Thursday, June 22, 2017

Juneteenth: Praise The Lorde, Audre Lorde

by Tai Amri (Baby Pastor) Spann-Wilson
This message was given June 18th, 2017 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Lawrence, KS

Happy father’s day to the fathers, and to our fathers’ fathers, and their fathers’ fathers, and all the way back to Grandfather Sky. Past there to before there were fathers, because all was just ONE.

Today is supposed to be a day to celebrate the liberation of Black people from slavery, but I’m having trouble feeling celebratory, when the policeman who lynched Philando Castile on Facebook Live is exonerated, and the Castile family’s hearts are broken, again, for everyone to see. I understand that we all live in this Babylon of America, we all have a “cross” to bear, but the death of another Black body hits me differently, especially this Black body, because of how close it feels to my own identity. I, like Castile, am a Black man used to be looked upon with suspicion by authorities. I, like Castile, shed sweat and tears to sustain the lives of young people. I, like Castile, have a little girl in my life that I adore and want to nurture into womanhood. I cry for the lynched bodies of my Black brothers, but what about that little girl? There is no verdict in our courtrooms, that can undo what that little girl experienced, as she watched a father figure’s life be so brutally ripped from this world before her eyes. How about her Father’s Day?

Part of this journey, being Black in America, is learning how to love and find reason to celebrate, while being surrounded with hate and oppression. Audre Lorde has reminded me, that the different ways that we experience, is a part of our power. As she writes, “In our work and in our living, we must recognize that difference is a reason for celebration and growth, rather than a reason for destruction.” So, praise the Lorde, Audre Lorde. This refrain, “praise the Lorde”, was revealed to me by Unitarian Universalist minister, Sofia Betancourt. Indeed, Audre Lorde is worthy to be praised. She taught us the power of naming ourselves, as she named herself, “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. So, let us re-member to name ourselves, as I now, name myself, “black, father, writer, sex-positive, youth worker, and roots worker.” Take a moment to name yourself, or at least to consider the idea. [Silence] Praise the Lorde, Audre Lorde. I want to share with you a song, because as the ancestors have been trying to remind us, in our songs, singing can be a portal to the other world, the world of possibility. You know the chorus of this one, but so often we forget the verse, One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel alright. One love, one heart. Give thanks and praise to the Lorde, and I will feel alright. Let’s get together and feel alright. Let’s get together, to fight this holy Armageddon. So when the man comes, there will be no, no doom. Have pity on those, whose chances grow thinner. There ain’t no hiding place from the Father of Creation.

Audre Lorde, in our reading, shared with us the necessity for disengaging with the Master’s Tools. We come together in our difference, on Juneteenth. Juneteenth is the day that we acknowledge that Texas took more than two years to end chattle slavery, after the presidential signing and activation of the Emancipation Proclamation, calling for the freeing of all stolen Africans. In January, 1863, while some Black people were leaving the plantation in search of a promised land, others were still being tortured in the ravages of slave labor. Two years of torture, until we could get our children, our siblings, our parents, our grandparents, out from under “Master.” The jubilation that all must have felt.
Some have called Juneteenth the African American July 4th, where Black people can celebrate the history of their independence from slavery. I’d like to imagine that when my ancestors found out America’s war with its own soul was over, they flipped the bird to the overseer, pulled out their banjos and fiddles, and started dancing in the crops. And after two years of partying, they heard that there were some Black people in Texas who were still in bondage because their slave masters hadn’t delivered the news that they were free, so they marched on over, kicked down the door of the big house, and held a bonfire house burning party, blasting Bob Marley’s “One Love” in the background.
But the reality of Emancipation was very different. Just 20 years after the signing of the proclamation, Frederick Douglass, one of the #firstwoke, after having visited South Carolina and Georgia and seeing the continued wretched conditions of southern labor, called emancipation, “a Stupendous Fraud,”. While we might have been taught that a white man named Abraham Lincoln set the slaves free, we know that in actuality, the blood and the faith of our ancestors broke the chains of chattle slavery, only to find a world where slavery had been given different name, all the way to the present age, where its name is mass incarceration

