“Birthdays and Bicycles”
January 14, 2018
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words: from Brian Collier, illustrator of Martin’s Big Words
When I close my eyes and think about Dr. King’s life, the main image that comes to me over and over again is that of stained glass windows in a church. For me, the windows are metaphors in a lot of ways. In the dark, they blaze out at you like beams of light. The multi colors symbolize multi races. Stained glass windows are also a vehicle to tell the story of Jesus. And whether you are on the inside or the outside, windows allow you to look past where you are.
Reading from “Sleeping Beauties,” by Dexter King
I felt inadequate to the task at hand, the scene before me, though my role seemed simple enough. Yoki had already shown me a picture of Prince Charming in a book of fairy tales, so I knew what he was supposed to look like. I’d seen myself in a mirror. Didn’t see the correlation, didn’t think I could ever look like that or act like that. But my older sister kept on insisting I was the Chosen One, who must bend down and kiss my baby sister Bernice, lying on one end of our seesaw, acting dead, like Sleeping Beauty. Yoki was saying, “Let’s do this.” I was steadily refusing.
“Nope,” I said. “Nope, nope, nope.”
The corners of Yoki’s mouth curled. “Yes … that’s what you mean to say. Right?”
She was about to unleash a verbal volley accompanied by a twisting pinch of arm flesh…
I was six and a half years old.. back in 1967… Yoki was eleven. An eleven-year-old girl isn’t to be trifled with by her younger brothers. Yoki was my terrible older sister Yolanda. Now I know she isn’t so terrible. Now I feel I must call her Yolanda. It has more formality, something expected of Yolanda, Martin, me, and Bernice. Ever since I was seven, I’ve felt I must be formal. But I didn’t feel it in ’67. Then she was my crazy terrible sister; Yoki-poky, as Daddy called her when we were children and didn’t have the responsibilities or memories we have now.
When my mother became pregnant with me, the family was moving to Atlanta from Montgomery, Alabama, where my father had been pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He’d become famous or infamous there, depending on one’s slant…. My mother was traumatized during the pregnancy. My father was stopped for driving in a car with a white woman. Daddy was arrested and fined because he had not changed his Alabama license over to a Georgia one. The sentence was suspended, but when he participated in a lunch counter sit in, he was arrested again. Everyone else was released, but my father was sentenced to four months hard labor, downstate. There was pandemonium in the courtroom. My mother, not given to crying, burst into tears. She said she felt helpless and out of control and desperate. And then I was born. I was born worried. I was born anxious. I was born January 30, 1961; six weeks premature and five years to the day since the house my family was living in in Montgomery was bombed by vigilante whites, upset about the bus boycott.
Yoki was five years older than me and forever putting on plays and musicals. We were her troupe. It was not often that anyone else got a starring role with Yoki around. Now Yoki was telling me what I must do to make things right before I could leave.
“You’re supposed to lean over and kiss her. On the lips.”
My face continued to betray me, and my lack of enthusiasm.
Bernice was lying with lips chapped, eyelids closed, then fluttering. She was pleased to be Sleeping Beauty. Usually her role was Yoki’s handmaiden, subject to taunting. Now I was in Yoki’s sights, subject to her derision, but it wasn’t enough to make me kiss a girl, particularly my little sister, for no good reason at all.
“Why do you want me?” I whined.
“Why?” Yoki repeated. “Why do you always ask why? Because I said so, that’s why. Because that’s the way the play goes. You’re supposed to kiss Sleeping Beauty; that will break the spell cast by an evil witch and everyone will live happily ever after. Don’t you want to live happily ever afterward, you stupid boy? Don’t you know anything?”
