Wounded Knees

Forgiveness Ceremony

Forgiveness Ceremony at Standing Rock Casino (c) 2016 Josh Morgan/ Huffington Post

The poet in me can’t resist the significance of knees in this week’s episode of America: 400 Years of Racial and Ethnic Culture in Conflict.  First there is the gesture itself: kneeling.  This is what people do when they propose marriage, what they do when they surrender, it is a universally accepted gesture of homage.  It is also an image that is depicted of European colonizers when they landed on the shores of this continent, often being described as kneeling in Christian prayer.  When I read Eric Reid’s Op-Ed reflection on why he and Colin Kaepernick landed on this gesture and not something more dramatic like turning their backs, I’m reminded that, like the history of resisting racism in this country, there are many different layers to how it actually works and what it all means in real time.

The poetry continues when you consider the fact that so many people today associate the playing of the national anthem at sporting events with honoring the armed forces.  A colleague of mine reminded me the other day that no one ever asked if anyone minded this association (which saw a big boost post 9/11).  The national anthem isn’t explicitly a battle cry (it is based on a drinking song).  But looking at the origins of the practice of playing the anthem which was recorded as first happening during a WWI era baseball game, it is very easy to understand the association.  Just in case you forgot, until after the end of WWII, both baseball and the US Military were segregated specifically against blacks.  Anyone who tells you that sports, race and military service have nothing to do with each other, tell them to read a book.

A final (but certainly not the last) piece of poetry that resonates with me is anatomical.  When I think of kneeling and conflict in the United States, the first thing that comes to mind is Wounded Knee.  In Western US culture and history, we are aware of the name “Wounded Knee” because of the massacre that occurred at Wounded Knee Creek.  This slaughter of Indian people (including children) may have taken place nearly 130 years ago, but the battle is ongoing.  The Wounded Knee Massacre is considered by American historians as the last armed conflict between whites and Indian people.  But these historians forget about the resistance at Wounded Knee in 1973.  And of course one just needs to think back a short 12 months ago and remember that descendants of the same Lakota Sioux people who were targeted at Wounded Knee were the same people under threat and ultimately forced off of Standing Rock.

Anatomically, the knee is a pretty amazing joint.  It is designed to absorb the most incredible forces that our bodies sustain.  Its strength and suppleness is the key to evolutionary human survival, allowing for us to run fast, jump and climb.  The knee allows the human body to dance and to create shapes and movements.  It is an incredible juncture within the body.

And human beings have also learned to thrive without knees.  Paralysis, injury, amputation have always opened up different ways to comprehend human movement without the knee.  You don’t need knees (functional or otherwise) to have a beating heart or a brilliant brain.  Even the name of the creek “wounded knee” (Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála) honors a warrior who has lost use of this joint.

The knee can be used to great advantage by human beings.  It can allow us to reach heights that we cannot reach without it.  At the same time the knee is not essential to human life.  It can be immobilized, absent or even just wounded and we will still survive.  These are parallel lessons that people of color in the United States have demonstrated time and time again in the face of oppression.  Today’s battles are not new, the protests are not novel.  This is the perpetual state of things in a nation built on the obliteration of one people and the monetized subjugation of another.  The resilience of people of color in this country, with and without knees in the face of this status quo speaks to our permanence here and across the globe.

If you are flummoxed by the current state of affairs in this country, maybe you need to consider more deeply where your body can bend to have more leverage in the battle or how you can adapt without that joint altogether.  Some of us prove that both are possible every single day.

These Times

Some folks are in agony wondering
“What can we do and how should we feel ‘in these times’?”
Yet, while they’ve been busy
Creating ‘safe’ and ‘brave’ spaces
And learning about ‘diversity’
And pondering what it means to ‘dismantle’ racism in ‘these times’,
‘These times’ have been the entire context for Africans in “America”
‘These times’ have been the human history of rape
‘These times’ have been the ongoing Indian genocide.
Across the globe, right here at home, historical and modern, physical and social
‘These times’ are and have always been right now.
The only reason one could possibly see any of this as either new or shocking
Is because of  the highly evolved, totally unique United States Brand™ privilege.
It is not just a simplistic privilege of skin color
But the complex construction of an entire privilege culture
Based on race, fueled by fear, multiplied by greed
Locked in systems of opportunity, loaded in government
And fired down the barrel of a very specific social order
Laying waste to everyone in its sights.
The only way to truly deal with ‘these times’
Is to admit that ‘these times’ are business as usual
Face all the signs that say we have to start from scratch
And begin the experiment entirely anew.

