And Still We Struggle to Be Counted
On the morning of Nov. 5, 2008, we gathered for our daily worship in Yale Divinity School’s Marquand Chapel. There was much joy and celebration in the air as almost all of those gathered felt a new day had dawned across America. I was doubtful. Perhaps it was the cranky ethicist in me peeking around the corner of ecstasy. Maybe it was the pragmatic womanist in me, looking back at history and forward at the future and being grounded in the present. But whatever or whoever was my touchstone that morning as the chapel erupted with joy sans my circumspection, I was absolutely sure that though some things had changed, most had not and it was going to be a rough four years.
And I am bitterly disappointed that I was right. Although President Obama’s list of accomplishments is long, a syndrome that W.E.B Du Bois noted in 1935 is more powerful than ever. Du Bois says in his essay, “The Propaganda of History”:
“One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk and only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner, or that Thomas Jefferson had mulatto children, or that Alexander Hamilton had Negro blood, and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.”1
Bad Politics, Bad History
I have felt the impact of his words time and again as our studied, selective amnesia or willful oblivion has painted a perfect, simplistic picture of a complex and fascinating nation. Truth-telling is often tossed to the wind when it comes to electoral politics and public-policy formation. Gone are statesmen and stateswomen and in their place have arisen politicians running for office but rarely governing with thoughtfulness and an eye to the common good. This is bad history and macabre political process because it does not tell the truth of the living and breathing that goes on in our lives and in the lives of countless others as we struggle to be counted.
We are learning to be circumspect about what we read, what we hear, and what is presented to us that paints perfect men and women and noble nations through selective interpretation means we use misshapened and false models to craft our democracy and set our global aims. And our religious bodies are of little help if they are like an inept Greek chorus that intones lies and deceptions in collective voice – off-key, cracking jokes, and failing to give healthy guidance.
Getting buried or “renamed” is the long and troubling history of race and politics. We do not hear very often, and certainly not in the national campaigns of either party, the word “race” or “racism.” In one party, they know little of what it means to have genuine diversity, and in the other, they have weighed the cost of naming the obvious and decided to let image speak rather than call forth the dangers and violence as well as the joys and triumphs we find in the history of darker-skinned peoples in this country.
Four Little Girls
I became aware of the dangers and violence of this history when I was eight years old in 1963. It was found in the slain faces of four little girls who were older than me but as southern and black as me. Four little girls – Carol Robertson, Carole Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley. Four young black girls who arrived at Sunday School for Youth Day at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. on Sept. 15, 1963. One was eleven years old, the other three were fourteen. Four little girls living in the midst of the racial turmoil that marked Birmingham and so much of the United States as black folks and their allies sought the right to vote. Killed when a bomb planted by a Ku Klux Klansman who opposed integration ripped through the basement of their church, killing them when they were buried beneath the rubble in a blast that blew out the face of Jesus in the stained-glass window and stopped the church clock.
It is rare for me, during any federal election, not to think of those four little girls. Along with James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Yet their martyrdom should not be sad historical notes to the ways in which our lust for supremacy and control beget such vicious and evil children as hatred, bigotry, racism, sexism, classism. You see, growing up in the liberal segregated South of Durham, NC, in the late 1950s and 1960s, one of the things drummed into little black kids’ heads was the power and right of voting. From civics classes to conversations in our homes to messages from stormy pulpits, we learned the story of the hardwon victories of black folk who fought to be able to go to the polls without physical threat (or in spite of it) and pull the lever. This is democracy. This is what citizens do.
One of the most exciting things I did as a youth was to vote in my first election. We learned the value of studying the issues. Our teachers recited as mantra the importance of being informed, not letting others tell you what to do with your vote, studying the candidates, listening as others discuss the issues, putting your opinions into the mix. And though there was little hint of spin in the air then, we did learn the power of what has come to be known as dirty tricks: Intimidation at polling places and broken machines were stock-in-trade in black and poor white precincts even then. My education included the stories of black folk going to town hall to register to vote and being turned away by the local police.
In spite of, or perhaps because of these realities, we were told, and I deeply believe, that a strong democracy rests on an informed and voting electorate. So, when I entered the voting booth on Nov. 6, 1973, for the first time, I was proud to be one of the 1,687 registered voters in my precinct and one of the 767 votes cast from our precinct in our municipal election. And I was not the odd kid among my peers. We were all proud to be voting and some of us even dressed up to do so – like folks used to do to travel by plane or go to church.
I still study the candidates and their positions. But what has given me pause is the way in which we now substitute innuendo and worse for facts in much of the political debate of the day. I have become one of those black folks annoyed at both parties for caricaturing my community and reducing me and others to social projects or pathological problems.
A National Enigma
It is remarkable that in a country so full of the presence of darker-skinned peoples of varying hues, race remains a national enigma. As race becomes more complex and the nation more diverse, this, friends, means all of us commit these acts of ignorance. Neither party names racism or race directly, but it is there in the coding of words that are symbols of centuries-long hatreds and discriminations. They are more powerful as symbols because they tap into our imaginations, what I call the fantastic hegemonic imagination. This imagination traffics in gross caricatures so that we can control the world in our own image. This imagination conjures oppressive social structures based on foundations of evil and then proclaims this as normal or acceptable or natural.
I don’t think there is anything normal or natural about the way we continue to countenance evil as acceptable. Although the evil of racism may be harder to detect by some these days, for others it continues to stand front and center. We now see it in voter suppression, or as the subtext in discussions of immigration reform, and in reference to “the poor” and the “47 percent.”
