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A sermon by John Green for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on January 18, 2009

Conditional Beings

When I was about eight I asked my mom—If she loved us when we made her angry. And I asked her, which one of us kids did she love most? Smiling down at me Mom said she always loves us—even when we made her mad. I then asked ‘How ’bout the second question?’ Mom walked over and gently cradled my face in her hands. She looked into my eyes, and after a brief pause, she said simply, ‘I love all my brown babies the same.’ I’d never felt so reassured.

In the intervening years, I’ve come to realize how much better it would be if we stopped persecuting each other over things about which none of us has any choice–you know, things like the color of our skin, or where we come from, or who it is we love. I figure, most everything else is pretty much up for negotiation. But the fact remains --we are conditional beings—and that is why there’s never been enough real love practiced in our world. Real love—is unconditional. Real love empowers us to abandon our worship and sacrifice to the false Gods—of self interest. Real love grants us perspective—from which we can at long last fully embrace our commonality and from which we finally transcend our blindness to and complicity with the injustice around us.

In this country, those of us who’ve endured the deliberate denial of our rights know what it is to be devalued and left out. One of the deeply entrenched flaws in our cultural heritage contributing to this comes in the form of racism. I often wonder if its persistence tells us more about our limitations—than about those of democracy. What I am certain of is that racism like acceptance, constitutes a choice. And it’s always our choices which speak volumes—about our priorities. The fact that not all our choices are sound proves beyond all doubt—we suffer often at the hand of monsters of our own making.

1492, the year of Columbus, is for many historians the beginning of the Great Age of Discovery. We’re all heirs to Columbus. I understand that—I accept that. But from my perspective, if Columbus initiated anything, it was the great age of—exploitation. When I think of the last five-hundred years, the major consequence of 1492 is readily apparent; specifically —the globalization of white supremacy. What ‘age’ will open up next—and how long will it last? 1492 is noteworthy for another reason. It’s also the year the African slave trade began.

The slave trade made human beings a commodity. The slave trade—made Portugal rich—it made England, France, Spain, and Holland rich. It was the source for a sizable percentage of America’s initial wealth too. This monstrous enterprise spanned some four-hundred years, and warped our nation’s soul in the process. The logistics sustaining this evil trade—depended upon a vast, worldwide infrastructure of complicity.

North and South, costal towns like our own Newport, RI, got wealthy—as ports of entry for slave trafficking. North and south, the involvement of local families—like the Browns who set aside any scruples they may have had, was not hard to obtain.

The sins of slavery and racism, the near extermination and internal exile of native Americans—along with continuing struggles over rights of citizenship—all serve—to call into serious question the intent behind the visionary promise set forth by the founding fathers—many of whom who just happened to be slave owners. In spite of that, I believe democracy’s greatest assets are to be found among the hopes generated by its empowering mandate of inclusion.

Most Black Americans—are the descendants of unknown ancestors, who after being kidnapped; found themselves shackled below decks in the fetid squalor of a slave ship cargo-hold. Awaiting them was a nightmarish ocean crossing, the so-called Middle Passage. For those who managed to survive, it was only the beginning of an unimaginable ordeal. Because of slavery, black Americans lost more than freedom, wages, and stable home lives. We lost the knowledge of exactly who we are and exactly where it is we came from. We lost the names, languages, customs and religions of our forbearers. Our true identities—have long since been displaced. The end result—is that both in an individual and collective sense, we’ve become disassociated from our past—DNA testing notwithstanding. It’s like going through life—with a case of amnesia.

‘Now is not forever,’ my mother used to say. On the one hand you have this simple truth—nothing lasts forever. But looking back, I think it was her way of telling us that life isn’t always going to be fair. I think it was her way of getting us to avoid self-pity and to ‘weather the storm’ in pursuing our dreams. I think it was a reflection of her faith in us—and in our future. I grew up believing this nation could do better as surely as I knew that Green is not my true name.

