Presented on April 4, 2019 at the Pi Alpha Sigma Honor Society
One of the most influential thinkers, economists, and historians of American history is Dr. W.E.B. Dubois. The first Black American to graduate with a doctorate from Harvard. In his influential text, The Souls of Black Folks, he offers a provoking critique and prophetic vision for Black life in America considering the direction of not only American Blacks but the whole race of persons in the twentieth century. “It is, then, the strife of all honorable men of the twentieth century to see that in the future competition of races the survival of the fittest shall mean the triumph of the good, the beautiful, and the true; that we may be a able to preserve for future civilization all that is really fine and noble and strong, and not continue to put a premium on greed and imprudence and cruelty” (Dubois, 1903; p.118).
Our American Place
America has always been a curious place to me. I have wondered about my place in this country as I read back over the founding of this nation, the ideals upon which it was founded, and I’ll admit with much curiosity, “What would the founders think about America today?” I mean if you have started anything, you have some level of imagination of what you want a thing to be versus what it actually becomes. I mean what would they have thought about the Civil War, women voting, public education, career politicians, and the numerous wars? What would they have thought about a Black man serving as the President for two terms?
Our American household has periodically demonstrated a schizophrenic mentality concerning human dignity socially and politically. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal….” Then I see Public Enemy stand up and shout, “Picture us coolin’ out on the fourth of July, and if you heard we were celebrating that’s a world-wide lie” (Louder than a Bomb; 1988). A document written and stated the national independence of men by virtue of being ontologically equal simultaneously supported a social culture which practiced enslavement, disenfranchisement, and the legalization of dehumanization. America has always been a curious place to me as one part of the nation asserted liberty to own people while another part of the nation asserted liberty to free people but offer little to no assistance to those freedmen and women.
What is this American place to me? It is a place of powerful movements in our short history. Movements which seized upon those epic words about the equality of men and women to secure the vote, expand educational opportunities, increase access to better housing, and produce some great technological feats in recent memory. What is the American place to me? It is a house with a schizophrenic mind which has the address of 1776 Freedom Place but has so many locked away. It is a house which has children playing in the yard and learning to pursue life as so many Black babies are disproportionately aborted. It is a home which has prosperous dinners and the best furniture so one can pursue happiness and yet so many languish in poverty.
What is the American place to me?
Our American People
“I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”
We are a diversity of people in this American place. Mr. Langston Hughes identified in this place called America was a population of diverse and scarred people who were united by suffering. Yes different groups have tasted different degrees of suffering, many times at the hands of their own government, yet nonetheless, America is made up of people. People bound together by language, customs, and above all, this dream of opportunity.
Our American people have made great strides over the generations. I celebrate those Whites, Blacks, Native Americans, Asians, and others who have seized opportunities shaping this place in a variety of ways. Yet there are still among us those persons Langston Hughes describes as fooled, scarred, disconnected from a home, and holding onto a thread of hope. What about the 13% of Americans in poverty and the 18.8% of Arkansans in poverty? So Dubois stands with Hughes. They both stand looking at this place called America and seek to provoke its people to practices which are good, beautiful, and true. Practices which will move people socially and politically towards activities which embrace what is noble and reject what is undignified.
In 2007, I and my family launched an organization called “The City of Hope Outreach” or CoHO. Our mission is to provoke hope in a holistic manner-one person, one family, one community- over time for the glory of God. It is distinctly Christian and in keeping with the principles of the faith all are welcome to participate and serve. Why? I firmly believe on the basis of Trinitarian thought we are all made in the image and likeness of God. By virtue of the imago Dei, every human being from rich Bezos to poor Bob have intrinsic dignity and worth. All of you possess such a majesty, remark-ability, and glory that no man, woman, or ideology can erase from you. Systems have tried. Constitutions have been framed to say otherwise. Yet the truth remains. We are majestic in every way possible.
Over a twelve year period CoHO has become an expression of social and political engagement. Social engagement in the sense we want to clearly communicate to every person we interact with they matter as a human being. Our role is to gather as many persons around poor Whites, poor Blacks, poor Latinos, and whoever else. In that gathering we work hard to communicate collaboration over nonprofit colonialism, partnership over paternalism. Secondly, we want to engage with the political process in so far as we desire to raise awareness about the positive activities occurring among the poor and the contributions these men and women are making to society. Our political leaders need to know there are many poor persons who are making a difference. Borrowing from Martha Nussbaum, “ politicians play a critical role in either creating barriers or tearing down barriers for the persons they represent. In essence politicians have been granted the opportunities to address life which is entrenched with social injustice and inequality.”
