Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, September 6, 2020
Scripture: John 8:31-33: 31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
Thank you for inviting me to worship with you this morning. I’m joining you from our family home in Ocean Park Maine, but I normally worship with West Richmond Friends in Richmond Indiana. In this time of Zoom, it seems a particular blessing that we can gather from wherever we are, and experience the bonds of the body of Christ across the distance.
I had perhaps my first real and acute awareness of my own whiteness at the 1998 Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Harare Zimbabwe, an experience of the emptiness at the heart of white American identity. During the three-day pre-assembly gathering of the youth delegates, there was the “cultural night”, which I now know to be a tradition at WCC youth events. Each delegate is invited to wear the beautiful clothing of their cultural identity and to share a song, dance or other cultural expression that represents their belonging to a particular cultural group.
The youth were instructed to gather in country-groups to organize their offerings, so all of us from the United States gathered in our assigned room. Quite quickly, the Native American delegates formed their own group and went off to plan their part of the program. The African-American delegates did the same. The Latinex. The Asian-Americans. Until finally there were about 5 or 6 of us white Americans left in that room. We were lost. None of us had any idea what our “culture” was. Do we try to represent MacDonald’s and Walmart on that stage? Wear blue jeans and t-shirts as our national costume? Who, even, are we, this group without a hyphen, without a particularity, without any self-knowledge of our ancestors’ particularity? We were the “norm” against which all others were hyphenated, but there was no “there” there. Just a sense of emptiness and loss. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.
In the end, we decided to sing “Simple Gifts”, thereby co-opting a culture that we were not – Shaker – in perhaps the most unironic and unaware meta-representation of ourselves as white American master co-opters and erasers of particularity. I left that event with a deep sense of the hollow anguish of whiteness, which has stayed with me ever since. So much has been lost in the grand bargain that provides me with white privilege in exchange for any sense of story and identity.
That was my first moment of self-aware exploration of the meaning of being a white American, and it has sent me on a decades-long personal quest to understand how whiteness functions.
So it took me by surprise when, in early August at New England Yearly Meeting, I was swept up with a completely new question about my own white identity. Why had it never occurred to me before? I don’t know. But now that I’ve had this idea, I my mind is exploding like fireworks with it.
This new idea, this new question that has gripped me, is to learn the particular story of my slaveholding ancestors. I’ve always known that I was descended from Virginia plantation-owning aristocracy. I’ve always known that they were enslavers. And in my childhood there was even a certain kind of classist “pride” in being descended from such high-status people. (Lord, forgive me.)
Who were these people, my people? In the just-concluded AFSC course on racism, which maybe some of you participated in as well, we learned about the process of white identity development. We learned that one of the stages of becoming a white anti-racist is to research our family history, to reclaim our identity story. To make whiteness a conscious, rather than invisible, aspect of our personal story. Not just the vacant norm against which others are hyphenated, but a self-knowing story.
Who were these people, my people? Where, specifically, did they own plantation land? Which indigenous people were displaced so that they could occupy that land? How many slaves did they “own”? Who were those enslaved people and how did they come to be under my family’s control? How much wealth was created, and passed down to me, through the exploitation of those enslaved people? Do I have distant dark-skinned cousins as a result of rape committed by my ancestors? What do I do with that information, when I find it? How does it become part of my story, my particularity? What responsibility do I have, to apologize, to atone, to make amends, for the sins of my ancestors?
The Bible seems to say contradictory things about whether the sins of the fathers are a responsibility of the sons (or daughters). Ezekiel 18:20 says “A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent”, but in Exodus 34:7, God says that he will “visit the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” None of us want to be held responsible for something we didn’t personally do, but I think we can also understand the concept of collective responsibility, especially when we have inherited wealth and privileges derived from the sinful acts of those who came before us. I feel under the weight of this knowledge, as a moral burden.
But at this point, I don’t even know enough to name the specific sins of my ancestors. I can’t jump to taking responsibility and making amends, when I don’t yet know what I’m atoning for. I have to do the work, to learn the Truth, to uncover the stories, to find the details. Will knowing the Truth set me free?
Jesus said “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” And they answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
Seriously?? “We’ve never been enslaved to anyone?” Have they completely forgotten that they were slaves in Egypt? They have so erased their own story that they have no conception of the moral plumbline of what it means to be Children of God, offspring of Abraham? Their hypocrisy is rooted in their utter forgetting of who they are.
