For me, the honeysuckle does it. Out walking the dog, I pass through that place behind the apartment building where the vine-covered shrubs form a loose fence line with the neighboring townhouses. There, the scent lifts me up from whatever chaos is in my head. I pause and find one underneath, going for the yellow blossom. While the fulsome white catch the eye, I’ve learned from experience. The yellowed, crepey petals store astonishing sweetness.
Montgomery, Alabama. An unexpected pilgrimage.
When the US Congress outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808, domestic trafficking of humans exploded. Montgomery’s railroad and river trade quickly became a grim, teeming market for enslaved people. Traders paraded chained humans up Commerce Street to the center of town, and auctions took place in the direct line of site of the state capitol at the top of Dexter Avenue. By the 1850’s, Alabama’s capital was only the 75th largest city in the country but it had the second largest population of slaves.
Maybe you, like me, are trying to figure out what “spiritual practice” is all about. My Unitarian Universalist congregation and faith strive to be homes for spiritual sustenance; yet I’m often at a loss for how to nourish the spirit outside of Sunday services. I show up to the Women’s Ritual Council full moon circles when I can, light a candle before bed, write gratitudes in my journal. These seem worshipful. So too do yoga, meditation, singing, gardening. But not every stretch or song turns the heart toward Beloved Community.
What makes an activity a form of prayer? And when is it simply self-care?
We believe that hundreds of UU churches signaling to their own members and to the larger community that “our faith takes racism seriously, especially within our own walls” will push our faith toward the beloved community we all seek.
On Sunday, my Unitarian Universalist congregation participated in the first #UUWhiteSupremacyTeachIn. This began as a call to action by Black Lives of UU for congregations around the country the dedicate one day of services to teaching about racism and white supremacy. Our worship team took the charge seriously, shifting not only the content of the service but the very structure of how we gather together. A new seating arrangement brought everyone face-to-face. Without the familiar printed order of service to guide us, we watched videos of anti-racist leaders like Tricia Rose, and worshiped in the company of art and music by people of color. Most notably, our pastors made unflinching use of the term “white supremacy.”
If I hold a room the way the sparkling statue lady does tonight, book-touring her paleo-pedicure-CrossFit happy meal of neoliberal feminism, how will I use my voice?
I too could propitiate the gods of privilege. I might tug loose one rough thread of the story and call it struggle. Might forget to notice who inhabits the room. And the design of it. How thick the walls. Who cannot breach them.
Will I preen?
Or will I speak truth to power?
Racism is the single most critical barrier to building effective coalitions for social change.
Last night at an event focused on building support for immigrant communities, every single participant was a white person.
At a meet-and-greet at a local bar for Virginia Democratic Lieutenant Governor candidates, almost every participant a white woman.
At all the discussions of racial and social justice in my Unitarian Universalist congregation, the attendees are predominantly white people.
At an interfaith vigil that took place after the local JCC and UCC were vandalized with Nazi symbols and hate speech, all but a few attendees were white people.
At the university where I work, a place nationally recognized for the diversity of its student body, the faculty and staff meetings in my department are comprised almost entirely of white people.
At the local Huddle, every attendee is a white woman.
At the “Love Lives Here” family parade in response to Richard Spencer setting up shop in Alexandria, almost all protestors were white people.
At a dialogue hosted by the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution to bridge the post-election divide, all but two of the student organizers and one student participant were white people.
At the Kitchen Conversations at my house, eight of ten participants were white women.
Anyone see a pattern here?
In February 2015, Natasha McKenna, a 37-year old neighbor and mother, called 911. The help she expected was not what showed up. Instead, she was herself arrested on an outstanding warrant. In custody, she suffered a mental health crisis. She was restrained while naked and put into leg shackles and handcuffs. Six Fairfax County police officers in hazmat suits put a bag over her face and tazed her four times. She stopped breathing. Natasha McKenna died a few days later. The deputies responsible for her death faced no charges and continue to work in law enforcement.
Today, SURJ Northern Virginia gathered at the Fairfax County courthouse in front of the detention center where Natasha McKenna was held and brutalized. The protest found its way to Route 123, a narrow and busy corridor through downtown Fairfax. At 9:00am right during rush hour, we stepped out into the street and stopped traffic. Coverage of the story is here and here and here.
People are getting live-killed on Facebook, y’all. If we aren’t showing up now, then when? It’s time to get out there.
SURJ Organizer, 7/10/2016
Over 70 folks came out for the SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) meeting. They had to bring in more chairs. After last week in America, despair and outrage have combusted into something that refuses to stay contained.
The meeting was two hours of focused, efficient movement. We engaged in small group discussions about concrete things we’ve seen white allies do to disrupt racism and cultivate justice in our communities. We heard from the organizers about activities that have gained traction in the first year of this young organization’s life: immigration reform, police accountability, renaming buildings that celebrate the Confederacy, and coordinating a region-wide canvas in majority white neighborhoods in the run-up to the presidential election. We then split into breakout sessions for a deep dive into each of these areas. Finally, we learned about the next public action planned for this coming week.