Coming of age in Kentucky, I was well aware of racism elsewhere in the country, which came across as hostility minus the cross burnings and church bombings. I was aware—of protests against racism—and that some whites, along with blacks, had lost their lives too.

Chaffing under the curse of racism down South, I became quite accustomed to feelings of—alienation, inadequacy—and rage. Of course I kept a lot inside so to the casual observer, I was just another kid. Feeling completely stonewalled, I ended up reading about two contemporaries who most acutely represented alternatives directly confronting black Americans about racism—and that raised crucial implications for the nation as a whole. I’m referring to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Both were born in the 1920’s and both had Southern ties. Both their fathers were Baptist ministers and religion was to have a profound influence on each man’s world view—as did education, though in Malcolm’s case not so much in a formal sense. Both men faced personal demons and skeptics from many quarters, on their way to redemption. Both men married bright, supportive women and fathered four children. Invariably the calling of both these men would take its toll on their families. Both men did jail time. Both men would be reviled in the mainstream press and by the police, the judiciary and the FBI. Both men would be murdered at age thirty-nine. But, there were differences.

Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925, the last of seven children. His father Earl had three children from an earlier marriage who now lived in Boston. Earl was originally from Georgia. Malcolm’s mother, the former Louise Norton was from Grenada, in the British West Indies. Her father was white, and Louise was so fair skinned, many thought she was white. Malcolm never knew his maternal grandfather and grew to resent his white ancestry.

Malcolm’s father, as an itinerant minister, preached at different churches. Historically churches used to be among the most strictly segregated of institutions. Because of this, it was one of the few places black people enjoyed some real autonomy and had the privacy not only to worship but to be more themselves and commiserate on a host of issues not necessarily church-related. Both Earl and Louise were also involved in spreading the teachings of Marcus Garvey. Marcus Garvey was a black man who was born in Jamaica in 1887. As a young man, Garvey developed a social conscience, bearing witness to the miserable poverty of the black working class. After saving some money he traveled extensively about the Caribbean. Everywhere he went, victimization by racism and poverty were the common lot of black people. It was no different upon his arrival in the States. Now based in Harlem, Garvey believed salvation for black people was attainable only if they banded together. To that end he founded the UNIA the United Negro Improvement Association. Basically its aim was to unify black people, encourage self-sufficiency, and advocate eventual repatriation to the African continent. By the 1920’s Garvey’s nerve-striking fame had become national in scope. Garvey, however was eventually convicted of mail fraud and deported.

Since slavery any black person who took a stand against their own oppression was seen by whites as a ‘troublemaker,’ who would incite others. Earl and Louise’s activism got the attention of local Klansmen, who one night surrounded their house. Louise was pregnant with Malcolm and alone, save for her three small children. Imagine their terror as every window is being smashed. This had to be one of the reasons why Earl moved his family to East Lansing, Michigan; but peace would elude them there as well. As a result of their work in support of Garvey, racists burned their house down. On the outskirts of town, Earl would build a modest new home with his own hands.

Earl had five brothers. Only one would die from natural causes. Three would die at the hands of whites, including one by hanging. Another would be killed in the North by police. Now it was Earl’s turn. Ironically, Louise had a premonition about this. Earl though, would have none of it. Members of the Black Legion, a white supremacist group were blamed, but no arrests were ever made.

With Earl’s death, life for Louise and her children became more untenable with each passing day. When the insurance money ran out, Louise managed to land some small jobs, but when white employers realized whose widow she was and that she wasn’t white, she would invariably be let go. A final affront to her pride was brought about—when her children became wards of the state and split up among several foster homes. It all proved too much for Louise who ended up becoming a ward of the state herself. You see, under all this constant duress—Louise gradually went insane.

