I was raised in the black church but wouldn’t call myself religious. I start my Sunday mornings, however, by tuning into Krista Tippett, producer and host of On Being on NPR. Last Sunday’s interview (8/20) was with civil rights icon Ruby Sales, who talked about the need for a public theology suited to our trying times. I’ve listened to the interview three times now. Her ideas (which she describes as a combination of hindsight, insight and foresight) and her humanity (which oozed through the airwaves) have given me more to work with than all of the commentaries I’ve read or listened to since Charlottesville. The fact that the interview was done in 2016 underscores the need to both forcefully condemn the acts of hatred and violence that were orchestrated in Charlottesville by white supremacists, white nationalists and Neo-Nazis and forcefully call for bolder solutions than mothballing civil war statues. As Patrice Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, reminds us, “You can’t policy racism away. We no longer have Jim Crow laws, but we still have Jim Crow hate.”
The title of the Sales’ interview is Where does it Hurt? This is the question that Sales asked a young woman she encountered during the civil rights movement. The outpouring that it solicited caused Sales to rethink her analysis of both the problems and the solutions advanced by the movement.
I’ve pulled out four themes from the interview that have shaped my thinking over the past few weeks as I personally searched for a way to create space for deep conversations with our staff about how we find ways to make sure our values are clear and our work matters when we respond not only to Charlottesville but to the affronts and abuses to justice still to come. One way forward may be to couple “Where does it hurt?” (a deeply personal question) with “Why does it hurt?” (a difficult societal question that pushes us to discuss historic and current root causes).
I’ve begun sharing my takeaways from this powerful interview with team members at the Forum but was encouraged to share them more broadly even as our internal team dialogue evolves. Read on if you want, but my pull-quotes from Sales’ interview are no substitute for the real thing. Find an hour. Pick a quiet place to reflect. Yes, there is a transcript. But Sales’ cadence and breathing are almost as healing as her thoughts. Close your eyes. Listen deeply. Act from your hearts.
Theme One. Address the pain that comes with fresh learning that increasingly few lives matter, including white lives.
Sales.…. … What do you say to someone who has been told that their whole essence is whiteness and power and domination? And when that no longer exists, then they feel as if they are dying…. Where is the theology that redefines to them what it means to be fully human? … as a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were. How [can] we develop a theology or theologies in a 21st-century capitalist technocracy where only a few lives matter?
As a black person, I want this too. I don’t want to debate the statement that black lives don’t matter in this country. This is a historic fact. But I don’t want to ignore the fact that the privileges historically associated with whiteness have eroded dramatically. White middle and working class people are under assault. But if Sales’ analysis is right it’s not the loss of economic security that’s causing the hurt. It is the erosion of the publicly understood if not openly stated assumption that whiteness is the ultimate differentiator. This is the loss that is fueling the stark and increasingly violent public assertions that whiteness matters.
Ruby’s second theme helped me understand why our country needs a new public theology – a new values frame – to heal the pain white people are feeling.
Theme Two. Knowing that black lives didn’t matter to whites, slaves created a theology to make sure their children knew their lives mattered within a community fueled by love of all people.
Sales: I was bred on black folk religion. It was a religion that combined the ideals of American democracy with a theological sense of justice. It was a religion that said that people who were considered property and disposable were essential in the eyes of God and even essential in a democracy, although we were enslaved. … And it also taught us something serene about love. “I love everybody. I love everybody. I love everybody in my heart.” And so hate was not anything in our vocabulary.
I was bred on black folk religion too. My mother taught me to be black, but not bigoted. She taught me to stand up to injustice, but not to expect it. I learned from her how to take a stand when injustice was done. And I learned that people who take a stand only when the injustice is done to them are suspect. Listening to Sales was like listening to my mom, who died in 2000. Sales reminded me why I always try to lead with understanding, not hate. Why, even as I distanced myself from the black church, I was still deeply guided by a set of beliefs that I have brought into my life’s work. That helped. But Sales went on to boldly state something that I believe is fundamentally true:
.. the kind of resistance movements that came out of black folk religion have saved America from tilting over into the abyss of fascism. It has been the salvation of a country… to talk about God as a liberating God, has really been an important stopgap to save America from itself. … Martin Luther King should not be seen as the black church. He came out of black folk religion and was part of the Southern Freedom Movement. It wasn’t as much black preachers as it was black congregations …ordinary black people in the South…. [that] forced the church to allow mass meetings….
When asked where she sees black folk religion most alive today, Sales responded that it is present in some parts of Black Lives Matter, but also present in movements that assert humanity such as the LGBTQ movement.
