Using a Smile as an Act of Resistance

(Note: Every Tuesday I write a “Tuesday Meditation” and send it to a list of people who have indicated interest in receiving them. Once in a while I write one that I hope and think will be appreciated by a wider audience. This is my offering to you today.)

R

            I do not remember where I saw the picture of the young Palestinian man who had lost everything he owned as a result of violence meted against him, his family, and his neighbors. He had also been beaten and to be quite honest, he looked bad. He had to have been angry but in this picture, he was smiling, and a reporter asked him why he was smiling, given all that he and so many Palestinians had lost in their fight for freedom in the West Bank, he said, “My smile is an act of resistance.” 

            I had never thought about smiling in that way. Smiling usually means someone is happy, at peace, glad to be seen and heard, relief, joy…but resistance? 

            I paused and thought about the many times I have been irritated by people claiming to love Jesus yet practicing hatred. In too many reports, I have seen them smile at a reporter who has asked them questions they did not want to answer. I have seen them smile as they lift up the name of “the good Lord,” a lord, it seems, who is OK with their practice of hatred. 

            Could it be that those smiles have been intentionally offered as acts of resistance against a political situation or criticism of what they do to other people in the name of religion?  

            Is a smile that powerful? 

            It is difficult to smile when the machinations of government are working against you, pushing against you at every turn as you fight for dignity and justice. I remember now seeing pictures of young Black people – many of them children – smiling as they were led to police paddy wagons after having been attacked by dogs and firehoses. I don’t recall in the pictures I have seen over the years, seeing anyone being taken away from their posts of protests with frowns or even looks of sadness. No, they have been smiling, resisting evil and the active work to destroy their lives and their spirits, with a smile. 

            The capacity of people to do evil – and then claim a first-person, personal relationship with Jesus – has always troubled me, but I wonder if we, in the fight for justice, have smiled our way through some of our most painful moments? 

            I read the story of a man named Harry Merica, who suffered from muscular dystrophy. When he was a child, his mother would carry him to the school bus stop every day because he couldn’t walk that far. He recalls his family being very poor, so poor that they could not afford to buy many new things, but one thing they were able to purchase for him was paper and pencils.  

            It happened that one day, after he had gotten on the school bus, that one of the boys took one of his new pencils and broke it in half, right in front of Harry. I can imagine the pain he felt; the pencil was the only new thing he had and this kid had taken it upon himself to break it. Harry began to cry, feeling his loss, and the other students on the bus started laughing at him and calling him a crybaby. 

            I wonder what his conversation was with his mother when he got home after school on that day. I imagine that the pain was so raw that even talking about it brought up the tears, but I wonder if his mother taught him how to resist evil. (Resist the devil and he will flee from you! James 4:7) and I wonder if she told him, during that painful and necessary conversation, that nobody could break his smile and that the way to fight evil was to laugh with those who worked intentionally to hurt him and thus, fill his spirit with that which the world did not give and which the world – no matter how racist or sexist or bigoted in general – could not take away. 

            Many people today are angry because of the overt lying that is being done about the election and about the fact that a group of angry white people felt it their “patriotic” duty to storm and damage the capitol building of this country. People are angry that voting rights are being attacked and are angry that neither lawmakers nor the United States Supreme Court is working to protect the right that resulted in so many people being beaten, arrested, and murdered. 

            We fight against powers and principalities which have gone hog-wild in slashing the rights of certain groups of people, and it hurts, in a different way yet strangely, in the same way as did the dogs and the water from firehoses, and the dogs, and the batons that were cracked over so many heads in the 60s.  Their goal was to intimidate those who protested into submission.

            But it didn’t work. In the fights that those who have worked for their rights as human beings have endured, they have never stopped moving toward their goal. They have never stopped resisting the evil that wanted to cut them down and cut them out. 

            Whatever the evil was, they resisted.  

            They bled, they cried, they fought feelings of hopelessness, and they smiled. The smile was an act of resistance, saying, in essence, that “your desire to destroy me is not greater than the God who created and loved me.” 

            Incredible. 

