Archive for the ‘Racial Issues’ Category

A New History

Friday, October 9th, 2009

Walter Brueggemann argues that Abraham entered a new history. And ditto for me. The new history is without link to the old. The new history begins with a call for me to repent (of prejudice) and a summons to leave old comfort zones and to go somewhere I am not to become someone who I once was not. In my life this new call was a second call. A new birth. For most white people overcoming prejudice can hardly be anything else.

God called me to an alternative life, a life that is the antithesis to the cold, barren one based on hatred and mistrust. My first destination was the wilderness. The wilderness is a place of diminished resources and manna but it offers greater possibilities than the comforts and the garlic of Egypt. We who live Ur and seek the Promised Land will–as I have found–experience some obstacles. We too will have our faith tested, our memory of God’s deeds questioned. Racial reconciliation to thousands of white Americans is that new, unexplored, but most assuredly promised land!

Racial Reconciliation to many of us is unexplored territory. It demands a profound faith with more than a modicum of risk. . .

I reached. And as I held my new daughter, I hummed Mammy’s old tune . . .”Hush little Rachel, don’t you cry. Daddy’s going to love you til’ I die. All yo’ troubles is gonna soon be over. Will soon be over . . .” As Rachel prepares for college this year I thank God that He brought our lives together. She is my first born, God’s invitation to be to move toward racial reconciliation.

This book is for and to white people who are willing to reach. For white people who are willing to take chances. To have their views of race and racism challenged. This book is really narrative history for I have lived much of the history I describe in this book.

I ask that people of color be patient with me. As I watch my African American daughters grow I love them so much more each day! I feel more comfortable, in a way, with children of color because my Rachel, Jessica, and Timothy are partly African American. But, God knows, I am not black; I shall never be black and I cannot never know the challenges that racism will bring them. I must be content to tell my own story and encourage people like me to listen to our brothers and sisters of color.

I know that here and there my own prejudice will rear its head. I do not wish it to be so. But I know that my past and my present white privilege are too indelibly a part of my ethos to be removed in a lifetime–much less my short forty-five years! After it is all said and done, I do not think I am being falsely modest to say that I am still at heart an Arkansas white boy!

A friend, Tobin Miller-Shearer reminded me recently that when white people talk about racism they define it in personal terms – individual attitudes, actions, perceptions, stereotypes, relationships. He is right. I know that if that is the only way that we define the problem, according to personal actions then the solution is defined solely in terms of changing the individual.

A second pattern Tobin observed is that, by and large, when people of color talk about racism they define it in systemic terms–how the systems of police, education, health care, business, church, etc. respond to people of color as a whole. If that is how one defines the problem, then the solution is defined completely in terms of changing the system.

Tobin and the staff at the Damascus Road Experience, Mennonite Church, and I are convinced that we have work in both arenas. In fact, to ignore either one is a betrayal of the biblical model (using Tobin’s words). Jesus healed the individual and consistently called people to right relationship. Jesus also challenged the systems of his day and consistently modeled an approach that acknowledge the powers and principalities.

Tobin concludes, and I concur, racism is a cunning, demonic force that knows how constantly to reinvent itself. The one consistent thing we know about it is that it serves the primary purpose of giving power and privilege to white people and, through the forces of history, has established systems (even inthe church) that serve white people. The damage that racism wrecks upon People of Color is incredibly destructive.

Racism is like a holding a rattlesnake by its tail– it bites both ways. I think that the damage it has brought on white people is terrible too. Not anything like what has happened to the victim, to be sure. We who have been part of the problem are now reaping God’s judgment.

Racial Reconciliation

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Racial reconciliation is about people. And home schooling is about people–what a perfect match! People with hopes and dreams and visions.

Thomas Murphy’s tears troubled me when he returned from the counselor’s office–he had been told that black boys do not go to white colleges. I remembered Mammy’s words then–and again as I watched Dwight Washington drop his head in shame when an elder blocked his path and told him niggers were not welcome at our church. The words of my oldest childhood friend still haunt me as I remember his threat to castrate a five-year old youngster if he dared to sit in our segregated theater. Mammy, how can I forget Jimmi Sue Daniels? She stood with clenched fists as Ricky Smith and Roger Russell blocked her path to our segregated pool.

I weep for us all as we pathetically stood, with Roger and Ricky. And that is the place we white Christians in 1998 need to begin–by weeping. By weeping for Thomas Murphy. By weeping for our nation. By weeping for ourselves. By repenting.

As I looked at my new daughter, I remember Lee. I again felt the pain and lost opportunity of growing up in the South in the 1960’s and 70’s. I stood that day, in 1980, silently weeping again. And Rachel wept when she saw me cry.

