#8: Kelly Brown Douglas 2016
Faith Seeking Understanding in America, March 17, 2017
Religion professor and Episcopal priest Kelly Brown Douglas describes the marathon-like process of writing her book Stand Your Ground. In response to the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, Douglas felt an urgent call to undergo the emotional journey of writing about stand-your-ground culture. Douglas reads excerpts from the book, written with the “crying heart of a mother and restless heart of a theologian,” in which she wrestles with questions about God’s justice and gains a renewed appreciation for the vitality of black faith. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and poet Shane McRae.
- Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.
- Tony Morrison, Sula
- Tacitus, Germania
- Jim Wallis, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:00] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith and Writing. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I'll be your host. This is the place you can listen back to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we’ve celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode, you'll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.
On today’s episode of Rewrite Radio, we'll listen to the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas on Black Lives Matter and the justice of God at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing. The Susan D. Morgan distinguished professor of religion at Goucher College, Rev. Dr. Douglas has served as a priest in the Episcopal church for over 20 years and is currently the canon theologian at the National Cathedral. She writes about racial reconciliation, sexuality and the black church, and womanist theology. Her most recent book is Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.
To introduce the session, I called up poet Shane McCrae, who also joined us at the 2016 Festival. Shane is the author of several poetry collections, including The Animal Too Big to Kill, Forgiveness Forgiveness, and most recently, In the Language of My Captor, a collection of historical persona poems with a prose memoir at the center that addresses the illusory freedom of both black and white Americans. McCrae was the recipient of a 2011 Whiting award and in 2013, he received a fellowship from National Endowment for the Arts. He's on faculty at both Oberlin College and Spalding University.
[music, phone rings]
Shane McCrae: [00:01:39] Hello?
Lisa: Hello Shane, can you hear me?
Lisa: Where have we found you this morning?
Shane: I am kind of pacing around my dining room now–I have a class that starts in 2 hours– [Lisa laughs]
Shane:–so this is not done exactly...
Shane:–I've written most of it, but I haven't figured out what pages they're gonna read on what day. I have books in order though at least.
Lisa: Okay. Well, thank you so much for joining us today.
Shane: Thank you.
Lisa: So we're about to listen to Kelly Brown Douglas’ lecture at the 2016 Festival. In her lecture–her stand alone lecture–she talked about the process of writing her book Black Bodies and the Justice of God. And in that, you know, she talks about how for her, that process was–she kind of had to go places she wasn't expecting to go related to thinking about the ways in which white supremacy has really shaped this country. And she–and she really kind of came to a crisis of faith kind of in the middle of it because of the way these things have been conflated in this country in a way that was unexpected for her even, as someone who had been thinking about it for a while. And then, she was able to kind of write her way through it to some extent. But I was curious about–I mean, you also write a lot about being a black man in America and I wonder how writing about that–how that has affected your own like, creative life, but also maybe your faith, what you might say about that.
Shane: I have–I have this sort of–I don't want to say untroubled faith, which makes me sound like maybe I'm not a particularly smart person–well, I'm not, but I still–I don't want to sound like I'm not a smart person. But I do in a lot of ways have a kind of untroubled faith. But it took me decades of really hard thinking to get to it.
Um, I–you know, I don't–horrible things happening in the world don't lead me to question my faith, they lead me to do other things–they lead me to be sad in other ways, but that's not–they don't touch upon that, which is–I think I've very blessed for that to be the case. It may be that I'm just avoiding that sort of doubt, but it doesn't feel like it. That’s just not where my mind goes. But it makes sense to me that would be the case. I mean, I think that part of the reason I suppose why that's not the case for me is that I was raised by white supremacists, and I was raised in this pretty complicated–I guess I would say–atmosphere. And so I never–my picture of what it means for people to be just to each other is maybe at the root a little–I don't want to say distorted–but a little strange I suppose. Insofar as it arises out of this context where I naturally was inclined to love these people, who I think also loved me, but on the other hand were very abusive and also despised anyone who looked like me and thought that they shouldn’t be here. Um, there's, you know, there’s lots of other stuff.
Shane: [00:04:49] But growing up in that context, I think, means that I don't expect certain kinds of justice, or at least I don't expect them to appear immediately relative to any terrible thing that happens. So that when this sort of series of horrific affronts that have been going on, every time one happens, Melissa, my wife, is very, very upset. And I have a hard time keeping up with her upset, because I'm like, “Oh yeah, sure, oh yeah that makes sense,” you know?
And so, with regard to my own work, the thing that has–with regard to my work and how it connects to my faith, when I've been writing about these sorts of things, it has has been important to me, I guess the doubt that I have found myself connecting with is–it has been difficult–not super difficult, but more difficult than I guess I would have expected–for me not to feel, after reading all of these horrific stories about how black people have been treated by white people in the US, not to feel a sort of general dislike or distrust of white people. You know, when I feel that sort of feeling creeping up, I have to be conscious of what it is that I believe, what my faith is, how that operates in my life. It doesn't ever really creep up very far, but I've been surprised to see it show up at all.
Lisa: Well, tell me about your engagement with Kelly–Kelly's work.
Shane: What she does a really good job of navigating and what I can't yet figure out–I mean, I think to some extent, this idea that forgiveness is making yourself open to the same thing happening again–I think that there's a certain sort of–it seems very neat, like it makes sense, it seems very clean, it has very–the edges have been sanded off of that idea, and it's very clear. But on the other hand, I think that it is because my thinking about forgiveness has not been as deep or as full as Kelly's thinking, for example, so that she is able to see in her work and make very clear that there is a space for forgiveness–there's a space for anger in forgiveness.
