Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King

cropped-cropped-robin-head-crop-from-j-wayne-higgs.jpgI have been reading about a new film, “Sorry to Bother You,” and I intend to see it as soon as I can.

I was drawn to it by an article in The Washington Post, “With an Accent on Whiteness: The Tricky Art of Code-switching or Changing Your Dialect to Fit Your Audience.”   It is not that I, a born and bred WASP, have not added a drawl (though still definitely revealing my Midwestern white upper-middle class, highly educated roots) to try to charm church members in Richmond, VA on Sunday mornings or other audiences as I traveled the length and breadth of that state seeking to build support for LGBT rights and marriage equality. I suspect many do versions of that at one time or another.

Sorry to bother youHowever, the article, and this film, are examining and demonstrating something outside my experience, namely the pressure Black people experience, especially in business and professional settings where white people predominate (and are the customers), to adopt a “white voice.” The film focuses on how this works in telemarketing.

In another article in The Post, it is revealed that the filmmaker, Boots Riley, drawing on his own experience in telemarketing, sees the film as a serious indictment of capitalism—how the Western economic system uses the need and desire for money to shape (and warp) people, at least on the surface, into people they are not.

Our economic system and white supremacy are deeply entwined, and have been so for centuries, certainly beginning with slavery as well as genocide towards Native peoples.

This all fits rather neatly with a book I am reading, Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide, by the distinguished social theorist, sociologist, and legal scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos. It is a very dense book, and I am only a small way into it, and will undoubtedly write more about it later. I am indebted to my friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. E. Francisco Danielsen-Morales, for leading me to it.

The book is about undermining Northern/Western ways of thinking and speaking and theorizing (hence his use of “epistemology,” the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope), and allowing Southern/Eastern voices to be heard, and to shape and change and even overcome and displace, Western methodologies of thinking, speaking and theorizing. However, I am already finding it helpful in thinking about internal social conflict in the United States.

Epistemologies of the SouthAs  I read the two Post articles about the film, I was reminded, so very clearly, of three basic ideas the author of the book says are key. I quote from the first paragraph of the Preface:

First, the understanding of the world by far exceeds the Western understanding of the world. Second, there is no global justice without global cognitive justice. Third, the emancipatory transformations in the world may follow grammar and scripts other than those developed by Western-centric critical theory, and such diversity should be valorized.

In other words, as I read Santos, the virtual exclusion, in most (overwhelmingly I think) social systems and ways of thinking in the United States, and in the one-third world of mostly the north, of non-Western experience and wisdom leads to a paucity of real-world life, knowledge, and wisdom. In other words, we, most of us, live in a dream world constructed by powers, economic and political to be sure, designed to keep us in line.

I feel as if my eyes are being opened by this film and by this book, and I will not, I hope, ever again be the same. That is a big claim, especially when I have not even yet seen the film or finished more than the first pages which lead to the introduction! But, I already sense a shift in me.

use your white voiceFor one thing, despite years of study of and writing about white supremacy, I never had thought seriously until now that I speak in a white voice. Of course I do; I don’t know any other, I was not exposed to any other as I gained language skills as a child and an adolescent.  By the time I was a college student  and seminarian I certainly had heard other speech patterns belonging to other people and groups, but by this time I was firmly ensconced in my white roots.

This language regime is, it seems to me, one of the great powers of white supremacy and colonialism because it affects not only my/our speaking and writing but even more deeply our thinking and acting in many ways.  If I, we, as white people can’t (and refuse to) hear it or see it, it is hard to think it especially if you are rewarded, as we are, for our ignorance and limitations.  In the film, the Black protagonist, Cassius Green (portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield), is well rewarded for using his white voice.

As the film and book claim, capitalism, so deeply ingrained in the Western economic and social, indeed political, epistemology, rewards us, those like me who do not realize we have choices as well as those who know there are other choices but who seek to gain by adhering to the norm through social acceptance and potential mobility, and just cold, hard cash (or at least the promise of it).

I also realize that something as basic as grammar is a form of social regulation, setting standards for what is acceptable writing and speech. Grammar is not neutral, in that we, at least many of us and certainly me in my formative years, were taught that saying some words or using certain language patterns marked us as uneducated or uncouth or ignorant or all of the above. There are patterns of social class indoctrination in all this.

