First Reading: Say it With Your Whole Black Mouth by Danez Smith
Sermon: Black Lives Matter
Listen to this sermon here.
Was this a long time ago?
My 10 year old son Josef asked me, and the way he asked it made it clear – he wanted the answer to be yes.
I wanted the answer to be yes, too – we all want the answer to be yes.
He had been sitting with me for just a little bit, I was finishing up the documentary 13th. Which is about the 13th Amendment which banned slavery – but as the documentary explains, really just allowed it to morph into Jim Crow, and then more recently, the criminal “justice” system that today many call the “prison industrial complex.”
Just as Josef had sat down, the footage of Eric Garner being held down while saying “I can’t breathe,” flashed on the screen, and then, Philando Castile in his car, after being shot, with his girlfriend saying, “we just had a tail light out.”
Was this a long time ago?
We all want the answer to be yes. But instead, I had to say – no. It was just a couple years ago.
I didn’t tell him, this wasn’t the end. That it keeps happening. I couldn’t tell him about Alton Sterling, or Sandra Bland, or Jordan Edwards, or Jamar Clark….
These sudden deaths, without accountability just keep happening – remember from last week, 15 of 30 people murdered by guns everyday are Black men. And really, this is not new. The only thing that’s new is that there are cameras, and social media.
We may want to say that Black lives matter just the same. But in the US today, the reality is: it’s not yet true.
One year ago today, white supremacists marched through the campus of the University of Virginia with torches blazing.
They had come to express their “first amendment rights,” often by way of “second amendment” displays. The Rev. Susan Frederick Gray – our UUA President, was there in Charlottesville. She’d come for the counter-protest. Before the march, interfaith leaders had gathered in the Presbyterian church nearby – for prayer, and centering, and connection. But at a certain point, they realized the church had been surrounded by protestors. Chanting Nazi slogans, marching to protect the symbols of the confederacy, they had already made their way through the University campus, and after the church, they went next to the synagogue, where the community there had gathered for their Shabbat service.
It was a preview of what was to come the next morning. You may remember the images of white men in military gear, carrying guns. Frederick-Gray describes “dozens of white supremacists marching down the street chanting and yelling with shields and helmets, wooden clubs and sticks, [coming] right at faith leaders and peaceful protestors – [but] the police were no where to be seen.”
In her sermon describing Charlottesvillle, Frederick-Gray invited those gathered to “take a moment to reflect on the fact that the police largely stood down to give space for armed white men to carry out intimidation and violence throughout the community of Charlottesville – and compare this to what happened in Ferguson, MO, when unarmed black people came out to the streets to protest and mourn the killing of the young Michael Brown and were met with a militarized police force armed with tear gas and tanks.”
Because Black people are more dangerous, more powerful, bigger – or rather, that’s what studies have shown non-Black people tend to believe about Black people – that they are more dangerous, powerful, bigger – more likely to cause harm.
We’ve seen this play out recently in these over-reactive calls to the police by white folks reporting “suspicious” behavior by Black people. And let’s realize: that white person on that call could be any of us. And also, let’s promise that it won’t be. It doesn’t need to be. Google it. “Alternatives to calling the police.” It could be any of us. Let’s decide together that it will not be.
We also see this prejudiced perception play out on a larger scale – in the prison industrial complex I mentioned earlier. Despite making up about 6.5% of the US population, Black people make up a little over 40% of the prison population… if you’re a white man, your chances you’ll go to prison in your life is 1 in 17, whereas if you’re Black, it’s 1 in 3.
The image of the Black man especially – but all African Americans as criminal, as threatening – it likely lives somewhere, in most of our brains, whether we want it to or not – it is like the air we breathe.
Which, I want to be careful of saying, in a room of mostly white folks – because what I don’t want to do, is get us all stuck in what Brene Brown calls a “shame spiral.” It’s where so many of us go when we talk about race, and racism. As Robin Diangelo says, “Perhaps most fundamentally, anti-blackness comes from the deep guilt about what we have done and continue to do; the unbearable knowledge of our complicity with the profound torture of Black people from past to present.”