For me, I–not that I think that she's an angry person at all, but I mean that–you know, for me, I can't really go from one to the other. I have to start with forgiveness. Like right away, I can't allow myself to feel angry about X thing or Y thing. And I think that there's a deeper, a richer, a more complicated kind of forgiveness that can arise if you first allow yourself to feel upset and the regular sensible human emotions that come with that about, you know, the anger. I mean, Jesus didn’t say, I don't think–I think the main lesson was, you know, you turn the other cheek–not, “don't be upset and turn the other cheek.” And I think that for me, it's hard to do that and I think that Kelly has figured out how, and in that way, the forgiveness that she offers that she recognizes, I think, is bigger. And so I need to figure out how to do what she does.
Lisa: Wonderful thoughts. Thank you so much for joining us today to talk about Kelly Brown Douglas.
Shane: Thank you for having me.
Lisa: [00:08:45] And now, Kelly Brown Douglas on Black Lives Matter and the justice of God at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing.
Kelly Brown Douglas: Whoa, thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for being here. I am truly humbled by your presence and I thank Professor Van Dyke for her warm and gracious introduction and her warm and gracious self. And it has been wonderful being here at the Festival and it's been wonderful being here at Calvin. I knew the moment I met my student host that it was going to be a very good time. Sarah Bass is a wonderful representative of this institution, and so I thank her very much for her graciousness. I do, in that introduction, you know I'm always embarrassed by those introductions–but you know, you always like these big titles because you can hide behind them, but then after people meet you they're like “really?”
But I hope this afternoon to spend some time with you sort of talking about the writing process for this book and how this book came to be. And so, I want to engage in sort of a dialogue with–from the book, I’ll read some things from the book, and as I talk about how those things got there and what that's like to try to demystify in some respects–or maybe mystify more–this process because this book for me–the whole process and writing of it and even doing the writing and being called to it–was different than any of the other books that I’ve written. And so let me begin, and I hope that there's plenty of time in the end for dialogue with you. I have the most fun in the questions and answers.
Let me begin by reading from the prologue of the book:
[00:11:09] "The date was February 26, 2012. It was a Sunday evening in Sanford, Florida. It was a rainy evening. Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Benjamin Martin, who lived in Miami Gardens, Florida with his mother, was visiting his father. Trayvon was walking back to his Sanford residence from a store where he had just purchased a can of iced tea and a pack of Skittles candy. Trayvon was wearing a hoodie. A neighborhood watch captain spotted Trayvon. He called 911 to report a suspicious person in the gated neighborhood. The 911 operator advised the caller to remain in his car, not to follow the person and police would be there. The watch captain did not follow instructions. Armed with a gun, he left his car. Shortly thereafter, shots were fired and Trayvon was left dead on the Florida sidewalk.
Trayvon was African American, the watch captain was not. Trayvon possessed iced tea and Skittles. The watch captain possessed a gun. Trayvon's body was taken to a morgue. The watch captain was freed to go home. The next day, Tracy Martin identified his son's lifeless body from a photo. The watch captain was not charged with the crime. The killer was seemingly protected under Florida's “stand your ground” law. Almost two months later, after black communities across the country launched protest rallies calling for the arrest of the watch captain, he was finally arrested and charged. However, he claimed he killed Trayvon in self-defense. A year and a half later, on Saturday night, July 13th, 2013, a six-woman jury found Trayvon's killer not guilty. They acquitted him of both second degree murder and second degree manslaughter. He was a free man. The only person seemingly responsible for Trayvon's slaying was Trayvon himself.
The story of Trayvon Martin was an all too familiar story in the black community. It was eerily reminiscent of the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, which also garnered national attention. Emmet was brutally murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman in a convenience store. Like Trayvon's killer, Emmet's killer was found not guilty. The only person held responsible for Emmett's death was Emmett. And so it was that the story of Trayvon would go down in history as that of another young black male killed for no other reason than the fact of his blackness being perceived as threatening, with his killer getting away with it. The story of Trayvon was the catalyst for this book, but since then, there have been many other stories like Trayvon's–stories of unarmed Black teenagers killed because they were perceived as a threat.
[00:14:02] On November 23rd, 2012, seventeen-year-old Jordan Russell Davis was shot and killed in a Jacksonville, Florida gas station after an exchange over loud music that was being played in the SUV in which he was a backseat driver. Believing Jordan had a gun, the white male killer said he felt threatened. The killer therefore returned to his vehicle, retrieved a gun, and fired ten shots into Jordan's fleeing vehicle. Three of the shots hit Jordan; Jordan did not have a gun. Neither did the other three black male teens in the SUV with Jordan. Jordan was killed. His killer left the scene of the crime. The killer was eventually charged and found guilty of attempted murder for firing at the other teens in the vehicle; the jury hung on the murder charge. Once again, it seemed as if Jordan was responsible for his own murder. A retrial for the murder was scheduled.
On Sept 14th, 2013, an unarmed 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell was killed by a white police officer. Jonathan’s slaying took place after he knocked on a door for help following a single car crash in which he was involved. Frightened, the homeowner called the police. After arriving, a white police officer fired twelve shots at Jonathan, ten of which struck him, causing his death. After an initial grand jury ruled not to indict the officer, a second grand jury indicted him on involuntary–on voluntary, rather–manslaughter charges. Almost two months after Jonathan Ferrell’s slaying, a similar fate would befall a 19-year-old black female. On the Saturday night of November 2nd, 2013, Renisha Marie McBride knocked on a door seeking help after a single car accident in which she was injured. The homeowner, a white male, perceived her to be a threat. He opened his door with shotgun in hand, and killed Renisha. He pleaded self-defense. He was charged with second degree manslaughter.