Allow me to get nerdy on you for a moment, but my mama raised me right by watching Star Trek the Next Generation with me, so I recognize the fight for freedom to be similar to the fight against what I think of as the most relevant enemy in all of Star Trek, the Borg. The Borg is a collective of cyborgs, who’s mission it is to enslave all of creation to its will by assimilating them into hive mind thinking. What is most relevant is that any plan of attack is immediately processed and fortified against. In our own history of liberation, I have seen this to be true. Chattle slavery’s form of free labor can be seen in the corruption of the prison industrial complex, human trafficking and free trade. So why do we still have slavery? Could it be because we tried to abolish it using the master’s tools?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t seek to change legal structures. If you look closely at the 13th Amendment, calling for the abolition of slavery, you will see that what it accomplished was the abolition of slavery, “except as a punishment for crime,” meaning, all that was needed was the creation of laws that make living while Black, living while poor and homeless, living while undocumented, a crime, thus perpetuating to this day the proliferation of free and cheap labor that American capitalism is built on. But there is something deeper that Audre Lorde, is trying to teach us with her message. The legal system is only one tool of the master, there is an even more powerful tool that the master has, it’s the tool of division. This tool, is the absolute opposite of intersectionality. In this modern era, we have been blessed to have so many who have followed in the footsteps of the Audre Lorde, exposing the divisive tools of “the master.” From Michelle Alexander, who detailed how the white poor were given racial privilege to separate their movements for justice from Black movements for justice; to Tanahesi Coates, who addressed “the people who [were made to] think they are white” as a way to create false solidarity and encourage the exploitation of people of color; to Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor, who, in her book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, exclaims that the problem with America is no longer the color line, but colorblindness, which defines racism only in individualistic terms and ignores its institutionalization, made possible only with coded language that avoids any mention of race. Keeanga-Yahmatta explains how on one hand, it is no longer acceptable to speak of systems of oppression, like the war on drugs and poverty, in terms of locking up and taking away the safety nets of Black and Brown folkx. In reality, Black and Brown folkx are still the faces of both crime and poverty. This serves the purpose of making the entire world believe that crime and poverty are only the problems of Black and Brown folkx, because of some deficiency, rather than risking the truth behind the reality that Asian folkx, Native folkx, Latinx folkx, as well as people who have been made to believe they are White, all suffer at the hands of corporate exploitation. If the reality were shown, instead looking at each other with suspicion, we might do more together to fight this Holy Armageddon. The Borg hive mind is against all collaboration across our differing identities.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed yet, but I am different. Or, like the book my one year old daughter has begun to memorize called Shades of Black that celebrates all the colors that Black people come in by repeating this one refrain, “I am Black, I am Unique.” I talk about Praise the Lorde, Audre Lorde and Star Trek’s, The Borg. My whole life people of all colors have told me that I’m not like other Black people they know, sometimes this is said in kindness, sometimes this is a criticism. You see, I come from a long line of nonviolent abolitionist, wagers of peace, pacifists, known as Quakers. Where I grew up on the East Coast, when I told people I was a Quaker pacifist, they’d say, “I’ll pass a fist over your jaw.” I stood silently. They moved on to the more reactionary.

