Friday, February 9, 2018

Lent and Black History Month

The little girl wears a fun summer jumper and looks innocent and precious with her clean white face and bobbed hair. Her grin
is one of satisfaction and righteousness. She is pleased as she stands, arms hanging down her sides, her hands crossed in
front of her. Her crossed hands are the only sign of even the slightest insecurity she may be feeling. She approves of her day
out with her family. Other families like hers are gathered around. They too have been enjoying themselves, adorned in their white
suits, hats, and dresses as befitting a fine Southern summer day. Some of them look less pleased and satisfied, not dismayed or
disappointed, rather, more curious. A few have arms crossed at their chests, intimating some level of insecurity and discomfort.

This has been a town gathering, an outing for all families, at least, all white families. The central figure in the photograph, the one
capturing the attention of all present, is a black man in worn and torn overalls. He, too, has his arms together in front of his body,
similar to the little girl in the white jumper, but his are bound by metal handcuffs. His expression is that of a man sleeping uncomfortably,
which is understandable given the noose around his neck. (To see the photograph, visit the New York Public Library Digital Collections here.)

This scene was captured in the famous photograph of the lynching of Rubin Stacey in Fort Lauderdale, FL on July 19, 1935. The deputy
passed around his gun, allowing bystanders to shoot at Stacey’s body. The coroner counted 17 bullet holes in the body of the deceased

after he was taken down from the tree. (For more about the lynching, read the Sun-Sentinel article
here.)

Images such as this answer the question “Why do we have to have a Black History Month?” I wasn’t taught about lynchings in the South
as a student. I didn’t learn the name Emmett Till until I became an adult. My textbooks showed me pictures of signs for “colored” and “white”
water fountains and spoke of Rosa Parks and Dr. King. I received a much-sanitized version of Jim Crow cruelty, one that simply portrayed
it as a system that didn’t treat people the same. I was not presented with the darker truth of the deep sin and horror of the time.

Most years Ash Wednesday occurs in February, which happens to be Black History Month. Even when Lent falls later in a given year, it’s
still on the heels of our time set apart to reflect on the history of African Americans in the United States. We miss out when we do not link
these two seemingly separate events, for the hope in Black History Month and the hope of Lent are the same: transformation borne in
recognizing our transgressions.

We mark Black History Month because, for so long, the stories of African Americans were not told to us. Other than the mentions of a chosen
few, I did not hear of the contributions of any minority group to the building up of our country. It was as though any non-white, non-European,
had been lucky enough to be included in this great endeavor. Any unfortunate events or indiscretions were portrayed as results of the ignorance
of the non-white people or of individual whites, certainly not a reflection of the society as a whole.

In this vein, the lynching of Rubin Stacey would be seen as the sad, maybe tragic, result of a handful of men who had gotten out of control. But
we see from the photograph that to focus on the men who tied the noose and pulled the trigger on the gun would be denying the whole truth.
Mr. Stacey was the most important victim on that July day but he was not the only one. The children looking at him- that little girl in her crisp jumper
and satisfied grin- learned an important lesson from the sin of their fathers: black men were no better than livestock and had to be punished and
restrained, same as any boar or bull that kept escaping and getting out of line. The black man was to be strung up, same as animals are strung up
in slaughterhouses. They are no better than paper targets hung on trees, ready for practice and entertainment.

Most of those children grew up as racist as their parents, and they handed it onto their children. It’s their voices that raise up perennially with the
questions, “Why do we need a Black History Month?” and “Why can’t the blacks leave well enough alone at this point?”

We teach our children our sins as well as our faith. The insidiousness of sin is not in the ways we are injured by it; no, that’s justice. The horrific
nature of sin is how it destroys those around us; how others pay the price for our selfishness and ignorance and, worse, how they inherit it.
Every year the season of Lent falls upon us as we begin the long journey to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We anticipate the dust and ash of
Ash Wednesday, expecting to be reminded of our mortality and sinfulness. We know we are to take advantage of this season that compels us to
introspection and self-examination. On our knees we ask for God’s forgiveness for “things done and left undone,” words repeated again and again
in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church. We “give up” vices for Lent, ever-aware that Easter is coming, and with it freedom from
our self-imposed self-denial. On Easter Sunday the Cokes and chocolate will be back in the house, if they haven’t crept back in already.

But that’s not the hope for Lent. The hope is that we will take on new disciplines that help to repair our relationships with God and one another,
ones that will help us turn and return to God and one another. We pray that these practices will make us more aware, more conscientious of our
behavior and will continue long past Easter Sunday. Transformation through recognition of transgressions is the aim, a lasting transformation that
will push us forward towards wholeness of life.

Similarly, we hope Black History Month will not be a season we check in a box and mark off our calendars. It’s not the month that we recognize
the contributions of African Americans to our country; it’s the month we acknowledge our failure to tell those stories of the past and of today. The
hope, again, is for transformation through recognition of transgressions: it reminds us of who we have been and are still striving to improve. We as
a nation are far from perfect. Racism is still systemic, and Black History Month should push us forward to continue to fight it.

Are we just going through the motions? Are Lent and Black History Month simply ways we assuage our guilt without taking on any real responsibilities?
Cities change the name of a main street or boulevard to “MLK Blvd,” or some such thing, while racism and segregation are still alive and well on both
sides of that very street. They have checked the box marked “Made an effort” because they’re only interested in a pat on the back and a consolation prize
rather than searching for solutions to the real problems.

And that’s what we are tempted to do in February about Black History and through the season of Lent. We want an “attaboy” without having to make
much of a commitment. We assign Black History Month to the shortest month of the year and relegate any earnest repentance to the weeks of Lent.
But what of March 1 to January 31? And what of Easter Sunday to the Last Sunday after the Epiphany? How great is our faithfulness? Are we willing
to be transformed or are we too comfortably reconciled to checking the box once a year?



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