BTSF in chronological order (most recent articles appear first):

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Friday Fruit (02/27/15)

Watch the video!
On Fridays, BTSF offers links to other discussions about race & Christianity. It's an opportunity for you to read other perspectives, and for me to give props to the shoulders on which I stand...

Weekly Round Up:

These are some of BTSF's links of interest this week. What are yours?

Feel free to contribute your own links in the comments section, or submit items you feel should be included during the week. Self-promotion is encouraged.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Noting Those in Attendance

As February comes to an end, let us be mindful that learning and honoring our history is a year-round endeavor. Below is Inauguration Ball 2009* by Richard Kenyada, from his book Reflections in the Dark RoomTake time today to learn any of the names below that you aren't familiar with and discover how they have contributed to our daily lives.  You can also read along as you listen to this excellent radio adaptation by Miss. Maxine (@SideHustleStory) at Side Hustle Stories.

A. Phillip Randolph
Guests began arriving early. There are no place cards and no name tags. Everyone knows everyone else here. Now, there's a grand foursome - Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz sharing laughs with Martin and Coretta Scott King. Looks like Hosea Williams refused the limo again, keeping it real. And my goodness; is that Rosa Parks out there on the dance floor with A. Phillip RandolphGeoffrey Cambridge took one look at the trio of Zora Neale HurstonRalph Ellison and James Baldwin, and jokingly asked, "My God, who invited my personal library?"

Seated at a nearby table, Frederick Douglass has a captive audience in W.E.B. DuBose and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Medgar Evers has just joined them. Marian Anderson was asked to sing tonight, but she only agreed to do it if Bessie Smith and Mahalia Jackson shared the stage, and they were accompanied by Marvin GayeJohn Lennon, and Jimi Hendrix. Look, there's Harriet Tubman. No one knows how she arrived, but there she is. And my guess is that, when the time comes, no one will see her leave.

Marian Anderson
There's Jackie Robinson swiftly making his way through the hall as the crowd parts like the Red Sea to the unmistakable sound of applause. "Run, Jackie, run!" Along the way he is embraced by Jesse Owens.  Three beautiful young women arrive with their escorts – SchwernerGoodman and ChaneyMs. Viola Liuzzo flew in from Michigan, exclaiming, "I could not miss this."

Richard Pryor promised to be on his best behavior. "But I can't make any guarantees for Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley," he chuckled. Joe Louis just faked a quick jab to the chin of Jack Johnson, who smiled broadly while slipping it. We saw Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole greet Luther VanDrossJames Brown and Josh Gibson stopped at Walter Payton's table to say hello.  Althea Gibson said, "You always were a charmer," as she gave Arthur Ashe a hug. August WilsonDouglas Turner Ward and Lorraine Hansberry have just arrived from New York.

Miriam Makeba
I witnessed one touching moment after another… Young Emmett Till tapped James Farmer on the shoulder. "Mr. Farmer I really don't want to sit at the children's table. We feel we're old enough to be out here with everyone else. My friends here are Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14 and Cynthia Wesley, 14. They just came in from a church in Birmingham. None of us wanted to miss this night."  Then, all decked out in stylish evening wear, a small group of guests from the New Orleans Superdome proudly took their seats to rousing applause. It warmed my heart to see Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba, still singing and dancing pata pata style. I caught a glimpse of Lincoln Perry. He was steppin' all right, but this time he was in white tie and tails.

Bill Pickett
San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk discusses organizing strategies with activist Cesar Chavez. The 60-Minutes man, Ed Bradley, just introduced himself to Josephine Baker, who flew in from Paris. It made me smile to notice how uncomfortable rodeo cowboy Bill Pickett looks in a tuxedo. Then there are the African warrior and his pregnant wife. No one knows for sure, but John Henrik Clarke thinks they could be the first Africans to have thrown themselves over the rail of a slave ship rather than take their chances with Affirmative Action. I felt a sudden chill when I saw Dred Scott speaking with Johnnie Cochran, who believes he could have won the case. Satchel Paige made his way through the crowd to greet Ossie Davis, who was sharing thoughts with Langston Hughes over there near the crystal stair. Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando were intently listening to Nina Simone make a point, while John and Bobby Kennedy cornered Lyndon Johnson for a few laughs. All was forgiven.