These incidents were becoming all too frequent. Why is it becoming increasing acceptable to kill unarmed black children, I wondered? Why are they so easily perceived as a threat? How are we to keep our children safe? As a mother of a black male child, I found these to be urgent questions. The slaying of Trayvon struck a nerve deep within me, after Jordan, then Jonathan, then Renisha, I was practically unnerved. I knew I had to seek answers, and since I wrote this book.
[00:16:41] Stand Your Ground was a book I had never conceived of writing and had no intention of writing. Indeed, I had declared to my colleagues and friends that I did not think I had it in me to write another book. Writing, for me, is a labor of love with the emphasis on labor. [audience laughter]
I liken it to running a marathon. The easy part is the race itself; the hard part is the training.
[grunts of affirmation from the audience] The writing process–someone else has run a marathon. [audience laughter]
The writing process to me is the training. A daily process of crafting sentences, integrating thoughts, and calling forth research to put together a cogent argument that will carry your voice on a page without your inflections and gestures to guide the reader’s understanding. Also like a marathon, there is a certain intentionality in the decision to write, and on what you will write. You just don't fall into a marathon, you must make that decision that you are going to train and run the 26.2 mile race. But this book broke all the marathon rules. For I did not intend to write this book–I was called into it. As for the writing process, it took me down pathways that I could not have foreseen and led me through a surprising journey of commitment and faith. Let me first speak to the call about which I just read.
As a five or six-year-old growing up in Dayton, Ohio, I heard the whispers of the adults around me talking about how awful it was that the church was bombed and those four little girls were killed. I can remember hearing someone say that the white man who did it will probably never be caught, and if he were to be caught, nothing was likely to happen to him. Around that same time in my childhood, I remember seeing pictures on the news of white policemen with dogs attacking black children. What struck me most were the dogs attacking the children. I didn't know what I was watching, but those images were seared into my mind, perhaps contributing to my grave fear of dogs today.
[00:18:57] I also remember eavesdropping as my parents talked about a man in Mississippi who was killed in his driveway in front of his family, and what a shame it was. We know that to be Medgar Evers. And again, they said, that nothing would probably happen to whoever did it, if they ever found him. It was no doubt these whispered conversations and violent images in my mind–along with the growing awareness of what it meant to be black in America–that prompted me at the age of seven or eight to ask my father why white people didn't like us.
I don't remember his answer, but I do remember thinking that if I could figure it out, then maybe we could do something about it and then white people would stop treating us so badly. For in my mind, I just knew that it was something that we must have done to warrant such treatment. I can't remember how much time had passed before I figured out the answer–whether it was weeks or months–but what I do remember as if it was yesterday, that I picked up the conversation with my father. One afternoon as we were leaving the house, I stopped on the porch and I said, “Daddy, I figured out the answer to my question,” as if he and I were having this continuous conversation.
He asked, “The answer to what question?” I said, “To what we did that made white people not like us and treat us so badly.” And he said, “Oh, and what did you figure out?” I said, “That we didn't do anything, they just treat us like this because they want to. It could be the Indians,” I said, “–them or the Chinese, it just happens to be us.” Little did I know at the time that it wasn’t just us. This question that I asked as a seven- or eight-year-old I would literally ask again some fifty years later. For there was no story in the news as I've just read about that troubled me more than that of Trayvon Martin's slaying and then the acquittal of his killer. And then there was Jordan and Renisha and Jonathan. As young black men and women continued to be murdered at the hands of white people with seeming impunity, my mind went back the question that I had asked my father fifty years earlier. It seemed that history was repeating itself, and I wanted to know why.
[00:21:18] Why, in an era of a black president, do the bodies and lives of black people–especially young black males–seem to be in as much jeopardy as they have ever been in our nation's history? There was a new urgency to this–to my question this time around, however. For as President Obama spoke to the nation in the wake of Trayvon's slaying and his killer's acquittal, he said that if he had a son, his son would look like Trayvon. I do have a son, and he does look like Trayvon, and so I wondered how I could protect my son–how we as black mothers and fathers could protect our children. I wondered why they were killing our boys and girls and getting away with it. These questions would not let me go. Why did white people not like our children? But this time, I was the parent. And so, not only was I asking the question, but I had to answer it. For much was at stake: the wellbeing of my son. And so resolved as a mother to find the answer to the question.
But then there was more: there was the July 13th, 2013 “not guilty” verdict of Trayvon's killer. Hurt, belief–disbelief, rather–anger, confusion, and fear were profound within Black congregations across the United States the morning after the Saturday night verdict. In my own congregation that Sunday morning, men were shaken and women cried. “How could they have let him completely off the hook?” people asked. “Trayvon Martin is dead,” they said. “Is not a black boy's life worth anything? How,” they asked, “are we to protect our kids?” As the reality of the verdict sank in, black church people wondered if there would ever be justice for Trayvon. They also wondered if would–if the world would ever be a just place for their children.
When the judge read the verdict, black America was once again confronted with the harsh reality that black life in America was virtually unprotected, if not dispensable. The decision regarding Trayvon's killer was the 21st century version of the 1857 Dred Scott decision: that at any given moment in time, it reads, black people have no rights that the white man is bound to respect. “At some point in the life of every black woman and man, they must face the shock,” James Baldwin says, “that the flag to which you've pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock,” he continues, “to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and identity is not in its whole system of reality evolved any real place for you.” Unquote.
