Saturday, October 25, 2014

7 Last Words: Strange Fruit Speaks - A Reflection

Last night, I attended the event 7 Last Words: Strange Fruit Speaks, sponsored by the Princeton Theological Seminary Black Church Studies Program, Black Lives Matter, Shiloh Baptist Church and the Urban Mission Cabinet of Trenton. What follows are my reflections. They are necessarily incomplete and full of errors. They will be read into both fairly and unfairly. My biases and my own faults will be laid bare. Hopefully they stir a conversation. Hopefully they stir us all to listen and to discern, to pray and to cry out.

Seven Last Words services are normally held by faith communities in the Christian tradition during Holy (Passion) Week — the week in between Palm Sunday (when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey) and Easter Sunday (when Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead. Most Seven Last Words services take place on Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ death on a cross. The “seven words,” are compiled from the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and are actually short phrases and sentences, not individual “words.” These words include “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” “I thirst,” and “into your hands I commend my spirit.”

The 7 Last Words event last night obviously did not take place on Good Friday, which normally falls in April. It also came with a subtitle: Strange Fruit Speaks. The term “Strange Fruit,” in its most popular use, can be traced back to a song sung by Billie Holiday in the late 1930s. [1] It refers to the non-legal lynching — death by hanging — of black people that increased in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Recently, it has come to be taken up again as a term for the many young black people — both women and men — who have been dying in recent years. These include deaths at the hands of vigilantes with guns as well as deaths at the hands of police officers. Last night’s service also made clear the “deaths” that young black people are undergoing regularly via oppression for the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, and what they do or do not do that is “expected” of them by various constituencies. These are the deaths of hopelessness, depression, economic uncertainty, unstable home lives, abuse, imprisonment, and on and on. Last night’s 7 Last Words were spoken by seven young black people, men and women, who died between 1999 and 2014. Their names are Amadou Diallo, Shantel Davis, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Renisha McBride. Their last words are captured in this poster from the event.

This was a powerful event. I cannot capture it in a few brief words. But, because of the very conviction instilled in me by the event, I also cannot keep silent.

A few caveats before I begin my report.

1. When I told a brother in Christ that I was going to the event, he asked me to go as a journalist, to have eyes wide open, to observe and to report. In Christian terms, to witness and testify.
But journalists have a perspective. There is no way to simply “record” and “repeat” events. Even a video and audio recording loses some of the feeling of the room. And, of course, I come loaded with my own baggage and thoughts. The words that others speak are filtered through the images and connotations that come into my mind because of my experiences. So, what this post is not about is some feigned notion of an “unfiltered” glimpse or “unbiased” historical account. That’s impossible.
That said, I will try not to offer my perspective on the passionate, important and prophetic words and songs of this event as if my “approval” of them is what matters. Often, in the early abolition movement of the 1800s, white abolitionists would accompany black former slaves telling their stories (like Frederick Douglass). The presence of the white abolitionist would signal the trustworthiness of the black person. This naturally assumes that the black person would not be trustworthy without the “seal of approval” of a white person. [1] That is not what I am doing here. Obviously, if you are reading this, you are doing so because of your trust in me, or your trust in the person who linked you to this post. But the trustworthiness of the insights of the people who spoke last night does not depend upon my trustworthiness. They speak truth out of their experiences, their lives, their encounters with God and reading of scripture.

2. I struggle with defining my role in all of this as a biracial person (Chinese and Dutch), who mostly participates in society as a white male. When I go to an event such as 7 Last Words: Strange Fruit Speaks, what am I doing? One of my observations about the event was that there were undercurrents and theological conversations going on that were unique to the black community, and in which I could not participate. Some words spoken in the room were decidedly not spoken to or for or about me. This is as it should be. The world does not revolve around me or my sphere of influence. One of the insights I gained from this observation, and from several of the speakers, was that I must ask the following questions: what conversations should I take part in, what conversations have I been invited to, and what conversations should I be starting? I will circle back around to this.

