Jefferson’s Democracy

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Democracy before decency…
Jefferson’s greatest deed
Sealed in the American creed that
“All men are created equal”
Too often holds these truths to be self-evident:
That “men” exclusively means “male”
And “equal” is only painted from the palette of white skin
And being “created” is synonymous with
an individual right to material wealth.

Democracy before decency…
Jefferson’s “gradual abolition”
Evolved into the prolapse of civil rights
Where what is most basic became most rare
A moral inversion secured in place by law
An ethical hesitation justified by greed
An excuse later celebrated under the blazing lynching tree
Where assumptions of dominance
Were seared into the genetic memories
Of both the “dis” and the “en” franchised class.

Democracy before decency…
Jefferson’s assumptions are
Captured today in words that
Dribble off the lips of those
Who see “both sides” of racial hatred
And try to “defend” free speech and First Amendment rights
To maintain the same status quo that birthed the horrors of
Slavery, genocide, colonial sexual servitude
And the posture that denies its paternity to the progeny called
Holocaust.

Democracy before decency,
Pride before dignity,
Profit before prophetic,
“We” before “all”,
Process before people…
This is history repeating
And failing over and over
and over.

There is no democracy
If the truth of decency makes a mockery of humanity;
There is no democracy
When civil rights are based on moral wrongs;
There is no democracy
In free speech that secures the end of a noose;
There is no democracy that un-sees, un-hears…
That too easily forgets.
There is no democracy in rape.

Mr. Jefferson,
We have learned the hard way
That there can be no democracy
Without truly common human decency first.

– ALD

We Are Jazz

(Cambridge, MA) A month ago, I wrote a post that gave some reflection on the issues of race and diversity within the Unitarian Universalist Association (HERE). Since that time, UU Religious Educators have called on our churches to spend this week and next engaged in a UU White Supremacy Teach In.  This is an opportunity for us to deeply explore the real problems of race in our congregations, our denomination and hopefully in our nation.  On a day when the Trump administration has signed an executive order that masquerades as “liberty” but will allow religious entities to flagrantly discriminate against LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, women in general and anyone else they choose to class as “other”, I am reminded that marriage between white and non-white people was only made legal in my lifetime and some of the biggest defenders of that restriction were religious entities.  I am also in that same breath extremely proud of Unitarian Universalists stepping forward to fully own the painful complexity of race and ethnicity in this nation.

Last Sunday, April 30, I preached a sermon that I didn’t know I could preach.  It is blunt in its language about race and racism in the United States. It is not religious language per-se, but it is the language of passion and deeply spiritual belief that we cannot “fix” racism, until we actually and honestly recognize its horror.  May we find the strength as more and more horror is heaped on us, to continue to look at what we are faced with, continue to find strength in one another and continue to fight with every bone in our bodies to eradicate any force that attempts to play true liberty and justice for fools.  We are beings that are created of love and innovation.  We are jazz.

RECORDING AVAILABLE HERE

PDF of We Are Jazz, Sermon delivered at First Parish of Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist, April 30, 2017

(Please note: this printed version is a direct preaching manuscript and not a fully edited and corrected version fo publishing.  There are most likely a couple of typos and highlights that are for delivery purposes more than reading purposes, but there has been a great demand from people interested in reading this.)

– ALD

More

Tomorrow, 5 years of seminary and many more years of discernment will come to fruition for me as I find out where I will begin my journey as a Unitarian Universalist minister.  For all of us who have been in search this winter, this has been a time fraught with anxiety and punctuated by incredible affirmation of our abilities as well as painful reminders that we cannot be everything to everyone.  I am grateful to everyone who has been with me on this journey and particularly to the incredible congregations who were generous enough to explore the potential for building ministry together.  I am overwhelmed with their love.