Dexter King was not expected to arrive in this world until March of 1961. Instead, he entered in January, close on the heels of his father’s 32nd birthday. He was named after the church his father had recently left; a church which was named for a street; which in turn was named for a man from Massachusetts – Andrew Dexter, founder of the city of Montgomery. Dexter landed in the south after perpetrating a massive bank fraud here in Boston. He escaped to Nova Scotia for a while, but when his father died, vast amounts of land in the Georgia territories became his inheritance. Freedom. Not long after Dexter relocated, Alabama was granted statehood, and the removal of the Native Cree began in earnest. Andrew Dexter was rich again. Not quite 150 years later, Dexter King was born in Atlanta, but Alabama in all of its complexity was part of his birthright; built right into his name. Like many of you, I have been reading about Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery. Stevenson and his team of lawyers work to get innocent people off death row. In his book, Just Mercy, every time someone important comes to town, Stevenson mentions taking them to the church on Dexter Avenue where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, and I think of Dexter King.
In 1968, the year Dexter turned seven, he and his father celebrated their birthdays together in Atlanta, with a joint party and matching gifts: a pair of bicycles; purple – the color of royalty; of Kings. Dexter’s bike was the kind my brothers had; a sting ray, with the banana seat and the handlebars like the ones on a chopper. His preacher father’s bike was a little more sedate, and fitting for a 39 year old man who had won the Nobel Peace Prize a few years earlier. Part of the gift was the promise of a joint ride; a day where Dexter and his dad would go off and explore together; just the two of them.
The weather in Atlanta that year was a little bit like it was here earlier this month. Normally the temperature down there in the month of February is about 48 or so; by March it is definitely spring. But in 1968, February was FREEZING. The temperatures were running about twenty degrees lower than usual. Some days it got down to 16. It never got above 36. By March, the weather was warmer, but it rained about five times as much as normal. So the bikes had not yet made it outdoors when April rolled around, and Dexter’s father went to Memphis, and came home in a body bag. The ride together never took place.
I heard about the birthday bikes years ago, while driving. It was 2004, and I was listening to Dexter King’s memoir on tape, while going back and forth to school with my own second son, who was eight years old. He, too, is named for a place that was significant to his father – the town of Dana, where the great Universalist leader Hosea Ballou taught that God is love. To solve Boston’s water supply problem, the town was drowned under the Quabbin reservoir, leaving future generations to live in the wilderness at the edge of the vast waters flooding the place that had once been home. My son Dana’s school was miles away, in the country, and during the half of each trip when I was alone, I listened to books for a while. This one by Dexter King ended that activity before it even got to be a pattern. It was just too painful. The achingly sad image of the birthday party and the shiny unused bikes stayed with me, and it was clear that for Dexter, what remained was the broken promise. He had never really been able to ride away – not then, and not now. You could hear it in his voice. It wasn’t just that this violent, unjust world took his father – it was also that his father kept choosing to confront injustice; to help others claim their rights when he could have stayed home with his son. You could feel him haunted by the question that he was wondering about but could never ask his whole life: Why didn’t he love us enough to be here?
Last week, out shoveling as the storm wound down, my younger son sang out “Strange Fruit” into the dark windy night. I was genuinely startled. Had he somehow seen what was in my head? I was thinking about Lillian Smith and her book, Strange Fruit. In the reading this morning, you heard about Martin Luther King being stopped because there was a white woman in the car with him. That woman was Lillian Smith. She was a generation older than King, a white southerner who had begun speaking out about the evils of segregation early on. In 1960, Smith was battling breast cancer – King was taking her to the hospital for radiation treatment when they were stopped by the police. She died a few years later, but not before using her past to write about the future – the future of the south, of the world, of humanity.
Almost immediately after it was published, in 1944, Smith’s book was banned in Boston, supposedly for the presence of a four letter word. But really the issue was interracial romance, and a lynching scene which was considered too shocking for northerners to read about, despite the fact that throughout the 1930s, the number of lynchings grew steadily and alarmingly. Standing in the dark, throwing shovelfuls of snow over my head, I asked Asher, “Why did you say that? Do you know what Strange Fruit refers to?” And he started telling me about a Kanye West song, and how there is this awesome woman’s voice cut in, singing those words. I thought Kanye must have been sampling Billie Holliday, and we talked about the history, and once we were inside, we listened to the song. Turns out, it is Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” mixed in to Kanye West. Once he had her name, Asher did some kind of search which told him that Nina Simone was famous because she had been heavily sampled throughout Kanye West’s song, “Blood on the Leaves.” Astonishing how the meaning of things can be reversed.
