MADE IT? A 9/11 FAMILY SAGA

(with collaboration from Jennifer Blue)

There was nothing unusual about that morning. I was preparing at home for my class and was running a tad late to get to the Center where my office was located.  When I finally got upstairs and entered the reception area, the staff and some of the student workers were watching television.  A few of them in unison informed me I had to join them.  I barely paid attention, for I was intent on putting the finishing touches on my upcoming lecture and ensuing discussion questions.  It was a little after 8:00 on Tuesday, fSeptember 11, 2001.  For some reason, I had on the local affiliate of public radio while driving to the university—which was my custom—but I was not listening.   It only served as background noise as I reflected on my day’s schedule.

Engrossed over perfecting my lecture notes and refining my presentation, I did not immediately comprehend the horror and gravity of the live coverage.  I insisted the staff and students get back to work and disregard whatever current event was capturing their attention.  However, the tone of voice of one of the students assigned to me shook and took me away from my routine: she informed me that two planes had plowed into the Twin Towers in New York City and news reporters were speculating that the incidents had the markings of terrorist attacks.  I could no longer ignore the matter with that characterization, and with little resistance I, too, became momentarily transfixed by what I was viewing on the screen.

After nearly a half-hour of watching the special report, I decided to return to my office to focus on what was going on—removing myself from the hullabaloo in the reception area.  It wasn’t until it was closer to 9:00 than 8:30 that it eventually dawned on me I was uncertain where my eldest sister, J. Vicki Blackwell Ogundipe, worked in Manhattan.  She lived in South Orange, NJ, and took a commuter train into the Big Apple; but I had no idea where her place of employment was located.

Consequently, I telephoned my younger brother, Kevin, who had lived in the city for some time in the past and hailed it as the greatest metropolis in the world.  Now, in Durham, NC, he was the first person I contacted since he was very familiar with all the landscape and landmarks of the five boroughs as well as the intricacies of the public transportation system there.  He informed me that she did not work at the World Trade Center per se, but it was customary for her to have meetings there and to enjoy the quiet before the business day began with a cup of coffee and the Bloomberg Report.

My call prompted him to do his own investigation.  By the time I needed to report to class, he had discovered from our older sister, Lydia, that Vicki was speaking to her via payphone when the former abruptly dropped the phone.  Vicki had heard a peculiarly loud noise, but was unaware of its cause.  In a few minutes, she and many others were confronted by first responders urging them to exit the building.  Even though she possessed a cellular phone, Vicki had an aversion to using it.  Meanwhile, Lydia was horrified by the sudden disconnection.  Knowing she could not reach Vicki through public access, she tried to reach her via cell phone as a last resort from her postmaster’s office . . . to no avail.

I went through the tunnel to my classroom building in a complete daze.  People passing by were mere shadows: I could not recognize anyone; and if anyone sought to greet me, I was deaf and unresponsive.  I kept rolling over in my mind whether or not she had escaped what I imagined to be an embroiling inferno.  The lack of knowledge of her whereabouts was distressing, and it became increasingly scary when repeated attempts to reach her by some of my siblings were unsuccessful.  All we could do was commiserate with speculations of Vicki’s whereabouts.  Our typical family conversations were remembrances of childhood traumas with our authoritarian, tyrannical, and abusive father.  Any pleasure of simple sibling relationships was frequently precluded by the residual effects of adverse childhood experiences. 

Vicki was an accomplished individual.  She skipped two grades before graduating from high school and entered Barnard College at a young age.  Gifted with natural intelligence and patience to study diligently, she majored in Economics and went on to Stanford University, where she earned a master’s in Business Administration.  She was absurdly sharp-witted—to an intimidating degree for most, even her siblings—which made many perceive her as aloof, which she was definitely not to her familiars.  Like her father, she was captious in her analysis; and she frequently seemed to come at a subject from an unexpected angle.  She read quickly and voraciously, and she always amazed others with her breadth of knowledge outside of her business acumen.

On numerous occasions, she would ask me, a former movie buff, whether I had seen a particular film.  She knew I had, for it was my wont to go to all opening features during the weekend to de-stress and relax.  It never failed that she would know the flick just as or even better than I.  After a couple years of this happening to me, I summoned up the nerve to ask her where she found the time to frequent the cinema as much as me.  Her reply? She did not go to new movies at all.  She would, instead, read at least one critical review and discuss that movie with me with a confidence that often left me nonplussed.  Her confession helped me to realize she was not exactly cheating, for I did not get the sense she was passing ideas not of her own making.  She had absorbed the material substantively and with alacrity.  I attempted to hone that craft in my perusal of books not physically a part of my massive library.

She encouraged me to become an astute user of the Internet and to do fact-checking speedily and effectively.  Such came in handy in my administrative and academic endeavors.  Even now, though I am retired, I still seek to emulate her research expertise in a variety of pursuits on my bucket list.

Phone lines were out of order or malfunctioning in New York and New Jersey, so much so that none of us siblings was able to reach Vicki in any way.  Watching the developments as they transpired on the news kept us individually busy.  Not knowing what had happened to her was traumatic for us siblings.  We could hardly carry on a conversation when we were on the phone with each other because we had no detailed information to go on.  A few of us got intermittently upset because we could not understand why Vicki did not attempt to reach one of us.  Needless to say, her being incommunicado deepened our feeling of tragedy—albeit we had no idea of the facts surrounding her perceived reticence.  Surely, we thought, she could not know how challenging it was for us to be completely unaware whether or not she had escaped.  Unbeknownst to each other, we repeatedly combed the videos and snapshots of the scene in desperate efforts to catch a glimpse of the frame and cadence with which we were well acquainted amid the escaping throngs—perishing any notion that she did not make it out of the mezzanine when the emergency personnel commanded the patrons to depart.  To this day, some of us still perform that search as if it were a religious ritual!

While at Barnard, Vicki had purchased a Schwinn 10-speed bicycle.  One summer, right before my sophomore year of high school, she entrusted me with the pedaled vehicle.  I had never ridden a bicycle before, let alone any knowledge of gear shifts.  She tried to give me a quick course on balance, negotiating traffic, tire pressure, and safety measures.  I didn’t take it seriously.  I vividly recall riding on a four-lane city road and being very nervous.  The anxiety became so great, I decided my best bet was to turn around and go back home.  Not knowing how to navigate a safe and efficient U-turn, I simply relied on my peripheral vision, did not see any car coming up behind me, and made the 180°—narrowly missing getting run over by a car from opposite directions—their blaring horns not helping to assuage my diffidence. 

Years later, with her MBA degree in tow, Vicki returned to the borough of Manhattan, where she worked as a financial analyst and CFO, and last worked at the NY State Insurance Department—located on Beaver Street, a good 10-15-minute walk from Ground Zero on that fateful day in September 2001.  Her financial success was the rage of my parents: they longed to hear from her via telephone and to see her whenever she would make a rare visit by commuter train.