Oscar Peterson is moving to take his turn on the bandstand, followed by Ray Brown. And it looks like Art Blakey and Max Roach will be keeping it tight. I spotted Congressman Adam Clayton Powell having a lively political discussion with Eldredge Cleaver, and there's Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall looking on with interest. World War II Pearl Harbor hero Dorey Miller shared a few thoughts with Crispus Attucks, a hero of the Revolutionary War. And there is Madam C.J. Walker talking with Marcus Garvey about exporting goods to Africa. Look out, America - a King of Comedy, Bernie Mac, is in the house. But tonight, he is the perfect gentleman, with Lady Day and Ella on each arm. A party wouldn't be a party without the lively bunch from Galveston Texas that brought all the jubilation of their annual Juneteenth gathering.

Shirley Chisholm
General Benjamin O. Davis flew into Washington safely with an escort from the 99th Fighter Squadron - better known as The Tuskegee Airmen. At the table on the left are three formidable women - Shirley ChisholmSojourner Truth, and Barbara Jordan - gathered for a little girl-talk... about world politics. No one could mistake the men of the 9th and 10th Cavalry. As they mingled among the celebrities, The Buffalo Soldiers found adoring fans of their own. One soldier looked up and told his buddies, "Sharpen up, the 54th is in the house!" noting the fresh uniforms of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry that fought so Glory-ously in the Civil War.

Patricia Harris
As usual, all the science nerds seem to have gathered off in a corner, talking shop. There's Granville T. Woods and Lewis Latimer needling each other about whose inventions are better. Someone jokingly asked Benjamin Banneker if he had needed directions to Washington. And George Washington Carver was overheard asking, "What, no peanuts?" James Weldon Johnson busted out laughing as he remembered how he wrote "Lift Every Voice and Sing" as a poem to introduce Booker T. Washington at a celebration for Abe Lincoln. "Looks like I'll have to write another verse for Barack." President Lincoln smiled and nodded in agreement while refusing an offered chair. "Learned my lesson; when you sit down in Washington, they make a monument of you," he joked. U.S. Cabinet secretaries Ron Brown and Patricia Harris are heard discussing possible Cabinet appointments in the new administration.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson 
Dueling bands? Anytime Duke Ellington and Count Basie get together, you know the place will be jumping. Tonight is special, of course, so we have MilesDizzy, and Satchmo sitting in on trumpet, with ColtraneCannonball, and Bird on sax. Everyone's attention is directed to the dance floor where Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is tap dancing. Right beside him is Sammy Davis Jr., doing his Bojangles routine. And behind his back, Gregory Hines is imitating them both. Applause and laughter abound!

The Hollywood contingent has just arrived from the Coast. Led by filmmaker Oscar MicheauxPaul RobesonCanada Lee, and Hattie McDaniel, they find their way to their tables. At a nearby table, Beah Richards and ButterflyMcQueen are enjoying a conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt and Gordon ParksDorothy Dandridge, looking exquisite in gold lamé, is seen signaling to her husband, Harold Nicholas, who is standing on the floor with brother Fayard watching Gregory Hines dance. "Hold me back," quips Harold, "before I show that youngster how it's done." Much laughter!

Sam Cooke
You can't miss the big smile on the face of Sam Cooke as he moves through the crowd reminding everyone that he was the first to tell us that a Change was gonna come. Meanwhile, Ellington seats Ray Charles at the piano, and Brother Ray rips into a rousing version of "America the Beautiful." My heart felt like it would burst right through my chest. I had to remind myself to keep breathing. Then a sudden hush comes over the room. A single silhouetted figure stands at center stage, and as the lights slowly come up, the crowd recognizes the man of the hour, President Barack Obama.

The applause and cheers were deafening. The President looked out across the enormous ballroom at all the historic faces. There were many smiles; precious few dry eyes. Someone shouted out, "You did it! You did it!" And Obama replied, "No sir, you did it; you all – each and every one of you – did it. Your guidance and encouragement; your hard work and perseverance..." Obama paused, catching a glimpse of his mothergrandfather and his beloved grandmother, Toot. "You would not let me fail," he said, addressing them directly.

