In Living Color

“In Living Color,” Susan Ryder

READINGS

Galatians 3:28
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Original Point #8 – Eight Points of Progressive Christianity
Recognize that our faith entails costly discipleship, renunciation of privilege, and conscientious resistance to evil – as has always been the tradition of the church.

Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race “However intimate we feel eating is and breaking bread with other people is, for the entire history of this country and western society and other societies, who we do or do not eat with says a lot about what we think about people.”

Ricki Byars Beckwith
In the land of I am I am
More then I have then I am
more then I will be I am
all that I am

And songs of all my great grandmothers
and the dreams of all my great grandfathers
And the way to rise beyond the pain
all live.. all live in me

From the Last Will and Testament of Joseph White – 1844
In the name of God, Amen, I Joseph White of the county of Bedford being far advanced in life and infirm in body, but of sound mind and memory do make, publish and declare this to be my last will and testament touching and concerning the disposition at my death of the worldly estate with which it has pleased Providence to bless me. First, I will that all my just debts be paid. Secondly, it is my will and desire that my executors herein after named, or such of them as may act do put at interest on good security, the sum of five hundred dollars to be raised from my estate as provided for in the third clause and hire out annually my negro man Danial and that the interest of the said five hundred dollars, and that the said negro man Danial shall be paid to my wife annually so long as she remain a widow for her support and the residue thereof to be equally divided between my daughters Sarah Dallas, Betsey Burnett, Gincy Witt, Massa Crain, and Polly Crouch. I give to my son George White my negro man Booker. I give to my son Jesse White my negro woman Lavinia and her two children Mary and Margaret and the future increase of the females of them. I give to my son John White my negro boy Bill. I give to my grandson Littleberry White my negro girl Eliza and her future increase, and I give to my executors my negro man Jordon in trust that they shall hire him out year to year until out of his hires they my executors pay to Alexander Wade a debt due from him to Dr. Thomas P. Mitchell of thirty dollars, and after those debts are paid, the hires of said slave Jordon to go to my son Uriah White during his natural life, and at his death the said slave sold and the proceeds to be equally divided amongst my said sons, and Uriahs children then living.

REFLECTION
A couple of years ago I shared a Reflection about my maternal 8thgreat grandfather Robert Pike – who became one of the founders of the town of Salisbury, Massachusetts soon after he came across the pond from England in 1635. In putting together my family tree these last few years, Grandpa Pike turned out to be one of my most well-known and heroic ancestors. He not only defended women accused of witchcraft, but also stood up for religious freedom by refusing to whip three Quaker women who had been arrested for sharing their faith, which was against the law. A poem was written about him 20o years later by Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, a verse of which is engraved on a memorial to Robert Pike that stands in the Salisbury Common.  From the poem “How The Women Went from Dover,” the memorial reads:

Cut loose these poor ones and let them go;
Come what will of it, all men shall know
No warrant is good, though backed by the Crown,
For whipping women in Salisbury town!

He was also excommunicated from his church in 1675 for his resistance to the dogmatic authority of the clergy – in particular his own pastor, Rev. John Wheelwright. He was later reinstated due to pressure from a majority of the members of the congregation, who sided with Pike over the Reverend.

As I continued to delve more into my family tree, I knew there were bound to be ancestors I’d be less proud of than Robert Pike.  For instance, as with most of us whose family lines have been here for several generations, I’ve come across ancestors who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War, as well as those who fought for the Confederate Army. Due to their southern location, I anticipated some of them may have owned slaves – and recently discovered the will of my paternal 5thgreat grandfather Joseph, which I read from earlier, who passed his slaves to his sons and a grandson upon his death. Joseph lived a long and fruitful life in Virginia for 90 years. Born around 1753, he fought with the Virginia Militia during the Revolutionary War. He had nine children – 5 daughters and 4 sons – with Elizabeth, my 5thGreat Grandmother, who died in 1810. In 1826 he remarried a woman named Penelope, and the widow referred to in his will. He died in 1844 and is buried in Bedford County, Virginia.