[00:24:10] For many young black women and men coming of age–some fifty years after the Civil Rights Era and during the time of a black president–they've faced the shock, as they came to grips with what happened to Trayvon. They wondered if their lives–if the lives of black children mattered. It truly did not seem like it. Now, at the same time after the Saturday night verdict, black congregations also wrestled with issues of faith. Just as members of my congregation wanted to know what would become of their children, they also wanted to know what God was saying. They asked, “What is the message from God that we are to hear in the midst of this injustice? What does it mean to be faithful in times such as these? What”–they asked–”are we to hope for?” Even as they affirmed their faith in a God that had brought them a mighty long way.
On that particular Sunday morning, black church people contemplated the meaning of their faith in this “stand your ground” time, and how–and what are we to say about the slayings of our black children, especially our black male children? What are we to say about the justice of God? Did the lives of our young black children matter to God? If, as Anselm says, theology is faith seeking understanding–and I believe it is–then as a theologian the succession of young black people being killed pricked my faith. How was I to understand the justice of God in the midst of these unjust slayings? What was the meaning of God's love in a world of racist hate? What was the meaning of the resurrection in a world that continued to crucify our sons and daughters? Surely our children were not being called to be some sort of sacrificial lambs–if so, this God of Jesus Christ was not one in whom I could continue to have faith. And so this book was as well a testament to a faith seeking understanding. So, in the end I was compelled as a mother and as a theologian to write this book.
Trust me, I did not choose it; it chose me. I tried hard not to do it. It was kicking and screaming that I went into it–for the more the children were killed, and the more my faith was challenged, the more I was called to seek answers. And so in many respects, this book comes literally from the crying heart of a mother and the restless soul of a theologian. And so the story begins.
[00:27:01] Let me read a little bit from the introduction. And because as I wrote the book, not only did I find myself writing the book and being called into the book in a way that I had never imagined–and so I started this process not the way I started other processes of book writing, but the writing itself took turns–unexpected turns–for me. And so let me read, briefly, from the introduction and I’ll say more about the writing process and the way the story unfolded.
Fifty years ago, in response to President Kennedy's assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Our nation should do a great deal of soul searching.” He went on to say, “While the question ‘who killed President Kennedy’ is important, the question ‘what killed him’ is more important.” King's words were instructive–or are instructive, rather, as we respond to this current crisis. Our response must go far beyond a concern for convicting Trayvon's killer. If indeed there is to be justice for Trayvon, we must examine what killed him. While the answer to this question certainly involves the “stand your ground” law which–which was a backdrop to the Trayvon Martin case, it goes beyond this law.
The “stand your ground” law is an extension of English common law that gives a person the right to protect his or her castle. “Stand your ground” law essentially broadens the notion of castle to include one's body. It permits certain individuals to protect their embodied castle whenever and wherever they feel threatened. Essentially, a person's body is his or her castle. In this regard, a person does not have to retreat from the place from which he or she is castled; they can stand their ground.
While this law is initially invoked as a reason for Trayvon's slaying, it was not used as a formal defense. Nevertheless, “stand your ground” law signals a socio-cultural climate that makes the destruction and death of black bodies inevitable and even permissible. It is this very climate that also sustains the prison industrial complex which thrives on black male bodies. Most disturbing, this “stand your ground” culture seems only to have intensified as it continues to take young black lives. The repeated slaying of innocent black bodies makes it clear that there is an urgent need for soul searching within this nation.
[00:29:53] This book will explore the social and cultural narratives that have given birth to our “stand your ground” culture and the religious canopies that have legitimated it. The “stand your ground” culture produced and sustained slavery, Black Codes, Jim Crow, lynching, and other forms of racialized violence against black bodies. This book is an attempt to untangle the web of social, cultural, and theological discourse that contributes to ”stand your ground” culture as well as to provide a theological response to the ideological assumptions that undergird this culture.
Once I resolved to do this book, and after some preliminary research and literature reviews to see if it had already been done, I wrote a proposal to submit to my publisher. As with all my proposals, they provide not only a justification for the book–that is, its purpose, but also a general outline; what I call an annotated outline of its chapters. Now, most times the book I write stays fairly close to the proposal. This one, in many respects, did not. For I thought I knew where this book was going to take me. But it took me to places I did not imagine. Once I was really dug deep into the research, I began to follow the story, to “plumb the soul of the nation” as King suggested. I thought that story would lead me to slavery, and it did. But then it led me beyond slavery. As I followed the story I was reminded of something that I heard the great writer Toni Morrison once say in response to a question about her character Sula–she said this, she said that she let her characters speak for themselves, and while she said she wanted to make Sula behave and be good, she just had to let Sula be Sula. [audience laughter]
[00:32:01] And so it was, that I found myself having to be open to the story and letting it lead me to wherever it was going to go, even as it caused me more angst and pain and doubt in terms of my faith as I followed that story. For I must say that as I followed this story, I found the story daunting if not despairing, for I discovered that which had killed Trayvon, was embedded within the very roots of this nation, and was endemic to this nation's identity. And thus, really began to doubt if this country could ever be a safe place for my children, and if indeed God was really just. As I followed the story, it seemed as if I was writing black people out of the American story and writing myself out of faith.