Workers in front of the White House
And after briefly composing himself, he continues, without cue cards or TelePrompTer. He speaks to us from his heart. "I look at your faces - your beautiful faces - and I am reminded that The White House was built by faces that looked just like yours. On October 3, 1792, the cornerstone of the White House was laid, and the foundations and main residence of the White House were built mostly by both enslaved and free African Americans and paid Europeans. In fact, most of the other construction work was performed by immigrants, many of whom had not yet become citizens. Much of the brick and plaster work was performed by Irish and Italian immigrants. The sandstone walls were built by Scottish immigrants.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that the White House is, ultimately, The People's House, with each President serving as its steward. Since 1792 The People have trimmed its hedges, mowed its lawn, stood guard at its gate, cooked meals in its kitchen, and scrubbed its toilet bowls. But 216 years later, The People are taking it back!"

More applause, and recorded music begins to play. Then Michelle makes her own entrance to the music of The Pretenders – "I'll Stand By You." She walks up behind Barack, kisses him and holds him tightly, as the song continues, "I'll stand by you; I'll stand by you. Won't let nobody hurt you. I'll stand by you." That's where I lost it, and tears streamed down my face.

The Obama familyThe President smiled broadly and took her hand as the music faded. "Today, Michelle and I usher in a new era. But, while we and our family look toward the future with so much hope, we know that we must also acknowledge fully this milestone in our journey. We want to thank each and every one of you for all you have done to make this day possible. I stand here before you, humbled and in awe of your splendid accomplishments and unwavering sacrifice. I will dedicate my Presidency, in your honor, to the principles of peace, liberty and freedom. And if it ever appears that I'm forgetting that, I know I can count on you to remind me." Then he pointed to me near the stage... "Kenyada, isn't it time for you to wake up for work? Isn't it time... Isn't it time for all of us to wake up and get to work?"

Suddenly I awake and sit right up in bed with a knowing smile. My wife stirs and sleepily asks if I'm OK.  "I've never been better," I replied, "Never better. It's gonna be a good day."

* Though BTSF readers come from across the political spectrum, don't be distracted by party affiliation. Some moments are bigger than partisan politics. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Friday Fruit (02/20/15)

Students Tonisha Begay (left), Benjamin Chee (center),
and Chantelle Yazzie (right). Photo by Anna Delph.
On Fridays, BTSF offers links to other discussions about race & Christianity. It's an opportunity for you to read other perspectives, and for me to give props to the shoulders on which I stand...

Weekly Round Up:

These are some of BTSF's links of interest this week. What are yours?

Feel free to contribute your own links in the comments section, or submit items you feel should be included during the week. Self-promotion is encouraged.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

#ChapelHillShooting: There Are No White Extremists

Please welcome back guest writer, Ryan Hansen, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology. He reflects on the recent #ChapelHillShooting:

In loving memory; Deah, 23 years old; Yusor 21 years old; Razan 19 years oldBy now, many of you will have no doubt heard of the shootings that occurred near UNC Chapel Hill. The facts surrounding the murders are still sparse, but we do know that Craig Stephen Hicks has surrendered to authorities after confessing to the slayings of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha. Authorities are still trying to determine if this despicable act meets the formal definition of a “hate crime, ” and the extent to which the murder of these individuals was motivated by Craig Hick’s views toward their Muslim Faith.

However, what is already apparent in the media coverage of this event is the inherent bias against individuals of the Muslim faith. In many cases racism, xenophobia, and islamophobia intertwine to tragic consequences.

First, take a moment and consider what the headlines would be if the situation were reversed. Craig Hick’s Facebook account contained several posts indicating that he was a radical atheist. What would the headlines be if someone espousing a radical form of Islam murdered three atheists? Many news outlets are calling for restraint before “jumping to conclusions” that these killings were motivated by religion or hate, but did you see any such restraint exercised in the recent shootings in Denmark, the coverage of the Boston marathon bombings, or any other event in which a Muslim is the perpetrator? Fox News was so eager to reinforce the narrative of violent Islam that they recently admitted to fabricating stories about “no-go zones” where Sharia law is so violently imposed that police can no longer even enter the area.

