Shmoop on Huck Finn: Guest Blogger Jeanne Torrence Finley

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photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

My colleague Jeanne Torrence Finley has been writing about art and justice on her new blog Tell It Slant, (which you should definitely check out).  Today she joins my defense of Huck Finn by discovering an oddly-named defender of satire in literature:

When Alex wrote on February 18  (“In Praise of Uncomfortable Books:  Huck and Harper Revisited”) about the decision by the Duluth, Minnesota school district to remove Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird from required reading lists, I knew I couldn’t keep quiet.   As a writer and former English teacher, I don’t understand censorship of two of the most clearly anti-racists books in American literature.  Expanding the curricula of schools toward diversity is essential, but it doesn’t require banning books like Huckleberry Finn, which is all the more remarkable in its denunciation of racism because it was first published in the U.S. in 1885.

Earlier this month I had written an essay for the publication FaithLink* called “Religious Satire” and included Mark Twain as arguably the greatest American satirist.    In the research for my essay I couldn’t resist going to my favorite literature website, Shmoop, and watching the short videos on satire on their ShmoopTube (a.k.a. Where Monty Python Meets Your 10th Grade Teacher).  I found three videos about Huck Finn that I wish school board members in Duluth would watch:

“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”  (2:33) informs viewers that Huck Finn has 220px-Huckleberry_Finn_bookbeen on the top 100 banned books in the U.S. for several decades and frequently makes the top 10.  The main reason for the novel’s notoriety among censors is that Mark Twain wrote in the vernacular and used offensive language–specifically the N-word–219 times.  Yes, bad boy Huck started out a racist.  He learned it from his culture but he changed.  His spiritual journey with the slave Jim parallels their journey down the Mississippi.  If racist readers commit to that journey with Jim and Huck, there’s a good chance they will change too.

“American Literature: Finn: Racism”  (5:44) makes the points that anti-racism is the point of this novel and that the novel takes on systemic racism.  It’s pretty amazing that a white man born in 1835 in Missouri understood that racism is systemic and had the ability to put readers inside a racist society so that they could feel the offense.  The video mentions that a publication of a version in 2011 replaced the N-word with the word “slave” and comments about that attempt to be less offensive:  “It’s supposed to be an ugly word. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable.  Hiding it just waters down what Twain was trying to say.”

“American Literature: Huck Finn: Satire”  (5:38) explains satire in general, and the satire in Huck Finn in particular, as a way of exposing human foolishness and sin.  It’s a way of learning ethical thinking from a poor, pint-sized, foul-mouthed runaway whose heart and mind are open to change.

It’s a way of learning ethical thinking from a poor, pint-sized, foul-mouthed runaway whose heart and mind are open to change.

Shmoop Tube videos are designed for 10th graders by grad students in literature who know how to “speak” High School Student and their humor is commensurate with their audience’s level of maturity.  Nonetheless, I think adults who want to ban books, particularly Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird could learn a thing or two here.

 *Though FaithLink is a curriculum available by subscription from Cokesbury, the essay portion of an issue is sometimes picked up and posted on the Ministry Matters site.

–Jeanne Torrence Finley

In Praise of Uncomfortable Books: Huck & Harper Revisited

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photo by Chris Lawton via Unsplash

Huck and Harper are on the block again and I’m not comfortable with that.  Then again, I think it’s high time we all got uncomfortable.

In late 2016, as I was beginning Heartlands, I reflected on the controversy that was roiling Accomack County, Virginia where I live.  Only that’s not strictly accurate.  The decision by the local School Board to temporarily remove The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird for offensive, racialized language did lead to some protests here (and the eventual return of the books), but the headlines were largely elsewhere.  Accomack County was one more piece of evidence for blue America (and places far beyond) that red America was regressing into ignorance and intolerance.

Now I think that maybe the greater danger is that the country as a whole is regressing into head-in-the-sand comfort.

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The courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama

This week news came that the same two classics of American literature were being removed from the required reading lists in the schools of Duluth, Minnesota.  The decision was not the result of a particular complaint but from ongoing conversations that included the local NAACP chapter.

“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” Michael Cary, the school district’s director of curriculum and instruction, told the Duluth News Tribune.