And in the midst of this, Unitarian Universalism is in pain (Critics decry ‘white supremacy’/UU World – March 27, 2017).  Once again, we are being asked to look deeply at the self perpetuating patterns of white supremacy that continue to dog our efforts to be “multi-cultural”.  Even as I launch my nascent ministry, I cannot be silent on this issue; particularly as a black gay man.  We have stepped into a new time of consciousness in the United States and I believe the world, where we are being asked to show what we are truly made of.  I am proud to soon count myslef among dynamic and diverse Unitarian Universalist religious leaders and I believe in Unitarian Universalism, but not with an eye that only looks back.  Fixation with the past is the same crime of our government that speaks of “founding fathers” and “original framers” to fix the ongoing terrorism of black and brown bodies and the epidemic of violence against women and the catastrophic marginalization of human sexuality, differing abilities and mental perceptions.  I must see Unitarian Universalism looking forward.  We cannot be sentimentally bound to the tools and structures that have reinforced patriarchy and subtle (and not so subtle) racism.  We must listen, we must learn, we must be humble, we must do better. We can be more.

More

“Inherent worth and dignity” is not enough,
when “worth” is code for “white”
and dignity is spelled “m-a-l-e.”
This slippery intention
to name us all the same,
too often strides
into assumptions about perspective,
privilege, agency and pride.

“Inherent worth and dignity”
refuses religiosity, and will not bow in unison
or hold a single vision of the divine.
Yet while it mutters a refrain that tries to contain
the vast complexities of every human being
it seems to sound just like the same Western God.

Because “Inherent worth and dignity”
is the language of the colony
that doesn’t know the pain of slavery in its genes,
that ignores its culpability for Holocaust,
that continues to bastardize native people in ritual and song,
that strains against translation,
and always leaves women one step behind.

“Inherent worth and dignity”
Is carved from the dissonant language of white supremacy.
It resonates with paternal principles grown from privilege,
and rises as an onanistic declaration,
excited most by promises of self-righteous satisfaction.

Inherent for you
But abhorrent to her;
Worthy to me
But valueless to them;
Dignity to him
That erases xyr …

“Inherent worth and dignity” is not enough
In a language where the word nigger still sours every tongue.

We must have more.
We must have freedom
Unchained.
We must be seen
Unfiltered.
We must be heard
Un-silenced in a full-throated and triumphant cry.
We must have more than the language of the oppressor
for this dream of freedom to grow living wings
and finally take to the sky.

Slogan to the Right

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Lincoln Inauguration (incomplete Capitol) 1861

Four words that are
Not for all
Cast a pall
Build a wall
Straight and tall
Where only one side is right.

Four words that
Conjure an era
Make nostalgia dearer
Allay misplaced fear
Make it clear
There is only one way to be right.

These same four words
Erase black authority
Deny brown integrity
Evade gender autonomy
Remove migrant empathy
Define only one kind of right.

Four words,
one man,
300 million dreams,
An unending struggle to be “right”
That in the end will leave us all
Alone and afraid in a dark and starless night.

– ALD

Wherefore Art Thou?

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W.E.B. DuBois

In 1890 W.E.B. DuBois delivered a commencement address at Harvard[1] in which he tackled the issue of the impact that leadership has on society. He brilliantly foreshadows the work of Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (I and Thou – 1923). More importantly, his words ring ominously true today as we start 2017 in the United States. In the piece, he reflects on the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis:

I wish to consider not the man, but the type of civilization which his life represented: its foundation is the idea of the strong man—Individualism coupled with the rule of might

DuBois goes on to caution that:

The Strong Man and his mighty Right Arm has become the Strong Nation with its armies. Under whatever guise, however, a Jefferson Davis may appear as man, as race, or as nation, his life can only logically mean this: the advance of a part of the world at the expense of the whole; the overweening sense of the I, and the consequent forgetting of the Thou. It has thus happened, that advance in civilization has always been handicapped by shortsighted national selfishness.

Today, we are facing a New Year and a new government and sadly a new shortsightedness. The choice is stark: are we, as a society, a nation and individuals, going to be an isolated “I” or are we going to be partners in cultivating a world of “I-Thou”?

The incoming US Government administration has utilized a “post-truth”, bully posture to convince the American people that the schoolyard will be better for everyone as long as the chief punk is in charge. This has ushered in a new dark age in American idealism that finds its greatest motivation in fear…fear of exclusion from the club, fear of the other, fear of appearing weak, etc. It backs up a nouveau belligerence that has no grounding in facts or integrity. “Because I say so” has become the default bargaining phrase of the day and the “deals” that are already being struck are less about negotiation and more about coercion and self-aggrandizement. In this equation there is only “I”. The “I” of the “strong man” who only functions for himself* and the “I” of the minions responding to the source of their intimidation, each one trying to see a small part of the big bully/strong man reflected in themselves.