The neighbor boy
from a poor family talked a lot,
always violating at least one rule.
My mother said it was sad
that he will grow up being devalued.
Such a nice boy, she said.
(from a draft poem, White Voice)

However, until reading about the film and opening Santos’ book I had not thought much, if anything, about racialized grammar. I don’t remember any of the very few Black people in my growing up who spoke like that white neighbor boy, or even some other way. They all used good grammar.

I remember Mrs. Kendrick, our cleaning lady, responding to offers of a second helping at lunch with words I still cherish and sometimes use, “No thank you, I’ve had a  great plenty!” Her number and case of nouns and verbs always matched. Her son, who worked a time for my father, spoke quite eloquently.

James Baldwin 1And then there are James Baldwin and Dr. King and Maya Angelou, and Malcolm X, too, who said hard things but always used “good English” (and the first two, at least, more eloquently than most white people).

But would most of us have listened if they had not?

Perhaps that is the nub of this. If you, Black person (or LatinX, too) want us to take you seriously, you’d better use proper white English. Save your other voice, your more authentic voice, for talking to your nonwhite friends.

To be sure, we white folks inherited this system, but we still enforce it—by any means necessary, Malcolm might say.

It’s time to change, to undermine the racist, class-bound, and gender enforcing power of language.

More in future posts about some options.

Today is the day we celebrate the gifts of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, King, Jr. to our nation and world. 

Martin Luther King, JRThis is a time when many in our nation participate in some action that they believe helps us achieve Dr. King’s vision of “beloved community.” My intention is to continue to do that continually throughout the year, throughout my life, and my hope and prayer is that is true for others as well. 

Yesterday, I heard a fine sermon by Rev. Dwayne Johnson at Metropolitan Community Church in Washington, D.C. in which he focused on the active love of God working in and through us. He drew much inspiration from early writing of Dr. King, such as “An Experiment in Love,” which appeared in in 1958 in a magazine and also as a part of his early book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Circle.

In that article, Dr. King focuses on the Christian ethical concept of agape (a transliteration of the Greek word for love), often described as God’s love for humanity. This love is different from love songs and courtship. He wrote

Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it. Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community. 

Community. There are so many forces, so many people, seeking today to disrupt, even destroy community. From politicians to terrorists to intolerant individuals and xenophobic groups, our life in community is under siege. Dr. King would be preaching, writing, marching, praying to turn that around.

Jonathan and Robin JVP Islamophobia actionSome of the worst right now is virulent negativity toward Muslims and Islam (of course, African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere, as well as transgender people, differently-abled people, and LGB people continue to face this, too). 

That’s why Jonathan and I, with other members of the DC Metro Chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, went yesterday to the Columbia Heights neighborhood in our nation’s capital to focus on Islamophobia and to encourage others to join in opposing this harmful attitude that seems to be affecting, infecting, so much of our public discourse. 

About 20 of us handed out flyers, talked to people on the street, and visited store managers and owners asking for permission to put posters in their windows. About 25 retailers accepted the posters and quite a few hung them immediately in their windows. We are shown with one poster, and the other is below. 

Many of us also wore small stickers in the shape of the yellow star Jews were forced to wear in the Holocaust with the word “Muslim” (and the Islamic crescent) super-imposed where the word Jude (German for Jew) was usually displayed. This was not without controversy for some, but the intention was to express solidarity with a people being marked for ugly treatment on the basis of their religion and heritage.

yellow star with Muslim and crescentI also know that expressing that solidarity right in the face of so much hatred is what so many should have done in Germany and elsewhere, including in the United States, when Jews by the millions, and many others (my own tribe, gay men, wore the pink triangle), were being forced to leave their homes and be slaughtered. Just think what might have happened, how different things might have been, if people–non-Jews all over–had stood up in 1935, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, etc.! Hitler and his minions did the deeds, just as others engage in genocide and racial profiling that leads to death and imprisonment for far too many today, but we all bear responsibility for whatever we did not, do not, do to stop it. 