Reid Kaepernick

Eric Reid, Colin Kaepernick, kneeling during the National Anthem (c) 2016 Marcio Jose Sanchez/ AP

Dreams Deferred

FullSizeRender

“America’s New Patriot” (c) 2001 Adam Dyer

The president of the United States has worked with the government over the last 7 months the same way he has run his businesses: with total impunity.  His basic assumption seems to be that he was elected to lord over the country, like the CEO of a private company with no accountability other than to the allegiances forged in blood or in a mafia-like system of “you scratch my back….”  In addition, he has taken the Mitch McConnell political agenda from 2009 which was built entirely on erasing Barack Obama and doubled down on its xenophobia, isolationism and flat out ignorance.  Add to this his own special megalomaniac fixation on self aggrandizement and you have what he has peddled as the formula to “make America great…again”.  He is proud to put “America First”, relinquishing the historic and noble aspiration of being a global leader in favor of holding tightly to what he alone defines as “ours” from his dangerously narrow and fearful world view.

But a President, isn’t supposed to lord.  Our government is not by and for one oversized compensatory ego.  The President of the United States is one relatively small part of a government system that, although flawed, has absolute checks and balances on each of its branches of power.  While this president is a petulant, ill qualified, temperamentally unsound neophyte, the current Congress, on the other hand, is grossly and somewhat sadistically negligent in enabling this bull in the china shop.  Congress must start to do their job.

But I am no politician.  I am a minister.  My job is all about how people make peace with the world around them. Some call it spirit, others call it God, and others have no name for it.  What is consistent however, is that in the work of ministry, we are asked over, and over again to reflect what we see and hear from people about their lived experiences.  This could be as they watch a loved one die, or as they look into someone’s eyes and declare that their life will be inextricably linked to theirs.  It could be questioning the path of a life, the loss of a job, or grasping the meaning of the words “cancer free”.  And we do this without judging someone’s politics, religious beliefs, race, gender or any other aspect of what makes them who they are other than first being human.

I have had the opportunity in my brief ministry so far to meet many undocumented migrants.  People from Mexico, Somalia, Ecuador, Ireland, Canada, etc.  I myself had the experience of flying under the immigration radar for an extended period, many years ago in England.  It was an uncomfortable feeling, but being black with an American accent and passport, I knew that ultimately I was in little danger and would probably be given the benefit of the doubt.  What is more, I had come to the UK on a lark and not because I was fleeing violence or starvation.  Going home would never be a bad or fatal thing.  The large proportion of people I have met in recent years however, have largely escaped situations that few of us who were born in the safety of the US would be able to survive.  They escaped violence and persecution, and even more, they managed to find a way to navigate the labyrinthine systems of work, taxes, housing, healthcare and transportation that even those of us born here find to be a burden.

The young people that I have met who have benefited directly from DACA are not criminals.  Indeed they are heroes.  From very early in life, they have been family translators, workers, emotional support and so much more.  These often very young people, have become the eyes and ears and windows into the world for their parents.  We call them “Dreamers” but I think we don’t appreciate the depth or breadth of that dream.  They were brought here not just for their own dreams, but for the dreams of their entire families, who knew that even if they (the parents) died in this journey into the unknown, the dreams in their children still had a chance.  This is what every parent wants for their child, to simply have a chance.

The ministerial reflection I want to offer on the cusp of the next chapter in DACA is this: the president is also a parent.  He is the parent of an eleven-year-old, who he has carried over the wall into the White House.  To our knowledge, the president’s son had no choice in his father’s decision to run for office.  The president has forever changed his child’s future.  He has opened his son up to a level of scrutiny and objectification that only other First Children could possibly understand.  Although there are certainly enormous gifts and privileges that come with being a wealthy First Child, there is equally enormous risk and it will forever impact how his son will be seen in the world.    Of course, the president’s son is no refugee or undocumented migrant, and I certainly don’t know or understand how the president sees his youngest child, but hopefully, this young person will thrive and grow and learn about love and compassion and humanity…as every child should be given the opportunity to do.  Imagine what a different outcome we could see for DACA, if the president, for just one moment, could muster up even a grain of real empathy to see himself alongside parents who simply want to give their children a chance instead of lording over them like a tyrant CEO.

Nightmares

I can’t imagine a worse nightmare
Than to go to sleep with hope one day
And wake up with none the next.
Emerging from the hole
Coming into the light,
Being coaxed out and told I will be safe
To live, to thrive, to grow
Only to have the fat cat pounce
And start playing with me
Like a toy mouse
Forgetting that I am actually alive.
Each swat of his giant paw
Wrenching my joints
And claws gouging my skin.
I fear now that when he smells the blood
He will come in for the kill
Not because he is hungry,
But simply because he can.
I was told to rest easy ‘til the morning
When I would be called into the light of day
My sleep was peaceful
My dreams were free
My future unburdened
Now I see
It was just setting the stage for the nightmare to continue
And a prelude to the end of me.

ALD