© Hollis Huston 2011 “Telling Your Story”
“Telling Your Story: Overcoming Barriers of Race and Class”
a sermon preached by Hollis Huston
at South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation
on May 22, 2011
An earlier version of this sermon was spoken at Muttontown Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on May 8, 2011
Archibald Macleish, “Not Marble Nor the Gilded Monuments”
The praisers of women in their proud and beautiful poems,
Naming the grave mouth and the hair and the eyes,
Boasted those they loved should be forever remembered.
These were lies.
The words sound but the face in the Istrian sun is forgotten.
The poet speaks but to her dead ears no more.
The sleek throat is gone -- and the breast that was troubled to listen:
Shadow from door.
Therefore I will not praise your knees nor your fine walking
Telling you men shall remember your name as long
As lips move or breath is spent or the iron of English
Rings from a tongue.
I shall say you were young, and your arms straight, and your mouth scarlet;
I shall say you will die and none will remember you;
Your arms change, and none remember the swish of your garments,
Nor the click of your shoe.
Not with my hand’s strength, not with difficult labor
Springing the obstinate words to the bones of your breast
And the stubborn line to your young stride and the breath to your breathing
And the beat to your haste
Shall I prevail on the hearts of unborn men to remember.
(What is a dead girl but a shadowy ghost
Or a dead man’s voice but a distant and vain affirmation
Like dream words most)
Therefore I will not speak of the undying glory of women.
I shall say you were young and straight and your skin fair
And you stood in the door and the sun was a shadow of leaves on your shoulder
And a leaf in your hair --
I will not speak of the famous beauty of dead women:
I will say the shape of a leaf lay once on your hair.
Till the world ends and the eyes are out and the mouths broken
Look! it is there.
Shakespeare, Hamlet V. ii. 286-301
You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time -- as this fell sergeant Death
Is strict in his arrest -- o, I could tell you --
But let it be. Horatio, I am dead,
Thou liv’st. Report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied.
O God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity a while,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.
We Unitarian Universalists are redefining ourselves right now. We’d like to change our spots. We’d like to become less white and more diverse. There are a couple of reasons for this desire of ours. First, we are historically less diverse than America; and second, America is changing. We feel guilt on the first count, and fear on the second. We feel guilt for participating in what amounts to a segregated church. We feel fear that we will be left behind in the change of America’s demographic composition.
And we’re feeling pain and confusion from contradictory impulses. There are certain ways we don’t want to “look like America.” But there are ways in which we want to look more like America. We are proud of, and defined by, our heritage of liberal religion, of free-thinking and critical inquiry, of our moments of leadership in the causes of abolition and civil rights, and of our forward-looking positions on sexual ethics. We don’t want to sacrifice foundational values in a mistaken appeal for popularity. On the other hand, we wish our principles and values had attracted more interest from members of the ethnic minorities with whose aspirations we feel solidarity.
Within a decade or two America will no longer be a majority white country; but diversity is itself becoming more diverse. The census tells us that African-Americans are already outnumbered by people who call themselves “Hispanic;” and yet Hispanic people come from many countries with separate or hostile histories, and in themselves mix European, native American and African ancestry. Our Asian communities also arrive here from separate or hostile histories: Indian and Pakistani, Vietnamese, Hmong, Mandarin and Cantonese, Korean and Japanese, don’t form a homogenous group any more than our first Irish, Germans and Italians did.
If we want to claim our share of growing American communities, we need to ask how, without sacrificing core values, we might become more “welcoming” of people who grew up with different songs and stories, manners and customs. We sometimes act as if this were a simple thing to do, with an obvious method of success, and then we get angry with each other for failing to take those obvious and simple steps. But the truth is, there are no obvious and simple steps. It’s a tricky and paradoxical enterprise, and no one has the recipe.
We Unitarian Universalists don’t know much theology, so we don’t realize that we have been struck hard, and in sensitive places, by Christian Liberation Theology. Liberation theology accuses us of talking a good game but of failing to live our commitments. James Cone, who taught my first course in Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, accuses America’s liberal religious of intellectualized indifference to the boot of oppression that rests on the necks of the poor. Though we proclaim seven high and lofty principles, Cone would say that God is not a universal principle; God is the concrete action of oppressed communities to free themselves. God is not neutral and waiting for the evidence. God is not engaged in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. God already knows where the truth is. God has already taken sides, and if we are to know God we must commit to God’s preferential option for the poor. Too often, he says, we have stayed on the sidelines, or in our high houses of privilege.