Let me share a part of that story if I can. This will be–I'm watching the time–a little longer reading if you bear with me. As I said, and the question became, President Obama asked this, he said, “‘If Trayvon was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?’” This is the question that President Obama asked during the July 19th, 2013 press conference in which he tried to help the nation to understand the black community’s response to Trayvon's killer being let free. And I'm going to jump–“Whether or not Trayvon could have stood his ground on that sidewalk rested upon his right to possess such property. This is considered a divine right, yet it is a right not established in a church or even in a courtroom. It was established somewhere in the woods of ancient Germany. What happened to Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, is a result of America's narrative of exceptionalism. In order to answer whether or not Trayvon had the right to stand his ground, one must understand the complex meaning of this narrative. It is to understanding this that the significance of “stand your ground” culture becomes clear.” And I'm jumping a little bit.
And so–“The answer to the question of whether or not Trayvon could have stood his ground began with the words of an ancient Roman historian. In 98 CE, the Roman historian Tacitus published Germania, which has been called one of the most dangerous books ever written. Perhaps it is. The danger is not so much in what Tacitus said, but in how his words have been construed. In a brief space of thirty pages, he offered an ethnological perspective that would have tragic consequences for centuries to come. This perspective played a significant role in the Nazis’ monstrous program for racial purity. It is the racial spectre behind the “stand your ground” culture that robbed Trayvon of his life. In Germania, Tacitus provides a meticulous portrait based on others’ writings and observations of the Germanic tribes who fended off Rome's first century empire-building agenda.
[00:35:38] He identifies the tribes as aboriginal people–free, he says, from all taint of intermarriages. They are, he says, a distinct unmixed race like none but themselves. With, he says, fierce blue eyes, red hair, huge frames. Tacitus commended these Germans for their bravery and strong moral character. No one in Germany, he explained, laughs at vice. He went on to say that for these Germans, quote “Good moral habits were more effectual than laws.” Perhaps what is most significant, at least in garnering the attention of political architects for centuries to come, is that Tacitus portrayed these ancient Germans as possessing peculiar respect for individual rights and almost an instinctive love for freedom. This was evident, he said, by the way in which they governed themselves.
According to Tacitus, within the various tribes, the whole tribe deliberated upon all important manners and most final decisions rest with the people, he said. Tacitus seemed to be describing a community that encouraged the participation of its members, at least its male members, in governance and criminal procedures. According to many later interpreters, Tacitus was describing the perfect form of government. This was one that respected common law, trial by jury, and individual liberties. Tacitus' description of these tribal governing systems influenced the nature of varying western systems of government throughout history. As we will see, it played no small role in America's form of democracy. But this was not the only way in which the Germania influenced the shape of various western societies.
Along with playing a role in determining systems of governance, it laid the foundation for the subjugation, if not elimination, of certain peoples–those people who were not members of the unmixed race that Tacitus described. Even though the precise ethnic makeup of these Germanic tribes was not certain, they're considered the progenitors of the Anglo Saxon race. Tacitus' ethnological description spawned the construction of the Anglo Saxon myth. This myth has been a ubiquitous even if unspoken ideology in the modern world. Initially this myth highlighted Anglo Saxon forms of governing. Building on Tacitus' admiration for the ways these Germanic tribes ruled their communities, the myth stressed unique superiority of Anglo Saxon religious and political institutions. Eventually and perhaps inevitably, this myth shifted its focus to Anglo Saxon blood. In so doing, it seized upon Tacitus’ characterization of the ancient Germans as free from taint, and it suggested that the superiority of their institutions was a result of their blood.”
Now, let me just say this as I jump. This myth, replete with reference for Tacitus, arrived in America by way of England's post-reformation struggles. It came by way of the pilgrims and the puritans. Now, if I knew of Tacitus before I started writing this book, I had forgotten about Tacitus. Perhaps he was introduced to me in some philosophy class in college or somewhere. But sorry, you know, kind of forgot that. [audience laughter]
[00:39:09] Uh, but I had not remembered him until the story took me there. So let me talk about the writing process for a minute. For me, writing does not come easy. I do not consider–and this is not false modesty–I do not consider myself a good writer. Sometimes I spend a day writing one page. Indeed, there have been times I have spent a day writing one paragraph. For I try–anyone know that story? For I try to put the words together in such a way that they will carry my intention and voice, even, as I said, on the cold printed page. For once the words leave my hands, I have no control over them. So I guess I try to control what I can as I write. However, with this book the actual writing seemed to come more easily. For it seemed sometimes that it was not in my hands–the words came, the story kept writing itself. Yes, I had to craft it, edit, it, and so forth, but I did not find myself struggling for the words to say as is sometimes the case. And so, this was in many ways, a very emotional journey. For after a day of writing, I often found myself emotionally exhausted from the process as I found myself recalling stories of raising my son and being taken back to memories that I forgot that were there. And they became a part of the book which I had not planned for that to have happened before I wrote the book.
Let me share just one short memory that come from the book. I see some of you that are following in the book, thank you for having it–it's on page 86, called “A Mother's Fear.”