            A candid observation …

This Year I Ignored the Fourth of July

When I was a child, growing up and attending integrated schools, we were taught “America songs.” That’s not what they called them; it is what I have grown to call them.

            We were taught, along with the lesson that police officers were good and our friends, songs including, “I Like It Here,” “America,” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” among others. 

            I sang them loudly and with passion, as did my white classmates. I can still remember the words of one of one of my favorites:

I like the United States of America,

I like the way we all live without fear!

I like to vote for my choice, speak my mind, raise my voice

Yes, I like it here!

I like the United States of America,

And I am thankful each day of the year!

For I can do as I please, ‘cause I’m free as the breeze

Yes, I like it here!

            It was a fun song to sing, and comforting, as comforting as was the notion of the police being our friend. As a child, comfort was important. It was reassuring. We needed to feel safe and having police as our friend in a country where we were free provided the greatest comfort of all.

            My level of comfort increased as I learned about the structure of our government. With the three branches of government, we were assured that we would never descend into anarchy (they didn’t use that word, but we understood.) Our system of checks and balances was as protective as were the police. We were safe.

            We didn’t learn, though, that the freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights, or that the words “we the people” did not, were never intended to, and would never include us as little black children. We didn’t learn about the Middle Passage and the inhumane treatment Africans received in this country on that trip and once they got into this country. We didn’t learn about how slavery destroyed the Black family, or how Black women were raped by white men, while Black men were lynched even on the suggestion that he might have raped a white woman.

            We didn’t learn about how Black people participated in every war, from the Revolutionary War through the Korean War. (The Vietnam War had not yet happened, nor the war in Afghanistan, but we have fought in every war this country has fought.) We didn’t learn about how Black men fought in those wars but were relegated back to their status of being second-class citizens in this country once the war was over, just because they were Black. We didn’t learn how white people resented them wearing their uniforms and how many of them were lynched while in uniform. And we didn’t learn how the Black GIs were denied post-war benefits, like loans for housing, education, and business.

            We just did not know because none of it was taught to us. We were being taught to love a country, though, that did not and would not love us back.

            We learned that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, and that made us like him because we regarded him as a “good” white man who treated Black people right, but we didn’t learn that he didn’t free all enslaved people, nor did we learn that he never believed that Black people were equal to white people and that he was a big proponent of sending Black people back to Africa.

            We didn’t learn how white people – many in law enforcement and former military people – participated in state-sanctioned violence against Black people, where Black people were not only lynched but their communities decimated – and in some cases, bombed -by these angry white people.

            We didn’t learn that so many white people were mad because they resented the progress Black people made in spite of legal, paralegal, and illegal measures, laws, and policies put into place.

            There was so much we did not learn. We didn’t learn about how the Greenwood community of Tulsa, OK, was destroyed by yet another group of angry white people, and Juneteenth didn’t exist in our history lessons.

            We, the Black and the white children, were given a whitewashed, sanitized history of these United States. As we grew, we realized how entrenched white supremacy was in this country; we learned from experience how racist people were, including our classmates, who had been taught to hate Black people because of the color of their skin.

            If the truth be told, June 19th, 1865, the day Army Major General Gordon Granger read General Order #3 which said all slaves were free was the true “independence day” for Black people, but it was not a day, nor was it intended to be, when African Americans would be allowed the full rights of American citizenship. 

It is crazy to me that the white senators unanimously voted to make Juneteenth a national holiday while they are simultaneously supporting measures to suppress the right of Black people to vote, and yet, that is our reality.

            White violence against Black people – too often if not always participated in by law enforcement officers and members of the military – continued with Black people seldom getting justice in the courts – be they state, federal, or the U.S. Supreme Court. The goal of the white power structure has been to keep Black people “in their place,” and they have sought to attain that goal by any means necessary, with the assistance of the media and the church.

            So, on this Fourth of July holiday, I shuddered when I heard the fireworks starting up. I refused to break out the grill and “celebrate” a holiday which is clearly precious to our white friends, but is a painful reminder that this country about which we were taught as children to sing, has not ever and will not ever extend to Black people – and other minorities – the freedom to be free – in spite of the glorious and powerful words of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Preamble. 