But there is also the dangerous “I” of apathetic immobilized malcontents who refuse to fight back because they believe the system will correct itself. These are the same people who in 1868 allowed Jefferson Davis and the rest of the Southern aggressors in the civil war to be pardoned “with restoration of all rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution and the laws which have been made in pursuance thereof.”[2] The result was Jefferson Davis and his “Strong Man” never being called to task for defending the institutionalized possession, abuse, rape and murder of other human beings in servitude. This laid the groundwork for the next 150 years of political apologists who still don’t understand why blacks don’t just “get over” slavery and the legacy of Jim Crow. The “I” of apathy does more damage because it is the “I” of retreat and acquiescence with the full knowledge that grave wrong is being committed. This is the same “I” that quickly defaults to assumptions of sameness as a rationale for inaction. It proudly proclaims on one hand that “All Lives Matter” and that it does not see race, but it refers to “the Hispanics” or “the gays” as if they are entirely different species. This is the “I” who will see you as long as they see themselves in you first.

But, I-Thou does not function based on sameness; it is not a filter. Instead, I-Thou is a manifestation of interconnectedness. I-Thou asks us to be in relationship regardless of our ability to agree. It says that there is no I without Thou. The great advantage here is the elimination of in-groups and out-groups and the true nourishment and safety of all. The challenge for us then today is to avoid being swept up in the wave of “Strong Man” individualism based on assumptions about how we are all the same and instead embrace the importance of being able to submit strength, individual or national to the benefit of all in celebration of our collective uniquenesses. In truth, the more the “Strong Man” abandons his relationship with “Thou”, he is not only weak, but an utter coward, afraid of his own human frailty and need. I cannot improve upon the words DuBois uses to drive home our greatest calling, particularly now at the dawn of an era that will challenge our most basic potential for interconnectedness:

What then is the change made in the conception of civilization, by adding to the idea of the Strong Man, that of the Submissive Man? It is this: The submission of the strength of the Strong to the advance of all—not in mere aimless sacrifice, but recognizing the fact that, “To no one type of mind is it given to discern the totality of Truth,[3]” that civilization cannot afford to lose the contribution of the very least of nations for its full development: that not only the assertion of the I, but also the submission to the Thou is the highest individualism.

Happy New Year!

– ALD

*I have intentionally retained the limited masculine language of “he/him/his” in this piece to reflect the original language used by both DuBois and Buber from which I have drawn my analysis.

[1] http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b196-i029

[2] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=72360

[3] New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, Volume 7, Issue: 3, March, 1890, 361-374

 

75 Years

b2fccd81-8508-45a1-b523-9482647e4895-983-00000647e60f3850_tmpAs a Black person,  I have my own cultural nightmares, yet every time I think of the era that descended on this country after December 7, 1941, I am physically ill.  A president like no other before or since, responded to attack with a rhetoric and acts based on unsubstantiated racialized fear, suppression and hatred aimed at innocent citizens.

75 years later, on the day that set those events in motion a man who has claimed the presidency based on racialized fear, suppression and hatred aimed at innocent citizens was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.

Apparently, America does not want to change.

Today I honor the men and women who lost their lives as civilians and as service members, and all of those who served during WWII before and after the United States entered that global conflict.  But most of all, I honor the Japanese Americans who suffered in this country…their country, under the tyranny of targeted oppression.  That period and our recent election both lay bare the perverse failing that still plagues this nation. Racism.

It’s Not About Race…

“It’s not about race” they say.
…my stomach turns
The sight of those self satisfied faces
Spinning politics on parade
…my heart burns
Not because they are white
But because they use the power of white
To turn me inside out always telling me,
“Its not about race”.
Yet race is always their final solution
To every problem or conflict.
It’s not about race…
It was a war between the states
It’s not about race…
It was about properly cultivating the land
It’s not about race…
It was about national security
It’s not about race…
It was about jobs and feeding families.
No, it’s never about race,
And its always about race.
So I rock in silence, too spent to weep
Too chilled to push back
Holding myself
Convulsing
From the poison I’ve been force fed
Over and over again
“It’s not about race”
It’s not about race
It’s not about race.

