Racism as a Rite of Passage

John and his wife Nancy have been members of First Unitarian for around 30 years. John considers himself to be truly blessed to be married to the love of my life and to live on a street named Hope in our fittingly named sanctuary city of Providence.

Sermon Audio

To listen to this sermon, click on the arrow in the player box below:

Sermon Text

My parents were born a year apart in Selma, Alabama, in the mid-1920s. Mamie Lee Gohagan and George Washington Green lived on neighboring farms. They were friends. But they were also sharecroppers.

The South had lost the Civil War, but throughout the former Confederacy, white southerners remained adamant in their unwillingness to renounce and abandon the cornerstone of their national identity, namely a life-and-death dominion over Black people.

In Plessy versus Ferguson, the Supreme Court in 1896 ruled that the doctrine of separate but equal was constitutional. That ruling validated the existing state of disparity Black people had always lived under all across the country. At the same time, this decision helped appease the consciences of white Americans troubled over the issue. The Supreme Court had given white America cover. In other words, it was now legal to keep looking the other way.

The trickle-down effect of all this for my mom and dad meant the continuation of a legacy of diminished, if not stillborn, expectations. My parents spent their formative years consigned to farm labor and a daily immersion in the rigors of state-sponsored terrorism, humiliation, and disparity. There was no respite to be had from law enforcement, long a haven for the Klan, or the courts, where only white men were allowed to serve on the bench or on juries.

It’s been said that the only constant in life is change. But this has not always been the case, especially when you’re dealing with long established cultural norms. The cultural “norm” I speak of here is racism. And there can be no true understanding of American history if the impact of racism and white supremacy is ignored.

As the 1920s unfolded, an impending economic collapse was looming. The Harlem Renaissance was in full bloom. Larger-than-life figures like Lindberg, Garvey, Ruth, and Capone cast their shadows over the popular imagination. For my parents in Selma, a different kind of shadow just as telling was casting a pall over their young lives, just as it had over their parents’ lives – just as it would over their children’s.

Finding one’s place in this world is what life’s all about. But much like slavery did in the past, the ongoing reality of institutional racism today compounds this challenge, serving an additional and burdensome constraint, specifically and intentionally singling out minorities and people of color. In a country that stands unabashedly before the world as a self-proclaimed democracy, institutional racism and other forms of bigotry present an untenable contradiction for those of us not wishing to be seen as either hypocrites or liars.

Racism and white supremacy have always been both nationwide and global in scope. In the life history of my family, racism was and remains that proverbial 600-pound gorilla in the room. We could not afford the luxury of denial because for us, it often came down to a matter of survival. I nearly lost my dad because of racism. I did lose my paternal grandfather because of racism. I never got to know him, and as strange as it may sound – I miss him and a relationship I’d never have.

I’ve long suspected a similar dynamic exists for women, who every day must factor in not only sexism but also the horrific possibility of sexual assault. But that’s a discussion for another day by someone far more qualified.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked, my dad, like millions of other young Americans, put what dreams he had on hold and enlisted in our then segregated armed forces. He lied about his age and joined the Navy. He was only 16 years old. The war revitalized our economy, and manufacturing plants sprang up from coast to coast. This in turn prompted a sizable migration of Black Americans leaving the deep South in hope of finding greener pastures elsewhere. Mom was a part of this optimistic groundswell. She set out for Louisville, Kentucky, where an uncle could help her get established.

Dad said that the racism he encountered in the military rivaled anything he had endured in Selma. In many ways, it seemed, he’d merely left one war zone for another. When his tour of duty ended, Dad returned to Selma. Boarding a city bus there one day, he was rudely ordered by its white driver to move to the back of the bus. He then realized that the boy he’d been before the war no longer existed. This young veteran then pulled out his Navy jackknife, told the driver to shut up and drive, which he did. After a while, he told the driver when to stop. Leaving the bus, he knew the aggrieved and angry driver would shake down the passengers until one of them told him where Dad lived. Under cover of darkness, members of the Klan or other white vigilantes would at gunpoint break down the doors. Dad would be kidnapped, tortured, and murdered “for forgetting his place.”

There was no longer any reason for him to remain in Selma. He simply told his mom he was going to pack a bag and visit a friend. So my Dad left Selma in order to save his own life and to find Mamie Lee Gohagan – the love of his life. The two friends, the two refugees who had been forged in the same furnace would eventually reunite. After a whirlwind courtship, they became husband and wife. With Selma now in their rearview mirror, they were finally free to reinvent and redefine themselves and settle into the life-affirming task of carving out a habitable space in this world for themselves – and all the children they were destined to have.

There could never have been two people better at being spouses or parents. There could never have been two people more loving, wise, and protective. And we would need every bit of it.

I was three years old when the Brown v. Board of Education ruling struck down segregation in public schools. I can only imagine how overjoyed my parents must have been with that decision. After all, under the tenets of segregation, they were allowed to go only as far as the tenth grade. So they knew better than most the quality of life difference a sound education would make. They impressed upon us that this was our mission and our mantra. We were instructed to be honest, well-behaved, and diligent at school. Dad said, “You are going to be labeled; make sure it’s a good one.” Come what may, especially in regard to racism, we were to “keep our eyes on the prize.”

