Renee Shaw, left, producer, writer and host of Kentucky Education Television’s “Connections with Renee Shaw,” receives the Kente Cloth from, from left: John Chowning, vice president for church and external relations and executive assistant to the president; Dr. Frank Cheatham, senior vice president for academic affairs; and Taylor County Judge/Executive Eddie Rogers. (Campbellsville University Photo by Rachel DeCoursey)
Dialogue on Race add by Renee Shaw at Campbellsville University
Oct. 23, 2013
Salutations to Drs. Carter and Chowning and the Campbellsville University family.
I am excited about being here at Campbellsville University for my second visit.
On this occasion of a dialogue on race, I have to resist my journalistic temptation to make this event true to its name and force a two-way conversation that may indeed turn out flat or non-participatory.
Matters of race have confounded this country since the arrival of the first Africans to a Virginia colony in 1619. It is not my expectation that we’ll solve it in 20 minutes, nor is that my goal. In my line of work, probing academic philosophies and theories are a favorite pastime, and for the next few minutes, my commentary is not just a reflection of my own thoughts and experiences, but those I have examined of high thinking critical race theorists, thinker and doers and even dreamers in this state and nation.
When last I was here, around this time of year I believe, Dr. Chowning, I talked about my work at KET, the personal passion and conviction I have for telling the stories of all our brothers and sisters…whether they be so in the literal Christian sense or not. I shared a little about my upbringing as the one of the few African Americans in an otherwise white homogenized town flanking the Kentucky – Tennessee border. I shared my commitment to build the bridges to consensus and understanding, rather than division and derision. And, I shared the pledge I made to take on the issue of poverty in Kentucky which we have successfully done and will be debuting our third installment of a special series about it in November.
I thought it went over well, had some positive feedback, UNTIL about 8 months later. It was the evening of the George Zimmerman verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. I expressed my shock over the verdict on Facebook…. My first mistake.
What I shared in the public domain that is Facebook on that June evening was the muted righteous anger of people of color finding voice. But then what followed is what is informing my remarks to you today. Someone who was here for my presentation last year…eight months later found it suitable a time and place to call me a racist…fonted it out on my page, unsolicited, and accused me of resorting to a racist vent in my remarks to you last year. I don’t recall that.
And, I don’t know why this person chose the occasion of the Zimmerman verdict to passively aggressively put me on blast. And, I also don’t want to mitigate that exchange here before you today. I’ve been called a lot worse and I’m also called to conduct myself as Dr. MLK said on the national mall in 1963 to a “higher plane of discipline and dignity.”
But, it made me think…if this person found my commentary last year subversive, then today’s presentation will reinforce that meme. But, most importantly, it gives rise to every reason why I should be here today.
I’m actually thankful for the criticism because it’s emboldening me to speak truth to power. It confirmed to me the following: (1) The well of black pain cannot be explained to and understood through certain prisms of privilege. It doesn’t matter how gentle you are in your expression or submissive you are in moderating your language. There are some folks you can’t and won’t reach.(2) Race is a hypersensitive issue on the part of blacks and whites. (3) Race is more than just black and white and (4) There will never be a day that we just get over it and (5) Civil rights towers like Congressman John Lewis teach us that even with those four givens, we must be ruled by a love of and for humanity to keep trying to get it right and love the hell out of our haters. The latter is the crux of my message today.
Racism is really about fear of losing at least three things: power (who has it, how’d they get it and where’s mined) , privilege (who’s got it, how’d they get it and where’s mine), and political leverage (who’s got it, how’d they get it and where’s mine).
Regardless of who that person was who took issue with me last year, I don’t hold grudges and am reminded of the work that lies ahead.
I applaud the continuing efforts of this fine institution to expose its student body, faculty and staff to these complex, tedious and sometimes rattling monologues about the uncomfortable issues of racism that are not solved as easily as Hollywood blockbusters like “The Butler” and “The Help” would have us to believe.
A recent New York Times article titled “The Never Ending Story” punctuates this truth as the author concludes that in silver-screen dealings with historical water marks from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement: “The existence of racism is acknowledged and its poisonous effects are noted. But, it is also localized, in time and geography, in such a way to avoid implicating the present-day white audience.”
Journalist and film critic A.O. Scott wrote in a late September column this year “racists are clearly marked as villains – uncouth, ugly, ignorant in ways that no one watching would identify with – and they are opposed by a coalition of brave whites and noble, stoic blacks. At the end, the coach and his players, the preacher and his flock, the maid and her enlightened employer shame the bigots and vindicate the audience.”
