Category: Against Racism

At A Loss For Words: A Poet To The Rescue

Of late, I’ve been trying to make sense of the world – my world – our world – but putting things into words. I am struggling to do so and as a logophile – someone who loves words – I find that troubling. It isn’t the first time I’ve been at a loss for words but it is the most recent – and – with all that’s happening in my world and our world – well – it couldn’t come at a worse time. What is there to do at a time like this?

Over the years I’ve learned when I don’t have the words it is best to go and find the words that someone else has found – to find inspiration – so to speak. Most of the time, I find that poets have more to say and are better at saying it (whatever it is) than I am. So – I find some trusty poets – like Wendell Berry or the Psalmists – and just ponder over their words – their reflections on the world.

But of late, I’ve been lost to find the right words amid all the discussions about race, prejudice, and politics. So, I returned to poetry – and to one poet in particular: Natasha Trethewey. natasha-tretheway_custom-0eac917f8d50d735639138400cf23d9f360d1bde-s800-c85

You may not have heard of Trethewey – which is unfortunate – really. She is a former US poet laureate and, among her list of accolades, she was awarded a Pulitzer and a Guggenheim fellowship. She’s served as a visiting professor at Duke, UNC, Yale, Harvard, and now at Northwestern. So far, she has five collections of poetry – one of which Native Guard, native guardcaptivated me because Trethewey has an uncanny way of tying together the politics of race in the US (and the south) with her own experience of being the daughter of a mixed-race marriage.

Take for example her poem “South” (You can find the entire poem here). The poem is written as if the poet is traveling down a road in the south – looking out of a window – observing. Like any traveler, the poet first encounters the natural beauty of the south. She sees stands of pines, magnolias in blossom, mangroves, and palmettos. Then she sees the open fields of cotton. If you’ve never witnessed cotton in bloom – you are missing an incredible sight. There is something beautiful in it – but also something haunting.

The field of blooming cotton for the poet holds a memory of her own lineage because generations of men and women and children – some of which she was no doubt related to – slaved away their lives there. And, no matter what side of history a person wants to take, there were those who fought and died to preserve a particular way of life that would have kept – and in many ways did keep – people chained to a lesser life.

Trethewey’s poem reminds the reader that even beyond the Civil War and far beyond reconstruction “roads, buildings, and monuments / are named to honor the Confederacy, where that old flag still hangs.”And – worse – the politics of race and prejudice extended into law – so much so that the poet is able to write herself into the poem and the landscape. As her trip into the south continues she arrives in “Mississippi, state that made a crime / of me—mulatto, half-breed—native / in my native land, this place they’ll bury me.”  It is difficult for me to imagine – but there was a time when it was against the law for people of different races to marry – and that law was often extended to the point that even the accusation of looking or speaking to a white woman could get a black man killed – just look at Emmet Till. So Trethewey was in her own being – simply by being born of mixed race – an outlaw.

At this point, you may be wondering what I’m going on about – and why I am bringing this up. I suppose it is a fair question. But like I said, I’ve been at a loss of words lately – largely because I only have my own perspective about race and prejudice. But I’ve noticed that a lot of people who pretty much have the same, singular perspective that I have are weighing in – going – to my way of thinking – where angels fear to tread without considering things from a broader perspective.

Everywhere I’ve ever lived – indeed everywhere I’ve ever been (and everywhere you’ve ever been or lived dear reader) – prejudice and racism have existed – and continue to exist. But I, like most folks who share my pigmentation, have never experienced it and so there really isn’t any way at all that I can weigh in on what it must be like to experience being treated poorly because of my race.

The closest I’ve ever come is the experience of someone I love deeply and dearly. It isn’t my story to tell in its entirety because I was on the outside of their experience; I was in the aftermath, holding them as they tearfully questioned why a total stranger hated them. The worst part is that I know the man who stupidly hurled the word bombs and I’ve wondered how the same man who stands to sing the doxology can also stoop to speak words of hatred to a child he doesn’t even know. I wondered if it has ever occurred to him that there are no white people in the Bible. Actually, (and I’ll confess this later) I’m quite sure that he’s never considered very much at all – nor is he aware of how singularly narrow or un-Christian his worldview is.

To be the sort of person that I want to be – indeed to be the sort of person that I think Jesus needs me to be as a Christian and as a pastor – it is important that my view of the world is broader than simply my own experience – especially before I weigh in on a topic or try to speak into it. Except for a short exile in St. Louis, I’ve lived most of my life in the south but I only know it from one side. I will never experience the sort of racial prejudice that so many others have and so, I can’t fully appreciate how horrible it is. I need the words, the perspectives of those who have lived it to help me understand our world a bit more fully. Even though she isn’t writing from a Christian perspective (not that it matters one way or another), Trethewey’s poem(s) have given me the words and perspectives that I need in order to have a framework beyond my singular experience. Poets are helpful like that.