On December 24, 1977, my grounded younger brother, relegated primarily to his bedroom, elected, in the spirit of the Christmas season, to ask our father for a gift: a reprieve from punishment.  I suggested to him that, knowing our controlling and repressive dad, he should realize his request would be greeted with a peremptory negative.  When the rejection came, Kevin sought to persist.  My father’s anger was palpable.  In the living room, I had just finished speaking with my two younger sisters, both eight, about the importance of standing for justice, fairness, and truth no matter the consequences.  The dynamic between our father and brother was an appropriate object lesson.  As my brother left rejected from our parents’ bedroom, I shouted an “I told you so” from my living-room berth, and my father overheard the disdain in my voice.  Before I had the chance to anticipate anything, he rushed to where I was and confronted me with a sarcasm and bait that made very real the practicable nature of my moral instruction to the girls.

In a matter of a few minutes, I stood to face my father on equal footing, whereupon he sucker-punched me and sought to wrestle me to the ground.  The Christmas tree came crashing down upon us as my frightened sisters ran out of the room.  My dad put me in a neck hold in an attempt to break my back, and I strained myself to pull away and run out of the living room, down the hall to the kitchen toward the side door exit.  My feet felt like bricks in cement with every step.  When I finally made it to the egress, the screen door was locked, and my fumbling fingers could not release it as my enraged father quickly approached me from behind.  I was able to maneuver the kitchen table in between us, and in his frustration, my father rifled through the silverware drawer and grabbed a sharp knife.  As he thrusted the knife across the table to stab me, my mother came stealthily in the kitchen and unlocked the screen door—allowing me barely to escape from the homicidal maniac into the bitter cold without a sweater or a winter coat.  I ran up the avenue and then a few more blocks to the Howard Johnson’s hotel and restaurant, where there was a conveniently located phone booth.  I called Lydia, now living a few miles away in a suburb of New Haven, to tell her the tragic news when my mother drove by with the two girls, Kevin, and some of his belongings in tow.  My back and neck were throbbing; but we made it safely to Lydia’s apartment where Kevin and I stayed for a few days.

Eventually, Lydia reached Vicki to inform her of the latest familial development.  And it was almost as if Vicki had already thought of a solution to a problem of what would be the new living arrangements for Kevin and me before the day’s circumstances were yet revealed to her.  She would help me get permission to return early to the Wesleyan campus, where I was a student, over the remaining winter break, and orchestrate the paperwork needed to obtain admission for Kevin into the five-year engineering program at her alma mater at the precious age of fifteen!  Success!  Returning home for Kevin and me—both personae non gratae to our father—was no longer plausible.

A risk-management specialist, Vicki was more of a problem-solver than she was a compassionate soul, or so it seemed.  She appeared more at ease in making pedantic, nit-picking, and pettifogging remarks that sensitive individuals could scarcely handle, than offering encouragement and positive statements about possibilities.  However, one thing was clear: she cared deeply enough to do what it took to make opportunities a reality and to set a person on the path to potential success depending on one’s ability to receive her baton and run vigorously after the prize, the finish line.

On Memorial Day, in 1996, our mother had reached the end of her race.  Over the years, the abuse of her significant other forced her into an agreeable submission that made their seven children cringe in perpetuity.  In the spring of 1992, the first day of her husband’s retirement—a day that our mother dreaded—she had a heart attack; for the next four years, she had other heart problems, breast cancer, and probably most importantly, emergent severe complications from her insufficiently monitored Type II diabetes.  Her left leg was amputated twice: once below the knee, and then above the knee; a year-and-a-half later, her right leg was amputated above the knee.  Her skin was darkening from chemotherapy, her nerves were shot, and she became enormously dependent on the man who had continually threatened her with verbal and physical violence, prohibited her from pursuing a career as a registered nurse, and generally treated her as inferior.

It had come as a surprise to us siblings that Vicki would ever settle down with a man.  In 1980, working in New York, she met a Nigerian, Oladele Ogundipe.  Within a year, they were married, much to everyone’s surprise.  He seemed a very quiet, yet determined, individual with an entrepreneurial spirit.  His dream was to help West Africans enter into the rapidly advancing technological age.  To do so meant that the couple would ultimately have to live overseas.  For a few years, they called Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and England home.  Despite their exciting and experimental traveling, they finally settled in South Orange, New Jersey.  Its relative proximity to New York City made it convenient for business, entertainment, and adventure.

With the death of our mother, Vicki, who was evidently our father’s favorite progeny, took charge.  She paid my way from Iowa to Connecticut and put me up in a hotel, and fixed me up with a limousine service to get around.  In a way, she inculcated us into assuming that if any of us had a financial need, she could and would provide the relief.  And it did not alter that perception after she gave birth to her two sons.  She did not complain about the giving away of money; rather, she appeared increasingly incredulous over our inability to make do for ourselves.  On more than one occasion, she had encouraged me to make as much money as I could before the age of forty, so that I would have the freedom to pursue my genuine ambitions and leisure activities.  Regrettably, I did not take her advice.  She admired my social activism, but cautioned me about the slowness of structural and environmental change.  She was well-off, but she seemed always to regard her financial stability and solvency as a vehicle to attaining what she wanted for herself and her familiars.

But the year 1996 was merely the beginning!  Our maternal grandfather had passed away in 1979, and his wife, our grandmother, briefly lived at our parents’ house in Stratford before being moved into a nursing home in Bridgeport because my father did not appreciate her being in the house.  Our mother was their only child, and it is understandable why our grandmother wanted to be close to her posterity.  When our mother died, our grandmother became despondent and forlorn.  She died a year later, content with joining her beloved husband and her beautiful daughter.  Later that year, Dele contracted some unidentifiable parasitic virus that invaded his stomach.  No physician or surgeon Vicki and he visited around the world, including in the United States, was able to ascertain the exact cause, diagnosis, or prognosis of his illness.  He deteriorated rapidly and passed away in 1998.

Vicki pressed on, seeking to provide a nurturing home for her two sons despite their grief.  Needless to say, her financial well-being did not mitigate the burden of raising two boys in a society that did not value the humanity of black males.  After seeing them off to school, she would catch the PATH train to the stop at the World Trade Center.  She’d go up to the mezzanine level to wake up fully and to mollify the stress that the workaday world inevitably elicit.  When she had the time, she would catch up with some people, including Lydia, and check out the latest news in print or on television.

The cause of the thunderous noise at 8:46 a.m. was not immediately determinable.  Vicki had come up from the PATH and gone above the lobby to the mezzanine level to psych herself up for a day of work.  She called to chat with Lydia, but it did not last long.  From her position, she could not tell where the noise emanated and, at the moment, Lydia had not seen the developing story on the television.  There have been discrepancies regarding advice given by first responders: some were told to stay where they were; others were encouraged to go to lower levels, but not to exit the building; and still others were told to leave immediately.  Vicki, often high-strung and ready for action, did not second-guess that police and security guard.  She ran down the stairs, stumbling, but not falling, over shoes people dislodged as they sought to depart as quickly as possible.

Once out of the South Tower, she was able to see the outline of the jet that had plowed into the North Tower.  At first, those in the same position as she was were told to head north.  However, the falling debris from the jet-propelled damage suggested that heading southward was the better choice.  And so they did.  Vicki headed towards the state insurance department in the financial district where she worked and experienced the impact of the plane on the South Tower.  The crash made it presumptively clear that these collisions were not accidental, but deliberate.  Vicki did not know what to think, but she could not help but to reflect upon the terrorist bombing of the WTC back in 1993.  Surely, this had to be orchestrated by a group, she surmised.  In other words, she felt the United States was at war—meaning she was on the battlefield without a military-grade weapon to fight back.  