Once Smith said that it was easy for her to be brave because, with the cancer, she was already under a death sentence, but it is clear that her activism came from Smith’s own haunted childhood — the legacy, she said, of every southerner, white or black. “Sometimes it was your nurse who made you know,” she wrote. “You loved her, and suddenly she was frightened, and you knew it. Her eyes saw things that your eyes did not see. As the two of you sat in the sand playing your baby games, she’d whisper, “Lawd Jesus, when you going to help us!” And suddenly the play would leave the game and you would creep close to her begging her to shield you from her trouble….” But there was no escaping that trouble when you lived in the midst of it. Smith’s parents were both from traditional white southern families that had once held slaves. They were also very religious, and believed devoutly in the power of education. And Lillian took it seriously. She saw how children with dark faces learned to bend and bow and step into the gutter while those with white faces learned to hold their heads high and use the sidewalk; how the Jim Crow laws split the body from the mind; and both from the soul, and made it impossible for human beings to develop honestly and morally. She wrote:
“I do not remember how or when, but by the time I had learned that God is love, that Jesus is his son and came to give us more abundant life, that all men are brothers with a common father, I also knew that I was better than a negro, that all black folks have their place and must be kept in it; that a terrifying disaster would befall the South if I ever treated a Negro as my social equal…. From the day I was born I began to learn my lessons – to be a gentle woman and an arrogant callous creature in the same moment; to pray at night and ride a Jim Crow car in the morning and to feel comfortable doing both; to believe in freedom and to glow when the word democracy was used; and to practice slavery and to love my white skin with a religious fervor.”
So often we use children in our culture as nothing more than symbols to show that we value growth as if it were a kind of steady advancement – like the apostle Paul writing, “when I was a child I spoke as a child; I understood as a child; I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” The assumption is that all growth is hierarchical; that it is simple for an adult to understand a child; and that the challenge is for children to mature; for them to understand us, and then of course become like us. This equates social conformity with education, and acts as though not being able to articulate and debate about an issue is the same thing as not feeling its effects. Yet at the same time, we idealize children – they are innocent and naturally honest and curious about how things work; about why we do one thing and not another. They are full of potential. In one sense, they have more autonomy than adults: They are not circumscribed by social roles – until they are. Smith pointed out that this is exactly what makes children tragic figures. They are not perceived as real people. Being a child somehow is equated with being incomplete; a figure living at the margins of a society even as it is being inducted into its ways, and the way to grow is to ask questions. But what happens when you ask questions about a problem people deny exists? What happens when it is actually the adult rules that make no sense? Yolanda King sneers at her little brother, “You stupid boy, why do you always ask questions?” This is the way the story goes; this is the way to happily ever after, “Don’t you want to be happy?”
Dexter King’s birthday present promised a particular kind of happiness — freedom. That’s what bikes stand for. From the time they began being manufactured and sold, bicycles promised liberation, and progress. They make it easier to cross boundaries; to make connections to people and places in a wider sphere then was possible before. Bikes also suggest that our own effort is what drives us forward; that without being particularly privileged or identified with any specific group, we are in charge of where we go. I know that in our overcrowded city streets, bikes – like so many things – have become politicized, but in the beginning they signified self-reliance and freedom. At the moment, the only bike I ride is stationary and parked on the second floor of the Oak Square Y, but as a child, my bike granted me speed and super powers and access to greater territory. There was something about the pace – how the landscape was the same but different; how it was richer and you could see and feel more, notice the smells in a way that was profoundly different from walking. One of the brilliant shining moments of parenting for me was the day my older son rode a bike for the first time. Levi has disabilities, and was never able to balance, but when he was ten years old, we bought him a recumbent trike that was so cool it inspired envy instead of ridicule. Watching him take off by himself felt like a miracle. Freedom – and also, something more. He was not being left behind. He was experiencing the world alone at the same time he was participating in the world with others. So there was a kind of equality to the experience, too – and the sense that maybe the happily ever after dreams were possible after all. In January of 1968, those purple bikes hinted at the same thing: that the journey ahead would be fun; that father and son were going to propel themselves into the future side by side. I wonder if Dexter was ever able to ride that bike, and if he did, was the ghost of his father there – a palpable absence instead of a comforting presence?
