Black History in the Making

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
February 26, 2017

On May 18, 1966, Dr. King delivered spoke to the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  Here is just one paragraph from Dr. King’s speech.

I would like to use as a subject the church remaining awake during a great revolution.  I'm sure that each of you has read that arresting little story from the pen of Washington Irving entitled Rip Van Winkle.  One thing that we usually remember about the story of Rip Van Winkle is that he slept twenty years.  But there is another point in that story which is almost always completely overlooked:  it is the sign on the inn of the little town on the Hudson from which Rip went up into the mountains for his long sleep.  When he went up, the sign had a picture of King George III of England.  When he came down, the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States.  When Rip Van Winkle looked up at the picture of George Washington he was amazed, he was completely lost.  He knew not who he was.  This incident reveals to us that the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that he slept twenty years, but that he slept through a revolution.  While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountains, a revolution was taking place in the world that would alter the face of human history.  Yet Rip knew nothing about it; he was asleep.  One of the great misfortunes of history is that all too many individuals and institutions find themselves in a great period of change and yet fail to achieve the new attitudes and outlooks that the new situation demands.  There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.  And there can be no gainsaying of the fact that a social revolution is taking place in our world today.  We see it in other nations in the demise of colonialism.  We see it in our own nation, in the struggle against racial segregation and discrimination, and as we notice this struggle we are aware of the fact that a social revolution is taking place in our midst.  Victor Hugo once said that there is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come.  The idea whose time has come today is the idea of freedom and human dignity, and so all over the world we see something of freedom explosion, and this reveals to us that we are in the midst of revolutionary times.  An older order is passing away and a new order is coming into being.  The great question is, what do we do when we find ourselves in such a period?

We can look back on the 1960s as a time of revolutionary change, when so much was challenged and so much was changed.

But could it be that we are living nowadays in another revolutionary time?  If so, how can we ensure that we do not sleep through this revolution?

In my role as a leader with the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, I have observed two changes within our organization.  Both of these changes have come in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.  To me, they are evidence of larger and perhaps revolutionary events taking place in our society, revolutionary events that I do not want to sleep through and I expect you do not want to sleep through either.

The first change that I have observed in the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, or PIIN, has been the adoption of a long-term agenda of eliminating structural racism and promoting economic equity.  This change began with the leadership of the national Gamaliel network, which includes about fifty local congregation-based community organizing groups like PIIN throughout the United States.  And this change was introduced to leaders of all the Gamaliel affiliates at a gathering that took place in June 2015 in Detroit, Michigan.

Previously, each of the fifty Gamaliel affiliates was encouraged to choose the issues it would work on based on the concerns within a particular community.  A Gamaliel group in Wisconsin might work on education; another Gamaliel group in Michigan might work on immigration reform; yet another Gamaliel group in Chicago might work on raising the minimum wage.

But in light of the disturbing realities of racial injustice that were revealed in August 2014 in the wake of the protests in Ferguson, the national Gamaliel leadership concluded that a more coordinated approach would be more effective.  Once this idea was hatched, the national Gamaliel leadership conducted focus groups with many of the local affiliates.  What emerged was a long-term agenda to dismantle structural racism and promote economic equity.It was this long-term agenda that was presented and affirmed at that gathering in June 2015.

Local affiliates such as PIIN were still encouraged to be responsive to the concerns expressed in their home communities.  But now, the fifty Gamaliel affiliates would more clearly understand that their efforts were united and coordinated in the pursuit of two overarching goals, dismantling structural racism and promoting economic equity.  Prior to June 2015, you might have been promoting community schools through your local Gamaliel affiliate.  After June 2015, you might still be promoting community schools through your local Gamaliel affiliate, but you would understand that your local efforts have a larger context and a larger purpose:promoting community schools is one way to dismantle structural racism and promote economic equity, in collaboration with all the other local Gamaliel affiliates.

That is the first change that I have observed within PIIN:the emergence of a more determined, purposeful, strategic, and nationally-coordinated long-term agenda.

The second change that I have observed within PIIN is a greater willingness among people of color to speak up and speak out.  That has been my experience.  My interpretation of my experience is that people of color are tired of endlessly waiting for promised change that never arrives.  People of color are tired of holding their tongues.  People of color are tired of being looked to as the experts on racial justice.  People of color are tired of having to take the initiative on racial justice work.  People of color are tired of having to be the default owners of racial justice work.  And people of color are tired of being careful about not offending the feelings of white people.

