Archive for June, 2013
Paula Deen, Chris Rock, and The “N-word”
Michael W. Woods
June 26, 2013
By now, much has been said and written about Paula Deen’s poor choice of vocabulary in discussing the thorny issue of race relations in the US. Most, if not everyone, have taken sides; either, in the words of one on-line friend, “joining in the pile-on,” or attempting to excuse what people of common decency would deem inexcusable. Well known pundits, such as Bill Maher, have joined in the fray declaring the “n-word” (which Deen admitted to having used in her workplace setting in the past) to be just another word and, by implication, something people shouldn’t get too out-of-sorts about. Another southern chef, Michael Twitty, who happens to be African-American, has also weighed in on her use of the n-word. While he did not excuse her use, he did comment that for him the word had lost any power it may have once had. He then went on in his essay to use the n-word himself, spelling it out clearly and plainly, supposedly so that we, his readers, could see that it had no effect on him.
Has it? Are we now in an era where a hurtful racial epithet of the past no longer – or at least, should no longer – have any power to intimidate, humiliate, and oppress an entire race of people?
It seems to me this is the real public conversation taking place in the wake of Deen’s admission – not whether Deen or her supporters are racists. Of course they are – we all harbor prejudices and there is a little bit of racism in all of us, as Twitty himself observed. But even religious leaders are in disagreement over the question of the n-word’s current efficacy in our post-modern, multi-cultural society.
For the last couple of years, I have worked as a hospital chaplain in Atlanta, GA, and now currently in Columbus, OH. Prior to that I worked a few years as a solo pastor of a small rural congregation in Northeast Georgia. I recall a conversation between two of my chaplain colleagues about an incident that occurred at one of the many seminaries in and around the Atlanta area. A white minister addressed a gathering of students and faculty at the seminary. The make-up of the audience was racially mixed, with African-Americans comprising a significant percentage of those attending. During his address, the minister used the n-word causally several times. Many in the audience were shocked and offended, but the preacher continued on, claiming (as Maher and Twitty recently have) it’s just a word! My colleagues, both of whom are white and one whom was present in the audience, could not believe anyone in this day and age would be offended. After all, they reasoned, don’t Black entertainers like Chris Rock and Jay-Z use the n-word profusely?
First of all, it struck me as completely inappropriate for two white males to be deciding on their own what should and shouldn’t be acceptable or offensive for the Black community. That is obviously something the Black community should decide on their own – we whites don’t have a say in it, nor should we. And whatever African-Americans decide, we whites should respect that decision. The n-word no longer belongs to us – i.e., to the white community. In the past, we crafted the word, borrowing it from Portuguese and Spanish, and utilized it to impose intimidation, humiliation, and oppression on a race of people. But we lost any ownership and right to use we may have had over the word when Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the Civil Rights Movement raised the conscience of the church, marched on Washington, and brought an end to legalized segregation. We lost those things, and rightfully so, because our legal right to intimidate and subjugate people based on race came to an end. For whites to re-assert any right to use of the n-word is to reassert the basis of our previous ownership of it – the right to oppress. That’s why it was wrong for Paula Deen to use the word so casually in her business, and why she needs to apologize for having used it. It’s also why Bill Maher has no authority to decide whether or not the word should remain hurtful to African-Americans.
Furthermore, it’s also why – even should the African-American community ultimately decide to reclaim the word in the same way that the LGBT community has reclaimed the “q-word” or women are currently reclaiming the “b-word,” as Twitty suggests – the n-word will never, ever belong again to the white race and we will never again have the right to its use without subjecting ourselves to charges of racism. Many (mostly whites) will proclaim this is not fair, but we have only ourselves to blame. This is the bed we made with the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow.
PS: Michael Twitty’s open letter to Paula Deen, which I referenced several times in this essay can be found at http://afroculinaria.com/2013/06/25/an-open-letter-to-paula-deen/
June 23, 2013
I’ve always had a naturally very inquisitive mind. Whenever I discover something new, I always have to know what it is, what it’s used for and when do I get a chance to use it. When I was in school and one of my friends would bring something from home … a new toy, a new baseball glove, or anything like that … we would all gather around, full of questions … wanting to see it … wanting to touch it … wanting to take turns playing with it.
