This week we celebrated the ministry of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and those who, like him, understood that they could not be silent in the face of discrimination and injustice. They realized that they had to stand up and say something. They had to do something. Their stance and their action led the country to make progressive steps toward civil rights. There are some who want to argue that in retrospect, the progress of the civil rights movement was insignificant. Nevertheless, progress, no matter how small, is still progress. The fight for justice and equality is not over. The crossing of one mountain often reveals a valley on the other side that must also be traversed. This week, I had a chance to both look back and see the mountain scaled by the Civil Rights Movement and look ahead into a deep, dark, and depressing valley.
On the Friday of the King Holiday weekend, my seven year old came home from school with a disturbing report. We sat around the kitchen table sharing the highlights of our day and my son says “some white people owned brown people during slavery times…and the good white people gave the brown people their last names”. I wanted to jump in and correct him, but I let him finish. As he concludes he tells me this is what he learned in class. Immediately I knew I needed to have a conversation with my son’s teacher. I was hoping that my son misunderstood the teacher’s lesson. Maybe the teacher’s lesson on slavery was misinterpreted by a classmate on the playground spewing the ignorance of parents. Surely my son was not learning in school that owning other human beings is good? Or that last names were given like a gift from a benevolent owner to his/her loyal and loving property?
My wife and I immediately emailed the teacher to set up a conference for clarity. Unfortunately the conversation my wife and I had with the teacher validated our fears. The teacher informed us that the conversation about the enslavement of Africans in America came up as the children tried to understand the timeline of American history. While talking about Martin Luther King Jr., the teacher showed a picture of him delivering his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. “Did MLK live during the time of Abraham Lincoln?” a child asked. The teacher told us this led another child to ask “did all white people hate brown people and own slaves?”. The teacher explained her struggle to redirect the class and the lesson back on Martin Luther King Jr. while answering the questions of her class. Furthermore the teacher informed us that the curriculum did not support a conversation about slavery. The teacher explained to us that she tried to put distance between lifetimes of Lincoln and King. So she tried to explain that there were white people who marched with King and there were white people who worked toward abolition. And then she told the children a story about her family.
Before my wife and me the teacher proudly began to tell the story of her own family, as she had before with her students. She told the kids that her ancestors owned slaves, but they were good to their slaves. “The slaves loved them so much that they took my family’s last name and stayed even after emancipation”, the teacher tells my wife and I. She us that she abhors the practice of slavery. Yet in this story about her family she attempts to make the case that there is something redemptive and honorable about the way her slave owning family treated their slaves. She glowed as she talked about how good and nice they must have been to their property – people they owned. She made it seem as though the institution of slavery was deplorable only in the cases when the slave owners were not good to their slaves. My son did not misunderstand her lesson.
I was stunned and angry. I felt numb and tried my best to control my facial expressions. I thought it best that I kept silent. Clearly this teacher was taught this by family members. This story must have been passed down by generations within this family until it reached the heart of this young woman. It is doubtful that she has reached out to the descendants of the slaves owned by her family to find out if they passed on such a glowing story of her loving, slave owning ancestors. I cannot explain to you how proud and delusional she looked while telling us her family story.
Since she shared her story, we had to share our story with her. My wife encouraged me to speak up. We had to share with her that despite how she feels about her slave owning ancestors it is important to teach the more acceptable history of the dehumanizing institution slavery was and is. We sat with this teacher and told her how slavery and its role in American race relations impacts our lives as an interracial couple. She needed to know that portions of our family, very proud of their slave holding ancestry, do not accept or welcome us or our children to family functions. We did not want to hurt her feelings but we could not allow her to live in a protective bubble without opportunity to see and hear another side of the same story. We had to speak up for our son and his classmates and even for this mis-educated educator.
I believe – I actually hope – that she is just a product of her very white, monochromatic, secluded, suburban Utah life. Had we not chosen to sit at the table with her and speak up about our family reality she would be allowed to go on thinking that slavery was a deplorable institution because some owners were mean. Truth be told, even after our conversation, she may continue to hold her ancestors up as the models for the righteous way to own slaves. At least now, after hearing our story, she has a chance to see another side.
I often find myself sitting at tables as the lone racial ethnic representative or one of few around the table. (I now refer to tables as the symbolic places where discussions are held and decisions made that effect the masses or larger bodies). This has been a reality of mine since high school and exacerbated by living in Utah.
In general I don’t mind being a diverse presence at tables. I’m happy that many of these tables consider it important to have some diverse representation. However, I must constantly remind myself that sitting at the table is not good enough!
I must confess there have been times when I allowed myself to be silent when I should have spoken up. I have muzzled myself, fearing that I may be labeled as an angry black male and then nothing I share, valid or invalid, would be heard. I confess that I have remained silent because I was concerned that I would not be liked and seen as an adversarial presence for sharing my views. I have sat silently holding back angry tears and refusing to even defend myself when I knew I was right.
Silence is not helpful. Silence does not help those absent from the table with experiences and views similar to yours, who only wish your mutual understanding could be shared. Silence does not help those around the table who have not had similar experiences and are merely unaware that another perspective is even possible. Silence does not help those around the table who know and choose to remain ignorant to viewpoints other than their own. And most importantly, remaining silent does not help me. My silence simultaneously belittles and denigrates my experience, knowledge, and this voice that God has given me. As King reminded the clergy of Birmingham in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, silence is tantamount to endorsing the evils of the status quo. You can be in favor of what is happening or you can be opposed. If you don’t cry out “no”, if you say nothing at all, you might as well be screaming “yes” in support of what is already happening.
In the past I have advocated for connection. I really thought all we need to do is to be at the table. Once people get to see and meet those they have not had a chance to interact with, attitudes will change. I now believe that presence at the table and building relationships are important but only if there is an opportunity for mutual and genuine sharing. There must be a chance to share where you are. There must be safe space to hear where I have been. Tell me about your slave owning ancestors, but let me tell you about what slavery and race relations are doing to my family.
Additionally, there must be a chance for all around the table to assess and acknowledge that there are still voices absent from the table. These voices bring different insights and experiences. We should be pro-active and invite those voices to enter the conversation.
To you, who feel alienated from tables of decision and conversation, continue to shout until you are heard. Continue to demand a place at the table. Build tables of your own and dare to welcome all to your own table. Model the inclusion that you are being denied. Do not allow yourself to remain silent. And please do not muzzle yourself.
My seven year old son and I are working on a presentation to share with his class about the slave trade of African peoples in America. We will educate his classmates. We will educate his teacher. And we may even teach ourselves the power of our own voice as we share our story.
I hope this little article reminds us that we must continue to stand up and raise our voices. We must do this for the good of others. We must do this for our children. We must do this for ourselves.
Jerrod Lowry is a proud graduate of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary and the pastor of Community of Grace PC(USA) in Sandy, Utah. He is a husband and a father of three, who in his spare time dreams he really had spare time.