Around the country, ally organizations are stepping up to make a stand for Black Lives. The focus is on police departments, sheriff’s offices, and Fraternal Orders of Police. Affiliated organizations led by People of Color have put out the call to SURJ and other white allies to take bolder action on issues of police brutality. Facing our white privilege means more than talking about it on social media.
It means showing up.
It’s time to take our horror at what happened to Philando Castile and turn it into a movement.
And what happened to Alton Sterling.
And Natasha McKenna.
And Freddie Gray. And Trayvon Martin. And Michael Brown. And Eric Garner. And Tanisha Anderson. And Tamir Rice. And Zamiel Crawford. And Dominick Wise. And Frank Shephard. And Vincent Valenzuela III. And the 5 Dallas police officers, some of whom had stood with the protestors before the shooting began.
And so many more, each a story. Each a neighbor. Each a life blown short by a force whose call to protect has gone haywire.
The organizers asked who would be there for the coming action.
At a public protest, my skin and income lower the risk of abuse to negligible. This fact does not make me proud.
It makes me raise my hand.
It’s time to show up.
The trick is to tell him the dog can stay in bed with us for the first book. We settle down in the nest of pillows and blankets. Poor, long-suffering Noodle is crammed into my boy’s insistent grasp.
We begin with Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens. The illustrations are rich and the story simple enough.
Simple does not always mean comfortable.
Bug listens and the dog drifts into a warm stupor.
Ms. Jackson left school in 4th grade to take care of her baby cousins and only returned when she was 16 and living in Chicago. She soon had to quit yet again to work as a maid and a laundress. Through all this, she sang in churches, she lifted congregants to their feet. People joined because her voice called to them.
When we finish the book, Bug asks, “What is gospel?”
I give him the barest definition then search up a video on my phone. There she is, young and vivid, her voice weaving in and over a gathered crowd’s soulful noise. She vibrates, filled with light and bright as the sun. The hall is an unnamed church. It is crammed with people, white and black both. At the lectern on the other side of the room, Martin Luther King, Jr. waits with a patient smile.
Bug knows that face, of course. From his first years, King’s image and his words have stood with those of the founding fathers and the flag to which he pledges allegiance. They are basic building blocks in the canon of his education. For him, “I Have Dream” is a prayer both fixed and abstract existing in another time and context. King is prophet from first introduction, forever commanding an elevated position above a faceless crowd.
Now, on my tiny screen, the man, real and revenant, young again. The camera pans from Ms. Jackson’s crackling energy to Dr. King’s measured calm. Heads bop in and out of the frame. My son is transfixed. On the jumpy, amateur film, King steadies himself and seems almost uncertain where to fix his gaze. The force drawing people into jubilation is not him but this woman who opens her voice, this surge of power in song.
Bug is up on his elbows, staring with wide eyes into the screen. “Who is that?” he asks.
“That’s her,” I say. “That’s Mahalia Jackson. This is during the civil rights movement.”
Usually when we do what Bug calls “learny things,” he is more than willing to roll his eyes and tell me how boring it all is. He endures until we can get back to the fun stuff, to Rick Riordan and teen demigods doing battle with gorgons.
For this moment, Poseidon waits. Bug watches, immersed. The camera turns to the room as the song quiets. Young folks and old, black folks and white, faces alive on the long-ago film. They are crammed in together, expectant, ready to step through the door one voice has throw open.
Image from Reed Magazine
A public library is the most democratic thing in the world. What can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants: demagogues can persecute writers and tell them what to write as much as they like, but they cannot vanish what has been written in the past, though they try often enough…People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination.
– Doris Lessing
I forgo my usual lunchtime inertia and go for a walk instead. It helps that the sun is peeking out today. It helps that I decided to quit bitching and do something about my stalled commitment.
This walk is no stroll across campus. I’m on a mission.
The downtown library is 1.5 miles from my office. My empty shopping bag flops against my side as I pass the fire station and the Thai restaurant. The library door is narrow but opens into a space as capacious as an easy chair. Preschoolers chatter. Glass up to the ceiling lets the day drift in and wander.
The stacks seem to lean ever so slightly in my direction, meeting my momentum. I weave first through biographies and then head to the 323s.
The collection I slide through the scanner includes Sylvia Mendez, Mahalia Jackson, Sun Ra. Picture books, bright covers, gritty stories that betray a hidden gleam. Into the bag. Cesar Chavez. A walk up Lincoln’s steps. Elizabeth Cady Stanton catches a lift. So does Toussaint Louverture.
Reading does not equal action. Reading does build the momentum towards it. It opens the hood. It invites a look inside.
I hike the same 1.5 miles back to my office. An afternoon of spreadsheets and graduation planning is waiting.
Sun warms my face. The overstuffed bag presses into my shoulder. It is uphill all the way but the climb feels like something else entirely. Like a neglected engine when it finally hums awake. Like when a latch pops and the light streams in.