Thursday, June 01, 2017

To sing not enough ...

Yesterday morning I joined with a group of people in a park in downtown Charlottesville.  The park has been getting a lot of attention lately, both locally and in the national media, because of an effort to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee which stands so prominently in its center.

A couple of weeks back a rally was held in front of the statue.  Richard Spencer, the man who is credited with coining the term "alt-right," led a torch-bearing crowd in chanting, "We will not be replaced," and the Nazi-era slogan, "blood and soil."  The next night, a larger crowd gathered, bearing candles, to say that Charlottesville should be a place where all people are welcome, and that the stories, the experiences, the lives of People of Color will no longer be dismissed and ignored.

Word went out that there would be a "pro-Confederacy" rally yesterday morning at 10:00, so a group came together at 9:00 so as to be there to greet them.  Signs and banners were gathered, prayers were spoken, songs were sung ... we even hummed "Amazing Grace" over and over again as people read from the Bible, made stirring speeches, and prayed some more.

And I was there, with others from the Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve, singing, and humming, and chanting with everyone else.  I even was moved to give voice to a prayer of my own. 
"Let us not be fooled into thinking that rallies are enough.  We can sing all we want to, but if lives aren't changed for the better, it will be in vain."
Earlier I had been walking around the periphery of the crowd -- trying to get a photo of the congregation's banner, truth be told -- when I was stopped by an African American man who wanted me to explain to him why I was there and why I was saying "Black Lives Matter" when, really, all lives should matter.  There was a small group around us -- some of whom I recognized from other pro-statue rallies -- but it was pretty much only the two of us talking.

A point he was trying to make was that from his perspective, People of Color in Charlottesville don't really care all that much about whether there's a statue of Lee in Lee Park.  They care about the gangs that have taken over the projects; they care about jobs, and housing, and unfair incarceration rates.  He said, essentially, "why don't all you white folks who're here singing get together in the projects and do something to actually make a difference in people's lives?  That's what will bring people together.  This stuff will just divide us further."

I have heard this same point made even closer to home.  The Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church has been a frequent guest in our pulpit, and he has said this same thing about our congregation's decades-long wrestling over whether or not to change our congregation's name -- "people in the Black community," he has said, "don't really care whether this church is named after Thomas Jefferson or not.  We care about jobs, and drugs, and real problems that affect real people."  [An interesting coincidence -- the man I was speaking to in the park is a member of Ebenezer.]

Now ... while I do hear this, I also hear the voices of other People of Color, here and around the country, who talk with equal clarity about how the names and the statues do matter.  The mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, gave a powerful speech a week or so ago about why it was so important that the city had taken the step of removing four Confederate monuments.  If you haven't heard it, you should.  [Here's a transcript of the speech, but his delivery was incredible, so I encourage you to actually watch and listen to it.]

Anybody who's ever read even a little of what I've written knows that I am very much a both/and guy, and I recognize that there are a lot of perspectives on this country's history with regards to race, how to understand its present, and where (and how) we should go from here.  The people on one side of the issue have a lot of different motivations for holding the views that they do, as is true for those on the other side, and there is another whole group who, for a whole lot of different reasons, fall somewhere in between.  So I do see that this isn't just, excuse me, black and white.


At the same time that I recognize that there are a lot of different perspectives, I also recognize that some of those perspectives have been consciously, intentionally, and systematically denied or denigrated.  While I know that there are a number of different voices offering a number of different stories, each of which I believe has some core of validity, I also know that there are some voices which have been purposefully silenced.  This is one of the things I think Mayor Landrieu did so well in his speech -- he recognized the existence of a variety of perspectives, denying none of them, and he named the importance of now listening more attentively to those perspectives, to those people, who have been for two long pushed to the margins of U.S. society.

So I understand that names and statues don't matter for some, and I understand that for some they matter a lot, and I understand that for some they have been painful for a long, long time and that that pain has been ignored. I also know that for me, I will side with those whose voices have gone too long unheard; I will cast my lot who are asking that their too long unrecognized pain for finally seen and responded to; I will show up when I am asked to show up as a sign of solidarity with those who have been pushed to the periphery.

That's why I was there yesterday morning, singing, and humming, and holding a sign that says "Black Lives Matter," because there has never been a question in this country that white lives matter.  What has been said repeatedly, and in ways both subtle and overt, is that Black lives don't matter, and I will lend my voice, my time, my energy, my body to the growing number of people insisting that we, as a country, no longer pretend that there is a rot in the roots of the nation, and demanding that we do something about it.  Black lives do matter, all evidence to the contrary.  And until our reality reflects this rhetoric, I will keep showing up.

Yet there's one more both/and here, and that's that while I will keep showing up because I think it is important to gather to sing, I also recognize that singing is not enough.  If all we do is show up in the park on a Wednesday morning and sing, and hum, and speak strong words, but the gangs remain a presence in the projects, and African Americans are more likely than whites to have negative interactions with the police, and our legal system remains so obscenely imbalanced, and ... if these things don't change, none of the songs of solidarity will matter much at all.

What would happen if all of the people who identify as white who show up at rallies like this were to put as much energy and enthusiasm into making a real difference in the real lives of real people as we do in putting on a show?  (Note that I said, "we" there, because I should certainly be asking myself that question, no less than any other large-hearted, well-meaning, liberal white person.)

A post from a Charlottesville man named Chris Newman (owner of the local Sylvanaqua Farms), responding to the candle-light follow-up to the torch-lit rally, recently went viral.  He begins:
A message to Charlottesville about Lee Park from your local Black farmer:
I know some folks are really feeling themselves about this whole Love Trumps Hate counter-rally to Richard Spencer's punch-worthy shenanigans in Lee Park.  I'd like to appreciate it, but frankly I just don't.
He goes on to describe Charlottesville as "the most aggressively segregated place" he has ever lived, and he describes some of the realities he faces as someone "farming while black."  He concludes.  
Truth is, as a Black dude, I'm far less bothered by the flag wavers [...] than this town's progressives assuming its race problem has nothing to do with them.  The former is a visual inconvenience.  The later could leave my daughters without a father.  
So please, put down the candles and instead ask yourself:  why is my city like this?  Why is life like this for Black people in my wonderful city?  The answer is a lot closer to home than Richard Spencer or Lee Park.
Singing is not enough.  It's never been enough -- important, even essential as it is, it's not enough.  We do need to ask those questions Mr. Newman encourages us all to ask, and then we really have to go out there and do something about it.

Pax tecum,


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1 comment:

arthurrashap said...

Powerful preface to a next: So What?
What then follows "do something about it?"
There is increasing energy 'out there" and perhaps "in here" (as it relates to our inner beings) that is in danger of being dissipated, frustrated, and end up perhaps mis-directed.

I am seeing the "so what" ends up showing up, singing, flashing signs, and going about our everyday lives doing pretty much nothing to emulated our great teachers and spiritual guides.