Stephan Witherspoon, president of the local NAACP said, “There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people.”

I don’t want to argue the case for Mark Twain’s Huck and Harper Lee’s Mockingbird, even though they stand among the best and most important books American culture has produced.  The de facto canon that American public schools have been using is too limited and could surely be strengthened by adding more diversity.  But to set aside Huck and Harper in favor of literature whose primary requirement is that it does not offend is a travesty.

Good literature is offensive precisely because, if it is authentic to experience, it goes directly to those places where humanity is exposed and revealed in all its flaws and triumphs.  Sure, let’s add Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave to the mix of required reading, but what they describe is degradation and it’s going to be no less offensive.  Put James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time on the list and there will still be squirming in the seats.

I get the distinction.  Twain and Lee are white authors who may be using the racialized language satirically but who certainly don’t bring the same lived history or context to it that African-American writers would.  But the characters they create—Huck, Jim, Scout, and Atticus—are the kind of people I want my children to meet in literature.  They are limited by their times and their prejudices, just like their authors, but they contain the beating heart of humanity and of the possibilities of expressing that humanity in this land.  They can’t be what they are, fully fleshed out, without the jarring reminders of what racism and the legacy of slavery has done to them and their language.

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Alex hanging out with Scout & Jem

Removing the books may seem like a good move to save children from the disturbance of knowing how such hurtful language has been used against people who look like them.  But isn’t empowerment, in part, helping students of every race deal with the world they live in everyday that includes such language and its history?  Is it better to let them struggle with such language in its cartoonish version in alt-right chat rooms and casual daily racism or to deal with it in books that give them other resources for understanding what’s going on?

Another danger of the move is that it threatens to remove another voice from our contemporary world that we still need—our ancestors.  Because they do not conform to our current standards of appropriate terminology and ethical behavior, they make us uneasy and we are tempted to hide them away as an inconvenient embarrassment.  But the dead do not stop speaking for all our attempts to silence them.  What motivated them and stirred them to both moral horrors and triumphs is still within us and we have much to learn from them, even as we expand the canon with voices that were suppressed in their own time.

So here’s a plea for some holy discomfort that should welcome the challenge of Huck and Harper.  Perhaps it’s a longing for schools to be a space where wise books and wise people can lead us out of our struggles to live into a common story.  Or maybe it’s just because I believe that we are already uncomfortable and will be despite such changes, so why discard some companions who would try to help?

The Most-Read of 2017: A Heartlands Retrospective

freestocks-org-4875612017 began with a quaint and quixotic belief that one more blog might be helpful in addressing the Great Divide.  Post-election I was casting about for a way to explore this strange, new world we all seemed to be living in.  Were we really as divided as we seemed?  Had we forgotten how to talk to each other?  What new languages might we have for new conversations?  And how could the church reclaim its own language for this new day?

img_5321Heartlands is about the way these questions play out in rural America.  Over the year, it has developed a particular interest in how place and story can ground us.  Hence, book reviews, travelogues, and interviews with authors and artists.  But you have helped shape what this blog looks like.  And it’s time to count down the most read posts of 2017.  So here they are:

10. How to Preach a Bad Sermon – reflections by one who has delivered and heard more than my fair share.  Includes obligatory Annie Dillard reference.

9. Why don’t country people just get out? – What happens when we give up on country life?

19366224_10154952950103533_8737175430623632393_n8. In Which I High-Five a Bishop – The new bishop of the Virginia Conference, got me (and the whole conference) fired up at our annual gathering last June.  Here’s where I tell why.

7. We’ve Got an Open Door Problem – revisiting the deceptive slogan of the United Methodist Church.

6. Why the Duke Divinity School Controversy Matters – not sure, but I think a few Duke alums might have helped goose this post up the list.  But the controversy did matter in helping us define the stakes of 21st century theology.

5. The Last Thing I Want to Talk About – Bishop Oliveto and the United Methodist Church – The legal wrangling over the status of the denomination’s first openly lesbian bishop got me thinking about what I really wanted to be talking about.

