Considering affinity groups

When Bran and I discussed some of the idea of white people working with other white people about our antiracism work, a question I wanted to ask her (and very well may in a future post) is maybe it’s not that white people shouldn’t have those spaces, but that Black people should have more spaces without white people? I was reminded of a story I’ve heard over the years in our family about disappointing and harmful attitudes about creating safe spaces for Black people. I asked my father to tell it to me again. Here’s what he said:

In the late sixties and early seventies, Wellesley College, the prestigious all-women’s institution in the Boston area, had roughly thirty African-American students out of a student body of about 1200 undergraduates.  In an act of solidarity, those students banded together to demand that the college’s administration should provide them with a student center of their own. At that time, many of the college’s white students used the college’s elegant and spacious student center, from which the black students felt alienated. White students also had access to three gracious social clubs, akin to sororities. Black students had no place to congregate just by themselves, no place to prepare the food they might want to eat or to listen to the music they might want to hear or to entertain black male guests or just to be together without having to think about justifying their own presence in the wider college world.

So the black students decided to organize to bring pressure on the college administration to designate one of the college’s social clubs as a black cultural center.  At that time the college administration and many undergraduate students opposed that proposal, often on the grounds that the college was a single community which did not set aside facilities for “special interest groups.”  The administration argued that the student body should be one body, defined by what was then regarded as progressive social values such as “integration.”

Nevertheless, and against much social pressure, the black students organized to demand that one of the social clubs be set aside for them.  The administration and the majority of the student body opposed them.  Black students found support from only a handful of faculty and from the College’s Chaplaincy, sparked at that time by a Black Episcopal Chaplain.  The black student group, which took the name Ethos, eventually voted unanimously to picket the college President’s office and to call in the Boston area press.  At that point, the administration relented, and made one social club available to Ethos.

Along the way, many of the black students paid a large personal price in terms of friendships and collegial relationships with other students and with faculty members.  Many black students found themselves shunned by other (white) students and by a virtually all-white faculty.  It was a wrenching time for these black students, most of whom had never “protested” in this way, most of whom wanted nothing more than to do their academic work, to have a few friends of their own choosing, and to graduate to promising futures.  But very few of them, in retrospect, ever regretted the fact that they had chosen to band together in solidarity and to claim a meaningful space of their own at that prestigious, upper-middle-class white women’s institution of higher learning.

Fast forward to about a year later.  By that time, Ethos has not only become a thriving cultural and social center for black students, the group had created its own choir, which, from time to time, sang its own traditional and contemporary black music on Sundays in the College’s Chapel.  That Chapel at the time had become a center for worship and preaching that lifted up the vision of Jesus as a champion of liberation of the oppressed.

On one Sunday in particular, the Rev. Jesse Jackson had been invited to preach.  Members of the Ethos Choir practiced eagerly in anticipation of the visit from this then nationally known black progressive leader.  When Jackson arrived on campus, however, he mainly kept to himself and socialized with the entourage of supporters that he had brought with him.  Jackson made no serious effort to talk with Ethos members to hear their concerns or to learn about their struggles at the college.

So it happened that during his sermon Jackson advanced the idea that blacks needed to engage white society on its own terms and to take over positions of power on their own in the wider society.  As a contrast, he pointed from the pulpit in the direction of Ethos’ new social center and said words to this effect:  “we have to get out of a ghetto mentality and get out of our segregated communities like that little house over there — and claim power of our own.”  While there very well might have been validity in Jesse Jackson’s larger point as far as the society as a whole was concerned, his words had the effect of devastating the hearts and minds of the small number of black students who had fought so hard for a place of their own in their wider campus world at that time.  He ended up giving a — probably valid — sermon on black aspirations in America, but it turned out, due to his failure to keep his ear to the ground and to listen to the voices of the college’s own black students, to be a disaster for the black students themselves who had struggled so hard for a place of their own in that all-white setting.  At the time, the one black administrator at Wellesley College was heard to observe to a few friends:  “not everything that glistens black is black.”

creating new traditions

The true story behind the holiday most people call “Thanksgiving” involves a very rare moment of peace between (eventually to be called white) Europeans and Indigenous people. In our family over the last few years, it has felt really strange to celebrate what was an exception to the rule of the day; the rule of the day was my ancestors betraying and murdering Native people.

Last year, we celebrated Thanksgiving, but talked a lot about how complicated it was. Our 11 year old announced a few months ago that she was going to boycott Thanksgiving because of the harms white Europeans perpetrated against Indigenous people. Our family had some conversations about it and we have decided that we will no longer celebrate Thanksgiving.

We will, however, create our own new celebration. We are not simply re-naming the day. We will celebrate, and we will probably enjoy foods that we have shared over our lifetimes around this time of year. Our days of celebration will also include moments of solemnity and honor for all of the lives lost, the cultures crushed, and the overtaking of the land by greedy capitalists. We will live in the truth as best we can.

