Last Wednesday afternoon I saw Stephen Spielberg's film Amistad, his portrayal of a dramatic incident in the history of American racism. It tells the story of Cinque and 52 other Africans who were kidnapped from Sierra Leone in 1839 and brought to the Western Hemisphere as slaves. The dramatic scenes of their capture, suffering, rebellion, and their ultimate trial for mutiny and murder were compelling. It is not a film for the faint of heart.
While it was clearly an imaginative embellishment of an historical event, it does depict a despicable slice of American history, whose fallout we feel today. The film is intriguing for a number of reasons: Djimon Hounsou, who gave a powerful performance as Cinque, was a street person before Amistad propelled him into the national limelight. That in itself is an incredible story.
And then for Unitarian Universalists there is the presence of two Unitarian characters. First, John Quincy Adams, in the twilight of a brilliant career as senator, diplomat, Secretary of State, President, and now congressman. He was, of course, the Unitarian son of a Unitarian Founding Father and President, John Adams. "Old Man Eloquent," as he was called, successfully argued on behalf of the Africans before the Supreme Court.
But there is another figure, a minor character in the movie, who is also one of our historical forbears - John C. Calhoun of South Carolina - ardent apologist for slavery and one of the founders of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, DC, probably our most integrated congregation. How the ironies of American history abound!
Amistad then suggests the complicated attitudes of Unitarian Universalists toward racial justice. What has happened over the years is that the issue of racism - commonly defined as prejudice plus power - has grown increasingly subtle. In Amistad, the issue is clear-cut - good vs. evil. Now affirmative action, racial consciousness, the interface of race and class make racial issues much more morally ambiguous.
Take, for example, what happened at our denomination's General Assembly in Phoenix last June. First, some background. On September 9, 1963, a bomb went off at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four black girls attending Sunday School. A white sculptor and a member of the Phoenix Unitarian Church, John Waddell, heard the news and was outraged. However, he but focused his feelings on his art, and over the next year created a statuary grouping of four grown black women entitled "That Which Might Have Been," had those girls lived. On Sunday, October 18, 1964, those statues were brought to the Phoenix church, and a few years later permanently placed in that church's memorial garden. It is that scene which you see on your program covers.
The statues have become a lasting memorial to racial justice for the members of that church, as well as a reminder of the depths to which human nature can plunge. Out of that event, the Birmingham Project was born, and a plan conceived to transport replicas of these statues to Birmingham, there to reside either at the 16th Street church itself or another appropriate place in the city.
Meanwhile, the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly had planned to have its annual General Assembly in Phoenix in 1988. But since the State of Arizona did not recognize the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the Association moved that year's gathering to Palm Springs, California - a protest in exile. Finally, Arizona reversed itself, accepted the holiday, and the 1997 General Assembly was held there.
Enter Doug Strong, who preached here in November. As the Planning Committee member charged with esthetic arrangements, he wanted to bring replicas of those statues to the dais of the General Assembly before their transportation to Birmingham. He thought they would greatly enhance the Assembly theme, "Building Interfaith Cooperation," augmented by consideration of a plan for a "Journey Toward Wholeness," an active plan to help our association and its congregations move "From Racial and Cultural Diversity to Anti-Oppression and Anti-Racist Multiculturalism."
The Planning Committee approved this idea, but when word got out, the committee received a letter from an Anti-Racism Organizers Core Team which monitors denominational progress toward racial justice. They expressed deep concern over the planned display of the statues. Here is a portion of that letter:
"We are deeply offended by the depiction of the four 10-year-old African American girls killed in the bombing of Birmingham, Alabama, church as four naked African American adult females. The statues are weighted with both historic and contemporary symbols of oppression. Among these is the historic availability of black women as sexual objects to white men, the definition of the future of these girls as one of being merely sexual objects, and the visual similarity of the statue to depictions of the slave auction blocks.
"....It is not our intent that our concern be experienced as condemnation of the project and the persons involved. Nor is our concern with nudity or nude portrayals of men or women in art. It is very specifically linked to the context of this work and our cultural history around race."