There was a strange camaraderie of coworkers and others huddled together.  On the contrary, when the South Tower collapsed, the smoke and debris spread throughout the financial district, and the department personnel soon felt trapped and unable to figure out what the next steps should be.  Their freethinking and attempt at logic became meaningless when thirty minutes later the North Tower fell and the thickness of the smoke, fumes, and multifarious particles forced them to leave the precarious confines of their building in order to try to save their nasal passages and lungs.  For many, the best bet seemed to try to make it out of New York City and one of the salient options was to board a Staten Island ferry and depart the rottenness of Manhattan.

The thousands of people with the same conclusion made the egress on the Hudson jampacked.  The normal capacity of rush hour traffic between New Jersey and New York City was insufficient to transport the quizzical an frightened souls in the midst of what seemed to be the Armageddon of guerilla warfare.  Many sailors with smaller vessels heroically came to the rescue while they also seized the opportunity to make some extra cash.

In different parts of the country, we siblings looked feverishly for any signs of Vicki.  Deep down, we each felt it was a wild goose chase, so to speak, for there were many interviewed by reporters who were not even in the WTC complex who were suffering from the poisonously polluted air.  How could we believe that Vicki had made it out when people who were not within the facilities were themselves in terrible shape?  We hoped for the best, but steeled ourselves for the worse.

I could not keep the class for the entire period, for I thought it was unfair to keep them so confined while America was under siege.  Immediately, it reminded me of the time when I was eight years old and in the third grade on November 22, 1963.  It was decided fairly quickly that the best bet for the students was to send them home to the comfort of their families since such a unique situation seemed to require group commiseration.  This experience led me to suspend the class session and to continue my own efforts to learn Vicki’s whereabouts.

Just looking at the clouds of dust, metals, and gas filling block after block in all directions ed us to believe that the air was dangerously toxic.  We were certain that Vicki’s already weakened physical condition battling the effects of cancer could only deteriorate further through the intake of the multidimensional fumes.  If she made it out of the WTC, who could suggest that she would be fine in the pestilential atmosphere?

We hunkered down for a long day that stretched into the evening, night, and morning.  We were informed of the problems with the cell phones that extended in some parts to landlines and other types of communications. The agony of another loss swept over all of us.  We began to broach the subject of funeral arrangements and interment sites—despite our hope that to do so was premature and false.

Eventually, by mid-morning on September 12, there was light at the end of the tunnel for me in particular.  I discovered then that contact had been made late the previous night with Vicki by my other sisters.  Now, she was at home recuperating.  She had just made it there after miles of walking, hitch-hiking, and disbelieving—her braided hair still covered in the unsanitary, debris-filled ash.  All she wanted to do was put behind her the awful tragedy and to make some lifestyle changes that would enhance her safety protocols.  She developed an antipathy for elevators, escalators, tall buildings, subways—you name it!—for the level of her anxieties and fears rose exponentially as she bravely struggled with a post-traumatic stress disorder.  

She did not trust the government for some time.  She always questioned the hatred and jealousy of other nations, while also realizing the arrogance of our superpower status, our imperialism, our exploitation of so-called Third World countries, and our racial and sexual oppression here at home.  She felt going into Afghanistan would have no constructive purpose and would simply cost the unnecessary loss of more lives.  She recognized the fallacies involved in the decision to go to Iraq, a country that was not directly tied to the disasters of 9/11.  The widening gap in income inequality on the domestic front was more important to her than the establishment of another campaign against “axes of evil.”  She was all too familiar with the lack of access to quality health care for those struggling on the economic ladder—so much so that she supported a single-payer plan during the election cycle of 2007-2008, and expressed disappointment over Pres. Barack Obama’s reneging on universal health care in favor of the lesser affordable care program.

After 9/11, Vicki became more involved in spearheading sibling reunions in the summers and learning more about our genealogical charts.  She began to intersperse her cool language with pious greetings, sendoffs, and cliches—“God bless,” “Peace,” “Glory to God,” and so forth—that her sisters and brothers were surprised to read and hear.  Before our eyes, she was changing—all reflective of her perceptions of evils derivative of the 9/11 attacks and the unclear role the United States played in forging freedom and democracy around the globe.

Her transformation was noticeable, despite the fact we would catch glimpses of her old critical bent and her incredulity over her siblings’ inability to make adequate livings for themselves.  She failed to realize that her level of determination was greater than most and that her preparation afforded her the opportunities that many others did not have.  Her ostensible obliviousness to the plights of others she’d deemed capable of equalizing her achievements was nevertheless mutating to a less acerbic edge in her voice.  Her generosity to family and friends scarcely wavered, albeit she became more selective of who would be the beneficiaries of her largess.

As time marched on past the devastation of that September morning, she longed to commemorate that day in special ways.  However, she, like some family members who had intermittent battles with cancer, she experienced the emotional ups-and-downs with moving from remission to return.  During the late winter and early spring of 2011, it seems, in retrospect, that she had travailed against and despite the odds to be present at successive remembrance anniversaries.  With the passage of time, she had enough.  Constructive change in our society continued to be elusive, and her return to health was likewise evasive.  Her zest for life waxed and waned.  Even though her body was declining, speculatively in part because of the infestation the inhalation of noxious fumes during 9/11 eviscerated in her, she was intent on being present at ground zero for the tenth anniversary that year.

She spoke unrealistically of trips she would make that summer and of our sibling reunion in the park before the season’s demise.  She turned fifty-nine on April 15, a bittersweet occasion indeed.  A few days later, after the birthday of my older sister and seven days prior to the birthday of my older brother, Eric, Vicki succumbed to cancer.  Her dream of scaling the mountain of deliverance momentarily struck me as God denying Moses of the latter’s entrance to the promised land and of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech, which seemed to be a premonition of his being struck down by an assassin’s bullet in less than twenty-four hours.  Vicki was unable to bear witness to her making it out of the WTC to live another day on the tenth commemoration of the tragedy; however, nobody who knew her could ignore the fact that the event had profoundly affected her every living thought and action.

Our father, by then only a shadow of himself, met the Grim Reaper the following year.  There were many things he had not divulged to his children about his declining health; but it was clear that he mourned the death of his firstborn in a way that forced him to face his own demons, so to speak.  As he neared the end of his life, he, too, began to pepper his conversation with religious imagery—something that was completely absent during most of our association with him.  As far as we knew, he had never become a member of a congregation during his adult life.  Perhaps, his newfound appreciation for the spiritual was of a compensatory nature, although each moment struck a strange chord within us children.

What follows is an email Vicki had sent to a friend that she forwarded to me to enlighten us siblings about what happened on that fateful day when terrorists attacked us here at home.

Michael,

This is what I wrote to a friend with whom I attended college and worked.  It was what my fingers could quickly type.  At some point, when I can, I will ponder that day and its meaning and write something that hopefully would go beyond a mere recount of that horrific act.

Again, thanks for your prayers and concern.  God bless.