Every southerner has a Civil War story of some relative embellished beyond any reasonable truth. But my story–truth or not–was the framework from which I worked. It was rumored that two Stobaugh brothers had fought in the Civil War in the Confederate army. They were members of General Braggs army and had enlisted in a company from Martin, Tennessee. If they were like most Southerners, they never owned very many slaves–only one or two. And the slaves probably lived in the same house as their owners. But slavery was a mindset, a way of life worth fighting for, even dying for if necessary. They fought fiercely to protect their way of life. But they lost their war. As I starred at Rachel, I wondered, “Would I lose mine?”

My wife turned, smiled, and handed me my new daughter Rachel. “Now the Lord said unto Abram, get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land I will show thee.” Abram was called to a new land,a new time, a new family, and to a new name. The risks were very great–all the time in fact. At any time the promise could be lost and the rewards were singularly obscure. But he trusted God more than he feared the wilderness.

Rachel was my promised land. She was my new time, my new land, my new chance. She was more than my daughter: she was God’s invitation to me to experience wholeness and new life.


Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

Segregated schools, segregated churches, segregated doctors’ offices–we all knew our place. Mammy Lee never prepared me for the world that I had to enter once I left the placenta-like fairyland she had created for me within my home. Lee never warned me that I would sing, “Jesus loves the little children,” in my fourth-grade Sunday School class. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. . . ” The words still painfully lurk in my memory. Where was this world of which I so enthusiastically sang?! Lee never told me that I would wipe the steam from my school-bus window and see tattered black children standing with their tattered books — some of which I had discarded only the year before. As I peered into their consuming brown eyes, I felt a part of me die, I felt my innocence departing. I felt myself being drawn into this madness called racial anger . . . And it was clear to this ten year old that all the adults around me were very angry. Poor Mammy Lee could no longer solve all my problems with Vick’s rub and caster oil.

I heard about my first lynching from Lee. An African American had been beaten nearly to death on the old Red Fork Road by the Klan. No one really knew why. It no doubt frightened her. It terrified me because it frightened her.

But she tried. “Hush little Jimbo, don’t yo’ cry,” I can still hear Mammy’s husky voice whisper, “Mammy’s gonna love yo’ ’til I die. All yo’r troubles will soon be over.” But they were not over, they had just begun. Like an unfaithful mistress, the land I loved was betraying me.

Lee’s departure during my eighth year irreparably damaged me. I still feel the pain. It was like losing a parent. My parents told me that they could no longer afford her but that was small compensation to a child whose most frequent semblance of love and order lay in the countenance of an overweight woman of color.

Racism – A Contagion

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

Before I was to enjoy this land for even a decade, however, I was to discover a darker side. Racism – a contagion that irreparably damaged this land. Everyone–white and black–was its victim.

While I was a white person, seeped in privilege, I deeply loved a person of color. The person who raised me for the first eight years of my life, who protected me so long from this darkness, was my babysitter/housekeeper/mammy, Lee–whom I affectionately called Mammy Lee. She was an African American. Armed with collard greens, black-eyed peas and a sturdy dusting cloth, Mammy Lee single-handedly maintained this fragile world. Mammy Lee was parent, servant, and benevolent despot all rolled up into one. This 250 pound, five-foot tall, black woman assumed epic proportions in my life. Chewing tobacco, limping slightly, and occasionally rubbing a lucky Mercury-head dime tied around her foot with kite string, Lee enveloped my whole family in her arms and propelled us forward through all adversity; she protected us from reality, and gave us false security garnished with pecan pies and encouraging words. Lee set perimeters for all our lives.

I loved Mammy Lee. I can still feel her as she held me and squeezed — as if a hug and a shake could cure anything! Lee showed me where to find the fattest fishing worms; she helped me dig for pirate treasure. Lee both haunts and enriches my memory. Lee was the first anachronism that was so much a part of southern life that I met. I could never retreat into comfortable paternalism and racism again. She was a person. A real person. She was the first African American I ever loved. Thankfully she would not be the last. I had to find my way across generations of prejudice because she was all I had.

There was a desperation about Lee. She grew noticeably angry. Her world was changing quickly — too quickly — and her discomfort grew. She was mad at Yankees who came down here and made trouble for us; and she hated and feared stupid “white people” who frightened and beat her people. The Brown decision, and federal soldiers entering Little Rock’s Central High School marched through our quiet land with as much destructive force as Sherman’s march through Georgia. This appealing, seductive land was mercilessly, if slowly, being ripped open for the whole world to see. And inside this enlarging cauldron, a young white boy and a sweet black lady were growing up together–and apart–at the same time.

Remembering – Part 28

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

I was thinking of my mom this morning. She is deceased for 8 years. I wonder if she would have liked the new president? I think so. In her own way she was a forward thinking woman–but she never would admit it.