How then are you engaging in this American Place which is diverse and offers you the opportunity to engage with political leaders for the sake of others? I must admit, I have become a bit jaded as we have been complicit to participate in the polarization and demonization of the other, whether on the basis of ethnicity, gender, faith, or political ideology. We are becoming more tribal creating a Balkanization which can not bode well for our future. We practice a refusal to listen and learn. We are choosing practices which stimulate argumentation and strife through IG, Facebook, or Twitter. We have allowed the talking bobbleheads on television to shape our perceptions of those who think differently than us.
What is American to me? To you?
Dr. Dubois calls out to us to pursue those things which are good, beautiful, and true. We are being called to reject the practices which created the America which Langston Hughes so powerfully described. Nussbaum asks us to identify barriers to freedom which foster injustice and rampant inequality.
So the question becomes, “Where do we go from here as American people in the 21st Century? What are the good, beautiful, and true practices we can implement to secure human flourishing for more people?” (use blog post from MLK)
To answer this final question, I would like to turn to Reverend Dr. Martin L. King Jr. and apply future practices in the context of Dr. Dubois’ vision of goodness, beauty, and truth. Providentially, a sort of baton was passed from Dubois to King, as Dubois died on August 27, 1963 and King gave his prophetic “I Have A Dream” on August 28, 1963. It was King who offered America a series of final exhortations in his text, “Chaos or Community.” I refer to this book in my conclusion because we as Americans stand on the precipice of creating a community of brothers and sisters regardless of class and race, or descend into chaotic upheaval because we prefer racial strife and political ideological tribalism.
We must practice living as a healthy family in one house. We are a family. We are a family of human beings with dignity, purpose, creativity, and the innate desire to be known as a human being. As human beings, we are a variety of ethnicities, religious faiths, political ideologies, and other social distinctions. Just as a family possesses diversity, a healthy family manages such diversity for the larger goal of generational viability. Regardless of our distinctions, we exist as a family within this vast house called Arkansas and this larger house called America. A family should practice celebrations, practice lament, and practice encouragement which moves both the strong and weak members of the house forward. This is our house and we have an individual and collective responsibility to steward this residence for ourselves and future generations.
Secondly, we must practice good actions which are for the uplift of the individual and the greater society. In the 21st Century we must ask ourselves, “What are the good actions which will serve others?” Good actions are like the sun rising and giving energy to a bed of flowers to open on a spring day. I believe there are many of you who possess great ideas to transform Libertarian, Conservative, and Progressive ideologies. There are men, women, and children in our state who need bold social and political ideas which will offer them the opportunity to blossom in this new morning. Poverty continues to be an unsightly hole in the roof of our house. The economic situation of many in Arkansas reveals their impotency to make meaningful choices to impact their lives. Dr. King stated, “if democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity.” It is time we stand in the warmth of our new morning and create new opportunities to improve the economic situation of the disadvantaged. Therefore, shine like the sun in the lives of others.
Finally, in the 21st Century we can practice compassion by engaging socially with others. Our state has some relational tensions to address as it relates to race. While I cannot control how one is born ethnically, I can control how I perceive the other person. You are my brother and sister. We are tied together by the same infinitely valuable character which offers us all dignity and worth. I have my faults as you have your own. Dr. King stated, “there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” Therefore, let us practice compassion and serve our “enemies”because we are members of the same household. We are a family in need of one another. We are in need of good acts. We must practice beautiful compassion towards the other.
We need to walk into this new morning with an intense desire to love the other with such a fervency that heaven itself will stand and applaud.
Given at the Arkansas Black Mayors Association on March 22, 2019
I am thankful for the opportunity to speak for a few minutes with this august group of men and women who gather here from across the state of Arkansas. It warms my heart to see this group of Black leaders who have committed themselves to a term of public service as mayors. You are the executive leadership, the figure heads, and face of your cities.
Since the early part of twentieth century, Blacks have chosen to focus on political power as the primary means to bring about social and economic change. We stand on the shoulders of men such as Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy. We are encouraged by the strength of Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks. They sought to access the halls of political power through nonviolent direct action to secure the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. These men and women flung open wide the doors of opportunity for all of us today. These are just a couple of reasons fifty-one cities are represented by Black males and females in Arkansas today in contrast to an Arkansas of that same 1960’s period which had no Black Mayors. There were glimmers of hope though in the midst of a difficult period leading up to the funeral of legalized segregation, Jim Crow, and Jane Crow.
