“In Church?… Yes, In Church!”

ema2

This past Wednesday, June 17, 2015 the historic Emanuel AME Church became the site of a horrific act of racist terror. A 21-year-old racist White man walked into the church’s Bible Study, joined the Black members for about an hour and then proceeded to slaughter 9 innocent people, one of whom was the church’s pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney who was also a South Carolina State Senator. Many across the nation have witnessed in shock as the events unfolded and the admitted shooter was captured. I am being deliberate not to, number one mention his name (he needs no more attention or notoriety) and, number two call him “alleged” or “suspect.” All the evidence points to him and he said he did it…I believe him! Instead I celebrate the lives of those massacred–Susie Jackson; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton; DePayne Doctor; Ethel Lance; Daniel Simmons Sr.; Clementa Pinckney; Cynthia Hurd; and, Tywanza Sanders.
But more than this specific event I am reflecting on the regular commentaries by people saying how shaken they are by the fact that the massacre took place in a church. Their comments remind me of how short our memories are when it comes to racist terror in the United States. Black churches have ALWAYS been vulnerable to violence. Churches are places where people least suspect violence. They are places where people presume peace, safety, and a sense of reverence and respect. But in the case of Black people the church has long been a place of terror. What happened last Wednesday in Charleston just reinforced that fact for me.
The primary reason the Black Church has been a target of racist violence stems from its independence and freedom as a wholly owned and operated Black space. From the congregational model of Baptist congregations to the more Episcopal organizations of hierarchy in AME and other congregations, the Black Church has belonged to Black people. That in itself has been enough to piss off plenty of White people. How dare Black people select their own leadership? How dare Black people call the shots? How dare Black people rely on their own money and ingenuity to create their own organization? How dare they use this organization as a place to promote their culture and encourage themselves and their children? Yes, the Black church has been an affront to White America for a very long time.
In 1794, Richard Allen established the first official Black Church in Philadelphia, PA. He established this church because the church he attended insisted on his maintaining a separate worship service for Black church goers and later wanted Allen to move his service to another building. Thank you White people…your insistence on race and white-skin privilege ensured the establishment of separate Black churches. Please don’t come to me today talking about integrating the church. Yes, you are free to worship in Black churches…and some of you already do, but do not expect Black people to give up that which makes our churches distinctively Black.
Historically, the Black church has been the place of much of the Black community’s civic, social, cultural, and political strategizing and engagement. But, it has also been a site of real terror. Four innocent Black girls were killed due to racist terror in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama on Sunday, April 15, 1963.
As recent as the 1990s, according to the Atlantic, “[I]n South Carolina alone, black churches that suffered probable arson attacks included Mt. Zion AME Church in Williamsburg, Macedonia Baptist Church in Manning, Saint Paul Baptist Church in Lexington, Rosemary Baptist Church in Barnwell, St. John Baptist Church in Dixiana, Effington Baptist Church, Mount Olivet Baptist Church, and Allen’s Chapel. One member of Congress likened fire-bombings in those years to “the return of a biblical plague.” The most recent burning of a Black church to make national headlines occurred in Massachusetts the day Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first Black president. A White man was later convicted in what prosecutors called a racially motivated arson attack.”
Emanuel AME Church holds a special place in Black History because it was one of the few places free Blacks could worship in Charleston, SC during our enslavement. Emanuel was the oldest Black Church in the South having been founded in 1816. It was co-founded by freedom fighter Denmark Vesey whose attempt to lead an insurrection against slaveholders resulted in the execution of Vesey and 34 others AND the burning down of the church in 1822. Subsequently, the White power structure of Charleston shuttered ALL Black congregations and banned the gathering of Black people to worship as they pleased. The Black folks of this congregation met secretly for years until the church was reopened in 1865 under the leadership of Denmark Vesey’s son. The church has been in the forefront of civil rights struggles from its inception.
To be sure there have been acts of violence in Black churches beyond the Black-White terror outlined here in this blog. Mrs. Alberta Christina King, mother of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was herself shot and killed in church on a Sunday morning in 1974 by a Black man who described himself as an enemy of Christians. There have been instances of Black people with personal grudges, crimes of passion, and other anger walking into a church and killing folks. Similarly, members of other races and ethnicities have witnessed attacks on their churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship. Some of the greatest abuses visited on children have happened in the church—by church officials!
But each time Black churches experience acts of racist violence it reminds us of our hard-fought attempts at freedom. It reminds us of our attempts to declare our humanity. It reminds us of the constant assaults on our personhood and citizenship. It reminds us that despite trying to create a sacred space we remain vulnerable to evil even in church…yes, in church!

