Not Over…

imageWhen Bree Newsome scaled to the top of the flagpole outside of the State Capitol of South Carolina (with the help of James Tyson) she did what many black and white Southerners alike had dreamed about for a long time. She simply and with respect, took down the Confederate battle flag. This particular flag was put in place as a direct protest to the Civil Rights Movement back in the 1960’s and there has been a great deal of debate about it ever since. A particularly interesting debate occurred some 3000 miles away last week in my current city of San Diego when Dwayne Crenshaw of RISE San Diego was interviewed by Allen Denton of KUSI about the Confederate flag. I encourage you to watch this entire piece (KUSI Confederate Flag.) Besides the nervous vocal ticks of Allen Denton when he is with Mr. Crenshaw and the interviewer’s not so subtle bias toward the more academic approach of Trevore Humphrey of the San Diego History Center, the most telling moment is when Crenshaw skillfully reminds Denton that yes the Civil War was about economics…the economics of slavery; and yes, the Civil War was about states rights…the right to own slaves. He drives home the central point of everyone who ever objected to the public display of this flag from 1960 to Bree Newsome, to this weekend when the flag finally officially came down: there is no escaping the connection of the “Stars and Bars” with slavery in the United States.

But this leaves us with a very large and challenging vacuum. Suddenly, a symbol that has been adopted by millions of people in the South as a signifier of Southern culture, history, pride, etc., regardless of its direct symbolism of the racial polarization of our nation, has been legally and democratically removed signaling what will probably be a trend of its removal by other governments and agencies. Already retailers have removed it and are refusing to sell it. This is the Paula Deen fiasco on a much larger historical and cultural scale.  The days of the even tenuous political correctness of the Confederate Flag are over.  What is a Southerner to do in its absence?

I don’t have an answer to that. I was recently involved in a brief Facebook exchange with some black colleagues who spoke of something that we almost all share. We have researched our family history using a number of online tools that are available today and everything is fine until we try to go back before 1865. There are no records of our families or our people or our history prior to 1865. Actually, that’s not true, there are records “Negro/Male/24; Negro/Female/7; Negro/Male/ 50…” They are as anonymous as parts of machinery, for that is all they amounted to for the people keeping records of human life in the United States south prior to 1865. My and my friends histories, were ignored and deleted while our ancestors were slaves. I believe that this is part of the reason we have the kinds of struggles of belonging that we have today among many blacks. We can’t point to our people who facilitated the lives and wealth of our “founding fathers.” We can’t name the nursemaid that cared for the slaveholding elite that drove industry in early 19th century America. We have systematically been written out of the history of the United States prior to 1865.

So, I don’t have an answer to how or what form or why Southern pride will be reborn once the Confederate Flag is uniformly relegated to history books and museums. I do, however, know that Southern pride is very real and a valuable part of what makes the United States what it is. My earnest and sincere hope is that the people of the South are able to find the part of Southern heritage that they can celebrate that doesn’t celebrate the denial of my heritage as a black person.

Huffington Post: South Carolina Confederate Flag Comes Down

Waiting for a Bus While Black

whec_student_arrest_131202a-615x345The title says it all.  I am following the development of this story and eager to see faith communities like First Unitarian of Rochester, mobilize on this.  Please read this and spread it around.  Then have a look at the PDF I’m attaching that lays out a few ‘slave’ rules from Manhattan in the 16 – 19th centuries.  Little seems to have changed.

Three Black Students Waiting for Bus Arrested…

Laws_Affecting_Blacks_in_Manhattan

We have just begun the season of Advent in the Christian church.  We are coming to the end of Hanukkah.  We have just had Thanksgiving.  In each of these celebrations is a very deep sense of both anticipation and longing for wholeness and peace.  Let’s fix this.

– Adam

Body

adam_2In the Fall of 2003 I was asked to be a model for P90X.  It is now the world’s best selling workout DVD.  If you’re unfamiliar with it, there’s a link at the bottom of this page.  At that time, I was in the midst of a grand personal experiment.  I had come to Los Angeles at the end of a national tour determined to be “LA Adam.”  When I started the experiment, I wasn’t actually sure what that meant.  But I knew one thing for sure, it involved having what I called the “LA Body.”  This was a body that would always be camera ready, shaved, sculpted and looking 10 – 15 years younger than it actually was.  Prior to the LA body, I had lived with people commenting on my body as a dancer, for its shape and definition and flexibility; sometimes, welcome, sometimes not.  The most disturbing and regular comment on my body was “you black guys, never have to work out” or “you all look like that” or “dark skin always makes someone look better” or some variation on that theme.  I will happily admit that my parents gave me some good clay to work with, but it was up to me as to what I did with that clay. The idea that my body simply appeared the way it did is naive to say the least.  I started exercising when I was about ten or eleven.  I secretly did hours of ballet exercises in my basement throughout high school.  My freshman year of college, I spent more time in a dance studio than I did in class and then throughout the rest of college, the gym was my refuge from feeling like an outsider.  This past year is the longest I’ve gone in 30 years without a gym membership or regular access to an exercise facility of some kind…only because I spend so much time blogging…but I still, run, do pushups and situps and ride my bike to work.  Yeah, my body just happens because I’m black!

