Monday, December 15, 2008

divine work

Those who wish to join us in this divine work must be willing to lose their white identity -- indeed, destroy it.

-- James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation

This I cannot do. I cannot destroy my identity. I cannot even lose it.

My circle of prep school boys loved an older girl who told us of adventures in the city. She had met James Brown in a club – and he talked with her. “This,” he said, touching the flesh of his arm with the other hand, “this doesn’t rub off.” This was of course his color. If James Brown said such a thing – even if Patricia only imagined that he did – the trope shows contrast of colored and colorless. Peoples of color learn that their existence is an issue. One can imagine the erasure of even an indelible pigment, and therefore colored and colorless may say, expressing different wishes, If only . . . But erasing whiteness, rubbing off what has no color, is more than impractical – it’s inconceivable. No one asked Patricia to “rub off” her whiteness. Except perhaps Patricia herself.

New York City was for Patricia where real life happened. Her family in the suburbs of Hartford were a kind of death for her. White. A blank page. No story. And Patricia was a story-teller. So whenever she could, she went to the city to smudge her whiteness, to mark the page that otherwise had nothing to say. When she told me of her tête-à-tête with the King of Soul, I had no idea who James Brown was. Or what Soul was, for that matter. But I heard the tremor when she spoke his name, her thrill at the Monarch’s condescension, confiding to her his grief. Now I think it was not grief.

This doesn’t rub off. If he didn’t say it, he might have said it. It doesn’t rub off because it isn’t paint. It goes through and through. There’s no way to remove it and leave me here. This doesn’t rub off. It’s not a lament when I say it. It’s a celebration. I don’t work around my color. I don’t overcome my color. I sing my color, and I Feel Good when I sing it. My integrity is to sing what I am and what you – incidentally – are not. Your city makeup, the solidarity written on your blank face, comes off with a little soap when you go home. I’ll still be here, Black and Proud.

“Theology is always identified with a particular community.” And mine is the community that enslaved one people of color for profit and power, while cleansing another from the land in the name of New Jerusalem. We did it because we could, and then we convinced ourselves that it was good to do it. We rationalized our work and pronounced on it the blessing of God. These are the original sins of my country.

Our parents ate sour grapes, and now my teeth are on edge. I look at my hand and my arm, turning slowly in the light, and I say, this doesn’t rub off. I can paint over it, but after a shower the blankness returns. How shall I recover my soul? I can’t take it from a black man, for it lives only in his body. I can’t sing his song without changing it. “No matter how hard whitey tries there can be no real duplication of black soul.”

I can never cease to be the son of my mother and my father, trained in a school for leading citizens that, even if I hadn’t done well on my entrance exams, would have had a place for me. Not viewed as a shoplifter every time I enter a store. Not encouraged by well-meaning teachers to become a janitor. If I give all my earthly goods to the poor, I shall still be white. After my death I will still be white. Even more so.

“Interrogate your social location.” These words are not carved in stone over the gate of my seminary, and yet I read them there. I have interrogated: I am who I am. I take inventory of the sins that have always already tilted the ground. And I take inventory of the assets that, even if corruptly awarded, I cannot alienate. If power is mine, I hold it in trust. It comes down to this: love kindness and act justly, and walk humbly with the God who took sides before I was born.

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