"We applaud the intention of the project to build partnership with other religious organizations and to commemorate the Birmingham tragedy.... However we do not believe that this is a good model to hold up as interfaith cooperation. We urge the Planning Committee to reconsider the decision to include the statue in the GA events."
This letter was signed by the 11 Core Team members, seven women and four men, seven blacks and four whites. What resulted was a meeting of the Planning Committee, the Core Team, and the Birmingham Project that lasted over four hours. At last a compromise was reached - no statues at the General Assembly - instead, six bus tours for delegates to visit the statues at the church and make up their own minds.
I took one of those tours and spent about an hour and a half both in the Garden and in the church talking with sculptor John Waddell. He was deeply hurt by what had happened. He had intended the work as a statement of racial harmony and justice. And now this suggestion of racism.
Waddell told us that the statues were conceived in an instant, but were fifteen months in the making. The statues themselves are black ..... and 1/6 over life size. They face in four directions.
The statues are placed in a reflecting pool, supported by stepping stones on which we were invited to walk - the experience representing danger and the feeling of being part of the group. I walked on the stones into the center of the pool and a whole flood of memories of the civil rights struggle came over me - the tragedy of suffering, the courage of endurance and rebellion, the martyrdoms, the defeats and the victories - but most of all the struggle - the never-ending struggle.
To say the delegates were emotionally confused by this racial controversy in our own midst was an understatement. Looks of disbelief were greeted by feelings of empathy for the Core Group which had raised the issue. Blacks and whites, women and men, were divided in their opinions. If we couldn't even agree on the aesthetic backdrop for our meeting, how could we be leaders in the struggle against racism?
My initial reaction was one of incredulity - of political correctness gone too far. As I spoke with the sculptor I had feelings of deep sympathy - for good intentions gone tragically astray in misinterpretation. I spoke with my friends, black and white, looking for the answer - only to discover that there wasn't one - perhaps isn't one - yet.
And then as I thought more carefully I began to feel more deeply the pain of my African-American friends. Seeing Amistad this week confirmed so much of the feeling they have tried to convey. The naked black statues came alive on screen in the women abducted into slavery aboard that tragic ship.
On the other hand, as I remember what it was like to be there with them in an Arizona Memorial Garden, I was caught up in the hope they represented. Oh, if there were only some simple way out of this dilemma. Can't people of good will agree on at least this?
I tell you this painful story to remind us all of the subtleties of racism and race relations in our movement, in our communities, in our nation, in our world. Being anti-racist is hard. I am reminded that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."
Now, was John Waddell a racist? Were those who wanted those statues at the focal point of our General Assembly racists? Are the people of the Birmingham Project racists? No, at least I don't believe so. There are at many kinds of racism - there is the virulent racism of the bigot which no ethical person would accept. I don't really know many blatant racists.
There is the institutional racism built into the very structure of our society in which white people enjoy privileges and black people suffer the consequences of historic powerlessness. I am struggling to understand how white people take the privileges of whiteness for granted and the preferential treatment we receive. An example I heard last week is the propensity of colleges and universities to accept children of alumni, most of whom historically are white. That is a kind of preferential treatment with an eye to the bottom line we hear little in our debate over affirmative action.
But the kind of racism I have in mind is the unintentional hurt caused by good people who are still learning the subtleties of racism in America, trying still to understand the deepest feelings of our African-American neighbors. The "What Might Have Been" statue controversy is only one in a long series of learnings for me, as I come to grips with my own racism.
Perhaps it is that we who have long been engaged in the struggle are so on fire with our desire for ultimate racial justice that we forget to work on ourselves first. The Unitarian Universalist creator of the documentary "Eyes on the Prize," Henry Hampton, quotes these apt words: "A (person) gazing at the stars is inevitably at the mercy of the puddles in the road ... or worse." And I say, we must keep gazing at the stars, but from time to time - and rather often at that - be aware of the puddles in the road, and our reflection in them.
And so I have no magic elixir to share with you, no sure steady strategy to follow, no guaranteed destination for the journey - only a belief that the struggle is worth the effort, that our faith requires that effort, and the journey must continue, the dream must be preserved. After all, it was the man whose birthday we celebrate today who knew all the puddles in the road - and worse - but his dream - our dream - must survive.