ID Laws and Ideology
Out of the thirty states that have enacted Voter ID laws, twenty-three of these are where Republicans dominate. Whether it be voter ID laws or shortened early voting hours in urban districts, this suppresses the rights of the poor, former prison inmates, the elderly, Latino/as, as well as blacks, to vote in local, state, and presidential elections. These efforts are making it more difficult for college students, the disabled, and immigrants to vote. Pennsylvania enacted a strict voter photo ID law even though the state did not offer any evidence of voter fraud to justify this law. Last fall, a state judge ruled that voters could cast their votes in the November election without these IDs but failed to toss out the law completely. Hmmmmm … To confuse matters more, the judge refused to stop election officials from asking for IDs at the polls although they were not required for the November election. As the old black women who raised me used to say: ummmmph ... ummmph ... ummmph.
I could understand enacting these laws if we had rampant voter fraud in the U.S., but we do not. In the ten states that recently passed photo ID laws, there were fewer than seventy voter-fraud convictions in the past decade among the forty million registered voters in these states, according to a CBS Evening News report last August. These laws prevent something that very rarely happens; their mercurial application does not justify such vast potential disenfranchisement. I am left wondering why the focus of these efforts so often seems to be the swing states where folks who are more likely to vote Democratic and so many darker-skinned people and poor people are still struggling to be counted. Why do some folk rush to “fix” a problem we do not have and ignore the fact that they create a real problem – denying legitimate voters the opportunity to vote in a participatory democracy?
In the long run, what I hear and see both parties courting are middle-class white folks. The black class structure earns far less than the white class structure. In 2009, the black middle class, which was 38 percent of black households, ranged from $35,000 to $100,000. The upper-middle class, or 8 percent of black households, made $100,000 to $200,000. Obama has become mute on advocacy for truly disadvantaged blacks and rarely speaks out forthrightly on racial issues for fear of alienating more conservative white voters who may quickly turn in a Republican direction if he does.
So I have heard little beyond a white middle-class mantra from both parties – little mention of the waitress with two kids, not much for the warehouse worker who is trying to survive on wages that have stagnated for a decade, barely a whisper for the factory worker whose skills are now obsolete. Many of us who are black can appreciate the president’s dilemma and support him regardless of his silence. It’s a deeply racist society that creates this kind of conundrum with a fantastic hegemonic imagination as its drum major.
A Pro-Human Gospel
It remains for those of us who seek to live our religious convictions rather than simply rehearse them in a funhouse mirror of self-loathing to find our cues in sacred texts. For those of us who hold that our religious beliefs must be present in the public debates of our day – and not be buried in political and religious cat fights and mud-wrestling contests – we’d do well to heed Du Bois’ warning to us that we must tell the truth. It is my hope that those four little girls – Carole Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carol Robertson – are not mere historical artifacts of the horror of what can go wrong when we blend religion and politics and then stir in a dose of hatred and fear, with ignorance and elitism as the maid and butler.
Instead, we must live into and build a vibrant democracy. We cannot lean on the memory of the ways that black religion has called for and fought for a robust sense of the common good for all: The gospel demands that we be pro-humanity, pro-mercy, pro-justice.
So we must say it clearly: Racism, like sexism, classism, militarism, ageism, heterosexism, and the rest of this wearying laundry list of isms, remains alive and thriving in this country. If the political parties want to ignore these issues, we cannot and must not.
I close with a petition I have issued before and will continue to: There are no days off!
Now I believe that most of us are hankering for a faith that comes from seeking to live in righteousness – to move beyond a ritualized, sterilized, codified, cul-de-sac faith to one that comes from the heart and soul, a faith so strong, so tough that we can craft a community of witnesses from it. A faith made up with peoples of all racial ethnic groups, both genders and intersex, varied lifestyles and abilities, different political and theological agendas, from all levels of the class structure, documented and undocumented, all ages, and on and on into the richness of our living. A community of righteousness striving to reach out to the least of these. Witnessing through our spirituality and our sense of justice. Demanding the best of who we can be as a church. Refusing to accept maudlin loathing as divine commandments. Refusing to turn King’s legacy into a one-day-a-year feel-good time-paid holiday celebration of inept kumbayas and sashaying allelulias.
There are no days off.
We must step into the great challenges we have before us and choose wisely those leaders we elect. There are no days off.
We must refuse to accept a trail of false promises as signs of salvation.
There are no days off.
No matter what they say about whether you are married, divorced, single, straight, gay, lesbian, or who knows what, there are no days off. No matter where your people come from, there are no days off.
No matter how many times you are called too tender-hearted or too concerned about “those people,” there are no days off.
No matter how many times politicians, public figures, and other alleged Christians pick up the Bible to abuse it and then use it to ratify their personal wickedness, there are no days off.
No matter what the world hands us, we give back love. We stand for goodness. We live our faith. We live with integrity. We live God’s grace large. We build bridges of salvation that can carry the depth and breadth of humanity over them.
To the memory of those four little girls and the countless other martyrs of the faith, and with thanks to W.E.B. Du Bois for believing in black folk even when he didn’t always understand them, and with the hope I learned in Sunday school and sitting on the children’s pew in the back of Asbury Temple United Methodist Church, that little church by the side of the road where everybody is somebody and Christ is the Lord, there will be no days off... until justice comes.
Emilie M. Townes, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology, joined the YDS faculty in 2005. She also served as YDS associate dean of academic affairs from 2008-2012. Her books include Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) and Breaking the Fine Rain of Death: African American Health Care and A Womanist Ethic of Care (Continuum, 1998). This essay is adapted from a lecture she gave last fall at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. In July she leaves Yale to become dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School.
1 W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Propaganda of History” in Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward the History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America (Russell & Russell, 1966), p. 722.