Harriet Jacobs’ Crawl Space: A Strange Space of a Production of Blackness

(This is a section of a larger paper entitled ” Reconstructing Blackness: Listening to the Slave Narratives.”) 

Imagine being hidden in a small crawl space for seven years while simultaneously hearing the unimaginable without clear visibility and knowledge of who said the information. This was the fate of Harriet Jacobs as she hides from the slave masters in her attempt to escape from slavery.[1] She has positioned herself in this little room, that was added on to her grandmother’s house, with the intention of staying there until it was safe enough for her to transition to another location. While stationed in this make-shift crawl space, Jacobs is hidden from everyone. She has the ability to hear what everyone is saying about her but is not afforded the opportunity to speak back to them. Constantly and consistently, she is left wrestling with her own feeling of doubt and insignificance as she hears the words of those she loves and trust. She hears the voices of her children as they play and friends as they walk by. Furthermore, she hears the voices of those who are also still hunting for her capture. This crawl space serves as a sacrificial space for listening. Jacobs is required to isolate herself from others in order to produce the liberation that she is seeking for her children and herself.

The crawl space deafens itself as a space where identity becomes discarded. No longer is Jacobs a human, but she is stolen, or misplaced property. In retrospect, she was never considered a human as a slave but the crawl space deafens her humanity in a peculiar sense. Potentially, the crawl space makes here indiscernible while simultaneously choking the ability to be a courageous voice out of her. This space abolished her humanity as a place for the “discarded.”[2] Ashon Crawley describes Linda’s escape into the crawl space as a powerful love ethic while critiquing a system that would incite a woman to devise such a plan. Crawley writes,

“Not a celebration of the conditions of emergence that demanded her being discarded — that would be quite vulgar — but a celebration of the love that the peculiar institution was to have interdicted, a love she was not to have or hold that prompted her desire for escape, a love as the grounds for her desire to give care.”[3]

Therefore, Linda’s discarded body produces a love ethic within that crawl space that is a seminal effort toward reconstructing her own Black womanhood. Every production of freedom that Jacobs was implementing was predicated upon the liberation of her children and reconstructing of her Black womanhood. Tamura Lomax echoes this thought in Jezebel Unhinged, when she writes, “Harriet Jacobs, who found joy in her children’s freedom while confined to her grandmother’s attic and who chose a white male sexual partner not for love or even pleasure but as a liberative act…”[4] The crawl space served as an obtuse space for transition — a place where enslavement and securement of one’s identity collide. But, it was structured by the “intentional” planning for freedom of Jacobs.

Though the crawl space inhabitation was the direct result of dehumanizing and discarding; it, nevertheless, registers her identity and ability to overcome. Those seven years spent in the crawl space hearing others, but not audibly being able to communicate back the love, appreciation, and pain, reshaped her in meaningful ways. The structured pause that is relegated to the crawl space forces Jacobs to listen. A type of listening that is grounded in receiving information rather than processing for a response. The slave narratives yield this radical form of listening that reconfigures the normal purview of liberation.

As Harriet Jacobs envisions her day of escape, while postured in the uncomfortable location of the crawl space, she is also within an earshot of her loved ones and those seeking her demise. Thus, making listening a skilled intellectual practice of survival. I am not sure if the term makes/making is even a decent word to incorporate in such an incident. Makes/making implies there is personal construction that is being incorporated within this production. What Jacobs makes is not out of a need of flourishing, but “a make” that is produced out of a need to survive. Consequently, what she is hearing is for the sole purpose of securing her identity; it is not an aimless pursuit of information gathering to build an argument.

Yes, there is a choice of escaping but it was done from a sense of survival that is more conducive of an un-making rather than some euphoric right that is implied with making. Therefore, Jacobs was un-making slavery as she labored in the crawl space. The more things that she heard while she was in that crawl space the more her identity concretized. The crawl space required here to listen as a form of resistance. Jacobs is cutting against the grain in order to do what she believes in best for herself and her children. This is not taking extremely well by her family but there is an obvious appreciation for her courage and bravery. This is ultimately the lessons that must be learned through reading of the slave narratives — listening to the stories of a gifted people and experiencing the inspired genius. The slave narratives unearth stories of trauma repositioning Black people as the power brokers of strength in a system where metastatic evil was normalized.

