Toni Morrison and the holiness of the living, breathing flesh

Toni Morrison and the holiness of the living, breathing flesh

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison reads during Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert, on Sept. 17, 2005, in New York City. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen)

Amid the obituaries and tributes for novelist Toni Morrison, who died last week at age 88; of all the shared emails, texts and calls with friends and present and former students, as I sat with my own grief at the news, one remark of Morrison’s continued to resonate. In a 2015 interview in Essence magazine, she told the story of once being asked on stage how she wanted to be remembered. Morrison said she replied, “I would like to be remembered as trustworthy; as generous.”

At this point an audience member challenged her. “What are you talking about?” a young black woman called out. “You are a famous writer and you want to be remembered as trustworthy?”

Morrison went on to explain to the incredulous audience members that they were thinking of her public self, while Morrison was thinking about how she wanted her family to remember her. “That other thing is all well and good. But there is Toni Morrison and there is Chloe (her birth name). Chloe is not interested in those things.”

This captures for me why Morrison was and remains a powerful influence for so many of us who traffic in religious circles, professionally and personally. Her trustworthiness came through — when you read her words, be it in an essay or a novel, she conveyed the comforting and the uncomfortable truths of making one’s way in a world that harbors ill will against darker-skinned folk, and women-identified folk, and poor folk in radically systematic and relentless ways.

Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison appears at the 18th annual Glamour Women of the Year awards in New York on Nov. 5, 2007. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

She did not absolve her readers from our participation in this deadly spectacle. She held us all responsible for the world we have made and are making. But she insisted that we realize the specific ways in which we participate in it. In my own work, I have been deeply influenced by the mirrors Morrison hands me to look both within and beyond myself.

She did not write utopian visions, then, but held out the possibility that we can be better than we are as individuals and as a nation. If we lived into these possibilities, she implied, perhaps we might find a bit of utopian hope.

She never made reading her easy. One does not rush through her words, and if we are wise, we return to them over time to mine new insights. In this her words function like scripture — truths are there, complex truths that cannot be understood with a soundbite mentality. One must sit with them and the stories she is telling and the insights she is offering. Perhaps there are moments that become holy in doing so.

But what Morrison taught me above all is that the holy is both radically immanent and transcendent. In too much of our religious and theological thought we only focus on the transcendent — at our own peril. What we must also concentrate on is the immanent dimensions of the holy for this is where we sit as living, breathing flesh. This is where we live out the drama of our humanness.

When this drama focuses on black lives, as Morrison did, unapologetically and proudly, we have the tremendous opportunity to know ourselves better in the rich diversity of blackness, and for those who are not black or brown to get a more accurate picture of black lives that matter, and the ways in which we help form the rich tapestry of creation.

With Morrison, we are reminded that we are our stories. When we do not tell them, listen to them, appreciate them and learn from them, we are all poorer souls.

(Emilie M. Townes is dean and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

President Obama listens to Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Toni Morrison in the Blue Room of the White House, on May 29, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Pumpsie Green, 1st black player on Boston Red Sox, dies

Pumpsie Green, 1st black player on Boston Red Sox, dies

Video Courtesy of NESN


Former Boston Red Sox infielder Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, the first black player on the last major league team to field one, has died. He was 85.

The Red Sox said Green, who lived in California most of his life, died Wednesday at in a hospital in San Leandro, near Oakland; no cause of death was immediately available. The team observed a moment of silence before its game against the Toronto Blue Jays.

“Pumpsie Green occupies a special place in our history,” Red Sox owner John Henry said. “He was, by his own admission, a reluctant pioneer, but we will always remember him for his grace and perseverance in becoming our first African-American player. He paved the way for the many great Sox players of color who followed. For that, we all owe Pumpsie a debt of gratitude.”

A light-hitting second baseman and shortstop, Green brought baseball’s segregation era to an end of sorts when he entered a game against the Chicago White Sox as a pinch-runner for Vic Wertz on July 21, 1959 — more than a dozen years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Green joined the team on a road trip and had played nine games before taking the field at Fenway Park for the first time. Green said this year in an interview with NESN, the Red Sox TV network, that he remembered receiving a standing ovation when he came to the plate, batting leadoff.

“It was heart-warming and nerve-wracking,” he told reporters in 1997, when he returned to Boston to take part in ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s debut. “But I got lucky: I hit a triple off the left-center fence.”

Born in Boley, Oklahoma, he moved with his family to California at a young age and met his wife Marie Presley at Contra Costa Junior College. He made his professional baseball debut at 19 years old for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League and was named the California League’s Most Valuable Player in 1955.

The Red Sox purchased his contract, and he attended his first spring training with the club in ’56. He was added to the club’s 40-man roster in September of 1958.

Green didn’t have the talent of Hall of Famers like Robinson and Larry Doby, who was the first black player in the American League. The Red Sox infielder reached the majors as a role player, just once playing more than 88 games, and never hitting more than six homers or batting better than .278.

Green played parts of four seasons with the Red Sox before finishing his career with one year on the New York Mets. In all, he batted .246 with 13 homers and 74 RBIs.