Even talking about economic equality is a form of black folk religion.
The third theme from Ruby’s conversation sharpened the distinction between movements that connect to this core theology of love and those that don’t.
Theme Three. Acknowledge outrage and anger, but be clear: There are two kinds of anger and only one co-exists with love.
…love is not antithetical to being outraged. Let’s be very clear about that. And love is not antithetical to anger. There are two kinds of anger. There’s redemptive anger, and there’s non-redemptive anger.
… redemptive anger is the anger that moves you to transformation and human up-building. Non-redemptive anger is the anger that white supremacy roots itself in. So we have to make a distinction.
… most people begin their conversation with “I hate this” — but they never talk about what it is they love. And so I think that we have to begin to have a conversation that incorporates a vision of love with a vision of outrage.
Non-redemptive anger is the anger that white supremacy, Neo-Nazism and the Alt-Right actively foster. These groups are organized to devalue other people in contrast to the anti-fascists who organized in opposition to the exclusionary ideology. There is no moral equivalence. We have to make this clear as we speak out against the use of violence by both the Alt-Right and the antifa. We have to demonstrate that outrage must combine with optimism, anger with affirmation, criticism with love.
Theme Four. Cloak our children with love. Equip them to withstand and stand up to hate.
I saved this theme for last. But this is the analysis from Sales that made me cry, and, in the end, the analysis that will help me and, I hope, my organization chart a bolder path forward:
…part of what happened after post-Civil Rights Southern Freedom Movement is that people thought that what the movement had been about was jobs, position, status when, in fact, it had not been about that at all.
… when King talked about the mountain top, he was talking about a higher level of consciousness. He was talking about a movement where we harmonized the “I” with the “we” …and so with that misunderstanding where the movement became materialized… we all left our homes, never to look back. .. And in doing that, we left the black community unguarded…. the mission became integration… generations of young African American children were pushed to achieve this mission, and we sent them into places that were unsafe, where they were humiliated and their egos were decimated in structures. As Toni Morrison said, “Out there, they don’t love our children.”
My sister was in the first class to integrate Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C. I know that she came back to a black community that helped her heal and told her she had value. I don’t know most of the stories of the pain I’m sure she endured. I need to ask her. She’s 75. I’m 65. I rode the high tide of integration. My community was still black and strong. My schools and classes were integrated with excellent and diverse teaching staff. I went to Oberlin College, a stop on the Underground Railroad. I was met with curiosity, but not hate. I married a white man. I have a gay son. We raised our children in a community that is not only integrated but overtly accepting. Our children have been met with curiosity, but not hate. We were lucky. But my grandson was born within a few weeks and a few miles from Ferguson where Michael Brown was shot. None of us can count on luck anymore. It’s time for strategy. We need all of our children to feel safe and loved everywhere.
Harmonizing the “I” and the “we” requires calling out the “they.” “They” are not just the Alt-Right. “They” are any of us who don’t acknowledge that injustice is baked into the foundation of this country. Any of us who don’t acknowledge that the injustices associated with race, gender, sexuality, religion or country of origin all stem from the same root cause even if the lengths and depths of the injustices vary. They are more than whites. “They” are black elders who sent generations out without protection nor safe havens to return to. “They” are black professionals (like me) who believe they are safe from injustice and don’t speak out as much as they should when they see it or who lower their expectations for students based on their zip code.
I don’t want to be a part of “they” anymore. I want to operate more publicly with civility, with courage and with character. My life’s work has been focused on challenging adults to change the odds for children and youth for whom neither readiness nor equity are guaranteed. But the secondary theme of my work and my organization has been empowering youth to change the odds by being leaders in their communities. It’s time to bring that theme back to the forefront. Our children – all of our children – are on the frontlines, facing and fighting injustices – large and small. They need strong skills, strong self-identities. They need to come home to strong communities.
Our country’s fragile value system has been weakened because too many adults, myself included, have been either complacent or complicit, letting hate gain the upper hand again. But children are not bigots or bystanders until we teach them to be.
So the Forum for Youth Investment will redouble our efforts to help our young people build the skills needed to make a difference: empathy, emotion management, problem-solving, responsibility and initiative. We will work to ensure they have safe places to explore the emotions and decisions that contribute to our complicated history regardless of the role their ancestors played in that history. We will push adults – from parents to policymakers – to acknowledge and apologize for the fact that for some, this history has left them insecure, angry and raw. We will encourage them to take time to build trust. We will provide youth with opportunities to directly hold adults and other youth to be accountable for being the people they need us to be.
I will do this as the CEO of the Forum because I can. I will do this as a child of black folk religion because I must.