It has been a just-get-it-done kind of month, during which I regret not posting on my blog. But I got some good news today that I wanted to share. The Christian Century just published another essay of mine called “I believe racism is wrong. So what?” It will be published in the May 24th print issue as “Antiracist without sacrifice.” Thank you for reading!
In his essay, Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote about a chronic disease he contracted as a young black professional after being refused service at a New Jersey diner. Hearing the racist rationale that, “we don’t serve Negroes here,” Baldwin was overcome with:
“a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels. Once this disease is contracted one can never be really carefree again, for the fever, without an instant’s warning, can recur at any moment. It can wreck more important things than race relations. There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood—one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it. As for me, this fever has recurred in me, and does and will until the day I die.”
After Muhammad Ali won a gold medal for the United States in the 1960 Olympic Games, he returned home and was refused service at a “whites only” diner. Enraged, Ali left that diner and hurled his gold medal into a river.
Muhammad Ali is not remembered for his rage. But perhaps he should be. All of the retrospectives I watched after his death focused on his generosity, his playfulness, his poetic trash-talking, his supersized personality, his joy in living. But Muhammad Ali was a fighter, in the ring and out. And I can’t help but think that the rage that Baldwin says lives in every African American, wasn’t the fuel for Ali’s fire.
When asked in an interview what Ali wanted to be remembered for, he responded, “That I never turned my back on my people.” Indeed, Ali was a black activist who in his twenties was not so beloved. He was radical and outspoken—rejecting his “slave name” of Cassius Clay for the name given him upon his conversion to Islam. He refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War, calling it immoral, saying he had nothing against the Vietnamese, and that all the war was about was “kill, kill, kill.” He took this fight all the way to the Supreme Court. History would reveal Ali to be ahead of his time, a man of conviction who was willing to fight indignities and injustices that others were not.
Baldwin referred to his rage as a chronic disease, but this was not to imply it was ill or unwanted. In fact more of us could stand to contract such a disease—or at least a dis-ease with the injustices to which we bear witness. Mohammed Ali’s legacy will best be honored by those who are fueled to fight such injustices and become the champions we so desperately need.
 James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, (Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1955), pg. 96.
[Feature Image: Joshi Bhavya]
In his essay “The Harlem Ghetto” James Baldwin describes the 1950 American reality as a “bitterness—felt alike by the inarticulate, hungry population of Harlem, by the wealthy on Sugar Hill, and by the brilliant exceptions ensconced in universities—which has defeated and promises to continue to defeat all efforts at interracial understanding.” Baldwin could just as well have written his essay about our 2016 reality with all the bitterness, rancor, public cynicism and private despair running rampant among us.
With this current state of our union, it’s difficult to know what to do, what action to take, what, even, to pray for as an engaged, responsible citizen. What can make things better? How can I make a difference? It has occurred to me that there is an awful lot that is out of my control—historical structures in place that are inherently racist, politicians becoming popular among working-class whites with empty rhetoric and false promises that appeal to their sense of entitlement, and (again quoting Baldwin) “the pressure of living [that] is too immediate and incessant to allow time for understanding.”
I had never considered “understanding” a rite of the privileged until reading this quote from Baldwin. It disturbed me. How will we ever mature as a society if the pressure of living is too immediate and incessant to allow time for understanding? I hadn’t considered the stack of books on my nightstand, all conveniently purchased with 1-click ordering on Amazon, as a sign of my privilege. Nor had I considered the thirty minutes I set aside most nights to read these books to be such a luxury. But, unlike many in America, my mind is not preoccupied with questions about how I will feed my children or pay my utility bill or endure one more day on the line at a factory job. It is a part of my privilege to have the freedom, time, energy and resources to contemplate and consider the lives of others.
I recently learned about the idea of “dismantling privilege”, which means using your own privilege to benefit someone who has less. Since reading and studying Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness with a group of students this year, I have wanted to grow in my understanding of people of color and their particular experience in America today. I was also confronted by some hard truths shared by Dr. Eddie Glaude, Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, who visited our campus this year and told a room full of white liberal intellectuals, “You know, it gets tiring trying to teach you all about our experience. There are books you can read.” (Or, read this excellent interview with Eddie Glaude.) I took Glaude’s challenge to heart, realizing that I had been relying on my Black and Latino students to share their experiences with me so I could learn from them. Why should they bear the responsibility (or the burden) for my education? Don’t I wish men would educate themselves about my particular experience as a female? So this summer, I have decided to take advantage of my privilege to read books by theologians, essayists, and activists of color.
The books on my list include:
“Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin
“The Cross and the Lynching Tree” by James H. Cone
“Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” by Kelly Brown Douglas
“Mujerista Theology” by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz
I am disturbed by the state of our society today. I am disturbed and disappointed by the lack of interracial understanding. I feel powerless in the face of most of it, except for the misunderstanding that resides within me. I believe many of our social ills could be resolved if we followed Jesus’ advice in Matthew 7:5 to “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” To set aside time this summer to focus on my own understanding is certainly a luxury of my privilege. But it is a necessary first step if I seek to follow Christ and work, as he did, towards dismantling the systems of injustice that bind us all.
 James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, (Beacon Press, 1955), pg. 72.
 Read George Packer’s article “Head of the Class: How Donald Trump appeals to the white working class” in The New Yorker for more on this.
 James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, (Beacon Press, 1955), pg. 73.
[Feature Image: Johnny Silvercloud]