And when we hear his preaching we are shocked. How can Dr. Cone say that? Aren’t we the good guys? Doesn’t our first principle say that “every person” has “inherent worth and dignity,” as Jefferson and his committee wrote that “all men are created equal,” with “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?” Didn’t religious liberals stand up for justice in the Freedom Rides, in the Selma March, in the Voting Rights Act? We’re the ones who say that God will save everyone, that each of us can determine their destiny through a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Surely these professed values make us, our feelings, tastes and standards exceptional. Surely we can speak for humanity in general.
Well, no, says the liberationist. Theology, like political ideologies and codes of ethics, art and culture, expresses the world view and the claim to power of those who create it. Theology is “socially located.” Liberalism is socially located; it is a theology of the affluent, of people who have the power -- the financial, educational, cultural and psychological capital -- to determine their identity; and we liberals have created a theology that celebrates our individual identities. Poor communities, on the whole, can’t be described as liberal, because they have not acquired those powers to determine their own identity that we take for granted -- that’s what oppression means. Communities get stuck in poverty because their members lack access to education, to the privileges of finance and wealth accumulation, to the codes of language and bureaucracy that are the key to self-determination -- again, that’s what oppression means. The members of poor communities struggle for survival, and band together in communal ceremonies, to provide for each other the affirmation that the wider world denies them. Their theology is not critical but affirmative of the community that helps them to survive. When we hear the epic of Hebrew Liberation in the book of Exodus, we ask how much of it is history and how much is legend; but oppressed people take it as their story, naming their condition and prophesying their coming freedom.
The research is in. Oppressed minority groups tend to be more socially conservative than average. So when liberals act in support of oppressed communities, they cross barriers of race and class, in solidarity with people from a different social location, with a different theology and a different view of religious authority. We shouldn’t assume that we are supporting fellow liberals -- many of them are not now liberals and will not be liberals when they are liberated; and they are under no obligation to vote the way we would like, or support the causes we think are important. There’s one and only one good reason to support oppressed communities -- they’ve had a raw deal from history and deserve better. Justice demands it, and that’s all there is to it. When poor people become free, liberals will not be their bosses, and some of them will oppose us in causes we think are important. But we have no right to be shocked, for instance, that there are black conservatives.
The responsibility for supporting liberal values and liberal causes lies not with the oppressed people of the world but with us -- with the people who are liberals. We were formed in Enlightenment, and we’re the ones who believe that values of the Enlightenment, voiced in our seven principles, are essential in the search for worldwide justice. That’s why, in our acts of solidarity, we must remember who we are.
Our etymology reveals the specific location we come from. The word “liberal” comes to us through Old French and Latin -- “liber” is a “free man,” and that which is liberal is that which is suitable for a free man, which was to say in the context of medieval European history a “gentleman,” a person who rose above the necessity of labor. The word “liberal” is therefore opposite to the word “servile,” or having to do with servants. The “liberal arts” and a “liberal education” have to do with intellectual rather than physical activity. That is, those of us who got a liberal education were being trained for positions nearer to the top of the social ladder than to the bottom. And our values of dispassionate analysis, civil discussion by rules of evidence and logic, free and responsible search for truth and meaning -- those values that govern our approach to religious documents and pronouncements -- these are values natural to those who have the privilege of self-determination, and not so natural to those who struggle for survival with an oppressor’s boot on their necks. They would like to change their social location, and acquire what we have; but they don’t have it yet. Everybody wants to become free of physical labor for others, to have leisure and rights of property, to have “free time” to wonder who they are, and ascend the Maslovian ladder of needs from survival to self-definition and expression. That’s our view of justice. That’s what, when we are on our game, we stand for. And our view of justice deserves its place in the world; because without it, no revolution can be more than another turn in the endless cycle of revenge.
So the real crux of the matter, if our movement is to become more diverse and form congregations that “look like America,” is this -- how shall we talk to each other from our incompatible languages? Dr. Cone once wrote, in the angry year of 1968, that we white liberals would have to “destroy” our “white identities” before communicating with African-Americans.