Angel 'us' vs Devil 'themIt all ties back to one of the most pervasive findings in Social Psychology: that how we divide people into groups fundamentally alters how we perceive them. We see people in our own groups as individuals, but lump members of other groups into more general categories. With people who are like us, we take the time to examine the circumstances and mitigating factors for their behavior. However, with members of other groups we are more likely to ascribe stereotype-consistent causes to their behavior.

Take a second and examine the media coverage of the attack for yourself. Notice that Hicks is usually identified by his name or as a “man”, whereas his victims are usually identified as “Muslims” or “Muslim students.” He is described as an individual who is an atheist or holds atheist beliefs. Notice there are no descriptions of “atheist extremists.” There are no calls for leaders of the white atheist community to condemn the attacks. There are no calls for background checks to limit the access of white atheists to guns and ammunition. 

Tweet from @cnni (CNN International): "3 Muslim students shot to death in Chapel Hill, NC. Did their faith play a role in the killing? #ChapelHillShooting; Reply from @ToulasTake (Toula Drimonis) "No, I'm guessing the hateful bigot who executed them in cold blood played a role in their killing. #ChapelHillShooting" There are many instances of white male privileges in our society, and one of them is that if you commit a violent act the assumption is that your actions were motivated by mental illness or personal failing rather than as a characteristic of your race, ethnicity, religion, or gender (see post: Pathology of Mass Shooting). Too often in the media, a Muslim perpetrator is assumed to be radical until proven innocent.

One of the headlines that stood out was from CNN, which included the link-bating question “3 Muslim students shot to death in Chapel Hill, N.C. Did their faith play a role in the killing?” Despite this being a blatant case of the media blaming the victim, unfortunately the answer to the question is simple: Yes.

There are two possibilities. The first is that Hicks deliberately murdered these students explicitly because they were Muslim, which would fit with the formal definition of a hate crime. The alternative is that this shooting occurred because of a “parking dispute,” and that Hick’s actions were “not related to race or religion” as his wife claims. However, in this case, it is still very likely that they were a direct result of the otherizing and islomophobia that is rampant in our society. We don’t shoot people, particularly people we identify with and feel empathy for, over a “parking dispute.” 

Tweet from @amaditalks (Amandi) "If you think the #ChapelHillShootings were over a parking space you probably think Emmitt Till was killed over flirting with a white woman."
Even if Mr. Hick’s anger and violence were not explicitly caused by his religious views, there is a reason that he targeted these three individuals. They were not random members of a crowd that were simply “in the wrong place, at the wrong time” as Hick's lawyer suggests. They were in their home, and Mr. Hicks made the conscious decision to enter their home out of all of the other homes in that apartment complex and shoot them at point-blank range. Whether it is because of Mr. Hicks’ explicit views on religion or race, or the hate that has pervaded our society, there can be no question as to the relevance of their Muslim faith and culture.

See more commentary and insights at #ChapelHillShooting

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Friday Fruit (02/13/15)

Austin Channing Brown as a little girl. Text: Why I love being a black girl; @austinchanning
Photo credit: Austin Channing Brown
On Fridays, BTSF offers links to other discussions about race & Christianity. It's an opportunity for you to read other perspectives, and for me to give props to the shoulders on which I stand...

Weekly Round Up:

These are some of BTSF's links of interest this week. What are yours?

Feel free to contribute your own links in the comments section, or submit items you feel should be included during the week. Self-promotion is encouraged.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Living Alternative: Anabaptist Christianity in a Post-Christendom World

Book cover: Arrows in various directions, one pointing toward a white doveWhat does it mean to be a living, thriving Church, remaining in the world, but not of it? How can the Church disentangle its co-option by dominant cultures and political movements? A Living Alternative: Anabaptist Christianity in a Post-Christendom World addresses these questions and many more.

How fulfilling it was to read a book that spoke to daily lived theology, with timely language that addressed the pressing questions for the Church today! What a delight as well to see the many author names of friends and familiar voices whom I have come to admire, respect, and trust.

