John Peale’s Talk on November 13, 2018

Generally on The Black Experience in America, and specifically on The Lynching Tree, by James H. Cone

Outline:         [1] Introduction          [2] Quotations for reflection    [3] Reflections on the Current situation

Regarding racism and the black experience in America
[1] Introduction

Becoming humbled and honest:      With respect to healthy black-white personal and political relations, I have a hero, our youngest daughter Lacy, who has and does work on an everyday basis with and among blacks in her educational context at Washington Latin Public Charter School.  When I told her about this occasion, she openly questioned my presenting a talk on the black experience – me from my white privileged perch in my study reading books and writing.   She’s right.   It is with humility that I offer these thoughts and feelings about the black experience and let others be my judge.

Two stories:  The first is about a little black boy in 1934 in Georgia walking along a road with his Baptist preacher father when three white men came along to have a little fun with negroes – and the threat of lynching was in that “fun”.   They made the father do humiliating things, and the little boy was crying and never forgot this incident.   When that little boy was a man he declared his dream that one day people will be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.    That little boy was Martin Luther King.

The second: There was another little black boy in Arkansas in the 1940s worrying with his family whether his father would come home.  The threat of lynching was in the air.   After a long wait the father did come home, and the little boy jumped in to his lap happily.   When this little boy died in August 2018 he was Charles A. Briggs, Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.   I refer, of course, to James H. Cone.

“When Jim Cone was still a teenager, trying to find his place in a world that was defined by white supremacy, he was told: if you live the Christian faith and study hard, you could become much more than what the segregated South intends and more than you ever though you could be.’”  (Cone, TLT, p. ix.4)   He spent his life adult professional life thinking of whether one can be both black and Christian in America.

[2] Quotations for reflection on Lynching as discussed in this book, The Lynching Tree

Note: it was interesting for me to realize that these statements are reflected almost exactly by the Harry Bellefonte character in the movie Black Klansman, which Lydia and I saw recently and recommend highly.

[1] They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.  (Acts 10:39)

[2] “Hundreds of kodaks clicked all morning at the scene of the lynching.   People in automobiles and carriages came from miles around to view the corpse dangling from the end of a rope.  …   Picture cards photographers installed a portable printing plant at the bridge and reaped a harvest in selling the postcard showing a photograph of the lynched Negro.   Women and children were there by the score.   At a number of county schools, the day’s routine was delayed until boy and girl pupils could get back from viewing the lynched man.  (The Crisis 10, no 2, June 1916, on the lynching of Thomas Brooks in Fayette County, Tennessee.”  (Cone, TLT, p. 1.1)

[3] The Re-crucifying Christ in Black Literary Imagination: A 1922 poem by Countee Cullen
“The South is crucifying Christ again
By all the laws of ancient rote and rule:
The ribald cries of ‘Save Yourself’ and ‘Fool’
Din in his ears, the thorns grope for the brain,
And where they bite, swift springing rivers stain
His gaudy, purple robe of ridicule
With sullen red; and acid wine to cool
His thirst is thrust at him, with lurking pain.
Christ’s awful wrong is that he’s dark of hue
The sin for which no blamelessness atones;
But lest the sameness of the cross should tire
They kill him now with famished tongues of fire,
And while he burns, good men, and women, too,
Shout, battling for his black and brittle bones.”
“Christ Recrucified,’ Countee Cullen, 1922
(Cone, TLT, p. 93.1)

[4]

“They bound him fast and strung him high,
They cut him down lest he should die
Before their energy was spent
In torturing to their heart’s content.
They tore his flesh and broke his bones,
And laughed in triumph at his groans;
They chopped his fingers, clipped his ears
And passed them round as souvenirs.”
Walter Everett Hawkins, in his narrative poem, ‘A Festival in Christendom’ (1920) (Cone, TLT, p. 96.1 – p. 97.1)

[5] Billy Holiday, jazz singer, singing “Strange Fruit” (Watch video:  “Strange Fruit” )
“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is fruit for the crow to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