Jacobs is positioned in a space that is not conducive for the human body, but, comparatively, gives herself respite from the abuse that she has to endure as an enslaved woman. The mere fact she must conceal herself in the crawl space is dehumanization and abusive. However, she is engaged in an act of resistance that is fortifying her identity. Jacobs is reshaping the crawl space into a place of rehabilitation for her soul. No longer does she have to endure the unwanted advances of the slave master or his harsh words. She has made a decision that reflects her directional movement toward trying to flourish instead of existing. How she is reconstructing life from within this small space, that socially would label her body as discarded for such an act, redefines freedom. Though the crawl space is the epitome of the “darkness total,” Jacobs is invested in the crawl space.[5] Jacobs proclaims, “I had a woman’s pride, a mother’s love for my children; and I resolved that out of the darkness of this hour a brighter dawn should arise for them. My master had power and law on his side; I had a determined will. There is might in each.”[6] The crawl space provided a clearing that allowed her to experience life though she could not actively participate. I am thinking of Toni Morrison’s idea of The Clearing in Beloved as Baby Suggs preaches during those gathered moments.[7]The clearing represented a space where Black folks were expected to enjoy their identity and the crawl space is a space where identity thrived to be experienced. Both places were spaces where Black listening was required for the liberation of Black bodies. Ultimately, how they listened and invested, in Black life, in those moments cultivated a joy and produced liberation.

Though the crawl space was not an ideal situation, it metamorphosed into a secure location that would eventually become a bulwark of resistance. The crawl space provided concealment from the hunters, but afforded Jacobs the opportunity to sonically be invested in the lives of her children. The everyday things that can be taken for granite are now the precious sounds that solidify here existence. Whether it is the rain upon the tin roof or the sound of birds in the morning, the forsaken sounds are life giving moments. What she experiences sonically becomes heightened through the seven years, as her vision is impaired because of the concealment. Therefore, nothing is wasted or ignored because it becomes a part of the never-ending jigsaw puzzle that is pieced together, mentally, as she sits in this crawl space. Listening becomes Jacobs’ way of living, as she muses through life in that crawl space. She forces life to be previewed through a sonic lens, then translated into a perceptual image. This apprehends Baldwin’s perspective of Ray Charles as he was captivated by his presence. There was a noticeable difference in Ray Charles’ perception that mesmerized Baldwin, and I make the claim: this perception begins to evolve in Jacobs as well. She becomes acutely aware of the environment and how that type of shift determines certain perceptual cues.

The time in the crawl space heighten her perceptual proclivities to the point where here surroundings began to take life. The sound of rain, thunder and laughter of her family produce an irruption that previously were just episodic noise. Now these sounds triggered a lifeforce. The sounds were emblematic of a “performative irruption” that she imagined were being lived out, existentially, as she is ontologically static.[8]These were natural occurrences that she had to imagine, cerebrally, because she was not afforded the luxury of viewing them outside of the crawl space. Though she is hidden away in the crawl space the sounds activated a memory of the familiar which provided her with the fortitude to continual through the struggle. Jacobs speaks of not knowing rather it was day or night because she was concealed from the sunlight but “I knew it only by the noises I heard…”[9] Like Ray Charles, Jacobs’ sensitivity to the sonic movements of the days, indicated what was transpiring within the moment. She was being transformed by the sounds she was hearing instead of the sights she was seeing; listening, became her of way seeing. Though she was trapped in utter darkness, her ears began to develop the imagery she needed to construct a flourishing space — space where survival subsumes cavalier notions of giving up.

The crawl space represents a creative patience that is needed when one must listen. As you read the slave narratives, and, especially, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, one must be willing to wrestle with: what is heard while in the crawl space. The crawl space presented a special function that captured the freedom of life. Listening becomes an inevitable practice, within the crawl space, that one must succumb to in order to survive, properly. The crawl space concealment was not something that had to be executed in order for Jacobs to live, but it was necessary in order for her to flourish. The crawl space was a liberative path. It provided Jacobs with a means of identity that was not readily available as a slave girl. The crawl space was an abandonment of insularity for the white world. Jacobs’ Fanonian approach to destroying a colonialist mentality of slavery: “We understand now why the black [wo]man cannot take pleasure in [her] insularity. For [her] there is only one way out, and it leads to the white world.”[10] Jacobs chooses the crawl space as an affirmation of her Blackness and freedom rather than the whiteness embedded in the capitalism of slavery. Secondly, the crawl space placed her in a space where she was forced to listen as a means of negotiating the day. In this “loophole of retreat,” Jacobs would strengthen herself daily through the joys of hearing her children playing outside.[11] Life was produced in the rapturous moments of hearing the sounds of those she solemnly placed her body in harm’s way in order to establish a better example of being. She understood that a simple movement, at the wrong time of day, could mean disaster, not just for her but her entire family. Thirdly, listening gave her a reason to live because it gave her an opportunity to hear her children and family. Thus, listening provided her with a regiment that lead to survival. Though the outcome may appear similar, the approach is different when it comes to means and opportunity. One implies a form of work (means) and the other, a form of leisure (opportunity). Although Jacobs is listening to her children the reasoning for each may have been different: one day she may have needed to be reminded of her reasoning for entering the crawl space while on another day she just needed to be inspired through their sounds.

