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Words are formed by experiences, and words inform our experiences. Words also transform life and the world. I am a writer and Presbyterian minister who grew up in the 1960's in the segregated South of the United States. I've lived in Alaska, the Washington, DC area, and Minnesota. Since 2004 I've lived in Glasgow, Scotland, where I enjoy working on my second novel and serving churches that are between one thing and another. I advocate for the full inclusion of all people in the church and in society, whatever our genders or sexual orientations. Every body matters.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Land of the Fearful and Home of the Bravado

Land of the Fearful and Home of the Bravado

I am not proud to be an American.

Let me say it again, so that any U.S.A.—or U.K., for that matter—government entity can be sure there are no typos in what I mean: I am not proud to be an American.

Following the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, 2012, and the tragic acquittal issued by a jury of Americans to the shooter George Zimmerman in Sanford on July 13, 2013, I am ashamed to belong to a country where the scales of justice are calibrated to support one person’s fear over another person’s freedom to walk down the street.

Add skin color (the fearful person is white, the dead person was black), racial background (the fearful person is a multi-ethnic American, the dead person was an African-American), age (the fearful person is an adult, the dead person was a teenage minor), occupation (the fearful person was training for a career in criminal justice and was coordinator of the neighborhood watch program, and the dead person was a high school student), and circumstances (the fearful person was in their vehicle and had a gun, the dead person was on foot and did not have a weapon), and the question is not “What’s our country coming to?!”

The question is “What’s our country been and how do we want to live differently?!”

European explorers were not good guests where they went—uninvited—to erect systems of exploitation of both natural resources and native people. They used religion and politics to justify economic abuse of foreign environments and their inhabitants. And after claiming for themselves these new worlds—stealing them from the folks who lived there—Europeans have not been good hosts. We keep on bullying. Our national security interests—fear by another name—continue to outweigh other peoples’ freedom to live their lives.

I am not proud to be an heir of this history, but I cannot deny that it is my history. I come from various northern European clans who wanted a better life for themselves even if it meant making other peoples’ lives hell. My great-grandmother Biddle was a piano teacher, in Florida, and I have one of her newspaper ads offering lessons “For Whites Only.” Her son, my grandfather, over the course of his 99 years never quite made the shift from using the n-word to using the term “negro” that Civil Rights leaders used in the mid-1900’s. I only heard Granddaddy Biddle refer to black people as “nigras.”

His son, my father, broke out of that mindset somehow. My dad grew up in the Jim Crow South, in small towns in the Carolinas where my grandfather served as a Presbyterian minister and my grandmother served as a traditional minister’s wife. Needless to say, back then the schools were racially segregated and miscegenation was against the law.

But then a strange thing happened. Some Southern white people and some Southern black people—all Presbyterians—somehow got the idea of letting white teenagers and black teenagers—Presbyterian youth—spend time together in a church camp setting. One of the leaders at these interracial youth events was the Rev. Benjamin Mays, a Baptist minister who was President of Morehouse College and a mentor to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from King’s student years at Morehouse.

For the life of me I can’t imagine what possessed that group of organizers to go against their deeply-held religion—the white Presbyterians would certainly have been indoctrinated about the Bible supporting white supremacy—and to cross widely-held social and political divisions that were believed to have been divinely mandated since the beginning of time. What were they thinking, to risk putting black and white teenage girls and boys in a room together?! If they stopped being afraid of each other, they might start to love one another, and where would that lead? If they got to know each other as children of God, as sisters and brothers in Christ, that could give way to thinking of one another as fellow citizens—all equally due their civil rights.

At least one of those white youths chose to live differently than his ancestors. According to my mother, my dad’s parents always regretted sending him to those interracial events as they believed “that’s where he got off on race.” I am proud to be his daughter. But until every black youth is free to walk down the street—any street in the U.S.A.—without fear of getting shot, we have to tell the truth, the whole truth, about our country’s history, and we have to live differently.

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Read “A Prayer for My Son and Black Boys Everywhere” by Jane Steiner, posted Monday, July 15, 2013 (myextendedtable.blogspot.com).

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