We Build Our Temples For Tomorrow
June 24, 2020
The June 23, 1926 issue of the Nation magazine included a short essay by 25 year old Langston Hughes which became a defining document of the Harlem Renaissance. The essay was titled ““The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” and called for African American artists to create original work proudly embracing their own culture. Here’s the concluding paragraph:
“Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing the Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing ‘Water Boy,’ and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
(The portrait of Hughes is by Winold Reiss and hangs in the National Portrait Gallery)
Juneteenth and ‘No Acts to Repress…’
June 20, 2020
In observance of Juneteenth, I took some time to reflect on the eleven paragraphs of the Emancipation Proclamation. The words that seem to speak most directly to the current moment come very early in the document, as the last clause of that most important 101 word sentence that says that people held in slavery in states in rebellion against the United States shall, as of January 1, 1863 be “forever free.” That last part goes,”…and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”
Setting aside for the moment the obvious history of the federal government falling short in its pledged duty to “maintain the freedom” of those formerly enslaved, it’s the government’s duty now to begin to make amends by not repressing those who are currently reaching for freedom worthy of the name. Juneteenth is fundamentally about justice deferred. Let’s make it right.
Say Their Names
June 17, 2020
It’s the fifth anniversary of the racist killings at Denmark Vesey’s church, the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Say their names:
The Shame Is Ours
June 16, 2020
Mark Twain supported reparations for slavery!
All right, I’m overstating it a bit. But listen to the story of Warner T. McGuinn. McGuinn was one of the first African American law students at Yale. He met Twain at the train and introduced him when he spoke at Yale in 1885, less than a year after Huckleberry Finn was published.
The two men became friends, and Twain was concerned about how McGuinn was having to work three jobs to put himself through law school. So he wrote to the dean and asked to cover some of McGuinn’s costs. In the letter (which was found in a desk a few miles from New Haven after a 1985 estate sale), Twain wrote, ”I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask a benevolence of a stranger, but I do not feel so about the other color. We have ground the manhood out of them, and the shame is ours, not theirs; and we should pay for it.”
Relieved of financial worries, McGuinn graduated from Yale Law School at the top of his class in 1887. In 1892 he moved to Baltimore and opened a law practice. He was elected twice to the Baltimore City Council, was a director of the local NAACP, and in 1917 he scored a major legal triumph by overturning a Baltimore housing segregation ordinance.
But get this: McGuinn was an important mentor to an up-and-coming African American attorney named, wait for it… Thurgood Marshall! Marshall was arguably the most important attorney of the civil rights movement era, winning 29 of 32 cases he argued before the US Supreme Court, his monumental victory being Brown v. Board of Education. In 1967 he became the first African-American Supreme Court justice.
So always pay it forward. You just don’t know how acts of kindness and mutual aid will compound and what their ultimate effects will be. And please don’t take this as a “white savior” story. Twain was distraught at the sabotage of Reconstruction, and humbly and quietly did acts of individual justice to compensate for what he saw as the failure of his race and his country.
Hear him again, White people: “The shame is ours.” It still is.
“No Justice, No Peace,” and the House Next Door
June 12, 2020
For a while now I’ve been meaning to write a piece about the chance for a reimagined United States emerging from the current crisis. In the wake of so much suffering, as the disease painted the mirrors of our national self-image with blood, profound change began to seem possible; we only had to refuse to look away from the chilling evidence of who above all was being suffocated by COVID. Then a serial killer Minneapolis cop whose name we should forget (as soon as he’s convicted) murdered George Floyd, and the future changed course.
Now instead there’s serious talk and beginning actions in many places towards defunding or abolishing the police. The dizzyingly quick radical response grows directly out of past failed efforts to reform police forces and hold cops accountable, and years of concerted preparation on the part of activist groups. This is as it should be, and it’s promising. At the same time, I worry that the deep issues of how we structure our economy and healthcare system are getting buried again in favor of this other debate. The mainstream media is breathing a sigh of relief and helping to avert our eyes. The powers that be would prefer that neither discussion be had, but if they must choose they’d rather face the one about police violence.
That discussion is long overdue, and has to be followed through to its conclusion. And the courageous people who are in the hot seat pushing the change forward, like the nine Minneapolis city councilors, will need our support. I went on Council Chair Lisa Bender’s Facebook page and saw her initial statement on the need for “a systemic rethinking of our police department and of community safety in our city.” There were 796 comments, the vast majority ridicule and heckling from scared, angry White people, many from other places.
