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Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King, Barack Obama and a White Southern Boy's Journey through Race

I grew up in rural Virginia in the days after Jim Crow was officially dead. Little did I know that the body was still warm.

Back then, the Monday following January 15 was celebrated as "Lee-Jackson Day" in honor of the Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson. In 1983, that was expanded to become "Lee-Jackson-King Day," an ironic combination that pleased neither the progressives who wanted to celebrate Dr. King's legacy nor the old-line conservatives who believed that the South would rise again and who would joke, "I've got nothing against black people. I think everybody should own one."

My family attended a Southern Baptist church where the members had helped their former slaves to start their own church following the Civil War. Whether that help was out of altruism or out of a desire for a racially segregated church depended on who told the story but, regardless of how the story was told, the congregation remained lily white.

The schools were integrated, at least technically, but the reality was that students were put into academic tracks and, in my advanced classes, there were only a couple African American students. I don't recall any Hispanic students and the only Asians in the school were exchange students. Race was, quite literally, a black and white issue.

My parents took a more progressive view of race, teaching my brother and me that people of all races were equal. The social reality, however, was that black and white people lived lives that were essentially separate.

When I went to college at Virginia Commonwealth University, my horizons rapidly expanded. As a state university in an urban center, VCU had an incredibly diverse student body and I found myself in classes and in social settings with people who challenged me to view issues of race in new ways.

While volunteering at the Hillside Baptist Center in the Hillside Court housing projects in Richmond's southside, I really began to understand how my faith called me to work for racial justice. I was guided in this learning process by two wise mentors: the center's directors, the Rev. Valerie Carter and Gracie Kirkpatrick.

One of my earliest experiences at Hillside was with a young girl, Aisha, who was attending an after-school tutoring program. She was having trouble with her math homework and I sat down next to her and asked if I could help her. She refused and, when I asked why she didn't want me to help her, her answer was, "because your're white." It took several minutes of talking with her and a bit of deception -- I told her that I wasn't white and put my hand down on a piece of white paper to prove it -- before she would finally let me help her.

Before long, Aisha learned to trust me and, during my four years at the center, I learned firsthand the social and economic realities of racism in the United States and why Aisha would have perceived me as an enemy, even though I was there to help her. I came to understand the concept of white privilege and quickly saw that I was able to speak with police officers, apartment managers, and medical professionals and find myself listened to, while the African Americans with whom I worked often found themselves stonewalled by these same people. Recognizing the unfair, though very real, advantages that my race conferred upon me, I determined to use whatever advantage I had to work for justice for all people.

In seminary, I spent a summer as an intern with the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board, working in Elyria, Ohio, with the board's Black Church Extension. (Why the SBC felt that African American churches needed to be appended onto the work of their mission board rather than simply included is another discussion.) That summer was a real eye-opener, as I experienced a more insidious side of the African American experience than I had in the projects in Richmond.

One afternoon that summer, I found myself at a street fair being run by the Nation of Islam, where actor Dick Gregory was speaking. Gregory, who certainly had more than enough proven incidents of racism that he could have discussed, held forth for quite a while on a variety of alleged conspiracies, including his assertion that the U.S. government intentionally spread AIDS in the black community. I listened as he whipped the crowd into near hysteria with a recitation of imaginary evils and I lamented how he drew uncrossable lines between the evil whites and the blacks that they victimized instead of building bridges that we could all cross to a better future. Dr. King, with his desire to draw us all together regardless of race, would have wept.

Since then, due to theological, social and political reasons, I have left the Southern Baptists and become a United Church of Christ pastor. In the UCC, I have enjoyed being part of a multi-racial, multi-cultural denomination that sees struggle for racial justice as one of the central callings of the church. I have been able to travel to Africa with the Freedom Schooner Amistad. I have had the opportunity meet civil rights giants like the Rev. Andrew Young. I was present to listen to a certain freshman Senator from Illinois when he addressed the UCC's General Synod in the summer of 2007, talking about the relationship between faith and politics (video here and audio here).

Today, as we officially celebrate what would have been the 80th birthday of Dr. King and as we prepare to inaugurate Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, the excitement is palpable. As the first African American President of the United States, Obama is burdened with much more than is fair to expect of any one person. For so many, President Obama is the embodiment of generations of longing and it is not uncommon to hear people speak of him with almost messianic expectation -- and that's what has me worried, not because I fear that Obama will not do a good job, but because I fear that our expectations may be higher than what anyone could achieve.

I'm worried that we'll forget that Barack Obama is just a man, with all of the limitations and failings common to every human being. As a president, he'll do things with which we disagree. He'll let us down. He'll stumble. And that's just fine.

We can't expect him to bring about world peace. We can't expect him to fix the economic problems that have been so long in the making. We can't expect him to make racism a thing of the past. Those tasks are all bigger than anything that any one person can accomplish, even if they do happen to the the President of the United States.

What we can do is to offer our prayers for him, that God will bless him and grant him wisdom to lead our troubled nation through difficult times. What we can do is to take responsibility and be active participants in the political process, contacting our elected officials and letting them know what is important to us. What we can do is to reach across lines of race, to build relationships with those who are different from ourselves, to transform our society one relationship at a time. It is only then that we'll be able to arrive in that promised land of which Dr. King spoke back in the days before I was born.


James said...

Paul, this is a very thoughtful post about Obama and race, and I greatly enjoyed reading it.

I'm not sure whether we've met or not. I was on board the Amistad for its ceremonial arrival back to New Haven in June, but you may not have been traveling with the ship at that point.

I'm one of the descendants of the D'Wolf family of Bristol, R.I. This was the most successful slave-trading family in U.S. history; our story has been turned into a documentary and a book. As part of this experience, we spent much of the past year encouraging recognition of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, and several of us were invited to be aboard the Amistad as it arrived in New Haven.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this post, and I'm now eagerly working my way through some of your other blog posts.



Bonnie Slockett said...

Paul, I first read this piece in the email newsletter Rev. Bo sent to our church (Cresskill Congregational). I just want to thank you for writing such a lovely essay in which you articulate the hopes and concerns of so many folks (black and white) who worry about the burden President Obama carries on his shoulders. Nicely written and much appreciated.