Do you know what I discovered the other day? It’s Black History Month! It snuck up on me because I have mixed feelings about this month. I suppose I should be happy for some part of the calendar to shine a national spotlight on something that gets short shrift in our school textbooks and our public square conversations. Besides paying lip service to our nation’s sojourn into slavery’s immorality and to the same laundry list of Black, long-suffering heroes (King, Parks, Lewis, Marshall, The Little Rock Nine, to name a few), I wouldn’t mind the annual February tribute to Black history if it pushed us deeper into having a more substantive conversation about race in America.
I wish Black history would simply be American History–told with searing honesty so that profound conversations could ensue and an even deeper understanding could emerge to confront what is needed to really see how much damage the stain of slavery and the subsequent Jim Crow Laws did to our collective souls and how that stain still runs painfully deep. White people need to be healed from the damage of all that immoral racial DNA as much as Black folks do who were the victims of it. Instead, many White people hope and declare that racism is over (“After all, I voted for Obama!”), and most Black people limp along—permanently scarred—hoping to just go along to get along. I almost skipped acknowledging and blogging about Black History Month this year until my state (Virginia) went insane during the last few weeks over my governor’s college yearbook blackface photos coupled with a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) costume.
Not that “woke” White Virginians shouldn’t have reacted negatively to these mocking, degrading “darkology” photos, but they should not have been surprised. According to Rhae Lynn Barnes (assistant professor of American cultural history at Princeton University) who has written the forthcoming book Darkology: When the American Dream Wore Blackface, “Blackface is as American as the ruling class.” Ms. Barnes says that blackface has been used by every White group in Virginia from the KKK (“used blackface in raids to confuse victims”), to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, to the Charlottesville Elks to ridicule Black American soldiers in 1924, to our southern colleges and universities until as recently as 2002. She has studied “darkology” and minstrel shows for at least a decade and claims that nearly every city and town in America is guilty of participating in blackface which started in New York City, believe it or not. (Minstrel—“minstrelsy”—shows started a couple hundred years ago and were performed by White people who darkened their skin with shoe polish and cork. The performances were always of an exaggerated depiction of Black people as lazy, stupid, bumbling, over-sexed, and, more significantly, in need of being led and governed by a superior race because they were too ignorant to manage life on their own. The performances were always meant to demean, degrade, and disdain the African-American male, especially.)
What blew me away was Rhae Lynn Barnes’ article in the Washington Post* which cited an example of an obituary of a 94 year old White man from Charlottesville whose obit celebrated his 64-year membership in the Lions Club—you know, that lovely service group of mostly old White men who collect used eyeglasses to send to poor countries. The obit boasted of the old man’s participation in the club’s Minstrel Show every year (according to Ms. Barnes, until 1974, the Charlottesville Lion’s Club Minstrel show was part of the city’s travel brochure). The obituary was written in April 2017—just a few months before the White Nationalists’ march, mayhem, and murder in Charlottesville by Confederate flag carrying White Supremacists who had traded in their white sheets and burning crosses for khaki pants and tikki-torches. At the end of the old man’s obituary was a single line that said there would be a celebration of his life at an Episcopal Church in Keswick, VA. (Say what?!)
Something bothered me about this obituary and the blackface conversations that weren’t being had. If the truth be known, it wasn’t that my governor and others (more surfacing every day) had been outed for wearing blackface that disturbed me as much as the fact that we weren’t getting to the root of why something so egregious as a racist Jim Crow tool could be done so nonchalantly as recently as 1984 that the participants did it and summarily forgot about it—that it was sanctioned by their educational institutions. (“Hey, it was all in good fun, right? I’m not a racist—I have tons of Black friends and associates, and I believe in Jesus! Besides, I’m a Democrat and I voted for Obama!”)
Then I saw a picture during my research, and the answer became clear to me as the noon day sun why the Governor of Virginia and a 94-year-old Lion’s Club member from the local Episcopal Church can put on blackface and be tone-deaf as to why that was not cool, not funny, not Christlike and extremely hurtful to African-Americans:
This craziness is in their spiritual DNA! Jesus plus the Ku Klux Klan?! Hello! Well that says it all. The deep discussions we need to have about race can’t be had until we recognize how much systematic racism is ingrained in White Christianity and how that coupling has made so much of the hateful antics against African-Americans “okay” in such a way that its tentacles are intertwined with the Gospel of Christ.
The picture above was taken in 1920. It is thought to be in a church in Portland, Oregon. Six years before this picture was taken a White Methodist minister (William Joseph Simmons), restarted the Ku Klux Klan that Ulysses S. Grant had earlier disbanded. On the top of Stone Mountain in Georgia Minister Simmons declared himself the Imperial Wizard and proclaimed: “The angels that have anxiously watched the reformation from its beginnings must have hovered about Stone Mountain and shouted hosannas to the highest heavens.”