White supremacy culture is all we’ve known in our family, so far. What that means is we don’t have a “culture” that doesn’t relate to oppression of others. But, we white people can tease out of our family traditions, shared experiences, and other aspects of community those elements that may form a new culture or new cultures.

For us, we are trying out “Anticipating the Solstice” as our celebration. It will last two days (the last Wednesday and Thursday of November), so the kiddos can celebrate in both of their homes. The foods may vary from year to year, but there are sure to be many of the old standards we’ve grown up with. How we honor the true story of the first “Thanksgiving” will surely develop over time, too. We will start by using this as a reference. I know we will involved candles somehow, and silence. The rest we will work out as a family.

This is not going to be a “cheat.” This is not a way to celebrate Thanksgiving and still feeling good about it. We will not celebrate Thanksgiving as we have done before. We will join with our wider community in mourning the horrors our country was built on. And, on the same days, we will celebrate the bounty of our lives in joyful gratitude. Add to all of this the complexity that we know we are very lucky in our bounty, that too many people will be going without shelter, food, or family. We will recognize that, too.

As I was writing the last sentences to this post, a friend from our Quaker Meeting, Beth Bussiere, sent me an email about this very topic. I will leave you with her words: “What I found myself finally with was how interconnected lamentations and gratitude are. That without lamentations, without acknowledging the grief and the grievous, our gratitude can be misplaced or superficial. On the other hand, without gratitude, our lamentations can just pull us under.”

sharing everyday joys

Like everyone I know, the reality that Tr*mp may continue to encourage violence, that COVID-19 will continue to rage, that people will have to risk their lives if they want to vote, that Biden/Harris might not change things all that much and… and… and…

…the list is too, too long and massive to do it justice.

I am scared. Some of that fear has to do with my children, some has to do with feelings of helplessness, but most of it has to do with all of the people whose lives are directly at risk. I say “directly at risk” because I believe the system of racial capitalism and white supremacy is killing all of us in different ways. But Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and all people of color, plus LGBTQ people, immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, disabled people… this list also goes on… have already faced violence in this country. All poor people, even those who are white and even those who are Tr*mp supporters, are being killed directly by the current systems and can expect to have harder lives in the coming years. No healthcare, poverty, underfunded schools, the criminalization of everyday life… All of it.

On twitter, I’ve seen many Black and Indigenous people (white people, too) talking about having plans for surviving these times. Plans include staying away from the Internet, or sticking to joyful content.

As a white woman from a background of socioeconomic privilege, sharing photos of joyful moments risks seeming oblivious to what’s going on. As I sit here, I’ve decided that letting the pain and despair I’m feeling on behalf of all of us overwhelm me doesn’t help anyone. For this moment, I’m thinking that being of service might sometimes mean sharing small joys. What I want is for everyone to have joys like this (I mean the kinds of joys you want). Everyone deserves to be so lucky. And those of us who already are so lucky need to keep working to make sure the luck is shared.

From the mountains of Maine: this morning there were lovely tiny snowflakes over the garden I tried to capture (I can’t see them in the photo). A cast iron stove warming the room. (Not seen: butternut squash roasting, piles of papers finally sorted, a cup of Earl Grey tea with a splash of heavy cream, a full bird feeder with frequent Goldfinch and Pine Siskin visitors.)

cast iron stove with fire inside next to stacks of cut woodview of mountains, leafless trees, garden of soil, blue sky with grey clouds

Alleluia!

In the Quaker Meeting where I’m a member, we practice what is sometimes called “waiting worship,” or unprogrammed meeting. That means we mostly sit in silence together. Sometimes, people are led by Spirit (or God or however you want to describe it) to share something out loud with the rest of us. Today, a hymn came to me during worship. It didn’t “rise to the level of vocal ministry,” so I remained on mute (while I hum-sang!). This hymn from my childhood church came to me so strongly this morning that I would have (maybe?) sung it in Meeting if I could’ve remembered more than the Alleluias! I *almost* sang with the idea that I would hum the non-Alleluia parts.

If you are curious, with my Dad’s help (he’s retired minister of the ELCA), I found it — there are so many versions out there! — in the way I was hearing it in my head: https://youtu.be/FrDXw-8QtK0 was one from a Missouri Synod church (with the words), and another of just one person singing: https://youtu.be/tP9DfcMHVnk.

It will take some time for me to understand why this particular message came to me, though thoughts of hope and love (hope in action) following despair and acceptance come immediately to mind…

Might be a flurry… (of posts on this blog)

This week I am up in the mountains of Maine all by myself. No children, no parents, no pets. Just me. For many reasons, and the worldwide crises (googling “crisis plural”) is definitely among them, I may post a lot of small posts on this here web log. Just a head’s up, especially for those of you who get my posts by email!

Here’s where I am (heart emoji x a thousand):