Black men and women have been objectified since day one in America.  Being paraded, proded and peddled as livestock meant we had to have strong bones and teeth, good backs and healthy genitals for breeding.  Stories of auction block antics surrounding the treatment of slaves would disgust most of you so I will let you explore that on your own (see links below.)  But it is that same history that expects us to be good athletes and day laborers and not necessarily bookish and un-athletic.  It is the same history that is behind racial profiling and is history that sits behind the assumptions about Trayvon Martin’s physical ability to inflict harm on George Zimmerman. Black women who are called “Brown Sugar”, black men who are called “Mandingo”…these and the dumb jock mentality are gross assumptions and the worst kind of stereotypes because the black community has frequently adopted them as well.  Blacks have played into a self objectification that makes us out to be nothing more than collection of wildly exaggerated body parts.

It has been a very dicey business for me personally to separate just what is the perverse racially motivated fascination with black bodies in America and what is the perverse fascination with sexuality in America in general.  Living at those crossroads is at times unbearable.  How do you know if someone is going out with you because they like you or because they want to sleep with the ‘P90X Ab Guy’ or because they are expecting nothing short of a sexual freak when they get in your pants?  Or how do you know if that same fascination isn’t just part of the whole “body=sex” equation here in the US?

Simply, you don’t.

I’d love to see us change the dialogue about how we not only talk about black bodies, but how we talk about ALL bodies.  Objectification, racialization, gendering…these are all aggressions we throw at each other, sometimes all too casually.  This fall I will be teaching a course at the Starr King School for the Ministry, In Your Hands: The Language, Ethics and Spirituality of Touch.  My hope is that in this class I can lay the groundwork for changing the game.  When I think of racially motivated violence, both physical and verbal, it is very clear to me that people are only capable of doing these things if they have never been intimate (in the platonic sense) with someone who looks different than they do.  I also believe that faith community leaders have a unique power to introduce a new language of touch.  The crimes of the Catholic church in abusing this power, show just how much power really exists in the ability to influence how someone sees their body.  Repulsively, this power was used by certain members of the Catholic church to horrific ends.  If we only punish them, no matter how severely, they have still won.  We must make a concerted effort to not only make sure those crimes don’t happen again, but to establish a new way to communicate through touch.  The answer is not to eliminate touch…that is inhuman.  The answer is in exploring the deeper meaning of touch as it relates to our physical identity, sense of physical well being and creating a language of liberated body justice where we can not only touch one another, but we can enjoy what that means, without fear or threat.  Imagine a room full of gang members (of any race), or people who hate one another, or total strangers, who are put in a room and simply asked to hold hands…no words.  The potential is tremendous, if we do the tough work…exploring our fears about touch, bodies and physical intimacies.  Faith communities have been vilified in terms of how they view the body and how they use the body.  If faith communities and spiritual people can lead the way to reclaim touch and body awareness, we literally can change the world.

P90X

Starr King School for the Ministry Course Descriptions (mine is at the bottom)

Slave Auction History 1

Slave Auction History 2

Slave Auction History 3

Slave Auction History 4

Colonial Fool Part II: Let My People Go

“Have they ever hung from trees?” … “Were they ever slaves for 500 years, then I don’t think so. I don’t think [the issues are] equal … Simple as that.” – Rep. Monique Davis

[Rep. Jehan] Gordon-Booth said [same sex marriage] has “really taken a toll” on her and she will keep her religious background in mind when she takes a position. “I’m a Christian before I’m a black woman before I’m a Democrat,” she said. “Before all of that, I’m a Christian.“I have to live with what I do or don’t do. And so it’s a vote I have to take that I can be comfortable with the rest of my life. This is history.” – The Chicago Sun

“Today our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has won!” [Bishop Larry] Trotter wrote. “Pastor James Meeks, Bishop Lance Davis and I are so proud of the God fearing Black Caucus members who withstood the pressure of the LGBT forces and allowed God’s word concerning marriage to remain between one man and one woman in Illinois.” – Chicago Tribune

What the f**k?!

I have spent the last couple of weeks diving into research on what I consider to be the primary issue facing America today: Colonialism.  We are still living in a society that is defined by the conquest of a privileged ruling class where people who aren’t part of that ruling class are either enslaved by their position in society or they are systematically and deliberately eliminated.  This isn’t just about black and white, because America is much more than that at this point, although, it still very much has those shades; this is about cultural power and perceived wealth and concepts of everything from self esteem to personal identity…and yes, freedom.  Sadly, by the statements above by certain black leaders in the Illinois battle over same sex marriage, we once again see how the echo of colonialism, like the waves from a far off storm, have come ashore, yet again.