By the time the photo was taken of the local Klan in a church in Oregon, 5 million White men belonged to the KKK and had infiltrated churches all across America—some being so bold as to wear their “uniforms of terror” while they sang in church choirs or sat in church pews. Many Protestant ministers (strictly Protestant because the KKK hated Catholics and Jews as much as Black people) were either sympathetic toward the KKK or were members. If men running around in hooded sheets and wearing blackface had been the extent of the Klan’s evil, we could have chalked it up to bad taste and might have been able to racially heal in America. But their deeds, which were sanctioned by many White Christian churches, were demonic and murderous across the nation. For example, in 1921 approximately 3,200 Klansmen lived in Oklahoma (2,000 of them in Tulsa) which became the backdrop of the worst massacre of African-Americans in our history. This brutal terrorist act happened in a city that boasted of copious Christian churches as part of its reputation and stability.
On May 31, 1921, 35 blocks of an all-Black residential and business area, known as “the Negro Wall Street” because it was so prosperous, was burned to the ground by the jealous White citizens of Tulsa. Approximately 10,000 Blacks had settled in the area due to the land rush at the time and established very vibrant and strong middle and upper class existences on valuable oil-rich land. It was a model community. They had doctors, lawyers, teachers, and bankers. They owned fine jewels and fur coats, pianos, beautiful houses, and delicately carved furniture. Greenwood, as it was called, had everything a thriving town would want, including Dr. A.C. Jackson, “the most able Negro surgeon in America” as cited by the Mayo brothers.
In 1921, private planes bombed Greenwood from the air with turpentine balls while hundreds of White men gunned down anyone who tried to escape their homes and businesses, including Dr. A.C. Jackson as he ascended his office steps with his hands up in surrender. 300 people died, 1,200 homes were looted and subsequently burned to the ground while thousands of Greenwood’s citizens were imprisoned without recourse. It was reported (although never proven) that witnesses saw hundreds of bodies thrown into the river and mass graves. For years afterwards, Black Greenwood citizens would see their jewelry around the necks of White residents in and about town (I wonder if any of that stolen jewelry was worn to church with their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes?) while the Klan distributed post cards across the country with pictures of the destruction as proof of their ability to maintain White rule and dominance. The loss was the equivalent of $30 million in damage in today’s currency according to Brandon Weber of The Progressive.
No White person was ever charged or held responsible for the Tulsa massacre. Many of the bodies were never found. Until recently, Oklahoma buried the story and refused to acknowledge it.
The excuse for the terrorist attack: A well-known shoe shine boy (Dick Rowland) who was stationed outside a Tulsa department store on the White side of town—well-known and liked by the White residents—needed to use the only restroom available for Blacks which was on the top floor of the store. He ran into the elevator which was operated by a White woman (Sara Page). For some reason Ms. Page screamed (Rowland stepped on her toe or he stumbled and grabbed her arm—some even say they might have been lovers, but no one ever knew the reason for the scream except that it wasn’t rape as was later accused). Page’s scream frightened Rowland and he fled. A White person heard the scream, saw Rowland running away, and assumed the worst. The shoeshine boy was later exonerated, but the destruction and massacre was blamed on the Black citizens of Greenwood and they were never compensated.
Of all my research of this horrific moment in Black history, which, as I said, is still considered the worst massacre of African-Americans, I have never, ever read that the White Evangelical churches in Oklahoma took responsibility for the bedfellows they made with the Ku Klux Klan which probably undergirded their participation in Greenwood’s demise. I have found no record of any White Tulsa citizens coming to the aid of their African-American neighbors when they and their livelihood were being destroyed.
ELEANOR’S SELAH (“AHA” MOMENT)
I am discovering of late that until we comprehend how much of America’s racism has been fostered and cloaked in the Gospel of Christ, it will be impossible to get to the root of our national sin and systemically kill this tree because it is in the bloodstream of White Christian America, and unfortunately a month every year is just not going to cut it. Racism is a spiritual entity in our midst which permeates everything in our country from the church pew to the college campus to the White House. Let’s not stop at rooting out old yearbooks and apologizing for long forgotten blackface pages—let’s move on down the road and deeper into the forests of our Evangelical churches’ histories, and really rid ourselves of our national sin of racism.
On that note, we are not totally without hope. In April 2018, Pastor Jim Wallis (President of Sojourners) and the National Council of Churches led a rally marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Its major focus was to “Confess to Confront Racism: Confessing the Church’s Complicity in Practicing, Promoting, and Profiting from White Privilege and Racial Division.” As Pastor Wallis said in Sojourners blog commentary:
“Let me say this as clearly as I can: Our original sin of white racism and the way it not just lingers but continues to evolve is literally throwing away imago dei — the image of God — and it happens over and over again each and every day. Let me quote a colleague, Professor Fr. Bryan Massingale from Fordham University, who says, ‘When I ask my white students if they have ever heard racism named or preached as a sin from their pulpits growing up in their churches — their answer is almost always NO.’ That says it all and that’s what we have to change. If we do, the changes could be enormous, with the fruits of repentance literally undergirding the substance of social change.”
AMEN AND AMEN!
“Without confession to the sin of white racism, white supremacy, white privilege, people who call themselves white Christians will never be free.” — @jimwallis
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