What is gleaned through this crawl space episode is that creative patience produces an insight for survival. Creative patience is the ability to find ways to wait and listen. This is needed because the slave narratives avail themselves to the reader as a means of radical subjectivity that forces the reader to re-construct or re-think history.[12] The lessons learned through the intellectual practice of listening produces a residual ethic that pushes the culture to excel. The crawl space where Jacobs is hideaway exemplifies such a space. Listening became an act of resistance that stimulated the survival of Jacobs and lead to a new production of life for her children. The crawl space image presents a complex tension where listening within unstable scenarios manufacture solutions that provide concrete objectives to outdated practices.

[1]Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, New York: Dover Publications, originally Published in 1862, reprinted 2001

 

[2]Ashon Crawley, BlackPentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, New York: Fordham University Press, 2017., 151.

 

[3]Crawley, BlackPentecostal Breath, 152

 

[4]Tamura Lomax, Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture, Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.,80.

[5]Jacobs, Incidents, 96

 

[6]Jacobs, Incidents, 73

 

[7]Toni Morrison, Beloved,New York: First Vintage International, 1987., 113.

[8]Crawley, Blackpentecostal, 137.

 

[9]Jacobs, Incidents, 97

 

[10]Franz Fanon, Black Skin, Black Masks, translated from French by Richard Philcox, New York: Grove Press, 1952.,33.

 

[11]Jacobs, Incidents, 95.

 

[12]Stacey M. Floyd-Thompson, Mining the Motherlode: Methods in Womanist Ethics, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006., 116.

The Functional Aspects in King’s Writing: Reflections on ‘Where Do we Go From Here’

Where Do We Go From Here is Dr. Martin Luther King’s existential question, that leaves one to ponder the journey to a materialized space — proposed in his summation: chaos or community. This vehemently registers as obtuse, yet creatively brilliant. Or, it verges, on the notion of a risk, — of just how disenfranchised, Black people are in the United States.[1]King’s deployment of chaos as a descriptive noun relative to community produces a comparative tension that the reader is forced to re-imagine throughout the read. The mere audacity to equate chaos or community as a binary function is an interesting phenomenon to interject from the commencement. Because King uses “or,” he is intending chaos or community to be functionary in its application. There is nothing static, abstract or cerebral; he is writing a strategy to ignite a movement. In Where Do We From Here: Chaos or Community, Dr. King is presenting strategies for navigating through a terrain which may be chaotic or neighborly. [2]

Dr. King details how white fragility is amassing the courage to continually mishandle the humanity of Black people. He carefully, almost to a disheartening reaction, presents how whiteness has managed to misconstrue the difference between equity, equality and justice. Firmly positing that if one can respite or peace within spaces of justice, then equity and equality will become inevitable participants. But, justice wrongly affixed constructs an equality and equity that only benefits the privilege — white racist. King is desperately striving to engage a power structure that is, keenly, destroying, any resemblance of, anything that represents a powerful emblem of Blackness. Thus, King desire to dismantle racist structures and not just un-seed rhetoric, is visible. Interestingly, and yet inexplicable, it appears that he focuses more on un-seeding Black Power rhetoric in comparison to white racist rhetoric. Nevertheless, King’s desire to reconstruct a system that has intentionally allocated Black people as second-class is emerging. King audaciously writes, “Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting polls.”[3]Here is where we find King in-breaking a designated space. Yes, he understands the voting poll is a valued placed but he is carefully assessing it in comparison to the jobs. This embarks on the notion of chaos or community from a personal connective. Understandably, both voting and jobs have lasting effects but he understands that there is more at stake when one attempts to create jobs. Jay Electronica, the New Orleans’ rapper, has a lyric in the song Renaissance Man, where he says, “my grandmother want leave the fuckin projects, I got to raise the slum up…”[4]In spirit of Dr. King, Jay Electronica (Jay Elect) is attempting to reconstruct chaos in order that it may benefit those who in are locked in its space. King is visualizing people like Jay Elect’s grandmother who will never leave or give up but need access to jobs and the voting booth. So, moving within a Jay Elect-ethic, he is making every effort to raise the conscious of white America as well as trying to restructure the system. Is King successful?: is the fundamental question, and could quite honestly be the simultaneous answer. This is Baldwinian frame of reference, where James Baldwin seems to use questions as answers. Not in the Socratic sense, in order to move the conversation into greater depth but in a way that finites the conversation with the rhetorical question. King is presenting such a frame but does himself a disservice with the subtitle chaos or community. Because he is developing infrastructure—community— in the midst of chaos, the usage of “or” forces the reader to make a choice throughout the text. But, clearly, he is not asking folks to make a choice; he is insisting that community can be developed in the midst of chaos.[5]Thus, we see the Jay Elect- ethic being brought to the foreground of the text.

