BEYOND BLACK & WHITE
Rev. John T. Crestwell, Jr.
This reading I’m going to share are the words of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper— Unitarian, abolitionist, feminist, poet, author—just an amazing African American women in the 1800s. This reading is from her speech titled, “We Are All Bound up Together,” given before the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention held in New York in 1866.
“We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the Negro. You pressed him down for two centuries; and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of the white men of the country. When the hands of the black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press. Society cannot afford to neglect the enlightenment of any class of its members. At the South, the legislation of the country was in behalf of the rich slaveholders, while the poor white man was neglected. What is the consequence today? From that very class of neglected poor white men, comes the man who stands today with his hand upon the helm of the nation. He fails to catch the watchword of the hour, and throws himself, the incarnation of meanness, across the pathway of the nation. My objection to [President] Andrew Johnson is not that he has been a poor white man; my objection is that he keeps “poor WHITS” all the way through. That is the trouble with him… The grand and glorious revolution which has commenced, will fail to reach its climax of success, until throughout the length and breadth of the American Republic, the nation shall be so color-blind, as to know no man by the color of his skin or the curl of his hair. It will then have no privileged class, trampling upon and outraging the unprivileged classes, but will be then one great privileged nation, whose privilege will be to produce the loftiest manhood and womanhood that humanity can attain.”
I want to attempt to tackle a difficult subject with a few things I’ve been thinking about over the last year as I’ve watched this nation prepare for a new president. The issues of class, race, gender-equality, among other issues, have re-emerged as hot button issues worthy of discussion.
As you can tell from the reading, Frances Harper was a powerful speaker, an influential woman in her time. She gave this speech just after the Civil War, and there were other notable Unitarians in attendance—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott, to name a few… This was a woman’s suffrage meeting and the best and brightest were represented.
However, at this time in history, America was torn and broken. The southern and northern tension was obvious. Lincoln was dead and the Reconstruction was underway but would soon be slowed to a halt by the Johnson administration, which also put back in the legislature the same slave-holding leaders that led the southern succession. Harper’s words were meant to be forward-thinking and hopeful that this nation could rise up and see that its destiny was ‘tied together inextricably’ and that we rise or fall together.
You know when it comes to the issues in our nation past and present (the economy, jobs, education, etc), there is a certain disease (dis-ease) that we have and have had, historically. And it’s evident when you watch the election news. This dis-ease can get the best of us pushing us to say things like – “they don’t understand us, or we start name calling—–they are this.. or.. they are that, or… they talk funny, or… they take all the jobs, or they’re lazy, or they are trash, or they are (fill in the blank), we begin seeing the other as other-than-human; and this disease of looking at that which is different—as something to be abhorred is the virus the eats away at us as individuals and as a society. I’m red, your blue, I’m black your white, I’m conservative you are liberal, I’m smart and you’re dumb. We fall back to our tribalistic, narcissistic and egoistic tendencies and the disease takes over our mind…
Now, this disease is surely curable but we each carry the virus—the virus of false-judgment; and it can only be cured if we are aware of our rants. And we must know where it comes from, then we can inoculate ourselves appropriately.
Certainly this judging and pointing the finger comes from a sense of feeling we know what’s best for ourselves and others. Sometimes we do know what’s best, but most of the time we don’t know what is necessarily best for others because, quite frankly, we are looking through our lens. We all have a limited amount of cultural competence. Most can only see through their lens and so the world is narrowly viewed—and it is viewed with our personal biases. It’s hard to look beyond the dichotomies and the side we choose to stand on because, simply—we are the sum total of our experiences and we only know what we know and what we’ve allowed ourselves to know. And we have to all admit that we suffer from cultural and perceptual prejudice—from a sort of psychosis of thought, from a narcissistic view that our thoughts are right and others’ wrong.
As I share this with you I think that what I am saying to you is the right way of thinking… It probably is :-). No—we know that reality is understood from many different angles. Here’s the tricky part. We have these biases and prejudices. And we spend most of our time fighting over these differences and when something happens to us—as an example—we blame those who we feel we can reach. That’s generally those closest to us or a group or rival we feel threatens us in some way.
When something happens to us, personally or as a group we lash out at those who are reachable or those we can seemingly have an impact on. This is part of the madness in our humanity. WE are “scapegoat-oriented”. WE HAVE TO BLAME SOMEONE and much of the time we blame the wrong person and people.
See, we all want to be a part of this grand Democracy. We want to feel like we matter. We want to participate in the system. So when the system fails us—we lose a job or have hard times— we lash out at the other. Our anger is displaced… And nine times out of ten we end up fighting each other over our differences instead of taking our collective energy to the power structure that is the causal source of the negative effects in our life. We tend to channel our energy in the wrong place.
Most of us are WORKER-BEES and worker-bees tend to cast their frustration in the wrong space, and we have, for centuries, maimed, killed, and ridiculed in the name of some wedge issue.
While we fight, while we are distracted making sure our Maslow need is met—that we get our little piece– the rich get richer and poor get poorer and once again class stratification refortifies its ugly “us against them” wall of separation.
We take our fight to the wrong place. It’s what I call the “kick the dog” mentality. We are mad that life has victimized us, we feel helpless or powerless, so we go home and kick the dog, so to speak. I know none of you do that but it’s a metaphor. We focus our frustrations in the wrong place as a way of exerting power over a tough circumstance that we really feel we don’t have control over. That’s what is behind the dichotomies that divide us. We need to release that pent up energy from our frustrated lives and most of the time we let it loose in all the wrong places and others end up victimized! This happened in the Tulsa Riots, with Jim Crow laws, with the growth and development of the KKK, with most of the class arguments and party arguments, with the war Terror, we kick each other or those who are easily available—we exert our power in a perverted way and as a result the world sits fragmented and broken.