“Billie Holiday’s rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’, which she called ‘my personal protest,’ was the most powerful resistance song against lynching. It has been called ‘a declaration of war’ and ‘one of the songs that changed the world.’ Time Magazine called Billie Holiday ‘history’s greatest jazz singer and ‘
‘strange Fruit’ ‘the best song of the century.’ Billie sang this mostly in Greenwich Village in New York City. The song was first sung in 1939.
“Most people assume that the ‘strange fruit … swinging in the Southern breeze’ that Billie Holliday sang about at the New York Café Society in 1939, was a black male body. But the ‘black body’ in her rendition of Abel Meeropol’s poem ‘Strange Fruit’ has no sex. … No black person was exempt from the risk [of lynching].

[6] “When a mob in Valdosta, Georgia in 1918 failed to find Sidney Johnston, accused of murdering his boss, Hampton Smith, they decided to lynch another black man, Hayes Turner …   Turner’s wife who was eight months pregnant, protested vehemently …   Mary Turner was ‘stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death.   In the midst of this torment, a white man opened here swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground and was stomped to death.’”  (Cone, TLT, p. 120.1)

[7] Ida B. Wells: Born a slave in Mississippi in 1802, Wells achieved a national reputation for militancy …  She took up journalism and became the editor of a black newspaper in Memphis called The Free Speech.

‘Our country’s national crime is lynching,’ she began her essay ‘Lynch Law in America.’   It is not the creature of the hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob.   It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an ‘unwritten’ law’ that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make a defense, and without appeal.” (Cone, TLT, p. 127.1)

[8] “Perhaps nothing about the history of mob violence in the United States is more surprising than how quickly an understanding of the full horror of lynching has been receded from the nation’s collective historical memory.” (W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South).   Those members are being revived dramatically in  the Lynching Memorial Museum in Mobile Alabama under the direction of Bryan Stevenson and others.

[3] Some Reflections on the Current situation regarding Black and white relations in America

Now I want to shift gears and offer some reflections on the black experience in America.   Let us suppose imaginatively that we are young black men in the 21st century, living in Charlottesville, or in any other city, perhaps in the city of Chicago.

Let’s imagine that we are walking down the street in the city.   Are we afraid or wary of being hassled or hurt or arrested or killed?  Do we have to live with this constant fear?

It is noteworthy that many young black men wear sweatshirts with hoods, perhaps so that they can cover their faces and not be noticed for what they are.   They feel like they need to hide their blackness.

How is it possible to develop a sense of one’s own worth and dignity and one’s rights in society in conditions like these?   The threat of lynching is no longer in the air as it was in the stories about the two young boys, Martin King and Jim Cone.

But they, not we, may be afraid in a way that is unjust, de-meaning, de-valuing, and degrading.   They suffer in a way that we white people do not.   They suffer because they are black.   They suffer because they feel that they cannot stand tall and proud of themselves as worthy human beings.

Rightfully, they resist this situation with an emphasis on integration following, perhaps, Martin Luther King Jr.’s way of thinking.   Or they resist more radically in the way of black nationalists, following, perhaps Malcolm X’s way of thinking.   Resistance, violence and rebellion are in the air, even though lynching is no longer so.

Let me ask what seems to me too be an intriguing question, different from the question as to how wrong all of this is: Is there anything that can possibly be gained through such unjust suffering?   I think of the example of black people in the church in Charleston, South Carolina who in December of 2016 (?) were attacked in a service of worship by a hate-filled young man, who shot and killed 8 worshippers, including the pastor, and many were injured.

An amazing thing in the aftermath of that horrific event, was that the black people in that church so soon forgave the killer, even inviting his parents to come to their church for worship.   Where in God’s name did these people find the wherewithal to forgive in the face of such hate and killing?   Is there, perhaps, a connection between the type of suffering of blacks due to unjust conditions of their lives and this kind of forgiveness?

