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Posts Tagged ‘racism’

Guest Post by Ben Soule

The day after the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly ended my wife Deb and I were still in New Orleans. Most of the other delegates had already flown out and Deb was scheduled to be in meetings with some of the remaining UUA leaders, so I had some time to myself. Finding that the museum I intended to visit was closed on Mondays, I decided to take a long walk through my favorite city instead.  I took out my cell phone, opened Google Maps, dropped a pin in the middle of the Bywater District, hit the start button, and set off.

I was glad for this chance to get out of the hotel room, out of the GA bubble, and stretch my legs.  I was also glad to be able to have a chance to reflect on all that had happened in the past five days.  I thought back on all of the mind- and soul-stretching workshops I had attended, working to understand where I fit in the seismic shift in Unitarian Universalism that this year’s Assembly has signaled.  In addition, I had set out on my own quest to answer some questions for which I could find no ready answers, such as:

~ What is the cultural origin of the word ashé? 
~ Why have “indigenous people” been given a separate category from the larger category of people of color? 
~ How did the phrase “white supremacy” come to be the default term for that which we are working against?  
~ And my last and only unanswered question of the week: How do we wrestle with the issues raised by the brutal attack on two UUA staff members in the French Quarter on Saturday night, in light of all we had learned in recent days?  I was working hard on that one.

My route took me around much of the crescent for which the old city was nick-named.  As I crossed Bienville I recalled the news report from that morning saying that the attack took place on “the 200 block of Bienville.”  I glanced to my left and wondered.  I continued past Jackson Square, past the French market, through the industrial end of the Marigny district and into the Bywater.  The Bywater is a pleasant neighborhood that appears to have come a long way since Katrina, and shows signs of the mixed blessing of gentrification.  I walked along Rue Dauphine past many brightly painted houses as well as some that clearly needed to be worked on.  I came to a corner with a Mom and Pop market and a flower and bookshop where my GPS told me I had another 100 feet to my destination.  I walked the last few steps, stopped and looked around, hoping that there would be  something there, something significant, something that I was supposed to find.  But there wasn’t. Just some well-kept houses on a quiet street shaded by lime trees. 

So I turned back the way I had come to that last street corner.  It was mid-afternoon on a warm New Orleans day and I was glad to be able to buy something cold to drink at the market.  I stepped past a few people sitting in the shade of the sidewalk awning and entered the dimly lit market.  I exchanged a few pleasantries with the woman behind the counter as I bought a bottle of fruit juice and had a few gulps.  I stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked across the street at the book and florist shop I had passed earlier. 

And then I knew why I was there.  I crossed and went into the tiny florist’s but no one was there.  I called up the stairs where the books must have been.  No answer.  As I turned to leave, a young woman appeared in the doorway.  I recognized her from the group across the street.  “Do you work here?” I asked.  “Yes, can I help you?,” she said.  I asked for a small mixed bouquet for a sick friend.  She went to the tinier back room and returned with a lovingly assembled splash of colors and look of sympathy in her eyes.  I asked for a card to write a note, jotted a few words and tied it with the yarn around the brown paper bundle.  I paid her the $13.20, thanked her, asked for the most interesting route back to the Quarter, and set off.

On Burgundy I passed a carefully restored Esso station with a sign saying “No gas today.”  On Elysian Fields I saw a circle of rust brown statue-people facing defiantly outward.  On Rue Royal I was greeted with a “How y’all doin’” by a young man, and I saw a young woman retrieve an electronic recorder for a UPS driver that had fallen from his truck.  Everything seemed to have meaning to me in the hyperaware state I was in because my GA experience. 

I was nearly all the way across the Quarter when I drained the last of the now-warm juice, and saw the sign for Rue Bienville up ahead.  My heart was pounding as I turned left toward the river.  I passed the 400 block and crossed North Peters.  I seemed to be out of what I thought of as the French Quarter but I kept on. Ahead was a single four-story brick building surrounded by parking lots.  I realized that the flowers’ brown paper wrapper was soaked through with my own sweat as I took the bouquet with my right hand from the crook of my left arm and approached the building.  It was marked number 208.