“My son was about two years old. I had taken him to the park to play in a Flintstones-like car that was in the park's playground. This particular park was next door to an elementary school. After being in the park for about fifteen minutes, what appeared to be a class of first graders recessed into the park. Two little boys, one blonde haired, the other red headed, ran down to the car where my son was playing. Seeing them coming, my son immediately jumped out. Soon, the two little boys were fighting over who was going to play in the car. My son looked on with the fascination of a two-year-old. The little red headed boy, who seemed to be winning the battle for the car, saw my son looking on. He suddenly stopped fighting for the car and turned toward my son, and with all the venom that a seven or eight-year-old boy could muster, he pointed his finger at my son and he said, ‘You better stop looking at us before I put you in jail where you belong.’ This little boy was angry. My son had intruded into his space. My son was guilty of being black in the park and looking. I was horrified. Before I could say anything to the offending boy, the white teacher who was in earshot approached. She clearly heard what the little boy said to my son. I expected her to admonish the little boy and to make him apologize. Instead, she looked at my two-year-old son as if he were the perpetrator of some crime, and said to the little boys, ‘Come on with me before there’s trouble.’ At that moment, I was seething with anger. I took my son and I left the park. As I was driving home, tears flowed from my eyes. I felt an unspeakable sadness and pain. At two years old, my son was already being viewed as a criminal. At 7 or 8 years old, the link between a black body and a criminal had already been forged in the mind of a little white boy. If, at 2 years old, my son was regarded as guilty of something by the white teacher, I feared what his future would bring as he got older. If at two, looking like a guilty criminal got a finger pointed in his face and teacher hustling kids off to safety, what will the response be to him now that he is a proud, six foot, 21-year-old–he was 21 years old when I wrote this–21-year-old man? Unfortunately, I know that response.”
[00:43:55] And so, it was stories like these and memories like these that emerged as I wrote this book. And so, not only was the story of the nation leading me to a place that was despairing and daunting that I had no intention of going to before because I didn’t know it was there, but it was also leading me into my own story of being not only black in America, but the story of what it meant to raise a black male child in America. And so, I followed the story. I didn't guide it–it guided me. The first time that that had ever happened for me in the writing process and at the end of each day, I was absolutely exhausted.
Now, what about faith? What about the justice of God? By the time I got through part one of the book, which is the soul searching story of a nation, I really did not know what I was going to say about the justice of God. As some people who have read it commented, it seemed as if there was almost no hope for the nation and certainly questions of faith loomed large. It seemed that way for me as well when I was writing it.
What now was I to say? And so as I got to the end of part one, and I remember that as I came to this part of the book, I was truly left wrestling with my faith. But then I was reminded once again of the words that came from Trayvon Martin's father after his son's killer was acquitted. He said–Tracy Martin–he said, “My heart is broken, but my faith is unshattered.”
I was now being led through a journey back to my grandmother's faith. That poor black woman whom I spoke of in an earlier session with little more than a 6th grade education, who had come up from the south to eventually settle in Columbus, Ohio, during the period of the great migrations, who worked as an elevator operator, who was faithful, and because of her faith, could dream dreams for her grandchildren that she could never dream for herself. And so this book led me to appreciate, in ways that I did not expect, my grandmother's faith and the faith of the black church, in a way that I had never before appreciated it. Through the writing of this book, I wrote myself back into faith. It is in this respect, truly a story of faith seeking understanding. And so I wrote this–I will read one last–oh, next to last section. Won't lie, even though I'm an Episcopalian.
Just teasing! Don't anyone else say that about Episcopalians. I'll getcha.
But this is what I discovered: “The verdict in the case of Trayvon's killer was announced shortly after 10 pm on a Sunday night–Saturday night. The next morning, I went to church. That Sunday was like no other that I had experienced at my church. It was crowded more than usual for a Sunday in the middle of July; people came in quietly as if something was weighing very heavily upon their hearts and trying their souls. No words had to be exchanged, for each person knew what the other was feeling and thinking. Prior to the service, a time was set aside for people to express their feelings about the verdict. Numerous people got up to speak: men and women, young and old; many people spoke through tears as they expressed their sadness, disappointment, fears, and incredulity. Many were bewildered by the verdict.” And I'm gonna skip.
“I was scheduled to preach that day. I had prepared my sermon well before the verdict was announced; I was torn the night before–should I rewrite my sermon to respond to the verdict? I decided against it, though I did change the ending. After I preached that morning, people responded with, ‘Thanks for preaching–just what [they] needed to hear.’ I realized that it had not mattered that the sermon was not prepared for that day after the verdict, because I preached about black faith. And this is faith that finds its meaning in the absurdity and contradictions of black life. Black faith cannot change the world. How, how we wish it could. Black faith cannot save our children's lives. How much we wish it could. It fundamentally, however, gives us the courage to be free in a world that rejects our right to be free. And ironically–and gives us the courage to believe in the very freedom of God. It does not take a great deal of courage to believe in the freedom of God–or even in God–when all is well. It is easy to proclaim that ‘God is good all the time’ when things are going well. Black faith was not born in a time when things were going well for black bodies. It was not born in a time when black people were even nominally free. That is the strength of the faith.
[00:49:58] Somehow, black people were still able to affirm their belief in God and thus the freedom of God when nothing around them said ‘freedom.’ In the middle of the dehumanizing conditions of chattel slavery, God made God's self known to black people and called them to freedom. There is an inherent absurdity in black faith. It speaks of freedom in the midst of bondage. It speaks of life in the midst of death. This is, however, what makes black faith indispensable in the midst of a “stand your ground” culture war. For while black faith cannot change the world, black faithful can. Black faith enables black faithful to strive relentlessly to make this place–this world a place of freedom and hence safety for our children. And so it is that in the wake of his own son's death, Tracy Martin, along with Trayvon's mother Sabrina Fulton, tells the story of Trayvon and proclaims that he had a God given right to be free. In so doing, he and Sabrina have brought attention to a “stand your ground” culture war that threatens the lives of our children.
