Thursday, July 12, 2007

Mourning Marlette

"Welcome to Kudzu"

Those were the first words of welcome I heard when I showed up for my first church job. I was in my third year of divinity school and had been assigned to an academic year of youth ministry at a small church in North Carolina. It was an assignment I was not particularly interested in and had I known what was meant by "Welcome to Kudzu" it might well have been enough to send me packing the first day.

The pastor was of course referring to the comic strip "Kudzu" by Doug Marlette which both honored and made light of the mid-twentieth century South and its way of life. Marlette was raised a Southern Baptist and the preacher in his comicstrip, Will B. Dunn, was modeled after famed Baptist minister, Will Campbell. A central theme in his work was the South's struggle to overcome what Jimmy Carter called "dead weight" of its racist past.

Marlette died Tuesday evening in a tragic car accident. Michael Westmoreland-White has written a nice piece about Marlette's life and work. Marlette was one of the best satirists of his era and earned a Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1988.

In many ways Marlette's death embodies the death of a whole generation of Southern Baptists who were first-hand witnesses to (and participants in) the civil rights movement dramatically altered the Southern way of life for good.

Marlette's work was an artifact of a time that still very much shapes the Southern identity today. Marlette helped us to remember the sins and sanctimony of our forebears in a way that neither canonized nor demonized, but simply told the truth.

That memory will be missed.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Burying the N-Word

On Monday the NAACP buried the enemy.

The N-Word is no more.

I commend Julian Bond and the rest of NAACP for having the courage to say that the N-Word is simply not going to be tolerated - out of the mouth of anybody.

This seems like a no-brainer. But for a long time an argument has been made (by some prominent African Americans, including luminaries like Dick Gregory) that by taking the hate-filled word and appropriating it into new contexts something subversively redemptive can take place. This happened, in an admittedly much simpler and less painful case, at my parents' high school alma mater where the Plainsmen of Monterey High School came to proudly embrace the once-belittling moniker "Peons".

Those who argue that using the N-Word in new contexts are basically saying there is no power in the the word save the power that it has been given. The charge that it has is not in its phonetic syllables in and of themselves, but rather in its context of use. This is the tricky thing about language. It is pregnant with meaning. Historically the N-Word has represented more than just a word; instead it has been a verbal symbol of a whole history of hatred, oppression and violence.

I am sympathetic to this line of reasoning. There is a certain logic to it. It is the same logic that many were using in the Apostle Paul's day to justify eating meat sacrificed to other gods. Here was the syllogism: "If there are no other gods, then in reality this meat has not been sacrificed at all. So let us eat" Well, yes. Logically true. But the way we communicate meaning as humans is, though not illogical, not altogether syllogistic either. Paul was not concerned about logical argument. He was concerned about people's faith and creating a kind of community that would sustain that faith. If someone with "weaker" faith is bothered by meat that is said to have been sacrificed to other gods, then we best not eat. Even if other gods have no ontological being, they certainly have a conceptual being. And that is enough to make a brother fall.

Part of the justification for keeping the N-Word alive is an appeal to "rights". This word has been used against us for so long, now we have a "right" to take the word and use it on our own terms. Fair enough. But I am stuck on Paul's point: what is most paramount in determing what to do is not "rights" but rather community.

I think it is best for our community that the N-word was buried.

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
A Recent Self-Revelation

I have a responsibility to talk about race. I have a responsibility to tell my story and my family's story. I have a responsibility to speak because I have been graced (burdened?) with (figurative and literal) pulpit.

How did I come to this pulpit? Oh, if I only knew how such things happen in this world. When I was a child grown-ups told me that marrying a black lady was a lot like driving a Ford - "there may not be anything wrong with it, but you'll always feel a little funny about it." When I was a child I thought like a child. I spoke like a child. When I was a child I learned to speak like a grown-up.

But when I became an adult I put away the grown-up ways. I became a child again. When I became an adult I married a black lady.

And here is the irony. I do sometimes feel a little funny about it some times. I feel a little funny like W.E.B. DuBois felt a little funny when he looked through the looking glass of double-consciousness and read the world's mind: "How does it feel to be a problem?"