Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Black Lives Still Matter

March 20, 2016

Black Lives Still Matter

Sorrow Songs

“[These songs] are the music of an unhappy people,
of the children of disappointment;
they tell of death and suffering
and unvoiced longing toward a truer world,
of misty wanderings and hidden ways.
Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given
to this nation in blood-brotherhood.
Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?”

These are the words of WEB DuBois, writing in 1903, yet they could apply today to the music that is coming out of the Black Lives Matter movement, such as Janelle Monnae’s "Hell You Talmbout" and "Cry No More" from Rhiannon Giddens. 

Black lives matter.

DuBois wrote The Souls of Black Folk 40 years after the Emancipation Proclamation; in the book he wrote about the sacred music of spirituals, which he called “Sorrow Songs”:

“They that walked in darkness sang songs in the olden days – Sorrow Songs – for they were weary at heart…
by fateful chance, the Negro folk-song – the rhythmic cry
of the slaves – stands today not simply as the sole American music,
but as the most beautiful expression of human experience
born this side of seas…the singular spiritual heritage
of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.” (Crouch and Benjamin,121)

DuBois was a young academic who spent years studying in Germany, influenced by German philosophers and sociologists, before coming back to the US. His early work was a series of monographs on the status and condition of African-Americans in cities, the first generation of freedmen in Philadelphia in particular.   

His scientific studies of African-American life did not have the positive effect on public opinion and social policy he had expected, as the promise of the Reconstruction faded during this period of American history.

So his book The Souls of Black Folk – a misleading title because he was a secular humanist – went much further than statistics and surveys, to investigate what he called “the problem of the Twentieth Century - the problem of the color-line.” Here we are in the 21st century and the ‘color-line’ still is a problem. 

Black lives still matter.

DuBois set out “to show to the reader ‘the strange meaning of being black in the dawning of the Twentieth Century,’ by explaining the meaning of the emancipation, and its effect, and his views on the role of the leaders of his race.”( He observed that white Americans professed the creed ‘all men are created equal’ but showed hypocrisy on race matters; he argued that few white Americans have ever believed in the universal humanism voiced in the Declaration of Independence (Crouch and Benjamin, 53).

Prophetic rise of Teutonic Hero

Years earlier, his 1890 Baccalaureate speech at Harvard was entitled “Jefferson Davis as a Representation of Civilization.” His thesis: that Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, was a typical Teutonic hero; (DuBois said that) the history of civilization during the last millennium had been based upon the development of the idea of the Strong Man, of which Davis was the embodiment. The Anglo-Saxon loves a soldier, he said – and Jefferson Davis was a soldier. (Crouch and Benjamin, 55)

DuBois predicted then that the desire for a Strong Man, whose attraction rested on the combination of “Individualism [and] the rule of might,” would give rise to “a system of human culture whose principle is the rise of one race on the ruins of another.” This is the type of civilization which Jefferson Davis represented…a field for stalwart manhood and heroic character, and at the same time for moral obtuseness and refined brutality.” (Crouch and Benjamin, 56)

In 1890 this was extremely prophetic for the rise of Nazism a few decades later, but unfortunately it is still prophetic today with the rise of the modern-day Teutonic hero, Donald Trump. Black lives still matter.

On the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, Stanley Crouch and Playthell Benjamin revisited DuBois’ legacy in their book Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folk (2002). Benjamin claims that the “persistent source of conflict since 1903 has been the attempt by African-Americans to live out the universal human values and vision articulated in the traditions of Shakespeare, the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, …[they have] simply [engaged in] a quest to become more fully human. (And the conflict comes) because it [has] placed them in opposition to the American racial caste system of white over black. (213)

Black Lives Matter – a response to All Lives Matter

Which brings me to Black Lives Matter, a provocative title for a movement that is naming this conflict, this deadly racial caste conflict , which has manifested itself, in part, in the deaths of those names shouted out in Hell You Talmbout.

Walter Scott. Jermaine Reid. Philip White. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Sean Bell. Freddie Gray. Aiyana Jones. Sandra Bland. Kimani Gray. John Crawford. Michael Brown. Miriam Carey. Sharonda Singleton. Emmett Till. Tommy Yancy. Jordan Baker. Amadou Diallo.

Most of these people so remembered died at the hands of the American public servants we know as the police.

“If you try to tell the people in most Negro communities that the police are their friends, they just laugh at you. Obviously, something desperately needs to be done to correct this. I have been particularly impressed by the fact that even in the state of Mississippi, where the FBI did a significant training job with the Mississippi police, the police are much more courteous to Negroes than they are in Chicago or New York. Our police forces simply must develop an attitude of courtesy and respect for the ordinary citizen.

