Why Black Lives Matter
The Fulani people, of Western and central Africa, tell a story about a man who had three sons, and a cow. This cow was his prized possession, and he valued it over everything else in his life – even, it seems, his own three sons. The proof of this came when the man asked his eldest son to care for his beloved cow for the day: to take it out into the field to graze on good grass, to lead it to the river to drink clean water, and to bathe it there, so that it would be clean and comfortable.
The eldest son did just as his father had instructed, treating the prized cow with the same attention and care that his father would have shown if he had done the chores himself. At the end of the day, when the son returned with the cow, the father asked the animal how it had been treated that day. “I have been badly mistreated,” lied the cow. “Your lazy, ungrateful son did not feed me or give me water or wash me, but left me tied up in the forest while he slept the day away.” The man’s son protested at the cow’s false accusation, but though his father could see as well as anyone else that the cow appeared healthy and clean, he took the word of his prized possession over the word of his eldest son, and banished the young man from his home.
The next day, the father entrusted his beloved cow to his middle son, instead, with the same instructions as before. The middle son did a job as good as or better than the one performed by the eldest, taking the animal out to graze, leading it to drink, and washing it carefully. Still, when the two returned to the man, the cow gave the same, dishonest report, “Your middle son is as lazy and false as his brother; again, I was left tied up in the forest while your child slept away the day.” The middle son shook his head, and opened his mouth to argue, but his father would hear none of it, though again the evidence of a clean and well-cared for cow was right before him. And so, he exiled his middle son, as well.
The third day went the same as the first two. The man’s only remaining son was just as obedient to his father and kind to his father’s cow as his brothers had been before him. And the cow was just as cruel and perfidious. As the cow lied once again to the man, his youngest son could see immediately what must have happened to his brothers on the two days before. When his father banished him, he was unsurprised.
On the fourth day, the man was alone with his cow, and so did the work of caring for the animal himself. He took the cow to graze, and then to drink, and washed it lovingly – not only his prized possession, now, but his only companion as well. At the end of the day, the man turned to the cow and asked if it had had a good day with him. But because a lie, too long and too easily believed, takes on a life of its own, the cow only scolded the man. “How dare you ask me such a question, when you went all day without feeding me, or giving me water, or bathing me, but tied me up in the forest, so that you could sleep?” At once, the man understood what had happened. In anger and in grief, he drove the cow away from his home, the last living thing in his life that he could banish. And so the man regretted the mistake he had made, in trusting the cow, and doubting his sons. But now, he was alone.[i]
Trayvon Martin was a black teenager in Florida, who was murdered a little less than four years ago. George Zimmerman, who was a stranger to Trayvon, shot him after following the young man under the pretense of protecting his neighborhood from a child who, it was later shown, was carrying only a bag of Skittles and a can of ice tea. He expressed no remorse for this, and was ultimately acquitted by the court a year and a half later. It is out of the anguish and injustice of that story, that the slogan “Black Lives Matter” emerged, beginning as a hashtag on twitter created and fostered by three self-described queer Black women. From there it has become a slogan, a rallying cry, and a movement. It is almost impossible to imagine that you have not already encountered it somehow – arguments for and against the campaign are so much a part of our larger culture. I have preached on it here before, as some guest preachers as well. Since September our Social Action committee has been working to put racial justice at the forefront of our agenda as a congregation, which has necessarily entailed talking about this. Today, following the service, our membership will hold a special congregational meeting to discuss and to vote on the prospect of hanging a Black Lives Matter banner on the front of our spiritual home – a visible endorsement of the meaning behind those three words.
Today’s sermon is not intended to instruct you in how you ought to vote in that meeting – for those of you who will. We will have our discussion – which we have already been having – and we will make the decision together, as a congregation. I would not have this any other way, and I hope that you would not, either. No, this sermon’s intent is to address the statement itself, and the ‘why’ of why it is said, and the ‘why’ of why it is true.
And let me make this absolutely, unambiguously clear: it is true. Black lives matter. As a mixed multitude of individuals we can, and will often, disagree on matters of strategy and tactics, on the efficacy of this use of language or that one, or on whether or not to align oneself with a movement, which is much more complicated than three words totaling four syllables. But part of my job is to tell you the truth, especially when that truth is important, and most especially when an important truth is disputed and assailed in the larger world. So I will say it again: black lives matter.
