Sermon: Is It Always About Race (audio and text)

READINGS

Words of James Baldwin from “I am Not your Negro”

 “I am an American. My life was on the streets of NYC, and one of the most terrible things was to discover what means to be black in the world. You watch as you get older the corpses of your brothers and sisters pile up around you, too young to have done anything. And you realize that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you have right to be here, you have attacked power structure of the western world. Forget the negro problem. What we ought to look at is how brother is murdering brother, knowing that he is his brother.

“The real problem is not whether you are willing to look at your life be responsible for it and change it. It is that the American people are unable to realize that I am flesh of their flesh, bone of their bones, created by them, my blood, my father’s blood is in that soil.”

ONE LOVE by Hope Johnson

WE are one,

 A diverse group

 Of proudly kindred spirits

Here, not by coincidence —

 But because we choose to journey – together

We are active, proactive

 We care, deeply

We live our love, as best we can

 We ARE one

 Working, Eating, Laughing,

 Playing, Singing, Sharing, Rejoicing, Storytelling.

 Getting to know each other,

 Taking risks

 Opening up.

 Questioning, Seeking, Searching…

 Trying to understand…

 Struggling…

 Making our Mistakes

 Paying Attention…

Asking our Question

 Listening…

 Living our Answers

 Learning to love our neighbors

 Learning to love ourselves

 Apologizing, with humility Forgiving, with humility

 Being forgiven, through Grace.

 Creating the Beloved Community – Together

We are ONE.

SERMON

            Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah tells the story in her essay “The Weight” of how she made up her mind to visit the house where the writer James Baldwin spent his last days in France.

Actually, it was a friend’s idea, she writes. He said that he knew from a trip to France where the house was in the sunny Cote d’Azur region. They could see the house, then walk up the road to the hotel that Baldwin frequented and have some drinks – make a day of it. It was, she acknowledged, a bit of a lark. After all, she says, she was just beginning to make a bit of money from her writing and her finances were precarious.

Also, she said, while she liked Baldwin, it was, “in a divested way.” He was, after all, a literary lion in the African-American community. But she found him off-putting, in her words: “the strangely accented, ponderous way he spoke in interviews. . .  the bored, above-it-all figure that white people revered because he could stay collected while the streets boiled.” And his decision to escape to France and avoid the fate that many black Americans of his generations suffered. But, since she was in London anyway on another assignment, it would be an easy trip. She decided to go.

On the train ride to Provence, she found her thoughts begin to shift to the first time she bumped up against Baldwin. She had been hired as an intern at what she describes as “one of the nation’s oldest magazines.” Shortly after arriving, she was informed that she was believed to be the first black intern that the magazine had hired. Instead of assuring her, that news, she said, made her feel “like an oddity,” making her wonder if she was hired for her talent or as “merely” as a product of affirmative action.

After a few weeks, when she was the only intern asked to do physical labor – reorganize the magazine’s archives – she fretted over whether to object to that. She was rewarded, though, when searching through old index cards to discover one noting a payment to Baldwin in 1965 for one of his most famous essays. It reminded her that Baldwin was one of the few who had escaped the tangle of America’s racism and written himself into the canon of great literature.

She got to Baldwin’s former home, and from the outside, she writes, it looked “ethereal.” She could imagine his garden, the dining room where he hosted the likes of Josephine Baker, a house full of life and books.

What she found inside was something different: a shambles overgrown with vines, empty of furniture with missing doors and smashed windows, though still with a kitchen featuring an orange sink and purple shelves, but posted with notices from a company tasked with tearing the house down. It was, she said, the first time she fully understood the weight the Baldwin carried.

Ghansah’s essay is one of nearly 20 collected in a book published last year called “The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race.” And each of them speaks to the challenge that they feel Baldwin’s book, “The Fire Next Time,” published more than 50 years ago, offers today.

We come to an interesting moment these days in this nation’s struggles for racial reconciliation. We are nearing the close of the half-century celebrations of the great Civil Rights victories of the 60s – the Montgomery bus boycott, the Birmingham protests, the Selma march, concluding on a somber note this coming April when we mark the 50th anniversary of the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a Memphis motel.

 So, perhaps it’s appropriate that this should be James Baldwin’s time. A man very much aligned with the great struggles of the Civil Rights era, yet outside them. An artful writer whose style appealed more to literary societies than the streets. A gay man who enjoyed the cadences of Biblical preachers but was not a believer. An ex-patriot who made his residence in France in his 20s, yet returned regularly to the U.S. for literary tours, where he was a reliably provocative media presence.

Now, 30 years after his death at the Provencal home that Ghansah visited, his voice has returned to us in a stunning documentary by Raoul Peck called “I Am Not Your Negro.” Peck splices together video of Baldwin’s appearances with interviewers like Dick Cavett with footage from both Civil Rights marches and recent racial conflicts, such as the protests at Ferguson, Missouri, narrated by the actor Samuel Jackson speaking Baldwin’s words.

