“…herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the [Twenty-First] Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, gentle reader; for the problem of the [Twenty-First] Century is the problem of the color line.”
—W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk
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Thanksgiving has arrived and that can only mean one thing. African Americans across the nation are about to enjoy some delectable soul food. A colleague from seminary asked me a seemingly simple question one day: What is the soul? To really understand my struggle with this query you have to appreciate my background. While attending a majority white seminary, it’s safe to say that I had a bit more melanin than some others. My flesh tone was a hue that resembled many from our historical past who were considered African Americans or Negroes.
He asked a question that evoked thoughts of pride as I pondered my godly heritage. Soul (at least from my perspective) was inextricably interwoven in my DNA. Soul music from the Harlem Renaissance resounded within as I began to recount the great jazz artists of the time (ranging from Cab Calloway to Duke Ellington). I thought of the great James Brown, who is deemed the “Godfather of Soul.” If anybody knew soul, it was my people. And soul in the African American community wasn’t just limited to melodic harmony and sound. Soul had a significant role in food preparation. Soul food, as we know it in this country, originated in the African American community. This delectable culinary genre included a wide range of items including, but not limited to, collard greens, ham hocks, pig’s feet, pork neck bone, fat back, and chitterlings a.k.a. pig intestines. (If that last sentence didn’t make you hungry, please check your pulse.)
During an oppressive era beginning in the late 17th century, slaves were afforded the “opportunity” to have the leftover pig parts from their masters’ tables. This normally included the parts the slave masters felt were unfit for human consumption. The slaves took them, carefully cleaned them, salted them up to make them flavorful, and served them to their families. As a result, soul food became a staple in the African American slave community.
So an inquiry about my soul transposed the generally perceived idea of soul in society (and the Christian community generally). It involved retained customs and traditions that accompanied thousands on an infamous Trans-Atlantic journey hundreds of years ago. When my colleague asked that question about my soul, many images, tastes, and sounds came to mind.
“One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” —W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk
Despite those elicited proud images of soul defined in my own experience, I can appreciate DuBois’ “twoness.” I live it out every day. There is a soul dualism that perpetuates itself. I am both an American and a Negro. For many, this is a comfortable idea. However, in reality this duality presents two warring ideals that have a profound impact on the way I live my life. Even in a seminary, where a majority of the books read were by white, middle-aged men, this duality impacted my experience. I’m quite sure this twoness had some role in issues presented in the “Jena Six” and Trayvon Martin stories. Both painted portraits of cities that still have some “color line” issues. When a group of black boys respond violently to a “noose” incident in a schoolyard, how could one not surmise that color line issues are still prevalent in society? When distrust of a local Central Florida Police Department mobilizes thousands of African American, how could we question the existence of the color line?
As I sat on the seminary campus and reflected, I realized that it was this twoness that led me there. I figured out that it wasn’t enough to say that I casually associate with people outside of my own ethnic group. Instead, I wanted to be able to experience community, fellowship, and dialogue with people who did not share my ethnic background. As I walked from class one week, I stopped to have a conversation with one of my classmates. We spoke about diversity and its real meaning for our seminary (and the Church generally). We both explained frustrations with tossing around diversity labels without authenticity. During our conversation, I had to apologize for assuming that he understood what I was talking about when I mentioned the acronym HBCU (Historically Black College and University) or when I spoke freely about tendencies in black church leadership.
Ultimately our conversation reassured me that there are others who wrestle with duality of the soul (whether a white Christian trying to genuinely understand other cultures or a minority Christian doing the same). I have learned that some people want to be able to function in that “twoness” to better understand others outside of their culture. Isn’t the body of Christ called to this kind of unity and understanding? Will we stand by idly as the color line widens? If the Church isn’t called to unite how can we expect it from a fallen world?
So as I lay into some Soul Food this holiday season, I remain grateful. I am grateful for the African American story. I am appreciative that my life is being grafted into a story of struggle and triumph. But the soul “twoness” is ever present. Reminding me that our story as a people is tied into God’s greater story of redemption. And for that I am thankful. Now pass me those collard greens.
Remakes, remixes, and reruns seem very commonplace in today’s entertainment culture. Every other film today seems to be a remake of some classic movie or TV show from earlier days. Today’s music offerings are filled with remakes and “remixes” of older songs. Many television channels find it more profitable to rebroadcast syndicated reruns than to air brand-new shows that are unproven. As Solomon opined, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”
Recently, my wife and I went to see Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. It was surprisingly good. Both of us felt Travolta’s character stole the show. I am more of a movie connoisseur than my wife, but normally even I don’t expect much from remakes. Sometimes you’re just unable to shake the original from your head. Whenever I hear Mariah Carey’s remake of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There,” I can still hear Michael Jackson vividly in my mind, even though I think Mariah has an extraordinary voice.
You know, sometimes things never get old. I can watch a good movie over and over again. I can listen to an amazing song repeatedly without tiring of it. Yet some things, when they are repeated, can become quite irritating.
