It’s 2018, and you might think that headlines such as these would be uncommon.
- Florida Middle School Teacher Hosts White Nationalist Podcast
- Report Finds US Civil Rights Gains Stalled or Reversed
- Police Officer Fired for Stomping Handcuffed Man Is Reinstated
- Terror on Doorsteps: Blasts Unnerve Austin
- African-American Historic Site on Nantucket Defaced by Racist Graffiti
Sadly no. In 2018, headlines such as these are so common that they no longer shock or stun. You might think these headlines belong to another era – say 1900. In 1900, less than fifty years after the official end of race slavery, the Ku Klux Klan was waging an all-out reign of terror throughout the South enforcing the norms of Jim (and Jane) Crow. Having already declared that “a black man had no rights that a white man was bound to respect,” the US Supreme Court doubled-down on that notion in 1883 by invalidating the Reconstruction Era Civil Rights Acts of 1875. The racial caste systems throughout the country, but most flagrantly in the South, were maintained by institutionalized segregation, economic suppression, assault, murder – and any other means necessary.
Yet it was in this climate of legalized and systematically enforced racial oppression that James Weldon Johnson wrote these words:
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring…
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
First written as a poem and later set to music by his brother J. Rosamund Johnson, this song was first performed in 1900 to celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator who was also a white supremacist. I first learned these words as The Negro National Anthem, a song my classmates and I proudly sang throughout my elementary school years. Since that time, we have “retired” the word Negro, but not the spirit of the song. It continues to commemorate painful struggle while evoking pride, reverence, and joy. Perhaps it is exactly this bold embrace of contradiction that makes a spirituality of hope possible.
Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died…
We have come over a way that with tears have been watered
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.
For sure, this is not a “feel good” anthem. There are no rockets glaring red, bursting bombs, nor a single banner waving in the air. There is, however, the reality of collective struggle as well as the expectation of collective transcendence. There is a palpable sense of belonging, of indelible connection, which gives rise not to naïve optimism, but to unabashed hope. I cannot help but be reminded of Kaethe Weingarten’s words: “Hope is something we do with others.” One of the more unforgettable passages in the PBS documentary Tell Them We Are Rising focuses on young black students singing and clapping joyfully while being herded off to jail in the back of a police wagon. The air was thick with joy. I’m pretty sure they knew they were not going to a picnic. After all, many of these arrests happened just because they were sitting at lunch counter trying to get a sandwich. As individuals, each student surely knew that bad things could happen once inside a police van or a jail cell. Any one, two, or three of the individuals might have been beaten, raped, or shot. As a community, however, they experienced invincible hope. As a community, they could experience what Martin Luther King, Jr. called a “dangerous unselfishness” where the bonds of connection are stronger than steel bars, vicious dogs, and lynching ropes. In that relational space of “dangerous unselfishness”, hope is born: joy-in-belonging overcomes despair.
Joy in belonging is subversive. This kind of joy is an act of creative resistance, and it scares oppressors. It is no wonder that repressive regimes, be they political parties or supremacist individuals, are suspicious of joy, especially as a shared experience among marginalized people. We’ve all heard anxious suspicions: “What are they laughing about?” “What are you girls talking about?” “Why do they all sit together?” “Speak English!” Dr. Maya Angelou discussed laughing barrels existence on slave plantations and these curiosities may well be the source of our well-known American phrase “a barrel of laughs. While I cannot attest to the literal truth of their existence, I do recognize truth in metaphor, none more telling than the stories about laughing barrels. According to these stories often repeated in my family, black people were not allowed to laugh out loud on certain plantations or public places in the antebellum South. Because laughing was viewed as a form of disrespect to slave owners, slaves would stifle an irrepressible an urge by leaning into a barrel, letting out a good guffaw, and coming up straight-faced. One might ask: what did they have to laugh about? But laugh they did. In fact, what is truly laughable (at least as these stories were told by my grandmother) was how fragile supremacist power can be.