But here’s the thing, I also come from a long line of violent revolutionaries. As my brother, Mai Sankofa, writes in his rap “They Say”, my great grandfather murdered his slave master for his freedom. I acknowledge both the violent and nonviolent aspects of my lineage, just as we all have violent and nonviolent ancestors. I also acknowledge that the movement towards justice has always had violent and nonviolent aspects to it.
In my work, I have been a nonviolent abolitionist, working to raise and nurture the next seven generations. Like Audre Lorde, I hear the unsaid from our children, shouting, “If you want us to change the world someday, we at least have to live long enough to grow up!” But even though my heart leans towards the youth, that doesn’t mean that I won’t work and stand with the social justice warriors of my own generation. That does not mean that I do not honor the wisdom and experiences of my elders. My activist training has taught me that the most effective means of social transformation is through nonviolence and the power to refuse to allow hatred into my heart. It has taught me that no one is irredeemable, that everyone can change and be awoken. But I recognize that I have had a privilege in my life to have that perspective, and if I hadn’t grown up with nonviolent activist parents, I might be more militant. So, I love and respect my militant folkx. What’s more, while I love and respect my ancestor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., what I want to know is, why isn’t there also a public day of recognition for John Brown, who also sacrificed for freedom, or Tiger Dowdell, Black Power activist shot down by police right here in Lawrence, KS, in 1970. My roots tell me that The Spirit is a powerful tool for liberation, and that the ancestors are always with us in our struggles. That doesn’t mean that I won’t embrace and support material thinking that questions and rejects religion and all spiritual reality. And most importantly, I am an abolitionist who believes that prisons are completely obsolete systems of corporate oppression. I believe that they cannot be reformed, and I also believe that locking up individuals, like police officers who murder the innocent, will not change institutional racism anymore than locking up drug dealers will change sanctioned poverty. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t march with those who call for prison sentences for crooked cops. Abolition of prisons means to me looking beyond the two solutions of, either we have prisons or we don’t, it means looking towards a third possibility, where instead of locking criminals in cages where their mental and physical well being is constantly deteriorating, we create systems that actually work to restore them back into society, and instead of those who have been violated being given the choices of locking their violators in cages or having them be murdered, we create systems in which the violated are actually led in a process where they can discover what they need to be restored. This is what is meant by restorative justice. I am unwavering in this belief in abolition, I will never support the building of or the sentencing to a prison, but I also believe this, if I were only to stand in solidarity with those who believed exactly as I do, I’d be standing alone. Master’s Tools. Praise the Lorde.

I wish we were just fighting a Master, or even a group of Masters, but we, are fighting the Borg. It’s not a person, because if it was, we could assassinate them and be free. But the Borg will make more people. It’s also not a group of people. Because if it was, we’d just have to lock them up. But Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th showed us that the Borg made prisons a part of an industry that functions like a beast that grows more powerful the more you feed them. Even the abolition of prisons is not the answer. Because 13th also showed that if we abolish prisons, they’ll make our homes a prison, privatizing parole and probation, keeping the prison buildings free, by giving us digital gps shackles, so they will know when we leave our homes, and when we join together. No, the Borg is us, the hive mind, that says attack. There’s danger all around so attack. We’ll die if we don’t attack. Attack for survival. So you attack me. So I attack you. So you attack yourself. Because nothing we do is ever enough. Because we’re always messing up. Because we’re never woke enough. And don’t forget, to stay in your lane. My lane is Blackness, if I’m Blackest in the room, if not I defer to those who are Blacker. Your lane is the environment. Your lane is fighting homophobia. Your lane is sexism. Your lane is immigration. Your lane is poverty. Your lane is militancy. And no switching lanes, it’s not allowed, so that now I feel like we’re living in a Facebook algorithm, where everyone around us thinks pretty much like we do.

But what if, we rejected the Master’s Tools and the Master’s Rules. What if, we learned that there is no ONE to blame, because we are all one, to love. Lawrence, Kansas, can you not see, we are shackled from one another, me from you? Can you not also see, that we hold one another’s keys, one from the other? Am I saying, can’t we all get along? No, I don’t want to get along. I want to get free. I want reparations. Reparations for our children, whose future is being stolen in our destruction of one another and of the planet. Reparations for our Black fathers, who have been stolen, again, and whose families mourn their loss, may we be restored. Reparations for Black folkx, whose ancestors were stolen, and who still suffer the marks of oppression, may we be restored. Reparations for Native Americans, who face genocide and stolen land, may they be restored. Reparations for women, subjugated, may you be restored. Reparations for immigrants whose countries have been given forced contracts and US led dictatorships, may you be restored. Reparations for Muslims who have been demonized and ostracized and forced to live in fear, may you be restored. Reparations for Jews whose names have been stolen in our addiction to oil, may you be restored. Reparations for people who have been forced to believe they are white, so they would have no motherland, and no solidarity with those of us who do, may you be restored. Reparations for the earth, who is no one’s property, but everyone’s responsibility, may you be restored.