It appears he was somewhat well off – leaving slaves and sums of money to his widow and children. He owned 8 slaves, of whom we only know their first names – Danial, Booker, Lavinia, Mary, Margaret, Bill, Eliza, and Jordan, who my 4thGreat Grandfather Uriah received once he was finished being hired out for a few years to repay a debt. I have so many questions about them. Was White their last name too? Did they change their names after they were emancipated 20 years after Joseph died? Did they live long enough to see their freedom? One hopes the younger ones did – though emancipation certainly didn’t mean they had an easy life after they were free. Danial and Booker and Lavinia and Mary and Margaret and Bill and Eliza and Jordan are as much a part of my family history as Robert Pike and Joseph and Uriah White – though because they were not considered full persons, there are few, if any records of them beyond Joseph’s will. They weren’t even listed in the 1830 or 1840 Census by name – just a tally number based on their age-range and gender.

Given how long both sides of my family tree have been in this country, it’s no surprise that I found a slave-owning ancestor – Joseph probably isn’t the only one. If you lived in the south through 2/3 of the 19thCentury, you owned slaves if you could afford them. Still, it is still sobering to see their names in print and know that my 4thand 5thgrandparents, perhaps all the way down through my 2ndand 3rdgreat grandparents, owned other human beings as property, and thus played a role in creating the racism that continues to exist in our nation all these years later. And while I realize that our history can inform us without defining us, the choice provided by taking stock of our place in the world is to decide what direction we will move society and what legacy we will leave for our descendants. In other words, my feeling bad about Danial, Booker, Lavinia, Mary, Margaret, Bill, Eliza, and Jordan doesn’t change anything on its own. We all have villains and heroes in our past. What defines us is whether we choose to ignore or do something about the lessons of their life and legacy.

I discovered Joseph’s slaves about the same time the story broke about the two young African American men arrested for sitting in a Starbucks waiting for a friend, just eight days after the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. They were arrested for trespassing when they opted not to order anything until the friend they were meeting arrived. USA Today wrote, “The incident catapulted the issue of racial bias into the national spotlight once again. That it happened at a store designed as a place to hang out makes it all the more poignant. It was a location where people do those most human of actions — eating and drinking. Despite the universality of restaurants, bars and yes, coffee shops, as age-old vehicles to socialize, they are also mangled by centuries of racism. Long after slavery was abolished, the black-white dynamic around food service cast minorities as cooks and servers and whites as diners in private homes as well as restaurants. As recently as the 1960s, lunch counter sit-ins highlighted black discrimination in the area of food once more.”

Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution said, “It’s clear that what transpired at Starbucks is a vestige of our segregated past. We act like MLK 50 years ago was centuries ago. No. We’re still struggling with companies that do not value black people and we should take this moment of all these anniversaries to take stock and see how far have we come. I think the Starbucks incident says we still have a far way to go.” Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson — the 23-year-olds at the center of it all — say they just hope the incident will lead to change. Thankfully Donte and Rashon were released, unharmed, several hours later, all charges dismissed. The same cannot be said of other African American citizens in this country. In an interview with The Associated Press, Rashon said that he was worried about the situation spinning out of control and that he might possibly die. “Anytime I’m encountered by cops, I can honestly say it’s a thought that runs through my mind” Nelson said. “You never know what’s going to happen.” The AP reports that the men — who have been best friends since fourth grade — had never been arrested before. And Robinson said he had been a customer at the Rittenhouse Square Starbucks since he was 15.

Recently Bob discovered the project of a young Brazilian woman, Marina Amaral, who colorizes photographs from many decades and generations ago. Amaral is a self-taught digital colorist with an incredible gift for breathing life into the past. She takes black and white photos and gives them color, using rigorous historical research and a natural artist’s gift to produce rich, immediate, incredibly moving images of the most important events in world history. She essentially transforms them into photos that could have been taken with your iPhone. It’s haunting because in the original monochromatic photos, the people look like they are a million miles or years away from us today – but once they are colorized they look like they could have been photographed yesterday. Photos include an Abraham Lincoln portrait, a dead soldier at Gettysburg, and Lewis Powell, a John Wilkes Booth co-conspirator who shot and severely injured Secretary of State William Seward, Seward’s son, and a bodyguard. There are photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. marching, and little Ruby Bridges being escorted from a Louisiana elementary school by US Marshalls in 1960.