No one is surprised when repressive regimes attempt to squelch expressions of creativity, as in 2010 when the Taliban declared music a sin. Nor should we surprised in 2018 when an authoritarian leader blithely proposes to spend $30 million to mount a military parade, while attempting to systematically defund public access to the arts. Such are the machinations of budgets and governments, but this repression hits home as well. In the 70’s, a fifteen-year-old white student confided to me that she would sneak and watch the popular dance show Soul Train because her father didn’t want her to listen to “race music” and watch “jigaboos” dance. God forbid that she would want to dance with them or like them. As it turns out, her father had a good reason to be afraid. My colleague, psychiatrist Amy Banks, explained that music activates neural circuits that can change a person’s perceptual and imaginal capabilities. Gregory Shenk, my evolutionary biologist son-in-law pointed me to classic research indicating that human brain waves can actually be synchronized under the influence of music. While I will never deep-dive into the research as Amy and Greg do, I do understand that music and rhythmic synchrony tend to dissolve the imagined impermeability of the Self-Other boundary. In fact, in his latest book, Daniel Pink cites research indicating that singing together not only boosts endorphin levels, calms the heart, and improves lung function, it also increases pain thresholds. Whether singing, clapping, dancing, or marching in step, synchronistic activities reduce the sense of otherness and isolation. The great justice movements of our time come with a soundtrack. Indeed, former Ambassador Andrew Young reported that he wept tears of joy when he heard young people outside the Kremlin singing “We Shall Overcome” during the early days of the perestroika movement. Cue Parker Palmer: “Hope is the place where joy meets despair.” And Kaethe Weingarten: “Hope must be the responsibility of the community. Where this is so and when this is so, there will be a sense of wonder, which has been called the abyss where radical amazement (italics mine) occurs.”
Keep us forever in the path…
Lest our feet stray from the places we met…
Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget . . .
The “wine of the world” is strong, addictive stuff. It intoxicates us with delusions and distractions, which for all their apparent expediency, function to seed disconnection, exacerbate inequality, and hold injustice in place. I would wager that over the past year, we have all had some “what-was-s/he-thinking” moments. What made the former governor of Massachusetts, a self-proclaimed paragon of virtue, believe that groveling before the morally decrepit emperor would land him a job in the 45th administration? Why could Michael Steele not foresee that the anti-black agendas and actors that he so dutifully served would ultimately be turned against him? And really, Omarosa? But that’s how the wine of the world works: it induces the grand delusion of accommodation. The wine of the world makes us susceptible to the lie that accommodating oppression provides safety – that it opens the door to inclusion. In systems of injustice, there is always a need for this kind of role player: someone to perform as the “exception to the rule”. It can be a heady role, but that’s all it is. It requires disconnection not only from one’s own heart, brain and spirit, but also from the vitality of a community formed through shared struggle and shared joy.
There are, of course, many enactments of accommodation, minstrelsy being a cultural favorite. I call it a cultural favorite simply because its function in the collective American psyche has remained unchanged up to the 21st century. It doesn’t have to be black-face, though that was the typical image Al Jolson-type in the history of American theater. For all the slapstick clapping and jiving, minstrel shows provided a sort of social commentary. In all cases, minstrelsy carries the imprimatur of white supremacist ideology – whether critiquing or affirming slave or Jim Crow society. In all cases, they defined the terms by which black people would be known. As Stephen Foster put it, “the darkies” are fun-loving, boisterous, and basically having a good time in the cabins and in the cotton fields. From the old black and white reels through to the buffoonish characters that populate cable and network TV, the minstrel archetype functions to provide comic relief – to be happy and serviceable to their presumptive betters. The social commentary is that “all is well” – down on the old plantation and in the administration of a racially divisive president who misses no opportunity to show his contempt for people and nations of color. How perfectly appropriate then that on January 20, 2017, we would witness him grinning and off-clapping as the talented young musicians of the Great Thunder Marching Band paraded before him dancing to the tune of “Happy”. As opposed to more soul-filled expressions of creativity and joy, minstrelsy serves the aims of unjust power: specifically, to desecrate the stony roads of collective pain and sacrifice, and to affirm the normalcy and necessity of violence against human life and dignity.
Facing the rising sun
Of our new day begun . . .
Let us march on . . .
In a little noted passage of his famous Mountaintop sermon, Reverend King offered this uplifting proclamation:
“The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. But I know somehow that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
These words were spoken in April 1968. They are as apt and inspiring now as they were 50 years ago. They remind us that we have right, the resources, and the responsibility to hope. They remind us that we are all imperiled by the politics of injustice and domination – that we all have some capacity to bring healing and hope to our planet. My life path has provided me with tremendous privilege and opportunity; it has also led me through the heartbreak and soul-scarring violence of racialized injustice. Let me share three lessons I am learning about hope along the way.