14_working4. When Robert E. Lee was in the Walgreen’s Parking Lot – An interview with Photographer Michael Mergen – Passing through Farmville, Virginia one day, I took a break at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts and discovered the work of a great photographer of place and memory.  Man, I’m glad I did.

3. This Old House: The Love Story – an interview with Trudy Hale – One of my favorite people who lives in one of my favorite places – The Porches writing retreat.

2. The Empty Bench at the Book Bin – Remembering Kirk Mariner – the Eastern Shore and the UMC lost a giant in 2017.

images1. What Goes Without Saying – Some Thoughts on Charlottesville – a fitting #1 considering how much time we spent discussing that awful day in August in a city I love.  Race, faith, and the Great Divide in one terrible package.

But the true #1 is you, dear reader.  Thanks for giving these posts some life and breath and for moving toward something like a community – a far less quaint and quixotic concept.  Thanks as well to Christopher Smith and Sara Porter Keeling who contributed guest blogs this year and all the authors and artists who gave me their time.  Happy New Year!

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#3 Killers of the Flower Moon

51Gk++yHGHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The more I think about David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI the more I realize what a brilliant work of journalism it is.  Grann doesn’t call attention to himself and never reaches too far into the ether to get at a larger point.  He simply tells the story of the 1930 Oklahoma murders of members of the Osage nation in such a way that you can’t escape the story.  In the end, the story is about America, about race, and about us.

The structuring of the story is clear and the pacing excellent.  The third act is a stunning twist.  And the ending will make you look at who we are as a country in a whole new way.

If I’m hyping #3 this much, #1 & #2 must be stellar, right?  They are.  Coming soon…

My review of this book is accessible through the title link above.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#4 Wolf Whistle

51bf+UoPhrL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_If I told you there was a laugh-out-loud book about the murder of Emmett Till, the black teenager killed in Mississippi in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman, you’d call such a thing, at the least, in poor taste. Yet the late Lewis Nordan, who lived through that episode as a teenager in his home town of Itta Bena, MS, wrote just such a book–fictionalizing the murder and running it through his wildly imaginative brain formed by heavy immersion into Southern Gothic literature and Southern vernacular. The result is Wolf Whistle–profane, horrific, and one of my top reads of 2017 (though the novel dates to 1993).

The book is worth the price of admission just for the courtroom scene which is what Harper Lee’s would have been like had it been stripped of every veneer of high-mindedness. Alice, the young 4th-grade school teacher with the lone sense of conscience, takes her wards on a field trip to the murder trial while an unruly parrot disrupts the proceedings enough for truth to be told and the evil of the crime to be exposed, even if the perpetrators, as in real life, get off scot free. Critics call some of this magical realism. I call it brilliant.

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Emmett Till

What Nordan does is to foreground the brutality and tragedy of lower-class white Southerners, particularly as they interact with the African-American community. The characters walk over from a Flannery O’Connor story and stay in your face, all the while silent sufferers like poor Glenn Greg, (who tried to set his abusive daddy on fire and instead burned himself to a slow, painful death), linger in the background. You feel it’s not right to laugh at the clowns who drive the narrative, but in this Delta nightmare-scape, you take comfort where you can find it.

The sad history of racial violence is still close to the surface and the past is never really past.  And this is vivid, scalding writing without much hint of redemption.  Except…images of the dead teenager keep surfacing in stories and even in a raindrop on Alice’s coat, and they won’t be extinguished. As long as people keep remembering Bobo, (the Emmett Till figure in the book), the story is not finished.

The book prompted me to spend a day in visiting Emmett Till-related sites in Mississippi last summer, something I wrote about here.

A Tear for Bois Sauvage: A Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

fullsizeoutput_17f7It’s not often that the ending of a book makes me moist-eyed.  And I can’t ever recall when the acknowledgements did that.  But there it was in the final sentences on page 289 of Sing, Unburied, Sing, the 2017 National Book Award-winning novel by Jesmyn Ward:  “In closing, I’d like to thank everyone in my community in DeLisle, Mississippi, who inspired my stories and gave me a sense of belonging.  I am ever grateful for every one of you.  I love you all.”

I’m man enough to say it was raining on my face in that moment.