But his first appearance in a Boston uniform ended baseball’s ugliest chapter, and the fact that it took the Red Sox so long left a stain on the franchise — and a void in the trophy case — it is still trying to erase.

The Red Sox had a chance to sign Robinson in 1945, before the Dodgers, and Hall of Famer Willie Mays a few years later; they chose not to, decisions that help explain the 86-year World Series championship drought that didn’t end until 2004. Last year, acknowledging the poor racial record of longtime owner Thomas A. Yawkey, the team expunged his name from the street outside the ballpark.

A few days after Green was called up, the Red Sox added Earl Wilson, a black pitcher. Green said there was an informal quota system that required teams to have an even number of black players so they would have someone to room with on the road.

They were among the few blacks in the clubhouse, the front office or the crowd, Green said in ’97.

“Most of the time it was just me,” he said. “It was almost an oddity when you saw a black person walking around the stands.”

But unlike Robinson, Green said, he received no death threats. “It was mostly insults,” he said then.

“But you can get those at any ballpark at any time,” he said. “I learned to tune things out.”

Green returned to northern California after his baseball career ended and earned a degree in physical education from San Francisco State. He worked as a counselor and coach at Berkeley High School before retiring in the 1990s.

The Red Sox honored him again on Jackie Robinson Day in 2009 and ’12, but he was unable to attend the ceremony in 2018 when his debut was recognized as a historic moment by the Red Sox Hall of Fame.

Upon his return to Fenway in ’97, he noticed that things had improved but still saw work to be done.

“Baseball still has its problems, and so does society,” Green said. “I don’t believe things are that much better in baseball or society. Hopefully, it will be shortly.”

Green is survived by his wife of 62 years, Marie; one of three brothers, Cornell Green, was a star safety for the Dallas Cowboys. He had one daughter, Heidi; his son, Jerry, died last year. He had two granddaughters and four great grandsons.

A funeral will be held on Aug. 2 in Oakland.

Frederick Douglass: ‘What Is July 4th to the Negro?’

Frederick Douglass: ‘What Is July 4th to the Negro?’

In the nineteenth century, many American communities and cities celebrated Independence Day with a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence, which was usually followed by an oral address or speech dedicated to the celebration of independence and the heritage of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers. On July 5, 1852, the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited the Black abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass to be the keynote speaker for their Independence Day celebration. The Fourth of July Speech, scheduled for Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, attracted an audience of 600. The meeting opened with a prayer and was followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence. When Douglass finally came to the platform to deliver his speech, the event took a jarring turn. Douglass told his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”

Within Douglass’ now-legendary address is what historian Philip S. Foner has called “probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass’ speeches.”

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

On this and every July 4th, Americans might do well to re-read and reflect on Douglass’ famous message. It challenges us to move beyond the biases and blind spots of our own cultural privileges and consider those around us for whom, as Langston Hughes said, “America has never been America.”

Read Douglass’ complete speech here, and watch actor Danny Glover recite an excerpt from the address below.

100-Year Anniversary of the Red Summer of 1919

100-Year Anniversary of the Red Summer of 1919

Video Courtesy of WGN News


Daniel Hoskins with guns deposited at the Gregg County Courthouse, in Longview, Texas, following a race riot during the Red Summer. (Library of Congress)

Many people died during the summer and fall of 1919 because of race riots in cities across the country that occurred in more than three dozen cities, including Chicago and a rural county near Elaine, AK. In Chicago, from July 25-August 3, a race riot was ignited when a black teen was stoned to death after crossing an invisible boundary between a segregated part of the Chicago beaches. The riot left 38 people dead, more than 500 injured, and 1,000 black families homeless when their homes were burned down. In Elaine, AK, five whites and twenty-five to fifty Blacks were killed after black sharecroppers attended a farmer’s union meeting to get better pay for their cotton crops. A shooting incident at the meeting escalated into mob violence because of tense racial relations and increasing concern about labor unions at the time, according to The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.

Online Resources About the Summer of 1919

A digital archive, map, and timeline of riots and lynchings across the United States in 1919

Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots

EJI: Red Summer 1919

The Chicago History Museum and the DuSable Museum Event

The Chicago History Museum and the DuSable Museum of African American History come together to remember the historic events of the summer of 1919. Featuring artists and historians, this event recalls the 1919 race riots that forever changed Chicago’s sociopolitical atmosphere. As we reflect on their tragic legacy, we honor the life of Eugene Williams and others affected by police brutality and segregation.

Meet at Margaret T. Burroughs Beach, 3100 South Lake Shore Drive

Free and open to the public. No RSVPs needed.