If we can just stop policemen from using profanity in their encounters with black people, we will have accomplished a lot. In the larger sense, police must cease being occupation troops in the ghetto and start protecting its residents. Yet very few cities have really faced up to this problem and tried to do something about it. It is the most abrasive element in Negro-white relations, but it is the last to be scientifically and objectively appraised.”

This is a quote from the essay A Testament of Hope by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and it is, again, as true today as it was when he wrote it in 1969. 

Black lives still matter.

How Allies Help

At last year’s Living Legacy conference on the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches Opal Tometi, one of the founding members of Black Lives Matter, spoke there. There has been a growing interest in our faith tradition in joining with this organization, and our General Assembly in June will focus on interfaith and black lives matter themes. 

But there is significant pushback for UU congregations that take up the Black Lives Matter cause. Black Lives Matter signs at four Annapolis, Maryland-area churches, including the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, continue to be stolen or damaged, frustrating those congregations and local police alike.  (Capital Gazette – 3.5.16)

And in the media there is much criticism of Black Lives Matter; in late August 2015, Fox and Friends co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck asks “Why has the Black Lives Matter movement not been classified yet as a hate group?” (Loss)

One of the most common responses to the statement ‘Black Lives Matter’ is ‘All Lives Matter’; here's a series of tweets posted by Austin Channing on “Why ‘All Lives Matter’ is not a Christian Response to ‘Black Lives Matter’:

The more popular #blacklivesmatter became, the more white people in particular started to negate that statement.
Furthermore, the "Christian" version has sought to "shut down" statements that #blacklivesmatter by appearing more spiritual.
The implication is that no good Christian would say anything other than all lives matter.
But this implication ignores the reasons #blacklivesmatter was created in the first place.
#blacklivesmatter was created to make clear racial disparities black bodies face in [the] USA, particularly around police brutality.
#blacklivesmatter was not created to proclaim that God only cares about black lives. #blacklivesmatter is purposeful in bringing to the forefront the ways black lives haven’t mattered in [the] USA.
So, when the response is ‘all lives matter’, the specific purpose of proclaiming #blacklivesmatter is erased.
Christians who believe all lives matter equally to God are sickened by the specific ways black lives are treated violently & there is no hesitation to join in the proclamation that #blacklivesmatter
White Christian responses to anti-black violence tend to be (if not outright dismissive) that we need make everyone Christian.
#weexpectmore from those who believe Jesus: "He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released... that oppressed will be set free"
#WeExpectMore because Xns talk so eagerly of a culture of life, yet we have tolerated—even cultivated—a culture of death.

Kevin Roose’s blog on Fusion website says in part:

“Imagine that you’re sitting down to dinner with your family, and while everyone else gets a serving of the meal, you don’t get any. So you say “I should get my fair share.” And as a direct response to this, your dad corrects you, saying, “everyone should get their fair share.” Now, that’s a wonderful sentiment — indeed, everyone should, and that was kinda your point in the first place: that you should be a part of everyone, and you should get your fair share also. However, dad’s smart-ass comment just dismissed you and didn’t solve the problem that you still haven’t gotten any!
 The problem is that the statement “I should get my fair share” had an implicit “too” at the end: “I should get my fair share, too, just like everyone else.” But your dad’s response treated your statement as though you meant “only I should get my fair share”, which clearly was not your intention. As a result, his statement that “everyone should get their fair share,” while true, only served to ignore the problem you were trying to point out.
 That’s the situation of the “black lives matter” movement. Culture, laws, the arts, religion, and everyone else repeatedly suggest that all lives should matter. Clearly, that message already abounds in our society.
 The problem is that, in practice, the world doesn’t work that way…there is a news bias toward stories that the majority of the audience (who are white) can identify with. So when a young black man gets killed…it’s generally not considered “news”, while a middle-aged white woman being killed is treated as news. And to a large degree, that is accurate — young black men are killed in significantly disproportionate numbers, which is why we don’t treat it as anything new. But the result is that, societally, we don’t pay as much attention to certain people’s deaths as we do to others. So, currently, we don’t treat all lives as though they matter equally.
 Just like asking dad for your fair share, the phrase “black lives matter” also has an implicit “too” at the end: it’s saying that black lives should also matter.
But responding to this by saying “all lives matter” is willfully going back to ignoring the problem. It’s a way of dismissing the statement by falsely suggesting that it means “only black lives matter,” when that is obviously not the case. And so saying “all lives matter” as a direct response to “black lives matter” is essentially saying that we should just go back to ignoring the problem.”