            For Black people, the words to “I Like It Here” are a reminder that we cannot “do as we please ‘cause we’re free as the breeze.” 

White people so often say, “why do you always have to talk about race?” Because, dear friends, race is the card you use when you are working to keep power in the hands of white people. It has always been and it will always be. You use race to sanction and justify the laws, rules, and policies you put in place to reinforce your oppression of us – and of so many other ethnic, racial, and religious groups of people.

In this country, Black people have always been the fly in the American ointment, reminding whites that we are here and that we have power of which they are afraid. When it hits them, they work with a fury to keep us compromised as American citizens.

            “America songs” notwithstanding, we are not even close to being free…to be free.

We Wear the Mask – Still

            As an African American, I find that I often walk around with a lump in my throat because this country does not, has not, and will not regard me or my people as human beings worthy of being treated as the American citizens we are.

            When it comes to race, this nation has no honor.

            The lump isn’t always noticeable; sometimes, it retreats and I can forget for a time that it is there. But no matter how long the lapse, it always comes back.

            I first noticed the lump when I was in college. I was reading about the lynching of Emmett Till, and how the all-white jury acquitted the two white men who had killed him. How could that be, I wondered? How could a court ignore the guilt of two men who had clearly murdered someone?

The lump reappeared from time to time after that, but came back with a fury when I was in seminary and heard the story of one Dred Scott one Sunday I had, of course, heard his name before, and knew a little about his story, but I had never heard about the engagement and involvement of the nation’s highest court. It was in a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright that I heard the words uttered by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney in 1857 as he ruled against a Black man, Dred Scott, who sued in order to protect his freedom, gained when his owner took him into a free state. Scott had lived in the free territory of Wisconsin and the free state of Illinois before being taken back to Missouri, where he was again enslaved.

            Scott objected. He knew the law and the law said that once a person was free, he or she was always free. He decided to sue in a lawsuit that made its way all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. After 11 years of litigation in its movement from lower courts to the country’s highest court, the decision was finally at hand. Scott was hopeful.

            But his hope was dashed as Taney ruled against him. Taney wrote that because Scott was Black, he was not a citizen  – and could never be a citizen -and therefore had no right to sue. Referring to the Declaration of Independence, Taney also said that “it is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration…” 

            Given all of that, Taney said, it had to be understood that “there were no rights of a Black man that a white man was bound to respect.” 

            What? I was stunned and can still remember being in shock as I heard those words. How could someone who was supposed to be about justice say such a thing? I later wept as I read the words for myself and realized in a new way that not even the courts do not protect us and could be counted on to bring justice to Black people, including the highest court in the land.

            From the day that the lump formed it has risen from time to time, reminding me of the pain I carry about this nation having so little honor when it comes to race. That lump jostled me again today as I heard the decisions the U.S. Supreme Court made that clearly indicate that the justices are not interested in treating Black people as full American citizens with all the rights citizenship includes. The highest court in this land has yet again sanctioned ways to keep Black people disenfranchised. (https://www.cnn.com/2021/07/01/politics/voting-rights-act-supreme-court-ruling/index.html) (https://www.npr.org/2021/07/01/1004062322/the-supreme-court-guts-a-state-law-requiring-nonprofits-to-name-their-rich-donor.

And again, I wept.

            From the courts to law enforcement to the media, this country has made clear how deeply embedded is the spirit of white supremacy. There are those who are bold with their belief in the inferiority of Black people, and others who remain quiet and do little to nothing as they see the system run roughshod over Black lives and yet declare that they are not racist. The latter group makes little to no effort to investigate and see why there is a Black Lives Matter movement. They refuse to open their eyes and see how the systems of this country have blocked African Americans for literally hundreds of years. Both the vocal and non-vocal racists remain steeped in fear, rage, and insecurity; they are afraid of Black people and afraid that if Black people ever got the opportunity to govern, they would do to white people what white people have done to them. They are full of rage because they believe Black people – who they still do not regard as human beings or citizens – have been “given” too much and are unappreciative, even as white people struggle in ways they do not believe they should be, and they are insecure because reports say that white rule will soon no longer be the case in America.

