The Catholic faith is a liturgical faith. I rarely attend Catholic mass, and more often attend service at an Episcopal church, which I chose in part because of the liturgy. I could never be Protestant, really (not that I’m criticizing all Protestants) because the Catholic inside me believes too wholeheartedly in liturgy. While in some churches, the minister can pick and choose what passages to preach about or what topics to approach from week to week, in the Catholic and Episcopalian traditions, one must adhere to the liturgy–a body of rites that includes a pre-set schedule of readings for the year that are meant to build on one another. A priest cannot have a “thesis”, for example, and then find the evidence from the Bible to support that thesis. Rather, she must look at the reading presented to her by the liturgical calendar and wrestle with it to uncover meaning and argument even when the reading might challenge and discomfort her. This process mimics an authentic study of literature to me; it de-centers the individual and centers textual mystery. Sometimes I worry that this form I’ve appropriated–the sermon–and this blog work under too Protestant a model. But, I still think liturgically. Rituals, I believe, sustain us and condition us for life. So, while I want to write about many things, I find I must write about what the world presents me. In many ways the world provides me content and challenge from which I may not deviate.
This week, I had several topics under consideration. Then, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed young, black man in Ferguson, Missouri–a town on the outskirts of St. Louis. I wanted to react according to the privilege afforded me as a white woman: I could cry or act “shocked” and go about my life as an innocent outside a battle raging elsewhere. Except that I find the willful innocence of many white people despicable. A large part of the conversation following Michael Brown’s killing has had to do with black people’s behavior and the reality of black life in America. Ta-Nahesi Coates, writing for The Atlantic, has responded intelligently to the problem with that conversation. I have a problem with it too. I have a problem with the Ferguson police accusing Michael Brown of robbery at the same time they released the name of the officer who shot him, as though petty theft might provide rationale for murder. When we were teenagers, my brother stole tampons from a Walgreen’s because I desperately needed one and we didn’t have any money on us, and my childhood friend and I used to run into grocery stores as little girls and slather ourselves with suntanning lotion forbidden us by our mothers before putting the bottle back on the shelf. I doubt anyone would use these crimes to shoot us. I also have a problem with the idea, held sacred by so many of my white cohort, that we live in a post-racial society and if only black people could figure that out. Their evidence: look at our president. But all week I can’t help thinking that the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and countless others do not constitute anomalies–young black men have not been killed by white people in recent years despite our having a black president, but because we have a black president. Maybe these young men have served as proxies for the one black man we really want to kill.
Back to liturgy. What texts imposed themselves in my inner liturgical calendar? Two: one visual and one written. I found myself returning again and again to a photo I saw of a “healing center” in Ferguson, a space demonstrators created for young black men to scream and cry safely while held by their people, a space where their justifiable rage and grief might not get them teargassed or shot.
I have often needed such a space as a woman, a space to scream and cry without being labeled “an angry feminist.” The young man’s face in this photo slays me.
But we need a Gospel reading. There is no piece of literature in American history that speaks best to the horror in Ferguson than the introduction to James Baldwin’s A Fire Next Time, a letter to his nephew titled, “My Dungeon Shook: On the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.” In it he addresses his nephew intimately, lovingly:
I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times. I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother. I have known both of you all your lives and have carried your daddy in my arms and on my shoulders, kissed him and spanked him and watched him learn to walk. I don’t know if you have known anybody from that far back, if you have loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man. You gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort…
…I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
Our white innocence constitutes the crime, our exempting ourself from the conversation about racism in this country or our flat out denial of it because we don’t have to see it if we don’t want to in our daily lives.
Baldwin then goes on to bolster his nephew, to empower him and to affirm his knowledge and experience:
This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do and how you could do it, where you could live and whom you could marry.
I know your countrymen do not agree with me here and I hear them. saying, “You exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.
Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words “acceptance” and “integration.” There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.
It strikes me that the people of Ferguson know their own experience. They know whence they came, and it us, the people watching comfortably from afar that must be educated by them. What we believe from afar is not the truth of their lives, and to presume so makes us guilty of the worst arrogance.
Baldwin then continues by calling out even well-meaning white people, people like myself. And here, I think, lies the crux of the problem today:
Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.
It strikes me that in the wake of a black man’s election, among other strides, many white men feel a loss of identity. The world is changing as well as their place in it. It is as though people like George Zimmerman, Eliot Rodgers, Clive Bundy have been shaken from their very skin only to find that their skeleton and internal organs weren’t as strong as they thought. They are like small, weak animals without the protective armor of the past.
Baldwin ends the letter by reminding his nephew of the beauty and promise of America. Indeed, he demonstrates a lovingness toward his country that should shame us, and asks his nephew to live inside this love.
You don’t be afraid. I said it was intended that you should perish, in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go beyond and behind the white man’s definition, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention and by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word “integration” means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.
It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton, dammed rivers, built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer, One of them said, “The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”
You know and I know that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too early. We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you, James, and Godspeed.
I would not presume to offer any words of wisdom to young black men or the people of Ferguson. But I will Baldwin’s voice toward them, and I promise to bend myself down before their expertise and try to listen to what I don’t know or have been unwilling to hear. I promise to rend, day by day, my unearned innocence from my white body and live through the shaking. I promise to remember that it’s still too early to celebrate freedom. We are not free, as the liturgy reminds me.
But may Michael Brown’s soul be free now, and Travyon’s, and all the nameless others.