As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people – human lives matter to us, without exception. Black people are people, ergo, black lives matter. The particular cosmic math underlying that understanding may vary between us – whether it is the theistic framework that all people are beloved children of God, or the understanding from science that we are all products of the same evolutionary process, born of the same earth, bound together by genetics and by the very atoms of our bodies which were forged in the stars together, long before the planet we now share even existed. However you arrive at the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, I celebrate that you do and the wondrous variety of ways to do so, but the consequence for today remains the same. Cosmically speaking, in the realm of the ideal, in terms of religious meaning, black lives matter. And if the ideal were always true in practice, there would almost certainly be no slogan, and no movement under its heading. But this is not the case.
I believe that is self-evident for most of us, but just in case, I will elucidate. Or rather, I’ll turn to the voice of a Black author to do so much better than I can. Here are two stanzas from Melvin B. Tolson’s masterwork, Dark Symphony:
The centuries-old pathos in our voices
Saddens the great white world,
And the wizardry of our dusky rhythms
Conjures up shadow-shapes of ante-bellum years:
Black slaves singing One More River to Cross
In the torture tombs of slave-ships,
Black slaves singing Steal Away to Jesus
In jungle swamps,
Black slaves singing The Crucifixion
In slave-pens at midnight,
Black slaves singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
In cabins of death,
Black slaves singing Go Down, Moses
In the canebrakes of the Southern Pharaohs.
They tell us to forget
The Golgotha we tread…
We who are scourged with hate,
A price upon our head.
They who have shackled us
require of us a song,
They who have wasted us
Bid us condone the wrong.
They tell us to forget
Democracy is spurned.
They tell us to forget
The Bill of Rights is burned.
Three hundred years we slaved,
We slave and suffer yet:
Thought flesh and bone rebel,
They tell us to forget!
Oh, how can we forget
Our human rights denied?
Oh, how can we forget
Our manhood crucified?
When Justice is profaned
And plea with curse is met,
When Freedom’s gates are barred,
Oh, how can we forget?
The first people stolen from Africa and brought in chains to what is today the United States, to live and die as slaves, arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. The first enslaved Africans to arrive in Massachusetts came not much later, in 1638. Despite being on opposite sides in the Civil War and on the matter of slavery, there were some 140 years during which Virginia and Massachusetts saw eye-to-eye on this. And because this congregation began as the town church to which all people in Beverly belonged, whether they liked it or not, our church community, in its early days, included people held in bondage – as well as other people, who lived by the monstrous notion that you can own another person. Slavery did not end formally in the United States until 1865, in December. That was 246 years after 1619 – which is only the beginning in the current geography of the US – it has been less than 152 since. So, for Black people in America, history contains nearly 100 more years of slavery than of freedom. As Tolson describes, this hard truth “saddens the great white world.” It is uncomfortable for many of us to face the stone cold fact that the country we live in, and love, was built upon a grotesque system of degradation and exploitation.
If this alone were the problem we were contending with, if every racialized difference of means and opportunity had been ended perfectly and completely with the passage of the 13th Amendment, I believe there would still be a great deal of work to do to truly overcome that history. But, again, we know that this was not the case. That freed slaves gained their liberty but the overwhelming majority started out with less than nothing in the way of material resources for supporting themselves, reconstituting the families that had been systematically dismantled during slavery, and building the communities that had been denied them for 250 years. That former slave owners and former slave states quickly developed insidious but then-legal methods for ensuring white supremacy over Black, while in the North and West, ideals of liberty never translated into full equality. Since emancipation, much has changed, formally and legally, and in terms of the ideals practiced by individuals and proclaimed by institutions. But the Black activist, theorist, and educator bell hooks describes a simple method by which she helps students to dig beneath the pretense of a color-blind, post-racial society.