Stay Black & Smart!

Advertisements

“Say It Loud…I’m Black and I’m Proud…Or Am I?”

Rachel-Dolezal-2

By now you have seen all the interwebs rants, memes, and craziness regarding Rachel Dolezal. This is the woman who is head of the Spokane, WA NAACP whose parents “outed” her as White. Whew…I can’t believe I wrote that last sentence. In fact, I can’t believe I’m writing THIS blog. Last week we were focused on the assault on a group of Black teenagers in McKinney, TX and specifically the take down of a 14-year-old Black girl in a bikini by a White police officer. This week we are looking at how a White woman transformed herself into a Black woman. For me, this is less about Ms. Dolezal than it is about America’s deeply conflicted sense of itself around issues of race and the problem of ongoing anti-Blackness.
For centuries light-complexion Blacks have “passed” as White. The primary reason for doing so was to escape the harsh treatment meted out to Black people in the society and to enjoy the privileges of what White means in America. There have been those instances where Whites have identified culturally with African Americans—think, Eminem, Teena Marie, Johnny Otis (if you don’t know him look him up). More recently Tom Hanks’ son Chet has decided he’s “hard core” from the hood. That would be the hood of Beverly Hills with a Northwestern University education. Heck, former President Bill Clinton was once declared Black (and he has Divine 9 fraternity street cred to boot). However, the only person I recall documenting a racial transformation to attempt to experience what it means to be Black in America is John Howard Griffin who published the book, Black Like Me that chronicled his transformation into a Black man in the 1950s in an attempt to understand what it felt like to be Black in the US.
Ms. Dolezal, according to her parents, is perpetrating fraud. She is pretending to be something she is not. But is she REALLY any different from the hundreds upon hundreds of cultural appropriations we see regularly in this country?
Everything from augmented lips, butts, tanning beds and salons, and curly hair represent the love-hate relationship that White America has with blackness. It finds blackness simultaneously seductive and titillating AND repulsive and disgusting. Unfortunately, this moving back and forth between love and hate has serious consequences for how we are treated. From my own professional (and personal) vantage point it has devastating consequences on how our children are treated. The fact that our children’s childhood is truncated due to this love-hate dynamic is harmful and hurtful. Our cute kindergarten babies are transposed into men and women by 3rd grade and quickly find themselves sanctioned for the slightest school infractions. Our teenagers are considered “thugs” when they behave immaturely and make the same mistakes that I see my White college students make after a football game and too much beer. Incidentally, my White college students are never thugs—they are “pranksters!”
I see people calling Ms. Dolezal, “trans-racial” and I have no idea what that means. Transgender, as I understand it, means that someone has a physical sexual assignment that runs counter to their gender identity…e.g. a woman trapped in a man’s body. But are we saying Ms. Dolezal was a Black person tapped in a White body? If that’s the case, I’d like to be trans-SES…a rich person trapped in a poor body. And, while I’m at it I’d also like to be trans-vertical…a tall person trapped in a short body. Ms. Dolezal made a decision to represent herself in a particular way and deny her own racial heritage. That does not make her trans-racial or post-racial or non-racial. It makes her a White woman pretending to be Black…end of (her) story. The bigger issue for me is when is America going to come to grips with its nonsensical relationship concerning race and stop rating and ranking people because of it and doling out reward and punishment based on it?
Ms. Dolezal’s affectation of blackness is probably going to land her a lot more celebrity and perhaps money but it is not going to stop the next assault on a Black child or adult. It is not going to impact mass incarceration and the utter disdain far too many people (White and Black) have toward blackness. The only thing I can imagine saying to Rachel Dolezal is “Bye, Felicia!”