A Living Alternative has something for everyone, and as such I will focus my review here on those sections most salient for BTSF readers. Nevertheless, there is a richness that runs throughout the book.

Of most central interest to the theme of this blog is the chapter by Drew Hart. He deconstructs the relationship between race and Anabaptism in his chapter 'AnaBlacktivism: Following Jesus the Liberator and Peacemaker in the 21st Century.'

Hart observes that "Christian discourse turned its head away from suffering rather than toward it. It offered no redemptive dialogue for a pained world." He questions "has Anabaptism turned its face towards dominant culture or to those that are socially marginalized and oppressed?" And he makes it clear what he believes the Church aught to be doing.

Anablacktavist logo: black cross, black dove, black fist, black bowl with white cloth. #AnaBlacktivist #AnaBlacktivismHe asserts that for Anabaptists in the early 20th century, "nonresistance in the context of a non-hostile (to them because they were considered white and therefore acceptable) meant complicity." They therefore indirectly contributed to the racial violence of the time by being largely unwilling to speak out against it.

Hart urges us to learn from these Christians past and to broaden our understanding of peace and justice for the Body of Christ. He notes that "the particular trouble with only focusing on or dialoguing with one's locality is that much racial injustice occurs as phenomenon larger than any one locale."

Indeed, he goes on to say that racism "is a highly complex problem that will not go away by hunkering down into local church communities, but will require a collaborative and organized ecclesiastical movement engaging in prophetic witness and nonviolent resistance to this oppressive and discriminatory force."

He notes that "the challenge of our time remains that Jesus is a white man in current American imagination, White supremacy works by making whiteness the standard for all of life, and the while male figure is that central pivot around which everyone revolves and by which everyone is critiqued."

Dove with olive branch. "I am an Anabaptist, too. Let's be the change we need to see."He challenges "Anabaptists are not left with any other faithful option but to quickly and
determinatively get rid of the American Jesus, who is nothing more than a diseased projection of the ever-present white male image that dominates most of American life." He ends by encouraging us to be "proactive in antiracist work. To not do so is to be complicity in the racist system."

Along these lines, Hannah Heinzekehr notes in the very next chapter that
"In much current rhetoric and writing from Christian authors, there is a trope being employed as a way to make sense of difference and diversity. It is an idea that the goal of the future church, if it is respectful of difference and wants to transcend its segregated roots, should be to trend toward a unity found in the Kingdom of God. At their best, these statements can offer a compelling vision, which paints a picture of all God's people united in thought and action, and "singing together in perfect harmony." However, the unintended consequence of discourses like these, which seek to be more inclusive, are that they often suggest transcendence or negation of difference rather than a recognition and celebration of diversity."

She goes on to note that our temptation "is often to move towards agreement and unified church-wide understanding, even at the expense of dialogue." She describes the justice work that hospitality enables, combating the constant 'pushing out' of the marginalized and oppressed.

While not explicitly about race, also of interest are the many chapters that address how we as Christians should live in the context of society that often proclaims values that are counter to the Gospel.

Donald Clymer marries Anabaptism with St. Francis and Gutierrez. Justin Hiebert beautifully outlines principles and practices of Incarnational Living, or has he calls it, the ministry of availability. I found Joanna Harader's chapter to be particularly helpful in offering fresh approaches to to Scripture through the lenses of several women and their interactions with Jesus.

William Lowen describes why Jesus (and Christ's Church) wasn't, and shouldn't be cool, including this quote that caught my eye in particular: "I'm certain we are all inherently much more aware of our own victimization than we are of our victimizing." Important to be ever reminded.

Similarly this reminder from Samuel Wilcock was helpful as he told of his spiritual journey: "I had
Book ad: ""...this book is an excellent resource for all who wish to interact with our complex multicultural, and post-Christian world out of hope, rather than fear." -Christena Cleveland, author of 'Disunity in Christ.' On sale now! Go to for details"thought I was growing in my faith in high school, but I came to realize I was really learning what passages I could use to argue for what I had grown to believe. While I sometimes formed beliefs based on Scriptures, I had mostly come to read Scripture in light of my beliefs."

