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Friday, July 23, 2010

Prejudice Destroys Brain Cells

I'm remembering a line from the recent movie version of the John Water's play "Hairspray".

The character Motormouth Maybelle, played by Queen Latifah, says to an interracial couple,
"Well, love is a gift, a lot of people don't remember that. So, you two better brace yourselves for a whole lotta ugly comin' at you from a neverending parade of stupid."
Seems we've been witnessing that parade this week. And, it's been pretty ugly.

You know what I'm talking about, right?

Over the past few days and with breathtaking swiftness, Shirley Sherrod, age 62, who is Georgia director of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was smeared by right-wing media, condemned by the NAACP, and canned by the Obama administration.

Why? Well, she spoke at an NAACP meeting in Coffee County, Ga. You can watch her entire presentation and read the transcript here, but this is essentially what she said, as reported in a marvelous essay by none other than conservative star journalist, Peggy Noonan.
"Forty-five years before, to the day, her father's funeral was held. He had been murdered by a white man in Baker County, Ga. These were still the bad old days; lynchings had taken place in her lifetime. The man who murdered her father "was never punished," even though there were three eyewitnesses. The grand jury refused to indict.

All this was told not in a tone of rage or self-pity but of simple remembered sadness: "My father was a farmer, and growing up on the farm my dream was to get as far away from the farm and Baker County as I could get." She worked "picking cotton, picking cucumbers, shaking peanuts. . . . Doing all that work on the farm, it will make you get an education." She wanted to escape. "The older folks know what I'm talking about."

Go North, she thought. She'd seen black people return from vacations up North: "You know how they came back talking, and came back looking." The audience laughed. "I learned later some of those cars they drove home were rented." The audience laughed louder.

She was 17 when her father was killed, in 1965. After that, one night, a cross was burned on their lawn. Her mother had a gun, and black men from throughout the county came and surrounded the white men who surrounded the house. Shirley was terrified and hid in a back room, praying. That night something changed. "I made the decision that I would stay and work."

She wouldn't leave the South but change it. Here she addressed the youthful members of her audience: "Young people, I want you to know when you are true to what God wants you to do, the path just opens up, and things just come to you. God is good, I can tell you that."

But when she made her decision, "I was making that commitment to black people only." She didn't care about whites.

Almost a quarter-century ago, she was working for a farmers aid group when she was asked to help a couple named Roger and Eloise Spooner. They were losing their farm, and they were white.

Mr. Spooner made a poor impression. He "took a long time talking." She thought he was trying to establish a superior intelligence. "What he didn't know while he was talking all that time . . . was I was trying to decide just how much help I was gonna give him. I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland." So she did enough to meet her responsibilities, but no more. She took him to "a white lawyer," figuring "that his own kind will take care of him."

The lawyer took the farmer's money and, she said, did little else. She assumed things had been taken care of. But in May, 1987, Mr. Spooner received a foreclosure notice and he called her, frantic. His house was to be sold a week later on the courthouse steps, and no motion had been filed to stpo it.

They all met. The lawyer suggested the farmer retire. "I said, 'I can't believe you said that.'"

Indignant, she set herself to save the Spooners' farm. "That's when it was revealed to me that it's about poor versus those who have," not white versus black. "It opened my eyes." She worked the phones, reached out to those who could help, talked to more lawyers, called officials.

And she saved that farm.

"Working with him," said Ms. Sherrod, "made me see . . . that it's really about those who have versus those who don't." It's helping the frightened and powerless. "And they could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic."

She said that 45 years ago she couldn't say what she will say tonight: "I've come a long way. I knew that I couldn't live with hate, you know. As my mother has said to so many, 'If we had tried to live with hate in my heart, we probably be dead now.'" She said it was "sad" that the room was not "full of whites and blacks." She quoted Toni Morrison: We have to get to a point where "race exists but it doesn't matter."
Some folk, however, some good, red-blooded (and white skinned) Americans seem to work very hard keep racism alive.

Enter one Andrew Breitbart, conservative blogger, who took a two-minute soundbite from her 45 minute speech as prima facia evidence of her "racism".

He has staunchly defended his actions and his position, pointing to the fact that folks in the audience applauded the part where she explained her decision, 45 years ago after the murder of her father, to only help black people.

Breitbart is not the only member in the seemingly never-ending parade of stupid. The NAACP condemned her speech and the U.S. Agricultural Department panicked and fired her.

And then the Spooners stepped in. This time they saved her. Is Ms. Sherrod a racist, they were asked. "No way in the world," said Roger Spooner. "She stuck with us." Eloise: "She helped us, so we're helping her."

All of a sudden, people started to listen to her entire speech. Apologies began to flow - from the NAACP, the U.S. Agricultural Department and the Obama Administration. She was reportedly even offered another position in the U.S. Agricultural Department.

I hope she gets a promotion and a raise.

Not Mr. Breitbart, however. Of course. What is it that Forrest Gump's momma taught him? Oh, yes: "Stupid is as stupid does."