Charlottesville’s reminder of a need for dialogue | Opinion |

Did you know that Bristol, Tennessee, has a few Confederate monuments in East Hill Cemetery? That makes sense, given the fact that Bristol served as a hospital during the Civil

Source: Charlottesville’s reminder of a need for dialogue | Opinion |



hands boundOver the last week news outlets have buzzed with the fallout surrounding the “alleged” racists comments of Clipper’s owner, Donald Sterling. Everyone from former NBA players and coaches to the President have contributed to the discussion. Even non-profits who have benefitted from Sterling’s wealth are weighing in – some returning his donations and others refusing to receive any further money from him. Sterling’s alleged remarks have left some wondering how this sort of thing could still be with us in 2014 after all we know how horrible racism and bigotry are. We have seen how it can lead to violence and that it also shows up in apathy and neglect. What we may miss, however, is just how captive we may personally be to racism and bigotry.

john perkins 2John Perkins understands how racism and bigotry enslaves humanity perhaps better than most people. Perkins experienced the violence of racism first hand – with the murder of his brother and welcoming justicehis own brutal beating at the hands of law enforcement in his Mississippi hometown. However, as Perkins lay recovering from near death he realized that if he returned the hatred that is inherent in racism he would be captive. He realized that racism and bigotry cuts across the intent of the Gospel. On recovering, Perkins continued the work that he had done earlier but he also began the work of reconciliation. He realized something incredibly important which is at the core of his life work. In the book, Welcoming Justice, John Perkins wrote, “No one ever put a chain on another human being without tying the other end to himself. We know this. But it can be hard for white folks to see how race continues to hold them captive.”

Is it difficult for white people to see how race holds them captive? Is it difficult for you to admit, to acknowledge racism and bigotry in your own life?

Here is an exercise that might be beneficial (or perhaps not).

  • If you are white, does it bother you that an African-American in Mississippi said this about white people? Why?
  • If you are African America does it make you feel good that Perkins says this about white people? Why?
  • If you are neither white nor African-American, how does this statement strike you?
  • When was the last time you heard someone say, “I’m not a racist but…?” Who said it? Why did they feel comfortable saying that to you?
  • When was the last time you heard someone say, “I don’t have a problem with gay people but…?” Did it come from your lips? Who said it? Why did they feel comfortable saying that to you? Or why did you feel comfortable saying it?
  • Would you rather not have certain “types” of people for neighbors? (I once had people react because they didn’t like the idea of living next to a pastor and his family).
  • Does race influence where you eat, shop for groceries, drive, live, or send your kids to school?
  • Does it influence where you worship?
  • Last week a man was sharing with me about where his kids would have to go to school if he didn’t send them to private school. He actually said, “it is a little dark over there – if you know what I mean.” Seeing my reaction he quickly followed up with, “I’m not racist but…” as if that would cover him. How would you have reacted? What would you have said? (I’ve wondered why he felt comfortable saying that to me).

Perkins is spot on and perhaps the Sterling debacle highlights how race and bigotry continue to hold people captive. Here we are in 2014, we have made all these advances in regards to equality and yet it is still with us. Why? Because racism and bigotry do not live in bans, fines, policies, legislation and even in electing an African-American President. Racism and bigotry live in the fertile soil of the human heart where they are planted, take root, bear fruit and harvested. Perhaps we need to ask what is within our hearts.

Perkins could have returned to his bitterness and anger after being beaten. It was certainly an option. It was as much a part of his heart as yours or mine. Instead he went the opposite direction. How?

John Perkins is not the hero of his story. Perkins points to one who triumphed thru him. In the New Testament Gospel of Luke, Jesus, we are told, entered a synagogue and a scroll, from the Prophet Isaiah, was given to him to read. He unrolled the scroll and found what we know as Isaiah 61. He read these words, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

As a Christian, it is the image of “liberty to the captive…those who are oppressed” which captures my imagination, especially as it relates to racism and bigotry. It was Jesus that helped turn Perkins away from the captivity of racism. It was Jesus that transformed his life and heart and keeps transforming it.  And yet, as much as I would like to say that racism and bigotry do not exist within a Christian context I can’t without lying. Sunday morningsslavery_hands_chain are often called “the last segregated hour.” Church folk do not always do what Jesus would have them do.

Nevertheless, I believe, as Perkins states so well, that Jesus “came to drive a wedge in the status quo and create space where new life can happen.” That is one thing that Jesus does – he pushes against even the hidden places of the human heart – the places where the seeds of racism and bigotry are planted – and brings good things to bear. It starts with something difficult – admitting, at least to God and ourselves – that we simply do not love all cultures and all people.

Perhaps when we are ready to admit some things about our hearts, the way we believe and think, then we can look to Jesus – even if you are not a Christian – and see how he interacted with people. Look at where Jesus traveled (Samaria), whom he engaged (prostitutes, tax-collectors, rich, poor, religious and self-righteous). Take a look at Jesus’ life and see how it differs from the way we make decisions about where we go, shop, eat, live, and especially the way we treat other people who are very different from us (Jesus, after all, was very different from the people interacted with). Perhaps Jesus will help us see the ways we are held captive by racism and bigotry. Perhaps he will help us the way he helped John Perkins – who in turn has brought good to bear in so many places. Perhaps Jesus will help you and I to become more aware of the ways that we are held captive to race and bigotry.




  2. Marsh, C. and J. Perkins (2009). Welcoming justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community. Downers Grove, Ill., IVP Books.