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.

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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.

James Baldwin’s Moment and the Danger of Racial Innocence

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photo by Cristian Newman via Unsplash

James Baldwin is having a moment, 30 years after his death.  First, Ta-Nehasi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a book that drew its inspiration from Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time, topped The New York Times’ bestsellers list.  Then, a documentary about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, was nominated for an Academy Award.  It was time for me to see what the fuss was about.

51P9xUYx6DL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_The Fire Next Time is a brief, searing read.  In it, Baldwin tells his own life story as an African-American man growing up in mid-century Harlem within the larger narrative of race in America.  At times angry and disillusioned, it also works below the surface of racial tensions to come up with a surprising definition of love.  “Love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided,” Baldwin says.  “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”  But until America, and particularly white America, comes to see itself as it really is and not as it imagines itself to be, love will be perverted into antipathy and fear.

“Love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided,” Baldwin says.  “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

Baldwin sees the danger of the myth of innocence.  In imagining that we are a color-blind society with a heroic narrative of advancing civilization, we fail to see how the ripples, the peoples!, who trouble that narrative would allow us to be more honest, more open to new frontiers.  “What it comes to is that if we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might being new life to the Western achievements, and transform them.”

I find this book as fresh and relevant as Coates’ book, even though it is more than a half-century old.  Perhaps because it seems so clear that we are just as incapable of grappling with race as we ever have been.  In fact, the lines between us have hardened between those who see race as a pretext for liberal policies and those who see it’s avoidance as evidence of white nationalism.

Racism, like air, isn’t something Americans have the luxury to avoid.  It just is.  And like every manifestation of Sin, it has its claws in us from the time we are born.  To spend vital energy denying its existence or continuing impact is to whistle in the wind.  One might as well deny the fact of death, which is what Baldwin says that white Americans do.

Racism, like air, isn’t something Americans have the luxury to avoid.  It just is.  And like every manifestation of Sin, it has its claws in us from the time we are born.

We are prone to simple narratives in these days.  Our summer blockbuster plot lines boil down to a cataclysmic confrontation with personified evil overcome by a hero, if not good, at least justified.  We are drawn to leaders with simple answers – walls, guns, and jails.

But the church, which Baldwin found so energizing and ultimately disappointing, is nonetheless the custodian of a language of faith that offers something deeper.  Within the story of God and ourselves in the Bible is a Love that refuses to credit any of the easy lies we tell ourselves.  In the light of the cross, we can have no illusions that there is an innocent history.

We are chained by forces that resist God’s work of mercy and redemption.  We are incapable of seeing how truly distorted our lives become.  It takes a God incarnate in the world and on a cross to “deliver us from slavery to sin and death,” as the United Methodist communion liturgy has it.

Baldwin’s writing is suffused with the language of the church.  It lends him an urgency for the time we face.  To wit, his closing line: “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in son by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

Five Reasons to Look Forward to Ministry in 2017

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photo by David Marcu via Unsplash

Tired of counting the reasons the sky is falling?  Me, too.  The traditional metrics for mainline ministry (church membership, finances, number of organists) may be on the decline and the angst about how the nation’s Great Divide will impact the church continues.  But let me give voice to the hope that is within me during the moments I dare to dream God’s future:

1) We are getting over our generational building fever.  There are some places where investing in major new buildings makes sense and I appreciate the energy that comes with beautiful sanctuaries and new ministry space.  But more and more churches are living out the truth that we often proclaim – the church is not the building.  So I look forward to using the legacy space we have in new ways and doing more ministry in the community in places like homes, restaurants, campus lounges, and coffee shops.

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United Methodist Bishop Sharma Lewis with Seminarian Virginia Greer

2) Cooperative parish models are offering new life to small churches.  Particularly in rural areas, the joining together of congregations to carry out ministry cooperatively makes sense.  Combining missions committees, youth groups, and even church councils means greater resources for ministry, a critical mass of people, and less burden on small church leaders who often juggle multiple roles.  Churches in cooperative ministry also have more capacity to focus on mission rather than just keeping the doors open.

