“Am I a White Supremacist?” – Mark W. Harris
October 1, 2017 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Opening Words – “My People” by Langston Hughes
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.
Beautiful, also is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
Responsive Reading – adapted from “Dusk” by Langston Hughes
Wandering in the dusk,
You get lost in the dusk—
And sometimes not.
Beating your fists
Against the wall,
You break your bones
Against the wall—
But sometimes not.
Walls have been known
Dusk turn to dawn,
And chains be gone!
“Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes (excerpt)
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
. . .
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
From The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing. One watched the lives they led. One could not be fooled about that; one watched the things they did and the excuses that they gave themselves, and If a white man was really in trouble, deep trouble, it was to the Negro’s door that he came. And one felt that if one had had that white man’s worldly advantages, one would never have become as bewildered and as joyless and as thoughtlessly cruel as he. The Negro came to the white man for a roof or for five dollars or for a letter to the judge; the white man came to the Negro for love. But he was not often able to give what he came seeking. The price was too high; he had too much to lose, And the Negro knew this, too. When one knows this about a man, it is impossible for one to hate him, but unless he becomes a man – becomes equal – it is also impossible for one to love him.
Sermon – Am I a White Supremacist?” Mark W. Harris
Last spring the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters exploded. I don’t mean literally, as it was not the subject of some terrorist attack. This metaphorical explosion was within the hierarchy of staff people. Heads rolled, as they say. The UUA is divided into administrative regions, and the lead executive position in the Southern region was open. As it turned out the person chosen for the job was a white, male minister. One of the people who was rejected for the job was a Hispanic non-ordained woman. A friend of hers was upset that once again a white, male minister had been chosen at the expense of a person of color, and she began an electronic media barrage of protest. It worked. The President of the UUA, even though he is Hispanic, soon resigned, in the midst of an escalating controversy over the UUA’s hiring practices and insensitive statements he made in response to charges that those policies reflect and perpetuate “white supremacy” in our liberal but mostly white religious movement. Soon thereafter the executive vice-president, who was my best friend in seminary, and the person in charge of all the regional leads also resigned. Both of these staff resignations were of white, male ministers. After that, some unkind words were hurled around on social media sites, three African American UUs were named as interim co-presidents, and some peace came to the movement at General Assembly, where a new president, who is a woman, was elected. There have since been at least two appointments to executive positions, both African-Americans.
The appointment of black leaders is meant to redress years and years of white administrative control. There were significant numbers of African Americans in Unitarian Universalist congregations until the late 1960s and early 1970s when what has become known as the Black Empowerment Controversy roiled our denomination. Here a coalition that desired a group with black majority leadership and funding was waylaid by two things. First, many liberals would only accept integrated organizations, blacks and whites working together, but in reality affirming continued white control of power and funding, and second the movement was in a financial crisis, and the funding was simply not sufficient to support these programs. It ended poorly, and many African-Americans left the UUA. Much of our Black UU History has been uncovered by my friend and colleague Mark Morrison-Reed. He has an article in the current UU World called “The Black Hole in the White UU Psyche.” Mark says that we once had black leaders that we have failed to remember, and thereby create a self-fulfilling prophecy that we do not appeal to African-Americans.
Not long ago an ESPN reporter called President Trump a white supremacist. He responded by saying she should be fired. While most of us would probably agree with the reporter on this, we would hardly think that the word should be applied to us. In fact, last spring the implication was being made that every white person is a white supremacist. My initial response was, hold the phone. I am one of the good guys. I believe in equality. I have worked for civil rights. I want to see more black leaders. Am I not the one who suggested that the Watertown Police Department was far too white in its make up, and we needed to have black role models. Yet the more I thought about it the more I understood what was meant by white supremacy. While I may not be a member of the Ku Klux Klan or advocate that white people are inherently better than others, I am implicitly involved and uphold a culture of white supremacy in my daily life. It is more than being a recipient of white privilege, which gives advantages of education, and housing, and no one stops my car because I am suspected of something nefarious. White supremacy means that whiteness determines opportunities for wealth and education and location. It determines who runs things and who controls our values of what is right and what is beautiful in our culture. It is why Puerto Rico gets a slower response to receiving help after a hurricane. It is the President saying to those owners of professional football teams, “get those slaves in order, or fire the SOBs.” I believe the players have every right to protest inequality in our country. It is not about the flag or the military. Don’t you know that a disproportionate number of African-American men died in Vietnam? It is about power and authority. Black lives must matter, because they have not mattered heretofore.