            It is a difficult thing to keep on pushing for justice when the hard truth of the lack of honor of white people in power repeatedly hits you in the face. Black people get metaphorically slapped over and over, as arrogant critics tell us to get up and to “shut up and dribble,” as the infamous Laura Ingraham once said when NBA great LeBron James spoke out against police brutality.( https://www.marketwatch.com/story/fox-news-host-laura-ingraham-told-lebron-james-to-shut-up-and-dribble-so-whats-her-take-on-drew-brees-2020-06-04)

            The evil of white supremacy in this country has never diminished, and at this point, it is more toxic and dangerous than it has been publicly for some time, but make no mistake: it and its toxicity have never been gone. This country still has a plantation mentality, wanting Black people and a whole lot more people whom the white supremacist adherents believe are less than human to “stay in their place.”

            Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote the poem, “We Wear the Mask,” the first line of which says, “We wear the mask that grins and lies; it hides our cheeks and shields our eyes. This debt we pay to human guile…”

            We have been paying that debt for literally hundreds of years, and we still must.

            The stupid lump in my throat is real today; I will work – as we all must – to swallow it back down into its bedroom that is in my soul. But it will rise again.

            A candid observation …

The Power of Solitary Brooding

I was struck this week in reading how Howard Thurman talked about solitary brooding, and I realized I was there, brooding deeply. I find that because so much is going on, so many things that “were” seem to be on the verge of disappearing, that I brood more than I once did. 

When one broods, it can be a sign of being depressed, or it can mean that one is giving a situation deep thought, musing over something or some things that demand a deeper delve in order to understand. My brooding falls into the latter category. I am not depressed. Rather, I am trying to make sense out of what is going on and what it will mean for those who are already oppressed. I am engaged in what Howard Thurman called “solitary brooding,” and it feels like the absolutely right place to be right now.

            In my musings, I had a thought: that if the government continues its shift toward fascism, it won’t be so different a life for Black people. Black people brown and poor people, have always lived under absolute rule where the rulers have been more concerned about keeping themselves in power than in empowering “the least of these.” Black people in this country have learned to navigate the waters of fascism. “Making a way out of no way” has been about sidestepping the intentional barriers to life and dignity that this government has always put before us.

            Black people have learned to brood, and yet to survive. Oppressed people in general have learned that skill, but Black people, who have always been under the thumb of white supremacy have learned it in a unique way. Those who are supporting the move away from “democracy” have deluded themselves into believing that the people in power care about them and will go to extraordinary lengths to protect them, but they will not, and just as so many people whined about being told to wear face masks during the pandemic so as to protect others from getting sick, they will whine as they come to understand that their privilege will be sharply curtailed and controlled. They have not stopped to brood, or to think, about what is ahead of them. They are unable to see themselves being oppressed by power, and yet, it is before them.

            Thurman said “The test of life is often found in the amount of pain we can absorb without spoiling our joy.” Clearly, Black people in this country have passed that test over and over, in spite of the pain that has come just from being Black. In this country, we have often retreated to deep spiritual places, alone, so that we can brood and hear the voice of God. In our brooding, we allow ourselves to identify and then empty out the malignant despair that seeks to take us to depths from which we will not be able to emerge. We instinctively know that we cannot remain “there.” And so we listen to that voice, encouraging us in spite of us having to continually duck from the toxic darts of white supremacy. We inhale the Holy Spirit and exhale joy. In spite of all that this society deprives us of, it cannot take our joy. We celebrate life and make life happen in spite of the efforts of the society to make us stop believing that there is such a thing as victories against our foes. It is in our celebration that we regain our strength and resolve to go forth and that decision in turn feeds our capacity to celebrate. We live out the truth of the beatitude as recorded in the book of Luke: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” 

            It is in our brooding that we make room for the Holy Spirit to wash our muddied spirits and moisturize our dried out souls. In our brooding, we share the space with ancestors who lived before us and left us spiritual drops of hope and joy, gifts from God that they knew they would have to pass on to us. We must take the time to brood, to think about where we are and to remember that the God of our ancestors has never abandoned us. We must remind ourselves of that truth.