I was coming into the WTC on the PATH as I usually do since I moved back to my house in South Orange.  I was looking for a magazine in the lower level.  I went up the escalator and heard the policeman yelling to get out of the building.  I ran over abandoned shoes and ran as fast as I could.  I exited the building to hear someone say that a jet had hit the tower.  I turned around and saw the crater in the building, which was on fire and smoking.  It was terrible.  The policeman outside said to go north.  I started north, but feared that the building would fall like a giant tree.  God told me south, and I started to run south and just before I got to my office building, the second plane hit the second tower.  However, I thought I was hearing a bomb or that the first tower had indeed fallen.

When the second hit tower fell, our building shook and we were evacuated into the dark soot and ash.  We couldn’t breathe or see well and went back into the building that we just evacuated.  We were strategizing as if we really could and left the building after the soot had settled somewhat.  We were going towards the water.  Well, after we left the building and were on our way, the second building crumbled and then, we were being pursued by a cloud of furious smoke.  We ran and ran and ran to the Staten Island ferry terminal, boarded the boat and got safely to Staten Island.  I had been running al morning.  I managed to hitchhike across the bridge to NJ after taking a taxi with six other people to Outerbridge Crossing near Perth Amboy, NJ.  A policeman picked us up to take three of us to the NJ side, where I called friends to pick me up.  They took me back to their place in central NJ.  I got home on Wednesday at 11:30 AM and went to church at noon to thank God.

Anyway, through the wonderful mercy of the almighty Lord, I was delivered from the clutches of evil.  Alleluia.  Thank You, Lord.

Thanks for your concern and prayers because I was indeed in the midst of a horror and was protected by HIM.

God bless.

On March 19, 2003, I completed what I called “A Litany Against the War.”  That night, we all learned of the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. armed forces: a preemptive strike, a “decapitation” air exercise against a location where it was believed that Saddam Hussein and some of his entourage was assembled in Baghdad.  The litany was printed in the local newspaper, and I was almost instantly asked to recite it across the state at protest rallies.  After each reason given, I concluded with “I am opposed to this war.”  One of the lines reads: “As my sister was in the World Trade Center when the first plane struck, I am opposed to this war.”

I had included that line because I still was profoundly affected by that terrible twenty-four hours of not knowing whether our eldest sibling was dead or alive.  I felt she deserved mention, despite the fact that she had survived, while three thousand had died.  For the most part, I had muted that reality for I believed it was insensitive to share when so many had suffered loss.  In a way though, from my current vantage point, I felt I suffered loss initially, but definitely conclude that ten years later, my sister had to some degree acquiesced to the poisoning of her lungs and body by the lethal, pernicious fumes.  Her story has the right to be told.

It was bittersweet, after Vicki was laid to rest, to learn of the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011.  Whereas I cannot comment with any certainty upon a hypothesis contrary to the facts, I feel certain the U.S. intelligence operation that successfully ended in the violent showdown would not have pleased our eldest sibling.  Although not an avowed nonviolence advocate or antiwar activist, she had attenuated to me often enough her agreement that violence begets violence.  Nevertheless, we siblings are ever so grateful for the nine-and-a-half years we had with Vicki ensuing that horrible tragedy on September 11, 2001.  Twenty years subsequent to that fateful debacle, we still scream with excitement, “She made it out!”

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REWORKING THE G-20 AND THE UNITED NATIONS

One of the major criticisms of the G20 is that it continues a tradition of patriarchalism and colonialism towards those states that are poor, powerless, vulnerable, and volatile.  For example, there is only one African country that has a seat among the other G-20 members, i.e., South Africa—despite the fact that there are fifty-four other nations located on the continent!  Since the European Union has a seat at the table, it seems reasonable for the African Union to be one of the governmental entities or—better yet—to expand the agency to 21.

The purpose of the G20 is to assess, augment, ameliorate and advocate for international financial security and stability.  This is a self-appointed group founded in 1999 and allows the major developed countries to consult with each other to develop and underwrite programs, policies, and services to enhance the global economy.  Part and parcel of this organizational mission is to foster fiscal growth and productivity among underdeveloped nations and to discover ways to sustain profitability and solvency so that these countries can increasingly become full-fledged partners in international trade and commerce, including climate control and technological parity.

In addition to the paucity of African representation, the G-20 suffers from the same malady as the United Nations.  They both lack the power and authority to enforce their decisions around the planet—especially because the members in the so-called First World have veto rights.  Hence, the veto is regularly utilized when there is a perceived threat to that particular country’s national security.  These economic and military powerhouses lord their privilege over the more dependent and weaker bodies: thus, making a mockery of the mission goals of stability and security all around.

It is not simply an idealistic dream to give voice to the voiceless or a home to the homeless, so to speak.  By leaving others out because of favoritism towards those with economic and military power cannot ultimately lead to a harmonious world society.  We must listen to all voices, for such diversity provides differing viewpoints and a more holistic approach to ensuring a better environment.  When the most developed countries ignore the perspectives of governments that are not similarly equipped, dissatisfaction and unrest will inevitably arise.  Weapons of mass destruction and affluence should not be the determinative factors in shaping the destiny of the world.  The inclusion of as many perspectives as possible is necessary for a just and sustainable society.

Jeffrey Sachs, university professor at Columbia University, has been making this case for years.  He has advocated for the African Union to sit at the table—enlarging the organization to have further representation from the continent of Africa like the twenty-seven countries of the European Union.  Sachs has promoted this addition throughout his involvement with departmental committees of the United Nations on sustainable development.  His arguments are clear and irrefutable, but the unwillingness of governments to adopt his recommendations demonstrates how difficult it is for the privileged to relinquish control of their undeserved advantages.  Whereas there is an advisory group to the G20 made up of western and eastern African nations, many countries in the central and southern regions of the continent are not included.  Moreover, in the final analysis, these countries do not have a seat among the members of the main body of the G20.  This omission is unconscionable.

This exclusion of African countries harks back to the long night of colonialism.  As African countries started to win their independence in the middle of the twentieth century, many former European colonizers abandoned them.  Malcolm X started the Organization of Afro-American Unity to join up with and support the Organization of African Unity—for the legacy of oppression among the African diaspora was common, universal.  Malcolm wanted the OAU to assist him in bringing the concerns of African Americans to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.  The OAU received pressure from the U.S. State Department not to bring the issue of white racism to the U.N.  And so it went.  Malcolm X would not live another full year.The G20 and the United Nations could have greater influence if basic humanity as opposed to wealth and might would rule the day.  With that inclusivity and the further acceptance of other remaining voiceless countries in Central and South America and in Asia, we would come closer as a world community that could experience both prosperity and peace.  Will the twenty-first century get us there?

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SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF: POTUS ON IMPEACHMENT

I do not believe for one minute that the members of the Republican Party in Congress are convinced that President Trump is forging the kind of country to which they have always aspired.. What is happening, in my opinion, is that they are so concerned about safeguarding their positions of power that they allow themselves publicly to support an alternative reality.  Certainly, no one could possibly believe, other than the president himself, that his comments on the impeachment trial were more than bad theater.. The bevy of lies and misrepresentations, coupled with delusions of grandeur and illusions of accomplishments that he freely associated, were only superseded by his indecency. The name calling in which Trump engaged is both inhumane and unconscionable— given his titular leadership of the free world. No head of state should speak in such derogatory language against holders of opposing viewpoints in a classic ad hominem fallacious attack.. The pep rally atmosphere of the occasion was appalling and unethical!