Stay Black & Smart!

“Have You Ever Seen Black Flight?”

quitting

I recall reading Randall Robinson’s book, “Quitting America” that described his disgust with American racism and policies of disenfranchisement for African Americans and the poor. Robinson’s frustration with a land he says, “sapped his creative energies and transfigured humanity,” made him decide to move to his wife’s birthplace, St. Kitts. Right about now I am feeling Randall Robinson. No, I’m not moving out of the country but the increasingly hostile and undemocratic policies being promulgated in higher education (and in my state in particular) have me making serious plans to “fly the coop.” I do not think I am alone in these sentiments and I believe my feelings are especially acute among Black academics.
Don’t get me wrong. Life in the academy is a darn sight easier than a million other jobs that most Black people have to do. The salary is decent. They workplace is semi-autonomous, and the work itself can be deeply satisfying. That is, until now. I have never had illusions about academic life having been a part of it for almost 3 decades. I recognized that there are all kinds of plantations and all kinds of masters. But, in the end one had to ask oneself, “Which plantation can I survive on? Which offers the least amount of stress?” But, they are ALL plantations!
I have been able to have a reasonably good life on the campus I settled on. My career has flourished. I have made more money (with the combination of salary, grants, royalties, and speaking engagements) than anyone in my family ever thought possible. And, as the child of Depression Era parents I have saved and invested wisely. I may drive a luxury car but it is an 11-year old luxury car that I intend to drive for 9 more years! I have what some people call “F-u money” in the bank…meaning I could walk away today and not miss a paycheck for over a year! I’m a conservative investor whose portfolio has come all the way back since the 2008 crash and then some. But what is going on in my state and on my campus makes me think that there will be an exodus and Black academics will be among the first to go.
Let’s be clear. Most research-intensive institutions court us not because they love us. They seek us out because we tend to be productive, draw a diverse group of students, and make THEM look good. It is a classic Critical Race Theory “Interest Convergence!”
My academic stock is fairly high. At this moment I am sitting on 3 open invitations from private, high prestige universities. I can go TODAY! And, I am certain (without bragging) that if word got out I was looking, a number of other invitations would roll in. I’ve stayed put because despite the world’s worst weather and the overwhelming Whiteness that envelopes me, I have been able to mentor and support some brilliant young people (of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities) while simultaneously building an excellent scholarly record. The academic atmosphere here has been bar none. But that is about to change!
Our current state legislature, governor, and now board of regents have decided that it’s not enough to slash our budgets and freeze our wages. Now they are set on destroying what has been one of the most significant perks of academic life–tenure. Of course, every one in the power structure is saying we are acting like Chicken Little running around saying, “The sky is falling!” But in truth, the sky IS falling. When faculty work up to 6 years to prove their research expertise, teaching excellence, and service commitments they earn the right to research and say those things that may be unpopular and/or controversial. Academic communities are places where the spectrum of ideas must be allowed to grow and flourish. Contrary to what some believe there are any number of conservatives alive and well on my campus! Some have even run for public office as right-leaning Republicans. Academic freedom is the thing I most prize about being a scholar. I may be on a plantation, but it’s been a plantation where I get to pick my own row of cotton unimpeded!
I don’t fear for my future. I always have a plan, a strategy, and a tactic—Harriet Tubman’s blood runs through my veins and I am a Philadelphia Negro! I fear for those young Black scholars on my campus and the Black graduate students I and others are trying to mentor. I fear that they will become a part of a huge exodus that will destroy everything so many have worked so hard to build!

But as for me—I go out singing that good ole Gospel song, “Some bright morning when this life is over I’ll fly away…”

Stay Black & Smart!