This is the Juneteenth Jubilee of the Intersectional Movement. Get with that. Let go of the Master’s Tools and be restored. Praise the Lorde, Audre Lorde.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Broken Heart of The Activist

A message given June 4th, 2017 to the Continuing Revolution Young Adult Friends Conference

by Tai Amri Spann-Wilson

The pain of life may teach us to understand life and, in our understanding of life, to love life. To love life truly is to be whole in all one’s parts; and to be whole in all one’s parts is to be free and unafraid.
- “Pain Has a Ministry” Dr. Howard Thurman

It is good to be back in Pendle Hill. Pendle Hill is a special place. A place where people of peace can gather and be rejuvenated. A place where there is only one rule, don’t touch someone else’s fresh bread.

I write these words to you in the library, where I concluded my discernment and made the decision to attend seminary at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Many of us young interns that year followed a call towards full time commitment to serve in spirit and justice. This path has been a blessing and a burden, filled with joy and pain. I’d like to share some of that with you this morning.

I have so many memories in this place. I can’t walk into Brinton House without thinking of the day I met Joanna Macy, the engaged Buddhist and spiritual activist who taught us to fully experience all the pain of the ending of the world through climate chaos, so that maybe, at most, it might spur us on to save our beautiful mother, the earth, but at least it would help us to fully love and care for her in her last days. Even though she was 50 years my senior, I still thought I’d never wash my face after she kissed my cheek. Throughout the campus, I can still hear the voice of Rev. Dorsey Blake, the successor of Dr. Howard Thurman, who founded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the first interfaith church in the U.S. out in San Francisco. I think of how his strong and quiet faith called me out to California, where I got to sit at the feet of a man who, when he prays, feels like he is speaking directly to each and everyone’s Inner Teacher. I see, sitting off into the corner, the spirit of Aljosie Aldrich Harding, wife of the late Dr. Vincent Harding. She is sharing the teachings that her and Dr. Harding learned in their struggles to make the goals of nonviolence real in the Civil Rights movement, their rootedness in their faith, and their answering the call to serve wherever asked. I saw her last at the YAFCON of 2014 here at Pendle Hill, but I met her first with her husband in Detroit, while I was studying at the feet of the great grandmother of the modern activist movement, the first generation Chinese American, Grace Lee Boggs. It was there that Dr. Harding fortified my resolve to always remember to bring song into the justice movement, and reminded us to never forget where we come from, as he asked all of us when first meeting us, “Where was grandmother born?” The spirituality with which he walked is forever interwoven with the intense clarity of Grace Lee Boggs. I cannot think of Aljosie or Dr. Harding, without thinking of Grace, who would often say to us, “the Chinese character for crisis is made up of the characters for danger and opportunity.” Those words are what I am reminded of in the crisis of today.

I wanted my partner Shannon, and my daughter Alanna Naledi, to experience these spirits that I describe. Before Alanna was born, I told Shannon that I believed with her strength of body and my strength of heart, we could co-create a Lauren. Lauren is a character created by Black, queer, science fiction writer, Octavia Butler, in her post apocalyptic book series, The Parable of the Sower. Lauren is a survivor with the perfect mixture of empathy and fortitude. She inspires those around her to constantly embrace change, for as she says, G-d is change. My mother had once told me that I remind her of Lauren, but there have been few times in my life when I’ve felt all that inspiring. In fact, when I speak the words of the crisis, it is mainly to this point that I am speaking.
I’d like to say that my crisis was simply an external threat. Trump is president, the Klan rides again, congress is legislating genocide. If only there were something out there that we could destroy and be done with it. The truth is, at the moments when I begin to most fully embrace myself as an activist, I find myself engulfed not just by burning passion, but a burning of another kind. Let me stop being vague.