The sad fact of the matter is that what Trump did was nothing new.  As a matter fact, we all expected it.  Sadly, it has come to the point where the president of the greatest nation in the world can routinely stoop to the level of bullying, gangsterism, and puerile prankdom without an overwhelming outcry of repulsion by its citizenry—regardless of ideology or worldview.

The President of the United States should exemplify the highest of virtues and values and uphold our documents of freedom in clear and unequivocal ways.  Whereas it is difficult always to demonstrate perfection and equanimity under duress, it is not unduly challenging to personify, most of the time, the high road.  It is a slothful and lazy disposition that makes excusable for oneself sinking in the mire of offensiveness.. The Quaker John Oxenham got it right when he poemed “Decision”:

To every man there openeth a way, and ways, and a way, And the high soul climbs the high way, And the low soul gropes the low, And in between, on the misty flats, the rest drift to and fro. But to every man there openeth a high way and a low; And every man decideth the way his soul shall go.

I am not giving anyone a pass for drifting.  That many people get a kick out of Trump’s defiance of the rubrics of humaneness and social decorum might be overlooked on reality TV; however, when the stakes are so high that they have implications of national security and we nevertheless applaud, ignore, or dismiss his vituperative shenanigans, we become accomplices in the dismantling of the validity of our democratic republic.  Such behavior on our part is repugnant!

How should we respond and redeem ourselves?  We have the opportunity to ensure the so-called American Experiment continues to mature by making solid decisions in the future.  Taking advantage of these available circumstances and making the most of them is our duty as citizens.  I still have hope that we will not abdicate our responsibilities as such and will no longer wallow in some fantastical suspension of disbelief or alternative reality when there is so much at stake!

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KING’S “REVOLUTION OF VALUES”

At the end of the classic Civil Rights Movement that fought for desegregation in public accommodations and safeguarding the right to vote, Martin Luther King, Jr., began to focus on the plight of northern cities.  The issues there were manifold: discrimination in housing, education, employment, and so forth.  It was very difficult for those ensconced in poverty to find a way out of economic insecurity when those in power ignored their cries and ensured that the status quo would persist into the foreseeable future. 

Seemingly at every turn, King was stymied by systemic, institutionalized racism.  As the United States became increasingly involved in the Vietnam War, the young disadvantaged were disproportionately sent to the battlefield to fight for others’ freedom, the very thing they themselves did not possess as citizens back home.  King’s rhetoric began to sound more radical, more militant, during what would prove to be the final three years of his life.  Although his perception of the challenges in this nation had not changed significantly over the years, he increasingly demonstrated his disappointment with his native land over continuing to deny opportunities for a quality life to all of its inhabitants.

Hence, King commenced speaking on what he dubbed the triplet of evils: racism, economic exploitation (i.e., materialism), and militarism.  These three pillars of our society made it next to impossible to improve the poor circumstances in which one was born.  Various leaders of the waning movement began proposing policies such as a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantage” or some kind of Marshall Plan to alter the life chances for those traditionally ostracized at birth.  Programs similar to the Works Progress Administration during the Depression years were part of the discussion.  King himself had recommended a guaranteed annual income to support those who were incapable of making ends meet through no fault of their own.

King stated that what this country needed is “a revolution of values.”  His intention was to argue that every human being should be accorded dignity and respect.  His desire was to point out the flagrant injustices we as a people have levied against particular categories of people.  He advocated a radical shift in our thinking, because he had realized such inhumanity in the body politic is blatantly immoral.

Here we are 91 years since King was born and 52 years this coming April since he was martyred.  Sadly, the three evils he was addressing are still pervasive in our world.  Issues of race still abound from the boardrooms to the streets, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has significantly widened, i.e., poverty still plagues too many, and the resort to violence in international affairs has become easier with the advancing technology in our military arsenals.  Sometimes, it seems the evils King sought to address have intensified or worsened.  Moreover, attention to them is similarly weak and solutions to them are not forthcoming.

Of course, there are many issues in addition to the isms to which King increasingly alluded.  Perhaps, our national holiday commemorating King’s life should include training and other endeavors that would highlight the unethical factors that impede the progress of our democratic republic and how to eliminate them.  A serious understanding of what King discerned about our society and an exploration of how he attempted to resolve the problems are incumbent upon us who desire a better tomorrow.

Needless to say, reflecting on King’s theological ethics and social concerns around his holiday is not enough.  The urgency of the oppression, injustice, and lack of progressive endeavors to alleviate the evils is so great that efforts to eliminate them must occur throughout the year.  We live in a society that claims to have the noblest of religious values, yet we fundamentally demonstrate very little regard for those who are struggling.  Hence, King’s identification of the need for a revolution of values deserves restating because we are not living according to those values in any ongoing, substantive ways.

Let’s get busy!

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SIZE MATTERS: PAUL, TOM & FOREST

I was looking forward to the first epic movie on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.  His voice would always pique my ears and any pictorial of his figure lying on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel or of his body in the casket would automatically send me reeling.  So, announcements of the upcoming television docudrama called King transfixed me.  But, as often happens when something is hyped up and the anticipation is almost unbearahle, finally, when I began watching the show, it became instantly anticlimactic and I was immediately disappointed.

Sure, any representation of King that is not King himself was going to be a letdown for me at the time.  Nevertheless, I would be able to cope with such frustration if the presentation was qualitatively rich.  However, in this case, I was quickly unimpressed and wanted it to end despite the ineluctably horrific ending.

Why did I have a negative reflex action to the film?  After all, the actor playing the subject was the celebrated Paul Winfield.  For him, the miniseries was probably the role of a lifetime: it aired just shy of ten years after the assassination.  To play the Prince of Peace and arguably the most eloquent expositor of the so-called American Dream this nation had ever experienced was clearly quite an honor!  And the prospect of three nights recounting King’s life was nothing less than heaven on earth for such a fanatic as I was then.

I don’t know anything about the auditioning process, or even if there was one.  It seemed that Winfield was the obvious choice.  In a sense, he had earned the right to play the greatest leader of the twentieth century.  Besides, he would turn thirty-nine years of age in three months: the same age of King when he was assassinated.  Some might even say that Winfield looked a little like King at a glance or a distance, which would add some credibility to his depiction of the civil rights leader.

What the casting people failed to ascertain is a matter of size.  For you see, Dr. King was below average height for males at 5’ 7”; Winfield was around 6’ 1” tall.  This difference between the two men was anathema to me.  Part and parcel of the story of King—his disposition, his psyche, his charisma—had to do with his diminutive size.  For example, when angered by a threatening white mob, King, who was walking away, made an about face to challenge what they were sneering and to shout at them that he was right there for the taking.  In my opinion, the depiction of this episode in the film fell flat, for Winfield towered above most of the characters playing his lieutenants as well as over the racist protestors!

This pet peeve of mine is scarcely obsessive, but it still rears its ugly head, so to speak.  For example, sometime during the twenty-first century, I became a reader of Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child.  Reacher is a solidly built man who’s measured at 6’ 5” in height.  Again, when I heard rumors about the possibility of a feature film centered on this fictional character, I awaited more information with baited breath.  Needless to say, I was floored to discover that the imposing figure of Child’s popular tough guy was going to be played by Tom Cruise!  Cruise is no taller than King.  I just could not get into the movie(s) with Cruise as Reacher, for it just would not click for me!  There is good news, though, in that someone who matches Reacher’s dimensions will play the next rendition of Child’s character.