Refugees are welcome here posterThis is what Dr. King meant when he often spoke of the silence of the “good people,” the ones who look the other way in the face of injustice. As Dr. King, and so many who marched with him, knew well, we are called on to speak truth to power when, as it so often is, it is on the side of oppression. And too often for some, perhaps many depending on the circumstances, the power that oppresses some actually sustains, even raises, the rest of us. It is not easy to stand up against our own group when it is wrong, but if we want beloved community, the community which is the whole of God’s people (all people are God’s people) to survive and thrive, we must do just that. 

The fate of community, beloved community, rests not only with others but also squarely with us. Thank you, Dr. King, for not letting us forget that truth. 

 

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the two or three most amazing persons of my first 68 years. I am glad we have a holiday to honor him.

I just wish we followed him more closely. He gave us useful and powerful guides to how we, as a nation, should structure our society and live our corporate life.

So often, however, people demonstrate that they never really heard him, or perhaps it is better say that they never really listened.

MLK-Silent-about-things-that-matter

photo from InspirationBoost.com

People focus on “the speech,” understandably. The closing compares, very favorably, in its powerful evocation of our national ideals with the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and the entirety of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and the closing of his Second Inaugural. If you add Franklin Roosevelt’s “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” and John Kennedy’s “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” you probably have the list of the most iconic political writing and speaking in our national history.

But King was so much more than a speech. And he had more than a dream.

He saw way beyond his moment to a vision of a United States that was truly free–free from all the petty delusions and ugly divisions that continue to drag us down.

In his cadences, and in his denunciation of discrimination and war and the causes of poverty, I always think of  the prophet Isaiah. He could cut right to the quick of what was wrong, and point out how it got that way.

But more than a critic, he was a builder. He really wanted peace. And he knew the path to peace goes through justice.

Martin-Luther-King-Jr- Sitck with love

photo from InspirationBoost.com

The lack of civil rights, the wrong of the war in Vietnam, the poor treatment of sanitation workers and other workers, public and private, were actually all of of a piece for him. Injustice–i.e., dealing with people not as people but as objects, not as siblings in the family of God but as items to be judged and, in too many cases, tossed aside as unworthy and irrelevant–anywhere means injustice everywhere, and that leads to discontent and unrest and a lack of peace.

Shalom. The Hebrew word usually translated as “peace,” was actually what King saw, and he knew that it means so much more than the absence of war. It means completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord–for all.

State Senator Dick Black photo from jimhuber.org

State Senator Dick Black (photo from jimhuber.org)

As I write this, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia is considering bills to deny in-state tuition for college students who were brought to this country illegally, while children, by their parents. These students have graduated from Virginia high schools and been admitted to Virginia colleges, and are paying tuition and keeping up their grades. But some, including Sen. Dick Black, want to turn them away, tell them they are not welcome in Virginia.

Can you imagine how Dr. King would respond?

I can’t write the way he did, or speak the way he did, but I suspect his oratory would soar as he talked about killing the dream–how when we kill the dream for some we deny the dream for all of us.

He knew that we are all in this together, and that raising folks up who are struggling against unjust barriers raises us all. We are all better when more of us are doing better. When we live on the basis of love, on the ground of generosity, on the health of hope, we help all to thrive.

And he knew, as so many of us but not all, know, that if it feels like discrimination, if it smells like injustice, if it holds some back while others get to forward smoothly, then it needs to be stopped or changed.

Some folks are still trying to kill the dream, to stop the vision. But even the assassin’s bullet can’t stop the movement of justice and peace. Dr. King, like Isaiah and so many others, knew that God calls us to stand up for justice, without end.

MLK and Heschel and Torah and Abernathy

Rabbi Abraham Joshual Heschel (left), Dr. King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and others marching (photo from http://www.bu.edu)

And that means we have to live in love.

It means the rest of us have to pick up the sign and march, get on our knees and pray, get out our pens and write letters, and gather our friends, family, neighbors, and fellow citizens and congregants everywhere and keep on organizing, and agitating–with joy and hope in our hearts and love on our lips.

Count me an agitator for justice and peace, an “angelic troublemaker,” in the words of Bayard Rustin. I know who my drum major is; I am marching with Dr. King. How about you?

It’s a busy day in Virginia . . . . well, for some people at least.

State employees are on holiday today and on Monday, too, so they may be less busy than usual. The reason state offices are closed: Lee-Jackson Day today, and Martin Luther King Day on Monday.