Honestly, White people need to mostly get out of the way. There are too many people who have been excluded from discussions about how to organize society for too long to let the same old voices water down the discussion or veto the most imaginative solutions. Now is definitely not the moment to Whitesplain to people of color why they need police to keep them safe. It is time for solidarity and support as those who have suffered the most over centuries take the lead in negotiating a transformation of public safety which, if done right, will take many different forms in many different cities, towns and hamlets.
A few nights ago, the evening of the day the Minneapolis City Council announced a veto-proof majority in favor of dismantling the city’s police department, a couple of friends and I social distanced around a fire over a beer, and ended up discussing what had led to this and what it could mean. One of my friends (all of us are White) sincerely couldn’t grasp that there are significant sectors of our population that would feel safer without a police force. I told him that I know many people of color who wouldn’t ever call the police because they fear the cops could mistake them or one of their loved ones as the problem and kill them. I searched for a metaphor that might be able to crystallize this idea. Then I hit on it.
“Imagine if you lived next door to an abandoned house,” I said, “An old firetrap that was bringing down property values, and not only that, that over the years neighborhood kids had gotten into the building and had injured themselves. If you were given the choice of leaving that structure in place or tearing it down and having something else put up in its place, you wouldn’t hesitate—you’d opt for the new construction, without even asking what it would be. Well, that’s how a lot of people of color feel about the police.”
There’s been a lot of death this year, and many of the lives haven’t been able to be properly grieved and celebrated. So there was probably a special tenderness on the hearts of many as we tuned in to George Floyd’s Houston funeral earlier this week. After all the soaring gospel songs and many other speakers, the Rev. Al Sharpton spoke powerfully about all the ways the knee had been on the neck of Black people in this land for 401 years. He talked about being told “N*****, go home” by a young white woman at a demonstration one time. Then he said this:
“I was here last Thursday and Ms. Carr (Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother) and I was headed back to the airport; I stopped near the police station, and as I was talking to a reporter, a young White girl, she didn’t look no older than 11 years old. She tugged my suit jacket and I looked around and I braced myself, and she looked at me and said, ‘No justice, no peace.’ It’s a different time.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about another funeral, the one in Chicago 65 years ago for Emmett Till, lynched in Mississippi at the age of fourteen. That his mother had the courage to give her mutilated boy an open casket funeral so that White America could see the awful result of racist evil ignited the moment and made it what Rev. Jesse Jackson called “the Big Bang of the civil rights movement.” Let this moment be like that one. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Mike Brown, Philando Castile, Cameron Tillman, and so many others have joined Emmett Till, and their blood calls out in a chorus for justice.
If those in power can’t hear it from the voice of the protesting multitudes, hear it from that solitary girl who tugged at Sharpton’s jacket:
“No justice, no peace.”
June 11, 1963
June 11, 2020
On June 11, 1963, Vivian Malone and James Hood successfully registered for classes at the University of Alabama, despite Governor George Wallace’s attempt to block them with his grandstanding “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.”
Wallace had famously said in his inaugural address earlier that year, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!'” Accompanying Malone and Hood as they enrolled were US Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and a three-car motorcade full of federal marshals, on hand to help put the lie to Wallace’s promise to defend integration to the end.
In a speech at the University of Alabama in 2000, five years before she died, Vivian Malone Jones told the new graduates of her alma mater, “You must always be ready to seize the moment.”
Another generation is taking her advice right now; may her spirit fill the sails of the current movement.
Surfing Toward the Sea of Sorrow
March 24, 2020
Lately I’ve been puzzling over the question of what nudges people toward identification with a broader swathe of humanity. I worked up a tellable story of my own “origin story” in this regard, which is summarized below.
One morning early last year, I drove my daughter to Concord to participate in a statehouse program. We parked on Main Street just before 8, and she went into Bagel Works while I visited the parking kiosk. When it printed out my receipt, I saw the date: March 24, the anniversary of the day when Oscar Romero was assassinated.