Rosetta E. Ross, associate professor of religious studies at Spelman College in Atlanta, writing in Religion Dispatches, says this is evidence of "Christianization."
Colonial use of Christianity—or “Christianization”—is the employment of “Christian” rhetoric and identification to construct meaning in social and political life. This has included establishing specific conceptions of citizenship, structures of education, social roles and behaviors that simultaneously develop and inscribe hetero-patriarchy, white supremacy, and racial subjugation in policies, practices, and the imagination.

Examining Christianization during the US antebellum era, religious historian Albert Raboteau says Christianity initially had a slow start among enslaved Africans in the United States because, among other reasons, enslavers feared a common baptism would signal social equality. To resolve the dilemma Christian missionaries declared that Christianity would help better fit black persons to enslavement.

Crafting a “Christian” argument that enabled the participation of enslaved Africans continued even after Emancipation as some black racial uplift workers, and white evangelical home missionaries, argued that Christianizing formerly enslaved persons was necessary in order to make them acceptable and respectable participants in civil society. Christianity (rather, Christianization) functioned in both instances as a mechanism to define or justify black humanity and participation within white civil society.
She writes, "The current cultural offensive launched through poisonous sound bites and blogs includes a subtext advocating a constricted, “Christianized” social morality that excludes racial, sexual, class, language, and even certain gender diversity."

All of these are, at least to me, part of the desperate, death-grasp of patriarchy as it makes its way to the grave. The social paradigm has shifted. Some would say it is being turned upside down.

As a result, there is a pervasive mood of anxiety and fear in this country that is as poisonous and toxic as the oil that has been gushing into the Gulf Coast.

Indeed, the Catastrophe in the Gulf (we have to stop saying 'Oil Spill') has become, for me, a metaphor for the toxicity that has been gushing into our culture, killing the delicate balance of the ecosystem of our societal environment.

Civility has been placed on the 'Endangered Species' list.

Common courtesy has gone the way of the Dodo Bird.

A way of life that was indigenous to these United States - the hallmark values of which include "liberty and justice for all" - is almost a fond memory.

It's times like these when some of what the Calvinist evangelicals have to say begins to make some sense and I worry that they may be right: Humans are wretched creatures. We are all slimy worms. Corruption is everywhere in the human enterprise.

We will never be fully forgiven for sins of Adam. But, they don't deny that Jesus came to save us "once, for all." The world is still all doom and gloom, sin and perdition - which they love to point out every chance they get - this being one of them.

It's moments like these when I want to holler at the top of my voice, "Yo! The gospel is not called 'good news' for nothing."

There is still time to save ourselves from ourselves. We know The Way. Our God is an abundant God and there is salvation and redemption aplenty if we begin to take a long, hard look at ourselves and commit ourselves to change and transformation.

As Ms. Motormouth Maybelle says, "Well, love is a gift, a lot of people don't remember that."

Jesus is Love Incarnate, Love Divine.  I think some 'good Christian folk" have forgotten that.

To quote Ms. Sherrod's experience of transformation,  "As my mother has said to so many, 'If we had tried to live with hate in my heart, we probably be dead now.'"

When we forget, the result is that we see "a whole lotta ugly comin' at you from a neverending parade of stupid."

Ms. Sherrod ended her speech to the NAACP with a quote: "Life is a grindstone, but whether it grinds us down or polishes us up depends on us.”

That's an important piece of wisdom for us to understand and embrace at this moment in our collective history to help us get to the point where we learn that "race exists, but it doesn't matter."


Muthah+ said...

Diane Rheme's show on NPR was devoted to this today. And the important point the panel made was how sound bite journalism has been used to polarize almost all issues in American life. It has been used by both sides. We see it all the time on Fox but Michael Moore has done much the same thing in his work.

American Christianity has done much the same thing with sound bite theology in sermons and proof texting. What does this say about how we are to preach and how we are to teach in the future? I am wondering if dialog homilies are not going to have to be the future of preaching.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You make some good points about 'soundbite theology' but I would hope that doesn't lead to 'dialogue homilies' as the norm. They have their place, of course, but I don't see that as the role of a sermon in liturgy.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful essay, Elizabeth. I will be referring a few people to it this weekend, and I hope the discover your terrific blog!
Lou Poulain
Sunnyvale CA

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Why thank you, Lou. Always good to meet a kindred spirit.

MarkBrunson said...

I'm glad people outside Georgia are seeing this.

My mother - hell, my brothers - can remember when the sort of thing she was talking about happened. I can remember older black folks stepping off the sidewalk into the street when I was walking down the sidewalk and my mother (saddened by it) told me that that used to be how things were - a white person wasn't required to share the sidewalk with a black person.

And she's absolutely right; the Klan was highly visible and made its name throught racism, but it was white, above all wealthy folks who made up its membership. There was poor white trash, but there was no wealthy white trash, no matter how trashily they acted. The plantation mentality held - and still holds in some places - making a plutocracy.