Part of that was just because I so admire books that can evoke a place and Jesmyn Ward does that, even if DeLisle becomes Bois Sauvage in her fiction.  (She also used it as the setting of her Hurricane Katrina book, Salvage the Bones, which won the National Book Award in 2011.)

51ipyal4R-L._UY250_But the main reason was that she had so earned the sentiment in this book.  Every one of the troubled characters in the book is treated with respect and even love, from drug-addled Leonie, trying so hard to be a daughter and a mom and failing so miserably most of the time, to Jojo, her 13-year-old son who is growing into manhood with an ocean of wounds.

At the center of the book is a road trip that Leonie takes to Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary, with her addict friend Misty and her two children, Jojo & Kayla, to pick up her abusive husband, Michael, on his release.  Only the trip is just the tip of a much larger iceberg.  There are ghosts along the way.  Leonie is haunted by her brother, Given, who was murdered by Michael’s family in a “hunting accident” years before.  Jojo is visited by Richie, a teenaged boy who died at Parchman while Jojo’s grandfather was serving time there.  The circumstances of his death become the occasion for Jojo’s coming of age and coming to terms with his grandfather.

The best window on how to read this book is actually offered before the first page where Ward includes this quote from fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty:

“The memory is a living thing—it too is in transit.  But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives—the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.”

Ward knows there’s more than humidity close in the air in Mississippi.  There’s the past that never dies, the hope that persists through tragedy, and the deep movement of song.

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Jesmyn Ward

It’s not that it’s all mystery and lyricism.  Ward takes us into the swamps of racial interactions.  Leonie is black, Michael is white and their families have trouble with their relationship because of it.  There’s a terrifying scene when the family is pulled over and brutalized by a police officer on the way back to Bois Sauvage.  There are also bald-faced racists spouting vile things.  But somehow Ward moves us to care for the monsters and to recognize that bigger forces, like the system of historical racism, are at play.

On display at every moment is the humanity of these characters—the way they sabotage themselves and wound each other but also the way they meet each other with tenderness and remorse.  The book is full of bodies in close connection—fathers and sons rolling on the floor fighting, little girls clinging to the neck of an older brother, an addict coming back from an overdose with her head in the lap of her husband.  Even in the violence there is intimacy.  And even at the end there is the possibility of transcendence.

This is a beautifully-written book that gives dignity to people who don’t usually receive it.  When she received her recent National Book Award, Ward noted:

“Throughout my career, when I have been rejected, there was sometimes subtext, and it was this: People will not read your work because these are not universal stories. I don’t know whether some doorkeepers felt this way because I wrote about poor people or because I wrote about black people or because I wrote about Southerners.”

But like Faulkner and Welty, whom she claims as literary kin, Ward does know that the whole universe is in every particular, and every place is in her place, and those who have died yet live.  It’s worth shedding a tear over such a place because, like her, I came to love them all.

Freaks & Monsters – Being an Artist in the South – My interview with Nick Norwood concludes – Part 3 of 3

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Nick Norwood’s poetry at an installation at The Eagle & Pheonix cotton mills, now lofts

Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, is also a great poet.   Like McCullers, he writes about what he knows – the American South and its eccentricities.  In previous segments of this essay we talked about the universal themes in McCullers’ work and her sense of place.  In this segment we wind up with a discussion of race talk and talk about what it means to be an artist in the Deep South…

How do think Carson McCullers’ views on race relations hold up today?

One of the papers that was read at the [recent international] conference was about how she was a part of her culture, too.  You see that in her depictions of African-Americans.  Even though it’s clear that she is sympathetic, it’s almost unavoidable that she’s gonna say things that are patronizing or that show a blind spot here and there.  So the argument that Sarah Schulman makes is that we shouldn’t just consider where she makes a mistake.  It’s the attitude towards other people that we should try to emulate.  She really was sympathetic to other people and even if she might have had some blind spots that’s not the important thing.

The New Yorker critic Hilton Als is a gay African-American man.  He won the Pulitzer prize for criticism and he has long been a McCullers fan.  He wrote a really important piece on her back in the early 2000s and has written other pieces on her.  He points out things in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter that make him cringe.  He acknowledges what Richard Wright says and he says, “I’m not gainsaying what Richard Wright says.  He was right and yet still there are things I think that are embarrassing to all of us.”  For instance, in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, she wants to make a clear distinction between Dr Copeland and his children and she does it partly with her speech but I think she overdoes it a little bit.