SCHEDULE
MCs:
Nancy Villafranca – Chicago History Museum, Director of Education
Erica Griffin – DuSable Museum, Director of Education

3:00–4:15 p.m.
Welcome
Julius L. Jones
Lethal Poetry, After School Matters, DuSable Museum
Momma Kemba as Ida B. Wells
Avery R. Young
Red Clay Dance Company

4:15–5:00 p.m.
FLOAT
FLOAT by Jefferson Pinder and A.J. McClenon is a simple act in the remembrance of the riots of that summer a hundred years ago. Over 100 participants will peacefully drift across a historic invisible racial barrier using inflatables, reactivating and reclaiming a site of violence. While the participants are floating in the lake, at the exact time in which Eugene Williams was stoned to death in the water, a soundscape will draw the participants and the audience into a shared meditative moment.

 

 

Juneteenth: A Commemoration of Black Independence

Juneteenth: A Commemoration of Black Independence

Video Courtesy of AL.com


Today Twitter, Facebook, Instagram; even parks and some backyards are overflowing with the celebration of “Juneteenth.”

What is it, exactly?

juneteenth-resize

Juneteenth Celebration in Texas, June 19, 1900 (Photo Credit: Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)

Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration that commemorates the actual ending of slavery in the United States. Although President Lincoln signed The Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, it was not until June 19, 1865 that the Union soldiers, led by General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, TX, with news that the war ended and the enslaved were free at last!

The Emancipation Proclamation had very little impact on Texas in 1863 due to the minimal number of Union troops in that area to enforce the new Executive Order. Of course some questioned President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states, but for whatever reason conditions in Texas remained the same well beyond what was statutory. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and with the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces finally had enough strength to overcome the resistance.

Today, Juneteenth is experiencing an extreme growth rate within communities and organizations around the country. The Smithsonian, the Henry Ford Museum, and a few other organizations have begun sponsoring Juneteenth –centered activities. It currently celebrates African American freedom and achievement, encourages continuous self-development and respect for all cultures. Although the historic day is celebrated mostly in Texas, it is now taking on a more national and even more global perspective.

If you didn’t know your history before, now you know!

For more information on Juneteenth visit Juneteenth.com

Alabama heralds ‘last slave ship’ discovery; ponders future

Alabama heralds ‘last slave ship’ discovery; ponders future

Dives into murky water, painstaking examinations of relics and technical data and rigorous peer review led historians and archaeologists to confirm last week that wreckage found in the Mobile River in 2018 was indeed the Clotilda, the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to the United States.

An event heralding the discovery Thursday afternoon in the Mobile community of Africatown made clear that much work remains. The Alabama Historical Commission and others working on the project must decide how much can be salvaged, whether it can be brought ashore or if it should be left in place and protected.

Perhaps more important: How can the interest and publicity engendered by the discovery of the Clotilda be harnessed to foster economic and racial justice in the community?

Anderson Flen, a descendent of one of the Clotilda’s enslaved, believes the historic find can spark new discussions on those topics.

“Number one is talking and communicating honestly and transparently,” Flen said after a news conference on the effort to confirm the discovery. “The other thing is beginning to make some tangible things happen in this community.”

Another Clotilda survivor’s descendant, Darron Patterson, said Africatown residents “have to come together as a group to make sure we’re on one page, of one accord, to make sure this community survives.”

Thursday’s gathering at a community center drew roughly 300 people. Government officials taking part included U.S. Rep Bradly Byrne — who said he would work to help make Africatown “a place that people all over the world are going to want to come to” — and a representative from Sen. Doug Jones’ office. A statement celebrating the discovery from Gov. Kay Ivey was read by historic commission chairman Walter Givhan.

Officials credited Alabama journalist Ben Raines with renewing interest in locating the remains of the Clotilda. Raines had reported that he believed he had located the ship last year. Even though the ship he found turned out not to be the Clotilda, it led to the commission’s and other organizations’ efforts to locate the Clotilda’s wreckage.

A team of maritime archaeology experts conducted an assessment of a previously unsearched area of the Mobile River and historical research and an archaeological survey revealed up to two dozen 19th and 20th century vessels. One closely matched characteristics of the Clotilda and peer-reviewed findings led researchers to conclude that the wreckage is the Clotilda.

Officials have said they are working on a plan to preserve the site where the ship was located. Beyond that, the ship’s future is uncertain.

“This is the point where we pause,” Givhan told reporters. “We have to do our duty in protecting it. That’s job one right now.”

More experts will be brought in to determine the next move. “There are several options, obviously, as to whether you leave it in place, whether you bring up certain artifacts,” Givhan said.

James Delgado, a maritime archaeologist who helped lead the team that verified the wreck as the Clotilda, recently told The Associated Press that the ship’s remains are delicate but the potential for both research and inspiration are enormous.

Joycelyn Davis, a descendant of one of the Africans held captive aboard the ship, said she wants to somehow honor both the ship’s human cargo and the hard work of them and their descendants in forming Africatown .

Jerry Ward, an African American man who said he lives near Africatown, said he’d like to see the ship reconstructed as part of an effort to educate people about its history. “To know where you’re going, you’ve got to know where you come from,” Ward said.

The commission said organizations involved in the research and survey efforts include the Black Heritage Council, the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, the Slave Wrecks Project, Diving with a Purpose, SEARCH Inc. and the National Park Service.