My mother was victimized by racism but not a victim of racism. Racism was a fad to her. It was her ticket into southern respectability. Born into abject poor white trash poverty, mom was only too glad to gain prestige through racism. Racism held sincerely and resolutely brought acceptance and, in a word, pedigree. It tied ones blood lines to Southern ethos as surely as belonging to the Daughters of the Confederacy. In fact, she grasped it with gusto and vigor. Her manifestations of racism were particularly insidious and full of vigor. She hated blacks but loved the intrigue that they brought to her world. They made her life, her country, her land nonpareil. It was not the fear or the anger that drew her. It was the anger, and the intrigue that so much nonplused emotion brought her. Her racism was her own. like a woman preparing for a debutante party. She nurtured it, refined it, savored it. It was her gentleman caller for whom she had waited all her life. But ironically, in her ambivalence, she raised a boy who has three African-American children!

Remembering – Part 27

Monday, March 30th, 2009

“Oh beautiful for patriot dream/That sees beyond the years.” I had pleaded with my neighbors not to go. “It is like going to a pornographic movie. You really don’t need to go and see what is happening to know that it is evil,” I said.

But they went. By the hundreds they went. “I am not for the violence,” they sheepishly explained. “But, you know, what they say makes sense.”

What do they say? “The—-hordes have overrun all of America’s major cities, and turned them into jungles, unfit for human habitation.”1 Yes it makes sense. That makes their a ctions even more evil. No, my community has played the harlot.

My family, thanks to the watchful eye of the FBI and the grace of God, survived that evening. My story is the American Story. It is the story of racism and its resulting racial anger can do to one family.

Remembering – Part 26

Friday, March 27th, 2009

In John Milton’s description of Hell in Paradise Lost there is a brilliant image of both utter darkness and the burning fire of God’s judgment juxtaposed in the same place. Much as sin and love coexist in one’s heart. “In utter darkness, their portion set/As far removed from God and light of Heaven.” Then, Milton lights the fires of hell with hatred, rebellion, and prejudice. “. . . the unconquerable will,/And study of revenge, immortal hate,/And courage never to submit or yield.” “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” Satan cries to God from the floor of Hell. I felt and saw the cosmological battle between good and evil on the horizon of my property and in the center of my heart.

“And crown thy good with brotherhood,/From sea to shining sea.”

I was angry. And scared. I should have know that there trouble was coming. Two weeks previously I had heard that a giant Klan unity rally would be held near my farm. “It was the only public event that you could still attend and not see a single dirty, filthy, stinking nigger!” an advertising bulletin announced.

“Well, that is comforting,” I snickered, “I do not think my two daughters and my son–the only African Americans who lived within ten miles of the rally–would want to go anyway.”

There was an inordinate amount of traffic in the late afternoon–cars with out-of-state license plates, cars that stopped and whose occupants stepped out to look at my registered Suffolk sheep and, to my horror, at my children playing in the background. My wife Karen gathered her little ones and took them into the house–but where could we be safe? My daughter’s bedroom was next to a window whose glass could easily be shattered by an angry Klansman’s thirty-thirty rifle. Assured of the veracity of our cause, but afraid of a thoughtless, perhaps inebriated Klansmen’s angry rifle shot, we waited for the dawn.

As I said, I had met my antagonist at his father’s funeral a few weeks previously. Then, before I knew that he was the Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Kingdom of my unpretentious neighborhood, committed to ridding our neighborhood of niggers, Jews, and other undesirables–as far as I knew my three children and one man were the only African Americans and I knew of only one Jewish family. But the Grand Dragon was nothing more to me than the distraught son of a good man who had recently died. Joe, his father, had died of cancer. The night of his death I held Joe’s hand and led him to Christ. So, I felt nothing but pity for his sheepish son with his head bowed. He had no idea I harbored subversive minorities on my farm and I had no idea he was the esteemed leader of the local imperial kingdom.

On this eerie fall night had the distinct feeling that I still did not know him and he did not know me either. And I still felt sorry for him. But we were more alike than he really knew . .

My three adopted, interracial children were my promised land. They were my new time, my new land, my new chance. They were more than my daughter: they were God’s invitation to me to experience wholeness and new life. You know, what I have learned, and what my Klu Klux Klan neighbor needs to learn, is that being prejudiced is as bad as having others express prejudice against you. People know what Martin Luther King, Jr., did for my African American neighbors but do they understand what he did for me–a prejudiced white Southerner who hated African Americans? King showed me a way home. A way to put an end to this hatred and hopelessness.

Remembering – Part 25

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

It was a warm autumn night in the 1993 Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania, an autumn night that belonged more to Pulaski, Tennessee, or Tupelo, Mississippi. By this time in middle October, my family–my wife Karen, my daughters Rachel and Jessica, and my sons Timothy and Peter–was expecting our first snow. But on this night there was only a clear night and the seductive warmth of a gentle breeze.