Malcolm had been class president, and was always among those students earning consistently high grades. In front of the class one day his teacher asked him what he wanted to be. When Malcolm replied ‘lawyer,’ his teacher let him know that was an inappropriate choice. He told Malcolm that he ‘needed to be realistic about being a nigger.’ Not long after this, Malcolm’s grown half-sister Ella, got legal custody and he moved to Boston.

To Ella’s dismay, young honest and shy Malcolm in time did re-invent himself as a profane, gun-toting, drug using, drug peddling hustler and thief. He eventually moved to Harlem, where his luck finally ran out. He was arrested and sent to prison. Now with time on his hands he fell under the sway of an inmate who overcame his hostility towards religion and authority. This was Malcolm’s introduction to the Nation of Islam–what is popularly known as the Black Muslims.

Malcolm reinvented himself in prison. His new religion demanded adherence as well as a focused self-discipline, in order to abstain from drugs and alcohol and in order to conform to certain dietary restrictions. A new sense of accountability and pride made him aware of how he had degraded himself and his own people while exploiting their misery for personal gain as a drug pusher and a pimp. In this regard, he’d been as much a parasite as any slave owner.

I don’t believe it was much of a stretch for Malcolm to accept his new religion. While it shared some tenets of orthodox Islam, it also differed in significant ways. The religion was founded in Detroit in 1930 by W.D. Fard. In time he was succeeded by his chief apprentice, Elijah Poole, who was, like Malcolm’s dad, a former Baptist preacher from Georgia. He subsequently changed his name to Elijah Muhammad. He convinced his followers, Malcolm among them, that Allah had come to America in the person of W.D. Fard. Fard instructed Poole and chose him as spokesman. It was a religion advocating that white people were devils. It was a religion advocating black solidarity and separatism. It acknowledged the pain and validated the resentment many blacks were feeling at the hands of white America. When he got out of jail Malcolm was a zealous convert and eager to make an impact.

One of the truly defining elements of his transformation involved identity. In the Black Muslims, one’s surname is dropped–as in all likelihood it was the last name of the white slave owners who owned your ancestors. It is discarded in favor of the letter ‘X’, which represents our unknown African name. At the time of his death, Malcolm Little, a.k.a Malcolm X, had become El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz.

Malcolm’s experiences are in sharp contrast to those of Martin Luther King Jr., who never knew hunger or homelessness. His was a decidedly middle-class background. In addition, he enjoyed a stable, intact home life, but like Malcolm had an old-school, take-charge father. As a minister, Martin’s father, like Malcolm’s, enjoyed a position that’s long been a traditional source of status within African American communities.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia–one of three children. His father, like Malcolm’s dad, was a proud, fearless man, who had previously been a sharecropper. But unlike Earl Little, he did not support Marcus Garvey or his son’s eventual path. You might say he wanted his son ‘to play it safe’. He encouraged his son towards academic pursuits and to follow in his footsteps as a minister. To be sure, young King had a precocious intellect and passed entrance exams to Morehouse College, without finishing high school. He eventually got his minister’s license and worked alongside his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church in his hometown. In time he earned bachelors degrees in Sociology and Divinity–and a PhD in Systematic Theology.

Dr. King and Malcolm X represented profound class distinctions, which have been a source of division and mistrust in some quarters since slavery times, when you had one group of slaves assigned to work in the master’s house while another group was assigned to labor in his fields.

Malcolm’s circumstances instilled in him a deep bitterness towards whites and a strong belief that they were not capable of ever treating black people equitably. He had become very antagonistic towards blacks too that favored integration and Christianity. He viewed them as brainwashed, passive dupes, who lacked the stomach to literally fight for change. Malcom’s response to racism was to become a racist himself. As a separatist he was no longer invested in the future of America as one nation.

King’s experience of racism was no less painful, demeaning and frustrating. While it’s true he didn’t have to worry about having a roof over his head or having enough to eat, he nonetheless had to endure the inherent physical danger as well as the psychological impact of racism. Every waking moment is filled with some slight to remind you that you’re somehow not as good as everyone else. Dr. King willfully defied the bigotry encoded in our legal system and social customs, knowing he would go to jail for it.