Historian Carl Moneyhon, identifies significant economic foundation for Arkansas Blacks in the early twentieth century was tied to the land. Moneyhon, observes political representation by Blacks was “primarily agricultural…” because “a majority of black voters lived on the farm” (p.223). What we can also learn is that there was a growing middle class of Black Arkansans even in the midst of a segregated and overtly racist Arkansas. This growing middle class included clergy, educators, doctors, lawyers, and other jobs marked as professional (Moneyhon, 1985). So from Little Rock to Pine Bluff, from counties such as Chicot, Desha, and Phillips County, the middle class began to energize our Black population even under such dehumanizing racist environment.
What does this information mean for us today? How can we use political power as a means to open doors of greater social and economic power to bring vitality or sustain the communities you men and women represent?
I believe there is an abundance of great opportunity for our Arkansas cities and towns. If we look at our history and the ingenuity of Black Arkansans post-Reconstruction through the Civil Rights Era, there is no reason there can not be many Wiley Jones. “Wiley Jones had risen from slavery and the farm to become a wealthy man. By the end of the century, he owned the Wiley Jones Street Car line, town lots in Pine Bluff…Contemporaries estimated Jones’s wealth at $300,000.00 by 1890” (Moneyhon, 1985; p.225). As political leaders you have been given the authority to create opportunities of success for the citizens you represent. It is a heavy responsibility but with support it can be accomplished.
Our organization works with cities and towns to provide technical support to create nonprofits and develop leadership which can create opportunities of change for cities and towns such as yours. Since 2018 in partnership with the University of Central Arkansas we have established a community development nonprofit in the city of Mitchellville with Mayor Carl Griswold. This year we have started similar work in the city of Eudora with the leadership of their new Mayor Travis Collins to focus on educational support, housing, and workforce training. The common thread I have seen unite these different cities is a passionate commitment of transformation despite resource limitation. This is part of our history in Arkansas and yet history has shown Black Arkansans have the faith and leadership to take two fish and five loaves to be a blessing for many generations.
These future generations are why you are here today and when we continue to look forward harnessing the victories of the past, I believe the opportunities for each of your cities will be great. CoHO want to be a part of supporting the creation of those opportunities.
Thank you and God Bless.
Self-examination is a difficult experience. It requires a humble disposition to see the beautiful marks and the flaws which distract from that beauty. Even more so, national self-examination demands its citizens to reflect on where they have been, where they are, and what is their destination. As with all organized groups there is a culture. There are a set of values, beliefs, languages, and customs which mark inclusion and participation. In our country, I want to humbly assert whiteness is the dominant culture asserting freedom demands participation in this cultural experience.
What is whiteness?
Whiteness is a cultural experience. It is a belief, at least in America, in which it is the standard of measure by which all other cultural expressions and human experiences are judged. I think for most of us, we walk in American life unaware of its presence, yet whiteness casts it shadow over our daily lives.
What was whiteness in the past?
The major American institutions-political, economic, social, and religious-are informed by this cultural dynamic. The nation celebrates men such as George Washington, John Adams, and Patrick Henry who were courageous and sacrificial British citizens choosing to establish a new world separate from British tyranny. The establishment of this new nation carried a strange irony as a new tyranny was enacted upon the lives of an existing people to continue the expansion of this new experiment of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What else is to be expected as cultures clash to maintain identity, maintain resources, and simply exist?
To the victor obviously goes the spoils. The descendants with a Caucasian flavor created and justified a specific perspective of culture which would influence all of American life. I don’t necessarily fault them for establishing this baseline for how to conduct politics, execute a particular laissez faire capitalistic system, and the religious dominance of Protestantism. In the grand scheme of providence whiteness prevailed in America. Admittedly, it is in this cultural context of whiteness I am subject to develop this very writing and it has informed my learning.
What is whiteness? Is it a way of speech? We are to speak the “Queen’s English!” Is whiteness the accumulation of colonial actions spread throughout the world manipulating, conquering, and redefining persons of colors as backwards and animalistic? Borrowing from the thoughts of Black intellectual James Baldwin, maybe you can only understand yourself by forming a doctrine announcing my skin is cursed, my hair is nappy, and my lips are huge. Are we to understand whiteness as embodied in a group of persons who can only understand themselves in the context of creating “others?”
What is whiteness in the present?
Depending on who you ask many would have you believe whiteness finds a home with its colonial impulses and intense desire to justify racial disparity and inequity within the election of President Trump and conservative agenda. Yet can we not consider whiteness with its colonial power and racial paternalism finds homes on the Left side of American streets as well? Whiteness in the present pulls itself up to the dinner table not only with Conservative Whites but also in coffee shops participating in conversations between “woke” Millenials and lecturing in college institutions.