Recently, I watched a movie tribute to the retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  This nonviolent crusader for racial justice in South Africa and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid fell happens to be shorter than even Cruise and King!  The winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize stands at 5’3” tall.  Just imagine how overwhelmed I was when Oscar winner, Forest Whitaker, was privileged with playing the international cleric!  I felt that someone in the movie-making business was messing with my head!

Obviously, one of the reasons why Tutu is beloved is because this short man challenged a structurally racist society head-on with clear and eloquent voice.   His physical stature was complimented by his powerful advocacy for the end of racial oppression.  Whitaker, at 6’ 2” tall, was more suited in The Last King of Scotland to play Idi Amin (who was 6’ 4”) than the pint-sized crusader in The Forgiven!

I’m sure there are countless examples of bad casting that include many other dimensions besides height.  Herein, I am not casting (no pun intended) aspersions against the acting chops of Winfield, Cruise, or Whitaker.  Rather, I am calling for more discernment of the historical record, including the height of the subject matter (no pun intended, again), when hiring actors.

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Has Capitalism “Worked”?

It’s laughable to me when critics of socialism parrot the cliché that “it has never worked anywhere in the world.”  Usually, that prosaic statement is made not from primary research, but from lazy borrowing from others—who more than likely also did not do their own research or reading.  What does it really mean that something has not “worked”?  It is a funny way of describing opposition to a sociopolitical and economic system.  However, it seems never to elicit any comparative analysis about the “workings” of capitalism.  The assumption is that capitalism is working, but there is very little conveyed about how it is or what makes its success different from socialism’s failure.

Is capitalism successful because a very small percentage of people get inordinately wealthy and a majority regularly struggle to make ends meet?  What makes that prove capitalism is working?  Is the destiny of capitalistic endeavors to encourage a dream that is obviously unreachable for the masses of people?  I mean, if it has been working for, let’s say, a century and a half, then what exactly has been working?

We can have discussions about freedom, entrepreneurship, and following one’s dreams, but the reality is that the majority of workers are employed in jobs they do not enjoy; yet they feel stuck in those jobs and unable to quit because the circumstances will not be any better.  The delay in getting a paycheck if one lands another job may constitute a hardship, and if there are any added expenses accompanying the new position, then its worth is challengeable or questionable. There may be a slight improvement in income, but the ability to meet the vicissitudes of life will usually substantively stay the same.  This lack of mobility and estrangement from genuine liberty are part and parcel of capitalist systems practically speaking.

Perhaps, there is a theoretical predisposition towards capitalism that I am not feeling and/or a philosophical antipathy towards socialism that I am not grasping.  From my vantage point, whenever there is an element of care that is injected into capitalism, some immediately cry foul and condemn it for being “socialist.”  The word itself has become a scapegoat for anything that tasks or defies free enterprise.  It might take too long herein to assert how capitalism in the United States has rarely, if ever, been “free,” and that social institutions of one stripe or another have always been subject to some form of regulation.  In human affairs, nothing can be truly anarchic, for we will roughshod over each other in a Hobbesian state of nature.

Then, of course, the fact that so many people equate communism and socialism often obviates or precludes having a meaningful discussion. Sound bites and tweets are not enough to straighten out the confused and ignorant. Nevertheless, the inadequacies of the resultant discussions are passed off as instructive, which they are not. Moreover, the distinction between (sheer) socialism and democratic socialism is rarely explained. Most democratic socialists are not spouting violent overthrow of the body politic or the putting of major industries under government control. The fear-baiting that goes on when democratic socialism is often discussed vitiates addressing the serious issues about the real burdens of capitalism in the United States and elsewhere.

I have characterized myself much of my adult life as a democratic socialist.  Most of my mentors have been or leaned heavily that way: Martin Luther King, Jr., Walter Muelder, Jane Addams, Michael Harrington, Barbara Ehrenreich, W. E. B. Du Bois, Harvey Cox, Manning Marable, J. Philip Wogaman, Letty Russell, Cornel West, et al.  I know it is ill-advised to utilize the biblical witness for such support, but it seems to me that the care evinced by prophets, apostles, and Jesus lends itself to a milieu that is so much concerned about the disadvantaged that constructive social services are necessary—whether or not the capitalist system is eliminated.

In our country, the widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots, so to speak, has to be closed.  Why it has gotten to this point is debatable; that it must close is not.  People who are business owners should not be free to monopolize a market or to refuse to pay workers livable wages.  Such is simply common, moral sense.  However, the idea of an unbridled market has captured the imagination and has become a mantra all its own.  People who are seriously disinherited by this notion are often the ones who irrationally support its self-enslaving disenfranchisement!

Poverty can (and must) be eradicated, but it will never happen under a capitalist system.  Even our mixed economy is not compassionate enough to thwart making paupers out of the majority of its citizenry.  It is nice that democratic socialism is increasingly tolerated and accepted in the public arena and that some leading public figures embrace many of its ideas and ideals.  Public discourse is helpful, but talk in the final analysis is cheap when unaccompanied by systemic, structural changes.  I want to encourage the dialogue and the ongoing struggle—both endeavors in which I have been engaged for four decades or more.

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Smarting Over Intelligence

I am experiencing a bit of dissonance these days as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are constantly in the news. In terms of the agential members of these organizations pursuing the issue of other countries’ meddling in the 2016 elections—especially Russia—I am very supportive.  It’s my hope that they will get to the bottom of what happened and apparently is still happening, and that they will share the facts with the general population.  I find myself largely trusting their research as well as the work of the Department of Justice and the special counselor.  However, that confidence is tempered by a grain of salt, metaphorically speaking.

You see, I came of age socioeconomically, politically, culturally, and ethically during the turbulent 1960s.  Before the end of that decade, I had experienced three major assassinations and the escalation by the United States of an unwinnable war in Vietnam.  I was aware of racial discrimination personally, and I had realized how the so-called American experiment was still reaching for that city upon a hill, so to speak.

I had begun to read the works of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois and Richard Wright as well as the poetry of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.  I was learning about aspects of the history of this country that was not covered in many of my social studies classes.  By 1970, I was already well-versed in the classic Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968) because of my fanatical admiration of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Through my voracious readings, I could not help but to start questioning the roles of governmental agencies in the murders of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. King, and Senator Robert Kennedy.  I was acutely aware of the weak civil rights programs of the New Frontier, and I was furious over the federal surveillance of King initiated by Bobby Kennedy and F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover.

As the 1970s progressed, I discovered more and more of the seedy side of the intelligence community.  What was confusing to me as an 8-year-old third grader on November 24, 1963, was why the ability to understand the truth of the event of the century allegedly perpetrated by a lone gunman would be vitiated by his murder on national television! Whatever wound I felt that Sunday began truly to fester while I attended Catholic high school, graduated with a diploma from public school, and matriculated at a liberal arts college in southern New England.