First, hope is the work and the gift of community. Community has always been something of a fraught word for me. Hearing phrases like “black community” or “gay community” I would ask, “where it is” or “who is it”. (I confess: those were not really questions in search of an answer.) I like to think that I’ve since grown a bit: I know that clarity serves us all better than cynicism. Now, when I say community, I mean a group of differentiated allies – people who share a commitment to compassionate truth-telling, respectful conflict, and openness to transformation. In other words, community is that sacred space where all who enter are supported in a shared calling toward healing and growth. What makes this possible? Perhaps it’s what feminist scholar and activist Peggy McIntosh calls the “pluralistic self”. The “pluralistic self” blurs the categorical distinction between victim or oppressor. Any of us can be both at any given time. Hope grows with the acknowledgement that we stand in multiple truths of privilege and pain, of vulnerability and strength. I’m guessing that for most of us (and I know for myself), that it is far easier to embrace the strength in vulnerability than it is empathize with the pain of privilege. However, a hope-fostering community calls us to soften the edges on the images we use to declare those “other people” as less human than ourselves. Truths come alive when we have the courage to relinquish the stick-figure images we both present of ourselves and project onto others. Practicing hope means that we show up fully incarnated with our passions, uncertainties, and contradictions. It is hard work, which is precisely why we do it in community.
Second, we practice a spirituality of hope when we are willing to continually clarify our convictions: to courageously discern what we stand for, not just against. Absent a creative and positive motif undergirding our convictions, we come dangerously close to using our beliefs as barricade. That’s when the divisive Purity Codes show up. We’ve all seen them in groups that start with good intentions: those demands that people behave and think and look and dress and speak according to some fear-based orthodoxy, typically defined by whoever wields the currency of power (e.g. victimhood, money, history, or just a loud mouth). Hope-fostering communities are fearless, not foolhardy. Truths are neither weebly-wobbly and relativistic, nor are they tribalized. In other words, there are such things as facts and real questions. And those are used to further the aims of clarity and inclusive justice, not conquest and domination. Passionate convictions are continually clarified with the aim of creating a new day.
Third, hope is a whole brain, fully-embodied practice. Bring on the music, the laughter, and the celebration. A recent documentary about a Malawi prison band featured a singer (possibly a convicted murderer) who said that “when the singing starts, the walls disappear.” Prison is still reality, but when the guards and the inmates make music together, how they occupy the prison walls changes. Again, to quote Dr. Amy Banks, with music our imaginal and perceptual capabilities are changed. The boundaries between self and other begin to blur. (By the way, militaries have always known this. For what other reason would they drill soldiers to march in step, it not to prepare them for selfless sacrifice?) Like our forebears who marched across the Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma, we must deploy logic-driven strategies in our march toward justice and change. That logic, however, can carry us only so far. We also need to animate our spiritual energies, our sense of belonging to something greater than our own egos. Music, rhythmic movement, and synchronistic action activate creative vision. Creative expression liberates our desire for connection.
Likewise, hope needs humor. We must laugh. The Danish comedian and pianist Victor Borge is credited with the quote, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” What I have always relished about growing up in all black neighborhoods and all black public schools was our ability to extract humor through “linguistic reversals.” For example, a 300 pound, 6 feet tall truant officer was called Tiny. (I’m thinking only his parents remembered his real name). An ebony-hued classmate might likely be called “Snowball”. Yes, even though colorism was and is a thing throughout this nation, Snowball was term of endearment. This humor – the ability to laugh with, at, and among ourselves was not derisive nor defeatist. It was an expression of mutual respect for our shared humanity. My point is this: we can be serious about our work without becoming humorless ideologues who fear the complexities that emerge in relationship. Also this: without humor, we can succumb to the seductions of the ego that requires us to be “special” and separate from and better than the rest of humanity.
Let us march on…
To paraphrase former Czech president Vaclev Havel, hope makes no guarantee that “something will turn out well.” We persist because it makes sense to do so, no matter the immediate result. To embrace this understanding, we must know that hope is a practice, not a prize. It is not something we do for ourselves or by ourselves. As theologian Rita Nakashima Brock so eloquently puts it:
“We reenter this world as sacred space when we love life fiercely, and, in the name of love, protect the goodness of our intricate web of life in all its manifold forms. We recommit ourselves to this world as holy ground when we remember the fullness of life that is possible through our communities, our life-affirming rituals, and our love of beauty, of truth, of goodness.”
So, let us march on . . . Glory!