And today is another special day, too: Religious Freedom Day. Nobody gets that day off.

religious freedom whould work two ways -- John IrvingThe confluence of these three days feels rather amazing, and confusing, to me. I am feeling out of sorts about some of this, and not sure what to say. But here are a few observations.

Some folks are celebrating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, two Virginia-born heroes of the Confederate forces in the Civil Wars–you know, that war that was about whether a major share of the country should be allowed to continue enslaving people–while on Monday, some folks–probably not the same ones–will be celebrating the birthday of the man who had more to do with ending the legalized oppression, Jim Crow and segregation, which was the aftermath of that slavery, than just about anybody else.

And then there is religious freedom.

Robert E. Lee by Robert Wilson

Robert E. Lee by Robert Wilson

What many who came here from religiously oppressive Europe wanted–to practice their religion their way, and what many of those of the dominant religious tradition did not want to share with others who believed differently (or did not believe at all).

Freedom. What the slaves wanted and the planters feared. And what Generals Lee and Jackson, and a host of other generals and leaders and plenty of ordinary folk fought to preseve: enslaved Africans making profit for their masters. Note: to his credit, before the Civil War, Stonewall Jackson taught free and enslaved Africans how to read the Bible, even though it was against the law to teach slaves to read.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Two of the planters who opposed freedom for Africans were the architects of religious freedom in Virginia, and thus, in the nation. Jefferson and Madison authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom which ended the religious monopoly of the Anglican (Episcopal) Church in Virginia and which became the model for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We owe them an enormous debt. People became free to exercise their consciences, including to not believe in any deity or religion. That was, and is, a big deal.

Sadly, however, these architects of freeing consciences were not the architects of freeing bodies. So, as we celebrate them and their achievement in one area, we are reminded of their failure in another.

Martin Luther King equality poster by MalteBlom

Martin Luther King Equality poster by MalteBlom

And every year, when the state persists in honoring those who fought their own nation to preserve the enslavement of others we are reminded of our painful heritage. Some don’t see the pain–then or now. If you go to the City of Lexington today and tomorrow, you can participate in a well-planned celebration of Lee (he lived there after what the local organizers call “The War Between the States” and built up what is now Washington and Lee University) and Jackson (who lived there before the same war)–scholarly talks and a buffet lunch and dance, and a parade, too.

I love Virginia. It is simply a grand place to live and work. I could spend the rest of my life here, happily.

But I also must say we remain a badly fractured people. I live in Richmond, and the divide between it, with its large African-American population, and the surrounding counties, far more white, is stark. Poverty rates, HIV infection rates, joblessness, inadequate housing and homelessness–Richmond “wins” every time.

So, although we have much political freedom–although LGBT Virginians still suffer legal discrimination–we need social and economic freedom.

Its time to stop glorifying Lee and Jackson–and the Confederacy generally. Its time to admit that every time this is done, African Americans feel the injury. It is our history, so we need to study it and learn from it, but we need not be proud.

James Madison by Everett

James Madison by Everett

Lee-Jackson Day is now the Friday before Martin Luther King Day. Thank goodness we no longer observe Lee-Jackson-King Day!

If we must have this observance, perhaps we should keep state government open and ask all departments to use the day to inventory and publish how they help and/or hinder the progress of African-Americans. They could have open houses to showcase their findings.

Stonewall Jackson by Ken Hendricksen

Stonewall Jackson by Ken Hendricksen

The Governor could go to Shockoe Bottom in Richmond–he could take the Mayor with him–and participate in a prayer vigil of remembrance and repentance for all the slaves sold (and the ones who died) at Lumpkin’s Jail.

And maybe, in a burst of religious openness and freedom, Christians and Jews and Muslims could visit the houses of worship of each other, to learn something about the faith that is not their own. They could even go to meetings organized by atheists to learn more about why so many don’t believe any more.

I don’t have great answers, but I do know this: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Lee and Jackson did not understand that, nor did Jefferson and Madison. Dr. King did.

And if you read him, as I do, you understand that it was his faith in a God of love that provided the base for that belief. And he knew that God was not a Christian God. And he knew that sometimes those who do not believe in God were better allies for freedom than those who do.

That’s what we need to celebrate, and work for: ending a world overrun with injustice, creating a world filled with justice, a world where whether you believe in God or not, all are treated as the beloved of God.