Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
January 1, 2017
Jourdon Anderson was born into slavery in 1825. When he was seven or eight years old, he was sold to the Anderson family, who lived on a plantation in Big Spring, Tennessee, a small town in Wilson County just east of Nashville. In 1848, Jourdon married Mandy McGregor. In 1864, Union troops freed Jourdan and his family. After a brief sojourn in Nashville, where he found work at a military hospital, Jourdon and his family traveled north through Kentucky and eventually settled in Dayton, Ohio.
In July, 1865, Jourdon Anderson received a letter from his former owner, Colonel Patrick Henry Anderson, asking if he would come back to Big Spring to work on the plantation once again. With the harvest season coming on, Colonel Anderson needed help. In fact, he was worried that he might even lose the plantation if he could not harvest his fields.
In response, Jourdon Anderson wrote a letter with the help of his employer, a lawyer by the name of Valentin Winters, who was an abolitionist. The letter was widely reprinted in newspapers around the country. Here is the text of Jourdon Anderson’s letter:
August 7, 1865
In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve – and die, if it come to that – than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant,
I’d like to invite you to share a one-word expression of feeling about this story. Just one word. How do you feel after hearing this story? Just one word.
Raymond Winbush, a psychologist who has done extensive research on the impact of systemic racism on the African-American community, interviewed the descendants of Colonel Anderson who still live in the Big Spring vicinity. Winbush, who was born in Pittsburgh, found that these descendants still harbor anger at Jourdon Anderson for not returning. Perhaps they still blame Jourdon and the other former slaves who did not return for the fact that Colonel Anderson had to sell the plantation to pay off his debt, and then unexpectedly passed away just a couple of years later.
Jourdon Anderson passed in 1907, in Dayton, Ohio, just two or three years after the fictional birth of the fictional character Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s play Fences. Cindy, Rachel, Meredith, and I had the wonderful opportunity a couple of days ago to see the recently-released movie based on the play. As you know, the play takes place here in Pittsburgh, and the movie was shot here in Pittsburgh. Moreover, as you know, the action of the play takes place in the 1950s. Therefore, even though the story is fictional, Cindy, Rachel, Meredith, and I definitely had the sense that what was happening in the play was happening close to home.
Troy Maxson was a very successful baseball player in the Negro Leagues as a young man in the 1920s and 1930s. Now, at the age of fifty-three, Troy works as a trash collector for the city, barely managing to provide for his family. But Troy remains bitterly disappointed about his missed opportunities. Jackie Robinson was not hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers until 1947, thereby becoming the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues. But 1947 was too late for Troy; he never even had a chance to try out for a major league baseball team. To his credit, Troy has a strong sense of duty that propels him to work hard and do the best he can for his family. But, unfortunately, with past ambitions closed off and future aspirations very limited, life has become little more than duty and obligation.
Troy is both deeply admirable and deeply flawed at the same time. Nevertheless, the feelings that arose in me after watching Fences were neither admiration nor disappointment toward Troy. Instead, the feelings that arose in me were feelings of sadness. Troy Maxson is a unique and particular character; but he is also emblematic of so many people who have lived lives that were diminished, constrained, even stolen, because of systems of oppression. Yes, there are times when it is essential to draw motivation from ideas like human rights, and justice, and political ideologies. But these are abstractions. Yes, you can argue that oppression is wrong because it denies human rights or justice. But you can also say that oppression is wrong because it diminishes the life of this particular person or that particular person, because it takes away the opportunity for this particular person or that particular person to have life and have life abundantly, in the words of Jesus.
Jourdon Anderson lived under a system of oppression called enslavement. After decades of political struggle and four years of bloody civil war, that system was abolished. In 1865, when his former owner asked him to come back and help restore the plantation, Jourdon Anderson could say, No! I am not going to make your plantation great again! No! I am not going to make your oppressive way of life great again! No! I am not going to make your unjust bank account great again!
Troy Maxson also lived under a system of oppression, a system of oppression called Jim Crow. But in the 1950s, ninety years after Jourdon Anderson left Tennessee and moved north to Ohio, Troy Maxson struggles to attach a face to the system of oppression that has hollowed out his life. He can say to his son, “The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere.” But to whom would he write a letter? To whom would he write a letter listing his grievances? To whom would he write a letter listing his grievances and suggesting some path to justice?
Feeling guilty about all the Jourdon Andersons and Troy Maxsons of the world is not going to do anyone any good. Feeling shame about all the Jourdon Andersons and Troy Maxsons of the world is not going to do anyone any good.
But it might be worthwhile to feel sad while recalling all the lives that have been dimmed and diminished by oppression. Not sad like pity, but sad like lament. It might be worthwhile to feel uncomfortable for a while. In the Book of Hosea, in the Hebrew Bible, one finds these words: “The wilderness will lead you to your heart where I will speak.” Like being in the wilderness, feeling sad or uncomfortable may lead you deeper into your heart where you may discover your own pathway forward in response to the stories of Jourdon Anderson and Troy Maxson and so many others who have lived under oppression.
This morning is the first day of the New Year, and as the light returns this is a good time to survey these next twelve months and imagine how life could be better for ourselves and for others. This morning is also the final day of Kwanzaa, and this morning we encounter the seven principles of Kwanzaa. They are different from the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism. They are unfamiliar to many of us. But they might nevertheless serve as threshold, guide, agitation, and invitation. I would invite you to choose just one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa and let it speak to your heart in your moment of lament, your moment of feeling uncomfortable. May a way forward become clear to you.
© 2017 by David Herndon