Monday, February 28, 2011

R is for Ready...almost!

Last night I had the privilege of sharing an excerpt of The R Word (my young adult novel) with a group of young people.  I'm excited that the novel is almost ready for print, and will be available on Amazon soon.  If you're interested, check out the free excerpt, along with opportunity to purchase a PDF version of the text for a discounted rate, at

Anyway, they seemed to like the story, which was great.  But what I found most interesting was their response to my questions, "What's the racial atmosphere like at your school? Do people mix much?  Is there tension?"  While they admitted that there's not a lot of mixing going on, they were adamant in their assurances that it had nothing to do with race.  It's culture, they said.  It's learning styles.  It's living styles.  It's interests. It's where you come from. The racial self-segregation that they experience every day has nothing to do with race, they explained.

Now, this was a very open group -- they came to the session voluntarily, knowing that we'd be talking about race.  Even, so, it was hard for them to admit that race plays a part in their every day lives.  They wanted to be colorblind.  And, their experience is born out by research -- just plopping kids of various racial backgrounds together does not guarantee integration, because they will tend to self-segregate along racial lines. (This group, by the way, was all white, proving the point about self-segregation). So what's the answer, and why should we care?

I'm not claiming to have all the answers, but I believe that interactions like the one we had last night are important because they get us thinking thoughts that aren't so comfortable to think.  We need to keep the conversation going.  Are we better off as a nation than we were a few decades ago?  Of course.  Are we "post racial"? The more we talked last night, the more these young people admitted that, well, come to think of it, they have heard the "N-word" used by whites at their school, and not in a very nice way, they said (is there a nice way to use that word? I wondered, but I didn't get the chance to ask.)  There was that time, one person shared, when he was at the supermarket with an African American friend and the friend was accused of stealing, but nobody even looked at him. And they do feel uncomfortable sometimes with certain students of color. "It's like there's a wall," one person admitted.

The R Word is the story of how, for one white teenager, that wall comes down.  It's my attempt to keep the conversation going.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

What Good Religion?

I've recently read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  Douglass, who eventually made his way to freedom and became a famous speaker for the abolitionist cause, tells the account of his early life, a story filled with tales of the brutal mistreatment of himself and other slaves at the hands of white owners and overseers.  Douglass describes whippings and starvation.  I'd expected that -- it's a slave narrative, after all.  These events took place almost 200 years ago, for goodness sakes.  Surely this account holds no surprises.

Yet, I was surprised, not at Douglass' descriptions of the savage treatment slaves received, but at his scathing and perceptive indictment of the role religion played in the justification of that treatment.  Douglass describes one of his owners, a particularly brutal master, who'd experienced a religious conversion at a Methodist camp meeting, in this way:

"Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty. He made the greatest pretensions to piety.  His house was the house of prayer.  He prayed morning, noon, and night" (p. 57).  Douglass explains how this master used religion to justify his cruelty, describing how he would "tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture -- 'He that knoweth his master's will and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes'" (p. 58).  Sadly, this master was not an anomaly, and the hyper-religious culture of the South at that time did nothing to ease the suffering of slaves or advance the cause of the abolitionists.  A short time later, when Douglass was given to a new master, he says this: "Another advantage I gained in my new master was, he made no pretensions to, or profession of, religion; and this, in my opinion, was truly a great advantage" (p. 74).

Ouch. The religious among us should feel ashamed, or at least a little embarrassed by these words.  But, as I said, this took place centuries ago, and of course things are different now.  No one can argue that.  Still, I believe that if we're honest, we can draw some parallels, subtle though they may be, between the blind, self-righteous application of Christianity used by slave owners to justify their actions and the things we whites may tell ourselves to justify, or maybe to ignore, the racial inequity that still exists all these decades later.  Since I'm a teacher, I'll focus my argument on the schools.  The obvious fact is that suburban, mostly white schools provide a far better education for their students than urban schools that are mostly populated by students of color.  There are lots of reasons for this -- the legacy of discriminatory housing policy, poverty, school funding practices, etc.  Now, I've attended a lot of conservative white churches over the years.  I've heard preachers rail against abortion and homosexuality. But I've never once, in all my years of attending these white conservative churches, heard a sermon against racism or against poverty, for that matter. I've never heard a preacher address the inequity of the public school system and suggest we do something about it.  In fact, the only time I've heard race mentioned at all was on a few rare occasions when a preacher extolled the benefits of being colorblind.

Don't get me wrong, Douglass was not against religion, and neither am I.  I do believe that we religious folk can learn from his account, though.  Of course we are not committing the sins of the slave owners.  But what of the sins of omission?  What of ignoring inequity?  What of the very unbiblical attitude, "God helps those who help themselves"? During his time on earth, Jesus condemned only one group of people -- the pharisees, a group of religious leaders who used scripture to justify promoting themselves at the expense of others, and who followed the letter of the law while forgetting the Spirit of the Law-giver.  May we not find ourselves in their company.