We have helped our selves to an over-abundance of black domestic servitude in telling civil rights stories through the lens of butlers and maids. We’ve pulled down our theatre chairs, settled in with our ten-dollar over-buttered bucket of movie popcorn and pop and patted ourselves on the back for being racially progressive folks who support “black” films that harken an era bygone. We suppress the stinging realities of a film that may be intended to prick our willing suspension of disbelief that vestiges of those civil rights horrors still seethe in the main UNTIL a famed celebrity chef gets called out for using the “N” word in more than a random, unprotected moment of disclosure and launch a futile cyberspace feud about the dictionary’s false equivalencies of other foul-mouthed words that don’t even come close to that dehumanizing word deployed during merciless lynchings and tortuous rapes of black bodies.
June 2013 could be characterized as the summer of discontent for many blacks and civil rights warriors who flinched in despair at hearing a pair of United States Supreme Court rulings that scale back affirmative action and gut section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that prohibits selected districts and states from changing election laws and procedures without the approval of the federal government. These are mostly southern states and districts with a history of voting stunts that sought to suppress the black vote. Opponents of lifting that pre-clearance rule fear it will give way to a new iteration of poll taxes and laws that disenfranchise the already disadvantaged.
The trappings in understanding modern day racism is the expectation that it looks white-sheet hooded clansmen bearing fire-lit torches on horseback flashing whips and yelling obscenities. Anything shy of that is hard to prove and even harder to see. But, racism is in systems…economic, educational, and political. It’s in the gerrymandering of our legislative districts, it’s in the teacher assignment to poor, under-achieving schools, it’s in a criminal justice system that exacted harsher penalties and sentences in drug cases involving people of color and it’s an economical structure that seems complacent with more than quarter of our kids languishing at the bottom of life’s well in poverty.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of sitting down with my sheroe and civil rights leader Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. She recalled time spent with Dr. Martin Luther King and the balmy August 1967 day they discussed launching the Poor People’s campaign – a campaign to make visible the intolerable poverty of millions of white, black, brown, Asian and Native American citizens who she said was denied a seat at America’s table of plenty. Our history lessons remind us that protests against racism, poverty and economic equality were terminal conditions and causes for Dr. King that led to his premature death by an assassin’s hands.
I remember the emotions I felt this summer when I saw the MLK memorial for the first time. The slain hero is immortalized in solid granite 30 feet high. His arms are crossed, and he sternly gazes upon a vista of the Tidal Basin, the Jefferson Memorial, and the horizon beyond. It’s magnificent, compelling, and thought provoking.
It’s as if King is still waiting for the nation to make good on the promissory note issued in the Declaration of Independence, still waiting for the check to clear in the bank of justice, still waiting for character to trump color in our collective judgment of each other, and still waiting for a beloved community to take hold.
This summer I had an enlightening conversation on air with poet Nikky Finney who talked about these 150 year BLINKS in civil rights history. The Emancipation Proclamation effective January of 1863 issued by Kentucky’s favorite son Abraham Lincoln declaring that slaves “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free” that broadened the course of the civil war and his famous Gettysburg Address in November of 1863 that charged the country to take an increased devotion and higher resolve for a nation to have a new birth of freedom.
The year 1963 gave us the highs of March on Washington for jobs and freedom and the lows of the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers; the bombing of four innocent black girls in a Birmingham church, and the murder of President John F. Kennedy – all of which were vicious attacks of domestic terrorism designed to halt the resolve of civil rights activists ready and willing to suffer the same fate.
In late August we celebrated 50 years of the March on Washington with the only surviving speaker from that original mother of all marches Congressman John Lewis remaining to celebrate the golden anniversary. Then, 23 years old and the youngest to speak, Lewis, had to tamp down what organizers thought was too stern of a message in his demands for justice and declaration that blacks had waited long enough for it to rein down. This is a man who endured more than 40 arrests, one of which he spent nearly 37 days in near solitary confinement in a state penitentiary for a civil disobedience charge. He was beaten within inches of his life during his protests for civil rights. But, this giant of civil rights – quite the opposite of his stature – endured physical attacks few would tolerate today without retaliation as a devoted advocate for non-violence.