Anyone who is the target of bigotry becomes the scapegoat for someone else’s inadequacies. Malcolm and Martin were driven to effect change–but not just for themselves. Unlike Malcolm, King’s call to action was not motivated by bitterness but hope. King’s genius lay in his realization that effective resistance need not depend on brute force. Therefore King based his plan of attack on nonviolence. It was a direct appeal to one’s conscience. He strove to remind Americans of what the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence said and to point out that the inequality here was a terrible contradiction holding back all Americans. King meant to ‘reach across the aisles,’ to convert white and black Americans.

On the other hand, Malcolm directed his appeal solely at black people. He put white Americans on notice that he wasn’t asking for their permission–or their approval–just land, which hopefully would be more fertile than what Native Americans wound up with.

I feel Malcolm started out using religion in a manner that’s been largely co-opted by the ‘religious right’ today. He used religion as a smokescreen that was meant to somehow cover his fear, his anger and his racism with an aura of respectability. Like the religious right, this was an agenda that really wasn’t intended to bring everybody together. And like the religious right, there seems to have been some confusion about the distinction over what constitutes Faith– and what constitutes denial. Faith is the belief in something you cannot prove. Denial on the other hand is the refusal to believe something that can be proven.

I said earlier both men were redeemed. Ironically, in Malcolm’s case, I think it started when he fell out of favor within the Black Muslims, and wound up being expelled. He had discovered that though Elijah Muhammad may have been like a second father, he was no saint. Not long before he was killed, Malcolm made a pilgrimage to Mecca. To his great astonishment Muslims came in all hues. He was forced to re-think many of his previous assumptions about race–and Islam. Now I’m not going to tell you that he spent the remainder of his days singing Kum Ba Ya, but he did begin to reach out to organizations that had biracial membership and that opposed violence. Malcolm X was nobody’s fool. He kept his guard up, but at last he was finally open to dialogue. Unfortunately, time had run out. On February 21st 1965 he was shot to death while speaking at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City.

Martin Luther King Jr’s been redeemed too. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize is but one example. He was murdered in that pivotal election year of 1968. I’m so sorry he didn’t live to witness this past election. I’m so sorry Malcolm X didn’t live to see this. I’m so sorry Mom didn’t live to see this. But my Dad’s lived to see it. He told me that it’s not like he thought this would never happen, he just never imagined he’d be around to see it.

For me that fact that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama were candidates in the first place is a huge victory for the democratic process we can all feel good about. The fact that Mr. Obama won to me signifies a marked change in the psyche of many white Americans–because, quite simply, black Americans couldn’t have done this by themselves. Is it possible that the results of this election indicate that we based our judgment not so much on the color of someone’s skin as on the ‘content of their character’?

Mae Jemison was the first African American woman to fly into space aboard the shuttle. When asked who inspired her, she said Lt. Uhura, the Swahili communications officer aboard the Enterprise on ‘Star Trek’. Who will be inspired by today’s events, and how? We are set to inaugurate the first ever African American president in what also happens to be the bicentennial year of Lincoln’s birth. This outcome-- this beginning–is a moment that for one priceless instant invalidates the efforts of all those throughout history who actively opposed equal rights and equal opportunity– and those who profited from it.

For everyone stolen from Africa, for all those who died in transit, for all the victims, for all those who fought, suffered and died for justice and equal rights, their lives, their efforts in this one priceless instant have finally been vindicated. But now is not forever, and the genie can be put back in the bottle. So my job, your job, is to see to it that the cork is never found. Our job is to keep hope alive. I leave you with these words from Dr. King...

“It is not the race per se that we fight but the policies and ideology that leaders of that race have formulated to perpetuate oppression...a doctrine of black supremacy is as evil as a doctrine of white supremacy.”