Friday, February 13, 2015

The Color of Conversation

My wife does a lot of volunteer work. One of the organizations she works with supports and promotes Performing Arts for young folks in the area. It’s a good program and a lot of kids participate. Every year they have an art contest. Awards are given for the best work in various categories and by grade level. This year the organization decided to kick it up a notch and brought in judges from university art departments in the area. Last week we were guests at a private dinner for some of the judges and their friends from the North Texas art scene. A dozen of us sat at a long table and talked about a variety of subjects. It was a eclectic group to say the least. Certainly more artsy and politically liberal than most people I interact with on a daily basis. Frankly, I enjoyed it immensely.

One of the guests was an older African American gentleman. When I say older, I mean almost my age. He was originally from a small town in the area, but had gone on to do big things with his life. His family was still here and he was now spending more time “back home”, living mostly out in the country on a small farm he purchased some years ago. As these things tend to go, people shared what they wanted to share about their lives. And if they pay attention to one another and display genuine interest, their guards come down and the subject matter becomes more serious. Things they do not usually talk about, at least not deeply, get talked about. So we ended up discussing politics, education, poverty, religion, sex and even race.

My new friend held very strong opinions as to why we are where we are racially in this country. He believes that racism is alive and well thanks to white greed, white programs and white religion. I oversimplify, but this truly is the bottom-line of his report. And there is a lot of truth in what he says. The enslavement of black Africans was largely about economics. Racism became a key ingredient in rationalizing the "peculiar" institution of slavery. But make no mistake about it, if the Africans had not been so productive working in the tobacco, sugar and cotton fields; America would look much different today. Who knows? We might still be a British colony or a collection of Indian nations.

And the “white programs” of welfare in the 60’s and forced integration in the 70’s have given us ghettos filled with generations of people who only know survival within “the system” and see no way out of “the system”. Increasingly, black “haves” lead very different lives from the black “have-nots”. Many of those who escaped the welfare trap, or whose families never fell into that trap, have a legitimate shot at the American dream. They still face challenges because of race, no question. Being black in America isn’t easy. But, being black and poor and trapped in “the system” is something else all together.

Then there is “white religion”. The religion that my friend alleges initiated, promoted and prolonged the enslavement of his ancestors. The record is there. It happened. Sermons were preached. Scriptures were read into the Congressional record. Many Christians claimed that slavery was part of God’s design for order in the universe and that blacks were destined to inferiority because Ham saw his father Noah’s nakedness. (Genesis 9: 18-29; After building an Ark and weathering a global flood, Noah gets drunk and then gets naked. Haven’t we all? Ham sees him with no clothes on and is cursed. So some claim that Blacks descended from Ham and are, therefore, inferior. Makes perfect sense…right?).

So my friend concludes that Christianity has blood on its hands when it comes to the circumstances in which so many black people find themselves in 21st Century America. I get it, I really do. But, I can only listen to so much. The “rest of the story” is out there and I had to say something. The rest of the story is that true Christians ultimately stepped up and were the driving force behind the abolition of slavery. First in Europe and later in the United States. Christians may have played a key role in supporting the institution of slavery in this country. But, given the economics of slavery, it would have happened with or without the endorsement of some Christian groups. The abolishment of slavery, on the other hand, would not have happened without Christians leading the cause.

As I laid out my case for the positive role Christianity played in the abolishment of slavery and in the civil rights movement, my friend conceded those points and nodded in agreement. He then proceeded to tell me that as a young boy he saw a cross burning. This was in the Sixties here in North Texas. His father got a call late one night from a friend. He loaded up the kids and drove over to the friend’s house and there in the front yard a cross was burning, the light of the fire reflecting a second cross in the home’s front window. Down the street, white men were sitting on parked cars, sipping beer, holding torches still aflame. The family in that house piled into his father’s car. He still doesn’t know how they got so many people into that car. They drove away and that was that. No story, no police report, just another sad episode in the history of race relations in this nation.

At the end of the evening, we all hugged and thanked each other for the wonderful conversation and fellowship. We did not see eye-to-eye on every issue, but we did look each other in the eye and listened. It’s not hard to understand why whites and blacks see race differently. It’s just hard to understand why we don’t talk about it more often and more honestly.

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