Looking beyond PIIN, my observation is that there has been a greater willingness among people of color to speak up and speak out, particularly in the wake of Ferguson.  Writers such as Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, and Ta-Nehisi Coates have made tremendously influential statements.  Recent movies such as Twelve Years a Slave, Selma, Mandela:Long Walk to Freedom, Race, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Straight Outta Compton, Fences, I Am Not Your Negro, Thirteenth, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight, to name only some, have opened many eyes to uncomfortable realities.  Television shows such as Underground and blackish have explored black life in new and revealing ways.  And the Black Lives Matter movement has offered a way for thousands of people to express their political opinions.

But back to PIIN:  The willingness to speak up and speak out on the part of people of color led PIIN leaders to the conclusion that we ourselves needed to have some conversations among ourselves about race – which produced the initiative known as Sacred Conversations on Race.  Here at First Unitarian Church, you may recall that our congregation took part in our own Sacred Conversation on Race last fall, with the assistance of facilitators trained by PIIN.

This is the second change that I have observed within PIIN:  along with the adoption of a long-term agenda, there has been a greater willingness among people of color to speak up and speak out.

Nevertheless, despite these changes, the work is not finished.  In fact, these two changes only point to how much more there is to accomplish.  I was reminded of this at a recent Board meeting where I made the observation that PIIN has almost always had a president who has been a person of color, and that there is some wisdom in that ongoing practice, for it challengers the all-too-common assumption that white people are supposed to be in charge.

But another way to look at this is that white people need to step up and take responsibility for our own work.

If PIIN was a people of color organization, dedicated exclusively to advancing the self-interest of people of color, then white people would need to be allies and follow.

But PIIN invites all who are present to find their own self-interest in the work.

Personally, sometimes I have struggled to figure out what my self-interest might be in working on behalf of the long-term agenda of dismantling structural racism and promoting economic equity.  As a white person, why should I bother with this work?  Why not just enjoy what life has to offer?

This morning I would like to introduce the innocent and heart-warming wisdom of Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Fulghum.  Here are three hundred and thirty-one words that launched a literary career.  If you have memorized this, please say it with me:

All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school.

These are the things I learned:

Share everything.

Play fair.

Don't hit people.

Put things back where you found them.

Clean up your own mess.

Don't take things that aren't yours.

Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.

Wash your hands before you eat.

Flush.

Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.

Take a nap every afternoon.

When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.

Be aware of wonder.  Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup - they all die.  So do we.

And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned - the biggest word of all - LOOK.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere.   The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation.  Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.

Think what a better world it would be if we all - the whole world - had cookies and milk at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap.  Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.

And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

Did you catch the part where Robert Fulghum sets forth the reasons for white people to be involved in racial justice work?  No, it is not the part about taking a nap every afternoon.  No, it is not the part about milk and cookies.

Listen again to the first few pieces of advice.  But this time listen from a perspective of being determined not to sleep through a revolution in race relations:

Share everything.

Play fair.

Don’t hit people.

Clean up your own mess.

Don’t take things that aren't yours.

Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

Looking back over three hundred and ninety-eight years since enslaved Africans first arrived at the Jamestown Colony in Virginia in 1619, what basic message for white people do you hear in Robert Fulghum’s words?  For me, the basic message for white people is this:  Clean up your own mess.  For me, that is a pretty good statement of the self-interest of white people in racial justice work:  Clean up your own mess.

But if that does not work for you as a statement of your self-interest, if you would prefer something a little more inspirational, if you would prefer something a little more thoughtful, I would offer these words from Dr. King.  They come from the same speech that I quoted from at the beginning of this sermon, the speech that Dr. King delivered at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association on May 18, 1966:  “For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”  For me, that is also a pretty good statement of the self-interest of white people in racial justice work.

My sermon this morning is my attempt to be responsive to the cultural context that February is Black History Month.  However, I have not focused on history that happened long ago.  Instead, I have focused on history in the making, historic events that are happening all around us right now.  I have reminded us of advice that Dr. King’s addressed specifically to the Unitarian Universalist community back in 1966, advice calling us not to sleep through a revolution, to remain aware and awake during times of historic change.  I have used my personal experience with PIIN, the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, as a way to talk about what it has meant for me to remain aware and awake following the pivotal events that began in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014.  And I have offered a reinterpretation of the wisdom of Robert Fulghum, reinterpreting his familiar words from the perspective of four centuries of race relations in the United States and arriving at a summary statement of the self-interest of white people in pursuing racial justice work, namely, clean up your own mess.

You may have your own perspective on black history in the making during this time of difficult change.  Your personal experience is different from mine, and you may have your own understanding of your own self-interest.  Nevertheless, as Unitarian Universalists we affirm the interdependence of all humankind, so movingly expressed in Dr. King’s words:  “For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”  May we hear this as a call to action.

© 2017 by David Herndon

 

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
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