There are things that she has especially Portia say.  She makes comments like walking in a black neighborhood “it had that negro smell” and that was one of the things that Hilton Als said.  She was a product of her time in that way.  So I think the main thing to try to emulate and to appreciate now is the attitude towards other people and especially the ‘other’, that I think is clear that she had, that’s the thing.

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Nick Norwood

So she talks a lot about, and has a lot of characters who are freaks and outsiders—like the circus freaks who come to town. I’m sure she felt that way growing up a lot. How is it for you being a poet in the Deep South?

You know the famous comment by Flannery O’Conner when she was asked, “Why do you Southerners have so many grotesques in your work?”  She said, “Well maybe it’s because we know one when we see one.”

My good friend Fred Fussell, who is a historian and musicologist and is married to Cathy Fussell, who was the second director of the McCullers Center—they are local historians interested in the art and culture of this place.  He explained it as “Every place has its eccentrics; we’re just exceptional.”

I think maybe that is sort of true of the South.  I feel like I am not exploiting that in the way that those famous, now we refer to them as Southern Renaissance, authors did because it would feel like an adaptation to me.  On the other hand, I’m writing about things that really happened to me in my life.  I know a lot of people see that.

When I make friends with people that are from outside the South and we start telling stories of our childhood and they look at me like “Wow!”  What can I tell you? That was just home.  So I don’t know if the South is exceptional in that way but it seems to be so.

I am like Carson.  Seriously, I came to Carson McCullers in my 20s and she was an influence on me as a writer.  I was only writing fiction at the time.  I later found out I was a poet but still I think that she’s an influence and one of the ways that she is that is, I think, to pay proper homage to a place, especially your own place, is to be absolutely honest about it and that includes writing about a lot of people that other people are going to see as freaks and monsters.

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Carson McCullers

So it might be easier to be a poet in the South because you’ve got a lot of material.

Yeah, fiction writers have gone to town. I was lucky to find models amongst the poets, many of whom became my friends, I don’t know if you know Andrew Hudgins for instance.  He is a poet from Montgomery, Alabama writing from a Christian perspective.  I met him when I was in graduate school in Texas.  He’s still a good friend of mine and he writes with blunt honesty about the South and it’s a shocking thing. His most shocking poems are the ones that are most about his Christian faith.  He likes bad jokes more than any otherwise intelligent person I think I’ve ever met and he would tell a joke sometimes in his poems.

Also this poet David Bottoms, who’s a Georgia poet, who’s just terrific.  He’s a great poet also become a friend and mentor.  His first book, which was chosen for the Walt Whitman Award, made his career—a book called Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump.  It is unrelenting in its focus on the violence and the brutality of Southern culture and yet it is unmistakably a book by a serious poet.

So I had these models to find a way to talk about my Southern childhood in poems but I think that for a long time it was difficult for Southern poets to do it.  It’s almost like poetry had to evolve to a point where you could write that kind of poem.  Previously it seemed that, if you were a fiction writer, the South was a good place to grow up because there was all this great material for fiction.  I’m just lucky that I came along a little later so there are a lot of prominent American poets who are from the South and writing about the South right now.

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

What Goes Without Saying – Some Thoughts on Charlottesville

DHMudULVYAEEq0QLet me begin with the ‘ought to’s.  It ought to go without saying that what happened in Charlottesville at a gathering of white supremacists and white nationalists was an ugly display of our divisions in this current moment.

It ought to go without saying that an ideology that believes the white race is superior to other races is a discredited relic of some of the darkest moments of our American history.

It ought to go without saying that such an ideology is antithetical to the gospel and the inclusive message of God’s intentions for all creation and all people.  If Christ is our peace, as Ephesians 2:14 says…If, as the verse goes on to say, “he, with his body, broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us,” then there can be no place for another message, especially one claiming the name of Christ, that would perpetuate hatred and division.