“In classroom settings I have often listened to groups of students tell me that racism really no longer shapes the contours of our lives, that there is no such thing as racial difference, that "we are all just people." Then a few minutes later I give them an exercise. I ask if they were about to die and could choose to come back as a white male, a white female, a black female, or a black male, which identity would they choose. Each time I do this exercise, most individuals, irrespective of gender or race invariably choose whiteness, and most often male whiteness. Black females are the least chosen. When I ask students to explain their choice they proceed to do a sophisticated analysis of privilege based on race (with perspectives that take gender and class into consideration).”[ii]
If you are persuaded, at all, by the notion that racism is no longer an enormous factor in the lives we lead and the world we inhabit, I invite you ponder this same practice. If you were going to reenter the world as any combination of race and gender, which would you choose, and why? The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Alton Sterling and far, far too many more, and the failure by our legal system to hold the people responsible for those deaths accountable, sends a profound and painful message to Black people and all people in our society. It repeats the same, brutal, destructive, soul-destroying, hope-corrupting message which was explicit under slavery, Jim Crow, and the semi-official segregation of real estate redlining and racial covenants. With a merciless repetition, the racism that continues to infect our society reaffirms again and again that the art and ideas and efforts and lived experiences and bodies and lives of Black people are worth less than all others, or nothing at all. Less support during childhood, less access to opportunity, less pay during their lifetime, less protection under the law, less outrage upon their untimely death.
The status quo of our world works hard to diminish the self-love and self-value of Black people, and to foster racial bias against Black folks by others, especially white folks. For we who believe otherwise, who hold sacred the lives of Black people just as we hold sacred the lives of Arab, Latinx, South Asian, East Asian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous, and white people, some response is required. And that response must be specific, not only woven into generalities or buried in list form – because the hateful, denigrating message contained in unequal prison-sentencing, voter ID laws, racially-biased gerrymandering and a host of other evils is very specific. It is the need to be specific and clear that birthed the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” in the first place. Not to be the only matter of concern for every activist or person of goodwill, not to be the only slogan on placards, t-shirts, and bumper-stickers, but so that it be there among them: direct, and unambiguous. At yesterday’s Women’s March in Boston, where I was gladdened to run into a great many of you as I walked along with my kids, I saw the following sign – I saw several editions of it, actually. In different colored marker, it listed five complimentary rallying cries: Women’s Rights are Human Rights, No Human Being is Illegal, Love is Love, Water is Life, and Black Lives Matter.
Alicia Garza, one of the women responsible for bringing Black Lives Matter into the public consciousness, and one of the current leaders of BLM, as a movement, said this about how Black liberation is in the self-interest of everyone:
“The reality is that race in the United States operates on a spectrum from black to white. Doesn't mean that people who are in between don't experience racism, but it means that the closer you are to white on that spectrum, the better off you are. And the closer to black that you are on that spectrum the worse off you are. When we think about how we address problems in this country, we often start from a place of trickle-down justice. So using white folks as the control we say, well, if we make things better for white folks then everybody else is going to get free. But actually it doesn't work that way. We have to address problems at the root, and when you deal with what's happening in black communities, it creates an effervescence, right? So a bubble up rather than a trickle down.”[iii]
That a phrase as true and as necessary as Black Lives Matter has become so controversial, so much in dispute is very sad, and – I am inclined to think – a further symptom of the deep, abiding racism in the world we share. It means that just saying aloud that, “Black Lives Matter,” one has to anticipate the potential for being misunderstood. But the great Black lesbian womanist activist, thinker, and poet, Audre Lorde has some counsel on taking the risk of misinterpretation, both honest and intentional.
“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.”[iv]
At the end of the story we began with, the man has no children left, and no cow. He spends long years alone, until one day he goes into town, on market day, and collapses. Three different merchants rush to come to the aid of a poor, tired old man, and in that moment realize the connection they share. Sent away, each of his sons went out into the world to make a way for themselves, but here, in his later years, their chance reunion with their father allows him the opportunity to apologize for the past mistake of valuing his cow over his own children. The method and means by which we decide to approach the work of racial justice as a community is up to us, together. But however we decide to do it, I submit that we are enjoined to tell the truth of it, to answer hateful falsehoods stridently and unambiguously, and to act without the fear of being misunderstood hold us back.
[i] The version of the story presented here is based on a fuller version of the story to be found here: http://www.allfolktales.com/wafrica/precious_cow.php which itself is drawn from a version in the collection “Tales by Moonlight,” published by the Nigerian Television Authority.
[ii] bell hooks, “Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope”
[iii] Alicia Garza, in an interview with Mia Birdsong, transcribed here: http://www.ted.com/talks/alicia_garza_patrisse_cullors_and_opal_tometi_an_interview_with_the_founders_of_black_lives_matter/transcript?language=en
[iv] Audre Lorde, from her essay, “Transforming Silence into Language and Action,” in her collection, “Sister Outsider.”