Saturday, January 31, 2015

Owning My Heritage: Sins of the Father Part 2

In the last post, I spoke on my Mother's side of the family mostly, dating back to the 1600's and particularly the family in the following centuries. We were by no means innocent bystanders in those years where racism found the early beginnings to where we are today. For cheap labor and as a means to separate poor white and black people from each other, the stain of racism has been remarkably effective, then and now.

So let me turn to my father's side of the family. We know we were in Virginia before, but the earliest we can prove so far is James A Wicks (Weeks). He moved from Virginia with his wife to northern Alabama, then across the border into Fayetteville, Tennessee where he became a farmer, and we know he owned people as well. The old property is marked today by the Wicks Cemetery Road. He was well known apparently and in Alabama he had been a church leader we know. Then as now, we know that people and religion too often twist the bad and call it good. It's in my heart what I feel was happening here. Here's what I found in the Fayetteville Observer dated June 6, 1861, just two days before Tennessee would vote to secede from the union:

Just below that was this in the same paper:

I could not help but gasp at the audacity of that second part. They call on the people of Tennessee to choose freedom over slavery! Seriously? Freedom to you is fighting to protect your right to own human beings? What sort of moral, or perhaps immoral leap of faith can enable someone to speak these words and actually believe them? Aren't they the same sort of beliefs that allow white people today to say this was all in the past and we hold no special privilege as white people despite abundant evidence to the contrary? How are we less guilty today for our obstinate insistence upon living a lie as we were then?

In the same paper, my ancestor, James A. Wicks was named one of the representatives for the House Guards of Minute Men, appointed to help in common defense against the Yankees. Ready to stand strong in defense of his freedom to own human beings. Over time the family would spread, and my grandfather and grandmother lived in North East Texas. I remember Grandpa telling stories of the Night Riders. Not only black people were afraid of them. If they caught you out after dark and one of the members had a beef with you, you could easily disappear and never be heard from again. Still, there was clear privilege in being white. There's a story I like to tell that brings home that point.

My grandfather lost out on any inheritance, and was relegated to working as a sharecropper. White and black, they worked along side with long hours, back breaking work picking cotton, and always in debt to the boss man. One day the boss arbitrarily wanted the shack they were staying in so he could tear it down and grow on that land. So grandpa had to go look for other arrangements. Well about a week later, a wrecking crew shows up. They were supposed to have two weeks to get out, but they changed their mind. My Grandma, bless her soul, went into the house and came out with a shotgun in hand. She quietly aimed it at the crew chief and said they'd be out in another week, but if he made another move, he was a dead man. They left. So where's the privilege. They would be the first to tell you that if a black man or woman had done that, the night riders would show up soon after and the entire family would disappear. That was their reality.

My parents were a bit more progressive. Still they didn't really get the whole civil rights thing, and my Daddy talked about being a sharecropper and working as hard as they did, and after all, didn't he pull himself up by the bootstrap and become a civil engineer. Don't get me wrong. What he did was good. But in the real world, he had opportunities that others did not. I remember from my own childhood growing up in the Jim Crow East Texas, the poor shape of the schools, the lack of funding or support we took for granted. I remember sundown towns where a black person needed to be out of town by sunset. Or the separate entrances into one movie theater where black people could attend though separated from the rest of us. I have to look inside my own self. Why did it take me so long to see something was terribly wrong?

I do not think mine is a solitary journey. I am telling my own story of race, but there are others. Let the healing begin.

Owning My Heritage: Sins of the Fathers

Today we find ourselves in the midst of a new Civil Rights movement. My prayer is that we will at long last come to grips with our nation's disgraceful history around race, from Slavery to Jim Crow to Mass Incarceration. It also is abundantly clear that Four Hundred years of indoctrination stands as a massive barrier to moving forward. I think it is crucial that we people, especially we white people, face that history head on and own our past and our role in perpetuating that past. Only then can we really move forward to work towards healing. We too often are blind to our privilege and blind to the serious harm we are doing to so many others in our refusal to face this past. Here then is the first of several blog entries where I will face some of my own history.

Not all my family has been documented that well in early America, but one line has. My family on my mom's side has been faithfully documented ever since the Dedman's (Debnam's, Dudman's) arrived in Virginia as early as 1631. We see the first indications of owning slaves in the 1700's. In the will of Phillip Dedman Jr, we read in part from The Dedman Geneaology and Allied Families, Wanda Colvin, 1983:

"I give to my son Philip Dedman my Negroes, Will, Tom, and Mole, upon express condition the he suffer my wife to hold and enjoy the use of Tom during her natural life...and upon condition Mole be allowed to go and work upon my land"...(all to last until she passes.) He goes on to give to his son Samuel land purchased in Mecklenburg "my negroes named Diego, Jenny, Nanny, and Paul upon express condition that he suffer my wife to hold and enjoy the use of Nanny during her natural life." Then he proceeds to give his daughter Mary Dunn "one negro woman named Frank and two negro girls named Kabe and Edy, and Harry, a negro boy, upon express condition that my wife shall have the use of Kabe during her natural life." Daughter Susan also gets a girl named Phillis, Sarah and her child Mary, and Grace and her child Lawney.