Early in the text, King makes an integral shift that incorporates race and economic equality to the struggle for freedom in community. He writes, “Negro programs go beyond race and deal with economic inequality, whenever it exists. In the pursuit of this goals, the white poor become involved, and the potentiality emerges for a powerful new alliance.”[6] Though King does not mention much about the connection between the poor whites connecting to the movement this particular point blares out for further explanation. King has just expounded upon the fact that there has been “sluggish progress” but proceeds to denote how poor whites joining the movement becomes a major happening that sparked life into what King was strategizing. [7]What King did by gaining the coalition of poor whites was he solidified the validity of their agenda. This movement could no longer just be labeled simply a movement for Black Power, because poor whites had a valid investment within the movement. This is embarking on the Christian term of koinonia which means to fellowship but there is an investment that is connective with the fellowship. King’s theological underpinnings are vastly coming into play as he is strategically building the movement. He is faithfully trying to construct a movement that considers all of humanity (or at least all the men.) King is embodying this in his speech and praxis which makes it palatable though oftentimes disagreeable in application. I contend that King was wrong when he states that “Black Power was a slogan without a program.”[8]The Black Panthers were on the scene operating within the spectrum of Black Power with the Free Breakfast Program burgeoning on the horizon of January of 1969. And, within its corpus of thought and operating principals, they had white people who worked closely with them. What this depicts is King’s genteel southern Christian roots that radically beckon reconciliation with the hope that Black folk will get a significant piece of the pie to survive. King is pressing for this strategic move to happen but the emergence of Black Power registers with the spirit of the traumatized and beaten Black community. What it also shows is the slight disconnect that King has with the majority of the people who follow him. He cannot in a visceral manner understand why this is connecting with his followers. King’s upbringing is not similar to many of the people who are following him in the movement. So, to encounter such a radical statement like Black Power and a figure like Stokely Carmichael is a pedagogical event that forces him to comes to grip with his lack of street cred. Here is where I ponder the question of whether King is now asking is it chaos or community in an individualistic sense — self-introspection.

King critical analyzes of capitalism is the worldly problem that goes intentionally overlooked because to address his analyzes is to admit guilt. King was adamant that the world was amply filled with enough resources to care for the people of the world. The problem was that the greed that has humanity trapped has blinded the rich into believing that it has the authority to ration those natural resources to the highest bidder. King states, “There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will.”[9]When material wealth overshadows the welfare of the hungry evil has become a necessary good. King is viewing capitalism through such a perspective, but is not as bleak as I may be painting the picture to be. King generates a concerted effort to find the good in capitalism but continuously demonstrates how people are corrupted by capitalism’s thrust. Honestly, he admits, that we all live “eternally,” “in the red.”[10]I believe this is King giving capitalism the opportunity to get it right. However, he undoubtedly, comprehends that capitalisms will ultimately fail to see how we all are inextricably connected to others. It is within that theoretical framework where King is trying to find the sweet spot for the movement and the justice of America. The failure of capitalism to see “truth is collectivism” is the crux of why it is hard for King’s ideas of community to flourish in a capitalism. I want to be very clear that I am not saying that it cannot be constructed or started; but, I am referring to flourishing. King’s idea of community thrives on a collective theory of we all make it through whereas capitalism is centered upon the best/chosen/strongest only make it. Therefore, flourishing is not a communal happening but is individualistic. King is strongly and passionately fighting against the notion of capitalistic venture that rescues the privilege one and ostracizes the oppressed many. King understands it this way: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”[11]This is the revolutionary stance that King is aiming to ascend toward throughout the movement.

What I am proposing in this reflection is that King is not asking a question but making a statement. Throughout the text he is wrestling with what that statement will ultimate resemble, but, nonetheless, he knows that he is preparing for something in the end. I found King to be a bit to compromising in some places but I understood why he approached it in such a manner. Because, it is one thing to write a text for academic musing but it is another to write a text that will used as revolutionary weaponry. The application is different but how scholarship is appropriated in the given space challenges the writer to creatively construct a sentence that may save a life. Writing with that in mind is something that King had to keep in the forefront of his thinking, I suppose.