This is what it means to have an unshattered faith. It means acting as if you really believe in the God of that faith–that is, a God that intends for black bodies to be free. To really believe is to live into that freedom, knowing that God is with you as you do.
There is no doubt that the liberating movement of God is in the parents of the Trayvons and the Jordans of our world, who have not been defeated by death but instead continue the fight to make sure that other black children do not become targets of “stand your ground” war. In this “stand your ground” war, the freedom of God is made manifest in the tears, the strife, and the fight of black fathers and mothers, whose children are casualties of this unholiest of wars. Yes, perhaps black faith is absurd. Christianity itself is absurd. There is nothing more absurd than a religion that has a cross as its central symbol. But it is because of that cross that we know that Trayvon, Jordan, Renisha, and Jonathan, as well as Emmett were not meant to die. It is because of the cross that we can be sure “stand your ground” culture will not have the last word over their lives.”
I found my faith in writing of this book. And so finally–now finally, what did I discover about the justice of God and meaning of the resurrection? I must say that the chapter on the cross and resurrection became–which I call “Finding Jesus and Trayvon,”–became one of the most difficult to write as I contemplated the very meaning–not of these children's deaths, but of their lives–and hence the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection. For as I wrote it, it became clear to me that their deaths were nothing less than twenty-first century lynchings and thus, twenty-first century crucifixions. Yet the meaning of their lives were not to be found in their unjust, ignominious deaths. And so, inasmuch as we must see the face of the crucified Christ in the faces of the Trayvons and Freddies of our world, we must also see the power of the resurrection in their parents' testimonies as they attempt to restore meaning to their children's lives beyond their crucifying deaths and the crucifying portraits of them in the media.
Which brings me to writing the conclusion of this chapter. I remember clearly not knowing how to end it. And so after several false attempts one afternoon that just did not feel right to me, I resolved to simply go to bed and start all over the next day. Then in the middle of the night, I was awakened by this refrain in my head that kept saying, "End with telling the stories of those children's lives. End with telling the stories of those children's lives.”
And so I woke up. And I immediately jumped out of bed and combed the internet for their obituaries and any other testimonies that I could find of their lives for which to end this chapter. For this was the resurrection end. It ended with their lives, not with their deaths. And so I won't read the end of that. Uh, but I did–for sake of time–but I ended up just writing about little paragraphs on each of their lives and who they were. Because that's what the resurrection is all about: that your life is not defined by crucifying realities. It was not defined by their crucifying death. They weren't meant to be crucified; they were meant to live. And so, needless to say, that was a very–I wrote that through tears. And so let me end here, with the way in which I ended the journey of writing this book, and then we'll have a few minutes for questions.
[00:55:29] Let me also say this: most of the books when I'm writing them and when I end, I still feel like [sharp intake of breath] “something I didn't say”–and there's probably a whole lot that I didn't say here–but something that I didn't say, and I ended that day and said, “Shoo, I'm done.” But then I know that I'm going to go back to it like the next day or something, right? When I finished this book, and I finished it like ten o’clock one morning, and I wrote it in this place where I go to write, and I knew it was done. And I don't know if it was just being tired–the emotional tired–but I knew that I had said all that was in me to say. And that wasn't that the last word was said on this–it was that all that was in me I had said. And so I didn't feel like, “Oh, good” celebratory, I felt grateful that I had this journey to write the book, and I literally–literally, the first thing I did was thank God for the book. I didn't know and didn't care where it was going to land and who read it. Because as I said, it was not–it wasn’t a selfish task–but, because I don't think writing has to be selfless, but, it was a journey. And so you offer it up. You offer it up to God and you offer it up to the world, and it goes wherever it's gonna go. It's what Zadie Smith said last night, you know, you don't offer it up–it’s not branded as you write it. And you just write it, and you know, and if someone reads it, fine. If not, it wasn't meant to be read that way.
But I ended it with this, this brief paragraph. And this tells you what I think about this book: “‘God is in control,’ Sabrina Fulton said, Trayvon's mother. And so God is. Left for each of us is to act like it. And thus to be where God is, standing up to “stand your ground” culture so that our sons and daughters might live. This book is my refusal to be consoled till the justice that is God is made real in the world.” And I'll end there.
Thank you, thank you. Do we have time for a couple questions?
Lisa: [00:58:26] Hey, Lisa here. I’m breaking in to let you know that we got a lot of great questions for Kelly Brown Douglas, but they're hard to hear on the recording because the audience wasn't mic’d. So I'll restate the questions as we go. The first question references a comment Dr. Douglas made in a session earlier that day about being, quote, “Trapped in the cycle of someone else's sin.” With that idea in mind, alongside the incident on the playground that she describes here, the question is, “how did you write your way through being that teacher's sin?”
Kelly: Oh, yeah. [audience laughter] Because I knew that it was not about my son, and it was not about me and that the issue, the problem was with them. And so what I did, what it made me aware of even more–because I was already aware of it–but what I needed to do to raise my son in this world so that he wouldn't get caught in this cycle of their sin. And so that he could see himself apart from the way in which others would see him. At the same time, walking that balancing act as I continue to walk, giving my son that [while] also letting him know that he has to be aware of how others see him because it could mean his life.