You see, there is a dis-ease here in America, that is in other places too, and I’ve got it, bad. I’ve always tried to believe that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, but that belief gets harder daily. If that belief were only challenged by those who seem to be working against the very things that I am working towards, you know, those Quaker SPICES, peace, equality and the such, it might be understandable. But no, those beliefs have been challenged by the very people I call my sisters, my brothers, those I call my comrades, by the face I look at in the mirror. The world seems now to be becoming more divided than ever before. The macro looks like England vs. The European Union, the U.S. vs. the non-fascist countries, white nationalists vs. everyone else. This ugly, but the micro looks worse. The micro looks like our elders vs. our youth, those who say, let’s use strategy vs. those who say, get out the way then, me vs. a wildfire.

I helped start the Black Lives Matter movement in Lawrence, Kansas. I never wanted to control it, all I wanted was to be a part of the (r)evolution that was coming. Little did I know the scars I’d be left with. I should have known first when the name that people wanted to go with was, Black Lives Matter-LFK, the LFK standing for Lawrence Fucking Kansas. At the time, I was a preschool teacher, so I thought to myself, uh oh, guess I can’t wear that shirt to school or even around town, less my message be completely negated by the questions around what LFK stands for. But I decided to roll with it. I spoke at the rallies, I attended the meetings, and the hours long Facebook chats, then WhatsApp chats, then signal chats, then, when all the chatting and ranting reached a fever pitch, I found all my words being stuffed down my throat, and I found that I literally could no longer swallow. I literally could no longer digest my food. It went on for weeks. I’d eat two bites of a bagel and find myself hiccupping, for seven hours. Hiccupping until a puked. I lost 30 pounds in two weeks. I said to myself, what’s wrong with me, I said to my doctor, what’s wrong with me, I said to my family, what’s wrong with me. Then I remembered something that my Quaker ancestors said to me. When the world says don’t just sit there do something, we say, don’t just do something, sit there. So, I sat there. I told them group I couldn’t keep it up, the vitriol, the constant action without forethought. And the group said to me, you’re an Uncle Tom then. And there it was. All my hate anger thrown back at me. And I just sat, and tried to heal.

I’d like to stand before you and give you hope, but the truth is, this has been one of the most hopeless years I’ve ever experienced. I’d like to say I’m still an activist, but I can’t, not like I used to say that I’m an activist. Can’t do activism like that anymore. And then I remembered something that I’d heard from Dr. Howard Thurman. G-d is with us in our pain, if we’re paying attention that is. And I think about the word, the name, the being G-d. G-d is not a term I heard used very much growing up Quaker. The Light I heard a lot. In pain is truthfully where the Light feels hardest for me to see. And then I thought of one more term that has been with me in lieu of G-d, my ancestors. My ancestors are with me in my pain, our ancestors are with us in our pain. Now that seemed to make a lot of sense to me. When I think of the quintessential Quaker activist ancestor, I think of Bayard Rustin. And oh, the pain he saw in his activist work. To mentor and cradle the young activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into nonviolent tactics, only to see Dr. King abandon him when leaders in the civil rights movement said Rustin’s gayness was a liability, oh the pain. How did he survive that pain? He didn’t shove it down with a glass of water, he sat with it, he looked deeply at it, until he transmutated it into wisdom.

The life of the activist will undoubtedly have pain in it. Sometimes the pain is a small defeat, but sometimes the pain is a complete crisis. That crisis can either be a danger that starves our bodies and souls, or it can be the opportunity into evolution. We must remember to pray to our inner most spirits, and we must remember to sing. But most importantly, we must allow our hearts to break. In trying to hold it together, we never allow anyone else to come touch our pain, and we don’t feel the touch of another, we never feel that they have scars too. Continuing Revolution this year will have a whole new set of memories that I will add to my Pendle Hill collections, some of them are your scars, it will also be the knowledge that it is the pain of others that calls us into action. When we allow that pain to be, we see it for what it is, that which connects us to one another, that which calls G-d, the Light, and our ancestors to us. Ashe and amen.