Shame and guilt like this are traumatic – and paralyzing. We feel shame existentially – believing not just that we’ve done something wrong – but as Brown says it, we are wrong. Humans will do everything they can to get away from this feeling. Including come up with stories to justify the unjustifiable, or – get caught in this “spiral” where we feel so much shame, and guilt we cannot engage the conversation at all.
Like a lot of white people, I want to say with all sincerity, I know what it means to love a racist, and to be loved by a racist. Not just the subconscious sort of racist that many of us are – I mean, the sort that comments overtly, directly, the sort that would be upset to share water fountains or bathrooms with Black people. While I have not personally had to grapple with being the descendant of slave traders or plantation owners, I want to acknowledge that hearing your grandmother asking if the newcomers to town are – N’words, it carries its own lessons, and its own shame.
Vincent Harding – who I spoke about earlier –was one of my teachers in seminary – he used to say that racism injures us all. He would remind us that we all have a story about where we first learned race – first felt the break in spirits. It would usually take a while for people to pull it up, in their consciousness, but usually, once we started telling, the stories would start pouring out, as well as the tears. It was his way of getting white people to talk about race, to take a seat at the table, to do their own work, to realize that we do have work to do.
Part of white identity is its absence, its invisibility, its pretense of being “just plain old human.” Part of white privilege is the opting out of these conversations about race and racism – the sense that racism is not a white problem, that white people know nothing about race – as if whiteness is not dependent on race and racism. But there is a trade involved in this privilege of being plain-old-persons, that if we dig deep we know – and there is a the loss represented in this trade, a story we had to buy in to – and have to keep buying into to make right the cognitive dissonance of our complicity, to keep living in light of this trauma that we carry, and this generational shame.
It is one of the reasons I feel like it is so hard to talk about race and racism in Fort Collins – there are so many white people here – so many white folks framing the conversation, which means so many missed conversations about race, and whiteness, and the particular ways that this plays out here, in Northern Colorado.
About 18 months ago, I was becoming friends with this woman when she broke the news that she and her family were moving. They’d only been in town a few years, but they just couldn’t take it anymore – the racism. She is African American, and she had thought, given the proximity to Denver, Fort Collins may be predominantly white – but we’d probably be pretty open, and progressive. But the cluelessness, the insistence on this being the best place to live, the unwillingness to look at what the realities are like for people of color in this city – she said, it was better to go back to the small town she’d moved from, then to live in a place so unwilling, so unable, so determined to maintain the status quo.
My friend Nathan Ryan, who serves the UU Church in Baton Rouge, likes to remind me that the north is majority white because we designed it that way. Not too many places were officially whites-only states – like Oregon – but many of us, including Fort Collins, made it very clear that only whites were welcome in shops and schools, and as land owners or elected officials, sometimes explicitly, sometimes by way of our networks, our norms, our unwillingness to imagine ourselves as anything other than “so white.”
My friends of color in town like to make a joke that is not funny, about there being only limited slots for people of color in Fort Collins – so that if someone new is going to move in, someone else will need to leave. It’s not funny, and they aren’t really joking, this is the reality of living here as a person of color.
Black people and other people of color have these sorts of conversations everyday, their whole lives – about the impact and reality of race. But white folks – in Fort Collins, and in this church – we lack anything close to that sort of racial stamina. We need to grow new muscles and new tools so that we can have the resilience, and the strength to get out of the shame spiral, and instead stay put in the middle of what can be uncomfortable, hard, sometimes heartbreaking work.
Heartbreaking, as in, facing the death of a 17-year-old kid, armed with a sidewalk, some skittles and a hoodie – all of these enough of a threat for his killer to claim self-defense and get away with it. It was this heartbreaking reality in 2013 – the reality of George Zimmerman getting away with the murder of Trayvon Martin – that inspired the beginnings of the movement for Black Lives, or what is known more popularly as simply Black Lives Matter.