So much of white supremacy is how we remember and live out our history. I was an insatiable Civil War buff as a kid and college student. I once knew everything about the war, except what it meant. I purchased a Confederate flag because I thought it was a cool flag, and I hung it on my wall as a college freshman. Down the hall from me there was a freshman from New Jersey named Walter. One day Walter, who is black, came into my room, and was outraged that I had a Confederate flag hanging there. To him it meant that I must have been a Klan sympathizer. He told me how it signified a racist, violent past and all the elements of the oppression of black Americans. Mortified, I quickly took it down. More important I realized how this symbol hurt others. It was more than history. It was a past that continued to be lived in the minds and hearts of many. Here is another example closer to home. Last Saturday at Faire on the Square someone pointed out the brochure about the new town regulation barring the use of plastic bags in local stores. She said a church member who is Hispanic was upset by the graphic image which shows a white Puritan settler shaking hands with a Native American, while both have a bag with a recycling symbol slung over their shoulders, a slight variation on our town seal. The display of a confederate flag by a college student 50 years ago was one thing, but where was the problem here? Of course what the graphic does is portray a myth about the relationship between the white culture that was soon to destroy Native life. Should we change our town seal because it reflects a myth and denies the history of white supremacy?
Moms Mabley was a comedian who I used to see on the Ed Sullivan show. An older black woman, one of her stories begins with the era when they first integrated a lunch counter of the Woolworth’s in a Southern town. A black woman went in, sat down and ordered ham hocks. The waitress replied that they did not serve ham hocks. “All right,” the hungry customer said, “then I’ll have chitlins.” The reply came back that they didn’t serve those either. “well, I’ll be,” the woman said, “then I’ll just take some collard greens.” But unfortunately, there were no collard greens on the menu either. Finally, the woman, in a state of exasperation replied, “this place isn’t ready to be integrated.” They didn’t speak the same language. It reminds me of being with my father when we visited a state in the mid-West, where he tried to order a Frappe at a restaurant, and the waitress looked at him as if he was crazy. There was no such thing in her universe, and he kept insisting because it was what he knew and loved. It was ugly. Too often in the past when we have spoken about diversity or inclusion, or asked the question of why we don’t have more black members, the presumption has been that these new members would come and be like us. We have what’s right for us, and so we believe they can join us, as long as they eat what we eat. These are our standards to live by: We don’t clap in church. We don’t move our bodies, as our former intern Darrick Jackson reminds us in an article in UU World. The point is that if we truly want to grow our faith and practice greater inclusion then we would show some openness to perspectives that are different than our own. We might consider different decision making procedures, adjust our cultural standards, recognize that things are more complex than we think, and finally broaden access to things like jobs, money, voice and visibility. White supremacy is a term that describes the culture we are part of. It is a set of institutional assumptions and practices that often operate unconsciously, that tend to benefit white people and exclude people of color. One of our regional staff, Meck Groot, reminds us that it is not our fault, but it is our responsibility. And if we want to be a liberating faith, and not just a liberal one, we have to address this legacy and see how it is made manifest in our lives, our culture, and our habits.
Our collective memory of the past, and especially that of the Civil War has brought out painful issues. Controversies over the removal of statues of Confederate leaders, representatives of a rebel nation that advocated white supremacy, have surfaced. I had my eyes opened in June with the experience of visiting Whitney Plantation, in Louisiana. It is the only plantation you can visit where the story of the antebellum South is told from the slave’s perspective. Here we each met a child whose imagined likeness is carved into a statue in the Freedman’s Chapel. Your first task as visitor is to find your particular child. I met Mary Ann who never spent a day in school. Her sister was born right in the field of this sugar plantation. And her mother had to go back to work immediately after the birth. Being in New Orleans had already prepared me for this story, as I saw a city square that was once the largest slave market in the country. At the same time I was reading a book called The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Its central thesis is one that belies the history I learned as a child. If you were like me you learned that slavery was not economically successful, but was a benign institution that would eventually have died out. That meant that the war was a needless one. But according to this book it turns out that slavery was enormously successful. It was the engine that empowered capitalism, and produced our economy today or what Langston Hughes calls dog eat dog, and mighty crush the weak.