By the time I entered seminary and was licensed to preach in Atlanta in 1979 and 1980, respectively—having endured the ending of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and the resignation of Richard Nixon and the ascendancy of a B-actor to the presidency—I was confirmed in my conviction that the JFK assassination was a conspiracy, COINTELPRO was still going on to squelch liberation movements, and neither of the two major political parties were ever going to be antiracist in a genuinely aggressive manner.

During the latter part of my undergraduate years, I had participated in the divestment movement on campuses regarding U.S. corporations doing business in South Africa.  That involvement continued throughout the 1980s as I attended graduate school in Boston. Imagine others’ and my exhilaration over the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment!

That hopefulness was tempered by my continued research on the turbulent 1960s and the successive decades that revealed the socioeconomic and political advancement of people of color was not appreciable—considering the sacrifices made by thousands of movement participants.  Even today, after twenty-five years of continual teaching, pastoring, directing educational departments and nonprofits, and community activism, I am deeply disappointed that racism is still structurally systemic and the gap between the rich and the poor has considerably widened.

Although the classic Cold War era ended with Mikhail Gorbachev and the dismantling of the Soviet Union, it was not without suspicion about the role of the United States in Central and South America, the Middle East, and the obfuscating connectivity between drugs and armaments.  My distaste over the FBI and the CIA had not waned, but the vicissitudes and preoccupations of life managed to mollify its fervency.

Perhaps, it is understandable that there will always be a hermeneutic of suspicion when I contemplate the work and role of the intelligence community.  My hope that truth will out concerning Russian interference, U.S. cooperation, and obstruction of justice remains, but it is not unbridled by any means.  As of yet, the verdict is not in.  We shall see. Meanwhile, let’s continue to demand and advocate that justice will be done!

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THE “USEFULNESS” OF MLK, JR.

On April 4, 1968, I was grounded for some reason that now escapes me—probably because of paternal capriciousness rather than childhood petulance.  I recall a few days earlier that I overheard my father opine that Martin Luther King, Jr., would probably be shot.  At the age of twelve, I was not fully aware of the reasons why my dad would make such a prediction, but when the news bulletin came on the television that King had indeed been shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, I was completely shocked.  I begged my mother to plead with my father to allow me to watch TV; I guess he was also thrown for a loop over King’s fatality, so to speak, for he granted me my wish.  And as a little over four years earlier when Pres. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, I was glued to the television set for the next few days until King’s funeral was over.

I have to admit that the trajectory of my life—apart from my having Christian faith—owes a large part to my understanding of this tragedy and this man who became my hero.  Since that dark day in 1968, especially for the next couple of decades, I read everything I could put my hands on about King.  My parents bought me records of King’s speeches, they shared with me magazine articles about King, and I was always on alert for anything that came across my living space referencing the good doctor.  I sought ways to address the plight of the poor and the marginalized in our society, and eventually visited Atlanta, was licensed to preach at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and elected to pursue my doctorate at Boston University, where King received his Ph.D. degree.  At times, I even mimicked King’s voice, so much so that I was often asked to recite his famous speeches, which I knew by heart.

Here we are fifty years since his murder, and we find ourselves sadly dealing with different manifestations of the same ills he gave his life trying to resolve: racism, materialism, and militarism.  For me, it can be heartrending to realize that the killing of unarmed black men, the deportation of undocumented children, the obliviousness of Native American concerns remain despite King’s efforts towards desegregation, integration, and equal civil and human rights.  The alarming divide between the rich and the poor has exacerbated since the 1960s and the disparities in quality of life between them have enlarged and intensified.  And who would have thought that we’d return to the perverse cold-war era in the twenty-first century and still engage in arms races with a growing number of adversaries?

I do not like to talk in terms of what-ifs or hypotheses contrary to the facts.  I never liked the “what would Jesus do” fad or the “if King were alive” charade.  However, I do believe that we can deal effectively with contemporary issues if we can learn appreciably from our past.  There have been many attempts at nonviolent direct action campaigns since the sixties, and we see a proliferation of them today with Black Lives Matter, Me Too, March for Our Lives, teacher walkouts, demonstrations against voter suppression, and others.  Whereas King was not the best organizer or administrator, he was able to have good workers around him and to articulate in the most eloquent of terms the beauty and worth of human personality, the ethic of love, the need to commit oneself to something meaningful, and the specific goals and objectives of each endeavor.

Furthermore, he was able to instill in all who listened a practical or realistic optimism about the future.  He believed that the best in the universe would eventually supersede the worst, that one day justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream as the prophet Amos foretold, and that we could live together as sisters and brothers instead of the alternative of perishing as fools.

We have not reached the end of that moral arc, which means that we have much more work to do.  So let’s get busy!

 

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WHAT ATE YOUR CHRISTMAS PLANS?

Recently, a friend asked me regarding my plans for the holiday season.  The text message was written hurriedly, for he and his wife were leaving for the weekend.  I received the question, “What ate your Christmas plans?”  Of course, I knew it was a typographical snafu that the cell phone completed; however, it struck me as strangely descriptive of that which has been going on in our country.

Many individuals feel the pressure of joining the commercial and consumer bandwagons to purchase and exchange gifts.  It is quite stressful for those who can barely make ends meet.  They struggle to find deals—sale discounts that they still cannot afford, but which are less than they would have to pay at full price.  There are many who go into further debt, hoping that tax refunds might save them.  Others realize they cannot participate in the material demands of this period of forced charitableness, and they regrettably and embarrassingly share with family, relatives, and friends the failures of their socioeconomic circumstances.

Although these latte decisions might very well save their lives and prevent them from worsening their credit rating, they often pout and put themselves down because they cannot meet their own expectations or fulfill the anticipations of others.  In a very real sense, the accidental question “What ate your Christmas plans” seems precisely prescient.  After all, their financial states of affairs precluded the possibility of gratifying their reciprocal gifting plans!

What is incredulous during this time is the realization that the rushed-through tax reform passed by the U.S. Congress demonstrates that legislators elected to ignore the shrill cries of the middle, working, lower, and under-classes.  They decided to give unprecedented tax cuts to corporations and the richest people—a wonderful Christmas present for them, but continued exploitation of the majority of citizens of this country.  Hence, this new legislation did metaphorically “eat” their Christmas plans!

When I first read my friend’s text message, I almost immediately thought about that storied arrogance, “Let them eat cake.”  Even though the saying has been misattributed to Marie Antoinette and predates her adulthood, it struck me that she had been known to enrich her coffers, collude with her native Austria and other countries, and exploited those suffering all around her through deception and temporary insubstantial measures.  Eventually, those in authority and the general population despaired of her shenanigans: they convicted of treason and condemned her to the guillotine.

Economic exploitation, structural discrimination, mistreatment of immigrants, and other forms of persecution and oppression have been around a long time.  They have never been beaten down, but there have been times when they have not won the day entirely.  We are witnessing a resurgence of actions and policies that seem to permit the deliberate obstruction of full participation in the body politic based on classifications and categories of people we need to transcend.  The prospects of the so-called American experiment are being vitiated and distorted deliberately, and we seem unable to come together to trample the corruption.

Whereas I am nonviolent in my approach to the resolution of conflict, I am by no means passive.  We cannot remain idle when the ethics of love, compassion, and justice is being ignored by our leaders.  Representative democracy depends on the participation of all, and we need to make our voices and perspectives heard in the public arena.  There is a lot at stake.  Else, many more will soon be asking, “What ate your Christmas plans?”