Three Black women – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi – created Black Lives Matter as a way to build Black-centered political will and to grow a new movement – to affirm Black people’s humanity, contributions to society, and their resilience in the face of deadly oppression.
In my time here at Foothills, there have been five people that I’m aware of – who have decided to leave because they disagreed with the justice-based claims and perspectives offered from this pulpit. I’ll let you guess about the other 3, but I will say that two of them were upset about something I’d said about Black Lives Matter. “They are terrorists, you know, let me send you an article. They are out to kill police.” I read the article, but was not persuaded.
Sitting with my son watching the footage of white cops beating, and shooting, and then the historical footage of white men dragging and pushing, and then a lynching – all with the overlay of Donald Trump’s voice during the presidential campaign where he encouraged his audience towards violence, and then waxed nostalgic for the “good old days” when protestors would be taken out on a stretcher – I thought once again about Theodore Parker’s gun.
The gun I told you last week that Theodore Parker had taken to placing in his desk, given his decision to not cooperate with the 1851 Fugitive Slave Act. I started to think about Parker’s gun, and that question about power – who has it, who needs it – who feels vulnerable, who is vulnerable – and who has the right to defend that power….
“I don’t like thinking about doing to white folks /
What white folks done to us”
Danez Smith’s poem is – in many ways- trying too find that line, that question of where violence may be justified.
“here, standing in my own body, I say: The next time
They murder us for the crime of their imaginations
I don’t know what I’ll do”
George Zimmerman felt afraid for his life. And our courts decided, he had a right to act on that fear. Who feels vulnerable, who actually is vulnerable….
There was a time – around 2008– when people started to say racism is over. There was an article in Forbes, December 30, 2008, that was titled: “Racism in America is Over.” Or, really, white people started to say, racism is over. But still for us all, there was this moment of hope. That we were closer than ever to being able to say to our kids, to ourselves, to our country: yes, that happened a long time ago. It doesn’t happen anymore.
It is one of the biggest heartbreaks of these past few years in our country – and of the events of Charlottesville: to face the reality that we are not actually there yet. That Black lives don’t matter the same – yet.
Charlottesville made plain the reality that there remains in our country this great evil, there remains a shadow that haunts us all. It lives in all of us as trauma, and shame. The effects of this evil – are played out on Black bodies and in Black lives, in the bodies and lives of people of color – every day. Everyday, our country, and our community keeps saying Black lives do not matter the same – not yet.
Which is why our bold Unitarian Universalist proclamation must remain simply: Black lives matter.
More than any others in this series, I want to name this one as a statement of faith – faith, as in, the living as if something is true, as a way of making it so.
Because there is no wishing the work away, no pointing to the first principle – the inherent worth and dignity of all – and calling it good. There is no automatic progress by way of time passing, and no free pass just because the only people we see most days are white – that should actually motivate us all the more. Motivate us to engage the shame and know it for the trauma that it is. Motivate us to care for one another in the healing. And even more to care for people of color who carry this trauma deep in their souls. I’d like to imagine us as a church of healers – a people who gather to name the brokenness, the injury, and where we sing and pray and laugh and dance and protest our way to a new wholeness.
One opportunity for this sort of healing work will launch in October in a program called Beloved Conversations, an intensive Unitarian Universalist small group ministry based program for exploring the role of race in our lives.
And still, no program or class is going to close the gap. The work isn’t like that. The work is lifetime work, work of humility and courage – as we say in our opening, work that requires undoing systems and norms that were built for a world where Black lives do not matter; and then creating new systems and structures and ways of being – the work of imagining a whole new world into being – a world where
“you are young and Black, and your life matters just the same. You stole something, and your life matters just the same. I have been taught to fear you, and your life matters just the same.”
A world where we can say not as a statement of faith but as a statement of fact, with honesty, authenticity, and conviction: Black lives matter just the same.