One of the earliest memories I have was when I was about five years old. I discovered a green colored, marking pencil somewhere in the house. I had never seen one before – I wanted to know what it was and what it was used for. So, I did what most five year olds would do – I went and asked my mom. Now, what I hadn’t figured out at this early stage of my life was that my mom had an occasional bent towards playful sarcasm whenever she was in the mood. And she just kind of casually and jokingly said to me: “Oh, it’s for marking on walls!”
Well, that kind of sarcasm went right over my head! I was at a stage where I took things literally. The next though that came to my mind as I looked at that pencil was: “Cool! I’m gonna have some fun with this!”
I don’t remember what I subsequently drew later that day when I was alone. Five years old is what I think of as the “cubist period” of my artistic career … I was fascinated by angles and different geometric shapes.
But the most important lesson I learned that day, after mom discovered what I had done, was about boundaries … what you can and can’t do … and how important they are. Boundaries, I learned, are good … they keep you from ruining things or hurting other people … they keep our society orderly and functioning properly … and their purpose is to keep you safe and out of trouble. Boundaries, surprisingly and somewhat paradoxically, give us freedom. Without certain restraints, we would become slaves. There are rules that we all have to follow … some of them unwritten like “you’re not supposed to draw on walls” … and for the most part, they have a good reason for being.
The two scripture readings this morning are about boundaries. But both of the authors, Paul and Luke, want us to understand that not all boundaries are good. There are times when boundaries hurt and don’t protect … times when they enslave and prohibit freedom.
Jesus begins the Gospel story by crossing a very literal boundary … the Sea of Galilee. He had been around the northern part of the lake, near Capernaum. There he healed a Centurion’s servant … he told the Parable of the Sower … and in the Gospel of Matthew he is said to have preached the Sermon on the Mount at that time.
But after he had done all of these things, he gets into a boat with his disciples and tells them, “Let’s go on to the other side” (let’s cross this boundary). And they set out from the very northern tip of the Lake and sail to the very southern tip, landing somewhere near the city of Gadara. Now the Sea of Galilee is considered to be a boundary … it separates the region of Galilee, over which King Herod had authority, from a region known as the Decapolis – a group of ten cities, founded by Alexander the Great during his conquests, and which were very different from Galilee in terms of culture, language and religion. The people of the Decapolis were not Jewish … they were Gentiles. They did not speak Hebrew or Aramaic, but probably spoke Greek, and they worshipped the Greek and Roman gods and maybe some other ancient tribal deities.
And the first thing that happens as Jesus sets out to cross cultural, political, and religious boundaries … is, well, he goes to sleep … he doesn’t seem too worried about what he’s about to do. Unlike a lot of people … unlike a lot of us, crossing these kinds of boundaries isn’t upsetting for Jesus. He’s at ease and comfortable with what’s about to happen. He’s so much at ease, as a matter of fact, that a storm comes up … the boat is tossed to and fro and water begins to wash in over the sides … and Jesus continues to lie in the back of the boat, just snoozing away. The disciples have to shake him awake.
I can only wish for that kind of peacefulness in the midst of a storm. And as I read this account in the Gospel, it makes me wonder: Do we, as the church, have that kind of calm assurance whenever we are on the cusp doing something so radically different from anything we’ve ever done before? Or, do we want to give in to the temptation to turn back and return to Galilee … to where we came from (which is probably what the disciples are thinking about in the middle of the lake and a storm) … do we want to go back to where we feel more safe and comfortable because we encounter some resistance or things get a little too stormy? Whenever we come up against cultural, political or religious boundaries, like the disciples, we are filled with fear.