 

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What Must Be Sacrificed?

My friend and colleague, Thomas L. Kessler, has written a piece as a guest contributor to my blog.  This post marks the first time I have invited another individual to offer remarks and commentary concerning contemporary ethical matters.  Kessler’s article is in partial response to my blog on “The Supremacy of Sacrifice.”  Hopefully, in the future, we (and others) will engage in dialogue as we seek to forge a better society for all.  Now, here is Kessler’s blog.

Thank you, Dr. B., for providing an opportunity to contribute to your Social Ethics Blog by sharing a few of my thoughts on your comments, the book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by the Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, and race relations in 2017 America.  You may remember that in conversation I referred to Dr. Dyson’s book as “strong medicine” for most white Americans, as I would similarly characterize your 1982 essay Sacrifice and Enlightenment.  Unfortunately, there are occasions when a disease is so serious that the strongest medicines are necessary.  The malignant and metastasizing cancer of racism in our society presents just such an occasion for an overdue dose of strong chemotherapy for our national body politic.

Dyson wears two hats; one as a university professor and the other as a Baptist minister.  He wrote Tears We Cannot Stop primarily as the pastor, defining his book as a sermon, and structuring it in the form of a worship service.  From the first paragraphs (“Call to Worship”) Dyson delivers a sometimes painful message to white America, speaking about a “racial gulf” so wide that “black and white people don’t merely have different experiences” but “seem to occupy different universes.”  He calls on us, regardless of faith perspective or lack thereof, to honestly address our nation’s original sin of racism.  Indeed, his words will “make you squirm in your seat with discomfort before, hopefully, pointing a way to relief.”  He concludes his introductory comments by saying “… the time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future.  If we don’t act now, if you don’t address race immediately, there may very well be no future.”  Dyson goes on from there, delivering his searing and prophetic sermon about racism in America.  I can only say Amen!

Dyson’s words are so direct and powerful that many of those – let’s be honest here – many of those whites who have not yet engaged seriously, deeply or honestly with the issue of racism may well reject the message and medicine without opening their minds and hearts to truth and ultimate healing.  I deeply regret saying that, but it is my honest assessment from within the white American middle class milieu. I suspect, Dr. B., that your 1982 essay Sacrifice and Enlightenment met with a similar reaction from the editor(s) at Newsweek.

Another book I’d recommend be read in tandem with Dyson’s is America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America by white evangelical Christian author and activist Jim Wallis.  Each book complements the other as Dyson provides a prophetic sermon and Wallis provides a supporting Sunday school lesson.  Which begs the question, is it best to hear the sermon and then attend Sunday school, or to first get the Sunday school lesson and then hear the sermon?  There is no definitive answer, but in the case of those most likely to reject Dyson’s message, the lessons laid out in America’s Original Sin might serve to prepare one to hear and take Dyson’s message to heart.  Regardless of the order read, those wanting a better understanding of race relations and racism in America will benefit from a careful and reflective reading of both books.  Both identify racism as America’s original sin and call for personal and collective repentance and redemption.  Again, I can only offer a resounding Amen!

Dyson’s discussion of reparation is far more encompassing than mere economic reparations.  Both Dyson and Wallis provide guidance for proactively moving forward to address and redress racism in America.  In your essays, Dr. B., you spoke along the same lines regarding repentance and redemption, and you called for white Americans to make “proactive sacrifices to their privileged statuses to forge a new society inclusive of everybody and offering opportunities for all.”  It is to your call for sacrifice that I want to direct my remaining comments.  I am not going to speak to the economics of the matter, except to say that it would certainly require a major reordering of national priorities and perhaps a level of life-style adjustments for some.  That said, I doubt it would be as economically impossible or apocalyptic as many might fear or proclaim, and ultimately less a question of money than of personal and collective will and morality.

Just what must be sacrificed by white America to forge that new society inclusive of and offering opportunities for all?   My comments below come out of the sad reality I see and experience in white American society when it comes to the issues of race and racism.  I realize that each “sacrifice” I suggest could rightly serve as the subject of an entire blog entry, and that you or readers could add to the list. My words may sound harsh to some, but they are intended to be descriptive rather than accusatory.  They are based on universal aspects of the human condition, and certainly are matters I have grappled with personally over the past two decades.

We must sacrifice our denial.  Many white Americans respond to the mere mention of racism with denial that racism exists in America today.  They do this for a variety of reasons, one being that personal bigotry is often conflated with systemic racism.  While personal bigotry and systemic racism are not unrelated concerns, they are separate issues and require separate remedies.  While examples of both abound in contemporary America, a decline (although not disappearance) in the numbers of the most overt forms of bigotry over recent decades is often pointed to as evidence of the decline of racism.  Systemic racism however is not declining, and some would argue is on the increase in 2017 America.

We must sacrifice our ignorance.  Many, perhaps most, white Americans don’t have a deep or broad knowledge of the history and contemporary state of race and race relations in America, the development of the social construct of race, nor an extensive understanding of the wide range of racial disparities within our country.   Dyson (see chapter #6) and Wallis (see footnotes) provide references to many resources one can turn to in order to educate themselves.

 We must sacrifice our comfort.  The more privileged life one leads, the more it is possible to live in a bubble of comfort, limiting one’s contact and interaction with those who lead less privileged lives defined by difficulties and/or challenges.  Conversations across lines of race are also undeniably difficult, and it can seem that there are no ways forward to solve problems and issues related to race.  However, insulating oneself from others, from unwelcome realities and difficult problems make them no less real.

We must sacrifice our apathy.  There are great racial disparities in 2017 America in our criminal justice, economic, educational, medical and other social systems.  Those disparities are well documented, widely known and factually indisputable.  Apathy and indifference to the plight of others is sometimes rooted a primitive tribalism, but whatever the reason, conscious indifference to the suffering of others is a great moral deficit.

We must sacrifice our false myths.  The false myths of self-sufficiency and individualism are particularly prevalent among segments of white American society.  While individual effort and initiative are undeniably important for all, we live in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent society, and the ills affecting some ultimately affect all.  Letting go of these false myths serves both morality and self-interest.

Individually and collectively, we are faced with a moral question as old as humanity:  What responsibility do we bear toward others?  To successfully address America’s original sin of racism we must acknowledge our individual and collective responsibility and act accordingly.  The good news is that it is well within our individual and collective power to decide to make the necessary sacrifices.  The bad news is that to do so challenges us in very deep ways in terms of self-perceptions, understanding of the world, perceived personal security, and our very identities.  In short, it calls for an opening of our minds and hearts on the path to personal and collective repentance and redemption.

Of course, to be redeemed and to excise systemic racism from our society, these sacrifices must be followed by more concrete economic sacrifices and political action.  But personal and collective redemption are possible, and Wallis’ America’s Original Sin and Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop can serve as powerful tools in those endeavors.

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About Thomas Kessler

Coordinator of the Peace & Justice Center of the Cedar Valley (a ministry of Cedar Falls Mennonite Church), UNI Professor Emeritus of Library Services.  B.G.S., M.A.L.S. & M.B.A. – University of Iowa.

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