But I don’t see how we can do that. I know that I can’t do it. I stand before you as the living symbol of all imaginable oppressions: white, blond, blue-eyed, tall, male, straight, graduate of elite educational institutions -- mea maxima culpa, I shall bear the mark of my origin for the rest of my life. If today I give all my earthly goods to the poor and wander the streets in poverty, I shall still be a middle-class man who freely chose that destiny. If tomorrow I travel to a hot-spot of social conflict and give my life (as Rev. James Reeb did) for racial justice, I shall still be that northern radical who chose his mortal danger. There’s no way I can become a battered wife, or a cheated sharecropper, or brutalized immigrant, or a gay man left hanging on barbed wire to die in the cold. I cannot destroy my white identity. It will follow me wherever I go.
So what shall we do, if we cannot transform ourselves into what we are not? I think we must tell each other, and hear, our stories. Which is to continue something that we’ve been doing for a while.
Now there is great risk in listening and talking. If we try to listen, there’s the real possibility that we’ll get it wrong. And when we retell the story there’s the real possibility that our attempt to understand may be taken wrongly. If we get it wrong -- and we will sometimes get it wrong -- we may be accused of having used the story inappropriately, selfishly, for our own purposes. There’s a name for these risks and anxieties: they come under the banner of “Cultural Misappropriation.” Yet I see no alternative to telling and hearing our stories, because mutual silence gets us nowhere. Attorney-General Holder wants us to have more conversations about race; and well, this is what it takes.
A few years ago, a plenary session of our General Assembly took a song-break, and the song chosen was the Civil Rights hymn “We Shall Overcome.” At the end of the session, the person appointed as “process observer” charged that the use of that hymn by a mostly white group was cultural misappropriation -- that “We Shall Overcome” is a song that belongs to black people, and white people hadn’t the right to use it for their own purposes. I’ll tell you my opinion about this matter later. But first let’s consider some incidents in the record of cross-cultural story-telling.
First, we all need to remind ourselves that the national epic of black Christian Americans is itself an appropriated story: the biblical Exodus, the story of Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery. The story was not created for them, or with any understanding that a nation called America would two millenia later enslave people from Africa. But those enslaved people took that story as extended metaphor of their captivity in America, and of their intended journey to deliverance. In sermons and spirituals they told it over and over. And Jewish seders now in turn incorporate the spiritual “Let My People Go” in their Haggadah, or order of service.
Europeans have heard those musical idioms, and honored them by trying to create their own works in those idioms. Antonin Dvorak wrote a spiritual tune (or perhaps incorporated one that he had heard) in his “New World Symphony,” and others rushed to supply the words and make a new “spiritual” which Paul Robeson was proud to sing.
White authors have tried to tell the story of enslavement and its aftermath, in ways that would lead the nation toward justice. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the name of her lead character became in insult among African-Americans. But she created Uncle Tom as a human being morally superior to his masters, and that book helped to bring on the struggle that destroyed slavery. Mark Twain, in a novel revered around the world, created the slave Jim as the one human being that an ignorant racist runaway boy named Huckleberry Finn could trust. Du Bose Heyward wrote of life among the poor black people of Charleston, with characters whose emotions would be set to music by a Jewish composer (Gershwin) who tried to play back into his own music the blues and spirituals that moved him. None of these writers got it all right. All of them made mistakes. They came from their social and historical locations and did the best they could. Are we really gong to say that America would be a better place if Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn and Porgy had never been written? If so, why do so many distinguished African-American artists honor these works, these songs with their artistry? I look at my music collection this morning, and I see versions of Gershwin’s “Summertime” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis and Oscar Peterson.
And from time to time white Unitarians and Universalists have heard the story and retold it in their actions. On July 18 of 1863, a wealthy and privileged young Unitarian officer named Robert Gould Shaw led with sacrificial courage six hundred young black Americans into battle, helping them to prove beyond doubt their courage, agency and humanity. Lacking their particular stake in the battle, he still chose to give everything for their liberation. In a better world these young Americans might have had a black officer to lead them, but in this world there had to be a white officer to believe in them and invest in their dream. Shaw told their story with his body.