Now, race accounts for only .012 % difference in our genetic material – Paul Hoffman (Crouch & Benjamin, 91) says that ‘modern science has liberated us from the idea of race’. So there is much more involved in the prejudice that manifests itself in oppression of a person of a different color…and I differ with people who say the problem is simple racism, as well as with those who say the problem is so complex that we are helpless to solve it.

But I assert that as Unitarian Universalists, as people who proclaim a free liberal religion, we have a vital role to play as prophets and as allies in challenging racism and oppression.
As allies, we need to understand that our … social justice work is religious work, as UU theologian Paul Rasor says ( in Reclaiming Prophetic Witness, 97).  That means that we don’t have a choice in saying Black Lives Matter, it is a religious statement.

We need to be clear about who we are, and the issue of religious identity has never been easy for liberals. Rasor writes: “Our commitment to religious freedom, our openness to new ideas, our insistence that religion should live in the present and not in the past, our healthy theological pluralism – these very things that make us liberal mean that it’s difficult to pin down our collective religious identity. While many Americans find comfort in dogmatic or fundamentalist faith, this option is off the table for religious liberals.”

But Rasor argues that we liberals do share a set of religious values and principles, and the core theological insight he points to is what he calls human liberation – liberation rooted in a commitment to radical human equality (102).

Our Universalist theology is “radically inclusive – we’re all in this together, and wherever we are headed, we will all share in it.” This is a prophetic and transformative theology. We can bring a message of healing in a hurting world and we celebrate diversity instead of fearing it.
Mark Morrison-Reed says that the dynamic that we can bring to bear as allies is three-fold: spirituality provides the motivation, intellectualism provides the tools, and politics is the method. (Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, 174) And we have UUs from the past to help us see how to do that.

Don’t forget that in 1965 a quarter of the total active UU ministry went to Selma or Montgomery – being there “taught them how to step out of individualism and think about community first…swept up by a power and a cause greater than themselves” (MM Reed, The Selma Awakening, 215). And more than 50 years on, black lives still matter.

We must support Black Lives Matter because it is a cause greater than ourselves, and we owe it to those UUs who many years ago gave their energy, their passion, and – in the cases of Viola Liuzzo and Rev. James Reeb, their lives – to take up the cause of justice alongside those who suffered oppression.

The writer Omid Safi says, "When we allow hatred and venom towards one of us — be it Muslims, Jews, Hispanic, gays/lesbians, poor people, undocumented people, African-Americans, combination of the above, or others — we all go down together. As Martin Luther King used to tell us, either we go up together or we go down together. But either way, we are together."

Each name we heard said in ‘Hell You Talmbout’ has a story behind it – a tragic, heart-breaking story.  Mark Morrison-Reed writes, “Story puts us into someone else’s world. It holds up their struggles and thereby heightens our awareness of our assumptions, the assumptions of the middle class, of the white…In this process…one can see beyond our differences to the true depth of one’s relationship to others.” (Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, 181)

Relationship – interconnection – interdependence: this is why for us, Black Lives Still Matter. We forget our connection human to human at our peril.

WEB DuBois concluded his book with these words: “And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor – all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked; - who is good? Not that men are ignorant – what Is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”  (DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk. In Crouch & Benjamin, 256)

Two days ago I visited Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, where last June “nine parishioners including Clementa Pinckney, a pastor and state senator, were gunned down by Dylann Roof in an attempt to start a race war” (Loss). It is the place where Rhiannon Giddens performed the song “Cry No More” you are about to see and hear. Its story ranges from slavery to the “the bedrock of this nation… laid with these brown hands” to the “acts of terror” committed today.

As the writer Robert Loss says, “Silencing the truth is easy. Speaking it is hard. You have to make people listen. The drums have to be loud. The names have to be shouted.”

Black Lives Still Matter.
Blessed be.


Janelle Monnae, "Hell You Talmbout"  

Rhiannon Giddens, "Cry No More" 

Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folk (S Crouch and P Benjamin) “for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line”—a prescient statement. Setting out to show to the reader “the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century,” Du Bois explains the meaning of the emancipation, and its effect, and his views on the role of the leaders of his race.

Black Pioneers in a White Denomination (M Morrison-Reed)

The Selma Awakening (M Morrison-Reed)

Reclaiming Prophetic Witness (Paul Rasor )