I’m ashamed of myself.
Much as I’ve critiqued it, I fell into the easy trap of wailing about anti-black racism while ignoring racism from blacks.
I must have been taking a mental break when Rev. Joseph Lowery made his oh-so famous rhyme during his inaugural benediction; I didn’t ‘hear’ it when he said it. But I’ve definitely read it repeatedly in the days since Obama’s inauguration and, while, I did pause over “and when white will embrace right” (that schtick is one of our oldest) I wasn’t bothered for more than a few seconds, certainly not enough to blog about it. That was wrong, especially on such a day. I didn’t bother to reflect on the mean-spirited divisiveness of that line until one of the best undiscovered writers I know (his emails are better than most fancy pants columnists in the MSM) sent out a heartbroken email. Maybe Lowery just wanted to get a laugh. I do a lot of public speaking. I get that. But, had I used the joke, I’d have added (after my laughs, of course) something like, “now, we can drop that last line”—in the spirit of reconciliation and healing, if nothing else.
John Schwade is a prison psychologist (meaning he daily administers to the largely black huddled masses warehoused in our beastly prisons) as well as spouse to a black woman and father to a lovely and brilliant biracial daughter. As he sat weeping Tuesday, watching the beautiful reality unfold before his eyes on TV and contemplating what it meant for his daughter, Lowery came on and—how else to say it—pissed in his face, just because he’s white.
I should have called Lowery out, but I couldn’t be bothered standing up for justice, however miniscule the scale. Though it wasn’t really miniscule, was it, on such a day?
So, I asked John to let me run his email to remind myself that Dr. King was talking to everyone, not just white folks.
Here’s his plea for justice:
I had planned to take my fifteen year old daughter to see Rev. Joseph Lowery at a local MLK service on Sunday. Lowery co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with MLK, and I thought she would benefit from hearing from someone who ‘was there’, as I’ve profited from hearing MLK’s daughter Bernice on two occasions.
But sometimes you get tired of being hated, and you certainly don’t want to expose your children to old prejudices.
Friday afternoon I caught the hate just for being a prison psychologist. After checking on the well-being of an inmate, from behind the safety of a steel door he shouted at me as I walked away, “Yo’ breath smell like a *sshole.”
It’s a prison. You have to have an answer. Mine was, “Why do you know so much about what *ssholes smell like?”
Momentarily stunned, the inmate recovered with, “‘Cause I smelled yo’ breaf!”
A tautology! I thought I’d heard everything in prison, but this was a first.
Saturday I did a modicum of research on Lowery’s recent utterances and decided to stay at home. It was a good call, judging by what he said in his “benediction” yesterday.
The “Rappin’ Rev” was ridiculous. Even Jon Stewart and the merry pranksters at The Daily Show jumped on it. The few black persons allowed to speak in public (yesterday the networks went back to Jesse and Al, as irrelevant as they are) are no longer required to speak in rhymes, if they ever were.
But that’s trivial compared to Lowery’s contradictions of Barack Obama’s inauguration speech and of Lowery’s own benediction.
Obama said, “We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.” Lowery followed that with, “We go now to walk together as children.”
Perhaps I quibble. Lowery is the man-o’-God, not me. But I can read. And I can find nothing that Jesus said his own self, or that his disciples wrote, justifying the prejudice inherent in this contradiction of his own words. After claiming, “We come in a spirit of unity and solidarity,” Lowery closed his benediction with a divisive rhyme.
Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around … when yellow will be mellow … when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.
I won’t say “Amen” to that—not once, not twice, not the three times Lowery demanded.
In Lowery’s version of “unity and solidarity” he singled out white people in asking his Lord to help us “embrace what is right.”
In early polls of black voters, Obama was far behind Hillary Clinton until the Iowa caucus, when the poster boys and poster girls of white devilishness—all midwestern, gun-owning, “rural” types—voted for Obama. If voting for Obama was “what is right” (I certainly hope so, for everyone’s sake), it seems whitey has already done that. Political analysts of all stripes acknowledge that Iowa was the turning point for Obama.
Referring to entire groups of people as if they were all alike, and in crude terms, was unseemly. Not every member of each group in his colorful racial taxonomy—the same categories used by the Virginia judge who upheld the miscegenation laws overturned by the US Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia—is either noble or ignoble.
(By the way, if it is racist to have an NFL team in the nation’s capitol with the name “Redskins,” it’s racist to refer to native Americans as “the red man,” even if it rhymes with “ahead, man.”)
Even in the bad old days, there were always white people who boldly spoke up and acted—gave their lives—to end slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination.
I have a book, published in 1905, that I found in the musty shelves of a used book store. “The Chief American Poets,” edited by Curtis Hidden Page, is replete with the abolitionist poetry of those now derided as “dead white men.” Their abolitionist poems were written and published at a time when a white person was allowed to sympathize with a black person—a slave—as a fellow human being. (Of course, it’s something I do every day behind the closed door of my prison office. But if I speak of this outside the prison, I’m likely to hear, “You ain’t black.”)
John Greenleaf Whittier, for example, was embracing what is right in 1838 when he published “The Farewell (of a Virginia slave mother to her daughters sold into southern bondage)”. Read it and weep. In “The Christian Slave,” published in 1843, Whittier attacked the religious hypocrisy “in that vile South Sodom,” where, according to his footnote, at “a slave auction at New Orleans… the auctioneer recommended the woman on the stand as ‘A GOOD CHRISTIAN’.”
Another dead white man, Walt Whitman, fought for abolition. He was a medic (called a “Wound Dresser” back then) in the Union Army. If anyone doubts what Whitman was fighting for, they need only read his letters to the next-of-kin of dead Union soldiers.
In “Song of Myself” Whitman recounted “The fall of grenades through the rent roof, the fan-shaped explosion / The whizz of limbs, heads, stone, wood, iron, high in the air.” He knew of the sacrifices made to end slavery.
In that same narrative poem Whitman wrote, “Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me.” These words remind me of what is so offensive about what Lowery said yesterday. It’s disrespectful to the dead, the generations that guided me—and Barack Obama.
I didn’t invent myself. My late father and (78-year-old) mother taught me to “embrace what is right, even though you’re white.” (Well, actually, they didn’t “spit” rhyme.) Of course, my parents didn’t invent themselves either. One relevant lesson that was passed down from the generations that guided my parents and then me was to judge every person as an individual. This isn’t a novel idea. Jesus his own self, in Scripture that Lowery might find an incovenient truth, said we should not judge by appearance.
Being alive and kicking, I can defend myself from the likes of Lowery. I can prove that even if I am a racist, I’m not very good at it.
But the assumption, especially when an old “civil rights icon” speaks, is that even if I can prove myself to be an inept racist, the icon is talking about the old days when, as the story is now told, every white person was in need of Divine intervention to make them do the right thing, and not the white thing. But it wasn’t true for my mother, my father, or those brave, noble dead white men and women (like Barack Obama’s mother) who can no longer speak for themselves.
I have heard Lowery and his ilk dismissed as “just living in the past,” but that doesn’t mitigate the offense. Indeed, my point is that they besmirch the reputations of those righteous white people who shared that past with them. I’ve also heard, “They aren’t talking about all white people,” but there were no qualifiers in Lowery’s benediction.
Lowery’s benediction does not portend an era of “The Big Payback” (James Brown, 1968). If the Obamas are racists, like me, they’re not very good at it.