When I got inside and sat down with my coffee, I asked Fiona if I’d ever told her about Archbishop Romero. She didn’t think so. So I told her: how he had been a conservative priest aligned with the Salvadoran oligarchy but how, soon after he was made archbishop in 1977, his world was turned upside down by the death squad murder of a priest friend who was committed to the cause of the poor. I teared up and almost couldn’t continue as I told Fiona of his courage, how for three years he redeemed himself by making the church an agent for authentic justice, how he ordered the army over the radio airwaves “in the name of God, stop the repression,” and how he was gunned down while saying mass on this day in 1980.
Fiona was quiet, then asked “Daddy, what made you the way you are? I know you and Mommy did human rights work in Guatemala, but was there any one thing that changed you, like when Romero saw his friend lying dead?” So I told her a more personal story: “One April afternoon in 1989, I was standing on a dusty roadside south of Acapulco with a pack on my back and my thumb out, trying to get a ride to El Salvador where a friend was working for a labor union…”
I told her of catching a ride south with a couple of California surfers, getting a glimpse of the surfer hangout of La Libertad, less than an hour from San Salvador, and then spending two weeks among the people of FENASTRAS, the National Federation of Salvadoran Workers, during the lead-up to and aftermath of a big May Day march against the regime. And of spending hours talking in the comedor of the union hall, just inside the big entrance metal door, where two women were constantly making pupusas for working people who came and went all day to eat and talk politics.
When I got home, I took a job at a bakery in Troy, NH. I slept at my girlfriend Ann’s place two or three nights a week and camped in a cemetery the rest of the time. Life was good and the war in El Salvador seemed very far away.
One afternoon, Ann and I closed the bakery and stopped in the grocery store next door before heading to her house. As Ann went to get a gallon of milk, I scanned the headlines in the Globe. One on page six stopped me cold: “Ten Die in Salvadoran Labor Union Bombing.” With my heart in my mouth, I read the lead. It was FENASTRAS.
The bomb had been timed to go off during lunch hour. It was placed just outside the door, so the first to die were the women who made the pupusas. One of my new friends was scalped by a flying shard of metal, but he lived. The men seated on either side of him were decapitated. As I read the article, Ann returned from the cooler, saw my face, set down the milk, and gathered me into her arms, and I fell headlong into a sea of human sorrow of which I had only been dimly aware before.
When I finished, Fiona really didn’t know what to say. But the truth is that she didn’t need to-she’d already had the last word. She is the last word. Because ten years after those events I’d related to her took place, a week short of the 10th anniversary of the FENASTRAS bombing, when I was just about able to talk about it without choking up, six months before we came to World Fellowship, Fiona was born in the little apartment Andrea and I were renting in Keene, and my heart busted open again. As I held her for the first time, I was awash in the unfathomable love common to most new parents. But mixed with it was the feeling of a potential for depths of loss and grief I had never before imagined; I felt soaked again in that salty sea of human sorrow, and in the grip of a new kind of solidarity with all those who have suffered loss.
That’s not a feeling you can stay submerged in all the time, but on my best days I get a splash of it. Sometimes all it takes is the date on a parking receipt.
October Update from the Directors
October 31, 2019
The other night we (Andy and Andrea) had a visit from WFC friends. After small talk about successive storm systems and declining foliage, we slid into some deep conversations about the electoral season, the climate crisis, the personal and political choices we are called to consider, as well as ruminations on the 1913 Calumet, Michigan labor massacre. Things familiar, scary, and that require change.
We found ourselves marveling at the ease with which we delve deep so quickly with like-minded people who are open to wondering… From there we imagined the countless conversations that happen at WFC all summer long as people revel in and continue building a common culture. It’s probably one of the most important roles WFC plays–along with the related one of letting children see that their parents aren’t freaks!
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait until summer to come together. We are planning some events and invite you to create WFC gatherings. We want to be part of bringing people together all year ’round. As you probably know, there is a transition process to hire new staff leadership, and we’d love to fill you in and hear your thoughts.
In the meantime, if you’re anywhere near western Massachusetts, we’re planning a WFC Potluck and Fun Night for Friday evening, November 15, at Rocky Hill Cohousing, 100 Black Birch Trail, in Florence, MA (near Northampton). We’d love to see you!
Also, we’ll be having an event in New York City Saturday, April 25, to mingle, update you, and dream together about our organization’s future…
We’ll keep you updated as other dates come up, and as progress continues in preparation for a new director and summer staff search. And please let us know if you’d like info on hosting an event by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.