I met Georgia’s 5th district Congressman Lewis just last week, and I was overtaken by his presence, his calm, his peace, and his joy. MNBC’s Rachel Maddow interviewed Mr. Lewis on stage at the Kentucky Center for Performing Arts in Louisville. The interview will be broadcast on KET and other PBS stations across the country. The young man who turned his back on the “scorched earth” philosophy to eradicate Jim Crowism’s is still a builder in Dr. King’s vision for a beloved community. He met Dr. King at age 18 and armed with the disciple and pledge to peace. Mr. Lewis led lunch counter sit-ins and refused to be moved even when a waitress poured disinfectant down his back and a pitcher of water over his food, after which the eatery’s manager sprayed and burned him with pest control. In 1961, he joined the busloads of whites and blacks known as Freedom Riders who rode through Dixie and brutally attacked all the way. The formula for reaching racism seems evident in his 2012 memoir with the following chapters: Faith, Patience, Study, Truth, Peace, Love and Reconciliation.
Mr. Lewis spoke a lot last week about love and bringing light to darkness. His last chapter in his book “Across that Bridge” starts with the familiar hymnal refrain by Harry Dixon Loes “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.”As a Christian, I believe that God rewards you confirmation of delivering a stern message as the Doctor Robert Baker from Calvary Baptist Church delivered three succinct points in his message to my church of Bracktown last Sunday that I believe are applicable here: burry the hatchet, build a bridge and shine a light.
As a journalist and woman with a change the world complex that I hope is never cured, I grouse about the systems burdened by racism and I strive to discuss and probe their state and how and if things can change; I dissect the philosophies and barriers to that change; and commit myself to a civil dialogue in each step of the process. And, just when I think I’ve reached the boiling point in what seems to be an intractable problem, I look to Congressman John Lewis’ words and the words of Dr. Baker of Calvary Baptist Church in Lexington and create my own inspirational remix: with Faith I will find patience and study the truth to work toward peace with love for reconciliation…
In other words: bury the hatchet, build a bridge, and shine a light.Even in the midst of facing criticism and name-calling, those freedoms are also guaranteed and protected, enshrined in our US constitution.In the Bible of our government and democracy are the rights of speech and belief guaranteed to those who seek to unify and those who seek to divide. And, if we are to be servants of God as in Isaiah 49 and better yet FRIENDS of God as Christ says in John 15 verses 14 -18, that you are my friends if you do whatever I command you.No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing, for all things that I have heard from My father I have made known to you…these things I command you, that you love one another. If the world hates you, you know that it hated me before it hated you.
Racism may dwell among us, but it is our choice to let it not dwell within us. I, like, Lewis and like Dr. King, still believe in the beloved community and transformative progress toward racial reconciliation. If I didn’t, I couldn’t do the work I do in good conscience. As political science professor and commentator Melissa Harris Perry’s father would say even as he signed her birthday cards as a young girl: the struggle continues.
I believe, as a friend of God and not just as his servant committed to unity and not strife, that I am in the struggle and should daily seal my compact toward peace and love. That’s not part of most journalist’s Hippocratic oath – but it is mine. To be slow to take offense, always ready for reconciliation is part of the covenant I repeat before participating in our church’s quarterly communion. As John Lewis says: “living as light means putting away remedies based on fear, retribution, and revenge and acting collectively to respect the dignity of all humankind – not just those we agree with or whose paths we understand – but every human being.”
That’s how we undo racism. The words are simple but the deeds to get there can be exhausting. What we have to believe is that we are light that curses the darkness. Those of us who believe in justice, peace, and equality cannot rest until it’s done. Our faith does not call us to be docile in adversity. Our faith arms us with everything we need to stand up against evil and wrong doers. As Dr. King once said other-centered folks can build up what self-centered men chose to destroy.
The dialogue on race starts with a self-examination, not just enduring an occasional lecture. To take a queue from the late King of Pop, we have to start with the man or woman in the mirror. It’s asking ourselves what we don’t understand, seeking out friendships with folks who don’t share our block, zip code, bank account or church.And, it’s constantly remembering and practicing love and light that is slow to offense and quick to seek reconciliation.
As I close, I leave you with these powerful words by Georgia Congressman John Lewis at the end of his book “Across That Bridge:”
“Clothe yourself in the work of love, in the revolutionary work of nonviolent resistance against evil. Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Choose confrontation wisely, but when it is time don’t be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against injustice. And, if you follow your truth down the road to peace and the affirmation of love, if you shine like a beacon for all to see, then the poetry of all the great dreamers and philosophers is yours to manifest in a nation, a world community, and a Beloved Community that is finally at peace with itself.”