And there’s the story of Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister serving at All Souls in Washington, DC, who went to Selma in 1965 to support Dr. King’s march, and was killed by a racist gang. His stake wasn’t the same stake as that of black residents of Selma; but he heard their story, put his life at risk and gave it for their struggle. It isn’t fair that this northern white clergyman’s death caused a national outcry, while the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson a couple of weeks earlier was form was not covered by the “liberal press.” It’s not fair that a white man’s death could spur passage of the Civil Rights Act, while a black man’s death could be ignored. But what more could we ask James Reeb to do? If he had destroyed his “white identity,” we might not have a Civil Rights Act.
Now most Unitarians don’t feel from day to day very privileged. In times like these we feel frightened and vulnerable, because many of us are drawn from Barbara Ehrenreich’s “managerial middle-class.” We’ve been trained to expensive values, but our resources to attain them are limited. We’re above the middle, but not independently wealthy. Most of us are one disease or job loss from bankruptcy. But because we’re better off than many others, let’s assume that the liberationists are right: let’s assume that we’re privileged people. To whatever extent we liberals are privileged people, then we are by definition powerful people. And if we are powerful, we must figure out our relationship to power.
If we are powerful, should we flee from our power, leaving it for others to wield? That’s what they did in Germany in 1933. That other person who uses our abandoned power will always be worse than us.
If we are powerful, shall we flagellate and castigate ourselves? Shall we cry out in prayer “What a terrible person I am, God forgive me for having power?”
If we are privileged then we are powerful, If we are powerful, then our duty is not to destroy our power, or flee from it, or give it to others who may not share our values. It is our duty before God and humanity to use our power for justice. Robert Gould Shaw and James Reeb accepted a place in history that was written for them, a place that required the social location of liberalism. They heard the story of liberation and stepped into the story, and their commitments had the effect that the people whose call they heard had hoped for.
Every act of justice on our part is our retelling of a story. In the third chapter of Exodus, Yahweh says to Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry. . . . I know their sufferings.” Liberation begins not when people suffer, but when their suffering is heard. We are not perfect; the story of the Hebrews makes it clear that Yahweh is not perfect, and we are not Yahweh. But our listening and our retelling are all we have to offer; they are our best hope and our duty.
So let’s admit that liberalism is born in privilege and voices its ideals with the means of privilege. Wake up, smell the coffee and get over it. We must know who we are. Not everybody is like us, nor should they be. Oppressed people are not like us: duh! they are oppressed and we are not. But poor and powerless people don’t want to remain poor and powerless -- they want to change their social location. They want to be, in certain respects, like us; they want some of the privilege we have, and our duty in the name of their aspiration is to acknowledge our besetting sins and practice our besetting virtues in the name of justice. If we liberals have certain powers of self-determination that others do not, then the problem is not that we are free -- the problem is that so many others are not.
So here is my response to that process observer at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, who said that white people shouldn’t sing “We Shall Overcome” because it is culturally inappropriate. You may have assumed, as I did when I first heard the story, that the process observer was African-American. But that assumption is wrong -- the process observer was a young adult Caucasian Unitarian Universalist. And this is my response.
I don’t tell Ella Fitzgerald she can’t sing “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” and I won’t let anyone, from any social location, tell me I can’t sing “We Shall Overcome.” Though my singing is imperfect, I have a moral obligation to sing this song. I have a moral obligation to teach this song to my children, always referring back to the people who created it; because the story out of which this song comes is the key to its value. Like millions of people my age, I first learned the song and the story from a white man -- our fellow patriot and neighbor up the Hudson River Pete Seeger. He taught the song and story to us at the time of the Freedom Rides and the March on Selma. I can never agree that America would be a better place if Pete Seeger had not taught us to sing this song.
If I can’t sing this song, I can’t make justice. Liberation is a conversation. Plato taught us that conversation never ends, and no single statement in a conversation is perfect. If we converse we shall make mistakes -- our mistakes are proof of our seriousness. We must accept correction for what we get wrong, but we must never accept shame -- from anyone -- for trying to get it right.
So let’s do our part, here and now, in the conversation of justice. Let us rise as willing and able, to sing together hymn number 169 in your hymnals -- “We Shall Overcome.” And may God bless us in our imperfection.