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Heather Heyer

It ought to go without saying that the deaths and injuries over the weekend—of Heather Heyer, a young Charlottesville woman who died in the vehicle attack, of two state troopers, Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, who were patrolling in a helicopter that crashed, of the many others wounded—are tragic.  We rightly weep for them and for their families.

It ought to go without saying that Charlottesville, a place where I have studied, lived, and worked at different times of my life, should not be defined by this act.  It is a city that has struggled, perhaps more so than most, to understand and learn from its history, including its troubling racial history.

All that ought to go with saying, but I’m saying it, because the fact that people openly espouse racist and Nazi ideas in America in 2017 shows that we still have the capacity to nurture evil in our hearts and minds.  We have not escaped the human condition.

19884025_490881374591713_1163294255372840333_nWhat more should we say?  On social media this weekend I saw many calls to pastors to speak about Charlottesville from the pulpit on Sunday.  Clergy were very visible in Charlottesville on Saturday – walking arm in arm in a silent witness against the hatred on display.  I was glad to see United Methodists in the midst.  On Sunday, in the Texas church I attended, no one offered a word about Charlottesville in sermon or prayer.

Some would say that to make a big deal about the violence at the protest would amount to “virtue signaling”—a marker so that others can see that we’re on the right side of the issue.  This kind of concern is a sign of the fallen nature of our public discourse these days.  There are many people who feel that, by acquiescing to the request to make a statement or a prayer, they may be coopted into a whole set of agendas that have far more to do with a political worldview.  If I put #Charlottesville in my Facebook post, am I putting myself in a camp?

There are also those who worry more about those who didn’t say what they thought ought to be said.  If my attention and my ire turns to those who didn’t bear the witness I felt they ought to make, am I distracted from doing the hard work of community building that it will take to overcome the Great Divide and renew our commitment to shared values?

I do expect that the clergy and lay leaders of the Eastern Shore will address Charlottesville and I expect that many did in services on Sunday.  But they should address it not because it is the issue of the day, but because the gospel illuminates it for what it is.

The truth is that racism is one of the powers that rule in our day.  It is a sin that infects us all, not just the ludicrous gatherings of white men with tiki torches and vile flags and signs.  They claim it openly, but racism is in the air we breathe, and if we were to get rid of every little pocket of supremacists, it would still be there in our souls to struggle with.  And to do that will take faith in God’s liberating work in Jesus Christ and the communion of the Church which invites us to continual confession.

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The Rev. Jeffrey Pugh

The Rev. Jeffrey Pugh, a United Methodist and a Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University, was one of those clergy at the protest on Saturday.  He talked about his experience there on the podcast Crackers and Grape Juice on Sunday.  While the clergy were committed to a non-violent witness, he confessed that he found himself wanting “to grab a rod and start hitting a Nazi.”

In the aftermath, he found himself appreciating the ongoing work of learning to be a disciple, a work that kept him from taking up a rod.  “Christianity is a daily practice,” he said.  “It’s a daily practice of inculcating certain disciplines of the heart and soul that we might be those people that can stand in these moments of trial.”

I pray that we can be grounded in something far more than a stance.  We need to do far more than showing up in Charlottesville the next time the racist circus comes to town.  We need to show up every day to the places we live and the people we interact with, helping to expose and root out the racism that is around and within us.  We ought to be about the daily practices of being Christians.  And that ought to go without saying.

 

Love, Character, and Ordinary People: A Visit with the World’s Greatest Tour Guide

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Shirley Cherry

“That’s where the bomb hit,” Shirley Cherry says, pointing to a nondescript spot on the porch of the old Montgomery, Alabama house.  The little girl standing on that spot jumped and moved as if it all might happen again.  Perhaps another bomb thrown by a racist terrorist upset about the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott might explode again into the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage.  Maybe 3-500 angry black citizens, many of them armed, might gather on the lawn once more and threaten retaliation.  Maybe a young pastor in his first appointment might come out onto that porch, after checking on the safety of his wife and children, and advise the crowd in strong, measured, gospel-filled words to go home.  “We know a better way,” Martin Luther King, Jr. might say.  Love is a better way.