The fact that they went immediately to the implication of slavery says something about the word Jesus used that we translate “free”. Perhaps liberate or emancipate would be a more specific English translation? We are enslaved by the untrue stories we tell, by the “whitewashing” of our history. In the case of the story of whiteness, we are enslaved by the negation, the “white space” of the story. It takes active forgetting and erasure to manufacture an identity of whiteness.
I’m only just beginning to uncover the stories of my ancestors, but already it is fascinating and provoking so many questions! I stumbled upon the fact that my mother is a first cousin of Robert E Lee, and that the future Confederate General lived with, and was educated by, his aunt and uncle, my great great great great great grandparents, at Eastern View Plantation in Fauquier County, Virginia, from the ages of 7 to 13. My ancestor John Carter established the very first slave plantation in Virginia, in 1613. My 1st cousin 7 times removed, Robert Carter III, emancipated his 500 slaves in 1791 under religious conviction, having converted to Swedenborgianism. My second cousin seven times removed, James Robinson, was the child of my slaveholder ancestor and a black woman. He became the richest black man in America, and built a home he called Bull Run, where two Civil War battles were fought literally in his front yard.
I didn’t know any of these people’s names until this last month, but I wasn’t completely unaware of my family’s “status”. I was raised with stories (maybe not as specific as stories, but more like the air I breath) that conveyed a sense of pride at being descended from this class of people. As the Book of Hebrews says, we are surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” – those who came before us bear witness to us, with who they were, about who we are. What if they are not such a benevolent cloud? What if it feels more like smog?
It takes active forgetting and erasure to manufacture an identity of whiteness, and it will take active remembering to resist the inheritance of white supremacy. Resistance requires telling the stories, uncovering the silenced narratives and speaking them out, not just the stories of heroism and justice-making, but also the stories of sinful actions and misguided beliefs.
My mother clearly remembers her mother saying, with warmth and pride, that “the slaves loved our family.” This echoes, of course, the widespread myths that many aristocratic plantation families treated their slaves humanely, that slaves were happy in their condition, that there was genuine affection and even love between enslaved and enslaver, and that the cruelty exhibited by some slave owners was an aberrant exception to an otherwise bucolic situation of mutual contentment. The persistence of these myths attest to the skills of enslaved people in masking their true feelings, for the sake of their own and their family’s safety. The fact that my grandmother’s cherished self-image as the daughter of the beloved master was founded on utter rubbish was actually quite apparent to my mother, even as a young child, although she couldn’t at that time put words to the unease she felt with the received narrative of her family. She could only grasp that this version of whiteness was founded on a profound lie.
I wanted to be able to speak in this message about apologizing for the sins of our ancestors, about healing and making amends and offering reparations. I wanted to give Biblical direction on how this could happen, and what it would mean for me, and maybe for you too.
I have some experience with the power of an apology for collective sin, since I received a gut-compelling leading to offer an apology on the floor of New England Yearly Meeting in 2011, an apology to LGBT Friends on behalf of Christians, apologizing for the harm caused by homophobic theologies, policies and biblical interpretations. The experience of offering that apology was profound, and will stand as one of the moments in my life in which I felt most connected to the power of God, the power to repair that which has been broken.
So I find myself now yearning for a similar sense of leading in relation to the harm caused by my family’s participation in slavery. And I wanted to have clarity about that for you today. But I have to admit that I’m not there yet. I don’t know yet what that will mean, for me. What it will cost, not just in terms of money and words, but in terms of risk and reorientation. I can’t intellectualize it, and I certainly can’t preach it, until I’ve discovered how to live it. So, in order to stay within the integrity of what has been given to me experientially, I think at this point all I can reflect on is the importance of uncovering our ancestor stories and grappling with them. I can’t yet talk about how healing or apologizing or making amends or reparations will take shape for me.
But surely, truth-telling is a necessary step in the process of making amends. Unearthing the truth, especially when it has been purposefully forgotten or whitewashed, can in itself be a liberating task. As I scour the internet for information about my own ancestors, and rush into the other room to tell my family what I’m finding, I feel the magnetic compulsion toward the Truth. And I continue to believe that the Truth will set me on a path to freedom from white supremacy, for Jesus promised that “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”