We recently witnessed another irritating repeat of an old storyline when Cambridge Police officers took Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. away from his home in handcuffs. It was a surreal moment. I usually see Professor Gates, director of Harvard’s W.E. B Du Bois Institute, on PBS documentaries and the covers of magazines and books. I also had the privilege of visiting the Du Bois Institute on Harvard’s campus to witness the scholarly environment of some of our great Black minds, people like Dr. Gates, Dr. Cornel West, and Dr. William Julius Wilson. Seeing Gates escorted by the police from his home is something I never imagined could happen.
The surreal moment is the simple shock and disappointment that it has happened again. It doesn’t take much imagination for Black people in general to believe the incident really happened to another prominent Black figure. Just read Ellis Cose’s seminal Rage of a Privileged Class or countless other books and articles, it likes a bad script played over and over again.
I remember in the early 1990s when I saw the Rodney King incident on video of police beating him over and over again. The relief I felt then was that it was finally captured on film. Sadly, I think many of us in the Black community rejoiced. We were now vindicated by this incident, forever caught of film, confirming our claims of mistreatment. Certainly, we would have a public outcry for justice, and citizens from around the country would demand accountability from the police for their discriminatory actions. It didn’t happen as the police were found not guilty and the country not just L.A. was outraged to acts of violence in the spring of 1992 with riots spreading all over the country from Los Angeles to Ames, Iowa, to Atlanta.
Nowadays, when a prominent Black figure like Gates is arrested, Black people from around the nation say, “We have seen this movie before. It is a bad remake.” In less than 24 hours the police drop the charges, and the city of Cambridge describe the incident as “regrettable and unfortunate.” You betcha it’s regrettable and unfortunate.
Should we look at the calendar? It is 2009. We have a Black man as President of these United States of America. Yet, the image of a Black man as criminal is still the first image that so many have when they see us. Yep, I am one of them, too. I happen to be a Black man with three Black sons.
Months ago after Barack Obama was elected president and later sworn into the highest position in the land, the media ran with the notion that we are now living in a post-racial world. Race no longer has the firm grip it had for years in our country.
Who believed that? Oh, you can find some conservatives like Shelby Steele, or James Harris, the conservative radio host notorious for begging Senator McCain to aggressively go after Obama during the election. In general, most Black people don’t believe this. The statistics don’t support it. As bad as 10 percent unemployment is for our nation, the Black community would welcome 10 percent unemployment. Most of us, believe there is much work yet ahead of us before we arrive to a post racial era. A lot of the work lies within the Black community as much as externally.
Oh, I can hear the debate going back and forth about Prof. Gates’s interaction with the policeman allegedly escalating the incident to his own shame. Another critique will be that Gates wanted this outcome to draw attention to his books and documentaries on race in America. I wonder if anyone will ask why the police did not recognize who Prof. Gates is? Why do we have countless incidents of prominent Black men who have attained great success and position being perceived by the public as aberrant or exceptions to the rule, specifically by our police? This perception follows Black males from the fourth grade to the grave. I say fourth grade because that’s around the time when we are no longer cute and cuddly, we begin to display the resemblance of the adult version of ourselves. It doesn’t matter if they come from a two-parent home, teach at Harvard, or own a basketball team. This country, no matter what the ethnicity or race, continues to perceive Black men first as potential criminals. Unfortunately, many Black people hold this same perception.
I believe a more important critique about the incident is how Prof. Gates responded to the police. Evident at least to me is that his current status and notoriety has allowed him to begin to believe he is exceptional. The truth is, no Black man I know would risk engaging the police, in their home or anyplace else, to the level Prof. Gates did for fear of the possible outcome. I have taught my sons, and they have seen, how a Black man should relate to the police nonverbally and verbally, so as to avoid the results Prof. Gates got or an even worse consequence.
Isn’t it interesting that the incident of Oklahoma troopers going scuffling with a Black paramedic after stopping an ambulance en route to take a patient to the hospital did not get the national attention as Prof. Gates? This incident happened in late May. Wouldn’t it be interesting to document the number of times the police have stopped African American men who have attained middle-class status from those in graduate school to professionals? This data will be more enlightening than the current misdirected conversation about Prof. Gates and the Cambridge police versus the broader issue of how Black and Latino men are treated by the police.
If Henry Louis Gates does pursue a documentary on racial profiling, I hope he presents the historical data that displays this awful stereotype as an age-old dilemma that has evolved through the generations in our country, influencing the images Black people have themselves. It doesn’t seem to get old as fodder for our media. It’s just a new remix, with simple tweaks and nuances that make it current. But in the end, it’s an old song, old episode, and old movie. Many of us can write the script ourselves. But it continues to be produced. Sadly, we have to keep watching.
NAACP cofounder and civil rights author and activist W.E.B. Du Bois in 1918.
With the bicentennials of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin the subject of numerous conferences, articles, and television shows this month, we also should remember another important commemoration in 2009: the centennial of the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The Association celebrated its centennial this week. And next year is the centennial of its magazine, The Crisis.