I don’t know how many times the scientists have to say it before we finally get it. There is no basis for the bla-bla-bla about race. A human being is a human being is a human being.
Culture, however, is another matter. I have been involved in the Black community in various ways throughout the years, but it wasn’t until I read Henry Louis Gates’s book Colored People this past year that I really began to understand why African Americans don’t flock toward White churches in great numbers when the more liberal churches keep trying to entice them. The culture, behavior, and attitudes in the Black community are rich in and of themselves, and they honestly don’t need, or want, to integrate with the White folks of this nation. Why would they? They would be giving up so much: a way of talking and expressing themselves for one.
I remember when, years ago, I was a member of a church in a suburb of Cleveland that was making a rapid transition from White to Black. I was visiting with one of my Black friends at her home, when she said about her neighbor, “That woman is black and evil!”
” You can’t say that!” I said, thoroughly shocked.
“Oh yes I can!” she answered, and proceeded to let me know exactly why she felt that way.
That was only one of the many instances where I encountered the directness and openness of the way they expressed themselves. By that time, I was pretty much accepted as a part of the culture in that congregation. My kids were the only Caucasian children in the Sunday School classes. I taught a catechism class and belonged to the women’s group. My husband ran the Sunday School, and was instrumental in forming a plan to build the church membership back up from the white-flight that had happened when Blacks began moving into the neighborhood. I got a glimpse of what they had to endure being Black in a White person’s world.
There was the time when another friend, Mary, who worked as a bookkeeper for an elderly Polish couple, told me that the wife had come into the back room a couple of days before and whispered to her, “I’m just curious. Where do you put your tail when you sit down?”
I was so insulted on her behalf that I was speechless. “What did you tell her?” I asked.
“I just told her that I didn’t have a tail,” she said, and got back to work. Mary continued to work there, and nothing more was said. (You just can’t make this stuff up!!)
Because my former husband’s job required that he travel during the week, another member of this congregation began calling me almost every evening and sometimes during the afternoon. Her husband had just left her, and she was depressed and suicidal, so I never denied these calls. We talked through her desire to end it all, and even discussed the methods that she was thinking of using, with me always listening and trying to be encouraging. Eventually, the pastor was able to get her accepted into a mental hospital. It was hard. When I visited her at the hospital, and we went for a walk on the hospital grounds, she saw a small bridge and wondered what it would be like to jump off. Eventually, with proper medication and therapy, she got better and was released. She didn’t remember the long talks that we’d had or the visit at the hospital, but she was home with her children and handling her life again.
This was not a pure culture as the people who joined that congregations were from all walks of African-American life: from those families who had lived in the Cleveland projects to a few who were southern Black aristocracy, and to everything in between. How they mixed among themselves was also interesting. Basically, they didn’t. The first time that one of the Southerners spoke to me was a few years later when I returned for a visit from Caracas, Venezuela where I was then living. I had reviewed and memorized the names in the church directory so that I wouldn’t forget anyone, so when one of the women from the South greeted me, I was able to call her by name even though we had never spoken with each other before.
Dr. Willie James Jennings, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and African Studies at Yale University, in writing about The Geography of Whiteness for the Christian Century says “But race is not part of the created order. It is a particular historical emergence of a way of perceiving oneself and the world.”
So, even as I write this, I understand that I am part of the culture that sees itself as “White.” As much as I was accepted by my African-American friends in the Cleveland church so long ago, and as much as they became so open in talking with me, after my years in South America, I returned to a world that continues to see itself as White, and that just doesn’t seem right.
Maybe one solution is to rid our census of the category “race.” It would be a start….