The apostle Paul is concerned about some of these same boundaries. And he tells us in the reading from Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (v. 28). Paul is concerned here with artificial boundaries … boundaries that are a human creation … and that are erected, not only to separate one group of people from another, but to put one group of people over and above another: Jews above Gentiles … masters over slaves … men over women. Race, socioeconomic status, and gender. And Paul tells the church in Galatia – and it’s a good reminder for us today in the 21st Century even, that in the Kingdom of God these boundaries do not exist … and for the church, since it is supposed to be a representative of God’s heavenly kingdom here on earth, these boundaries should not exist for us either.
But do they? Do we let them? Martin Luther King Jr., made the remark many times throughout his ministry in several different speeches and sermons that the most segregated hour in America is the 11 o’clock hour on Sunday morning. Is not this one of the boundaries Paul was talking about? The 70’s and 80’s saw the growth of the “megachurch” movement – big box churches that attracted thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of members. One of the things the churches that were (and are) a part of this movement shared was the philosophy that, in order to grow, it was best for the members to be alike each other in some way … similar in terms of race, culture, socioeconomic status, and political affiliation … and the reason they gave for doing this was so that everyone in the congregation would be more comfortable. Is that what we want out of church? A place where we can be comfortable while the world we are called to minister to crumbles around us?
It would have been much more comfortable for Jesus to have remained in Capernaum, with his own people … people who were like him … but he got into the boat and he tells his disciples to come with him. Jesus finds a way to be comfortable – not safely within the bounds of cultural, economic or political segregation – but rather in challenging those boundaries.
And after they crossed that hazardous boundary … after they make it across the sea, more boundaries come into play. They meet a man who is forced out to the boundaries of his own society. He has no home, he has no clothes, he is kept chained and locked up, and a guard is posted over him day and night. He doesn’t seem to know his own identity, for when Jesus asks him his name, he says, “My name is Legion.”
Now, some might diagnose his condition a little differently today. Some people might say he suffered from a form of epilepsy … some might say he suffered from some form of mental illness … and some might even say he was, indeed, possessed by demons. But some might argue: “What’s the difference?”
One thing is for certain: He may have forgotten who he is, but we know him … we see him everyday. He’s the person we encounter on the street that we walk away from as far as we possibly can because they seem a little strange to us. He is the woman who shows up in the hospital emergency room with her children seeking medical attention, and everyone automatically assumes she’s illegal for no reason other than she is Hispanic. He is the African and/or Arab American who is racially profiled at every traffic stop, airport and department store in America. He is every man, woman and child we push to the margins of our own society, even here in the supposedly enlightened time of the 21st Century.
But he is also like the rest of us in one way. The demons that inhabit his mind and have robbed him of life have become such a part of him that he is no longer able to envision life without them. The ideological boundaries that keep him on the margins … that keep him bound and chained … that make him the victim of prejudice and abuse are what really possess him … they’re the real demons in this story.
And the people who keep him on the margins … who keep him under lock and key … who have no vision of their own community where he can somehow be a part of it … they’re as equally possessed as he ever was. They think this is natural … they think this is the way things should be.
So, Jesus does more than just a simple exorcism in this story. The real miracle that happens here … the real healing … is he gives the man back his identity … he gives him a place and a role in the community. Jesus tears down the walls and ideological boundaries that segregate him from his neighbors. And that’s scary for the people who had kept him locked up – they have to deal with him now … they can no longer ignore him. We are told the town’s people are filled with fear when they come out and find this man, fully clothed and in his right mind.
As well they should be, for the kingdom of God has broken on them … there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. The kingdom of God crosses all political, cultural, economic, and gender boundaries, annihilating walls of hierarchy and oppression.
If we are Christ’s followers, remember that Jesus commands us – not to remain safe within the bounds of Galilee – but to get in the boat with him. Crossing boundaries will be stormy … there will be demons waiting for us on the other side … but we bring with us a precious cargo … the good news of the kingdom … the good news we are called to bring to the poor, that proclaims the release of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, that lets the oppressed go free, and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19, citing Isaiah 61:1, 58:6, 61:2).