Let me say this real quickly, and I'll say it quickly so that we can get other questions. What it also–not at that point–but as I've later reflected upon it and incidents continue to happen most recently in our country in the last couple years, you know, for instance the kids down at University–was it Alabama or something that the fraternity that had this chant and all that kind of stuff and parents: "We don't teach our kids that!” and et cetera et cetera–what it led me to ask and think about in relationship to those kids is the story came back to me when I was writing this book–was I know what I’m teaching my son. And black parents cannot get away with not talking about race. We gotta talk about race to our children in this country. When we talk about “the talk," it's not sex. [For] black parents, “the talk” is this talk about race and what it means for these kids, for our kids, to navigate this world and stay alive, stay whole. And so it made me wonder, what conversations are white parents having with their children? White parents need to start talking to their children about race, and if they don't know–and in healthy ways–and if they don't know how to do that, then our churches are supposed to help them know how to do that. And so it's also a call to our church, so that the more that I–as I write this book and I–that story came to me, I really asked the question, "Huh, what's going on in that household?"
Lisa: [01:01:27] Second question–How do you grapple with the large disparity between what black people of faith know about racism, and what many white people think about racism? Namely, that it's not that big of a problem in modern America?
Kelly: Yes, yes. You know, yes, and you know, yes. And Jim Wallis writes this great book on white privilege, and he and I were just engaged in a conversation together, I don’t know, three weeks or so ago, about this at the cathedral. You are so right. Quickly, you know, what Wallis says and what I believe and what is the case–what I believe to be the case–that if you really believe in the God of Jesus Christ, talking this Christian narrative that died on the cross, you don't have a choice. You're compelled.
And so somehow one has to make clear the connection. And James Cone wrote long ago, “You can't be white and Christian at the same time,” and he didn't mean this in terms of, you can't happen to look like a white American–but he meant it in terms of you can't act like one. And so, then you have to live over and against the culture of whiteness which is the culture of white supremacy and those two things don't go together. This culture of whiteness and Christianity, they don't go together. And so somehow–and Jim Wallis and some who get it, white Christians who get it, or Christians who happen to be white who get it–that they make those connections. And so I think it's very important to understand to start from the center of our faith and what we're called to and we gotta ask the question, put simply, just ask the question, you know Jesus said to his disciples, you know, “When you saw me you didn't say anything. When I was hungry–” and they said, “When did we see you?” And, “When did we see you, Jesus?” I mean, “You know that little hungry man you passed.” And so if we're going to ask the Matthean question, “Where do we see you today, Jesus?” Jesus is going to say, “You didn't do anything.” And so where do we see you, Jesus? “I was on the street in Sanford, Florida. On the sidewalk in Sanford, Florida, dying–and that's where you saw me. On the street corner in Long Island, dying, and that's where you saw me. In the back of that paddy wagon. That's where you saw me.” And so we've got to ask today, you know, we always ask those little things “What would Jesus do?” Why don't we just ask, “Where is Jesus?” And try to see the world and see each other from the way in which God would see it.
[“Amen”s from the audience]
And try to be where God is, right? And partner with God. Faith is not about what you believe in, it's about what you do. And so to try to–faith is our response to a God who has called us to be in partnership with God and helping to mend the world.
And so that's the way I would put it. And if people can't do that then there's not something wrong of the faith I don't think, there's something wrong with them! Does that–yeah. [joking] You've got me going. [audience laughter]
We got like one minute. So we got you.
Lisa: [01:04:26] The final question–“How has writing this book affected your sense of yourself as an African American priest in the Anglo Saxon inspired Episcopal Church?”
Kelly: [joking] Anglo Saxon church of the colonists and I'm working at the National Cathedral with the Confederate flags in the window. [audience laughter] And this whole–isn't this just it. [more laughter] What contradictions can we live in and how many? [more laughter]
Uh, thank you for the question. You know what, no, because I've always lived in–just living in America is living in that contradiction–and then lived in that contradiction. And here's the thing that I’m clear–I'm going to say this sort of in shorthand cause we got–we don't have twenty seconds–I'm gonna do it, uh, in the twenty we don't have.
One, I'm always trying to keep clear that the Episcopal Church–quote unquote “church”–has to live into what it means to be a church, and sometimes it doesn’t. As do all of our religious institutions. So it's called to be church, and so we have to ask ourselves: are we more? And I say it to them all the time–are we more than just a social institution that happens to be religious, or are we church? That's the first thing.
Second of all: you know I've tried to always hold myself accountable. Not to that institution and not to that hierarchy, but to my grandmother. And those people for whom in the Episcopal history has not been a good one. And so that when I can no longer stay in that place and hold myself accountable to that, and when it looks like the church, that institution is given up on what it means to be church, then I'm–as the kids say–“I'm outta there.” But right now I continue to to to live in that struggle and to try to make it live beyond itself. Thank you so much for the question.
Lisa: [01:06:33] Special thanks to Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas. Thanks also to Shane McCrae, who can be found on Twitter at @akasomeguy.
Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing. Our team includes Sarah Bass, Jon Brown, Sadie Burgher, Donald Hettinga, Lew Klatt, Scott Hoezee, Jennifer Holberg, Bob Hudson, Anneke Kapteyn, Carolyn Muyskens, Deb Rienstra, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart.
You can learn more about the Festival of Faith & Writing at festival.calvin.edu, and if you're into the social media be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you like what we're doing here on Rewrite Radio, please leave us a review on iTunes; it helps other people discover the show and we are so grateful. Also, we've got twenty-six years of Festival recordings to explore here on Rewrite Radio. And if you've been at some of these Festivals and have a favorite session or two that you are especially excited to hear on this podcast, just shoot me an email at email@example.com and tell me about them. Just put “Rewrite Radio” in the subject line.
Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel–back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.