“…[R]acism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage…” (writer Ta-Nehisi Coates).
“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities…. And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).
Last Saturday, and then again at the beginning of this week, my wife and I watched “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” I knew nothing about it when I put it on our Netflix queue, other than it was a great movie based on the true story of an African-American butler who had been with the White House through eight administrations.
The very next day, Sunday, after seeing the film, I taught one segment of a six-week Lenten course on the minor prophets, dealing with Zephaniah and Obadiah. The latter condemns the Edomites (descendants of Esau) for their failure to come to the aid of their relatives in Judah when that nation was overrun by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and the Temple destroyed. Not only did the Edomites not do anything to prevent the suffering of their neighbors, they cheered on the enemy, joined in looting, and turned over refugees to the Babylonian forces.
The film was difficult to watch the first time, given what I discovered was its subject matter. But it was especially hard to see it again after reflecting with my church school class on Obadiah’s call to be a neighbor to those who are suffering. That’s because the movie is about the Civil Rights movement from the late ‘50s through the Reagan presidency and the conflict between father and son against the backdrop of those turbulent times.
As the archival and acted footage of demonstrations, arrests, and brutality played on the screen, I thought about those days and growing up in a virulently racist household and community in south Georgia. I remember the “white” and “colored” water fountains in the JC Penny store and other literal signs of systemic racism. But mostly I recall my dad’s hatred of anyone black, and indeed, anyone different in any way.
Daddy was only two generations removed from a South Carolina plantation where our family had owned slaves, and his father had taught him well, as my great-grandfather had done for his son. My dad used the n-word exclusively to refer to black people, which by the way, he did not actually consider to be people. When Martin Luther King, Jr.’s face appeared on the cover of a Presbyterian magazine, Daddy promptly and angrily cancelled the subscription. No black woman was ever legitimately married, according to him; all black children were therefore bastards. And no black man deserved to be treated as anything but a servant boy, no matter what his status or age. Christianity was a white man’s religion, Daddy claimed, which the n—–s had rejected.
I did little or nothing to counter these beliefs. What could I do? I was a boy, totally dependent on my father for everything. When I made some attempt to speak up, such as objecting that black people were human beings or that it was OK for a band to be of mixed race, I got a royal dressing down. Eventually, when I grew up, Daddy and I simply did not talk about religion, politics, race or really much of anything. He went to his grave having only moderated a little.
I call myself a progressive, but really what have I done to undo the legacy of my father and those like him? I voted for Obama. My wife and I called my sister’s son down one time for making a racist comment about the president. I’m troubled by Stand Your Ground laws that result in the deaths of young black men like Jordan Davis in Florida. I’m cordial with my African-American ministerial colleagues. But how substantive is any of that?
The movie and Obadiah brought to the surface such memories and thoughts. And I’m not sure now what to do with them.
But there are still plenty of days left in Lent.
© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.