It’s a haunting and disturbing film, not least because Baldwin’s laments about race in America sound so contemporary. But also because the film is premised on a proposal Baldwin made for a book that he never ended up writing. That book was to include sketches of three great Civil Rights leaders whom he knew – Medger Evers, Malcolm X , and King – all of whom were born after him, yet died a good 20 years before he did.

It is in a sense both eulogy and manifesto, the case he sought to make for the work before us all. “There are days,” he tells interviewer Dick Cavett in the movie, “when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is, how you’re going to reconcile yourself to a situation here, and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking cruel white majority that you are here. I’m terrified by the moral apathy, the death of the heart, that is happening in my country. These people don’t even think I’m human. They have become in themselves moral monsters.”

It echoes the perspective that Baldwin offered in The Fire Next Time, in a piece written as a letter to his nephew, James, named after him. Black people, he told his nephew, as they get older watch “the corpses of your brothers and sisters pile up around you, too young to have done anything. And you realize that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you have a right to be here, you have attacked the power structure of the western world. Forget the negro problem: what we ought to look at is how brother is murdering brother, knowing that he is his brother.”

I find it remarkable how Baldwin’s argument connects with some of the most prophetic voices today. Last Thursday, Michelle Alexander came to UNC-A to be interviewed before hundreds at the Kimmel Arena on her take on next steps in this struggle.

In the years after King died, she said, the movement took a turn toward what she called “professional civil rights advocacy,” where organizers worked to become “political insiders who were focused on advocacy and lobbying,” but failed to take note of a backlash that was brewing. Now, she said, “we’re moving from an understanding of civil rights as a political and legal concern to a profound moral and spiritual crisis facing this nation.”

It’s no surprise that Alexander closed her celebrated book, The New Jim Crow, with an extended quotation from The Fire Next Time:

 “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen,” Baldwin writes, “and for which I and history will never 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.”

And still, Baldwin urges his nephew to remember that each of thr people who write him off, “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.”

His words echo those I heard just the next day, Friday, in a similar community interview with Patrice Khan-Cullors, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. She told a gathering of about 200 at Rainbow Community that she worried a bit about where this powerful movement she helped launch goes next.

“Too many people,” she said, “are being discarded. We need to understand how to be in community and not let the toxicity of these times infect us.”

The work of the movement, Khan-Cullors said, is to find out how to cultivate not just resistance, but also what she called “community care.”

We are only beginning to understand what community care might look like in this context. As each of these prophetic voices attest, it is centered on a conviction in radical equality, radical inclusion, radical compassion: radical in the sense that they admit no qualifiers: equality, except for; inclusion, except for; compassion, except for.

We must all of us be all in. And to make that happen requires, as Hope Johnson suggests in the reading you heard earlier, that we understand all the dimensions of the seemingly simple phrase: We are one.

To begin with, she says, “we” is not a haphazard noun; it doesn’t happen by coincidence. “We” is created, acknowledged, accepted. When I draw another person into a “we” I intentionally assert that the two of us are Iinked in some important way, we are involved in each other and so at least potentially of concern to each other. As Hope puts it, we two diverse souls with our individual natures, individual thoughts, individual histories join as “proudly kindred spirits.

What we make of that moment of shared interest, shared destiny is for us to decide. It can be cultivated and deepened, or it can be squandered and ignored. But it is there before us – a choice to reach out, to align ourselves with another, to explore what we share.

We ARE: As two people joined as “we” there is so much we might share – working, eating, laughing, playing, telling and hearing stories. And, who knows, maybe taking the risk to trust, opening up, trying to understand, struggling, making mistakes, apologizing, forgiving, being forgiven, learning to love our neighbors, learning to love ourselves.

What was it that James Baldwin said? “We will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, we will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos . . . steeples, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the act of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.”

It is a charge as old as Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life that you and your children may live.”

            So, what will it take us to choose life? Us choosing life, choosing a way that might bring about the flourishing of every soul, each of us wildly diverse in so many ways, yet at our core indivisible, one.

            Baldwin was skeptical that we were capable of such a turn. “I am tired,” he told Cavett in one of those interviews. “I don’t know how it will come about. I know no matter how it comes about it will be bloody, it will be hard. I believe we can do something with this country that’s never been done before. We don’t need numbers; we need passion.”

            And the question before us now is whether we are willing to bring passion to that work. For himself, Baldwin said, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means you have agreed that human live is an academic matter. So, I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive because I have survived. But the future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of this country. And it’s up to the American people whether or not they’re going to face, deal with and embrace this stranger who they have maligned for so long.”

            Up to us to decide if we are ready to affirm with full heart and no exceptions: we are one.