    What should be our reaction to black people who suffer in the way we have forced them to do.   Some black leaders are so critical of white liberals such as we; we talk well, but, we appear to blacks to intend for things to remain exactly as they are, or so it seems to many blacks.   How might we express our concern, and especially our care and love to such unjustly suffering fellow American citizens without at the same time being patronizing or superior in our manner?   How can we act to help bridge the gap of injustice and wrong perpetuated on blacks in our white power society?  How can we help to nurture a sense of worth and dignity in blacks, especially young black men?   Are these questions realistic for us?   Do they point to something we should actually do in society?

I want to shift gears again, and talk about The Baldwin-Kennedy meeting of May 25, 1963 – a Saturday morning.   This meeting is reported in detail by Michael Eric Dyson, an influential black writer in the really good book, What Truth Sounds Like.

    Robert Kennedy invited James Baldwin and some friends to his NYC apartment to discuss race relations in the aftermath of the trouble in Birmingham Alabama.   Kennedy wanted to prevent such unrest in northern cities.

Also, at the meeting were Harry Bellefonte, Lorraine Hansberry, Lena Horne, Kenneth Clark and other notables along with Jerome Smith, Freedom Rider, associated with CORE.  Kennedy started by touting what the liberal minded Kennedy administration had done for civil rights.  Jerome Smith suddenly began to weep, saying that ‘I’ve seen you guys from the Justice Department stand around and do nothing more than take notes while we’re were being beaten.   He told a shocked Robert Kennedy that he didn’t understand the problem.

Later Baldwin wrote to Kennedy: (in part) “This crisis is neither regional or racial.   It is a matter of the nation’s life or death.   No truce can be binding until the American people and our representatives are able to accept the simple fact the negro is a man.”   (Dyson, Truth, p 25)

Jerome Smith expressed and manifested his rage.   Is that rage not expressed and present in current writings by such as James H. Cone?   Is not this problem just as palpable today as it was at the meeting in 1963?

Another historical issue: Consider the following passage from Cone, Black Theology and Black Power: In slavery days, “the white master forbade the slave from any remembrance of his home-land …   The slave was a no-nothing in the eyes of the master, who did everything possible to instill this sense of nothingness in the mentality of the slave. …   The black man was shackled in a hostile white world without any power to make the white man recognize him as a person.   He had to devise means for survival.    This accounts for the slave’s preoccupation with death. …   The slave was a tool, a thing, a utility, a commodity, but was not a person.”  (Cone, BTBP, p. 91.1 – p. 92.1)

This was pre-civil war thinking over 100 years prior to the meeting.   At that meeting in 1963, Loraine Hansberry asked whether the American people accept the simple fact that the negro is a person.   We’re now in 2018: How much progress, if any, has there been in our white recognition of Hansberry’s simple fact?

According to Dyson, Bobby Kennedy “had come along way” from his earlier days.   He had resigned Attorney General after Jack’s assassination to become a Senator from New York.   “Although Bobby and Baldwin and his peers came away from that meeting deeming it a disaster, it liberated Bobby from his political pragmatism.   Bobby began to walk in the shoes of the dispossessed.”     He knew “he had to listen to the unfiltered rage that tore at the hearts and minds of millions of Negroes.” (p. 264)

He began to see race, not as a political matter, but as “a moral rot at the heart of the American empire.”

A notable instance for Bobby was when “Bobby calmed and consoled a black crowd in Indianapolis to whom he had announced King’s death.”  He offered eloquent testimony about the need to move away from polarization and to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these difficult divided times. …   “Bobby nurtured such beliefs as a sublime political reflex; Trump undercuts them as a subversive political reactionary.”  (p. 265-266)   A meeting with a few angry black folk a long time ago [more than fifty years ago] taught him a valuable lesson about listening to what you don’t want to hear.   It is a lesson we must learn today if we are to overcome our differences and embrace a future as bright as our dream allow.”  (p. 267)