That’s why this time in America is so special. It is only now I think– with what has happened in the last eight years, and recently on Wall Street that people are SLOWLY (and I mean really slowly) beginning to see that the real problems we’ve been having as a nation, historically, have truly been because of aggressive and inhumane economic policies that perpetuate and propagate ideas that erase instead of embrace.
Black and White have been judging each other for years and it has not solved the problems between us–because the problems are the very system we operate under that has been set up to keep us bickering over differences—while the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
We are worrying about our little slice of the pie and fighting to make sure THEY (whoever they are) don’t eat a piece of our slice, when in truth, there is a much larger slice to eat—and there is enough for everyone to have a piece; and all we have to do is demand that we get more of that pie. We have to begin to revision what it means to be in community in the world and get to the root cause of our enmity toward each other. We have to somehow see that “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.” We are connected. We are homousius “of the same substance” as human beings. We are one. We rise or fall together.
But as of now, the system keeps us fighting over scraps—fighting each other… Think about this… Who owned slaves? The privileged rich, correct? Most poor whites in the south did not have slaves, they were laborers and when the slaves were set free they felt threatened that the little they had could be loss. They created groups to protect their rights and projected their fear onto blacks.
Who sold Africans to Europeans? African tribal kings, correct? They were wealthy tribal leaders. The Europeans could not get through the mother-continent without African help. So, Africans brought the slaves from the inland to the shore and sold, to the Whites, those Blacks captured in their internal tribal wars.
So when Black folk begin saying you know “It’s the White man’s fault.” That’s not the full truth. It’s misplaced anger. I’m not downplaying human suffering. There are problems, however most of the time it’s projected internal frustration.
I am saying we have to think much deeper to get to the heart of the matter. I remember the story of Dr. King in the Birmingham jail. King was speaking to a prison guard and they were discussing how much the guard got paid. The guard told King and King responded empathetically, “Man, that’s all you makin’. You need to be marching with us.” This is my point. The root problem has been in a system that has been empowered to reinforce negative dichotomies. We have to work together to create a new system in politics and religion that edifies the common good and lifts up the loftiest ideals. We have to change the system at the root where these barriers are reinforced.
AT THE ROOT—What drove the slave trade, what drove the Civil War and most wars, what drives the War in Iraq, what drove the Bush administration’s policies and what keeps us from Beloved Community is a system that has valued money more than it has valued human beings. Dr. King was right, “We must move from a thing-oriented society to a people-oriented society!”
We need to shift the paradigm in this country and in this world. We’ve been “trampling upon and outraging the unprivileged classes [for too long] and must move toward producing the “loftiest manhood and womanhood that humanity can attain.”
And those on Wall Street, those over-paid corporate execs they need to see that they are tied to “the least of these”. We are not a socialist society we are a capitalist society but we are still “tied together in a single garment of destiny.” Look at what’s happening now—WE ARE TIED TOGETHER. The rich and powerful must know that they cannot continue to play monopoly with our lives and not realize that their will be a cosmic disruption; a revolution of spirit. And it is underway. CHANGE IS IN THE AIR. Amen.
Indeed this new cry for freedom by so many is divine in so many respects. As if some Creative Force in this Universe has proclaimed “ENOUGH!”
So what we fight in this world is not abstract. It’s not a man in a red suit. It’s not some invisible agent of destruction. It’s not “that group” or “those people” or that country that is the problem. It is the system that we’ve created. WE ARE THE PROBLEM. We have as much to blame for the state of our nation and world as those whom we blame. For we have collectively surrendered our freedom to a few, allowed them wealth without responsibilty and control over us–and then we’ve spent our time waiting for the leftovers and fighting over the crumbs we get, like dogs fighting over a bone. We’ve allowed ourselves to be hood-winked, and now in an economic quagmire that we all had a part in creating.
The real color that oppresses is green. It is our un-harnessed love or lust of money and the power and privilege — that pushes us to put human life second and materialism—OUR STUFF, first. And money and the misuse of money it makes us justify inhumane acts. It causes us to rationalize brutality; it guides our national and international approach; and sense I’m being real with you—it tells us how to worship sometimes, and how much we should give if we are truly faithful; it gets papal approval to colonize and victimize, in the name of God. You see, with money and power we construct our reality and use people as pawns. Am I wrong?
I’m not going to blame anybody but myself this morning for not standing up more, for not speaking out more, for not letting my voice be heard more, and for not giving to causes I believe in more. I have enabled these things in my own way because of my comfort, my status, because of my privileged place… We have protected our privilege by marginalizing others. And as we marginalize others, we marginalize ourselves.
“I saw the enemy and he/she was us.” We’ve been enablers… We’ve empowered people who have not kept our best interest at heart. We have to demand the world we want—the world we wish to see that is beyond the wedge issues that divide us.
We can rebirth our country. Indeed we are blessed to have these powerful brains. We can create a new reality, new myths to live by on what it means to be truly human. And we can absolutely change this world. Ah! But it begins always with the mirror in coming to grips with the garbage that has been planted in us; and knowing that the problems we face are beyond Black and White.
Let us begin today to “build a land where sisters and brothers anointed by God will then create peace where justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Let it be so!