A month or two ago, a parishioner commented that my sermons always take us to seriously painful places. It wasn’t a criticism, but still, it turned my head a bit. I have found myself trying to articulate this; trying to explain why I value having part of the church experience poke at our woundedness. I think it is because so often in this life, evil is treated as a huge outsider; like a grand interruption of an otherwise good and easy life; a dragon entering the castle grounds, or a nascent dictator occupying a big white house. While I don’t exactly believe the opposite of this, I just don’t think it works this way. Acting as if bad things are unusual makes it seem as though life is all supposed to be easy. It leaves us unprepared to deal with the everyday hardships and nastiness, and can create an entitled and embittered people. The everyday world is filled with crazy cold spells and rainy seasons that postpone a promised bike ride forever; with a legal system that prioritizes gun rights over civil rights, or human rights; with a tradition of loving money and power more than people. These kinds of trials are the norm; these are the days we live in. Life is NOT simple and easy. It hurts.
And yet, there is more. Evil or pain or corruption is not the whole story. There is a kind of Goodness that breaks in when we are lucky, or when we let it, and especially when we increase our capacity to cope with all that life throws at us. I think of church as a time to practice that capacity; to teach ourselves to wrestle with our doubts and challenges and weaknesses; to sit with our pain and disappointment and brokenness until we can ride away into the bigger world; that space that gives context and meaning to our lives. It seems to me that is the only way true joy is possible. We can admit the pain and trouble, and say – and yet. There is love. There is beauty. There is laughter. There is the possibility of our own action. There is the dream of more, and better days, with the good earth below us and the heavens above.
Exposing our woundedness is also the path towards justice. A community that allows the expression of pain is one that identifies with the oppressed, and offers hope for healing. Reality can feel like a heavy burden when it is carried alone; when it is never acknowledged. I think of the image of Lillian Smith as a toddler, understanding that her nurse was terrified, and wanting to be protected from that. Each of them isolated and scared, and unable to lament together. Sharing our sorrows lets us see beyond them to the greater possibilities of love. The meaning of things can be reversed. We can begin to embody hope.
The year my grandmother turned 75, she – ten years a widow – asked for a bicycle for her birthday. Her birthday was in January, and she lived in Maine, so this was a gift like Dexter King’s – one that promised a future rather than one with immediate use. She was a tiny woman, and my uncle had to make some blocks so her feet could reach the pedals. By the time the snow melted she was zipping along the roads. Her bike had a large basket attached, and always carried work gloves. She wanted to preserve the beauty of the world, so whenever she saw litter, she’d stop and pick it up; put it in the basket to bring home.
What is it that you bring home? Bernice, the youngest King, and the one who lay on the seesaw, playing dead and waiting for the magic kiss that would awaken her into new life – Bernice grew up to be a minister; continuing the work of her father. She said that her father was a great man, but that the real point is that we all have a calling in this life. There is much work to be done, and it is not enough to wish for change. We have to embody hope, by asking honest questions and sharing the journey. I find myself thinking about the story we had this morning – Martin’s Big Words. The words are Peace. Love. Trust. Freedom. Equality. And the illustration are windows – not clear ones, but stained glass – colors and shapes depicting different stories and possibilities; shadows and light – but windows, always inviting us to look through the glass; to step beyond where we are, and build a new way.
Closing Words from Ecclesiastes, chapter 44
Let us now praise famous women and men,
our ancestors in their generations.
Some of them have left behind a name,
so that others declare their praise.
But of others there is no memory;
they have perished as though they had never existed;
they have become as though they had never been born,
they and their children after them.
But these also were godly folk,
whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten;
Their offspring will continue for ever,
and their glory will never be blotted out.
Their bodies are buried in peace,
but their name lives on generation after generation.