President Obama has been accused of shying away from the issue of race in America. Although I did not watch The View today; hopefully that topic was raised with him.
Well, we’re having a conversation about race – W.A.R. – and it continues today with one of my Facebook friends, Rev Dr Susan K Smith.
I will never forget when, as a child, I saw white mothers on television throwing things at a school bus that had little black children on it. Bussing was the bad word back then, and these mothers, I think in the South, were infuriated that their children would be “contaminated” by the presence of black children. It was a horrible feeling. I wondered what was so wrong with us, black people, that white people would hate us so much? And how come mothers were being mean to the children? That wasn’t my idea of what a mother was. I was so hurt and confused and disappointed.
Then I watched while white police officers put gnarling dogs out to attack black people who were demonstrating. It just didn’t seem right that these police officers were being so mean! Not all that long ago, we had had a police officer, who happened to be white, come to our school. The message to us was that police officers were good people, and they helped people who were in trouble. We were told that police officers were our friends. But what I saw on the television screen said something very different.
I was never the same after seeing these two sets of images on the television. My mother said that because we loved Jesus, we had to forgive them, so I didn’t descend into a cauldron of boiling bitterness, but I was sad and concerned. If God didn’t like black people, I wondered, then why had God made us?
When I was in college, I grew angry as I sat in classes and listened to white people talk about how “black people are.” In one particular sociology class, I remember asking, after one such diatribe, if that person had ever known a black person, and she said no. It was on that day that I began reading everything I could about us, about black people, and I grew angry again when some of the mainline bookstores didn’t even have books by black authors or about black people.
It was like I had a hunger for learning about us that I could not satiate. I started by reading W.E.B DuBois, “The Soul of Black Folk.” I read, again, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and I literally absorbed “Native Son.” I read about the Harlem Renaissance and all the amazing black people about whom we never heard in school. Much more recently, I read about how important was the work of African slaves in the building of our nation’s capitol building. Every time I look at that statue atop the US Capitol, I think of how our ancestors built this nation, and how too few people know it.
I am still on a mission. I write, every week in (or for) my church bulletin, “Lessons in African American History” because I have a need for the people, adults and children, to know we are as well as whose we are. It is as though I am obsessed. I cannot let this go. I cannot leave this earth without leaving something for the children to have, our children as well as others. Just this morning, I was thinking that I ought to codify what I’ve written (I’ve been doing it for years) and put it into a book that would be marketed to schools.
Literature can change hearts and minds. Good literature, I think, might make one angry but it also forces people to think. When people read, say, the trilogy by Taylor Branch on the life of Martin Luther King Jr and the amazing things black people did not all that long ago, they cannot help but be affected. I am reading “Wise Blood” by Flannery O’Connor and am amazed at how that book is telling me about how some white people deal and have dealt with racism. It is too important a subject not to write about. There need not be more arguing and sparring about racism. There needs to be learning about it, so that the tendency to deny its existence will be replaced by a hunger to eradicate it. I have seen white people break down and cry as I’ve done workshops on how racism grew and developed in this country; I have seen African Americans move from being ashamed of being black to wanting to know more about who they are.
I am the pastor of Advent United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio. I am a graduate of Occidental College and Yale Divinity School, and have authored four books. The latest, “Crazy Faith: Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives” earned a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly and was a finalist in a National Book Award competition.