This remarkable group of Jesus followers, many of whom I have come to know thanks to #MennoNerds, has helped me grow deeper in my walk with Christ as they have stretched my understanding of Scripture and of living out one's faith in today's world. It is a blessing to have their collective wisdom bound together, and to have their insights in print--many of them for their first time.

All this to say, A Living Alternative is a lovely book that speaks to wide range of readers. At times intimate, at other times profound, there is much to enjoy. Read what fascinates you (and there will be much that does), and don't worry if each chapter does not affect you in the same way. The beautiful thing about this book is that it is written from many perspectives, speaking to many different situations. There is something for everyone to latch onto, and room for everyone to grow.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Friday Fruit (02/06/15)

Jalal Sabur drops off Victory Bus Project participants Rita and Lincoln Dozier at their residence after a prison visit
Photo by Maura Ewing
On Fridays, BTSF offers links to other discussions about race & Christianity. It's an opportunity for you to read other perspectives, and for me to give props to the shoulders on which I stand...

Weekly Round Up:

These are some of BTSF's links of interest this week. What are yours?

Feel free to contribute your own links in the comments section, or submit items you feel should be included during the week. Self-promotion is encouraged.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Black American's Burden

Chris Sunami
Please welcome back guest writer, Chris Sunami, who reflects on the internal struggles of many Black Americans following the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and others in 2014.

Of all those that have responded to the recent attention paid to shootings of black Americans by police officers, some of the most vocally distressed have been upwardly mobile black people in the middle and the upper middle classes. Many of them have been direct and blunt about the source of their anguish —they thought money, education and social standing would immunize them from the dangers and indignities faced by less-advantaged black people, and were shocked and disillusioned to discover it would not.

Plato once described a city with any wide gap between the poor and the rich as really being two separate cities, each perpetually on the brink of war with each other. As the disparities in prosperity and lifestyle become more and more pronounced, the two cities come closer and closer to open conflict. For the rich city to maintain its position above, and in exploitation of the the poor city, many tools of control must be utilized, ranging from shows of force to deceit.

In America, one of the pressure valves that metaphorically releases steam, and prevents class warfare and riots in the streets, is the possibility of social mobility (at least in theory). The deal has always been the same. You can leave the lower class and enter the middle or upper middle class, but at the price of forswearing all allegiances to the poor. You can save yourself, but you must abandon them.

$100 bill folded as an upward arrow
The transition from one side of the fence to the other, from the poor city to the rich one, has been relatively easy, at least in modern memory, for those of paler skin. Whether born in a trailer park, or a backwoods holler, or a impoverished Eastern European country, a person willing to make the right moves —suppressing an accent, changing a name, seeking an education, disavowing certain cousins —has been able to disappear fairly invisibly into the white American middle class.

The same is not true for those of a darker hue. This accident of easy visual identifiability in fact led to the original condition of black enslavement in America, as what was originally similar conditions of indentured servitude for blacks and whites gradually evolved into different destinies largely because it was so much easier for a mistreated indentured servant to successfully run away.

Even after slavery was legally ended, there remained a core commitment among many whites, and unfortunately internalized by many blacks, to the effect that no matter how educated, wealthy or accomplished you might become as a black person, you would always remain a N —a semi-human creature of bestial traits and no intrinsic worth.
Political cartoon: medieval scene, rich wall street banker on horse rides away from pillaged town as present shouts "You destroy everything then ride off with the loot?! You rich son of a..." Friar holds peasant back: "There, there, lad, don't engage in class warfare."

There was a flip side, however, to this widespread, indisputably psychologically damaging racist attitude. In response, the black community remained far more unified across economic boundaries than any other group. Far more than was true among the white community, there was an actual sense of brother- and sisterhood between poor and wealthy blacks, an acknowledgment that in the eyes of America they were the same, and shared the same destiny.

Certain things began to change this over the last fifty years —legal and actual shifts in racial attitudes, the emergence of a tiny, but highly visible group of super wealthy black entertainers and athletes, the demonstration by the OJ Simpson trial that obscene wealth could actually tip the scales of justice for a black person in the same way as it routinely did for whites. Access to the middle and upper middle classes became easier and more genuine for a small fraction of the black population, and in response, the inter-economic bonds of the black community weakened.