So that's 16 human lives being passed off as property. What relationships were broken in this parceling out of human lives? Were they beaten? Are there some who never show up because they perished before the writing and probate of the will? We don't know those stories, but we know all of those things were possible. What follows in this genealogy is page after page of future generations, parceling out people like land. Later however they did not even bother itemizing the names of these souls, instead stating only "certain negroes."

So on it went. Many fought in the Civil War, defending a system of human enslavement. I found similar stories on my Father's side, though so far not so well documented. My family on Mom's side made lots of money in the lumber business, much on the backs of the hard labor of poor black and white men. I'll talk a bit more about my dad's side of the family in another post. I visited and even worked for a time in one of their sawmills. I heard the N word tossed about with such contempt.

I relate all of this, not out of any pride. No pride to be found there. Many of these people no doubt possessed good qualities. Very few are all good or all bad. But they by their action and I might by inaction as well, supported a system of inequality. They benefitted from it. Some were very well to do thanks to this system of inequality. It's hard truth by which each life must be judged.

So why drag out the dirty laundry? I think people like me have been conditioned to gloss over or relegate to the past a reality which still lives on. Look around all those who would see. Unequal education, policing and justice systems that preserve the advantages of whiteness. We cannot move forward until we own our participation in this injustice. We cannot continue to pretend the history most of us got in school is anywhere close to the truth. The truth will set you free. Only however if you face it. Our problem is NOT a black problem. It's not hoodies or naturals or any of that. Our problem is white people, and we as white people have to step forward and act. In the AIDS years of the early eighties, there was a saying. "Silence = Death." it's true here too. It's not South or North. It's right vs wrong. It's a white people thing. I've no power over what my ancestors did. I do however bear a responsibility, to make amends for the wrongs they did, but also for my own behavior as a human being in a society still structured around racist notions of inequality. Or as my church social justice arm says it, standing on the side of love. If we own it, perhaps eventually we can fix it.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Justice and Faith

Where Black Lives Matter and Faith Intersect: Some Thoughts

Tonight we met at church. Many who marched in St Paul on Reclaim MLK day. Others who were present at the Mall of America protest. Others committed to justice who for one reason or another could not attend. White voices and black voices joined in church community

We spoke honestly of where we individually are in the movement. We were asked to reflect on the role of faith community in all of this. So I had to ask myself, what exactly is the role of a faith community? Understand when I speak of faith, it does not require a particular belief, or even a Deity in the traditional sense although that may be a person’s experience. For me, the ideal of a faith community is one brought together by similar values centered in love and committed to community.

I love history. It’s a wonderful source for me to understand today by looking how people have handled it before me. This week we learned of the lifting of the convictions of the Friendship 9 in North Carolina. People so committed to liberty, they approached those lunch counters and were arrested and refused to bail out, working on the chain gang instead, giving witness to injustice and offering solutions rooted in non-violence and love. During the fifties and early sixties, people stepped forward, bravely standing non-violently in the face of dog attacks, water hoses, cattle prods, and active violence. Courageous white people came forward, like our James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, offering their very lives as the price for justice. Think about it. Voices in all communities saying they were wrong, this was not the way to bring about change. But still there they were, in individual and organized acts of audacious faith.

What resonates for me also in those stories was the amazing role played by faith communities during that time. Facing fear is never easy, but much better faced in community together than alone. How in those days, the Black Churches especially, but some of our own Unitarian Universalist churches provided support, strength and succor in very difficult times. How our own John Cummins answered the call following the death of James Reeb to march along side so many others in Selma. Black and brown and white bodies, strengthened in their own faith and communities who supported them even as so many others hurled insults, rocks, spit, and hate their way.

So what is faith? It is not having all the answers? After all, the forces for the status quo will always provide all the doubts one could ask for to remain motionless and non-threatening. No, I think faith is a conviction for justice stepping out into the unknowing uncertainty AND fear, rooted in the principles of compassion shared by virtually every religious body and ethical society. Not knowing what will happen, but firmly rooted in what is right and just. Those people that came before us in Little Rock or North Carolina or Mississippi could not know what the outcome would be. Theirs was an act of love, faith, and hope rooted in compassion. The roots spring from the very best of what we can be as people. Singing the lyrics of We Shall Overcome, each step moving us forward in the void of not knowing.

As we sat together tonight, sharing our own strength and our own fears, I thought how empowering it was to have a community to share with such intimacy. Where we could air our own fears, doubts, along with our hopes. It occurred to me that when we speak of faith, a corollary of that faith is hope. Faith and hope firmly rooted in love. My mind went back to my childhood in East Texas. I would hear the older black men and women speak the most wonderful juxtaposition of words. If one were to say to the other “I’ll help you with that,” the words spoken would be “I’ll HOPE you with that.” To my ear, I heard the prayerful hope as implicit in their help with each other. It resonated within my soul. To me, it strikes at the heart of what faith and justice is all about. Yes, I have fear, and I have trepidation. I’ve also a community that will HOPE me with that as I step forward in faith trying to do the right thing.. Perhaps today through our actions, just as then, we shall overcome. But only if I HOPE it be so.