I have constantly repeated that King was not really asking a question but making a statement when he asked where do we go from here, chaos or community. In the last sentence of the official pages of the book, King writes, “This may be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos or community.”[12]King has waited to the last sentence of the book to show that his question was his answer. He is still trying to figure out what America is trapped within. There are glimpse of how he is being influenced but the real changes do not bear fruit to a little later in his life. King is unsettled, and, rightly, so.

Concluding Thought

Blackness has always been the ambivalent reality of the American project. King’s brilliance is that he understood Blackness and the how racism handcuffed the humanity of the Black body. Where Do We Go From Hereis King’s attempt to provide a piece of literature that would speak to a generation after him about what the movement had to endure to get “that” point. He is very referential throughout the text and hopeful that people will look back, and remember what was exemplified by his generation. King has a nostalgic appeal that is essential to remembering how Blackness was the center of his reality. Though he is an integrationist, which is centered in his interpretation of Christianity, King is deeply committed to the plight of Black people. For most people, I would consider this a contradictory statement, but for King, it is a testament to his character. He embodied his belief in nonviolence and integration, which made his love for Black people even more viable. He was willing to give his life for the Black community. King was not just about frivolous banter but was action prone. He believed, “Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has no true power potential.”[13]What can be concluded is that King was serious about making functional words and actions. I go back to his usage of “or” rather than “and.” I still believe it was problematic to entitled the book this way but using “or” produces a forthright-ness that engenders movement. And, we when we think of Dr. King we think about movement.

 

[1]I am not quite sure how to verbally commit to how risky I believe King is moving within the title. But, my usage of a comma to then a dash is an intentional indicator that signal that something I happening with speech that must be attended to. This is very Baldwin-like when words escape his grasp he tends to use punctuation as points of contention.

[2]Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Beacon Press: Boston, 1968.

[3]King, 6.

[4]Jay Electronica, Renaissance Man, Style Wars EP

[5]This is something that is not noticeable from a service read or from an initial perusing of the text. It is only after close reading that it become visible that King is not asking the reader to choose but actually declaring such to be.

[6]King, 17.

[7]King, 17.

[8]King, 18

[9]King, 187.

[10]King, 191.

[11]King, 193.

[12]King, 202.

[13]King, 164.

James Baldwin’s Black Rage in “The Fire Next Time”

(This is part of a larger work entitled, “Perspectives of a Black Rage Sensibility: (Reshaping) God Through Spaces of Blackness”

Throughout his writings, Baldwin wrestles with the essence of Black Rage: a rage that engulfs the life of black people, trapped in an endless cycle of injustice, pressing to survive the vicious trials of life. Baldwin’s statement “to be a Negro in this country and relatively conscious, is to be in rage all the time” serves as a defining epitaph for Black Rage.[1] Pamela Lightsey notes that Baldwin’s explication of Black Rage was not limited to erroneous slander, deemed as an “irrational outburst.”[2] His explication was a “passionate response to the evil of racism imposed” upon the black community.[3]  Baldwin’s “blackness” can be understood as an intertwining of how Black Rage influenced Baldwin’s relationship with God and humanity.[4]

 James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is a transcending essay that captures in paralyzing clarity, the experience of a young black man navigating the racist terrain of America. Exploring black people’s fear, pain and rage in mesmerizing detail, Baldwin, relocates the reader into a foreign reality –the world of the Negro in America, past and present. Baldwin challenges white Americans with a first-hand perspective of black males in the ghetto and, simultaneously, celebrates the Black community. His quest was to find out what made Black males so attentive to the Nation of Islam.[5] While writing this essay, he discovered the topic was richer and deeper than he first imagined. He never turned it into the editor of the Jewish magazine, who had hired him to write the story.

The book starts with a compelling and thought provoking letter to his nephew, My Dungeon Shook, which gives poignant instruction to his nephew on how to negotiate through the streets of Harlem, as a Black male, in the midst of a people who present a false Christianity.[6] The penetrating critiques of America opined in almost every sentence phrased with preciseness and rage present a pedagogical protest for his nephew. Baldwin’s overarching theme resonates in his words to his nephew, “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.”[7] Baldwin is very intentional about highlighting the texture and color of his nephew’s skin while giving him a preview of his temperament. [8] His nephew’s socially- constructed black body and political identity will serve as a stark indicator that his nephew “is” in danger. He cannot misplace his self-awareness in the white world, yet he cannot misplace his own true dignity. Baldwin’s insistence that his nephew identify with his blackness is utmost.  Theologian John Perkinson forms this experience as a radical rethinking of the black body. Purposely, he places all white bodies in the thralls of the lived history (a mythic fantasy) of white supremacy. He intentionally demarcates whiteness as a “structure of violence and a significance of injustice.”[9] Perkinson asserts that “the black body as a ‘possibility of theophany’ would place the white body as “a question of exorcism.”[10] He implies that the white body stands in need of divine healing or exorcism in order to be delivered from its own racism. In this assessment, the black body personifies God. Thus, confronting white people with a specificity of color and creed. The black body confronts white people with their sin before God.  For Baldwin, his own father’s lack of awareness of the black body politic, pushed him into wanting to be “so holy,” because Godliness provided a false invitation into whiteness.[11] Making holiness synonymous with whiteness was the fallacy Baldwin dismisses, while wrestling through life in the black experience. Ultimately, the commingling of whiteness with godly normatives would be Baldwin’s wrestling partners the rest of his life.