The images are stunning – there are people looking hostile or uncomfortable with each other in the black and white versions – and you think well, we are past that today, but when it goes to a color image the only thing missing is a Starbucks sign. And it reminds us that all the social unrest and racist history of America is still with us, just as much as if those photos were taken yesterday, just as much as two black men arrested for hanging out in a Starbucks without buying anything. It can’t be lost on us that in 2018, one of our fellow citizens – one in particular though there are thousands more – but this one young man feels like any time he has an encounter with a cop, he might die. That should haunt us – how it’s possible that it’s not the first thing we are talking about in church and on the news and in Congress and in the White House; that this current state of affairs can be tolerated in 2018 proves that we haven’t come as far as we’d like to believe we have.

Every once in a while, talk of making amends, or reparations to African Americans for our shameful history comes up. It came up again within the last couple of weeks when two female African American politicians raised the issue as part of their campaigns in Georgia and Missouri. I don’t if these latest calls will go anywhere – they haven’t in the past, even though the United Nations as recently as 2016 called on the US find a way to do so. But even if the US never offers any financial reparations to our African American citizens, there are ways we can do so as individuals, with the investment of our intelligence, humility, persistence, and our souls. And maybe that’s a better way, a sort of proactive social healing – to reach out beyond our own comfort zones, examine our biases, transcend the worst of our heritage, acknowledge our privilege, speak up for equality and justice, listen to the stories of those most harmed, support Black Lives Matter – just to name a few. My recent discovery of Danial, Booker, Lavinia, Mary, Margaret, Bill, Eliza, and Jordan makes me want to take a more in-depth look at what I’ve inherited both genetically and spiritually from my parents and grandparents and great grandparents. For me to know I am a descendant of Robert Pike AND of Joseph White gives me an opportunity to decide which legacy I am going to be defined by, which one am I going to carry forward, as opposed to sailing on the unexamined black and white currents that carry us along if we don’t pay attention to the colorized version of life all around us.

CLOSING READING

1.
I don’t know who God is exactly.
But I’ll tell you this.
I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a water splashed stone
and all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking.
Whenever the water struck a stone it had something to say,
and the water itself, and even the mosses trailing under the water.
And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me what they were saying.
Said the river I am part of holiness.
And I too, said the stone. And I too, whispered the moss beneath the water.
I’d been to the river before, a few times.
Don’t blame the river that nothing happened quickly.
You don’t hear such voices in an hour or a day.
You don’t hear them at all if selfhood has stuffed your ears.
And it’s difficult to hear anything anyway, through all the traffic, the ambition.

2.
If God exists he isn’t just butter and good luck.
He’s also the tick that killed my wonderful dog Luke.
Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then keep on going.
Imagine how the lily (who may also be a part of God) would sing to you if it could sing,
if you would pause to hear it.
And how are you so certain anyway that it doesn’t sing?
If God exists he isn’t just churches and mathematics.
He’s the forest, He’s the desert.
He’s the ice caps, that are dying.
He’s the ghetto and the Museum of Fine Arts.
He’s van Gogh and Allen Ginsberg and Robert Motherwell.
He’s the many desperate hands, cleaning and preparing their weapons.
He’s every one of us, potentially.
The leaf of grass, the genius, the politician, the poet.
And if this is true, isn’t it something very important?
Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond measure.
I don’t know how you get to suspect such an idea.
I only know that the river kept singing.
It wasn’t a persuasion, it was all the river’s own constant joy
which was better by far than a lecture, which was comfortable, exciting, unforgettable.

3.
Of course for each of us, there is the daily life.
Let us live it, gesture by gesture.
When we cut the ripe melon, should we not give it thanks?
And should we not thank the knife also?
We do not live in a simple world.

4.
There was someone I loved who grew old and ill
One by one I watched the fires go out.
There was nothing I could do
except to remember
that we receive
then we give back.

5.
My dog Luke lies in a grave in the forest, she is given back.
But the river Clarion still flows from wherever it comes from
to where it has been told to go.
I pray for the desperate earth.
I pray for the desperate world.
I do the little each person can do, it isn’t much.
Sometimes the river murmurs, sometimes it raves.

6.
Along its shores were, may I say, very intense cardinal flowers.
And trees, and birds that have wings to uphold them, for heaven’s sakes–
the lucky ones: they have such deep natures,
they are so happily obedient.
While I sit here in a house filled with books,
ideas, doubts, hesitations.

7.
And still, pressed deep into my mind, the river
keeps coming, touching me, passing by on its
long journey, its pale, infallible voice
singing.

“At the River Clarion” by Mary Oliver, from Evidence: Poems, Beacon Press.