“Body Count” by Mark Harris and Jolie Olivetti
October 2, 2016 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
We cannot escape our origins, however hard we might try, those origins contain the key – could we but find it – to all that we later become.
Hymn #1051 – “We Are” by Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell
For each child that’s born a morning star rises,
And sings to the universe who we are.
We are our grandmother’s prayers, and
We are our grandfather’s dreamings.
We are the breath of our ancestors.
We are the Spirit of GOD.
We are …
Mothers of Courage and
Fathers of Time
We are Daughters of dust and
Sons of great visions.
Sisters of Mercy and
Brothers of Love
We are Lovers of Life and
The Builders of Nations.
We’re Seekers of Truth and
Keepers of Faith
We are Makers of Peace and
The Wisdom of Ages.
First Reading –Honky by Dalton Conley
It didn’t matter what they asked for; everyone got dolls. The boys got boy dolls, and the girls got girl dolls. In line with the consciousness of the times, the teachers had made sure that the dolls were ethnically appropriate. The other kids’ dolls looked like black versions of Ken and Barbie, while my sister ended up with the only white doll in her class. … when the other kids saw that Alexandra had a real Barbie, they stampeded her, begging, pleading, and demanding that she trade with them. She clutched the doll to her chest as girls and even boys tried to pry it form her.
“Black is beautiful!” the teachers screamed over the din of crying and yelling.
“We Want Barbie!” the kids yelled back in unison.
Finally, one kid pulled hard at the white doll’s legs and broke the toy in half. Evidently satisfied that she had secured at least a piece of Barbie, she scurried off to a corner to dress up the half-doll. Eventually my sister got the other half back and willingly traded her white doll for one in the black style. She was content. All she wanted was a doll with long hair that she could comb.
At some point the same week, our grandparents called to wish us a Happy Chanukah. My sister recounted the Barbie events to my grandmother, who, in turn, told her the story of King Solomon and the baby. “Two women each said that the baby was hers,” she explained slowly, enunciating each syllable to my sister who, at that stage in her development, paid eager attention to anything involving babies. “King Solomon told them that he would cut the baby in half and then each could have part of it.” She explained that one of the women broke down crying, offering the baby to the other woman. “ ‘You are the true mother,’ the King told this one.”…
“Do you know how he knew?” Grandma then asked, trying to pry the moral of the story out of Alexandra. “What would you say if King Solomon said that to you about your baby?”
“I would take the top half,” my sister explained. “So I could brush her hair.”
In the family annals, my sister’s anwer to the King Solomon question was got told and retold; the issue of black beauty, the other kids’ desperation for the white doll, and the idea that a “real” Barbie could only be white was left for the parents of the other children to sort out. It wasn’t our problem; after all, we were the color of Barbie.”
Conley grew up as one of few white boys in his neighborhood in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Reading – from Beloved by Toni Morrison (p. 88)
(Baby Suggs,a self-anointed holy woman, preaches for men and women who only recently left slavery)
In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it.
This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. and all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver–love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”
Sermon – “Body Count” Part 1
I climbed Mt. Katahdin this past summer, a life long goal of mine, while wearing my bright yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirt. It is standard Unitarian Universalist garb, part of a campaign to help us confront exclusion, oppression and violence based on identity. Not long after we started our descent, a woman stopped me, obviously recognizing, not my glowing aura, but this shirt, and said, “I just wanted to thank you and your church for all the work you are doing to make this a better world.”
I returned to civilization to learn that Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, who once wrote “The memory of evil will serve as a shield against evil,” had died. It made me think again about the need to publicly express our commitment, to climb those steep peaks of hate that we see in the world. Here at First Parish we want to express that message of love by a broader exploration of issues of diversity, multiculturalism and anti-racism. Today introduces a program that began last Wednesday with a book discussion, and will continue throughout this church year, “Love Out Front.”
The book was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ best seller Between the World and Me, which confronts the long history of racism in our country in a very visceral and painful way. He writes (103): “In America it is traditional to destroy the black body –it is heritage. . .. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden.” He exposes the myth of the American dream, which was built upon shackling the black body, so that ultimately, if you are black, your body is not your own. A black body could be owned by whites, and once that ended, the body was continuously devalued in this culture.
As we dedicate a child today, we are reminded of the physicality of childhood. We remember the body learning each phase of movement, of crawling and then walking. One of the great personal affirmations of my youth was when a friend told me. You were big and slow until your brother taught you how to run. Now you are fast. Remember the wind on your face when you ran as fast as you could? Even now as I age I worry about how long my body will be able to do all the things I want it to. I want to hike and climb mountains, swim and hug those I love. And can you imagine for a minute being told when and how and where you could do those things? Just a few weeks ago I hated being confined to the hospital. All I wanted was to get out. And that was only three days. I wanted my freedom to be able to take my body anywhere I wanted to go without fear.