To make a long story short, all of my siblings were exemplary students. I have siblings who became lawyers, Shakespearian scholars, chefs, social workers, pastor, musicians, nurse practitioners, artists, and authors. Mom and Dad‘s mantra had indeed become their children’s mantra. At my high school graduation, I was awarded a full tuition scholarship to college. Believe it or not, as I looked up at Mom and Dad that night, I was happier for them than I was for myself. In that moment, I also felt that they were somehow living vicariously through us. So I felt our success was every bit theirs too.

We had been given an opportunity that they have been robbed of. We were not going to drop the ball. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My parents are the two finest people I’ve ever known. I loved, trusted, and respected them implicitly. In order to make my parents’ mantra my own, in order for me to vindicate their hopes and expectations, I kept my head down. In doing so, I paid a steep price.

I came of age in the tumultuous 1960’s. In looking back, by the time I was 10, I had essentially come to regard racism as merely a distraction. But it was always much more than that – and deep down, I knew it. That year, 1961, a bus carrying “Freedom Riders” challenging segregation in public accommodations in the South was firebombed in my parent’s home state of Alabama. When the passengers fled the flames, they were set upon and viciously beaten by a racist white mob. For what must have seemed like an eternity, local law enforcement let the mob have its way before belatedly intervening. What stood out to me was not the hatred or brutality of the mobs or the indifference of the police. It was the fact that some of the Freedom Riders were white. It was the first time I realized there were fair-minded white people who would risk everything on our behalf, standing up for what is right and fully sharing the mortal danger when clearly, they didn’t have to.

On my way to school one day soon after this, I tripped while crossing the street. I looked up and saw one lone car. To my utter disbelief, it began to pick up speed and move directly at me. It came so fast, I didn’t have time to get to my feet. I had to crawl for my life. There were four young white men in that car. I’m still haunted, from time to time, by the sound of their laughter as they sped on by.

As a ten-year-old, I knew racism was wrong and illogical. But now it was no longer an abstraction. I began to feel trapped, vulnerable, afraid, and alone. I began to feel I never get a day off from racism. The best analogy I can give is this. Imagine you are a sentient bit of shoreline. What you’re dealing with then, on a daily basis and in varying degrees, is an incessant beach erosion – all these digs at your sense of self and self-worth. I eventually came to see racism as bad for victims and practitioners alike, because it’s based on false premises about superiority and inferiority. Problem is, too many people bought into it. I can remember some black teachers admonishing me to become a “credit to our race.” I also remember magazine ads about skin lightening and hair straightening treatments. From every quarter, the overriding message seemed to be that we, as Black people, were somehow irredeemably flawed. I felt I was under a constant, judgmental scrutiny.

Growing into adolescence, I couldn’t help but notice the rising anger and frustration in my peers. I could feel it rising in myself as well. Against this backdrop of political and social angst, I soldiered on, I kept my head down. Against the daily microaggressions of racism, I put myself on a very short leash, I kept my head down, I kept my eyes on the prize.

My grades rose steadily. I found I truly enjoyed learning. My curiosity spanned several subjects. Books and a growing interest in art became my refuge and my shield. Keeping my head down was a survival technique. If you were a mouse in a forest of predators, you’d learn all you could about those predators, because your survival depends on it.

Over time, in coping with the trauma of racism, I found I was no longer an integrated being. I had become compartmentalized in some ways and quite repressed and stunted in others. In some ways, I had even become estranged for myself. Looking back, I can also see that I frequently faded into dissociation, as if the punishing blows under which my mind, body, and soul were staggering was happening to someone else. Truth be told, I feel like I’ve been suffering from something akin to a protracted Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As an African-American male, I struggle every day with the thorny issues of alienation, of vulnerability, of identity, anger, resentment, and yes, a sizable degree of fear. I am indelibly scarred by racism. But the good news is, not irreparably so. I am incredibly blessed, and my expectations have risen. Mere survival is no longer good enough. I mean to live.

There is only one race. If that weren’t true, there’d be books on, let’s say African anatomy, Asian anatomy, etc. etc. I’ve only seen books on male anatomy, female anatomy, human anatomy. We are one race comprised of many ethnicities. So from my perspective, it’s never truly been about race; it’s been about caste.

I’ve only seen the sense of oneness I cling to expressed in works of science fiction about extra-terrestrial invasions. Then, it’s all about an imminent threat to Earth and the human race. The tunnel vision imposed by the vagaries of politics, nationality, race, gender, religion, and age are all stripped away.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been starved for examples of this kind of transcendence. I first heard about transcendence as a kid in church, but I didn’t want to have to die in order to attain it. We are here for such a short time. As my Mom said, “Now is not forever.” We need to ask ourselves, where does this kind of grace come from? All I know for certain is that none of us has a choice about the weather or where, when, and to whom we were born. None of us has a choice about our sexual orientation or about the color of our skin. But I stand here today to assert, that we always – always have a choice about how we treat one another.