I love the depth of faith that some people in the black community share.  The commitment to a life lived in community and equality and to a life that is not just about what we ‘have’ but who we are.  In fact I applaud anyone who lives by what they believe, and I will not ask them to change their beliefs.  But a belief is just that; it is not a rule of fact for anyone other than the person who holds that belief.  We cannot experience life in other people’s beings; we cannot tell one another what is ‘truth’.  This is the most difficult part of being human…co-existing.  So when I read statements like those above I have to ask myself “what went wrong?”

Back when slavery was introduced in the Americas (1500’s) the first people bringing slaves to this country (Spanish) were overthrown by their captives. There is a long history of slave rebellion that gets very little airing.  We seem to be sadly content to think that captive Africans were docile and subdued relatively easily by the slave traders…but that’s another blog altogether.  On the contrary, slaves and indentured servants were not easily subdued by any  means.  There were three primary tools used to keep slaves enslaved.  First, it took the physical threat of guns and shackles to “keep them in line” although that didn’t always work.  Countless people died attempting to escape slavery.  This was a constant problem for slave masters and one look at the history of the Constitution of the United States makes it very clear just how big a deal this issue was/is.  The Constitution is the second tool.  The system of “government” that created this great land both embraced and promoted slavery and the classification of slaves as not holding full personhood rights.  This is most notably evident in language of the “Three Fifths Compromise.”

But one tool was more effective than the gun in making space for slavery to continue as long as it did: Christianity.  Christianity was forced on the slaves as much as the shackles and the unwanted advances of horny slave masters.  Slave masters, who were first reluctant to let slaves engage in worship, found that by imposing the Christian religion on them, they could in essence control their minds.  But being far more intelligent than they were given credit for, slaves learned to use Christian worship as a tool for communication, and sustaining themselves as a community.  The black church today owes its continued success entirely to the ability of early Africans in this country having the ability take poison and turn it into a poultice.  But that doesn’t change the fact that Christianity, for all of the good it does some people in the black community today, was unwillingly forced on the slaves.

But we are not living in the 1600’s.  We are not fighting the battles of oppression the same ways.  Specifically for black Americans today, the shackles are frequently financial and the guns we fear are those we turn on ourselves; and sadly the Christianity of the black church serves, in this case, to divide us more than bring us together.  In a twisted way, we have learned to do the work of the slave master to ourselves.  I think the three statements that begin this post exemplify ways in which the black community has turned the tools of colonial oppression on itself and is sinking fast.

Guns – Rep. Monique Davis sounds like a child who is using words she doesn’t understand.  If she doesn’t know or remember that Matthew Shepherd existed, that gays and lesbians have been beaten to death in this country this year, that trans-women are shot at point blank range for no reason, that the Holocaust targeted gays, that laws still exist worldwide that support murdering people for having sex with the same sex, then she probably doesn’t know about how well she fits the model of black people that D.W. Griffith portrayed in Birth of a Nation.  Ignorance like this kills.

Government – Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth doesn’t understand separation of church and state.  Truth be told, I’m not one to really make a big stink about this particular argument because I don’t think we can actually claim that there ever was or will be a truly secular system of government in America unless we chuck all of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and all of our legal procedures and our monetary system that use Abrahamic language, symbology and ethics.  However, If Rep. Gordon-Booth heard someone in the Middle East make this same statement in the name of Allah while quoting the Hadith in the Qu’ran where it makes reference to being stoned to death for sodomy, she might think again.

God – Bishop Larry Trotter hasn’t read a Bible. Last time I checked, Jesus Christ wasn’t fighting any battles and had nothing to “win.”  Language like this is straight out of that other great movement that oppressed people of color…the Spanish Inquisition.  He might want to take into account that the “LGBT(Q) forces” he is so afraid of are not outside of the church and that the same word of God that he’s referring to, saw Lot sleep with his daughters (Gen. 19: 30-36) and allowed (enforced even) slavery.

My point is twofold.  We cannot impose our beliefs on anyone.  The Marriage Equality Movement is not asking to impose anything on anyone, it is only asking to be released from restriction.  My favorite quote about marriage equality is: “if you don’t like gay marriage…don’t get gay married.”  Equal protection under the law, is not forcing people to do anything they don’t want.  We do not live in a society of restrictions.  If we did, we wouldn’t have the KKK or the Nation of Islam or free blacks in America.

My second point is, when are black American leaders going to wake up to the fact that we continue to see ourselves in relation to our colonial past.  The reasons that some black American’s cling to their religion is damaging our own success.  It is time for black American faith and faith in general to grow up.  Our faith can do remarkable work in building bridges, in giving hope, sustaining people through tragedy and helping us explain an inexplicable world…if it is faith that we want.  But faith and religion can and have done unthinkable damage.  No matter what, faith and religion cannot force us to love someone we don’t love; nor can it forbid us from loving someone we love.  Love is basic, and according to my beliefs (and I only take responsibility for my beliefs) love is God given as part of being alive.

A few sources:

Slave Rebellions

US Constitution and Slavery

Holy Qu’ran

Christianity and Slavery