The unseasonable heat made us uncomfortable. But there were other specters lurking in the pasture on this night. I walked the perimeter of my 9.5 acre sheep farm that my family had hopefully called “The Shepherd’s Glen.” This night I walked in silence, without a flashlight, feeling more and more the stranger, the intruder on this land rather than its proprietor.

With great anticipation my family had purchased this Pennsylvania farm. I had accepted a call to a downtown church only eight miles away. I had my urban church and my wife Karen had her country home! Until this night came we were so very happy.

But the beauty of this night belonged to my Caucasian neighbors. To the Jewish family living nearby, to the interracial couple living a mile away, to the gay couple on the hill, and to my family–with three interracially adopted children–it was a night of terror.

Over the horizon a glow of light kissed the horizon. In the distance I could hear a moving rendition of “America, the Beautiful.” The comforting glow and inspiring melody was disarming. More comfortable with the drone of crickets and the ubiquitous hum of distant automobile traffic, my Suffolk sheep, however, obviously did not appreciate the harmonic offering. Perhaps they saw the fear in their shepherd’s eyes or felt another nameless fear but my Suffolk herd was uncomfortably on this abnormally pleasant fall evening.

The music came from a neighbor’s farm where over two hundred members of the Ku Klux Klan were singing patriotic songs and the glow on the horizon was reflecting three burning crosses. It came from the voices of my neighbors, it came from a poor, confused man on whose farm this KKK rally was held, whose father had been led to Christ through my efforts. But to me it came from Hell.

Remembering – Part 24

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

Garner saw everything and was obviously displeased. Not that he castigated us. We could handle that. We enjoyed pastors who scolded us for our sins. We tolerated, even enjoyed his paternalistic diatribes. No, Garner did the intolerable: he wept. Right in the middle of morning worship, right where great preachers like Muzon Mann had labored, where our children were baptized, Garner wept! Right in the middle of morning worship, as if it was part of the liturgy, he started crying! Not loud, uncontrollable sobs, but quiet, deep crying. Old Man Henley, senile and almost deaf, remembering the last time he cried–when his wife died–started crying too. And then the children started.

My cousin Ronny, our organist, sensing Brother Garners impropriety, judiciously played the last hymn.
How we hated Palmer Garner! If we ever doubted, Garner was obviously an outsider to our community . . .

Brother Garner did not last the year. The Bishop moved him to an obscure church in North Arkansas, as close as possible to Massachusetts.

Remembering – Part 23

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

I knew people like Uncle George–the Grand Wizard of the Kl an“would not approve but I felt that Dwight’s tools of prehension and mastication required a radical intervention.

Dwight came on Wednesday night and accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. I saw him on Thursday personally could see no evidence that he had brushed his teeth but his conversion seemed to be sincere.

The problem was Dwight was converted on Wednesday night and thought he would visit us again on Sunday morning. He foolishly thought that since Jesus loved him all the time, and we appeared to love him on Wednesday night, that we would love him on Sunday morning too.

So, he attended our Sunday morning worship service.

Only one African-American had ever attended our church on Sunday morning. A new paper mill executive Marcus Danforth sought to transfer his membership from another Methodist Church in Chicago, Illinois. Mrs. Ollie Smith fainted outright when Marcus sat in her deceased husband’s pew.

Marcus never visited our church again. After Uncle George and his friends visited Marcus one evening, and burned a cross in his finely landscaped lawn, and after his children were not allowed to play in the local little league, Marcus quickly transferred to Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Dwight arrived promptly at 10:45 and shook Tommy Somerville’s hand. Without looking up, Tommy Somerville, who ushered the faithful to their pews, handed Dwight a bulletin. Dwight smiled. Mr. Somerville was speechless but D wight did not wait for Mr. Somerville to escort him to his seat.

Dwight sat in T-Bone Arnold’s seat.

Ten minutes later, arriving late from a fishing trip to Kate Adams Lake, T-Bone appeared noticeably irritated. Dwight was no doubt going to use the pew hymnal that was dedicated to his Uncle Harry Arnold. This was T-Bone’s favorite hymnal and no one used it but T-Bone. Everyone in my church knew that.

T-Bone growled (literally) but eventually sat next to the Widow Adams whose false teeth inevitably leaped from her mouth during the second hymn. T-Bone grimaced and carefully placed his Hymns of Praise in a position to catch the Widow’s teeth.

The first hymn was everyone’s favorite, “Holy! Holy! Holy!”

Before the end of the first verse Mr. Somerville he was politely asked to leave because “nigras” should go to their own churches. Dwight lowered his heart and walked away from our church and Jesus.