Malcolm X memorably claimed in his autobiography that wave after wave of poor European immigrants became accepted as white only after learning the word N —in other words, that the dirty hidden secret of the melting pot of the united white majority was a shared commitment to maintaining the permanently disadvantaged position of the black underclass. America was a place where you could blithely forget that you had once been despised and scorned for being Italian, for being Irish, for being Greek, for being Romanian, for being poor, as long as you were only willing to give an extra kick to the black race as you entered the big shining door marked “Whites Only.”

Chris Rock
It is a lesson that was not lost on the new black middle class, and it was perhaps vocalized most bluntly in a notorious comedy routine by upwardly mobile black comedian Chris Rock, entitled “Black People versus Ns.” Basically, the “black people” in the bit represented the black middle class, desperately wishing to free themselves from the leaden weight around their necks of the Ns —the poor, still stereotypically black person with traits familiar from the storehouse of racist imagery. The bit was comedy, but the aspiration was real.

That brings us up to the present day. There is a black president in the white house, but members of the post-racial middle class, both black and white, have been forced by recent events to confront the continued unending existence of a disadvantaged black underclass —that sizable majority of the black people in the country who still live under conditions of crushing poverty and casual violence —and the continued survival of color-coded responses under which a black person will be treated like a poor person, regardless of how much money is in his or her pocket.

So what’s the correct route forward? I think the first step is to recognize that race, as we understand it in this country, is a fiction, a tool of nothing but oppression. Color-coding people is ubiquitous, because it is easy, permanent and (typically) unambiguous, but it is merely the laziest possible expression of a universal human urge towards prejudice. Even in all white nations, in all black nations, in nations where every person is of mixed race, the exact same dynamics exist —the only difference is how hard people need to work in order to discriminate. The problems that we think of as racial problems are in fact socioeconomic problems. The wider the gap between the poor and the wealthy, the more in which success is made into a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers, the more inevitable that every available tool, especially including race, will be used as a cudgel to beat down the people on the bottom, and maintain the place of the people on the top.

Book cover: How to Be Black, by Baratunde Thurston; NYT bestsellerThe key moment for me in my life as a black person was when I stopped running from being black and embraced being black, because it freed me from the tension every black person in this nation feels between “Am I too black?” and “Am I black enough?” If I am a black person, then to whatever extent that identity has validity, anything I do is “black” because I do it. I don’t have to listen to “black” music or watch “black” movies to be black. If blackness is a birthright based on skin color then I own it, no matter what: It cannot be increased or lessened.

Similarly, I believe that the key moment for us as black people in this nation —that we arguably played the largest part in building —is to accept that our mission is not to “uplift the race” but to uplift the nation. By virtue of that skin color that identifies us, we play a unique role in America. We cannot be free until everyone is free, because as long as there is inequity for anyone, we can count on being on the losing end of it. I think it’s time to realize there is blessing as well as curse in this. Alone among Americans, we can neither forget nor disavow our poorer relations, which means that alone among Americans, we have an inescapable commitment to the betterment of all.

The biggest lie told about Martin Luther King day is that we celebrate it in this country because of what he did for black Americans. “America” doesn’t give out holidays for what people do for minorities. Martin Luther King is celebrated in America because of what he did for all Americans. He saved the nation as a whole from a disastrous race war, and charted a peaceful way forward from an intolerable situation descending into violence.

The destiny for black Americans is not fair (in any sense of the word) but it stands as a high calling. We are the moral conscience of the nation, whether we wish to be or not. It is time to embrace that fact. Rather than allowing either our foes or loving friends to cast us as victims, we must take charge of our own path forward, as leaders, not of black America, but of America as a whole; and not of America as it is, but of America as it ought to be.

It’s no step forward to simply take our “rightful” place in a unrighteous system, and we must therefore let these recent events serve us as our wakeup call. If we are not to be allowed to forget that we are black, then neither should we forget that we are human first, brothers and sisters to all humanity, wealthy and poor.

Fifty years ago, it wasn’t simply a matter of finally getting our piece of the pie. We were a voice for the voiceless, a hope for the hopeless, all around the world. It’s time to live that dream again.
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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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