IMG_6567Such is the power of Dr. Shirley Cherry to make the past come alive that she can make you see all those things on the porch of 309 S Jackson Street (“Remember that number,” Cherry says.)  She can also help you see how that past persists.  When I arrived at the Interpretive Center, (this was my second visit), Dr. Cherry immediately introduced me to Nelson Malden.

“This is the man who gave Martin Luther King his first haircut in Montgomery and his last haircut before he died,” she said.  It seemed impossible because Mr. Malden looked far too young to have been cutting hair in 1954 when King arrived in the city.  But sure enough, he had vivid tales to tell of King’s first visit, of the way he talked about the haircut Malden gave him and teased him about his tithe as a way of explaining why he didn’t tip him.

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Alex, Nelson Malden, and Shirley Cherry

As the tour group moved over to the parsonage, Dr. Cherry spotted 95-year-old Vera Harris out on the porch of her home.  In 1961 Harris and her husband, Richard, sheltered Freedom Riders like Diane Nash, James Farmer, and John Lewis, after they were attacked on their journey to desegregate interstate bus travel.  Cherry marched the thirty-some tour participants over to Harris’s swing and gave them the opportunity to shake hands with a living Civil Rights veteran, to Harris’s great delight.

There is a lot to see at the Dexter Parsonage: The table where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed.  The study where King wrote.  The kitchen where he sat at midnight on January 27, 1956, praying for courage over a cup of coffee after yet another anonymous phone call threatening his life — a moment he recounted in his last sermon, the famous ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ sermon:

It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

Shirley Cherry keeps the kitchen dark as she tells this story to mimic that midnight hour.  “That’s the kettle he used to make his coffee.  This is where he sat.”  But then she gets personal.

It’s not just King’s story she’s telling; it’s hers.  She knew poverty growing up.  She saw the pictures of dead Emmett Till, brutalized and murdered in next door Mississippi for allegedly whistling at and grabbing at a white woman.  (That woman, Carolyn Bryant, now says that grabbing never happened.)  A young Shirley saw those pictures and heard the unspoken message, “You better know your place.  Or else.”

But King gave her a different narrative.  She draws a young teenager in close to her.  “What’s your name?”

“Hannah.”

IMG_6570Shirley drapes an arm around her shoulders.  It is grandmotherly and sisterly all at once.  “Hannah, Dr. King taught me to look people in the eye.  To look white people in the eye. Will you make a pledge to me?”

Hannah says ‘yes’ before even knowing what it will be.

“You can answer on behalf of all the people in this room because they all need to make this pledge.  Will you keep looking forward and not look back?”

“Yes.”

“There are things in life that will break your heart, but you must learn how to let them break your heart, but never, EVER, let them break your spirit.”

“Dee Dee,” she points to another teenager, a basketball player that she has called on earlier in the tour.  “You stand up straight now.”  I noticed a lot of us standing up a little straighter at that moment.  Did it myself.

“There are three things I want you to take away from here,” Shirley had told us earlier.  “Love, character, and ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”

After the tour, over salmon, stewed tomatoes, and collards at the cafeteria of the Alabama Center for Commerce, I asked her where she had gotten that mantra.

“The only thing that is really, really missing today is love and it doesn’t mean loving somebody when it’s easy to love them. If it doesn’t have anything to do with love, it doesn’t mean anything anyway.  Only what’s done for love will last. So if you say you know God and you don’t know love…you know the Book says that ‘if you do not know love, you do not know me and I don’t know you.’”

IMG_6577She talked about her 31 years of teaching (with only 1 disciplinary referral!) and what she tried to inspire in her students.  “I used to put my arms around my students and go, ‘Do you know what you have?’  They’d look at me like I’m crazy.  And I would say ‘Potential, and I want it.’ They knew not to give me anything second-rate.  They knew that.  Besides that I had my character quote too: ‘One must be on a lifelong quest for excellence.’ Oh, and it drives me crazy when you see people who just want you to love mediocrity. Colin Powell said, ‘The best way to achieve mediocrity is to try to please everybody.’ I’m not trying to please anybody but myself and if somebody says what somebody else thinks about me that has nothing to do with me.