Coates teaches us that in our history physical features have determined rank (p.7). There is a social concept of beauty; a definitive hierarchy that we all are taught whatever our gender or race or class – Tall, and long straight hair, and blonde with blue eyes and white are the ideals. Coates, like Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye,, asks us to confront our cultural ideals of what counts as beautiful. Do we conform to the standards of contemporary celebrity culture, or do we recoil? Do we try to change ourselves? And which value do we pass on to our children? We also see, as Morrison writes, “some mysterious all-knowing master had given each [black family member] . . . a cloak of ugliness to wear.” What is the value of this body? Do we assign the face, the hair, the body some kind of category of absolute beauty on a scale that makes up our silver screen of opinion? Contrast this with the preacher Baby Suggs in the reading from Beloved this morning. These slaves have been freed from these white rules of control and the preacher implores them to love every part of their body. Love your flesh, she says.
Today we have celebrated a child dedication in our service. This is our future. All of our hopes and dreams lie in the lives our children will be able to claim for themselves. But can a black child claim a life of freedom, a life of knowledge, a life of hope, or even a life free from fear? Coates writes: “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.” What would it be like to worry about your children every time they leave the house? Will they be stopped, accosted, or questioned in some way by the people who swear to protect all children? Coates writes; “We want to be in a place where our children are treated like children and not baby criminals.”
Many of our children will live lives of relative privilege. They will be able to move through the world with lots of opportunities. But not everyone does. We need to raise all children to be able to talk about racism in our culture. We want our children to succeed, but can we also tell them that the success of the American Dream has since the beginning of our history been achieved on someone else’s back? As Coates says: “I believed and still do, that our bodies are ourselves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”
What if those bodies, all those bodies, were truly free?
“There is more love somewhere.”
This spiritual was originally sung by enslaved black people in the American South, and it still rings true: there must be more love somewhere, beyond this world wracked with oppression. And when we sing this song today, we do so with a commitment to do our part to build a world where more love is made manifest.
My older niece once said about the younger one,
“my sister’s laugh makes my heart catch fire.”
I know exactly what she means.
I love my nieces so much, it burns, a warm glow in my heart.
How do we even begin to convey the love we feel for the children in our lives?
We want so much for them: to protect them, to teach them,
And we want to keep bias and hate from their hearts.
In his memoir, Dalton Conley tells the story of his little sister and her white Barbie doll. He explains that his sister’s cute response to their grandmother’s attempt at conveying ancient biblical wisdom is now part of the family lore – “I would take the top half, so I could comb her hair.” And he points out that no one ever intervened in the lesson his sister had already learned from the incident: that white bodies are the valuable, desirable bodies, and Black bodies are not.
During the book discussion at church this past week, we talked about how black and brown families have to have “the talk” with their kids, painful conversations explaining to little children that they might be judged for the color of their skin, heartbreaking conversations with youth about how to act around police.
And we agreed that white people should be having “the talk” too.
My sister and I often talk about how to talk to her kids about race and racism.
They live about fifteen minutes from here, over in Arlington, and so the kids don’t play with very many black and brown kids. Once when my sister and the kids visited me in Jamaica Plain, we went to a playground near my house. My sister reported that on the drive home, the older one asked why so many kids at the playground had dark skin. That was an opening to a conversation that is still ongoing, several years later. It’s never straightforward, but my sister and brother-in-law encourage their kids to explore the assumptions they make about race, who they assume can be their friends, which dolls are their favorites.
I’m sure many of you have stories about how and when race comes up with the kids in your lives, and how you have that conversation with them. I’m sure it’s one thing to be an aunt in these conversations, and another thing entirely to be a parent, and it’s one thing to talk about this as a white person and it’s another thing entirely as a person of color.
But, as an auntie, as a white auntie, I struggle, I find myself cringing when the older one says she doesn’t think the characters from the Wiz “look right” or when both of them lunge for the white fairy stickers first.
Sensing our anxieties about the topic, or our avoidance, our children, especially white children, learn that it’s racist to talk about race, that it’s better to claim that we “don’t see race.”
And, devastatingly, our kids learn from subtle and not-so-subtle messages in the media and the culture at large that black and brown bodies are dangerous, or exotic, or in some way Marked and Other. And black and brown kids may learn from the same sources not to love their own bodies, their own selves.
Instead of cringing when my nieces show their confusion and assumptions about skin color, I have to step outside my comfort zone. I could ask them why they prefer the white fairy stickers, and encourage them to recognize that all bodies are beautiful, not just white bodies.
Little Alexandra’s white Barbie was ripped in half in that story.
But racism does not tear at white bodies in the way it hurts black bodies.
