do not desire those types of jobs. Or concluding that they have every opportunity as everybody else, but they choose not to get the education; they are self-segregating!

These assumptions would be wrong.

As we move about our daily lives, instead of always finding places that we fit in, maybe we need to be looking for places that we don’t fit? Live alongside people that are different from us and learn what it means for them to live. What brings them joy, pain, sadness, and trouble? Celebrate with them in the joyous moments. Mourn with them in the times of pain. Be present even when it is not comfortable. Live like Jesus lived.

Reflection Questions

In the United States, our churches are segregated, and the average American’s life mirrors this segregation. Below are various roles people have in our lives. For each of these roles, identify how many people you interact with regularly who are of a different race than you.

  • ______ Family
  • ______ Friends
  • ______ Congregants
  • ______ Coworkers
  • ______ Clients (people you work with who are not coworkers)
  • ______ Additional______________
  • ______ Additional_______________

What are ways that you could increase the diversity of the groups you are a part of? What are some ways you could break out of your comfort zone to live alongside people who are different than you?

Read Luke 10:25-37

The parable of the good Samaritan is often used to explain how our neighbors who we are to love are not just the people who are like us, but also the people who are different than us. It is a common Scripture used when discussing race because the Samaritan extended love and care for the person of a different race; of a race who he was supposed to despise. By stopping to take care of the man, the Samaritan showed love for his neighbor. He also stood up to racism in the process by crossing the racial divide of the two ethnic groups. The Samaritan put the needs of the person above his own comfort and above societal expectations.

  1. What are ways that the Priest and the Levite wanted to protect their comfort over helping the person in need? Who were they “fitting in” with?
  2. What was the Samaritan risking by stopping to help?
  3. When is a time that you saw a “man along the side of the ride,” a time that you encountered racism, but simply continued walking? What could you have done instead?
  4. When is a time that you were the Samaritan, and stood up against racism? How was the experience?

Catch up on previous resources

If you have time this weekend, we and Church of the Brethren Intercultural Ministries encourage you to watch the…

Posted by Church of the Brethren Office of Peacebuilding and Policy on Saturday, February 15, 2020

#TodaysInspiration Dr. Maya Angelou in her own words. "And Still I Rise" Dr. Maya Angelou is a Poet Laureate of the…

Posted by Church of the Brethren Intercultural Ministries on Friday, February 14, 2020

#TBT Great and blessed Thursday and week. #TodaysInspiration reminds us of the many ways we can make a tangible impact….

Posted by Church of the Brethren Intercultural Ministries on Thursday, February 6, 2020

Color Blind or Color Brave?

This is the second reading in the joint program “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We are offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.

Reflection by Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in OPP

A common concept used when discussing race is being color blind: “I don’t see race, I see people.” While this sentiment seems to come from good intentions, it can have negative implications. In the following TED Talk, Mellody Hobson discusses the complications of being color blind. However, she offers another perspective, a way to be “color brave.”

Read 1 Corinthians 12:12-26

“Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.”

1 Corinthians 12:14-15 NRSV

Have you ever looked at this Scripture and said, “My foot is part of my body. I don’t see feet; I only see a body.” It’s not a statement I have ever said, and it sounds quite foolish to me; but why? If we do not recognize our foot as its own unique part of the body, we do not recognize its unique contributions. Without feet, we would have difficulty walking, running, and simply standing, as many people unfortunately have had to experience. The body is changed significantly because of the loss of a specific, unique part. This change would be experienced very differently than the loss of a different body part, such as a gallbladder. A foot and a gallbladder serve different functions. They have distinct gifts that they provide for the body, and not having that gift would mean a significant change in how the body works and the lifestyle the person would live.

From a young age, we teach kids to identify various body parts, through songs like “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” As they grow older, we teach the same thing about people and the Body of Christ. We recognize different spiritual gifts, such as teaching, speaking in tongues, healing, and prophecy. We recognize intellectual gifts, encouraging some to be doctors, some to be teachers, and others to be electricians. Yet, often when we look at race, we think we should be color blind and not see any differences.

I believe some of this movement came about with the intentions of reducing discrimination. If I don’t see color, then I will hire the best person for the job without letting racial prejudice affect my judgment. The problem is, by removing someone’s race, we are removing someone’s gift. We don’t see the unique perspectives and life experiences someone has had because of their race. We don’t see their unique qualities and value. We also do not see the distinctive ways people have been oppressed because of their race, remaining blind to networks of oppression and policies that uniquely affect people of color.

When we remain color blind, we also don’t recognize that we have unique experiences and perspectives because of our race, and since those experiences are unique, they are not the same for everybody in the U.S. Our view of life is not the standard. Our perspectives and lived experiences are just as different, but no more or less important, than the hand is from the foot. The hand, foot, and gallbladder are all distinct parts, but they are parts of one body allowing that body to function in a specific way. The diversity of experiences, perspectives, and assumptions of all people of all races, cultures, and backgrounds are necessary for the Body of Christ to be whole and for God’s Kin-dom to flourish.

Reflection Questions

  1. How were you taught to think about race? Were you taught to be color blind or were you taught to recognize and value differences based on race?
  2. The TED Talk mainly focused on the benefits of being color brave in a corporate setting.  What are other benefits of being color brave and benefits of diversity?
  3. Reread verses 25-26. If our foot suffers, the whole body suffers. If a member of the Body of Christ suffers, are we all suffering? Does being color blind inhibit our ability to suffer alongside people of a different race?