The Black Rage that Baldwin demonstrates to his nephew is one soaked in love with a governing sense of black pride, a pride that is timelessly connected to the black community. Baldwin’s unique perspective is guided by a strong principle of love.  A love that he describes:

Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. [12]

 

Baldwin may appear to link his father’s false sense of Christianity with a pseudo-pursuit of holiness. However, looking deeply, his understanding and pursuit of love is profoundly Christian. Professor Clarence Hardy supposes that Baldwin’s idea of love is the result of self-examination. Hardy posits that Baldwin’s self-awareness caused love to flourish and this love becomes “the principal site of transformation and the self-actualization.”[13] Could this self-affirming love be similar to the Christian process of discernment? Baldwin is clear with his nephew that his mere presence is a salvific happening; his life –a hope, which love must prevail. Baldwin admonishes,

There is no reason for you to be like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you.  The really terrible thing…is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For those innocent people have no other hope.[14]

The assertion that hope, reconciliation, and love rest in the hands of the black community is a radical statement of purpose and identity. In Baldwin’s perspective, humanity is equipped with the responsibility for their own soul’s salvation. He states that humanity is responsible, “to expand and transform God’s nature.” [15] Baldwin is unapologetic about this particular affirming of the necessity of black people acting as the redeeming factor in the lives of whites. The impact of oppressed people’s presence and their being creates favorable opportunities for the oppressors to change. Baldwin is transparent with his nephew about the cruel treatment that he will endure but exudes a reconciliatory posture.[16] Though Baldwin does not proclaim that this is an authentic Christian value, his childish hope for/in humanity compels him to reluctantly trust in a governing love.

The message that Baldwin is trying to convey to his nephew is ultimately woven in throngs of suffering. Baldwin’s interest in suffering is connected to a belief that through such an act one would/could “discover what they really lived by,” indicating that “suffering holds purpose even if God does not.”[17] Baldwin is constructing an intricate theology of a redemptive suffering that, hopefully, forces the oppressors to change. In his critique of Anthony Pinn’s Why Lord?: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology, Dwight Hopkins suggest that redemptive suffering can never be positive or fruitful for African-Americans.[18] Hopkins furthermore confirms that redemptive suffering, directly or indirectly, “implies God sanctions suffering, relieving the oppressors from accountability…”[19] In the closing words to his nephew, Baldwin says, “…then we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”[20] Through Baldwin’s Black Rage, his interpretive lens perceives God differently than his father. God is an active presence, but only in the sense that humanity (in this case his nephew) can convey that presence. The “so holy” aspect of divinity that is sought by Baldwin’s father is not the same “so holy” that Baldwin is conveying to his nephew. The Black Rage that ignites Baldwin is displayed as he tries to “write” the wrongs that may have the probability of killing his nephew. Baldwin’s Black Rage has activated a new sense of God that relocates suffering as a godly imperative.

[1] James Baldwin, “The Negro Role in American Culture,” Negro Digest, March 1962.

[2]Pamela Lightsey, Our Lives Matter, Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2015.,56.

[3] Ibid.

[4] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, First Vintage International: New York, 1962 The capitalization of G or lack thereof, is intentional throughout the paper. The thought is to try to convey the difference of expression in a god that is expressed in Baldwin’s concept versus a Christian example of God. The writer has tried to make the differences noticeable through the paper.

[5] The Nation of Islam was a Black Nationalist group that followed the teaching of Elijah Muhammad. The influence that Elijah Muhammed garnered from 1950 to the late 1960’s was unprecedented in the black community. Drawing from an early predecessor, he highlighted a separatist agenda that called for blacks to be given parts of America to live apart from whites.

[6] Ibid., Baldwin, Fire, 3-10.

[7].Ibid.,4.

[8] Ibid.,3.