All the same, racism does have a splitting effect upon white people; we may get disconnected from our innate capacity to recognize the human in all other people, whether we recognize it or not, something is torn asunder in our souls.
So to halt the violence done to Black people
And to repair the breach in white souls,
Let’s break the cycle of unconscious racism and teach our kids that all bodies are beautiful
Let’s go there. Let’s keep having these conversations, awkward and difficult as they may be.
Let’s put Love Out Front, let’s show that we believe there is more love somewhere.
Part 2 – Mark Harris
“Duck” Hoggle died this past August. Who might Duck Hoggle be? In the “Upfront” section of last Sunday’s Globe Magazine, there was a picture of a father embracing his two sons, who it turns out were some good ole boys from Alabama, one of whom looked remarkably like George W. Bush. That was “Duck” Hoggle. He was from Selma, the last surviving member of a trio of white men who had attacked three Unitarian ministers in 1965 when they had gathered to march with Martin Luther King after Selma had become the focal point for registering black voters. They attacked James Reeb and his two colleagues, including Andrea’s cousin Clark Olsen. Reeb’s skull was fractured, and he died from his injuries.
I want you to think of the physicality of this incident. These men were clubbed with baseball bats. Reeb did not receive immediate medical treatment because his injured body was treated like a black body. This was the era of Jim Crow, and so they called for the “colored only” ambulance, which broke down because it was a junk mechanically, and they had to call for another rescue vehicle. When Reeb’s attackers had first crossed the street to accost these white northerners, they had labeled these troublemakers with the “N” word. By becoming part of the black protest movement, the ministers had lost the privilege of white bodies. The article goes on to remind us that Reeb’s death helped catalyze the Voting Rights Act that summer, something the loss of black lives, such as Jimmy Jackson could not do. Hoggle, the owner of a car dealership, lived on for five decades, with his family, and his work, and his pleasures, a well-respected businessman. A county sheriff was a pall bearer at the funeral. Justice was not served. Reeb was a body lost to his children and his wife, and his nation, a voice calling for justice, silenced.
A generation later the Supreme Court invalidated the heart of that voting rights act King and Reeb were fighting for, allowing some states to institute voter identification laws. Have we gone backwards with respect to racial justice? Some fear that we have returned to a new racist age, as one of our Presidential candidates makes one outrageous statement after another, and it has seemed that we have regular occurrences of police officers shooting unarmed black Americans. Black bodies are seen as threats to the well-being of white society. A black body makes us suspicious. Is it worse? I don’t think so. The outrageous behaviors against the black body were once taken for granted, and now we see a society that is more willing to express outrage and protest, and film these atrocities and work to prevent these tragedies. Some have suggested that this white backlash is a kind of last gasp of racial hatred, as many more people are willing to declare that black lives matter.
Alan Watts once said that a person who finds their identity in something other than their full organism is less than half a person. They separate themselves from nature, rather than being part of nature. Instead of being a body, we have a body. Being our bodies gives Unitarian Universalists the chance to realize our physical being as the fullest expression of ourselves. As Coates says, our spirit is our flesh. How the body is treated becomes part of the soul, down through the generations.
When I was in the hospital, I finished reading The Warmth of Other Suns, the story of the great black migration out of the South. Isabel Wilkerson tells one story of a black family headed West, and they pass through El Paso. The family stopped at one motel, and asked if they took colored people. The answer was no. They knew if they asked again, they might get another no. This was a family that looked white – light skin and straight hair – all the adults, and two out of the three children. One child was dark. The grandfather decided he would stop and ask for a room just like the white people did, and not mention colored. But what would they do about the boy who was dark? They decided the motel must not know about the boy. They would all pretend to be white. The grandfather told all the children to keep their heads down, and be as quiet as possible. The children were all terrified. They were able to register, but what were they to do with Jules? The others walked in to the room, but Jules was wrapped in a blanket so no part of his body showed. The grandfather carried him, like luggage. Perhaps they remained terrified all night, but they were not caught. They had their room. Still, the memory of this stayed with Jules, and the story goes that he was never quite the same after that.
I was 17 during the Olympics in Mexico City, when two American athlete participated in a controversial protest. Track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos, were on the victory stand to receive medals, and while the anthem played, they raised their black gloved fists in protest. They knew that the American dream has fatal flaws, and had the strength to help us see this, too. The protest implores us to strive to live with a higher moral standard, and now we recognize these men as paving the way for the black body to be recognized as beautiful and great, just as President Obama did the other day.
May we love the wholeness of our children, body and soul, and pray they will be given all the love and all the opportunities in the world to gain wisdom and peace, just as we impart to them the wisdom we have learned. As we go forward we remember the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “there is meaning in the struggle.”
So may it be.
Closing Words – from James Baldwin
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.
The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.
Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.
Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.