Why Do I Need to Talk About Racism?

This is the first reading in the joint program “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We will be offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.

Written by Alexandra Toms; Racial Justice Associate in OPP

Why do I need to talk about racism?

Why as a Christian should I be concerned about racism? I myself am not racist. I am raising my children not to be racist. I even have friends who are not white. So what more do you want me to do?

Why do I need to talk about racism?

There are laws on the books that prevent further racism. Brown vs the Board of Education ensures integrated schools. The Civil Rights Act protects against discrimination in public and in jobs. We have even gone as far as Affirmative Action to help right some of these wrongs.

Why do I need to talk about racism?

It’s been over 150 years since slavery ended and over 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement. Individuals may have been slower to change, but they are growing older. The younger generations do not even see the color of your skin. Discrimination is now part of the past.

Why do I need to talk about racism?

Even though 50 years have passed, for some it seems like just yesterday. A grandmother drops her grandkids at school, reflecting on the taunts and jeers experienced when she first went to a white school. She remembers drinking from the “colored” water fountain and being denied a seat at the lunch counter. The freedom riders assaulted; buses burned integrating rest stops. The memories and pain, not as absent as she had once hoped.

And now that the grandmother takes her grandkids to school in a time known for integration, she looks around hoping that her grandkids future is different. But her grandkids’ school is predominantly black. Her grandkids being raised in Harlem, not more than a block away from where she raised the kids’ mother.

Despite the integration that her parent’s generation work for, this grandmother sees her grandkids in such a similar situation. The schools are barely integrated, with only a few white children. Teachers are understaffed, the system underfunded. The students’ textbooks haven’t been replaced since early 2000. The history books not even reflecting the nation’s Black President.

Grandma watches her grandkids and hopes they can break the cycle of poverty and despair, go to trade school or college, get an education, and a job that is stable. Because they could be the first to buy a home for themselves, be able to take out a mortgage, denied to her, unaffordable for her children.

Maybe they will leave Harlem, move into the suburbs. They can raise a family, their kids at a school with new textbooks and iPads. But for now she just prays they get through middle school, not having to worry about these things that race through her mind in the school yard. She hopes that despite the educational system, they will be happy young kids, ready to conquer the world. She knows they’ll need that spunk and grit, for the uphill battle they don’t know they’ll have to climb.

So why do I need to talk about racism?

Because the struggle the grandmother and her grandkids work through, are ones that have developed from a long line of discrimination. Patterns of behavior from slavery and segregation, have paved the way for this young family’s current situation. A lack of training and opportunity, and a lack of family wealth have all been created by the past oppression denying civil rights.

So maybe I’m not racist, and I am teaching my kids not to see color, but am I actually doing the right thing, or should I do more to be anti-racist. What’s mine to do about structures creating oppression? Where can I speak out and up for those pushed down despite legislation.

Do I know a family like the grandmother and grandkids, have I shown them grace, or cast judgment on their situation? Can I look beyond the moment, at present decisions, and see what other factors have led to what I have deemed “personal choices?”

This is why we talk about racism, so we can see the grandmother and her grandkids as fellow children created in the Lord’s image. If we are to love the Lord’s children, love our neighbors as ourselves, we can’t be okay with the oppression they have experienced, the discrimination they have felt.

But we have to be able to see it, to recognize there is still discrimination, or else we blindly believe the grandmother’s situation is based solely on poor decisions. And this blind belief leads back to the original thinking that racism is over, solved by laws, legislation and colorblind thinking. If that is our thought, we miss an entire network of oppression, keeping God’s children below us, participating in the discrimination.

Reflection Questions and Scripture

  1. When you think of racism, what thoughts and emotions are brought up for you?
  2. As we start this journey learning and relearning about Black history in the U.S., what do you hope to gain?
  3. Do you have any fears or concerns as we enter into this month? Are there reasons you may be feeling tentative?

Read Psalm 139:14 and Ephesians 2:10

In Psalm 139:14, David writes that “we are fearfully and wonderfully made.” Ephesians 2:10 says that we are “God’s masterpiece.” If a close friend of yours loaned you a piece of artwork that they had created, their masterpiece, how would you care for that piece of art? If you had to travel with the artwork to get it to point A to point B you would most likely handle it with an immense amount of care. You would probably take extra precaution getting it in and out of the car. You may even drive a little slower if it is something delicate. I worked at alongside a wedding coordinator for several years, and the most anxiety provoking part of the entire job was dealing with the wedding cake. Usually, we would just add some decorations to the table, and add some flowers to the cake, and even that little amount was done in very slow, deliberate movements. The worst time was when the cake arrived the day before, and we were in charge of taking it from the walk-in cooler and setting it on the cake table. I do not think I ever pushed that cart so slow or had my heart racing so fast at a wedding. This was someone’s masterpiece, and not just the person who made it, but also the couple who it was made for.  It was their masterpiece.

  1. We are God’s masterpieces; each of us, made by God, in the Lord’s image. What if we treated each other with as much respect, care, and sensitivity as the cake? How would the world be different?
  2. If something would have happened to the wedding cake, not only would I have been horrified that a masterpiece was damaged, but I would have been embarrassed, ashamed, and sorrowful for the couple who commissioned the cake. When we hurt other people, fellow masterpieces, do we feel ashamed, embarrassed, and sorrowful in response to God?
  3. How is racism causing harm to God’s masterpieces?

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.