There was a man setting up a power washer.  The intake hose was in a drainage ditch of an adjacent building project.  As he started the washer I saw that his job was to wash away the sand that was strewn on the sidewalk.  My realization that I had found the right place was confirmed when, as he cleaned away the top layer, I saw the caked red sand beneath.

209 NOLAI placed the flowers in a nook in the front of building and left the man to his task. As I walked away I wondered why I had done this thing.  It was not my typical behavior.  I didn’t do it for myself, and I knew it would make little difference to the victims.  I had no expectation that the flowers would be there more than 10 minutes after I left.  But I understood I was the only person in that place and at that time who could make that gesture, who could bear witness, as Deb phrased it later.  I understood that no matter how difficult we find the road that we travel together, no matter how long it takes to hear and to know each others’ deepest stories, how painful it is to create a welcome place in our movement for all who wish to join, we must stand together.

Clearly I had felt a call from my deep life-long connection to Unitarian Universalism.  I am grateful to have been awake and aware enough to heed that call.

Ben Soule is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.  He resides in Lexington, MA and is a member of First Parish in Lexington.

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I went into my chiropractor’s office last week.  I like my chiropractor – he’s a nice guy, we usually chat about his children, the weather, or how my back is feeling.  On this particular morning, I walked in and he said to me, “What do you think about Donald Trump running for President?”  “Donald Trump for President!,” I exclaimed.  “Now there’s a stupid idea.  How dumb does he really think we are?  This birther stuff is ridiculous,” I blathered on, referring to Trump’s stated obsession with the idea that the State of Hawaii’s “Certificate of Live Birth” for Obama is not good enough.  “Who the heck believes this stuff?”, I exploded.  One look at his face told me the answer:  he did.

Deciding to dig myself in completely, I continued, “And Michele Bachmann’s just as bad:  giving a speech in Concord, New Hampshire about the ‘shot heard round the world’ that started the American Revolution…in Lexington and the other Concord (Massachusetts).  Please,” I continued, “Can someone ask these people to just get their information straight before they sound off?”  Not content with the amount of damage I’d done myself, I suggested that it would be nice if these supposed candidates for President showed that they had a clue about matters of foreign policy and government relations before they decided they should make a run for the nation’s highest office.

The exchange, among other things, proves that one really shouldn’t have discussions about politics with those whose views we don’t know in advance (yes, the chiropractor started it, but I shouldn’t have taken the bait).

On the other hand, Trump and the birther devotees have reminded me, on this day when we are noting the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, that such down and dirty arguments connect back to the racist history of the United States — and so, I suppose, we really shouldn’t be that surprised that the birther argument — and similar arguments about Obama’s heritage, religion, what-have-you, have taken hold.

The ‘inconvenient truth’ is that the seeds of this behavior were sown long ago, when the country’s Declaration of Independence was being written. New England communities were built off the proceeds of the Triangle Trade to Africa.   Thomas Jefferson, statesman and slave owner, included references to slavery in early drafts of the Declaration, James Madison supported the repatriation of slaves to Liberia and the Caribbean, and the Civil War ripped the country apart as battles raged over slavery, as Katrina Browne and James DeWolf Perry discuss.

So even while many rejoiced at Obama’s election as President, many others focused on all the reasons why this man of mixed race and heritage could not, should not, be President of the United States.  Which brings us to Candidate Trump.  I find Trump’s bombastic blathering outrageous and obnoxious, and I can’t take him seriously.  Unfortunately, my chiropractor, and thousands of others, do.  Trump is, I believe, just one more face that shows us the racist history of our country — a man who will swear that his pursuit of the ‘truth’ about Obama’s heritage has nothing to do with racism, but with the laws of the United States.  And those laws can not, surely, allow a black man to be president.

Back in September, I wrote a piece focusing on the fight Al Sharpton and Glenn Beck were having around Beck’s so-called “Restoring Honor” rally, which compelled Sharpton to stage a “Reclaiming the Dream” event. The two threw mud at each other, and it was not a pretty scene.  At its core, the fight occurred about race and class, I believe.

And here we are again.  It is the anniversary of the Civil War. Yet, 150 years later, we are still wrestling with pigs.  I fear we are doomed to keep engaging in such wrestling matches until we confront the realities of this country’s racist past, and the huge challenges of building a future of equality, together.

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