[9] John Perkinson, White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity, New York: Palgrave MacMillian, 2004.,150.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Baldwin accuses his father of trying to be “so holy” not as an attempt to be like God but as an alarming attempt to be white. Though his skin is dark like Baldwin and his nephew, Baldwin’s father is trying to escape the reality of being black in America. Baldwin is making a concerted effort to address this experience to his nephew. Ibid.,4. This person Baldwin references was Baldwin’s adoptive father. But, he lived his life trying to find the approval of his stepfather. Baldwin was born after his mother, Emma Berdis Jones left his biological father because of his drug abuse. Emma Jones, who never would tell her son the identity of his father. James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem Hospital. In James’s third year, his mother married the Reverend David Baldwin, a Pentecost preacher, who legally adopted James, and moved the family to Harlem.

[12] Ibid., Baldwin, Fire, 95.

[13] Clarence Hardy III, James Baldwin’s God: sex, hope and crisis in black holiness culture, Knoxville: Tennessee Press, 2003.,49

[14] Ibid.,8. This may be “innocent privilege” that Bruggemann asserts in his assessment of Coates. (See footnote 33)

[15] James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket, New York: St. Martin’s Marek,1985.,441. Clarence Hardy uses this exact quote to highlight the same frame of thought. Ibid.,Hardy.,13.

[16] Though Baldwin seeks such grand reconciliation he is not advocating for a complete surrendering or overhaul to whiteness. Baldwin poses a very stringent question: “Do I really want to be integrated in to a burning house?” Ibid., Baldwin, Fire,94. What he is proposing is that black folks consider whether it is feasible to be productive in an environment that does not even consider one’s self to be human.  He is trying to convey this message to his nephew in a wise manner, while getting his point across with assuredness. Baldwin is also trying to get his nephew to embrace his blackness unconditionally, yet safely. This is a strange dynamic that has to be worked out through the entirety of Baldwin’s writings. It is seen as Baldwin writes to his nephew. It is also visible in many other works as well. Baldwin presents a high, functional level of love. What is deemed the “Negro problem” is not moved by love but by white people’s resentment of being judged by those who they see on a lower status. Ibid., 95. Baldwin is walking a very slim, but necessary, tightrope with his nephew. On one hand he is insisting that he becomes a savior for white people by virtue of his social presence, but on the other he is making sure that he does not lose his identity with the black experience.

[17] Ibid., Hardy,48.

[18] Dwight Hopkins, “Reviewed Work: Why Lord?: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology. by Anthony B. Pinn.” Review by: Dwight N. Hopkins. African American Review, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 514-516, Indiana State University. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3042581

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., Baldwin Fire, 10

 

 

Brothers In Conversation About Race (Part 8)

Religion is a space where the boundaries of God are fortified through tension and reified through reformation. It avails itself to a strong critique while offering solutions that are filled with active love. Oftentimes, this is not the picture that is painted by the Christian church. Walter, in part 7, introduced the notion of a space where Black people are given the freedom to be, inextricably, themselves. One of the few spaces where black people can relive their liberation is the black church. The black church has provided black folks with a liberating space where their visibility and presence is honored. Racism loses its power within the midst of this fictive kinship.

Racism is a retardant that hinders sound judgement from processing. The oppress are influenced to look past their oppression and reinterpret it as security, instead of seeking freedom. Racism discourages freedom because freedom fuels intellect. Consequently, it is hard to keep intelligent people oppressed. No longer can the plight of white power and white privilege be held as doctrines of a constructed god, who dehumanizes and beguiles black people into believing that oppression is acceptable and godly. When the oppressed start to rebel against the oppressor, their words against oppression are labeled as radicalized hatred.  James Baldwin declares this is when

“white power is broken.”

Baldwin also proclaims that when this white power is broken:

“an English man can’t tell an African what it means to be African and he believes it; a white man can’t tell a negro what it means to be a negro and he believes it, anymore.”

The black church has been the space where our humanity is unquestionable. It has been the sacred site of resistance where beauty emerges in spite of pain and trauma. The black church, constantly reconstructing herself as the avant-guard against this constructed, neo-liberal god that sanctions racism. The black church is a complex institution, constantly on the front-lines fighting against racism. It is a creative space where black genius reclaims the identity of Jesus. A Jesus that racism refuses to accept or serve.

Amos 6 by Shea Berbaum

shea-bearbaumShea Berbaum

Amos 6,

1 Tim 6:6-19

Luke 16:19-31

 

LET US PRAY,

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Amen.