3) The segregation of our churches along racial lines has never looked more ridiculous.  Half a century after Martin Luther King, Jr. made the observation that Sunday at 11 AM was the most segregated hour in America, mainline churches are still trying to live into a new reality.  The good news is that our clergy and lay leadership on the denominational level is more diverse than it ever has been and cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments of clergy to churches are now becoming routine.  This is one of the features of our United Methodist appointment system that I most value.  Of course, there’s still a long way to go.

4) Young clergy are transforming the way we do church.  Young clergy have always been seen as slightly irreverent by their older peers, but I admire the way that God continues to use the creativity and gifts of young people in the church.  The young people in ministry that I know are bringing a deep thoughtfulness to their engagement of this changing culture that we live in and from their online experiments with podcasts and social media to their non-traditional gatherings like street liturgy and pub theology, they are challenging us all to take both our tradition and the realities of the contemporary world more seriously.

IMG_54565)  Small, communal experiments are modeling new ways of connecting the church to the world.  The Missional Wisdom movement, Fresh Expressions, and the New Monasticism are all examples of Christians seeking to live in accountable community with one another as they serve the world.  Most of them commit to a rule of life that brings them to a level of sharing and spiritual formation that many people hunger for.  They also tend to take seriously ministry with the poor.

Church is different these days.  No doubt about it.  And if our expectation of success is a model circa 1955, then we’re destined for disappointment.  But if we expect that God can do a new thing and is transforming the world and wants us to be part of it, well, then we’ve got a lot to look forward to in 2017.

Going Underground on the Eastern Shore – the new Harriet Tubman park

IMG_6043One of the dynamics that happens in marginalized places, (and I’ll count the Eastern Shore, where I live, as one of those), is that the people who live in them can internalize that marginalization and begin to believe that nothing significant ever happens there.  Or we latch on to narrow stereotypes of what the region is about, (in our case, oysters and pony swims), and make them carry too much weight in establishing a communal identity.

So hooray for the National Park Service for returning Harriet Tubman to us as a reminder of the subterranean currents that have formed this place.  When the new National Historical Park opened up near Cambridge, Maryland recently, Suzanne and I went to check it out.

IMG_6031The neck (peninsula to most) where Tubman grew up is still a marshy, pine-studded piece of land.  But it was home to a slave economy that once dominated the region.  Mid-Atlantic slavery was sometimes downplayed as a less harsh version of the deep South model, but the stories in the museum make clear that there were terrors on the Chesapeake to match those of the cotton plantations.  Families were rent and punishments rendered that left enslaved peoples physically and psychically scarred.

There were terrors on the Chesapeake to match those of the cotton plantations.

The museum is heavy on narrative and visual representation because there are so few artifacts left from the time.  But it is effective in giving the visitor a taste of Tubman’s faith and grit and determination to liberate her family and anyone else who would follow. She said, “I was free and they should be free.  I would make a home in the North and bring them there, God helping me.  Oh, how I prayed then, I said to the Lord, “I am going to hold steady on to you, and I know you’ll see me through.”

Tubman’s visions of God leading her and others to freedom began when she was hit in the head by a metal weight hurled by a white man in anger across a country store.  Like some scene out of a Flannery O’Connor story, this sudden act of violence was a revelation of God’s redemptive purposes for Tubman.  She wrote a song for the day she left which has all the elements of a spiritual.  “I’ll meet you in the morning, safe in the promised land;/on the other side of Jordan, bound for the promised land.”

img_6040.jpgShe was caught up in a biblical story that gave meaning to the one she lived.  The promised land, despite the colonists’ dream, was not the Eastern Shore, nor even Philadelphia where she fled.  It’s a place approached in song and faith.

When the sun sets across the Chesapeake Bay, it is a beautiful sight.  It can make you feel that all is right in the world.  But there are troubling things below–discontent nurtured by a biblical narrative of redemption and release.  Today, the Underground Railroad may be led by Latino Tubmans who know there is a promised land, and it’s not the same as ‘here.’

Also recommended: Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad.