“I’ve got to tell these people what it meant and why it mattered – what Martin Luther King did and Caretta and all the rest of them. It meant something. It meant that we had a better world. It meant that we weren’t just black and white but we were a world.”

I guess you know, that if you’re ever in Montgomery, or even close, you have to go to 309 S Jackson Street.

What I Learned From a Day with Emmett Till

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In the video, Johnny B. Thomas, mayor of Glendora, Mississippi, looks out over Black Bayou. This is where the body of Emmett Till was dumped following his brutalization and murder in 1955.  In a voiceover, Thomas says, in effect, “Things haven’t changed here.  A lot of the problems that were here then are here now.”

It’s hard to argue with that.  Spending a few days in the Delta, I feel as if I’m in a place where economic opportunity is still stagnant and racial reconciliation is still a long way off.  In many ways, it’s similar to my own home on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  This is a place where young people are told, by observation if not in words, “Your best chance is to leave and if you do stay, don’t set your sights too high.”

I spent the afternoon making the pilgrimage to the Emmett Till sites.  I wasn’t alone.  There are tour busses traveling through the area making the stops, too.  What else brings people to Money, Mississippi?

IMG_6583That’s where you can find the overgrown ruins of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, the country store where 14-year-old Emmett, down from Chicago for a visit with his great uncle, Mose Wright, went on August 24, 1955.  While his companions were outside on the porch, Emmett went in and what happened in the minute he was in there has been a matter of dispute ever since.

Did he make lewd remarks and grab Carolyn Bryant, a white woman behind the counter, around the waist as she claimed (and recently recanted, in part)?  What was the character of the whistle he made as he was hustled away by his cousins?  Whatever offense it was in the complex racial structures of pre-Civil Rights Mississippi paled in comparison to what came next.

IMG_6586Next door to the ruins is a old filling station and store restored to look as it did in the 1950s, down to the Gulf pumps advertising No-Nox gasoline.  A sign, often vandalized, designates the spot on the Mississippi Freedom Trail.

Across the street, a group of white construction workers leaned against their equipment and watched me photographing the sign and store.  Later, they saw the tour bus pull up and a group of twenty-some people, all white, filed out.  It was hard not to project myself into the workers' heads.  “Is this all Mississippi is to the rest of the country?  A place to tut over and shake our heads and fingers at? Do they only come to the Delta to amplify its shame?”

Later I pulled into Glendora, former home of J.W. Milam, half-brother of Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy.  The house is gone now; just a patch of open ground remains.  Milam was acquitted of Till’s murder though he later confessed along with Roy Bryant in an infamous Look magazine article for which they were paid $4000.

Next door, still standing, is the cotton gin where Milam and Bryant found an old fan which they looped around Emmett’s neck with barbed wire before dumping his body.  As gruesome crimes go, they don’t get more gruesome.  Something that was obvious when Till’s horribly disfigured body was found three days later.  His mother’s decision to have an open casket for his funeral led to an iconic picture of the effects of white supremacy run amok.

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The cotton gin today houses a small museum called the Emmett Till Historical Intrepid Center.  You read that right.  Intrepid.  There was something a little intrepid, audacious, and fearless about Emmett Till.  Reckless, you might even call it.  By all accounts, the young teenager enjoyed being provocative and his murderers cited his refusal to act regretful as one of the reasons for their brutality.  It’s one of the things that make Emmett Till more than a victim in this story.  His refusal to be defined by the unjust powers of the day is ennobling.

So why not take a place that was commandeered for a heinous act and convert it into an intrepid center?  The museum is worth the visit, even if you may want for a little more air-conditioning on a really hot day.  The displays are visually interesting and help place Till’s story within a larger Civil Rights narrative.

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As I left the building I was being watched again, this time by a group of African-American men standing outside a nearby building by the railroad tracks.  Again I couldn’t help projecting myself into their heads.  “Is this all Mississippi is to the rest of the country?  A place to gawk at and burnish progressive credentials?  When, as Mayor Thomas said, nothing really changes?”

I brushed aside my self-consciousness to take a picture of the sign describing the Glendora Gin.  In the background of the photo was the place where Milam’s tool shed was, the place Milam & Bryant brought Emmett to be tortured and mutilated.  Well, at the very least…that’s gone.