On Being Black American

When I was serving as National Organizer at Call to Renewal, an affiliate organization of Sojourners that was created to organize religious leaders around poverty and race issues, I wrote an article published in Sojourner’s magazine entitled “Because We Are Black.”  I had almost forgotten about it;  I ran across it while doing some research.  The article shares some of my thoughts on what it means to be Black in America, stemming from the tragic slaughtering of respected coach Ricky Byrdsong in a suburb of Chicago by Benjamin Smith, a racist on a rampage the weekend of July 4, 1999.

Here’s the link to the article: http://sojo.net/magazine/1999/09/simply-because-we-are-black. (I was Alice J. Burnette Davis then…I’m happily Alice Burnette Greene now.)

I’m sharing it with you on this weekend of July 4, 2013, because much has changed, and yet so much remains the same.  One of the questions I raised then has been answered:  Having a Black president is no longer a novel idea–and our President has an African name, to boot!  (I admit that I was one of those very many people who said “I never thought this would happen in my lifetime.”)

When President Obama was elected I felt for the first time like I could stand with pride  and sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” and really mean it.  That didn’t last too long. Yes, I understood completely the feeling shared so honestly by our First Lady when then Senator Obama received the Democratic nomination.  But her honesty about being proud to be an American for the first time was repeatedly attacked, quite viciously.  Those early attacks on her should have helped us to understand that while this country had met a great milestone, many Americans, especially those who claim to be the most patriotic, have little understanding of what it means to be Black in America.  And I believe they don’t really want to understand because it would burst their delusional belief that this is the greatest country in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe the United States is a great country, and the Democracy created here is to be applauded.  But African Americans know that this country has not lived up to the high morality of its beautifully crafted Declaration of Independence:  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it....

All of the hateful shenanigans, the polarized and obstructive political maneuverings, the right-wing angst and the hate mongering that has surrounded President Obama — in his own country-–  help us to understand that we are still Blacks in a country that many (most?) think of as White.  And in order to keep it that way, they are still trying to strip away our right to be counted among the “governed,” by diluting our voting power.  To be Black in America, we must recognize that racism is still real and quite alive here. Putting a Black man in a white house hasn’t changed the need for us to identify ourselves as African Americans rather than simply Americans.

Here’s the article I wrote in1999.  Please read it and let me know what you think by clicking the little balloon at the top of this post to post your comments:

Over the July 4 weekend, Benjamin Smith went on a violent, vicious killing rampage that targeted minorities. He drove around Illinois and Indiana, killing a black man and an Asian American and wounding eight others, including several Jews. As I talk to other African Americans about this tragedy, we verbalize some basic, deeply felt understandings that are a part of our reality simply because we are black and in America. These basic truths are understood as a result of our more than 400 years of being black in America. No other group in America shares the legacy of racial hatred that is so deeply felt in our souls.

One truth that African Americans understand is that color is always there. And it is always a factor, particularly when we interact with unfamiliar people. But even with persons we know well, race is always a factor. Consciously or not, we evaluate others’ racial views by their actions toward us. Did that sales clerk really overlook me? Was that negative remark by my new boss based on her bias? Can this person deal with the fact that I’m his supervisor? Events like Benjamin Smith’s racist rampage and the growth of the racist World Church of the Creator let us know that what is often seen as our paranoia or “oversensitivity” is in reality a natural and necessary defense mechanism.

A second truth that grounds African Americans is that we are strangers in our own land. We are born here, yet we are the “other.” We are the “minority,” and the “majority” rules. We must continually highlight ourselves and celebrate our worthiness because our value as a people is constantly challenged by our position on the margin of this society. Some of us deny America as our cultural heritage and adopt African culture and styles. Others try very hard to “melt” into the all-American lifestyle. Either reaction has as its roots a continual sense of discomfort—a feeling of not quite being at home in our homeland. Dare we move into a small town in North Dakota? Can we really be accepted as leaders of major corporations based on merit alone? How long will it be before the thought of a black president is not a novel idea?

This feeling of being the “other” is not so much fear of the other race, like a white person may feel walking through a black neighborhood. It is more a constant, discomforting knowledge that maybe we should feel fear. We can never really know what to expect. Coach Ricky Byrdsong was shot in his own neighborhood, where he should have been able to feel safe. We are always aware that the hateful racist act may come from anyone at any time and in any place, just because we are black.

A third truth is that because color is always a factor, and because our “otherness” is always felt, we are brought together in ways that others will not understand. Our color and our otherness serve to unite us at a very basic level across economic, religious, and social differences. There is a connection between a black high-powered attorney and the black woman who cleans his office that they both understand on some level, whether they are open about it or not. Those of us who are Christians feel this connection as a part of our Christian walk. We understand that Christ is on our side, the side of the marginalized, and he gives us strength to stand up for justice and righteousness for our people and for others who are in the margins as well.

When vicious acts like Benjamin Smith’s bring racism into the public arena for discussion, African Americans are reminded that we are neither paranoid nor oversensitive about our place in this country. Our antennae must be up for racism, whether it is the subtle racism in the workplace that is so hard to define or the blatant, violent, and evil act that kills us simply because we are black.