For example, as a seminary graduate, I received no exposure to theologians who were persons of color. My exposure was limited to those European males coming out of Germany, England, Geneva, and the North East America. White males who possessed a specific view of God, redemptive history, and how human beings were to treat one another. It was not until I completed my master’s thesis on Black Church leadership I discovered theologians such as Lemuel Haynes, James Cone, Howard Thurman, and Willie Jennings. I had to move out of a segment of Protestant Christianity which was narrowly defined by Whiteness and yet held itself as the standard for Christianity. There were more voices from different cultures which sought to express faith in an infinite God and life.
Even today with the many voices rising from persons of color, I ask myself if White brothers and sisters perceive a loss of place and personal identity. Persons of color are seeking to assert their value and presence within this American experiment. A reclamation which calls to account past sins and present situations. What is the response? Charlottesville torches. Confederate rallies. What is more antithetical to freedom than the promotion of an ideology embodied in the Confederacy. Fifty-four White supremacist indicted right here in Arkansas. An ideology which has no power yet still finds a few adherents and flies over some Southern states even today. An ideology which should remain buried in the past but remembered in our present and future reflections.
What are we to make of these White voices in the sound of other voices? Are the voices of these fringe elements calling persons of color to remain in compliance to the cultural realities of Whiteness? It is possible White brothers and sisters are realizing the period of such a dominant cultural influence is now experiencing its swan song.
I find myself treading on a very thin line. How does one express his or her significance as a human being ad then a person of color within a culture which explicitly and more so implicitly diminishes his or her humanity without diminishing the humanity of those who identify with the dominant culture of whiteness. In other words, I love my brothers and sisters who are aware or unaware of their whiteness.
What does the future hold for White brothers and sisters in America?
Well it depends on self-identification. Identity is key to personal experience. We are an amalgamation of a various values, beliefs, customs, and relationships which are critical to how we understand ourselves in this human experience.
We are human beings and we have made significant progress from the past colonial powers which supported slavery and maintained the systems of Jim and Jane Crow, and Segregation. We are human beings who chose to march collectively in Washington D.C. to hear about a dream and braved Edmund Pettus to secure the right to vote. We are human beings who have come along way overseeing the funeral of Jim and Jane Crow to where we are today.
I want to offer three encouragements for my White brothers and sisters.
The first encouragement I want to offer is tied up in the title of this essay, “White Brothers and Sisters.” We are a common humanity. We are family by origination of the dirt. The word human has its origins from the Latin “humus” meaning soil. If we would look beyond our skin color, languages, and national origins we would feel in our hand shakes and hugs, the soil. The earth unites men and women from a variety of ethnicities and we would be encouraged to remember as such.
My second encouragement is built on the words of Frederick Douglass. In 1865 Mr. Douglass speaking to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society offered his observations regarding the future of freedmen.
“What shall we do with the Negro?” I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!”
White brothers and sisters, leave persons of color alone! You have helped with the “War on Poverty” and statistically the situation of Blacks has diminished over the last fifty years. You have helped with the “War on Drugs” and persons of color populate more jail cells than dorm rooms of college campus. You have helped with affirmative action and are we now saying my intelligence is not enough? All I ask is you give us a chance at full freedom and not the paternalism which echoes the dead institutions of slavery, Jim Crow, and Jane Crow. Leave us alone like the Asians. Leave us alone like the Jews. Leave us alone. I want to encourage you to see power and creativity lift persons of color to an atmosphere which is as high as we desire to exist.
This leads to my final encouragement and conclusion. America prides itself as the bastion of freedom. President Ronald Regan stated, “Freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit.” In another place he stated, “If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth.” My White brothers and sisters who are my family by location of the soil and the reality we are made in God’s image. Use your freedom as a means to uplift others because of our shared humanity and not out of a sense of past sins or present guilt. Yours is the opportunity to demonstrate color truly is not the defining character in which a person of color can live free, to pursue life, and happiness. What is the future for you? Your future is tied to my future and the future of Latino-Americans, Asian-American, Native Americans, and all others. It will require some honest reflection which should produce actions which affirm human bodies and human life.
So I close with James Baldwin who observed about America,
“any honest examination of the national life proves how far we are from the standard of
human freedom with which we began. The recovery of this standard demands of
everyone who loves this country a hard look at himself, for the greatest achievements must begin somewhere, and they always begin with the person. If we are not capable of
this examination, we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental
failures in the history of nations.”
My brothers and sisters I would encourage you to conduct some self-reflection because this country depends on this activity.