If we all began to believe a myth about why the war was fought, and the role of slavery in that process, we also learned a myth about what was most important to uphold in the national myth. We learned that reconciliation of white brother to white brother was more important than racial justice. White supremacy conquered equality in the stories we learned. The soldierly virtue of devotion, whatever the cause, became paramount in celebration of what became Memorial Day. And the first major statue to be raised in Richmond after the war was that of Stonewall Jackson. They put up an enduring memory of the man who stood like a stone wall at Bull Run, and became a great Confederate hero. Yet the true history is that the first memorial day was a celebration of remembrance carried about by African-Americans in Charleston when they invoked the book of Leviticus and declared the year of Jubilee. Free at last! Many Southerners say their statues represent their history, but their history is a myth. The romanticized lost cause of the Confederacy represented by Lee, Jackson and Davis, most especially at Stone Mountain in Georgia is noble men who fought for noble principles. But the problem is they fought for white supremacy, they fought to uphold slavery. Put the statues in a museum, and never forget that slavery was the cause of the war, and emancipation was its most meaningful outcome. But further, remember that African–Americans played a vital role in that war, more than 180,000 fought in it, and that the abolitionists prefigured our civil rights workers of the 20th century, and were not as Robert E. Lee said, radicals who stirred up sectional hatred while white slave-holders were hurt more by slavery than blacks, who slave holders said were being elevated from barbarism.
It is the abolitionists, and the civil rights workers and our fellow protest marchers today who shout for equality still. I felt compelled to march in mid-August in protest of a neo-Nazi gathering masquerading as a free speech rally, but it turned into a march against the hate speech and actions we witnessed in Charlottesville. We are called to stand up for justice and equality. We hold up those football players who protest inequality and police brutality, alongside those in our history we have forgotten. As many of you know, I have been working on a second edition of my Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism. Almost two years ago Mark Morrison Reed wrote to me from Des Moines, telling me that he had a “must include” entry for my dictionary: Edna Griffin. She was an African-American civil rights pioneer, who is remembered as the “Rosa Parks of Iowa.” She was raised in the white world of New England, attending the Unitarian Church in Walpole, NH. She moved to Iowa with her husband, a doctor. Seven years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, Edna Griffin also said no. It was July 7, 1948, and she was walking down the streets of Des Moines, when she met two young man, who were also members of the Progressive Party. She had recently had a baby girl. It was hot that day, and she and one of the men entered a Katz Drug Store in downtown Des Moines. They ordered ice cream Sundaes, but as the waitress approached the ice cream dispenser, a young man came up and whispered in her ear. She returned to the counter to say to Griffin and her companion that she was not allowed to serve them because of their race. They asked to see the manager. The manger informed them that the waitress was correct, “colored” people would not be served. This small protest resulted in a civil and criminal law suit against Mr. Katz for his discriminatory policies which were in violation of Iowa’s law. Although Katz had managed to uphold a policy of de facto discrimination for decades, Mrs. Griffin was able to construct an image of herself as a veteran and mother, which appealed to the patriotism of the jury. This was patriotic, she said, “to help establish the equal dignity and equal rights of my people.” The result: She won her case on appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.
Edna Griffin was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, and later became the first black woman to serve on the UUA‘s Board of Trustees. Her life underscores how we have lost or forgotten black leadership in our liberal religious tradition. Regaining their stories is one way to begin to balance the heritage of white supremacy about what stories we tell. Yet Griffin felt burdened. White church members kept assailing her to inform them of the black experience. She was their teacher. Every question can become personal. In 1971 she began to teach a class at the church to inform whites what being black was all about. Sometimes she felt isolated and lonely, but she wanted the white culture she lived in to accept her blackness. She wrote: ‘If we can give dignity and meaning to blackness, these qualities can unify us, give us togetherness.” A student of mine at Harvard a couple of years ago said that white people tend to be visitors to the struggle for racial justice, who can come and go as they like. People of color reside in the struggle by virtue of their race. It is up to people of color to determine what they find helpful, and what is not.
James Baldwin once wrote, “the white man came to the Negro for love. But he was not often able to give what he came seeking. The price was too high; he had too much to lose.” The question with white supremacy is not whether it exists or not, or even if you and I are white supremacists, it is what do we do with this wall of history that we mythologized, denied or hid behind? Can we break down those walls and be an ally or a friend in a struggle to change an oppressive system that we have known and benefited by, while those we might long to love are shot, rejected and denied. The new minister at First Parish in Cambridge is a young African American man. I recently met him at a minister’s meeting, and he told me that reading my book on class issues convinced him to remain a Unitarian Universalist. We are going to have lunch so I can hear how that occurred. Although we have never achieved it, one vision that is mentioned in that book is of a liberal faith where we embody God’s love for all, as reflections of God’s desire to reunite with all of earth’s creatures who have made painful choices and become separated from one another. This means building a beloved community, despite our differences. Rosemary Bray McNatt, the President of Starr King School writes, “If we cannot bring justice into the small circle of our own individual lives, we cannot hope to bring justice to the world. And if we do not bring justice to the world, none of us is safe and none of us will survive. Nothing that Unitarian Universalists do is more important than making justice real- here, where we are. Hard as diversity is, it is our most important task.”
Closing Words – from Maya Angelou, excerpt from “The Pulse of Morning”
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.