– ALD

Resist and Redefine

img_1026Below is a list of slaves held by Elijah Ratliff (1787 – 1865) in 1861. Among them is my great great grandfather Graham. I hold on to this history because my grandmother told me stories about him.  He is real for me.  This is also the farthest back I can go in my black family tree. Although I can link my “Dyer” family name directly to white settlers on the Mayflower and slave owners in the Caribbean, I cannot connect my maternal African roots to anything so lofty…an epic journey, a fledgling nation, kings or other empires or a specific region or tribe. Instead, the most concrete proof of my black ancestors involves me living as the legacy of this country’s deepest shame.

It is easy for the liberal consciousness to wrap its head and resources around the fact that the people at Standing Rock, the Sacred Stones Camp, Red Warrior Camp and the Oceti Sakowin Camp, are protecting water. Water is life.  Yet we cannot forget or ignore that they are also fighting for the right to remain connected to their past as well as their living heritage moving forward. Since the beginning of the organized European nation on this continent, the greed inherent in capitalism has fed itself on the erasure of non-white people’s ethnic history. This is an ongoing battle between culture and commerce. It is the real face of the American experiment.  It is wholly repugnant.

When I look at this list of names as property connected to my own family, I am reminded how sacred and powerful ancestral memory is and how often it has been the target of the American commercial machine. Tracing family trees has become big business and can be a thrilling way to learn history through a personal lens for some.  But for people of color in today’s America, these tenuous connections to ancestors and traditions are even more important.  They give a tangible context to the dominant culture’s relentless effort to deny us the status of basic humanity. Ancestral memory is in part what ignites our desire to resist and redefine.  Maybe this is what scares some people about “identity”.  If the American Indian and native people are any example, the fuel of cultural identity remains more viscous, volatile, alive and more permanent after 500 years of attack than anything that can ever be shaken loose from the ground…and it is already on fire.

Names taken from the will of Elijah Ratliff, Anson County, North Carolina, 1861

1. Big Ellick
2. Wesley
3. Laury
4. Graham
5. Bukugan
6. Anthony
7. Julyan
8. Dina
9. Lucy
10. Caroline
11. Wallis
12. Bone
13. Sallie
14. Washington
15. Tom
16. Harry
17. Martha-Jane
18. Bill
19. Johanna
20. Rose
21. Warren
22. Betty
23. Anna
24. Isaac
25. Mary
26. Anderson
27. Stephen
28. Harriett
29. Zacy
30. Willy
31. Silva
32. Anderson
33. Lize
34. Elbert
35. Tommy
36. Sass
37. Little Ellick
38. Ann
39. Frank
40. Peter
41. Stephen
42. John
43. Nealy
44. Nance
45. Sam
46. Hannah
47. Buck
48. Lane
49. Lewis
50. Luke
51. Abram
52. Henry
53. Jim
54. Peter
55. Peg
56. Robin
57. Jesse
58. Perry
59. Katherine
60. Peter
61. Jesse
62. Carolina
63. Reubin
64. Jacob
65. Jon
66. Tilla
67. Big Frank
68. Mary
69. Peter
70. Richmond
71. Poll
72. Alph
73. Jam
74. Riley
75. Alice
76. Riley
77. Ellen
78. Mary
79. Mike
80. Tempy
81. Molinda
82. Patience
83. King
84. Sam
85. Ellen
86. Ben
87. Sis
88. Riley
89. Harriett
90. (child)
91. Charity
92. (child)
93. George
94. Allen
95. Sarah
96. Vina
97. (child)
98. Isaac
99. Mitchell
100. Margaritt
101. Charles
102. Lisa
103. (child)
104. Vina
105. Ephraim
106. Matt
107. Frank
108. Harriett
109. (child)
110. Lizzie
111. Jane
112. Cindie
113. (child)
114. Emaline
115. Anderson
116. May
117. Jefferson