            Those who have never had to do that type of brooding are not able to understand why and how an aggrieved people can still laugh and shout and sing. When their privilege gets threatened, they are more apt to panic than to be still…and brood, and their inability to do that feeds their despair.

            We do not know what is before us, but we have a feeling that difficult days lie ahead. Would that we would continue to engage in solitary brooding so that we can connect with the Holy Spirit and be strengthened for the journey, whatever direction that journey may take us.

            Amen and amen.

What White Supremacy Has Stolen

I am afraid that the belief in and the practice of white supremacy has stolen the honor of far too many people.

            I am a student of history, and so have read – with horror – the things that so many white people have done in history to Black people. I have read how white preachers taught the people who sat in their pews that God ordained and sanctioned slavery, and I have read how, when there was to be a lynching, some of those same pastors would let their people out of Sunday service early, so as not to miss the event. In his book White Too Long, Robert P. Jones noted that when there was to be a lynching, “…many worshippers streamed straight from church to the train station, hoping to participate in the much-anticipated lynching…The conductor would cry out, “All aboard for the lynching.”

            Last week was the first time many people – Black and white – had heard about the Tulsa Massacre, but the sad fact is that white people have too often in history decimated entire towns of Black people, and have gotten away with it, choosing to “forget it” once it has been done. It is significant that the only bombs that have been dropped in America have been those dropped on Black homes and churches and businesses – by white people. White people dropped turpentine bombs and or set the homes of Black people on fire in East St. Louis, Ill, in Wilmington, NC, and very recently, in Philadelphia, PA. It was and is normal behavior for those who value their whiteness above all else.

            I have read how people who say and who said while they were yet alive that they believed in Jesus  and thus in Christianity believed that they were on the right theological side of the question of racism. They had no fear of going to hell for what they did to Black people because they did not believe that Blacks were truly human.

            In history, most of the most vile and vicious acts of violence have come when white people have decided that Black people wanting to vote or being given the right to vote was against the cause of white dominance. There has never been “equal justice under the law” for Black people. In fact, white lawmakers, jurists, judges, and law enforcement officers have participated historically in these attacks on Black people. 

            They have not worried about Black people being run from their homes, about Black husbands and wives being separated, about Black children torn from the arms and homes of their parents. They have not cared about Black people being charged with crimes that many times everyone knew they had not committed.

            They have not cared about making policies that have kept Black people enslaved by poverty; they have not cared that little Black children have had to try to make it in schools which were poorly heated in the winter and which had no air conditioning in the summer.

            They have not cared. White supremacy did something to their capacity to care and to their ability to be honorable human beings.

            As we watch white people now distance themselves from the January 6 insurrection, it is nothing less than what they have always done. They have always backed away from, tried to hide, and ultimately, blame Black people for the things they have done. They already know that Black Lives Matter had nothing to do with January 6, and some of them, at least, know that Antifa is not an organized group of people. They know that the acts of terrorism have come from them -as they have always come from a group of people who seemingly have nothing but their whiteness to give them a reason to wake up in the morning.

            They have no honor. These who make racist policies, who are working to keep Black and Brown people from voting, who are fighting to protect the Second Amendment while working to destroy the First Amendment – have no honor. They would rather claim whiteness than honor. They would rather worship racist ideologues than a God who demands that we treat each other as the human beings that God created. In fact, many of them argue that Black people, and maybe Brown people as well, are not humans at all. Saying that relieves them of needing to feel bad or guilty for what they do to kill hopes and dreams and the dignity of people who are just as American as are they.

            They wanted and .needed Black people for their labor. They want people for their labor now, as well, but they want the labor at the expense of making a way for those who labor to live decent lives, to provide for their children, and to live without worrying that they will be shot and killed by those who do it just because they can. 

            They have no honor. White supremacy stole it, like life sometimes steals the sense of worth or self-esteem from too many people. Those without honor will continue to smirk as they continue to destroy people, dreams, and lives. They will continue to practice domestic terrorism and get away with it, just because, as white people, they can do it and get away with it. 

            A candid observation.