 

 

A Heart in Darkness – Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

61ctwxzsuzl-_sx327_bo1204203200_The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

Doubleday, 2016

320 pages

South Carolina seemed enlightened, until you realized that, beneath the comforts and opportunities, the plan was to sterilize the black race out of existence.  North Carolina used less subterfuge, resorting to a grisly ‘Freedom Trail’ of hanging black bodies as a way of dealing with its ‘race problem.’  Tennessee was a burnt-over, cursed place and Indiana had its own terrors.

The main marvel is that Colson Whitehead’s book, The Underground Railroad, works at all.  It’s a fantastical reimagining of 19th century American slavery that manages to offer both a realistic portrait of the peculiar institution and an alternative narrative in which varied states play out racial narratives in different ways and in which the metaphorical railroad that channeled persons out of slavery to the North becomes an actual iron and steam train rumbling beneath the land.  In sum, the book makes an effective argument that the only way beyond the terrors and lingering trauma of American history travels via the subterranean tunnels of imagination.

The central character in the book is Cora, who is born into slavery on a coastal Georgia plantation.  Her story and choices are framed by a grandmother who left her a pitiful plot to till and tend and a mother, Mabel, who ran away, abandoning her child.  The first third of the book hews close to history, detailing the small and great indignities, the ever-present threat of violence, and the choking claustrophobia of cotton plantations.  Cora, who is a bit of an outsider within her own community, goes through a process of consciousness-raising that leads her to eventually accept the offer of a fellow slave, Caeser, to run away.

Their journey brings them to the Georgia station of the Underground Railroad, a creation that one ‘station master’ introduces this way: “If you want to see what this nation is all about you have to ride the rails.  Look outside as you speed through and you’ll find the true face of America” (262).  The grim punchline being that all you ever see in a tunnel is darkness.

If you want to see what this nation is all about you have to ride the rails.  Look outside as you speed through and you’ll find the true face of America” (262).  The grim punchline being that all you ever see in a tunnel is darkness.

In her travels, Cora is pursued by Ridgway, a sadistic slave-catcher who is just as deformed by the system of slavery as she is.  He is haunted by Mabel, the one that got away, and determined to send Cora back to a violent end, even if it means his own death.  His ultimate plunge into darkness is a fitting glimpse of the grotesque dance white and black were doing.

Whitehead’s book is a testament to the power of imagined alternatives, but it is just as much an indictment of the imaginary histories we tell ourselves about the past and about who we are.  Cora’s job in the relative freedom of South Carolina is as a living installation in a museum where she inhabits a glassed-in triptych meant to illustrate the real black experience.  Except that Scenes from Darkest Africa is ridiculously primitive, Life on the Slave Ship is jauntily nautical with a strange wax dummy of a sailor, and Typical Day on the Plantation has luxuries, like a seat and a spinning wheel, that Cora never knew.  When she complains to the museum owner about the inaccuracies, his only concession is that the room for the exhibit was too small.

When a small child on the plantation recites the Declaration of Independence for the amusement of his owner, the fantasy of the national myth is exposed.  To Cora it “was an echo of something that existed elsewhere.  Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the document described anything real at all.  America was a ghost in the darkness, like her” (180)

Is it possible to write a book that is very good without it being good writing?  I think so.  Whitehead’s ideas are vigorous, but his characters and dialogue aren’t.  I encountered this in his last book, Zone One, which I never finished because it left me cold, (and not just because it was about a zombie apocalypse).

We always inhabit stories that began before we got here and that shape who we are.  And the story I am a part of is one that has been distorted in its own way by the demonic narrative of slavery.  We need all the wrestling, dancing, and imagination we can muster to envision a light at the end of the railroad tunnel.

51nha5jnbll-_sx329_bo1204203200_Nevertheless, when you pair this with Yaa Gyasi’s great debut novel, Homegoing, which came out last year and which pulsates with life in telling a multi-generational story of Africans and African-Americans through the slavery era and beyond, we have two great windows on the lingering effects of the slave system on contemporary society.  As a white reader, I think these books say much more than that black lives and black history matter.  They are a reminder that we always inhabit stories that began before we got here and that shape who we are.  And the story I am a part of is one that has been distorted in its own way by the demonic narrative of slavery.  We need all the wrestling, dancing, and imagination we can muster to envision a light at the end of the railroad tunnel.