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, I meet with a group of boys that live near my teaching parish church, St. James, in Lexington. A couple of weeks ago, the vicar and I decided to play a game with the boys to work on teambuilding and communication. We had the five boys line up at this one spot in the hallway and told them that we would give them five dollars each if all of them could travel from one end of the hallway to the other, using pieces of paper like stepping stones because now, the floor was lava. They could not slide on the paper like snow shoes, and if their foot came off of a piece of paper, I would snatch it up. Naturally it took the boys a while to figure out a working strategy, but eventually they started making their way down the hallway and one of them crossed the line, making it to the other side. Their strategy involved having two people go across at a time; one placing the papers on the floor to walk on, the other picking up papers that had already been used so that I wouldn’t take them away. When the first kid made it across, his partner was left with a choice. Cross the line now, or go back for his friends. He chose to cross the line, taking all the papers with him. So, they lost. They had forgotten their friends on the other side, being content to finish without them.

This is what Amos is talking about in our text for today. Amos, a shepherd from Tekoa, is sent by God to prophesy to the kingdom of Israel because they have forgotten their neighbors and were not only content to live without them, but were  oppressing them for their own personal gain. God is a God of justice, and as God’s people they should know better. Instead of grieving for their neighbors who have been left behind, they “lie on beds of ivory, and stretch themselves out on couches. They eat lamb and veal, and sing, and drink wine by the bowl full.” So God sends them into exile.

Amos’ prophetic words speak to us, here, now despite their being written 2,776 years ago. We have heard this same theme in our country not long ago in Dr. Martin Luther Kings’ Letter from Birmingham Jail written in 1963. King writes,

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Dr. King urged us 53 years ago not to forget our friends on the other side, and be content to live without them.

I am convicted by the words of Amos and Dr. King. For the past 400 years our country has been content to live without and even make our living off of our brothers and sisters. Slaves built our houses and grew our crops. After a civil war that ended slavery, half of the country created laws that legally oppressed African Americans and robbed them of their constitutional rights. After the battle for Civil Rights, we declared a War on Drugs that has led to the mass incarceration of the poor and people of color. Black men are dying on our streets every day while we stretch ourselves out on couches, sing songs, drink wine by the bowl full and declare that “All lives matter.” When we see a sports star take a stand for justice by refusing to stand for our anthem, we participate in that same lukewarm acceptance that Dr. King write about. We do not grieve for the brothers and sisters that have been left behind, we are content to live without them.

But maybe that is not right. In Luke chapter 4 Jesus quotes Isaiah saying:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

If this is the goal, the end of the game, maybe it is us, we who have forgotten the plight of our brothers and sisters, and we who were content to live without them, we who made our way across the lava floor on pieces of paper, taking them with us as we crossed the finish line… we have been left behind. This is the scene we are given by Jesus in today’s parable. Lazarus, a poor man, sick broken, battered and dying is welcomed to the bosom of Abraham himself while the Rich Man is condemned to torment. Even in death, the rich man cannot see the point of the game. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to fetch some water for him. Abraham responds, “I’m sorry. I can’t. Lazarus, I mean

Michael Brown,

Eric Garner

Freddy Gray,

I mean Fernando Castille

I mean Sandra Bland,

No, I’m sorry,

Terrence Cutcher

Lazarus is at rest here with me. And besides You’re all the way at the other end of the hallway and you took your papers with you.

The Rich man still doesn’t get it. “Send that boy Lazarus to my kin so they he can warn them what it’s like over here on the other side. Abraham says, they have Moses, Amos, and all of the prophets. Let them listen to these. And how many more do we have Church? We have the words of Jesus Christ himself. We have Paul and Timothy and Martin Luther! We have Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B DuBois, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, James Cone, Malcom X and Martin Luther King. And yet we still stretch ourselves out on couches, sing songs, drink wine by the bowl full and forget our friends on the other side, content to live without them.

And yet, despite all of this, God keeps God’s promises. God first promised Abraham and all his descendants that he would be their God and that they would be his people forever, period. At the end of Amos chapter 9, God remembers God’s promise:

I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,

And they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;

They shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,

And they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.

I will plant them on their land,

And they shall never again be uprooted

Out of the land that I have given them.

In baptism God has entered us into that same promise. The water that covered our heads to cleanse our hearts cannot be unpoured. That oil cross marked on that baby’s head can not be rubbed off. That seal of the cross of Christ is for forever. The promise made to Abraham and his descendants is made to us. God will be our God, and we will be God’s people.

We confess every Sunday that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have not loved God with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We ask God, for the sake of his son, Jesus Christ, to forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in God’s will, and walk in God’s ways, to the glory of God’s holy name. We hear that God forgives us, and has promised to send us his own spirit that will bear fruit in us. Fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. God will not forget us on the other side of the hallway. God is never content to live without us. Thanks be to God. Amen.