Monday, April 21, 2008

Typical Whiteboy Talk

How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth?
John Howard Griffin
Black Like Me

In my response to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy What's Up With Barack's Pastor? I said that blacks and whites read Jesus differently. I then went on to explain what I saw as the differences.

I confess that my comments were grossly stereotyped. In fact, it was precisely that kind of grossly-stereotyped statement that got Barack Obama in hot water when he referred to his own grandmother as "a typical white person" who has sometimes visceral reactions to people of other (darker?) races.

In a helpful post my friend and former professor Mike Broadway noted that he and I, both white, have for whatever reasons entered into this strange world as racial reconcilers. As such, we sometimes feel compelled to translate for white people what black people think. Mike graciously pointed out just how absurd that really is - white people speaking on behalf of black people. I was a little chastened and promised myself to be more careful in public from here on out.

Yet, at the same time, I know that when it's just me and Irie I can say, "Typical black people feel this way," and "Typical white people feel that way," and it is truth. And that, in this highly charged climate of racial politics, is precisely the challenge: public and private discourses.

Of course, these divergent discourses have always been present. There has always been an intra-white language and an intra-black language. These divergent languages developed on the plantation and never fully gone away.

Let me give a case in point. Irie's mom grew up in a conservative Pentecostal home. The Gospel she has heard most of her life is not the hard-edged, politically-charged speech of black liberation. Yet when the whole Rev. Wright thing erupted her surprise was not at his rhetoric - for rhetoric like that has always been present in some aspect in the black community. Rather, the shock for her was that white people heard it. "Oh, no, no, no," she said, "Ya'll not supposed to hear that!"

Ya'll not supposed to hear that because ya'll don't know the language. Ya'll gonna misintepret.

But now we're entering into a new era. We're entering into an era where the language barriers are beginning to be crossed. Mike and I are going back and forth. But more to my point, Barack Obama is. In fact, he was born across the line. His mother was white, and his grandparents were white. Typical white people (typically speaking). And so, (typically speaking) he knows what typical white people typically think. And I bet he talks about it (typically) at home with Michelle all the time.

But there it is again, that private language. He can (typically) talk about it at home, but can't (typically) bring it into the public arena. Or he'll be in big trouble (typically).

Near the end of Black Like Me John Howard Griffin tells about coming back into white America after having temporarily darkened himself and living as a black man in the Deep South. After having been in the black community for something like six weeks he knows what they think. He knows that all the platituding "yes sir" and "no sir" and "us Negros are real happy with our station in life" business was just fear-induced, public speech. It was the exact opposite of how blacks really felt in those pre - civil rights days.

On his first day back into white society he checked himself into a white hotel and was met at the door by a black porter. For six weeks Griffin had been "just a typical Negro" and he now knew how they thought. "[The porter] gave me the smiles, the 'yes, sir - yes, sir.' . . . I felt like saying. 'You're not fooling me,' but now I was back on the other side of the wall."

I'm tired of crossing the wall and then coming back over. I'm ready for the wall to come down.

Old Timers

Yesterday our church hosted a lunch conversation about the history of our church. We invited everyone to bring pictures and other memorabilia to share. Among the really cool things shared:

1. A foot heater. Used in bygone days, the foot heat had a small door that coals could be dropped into. The heater would then be set into the bottom of the sleigh -that's right sleigh - for the ride down to the church. At church you'd get another lump of coal for the return ride.

2. Pew doors. We took the doors off our pews sometime in the 20th century. But one of the pillars of our church and I braved cobwebs, dust, and and who knows what else to retrieve them from the cellar last Wednesday. The pew doors kept the heat in - provided by the foot heater above - and the draft out while parishioners listened to somber sermons from fellas like this unidentified former pastor:

3. A write up about our former pastor Rev. Elgin Bucklin, who led a trip of over a 25 Vermont youths down to Harlem to worship at Abysinnian Baptist Church. This was an extension of Rev. Ritchie Low's (picture below) racial reconciliation project which I wrote about here.

4. Two of our oldest members sat together and shared about their trip with Rev. Low and a few other boys down to Washington to meet President Hoover. That's right, Hoover. Rev. Low took them down to deliver syrup to the president before the Vermont Maple industry got big. Their trip made news in other states - a trip to Washington in 1929 was no small thing - and helped spread the word about Vermont maple. I said I thought our church deserved some of the royalties from all the sales over these last 80 years.

After the old timers had finished reminiscing I paused, walked over and grabbed both of their arms. "Ritchie Low was their pastor," I said, "and I am their pastor." Then I heard someone from another table bring the amen. "That's right," he said.

That's right.