3. I also participated in the event as the uncle of two young black boys. I have been drawn into this conversation about the racism that impacts black people because of my relationship with my nephews. My perspective has broadened as I have realized that, while the crisis being addressed is the deaths of young black people, my concern for the crisis must be because the people dying are children of God, beloved, made in God’s image. Black Lives Matter because black people are children of God.

4. I want to state firmly and upfront that I am not “anti-cop.” In dealing with the deaths of young black people, especially recent deaths, we must necessarily speak about deaths at the hands of police officers. I think it is also important to talk about what I consider the over-militarization of the police. That said, I am friends with several stellar current and former police officers, and my family includes people who are a part of law enforcement. I admire these people. I love them. In fact, it is their witness as wonderful law enforcement officials that gives me pause when I consider recent events. I hope to write a lengthier post about my concerns with the conversation about law enforcement and race, but I want to say here that I am not anti-cop. What I am is pro-human beings, pro-children of God. When we reduce anyone to a description, especially a negative description, about a particular action they have done, or even their role in society, we risk de-humanizing them. So, when we only talk about some of these young people as either murder victims or suspects or people with prior arrests or possible criminals or potential threats, we dehumanize them. Similarly, when we talk about those involved in law enforcement only as police officers or overly aggressive or murderers we dehumanize them. All of these people are children of God, and also someone’s child, someone’s loved one, someone’s brother, sister, mother, father, uncle, aunt. That said, although police officers were mentioned last night, this was a small part of a much, much larger conversation about the situation of young black people in the United States.

5. When I talk about racism, I am not calling someone a racist. Certainly, there are people in this world who are blatantly racist. But we are all participating in a society that is severally negatively impacted by racism — systematic, institutional, historical and contemporary racism. The issue here is not necessarily whether one person or another is an out and out racist, but how and in what ways and why our society has been gripped in the stranglehold of racism. Again, people may participate in actions that, even and especially unbeknownst to them, are racist and feed the racism in this country, and do so without deserving to be reduced to the label of being a racist. I can do (and, in fact, have done) something racist and not deserve to be defined in the core of my being as a racist. But we still need to talk about racism and how we participate in it.


Now, to the insights. The caveats have taken up most of my space here. There is too much to say. I must be brief. The event was powerful. I was moved. I felt the Spirit of God in the room. I cried. I felt ashamed. I worried. I tried to listen. I felt uncomfortable.


The event, as I mentioned above, was a collaborative effort. The list of participants is long. The night consisted of song, prayer, spoken word, recounting the events and “last words” of the seven young people, and seven reflections by seven people on those “seven words” — one reflection per “word.” Most of those gathered were black, though there were a significant number of white people in the room, a few Asian people (including South East Asian, Indian, etc.), and a handful of Latin@ folks. Men and women, young and old, babies and the elderly were all in attendance. People cursed, people sang, people screamed, people cried, people prayed. People raised their hands and raised angry fists, swayed with their bodies, smiled, turned to each other, turned to God. Civic leaders, pastors, professors, teachers, mothers, fathers, movement makes and others all spoke. The emotional temperature in the room moved between sorrow, outrage, celebration, anger, humility, and everything in between. But most of all, the night was characterized by a firm resilience.

INSIGHT 1 – Crying Out

In the past few months, I have thought of myself mainly as an amplifier. Worried about the dangers of signaling “approval,” I tried to act simply as a megaphone for the thoughts, worries, and concerns of my black friends, colleagues, and family. Tonight I was convicted that this is not enough. It’s not enough just to let my black friends scream through me. I must lift my voice, too.

Patrick Williams, Nyle Fort and Darnell Moore all convicted me that I should be crying out because these young people are my brothers and sisters in Christ. They are God’s beloved children. In the name of “nuance,” and hiding the fear that racism might still exist (it does), or that there might be prejudices that corrupt our government and our police (there are), or that we might be complicit in these deaths, especially in our silence (we are), we come up with excuses for not talking about this, for not screaming about these lost lives. We should be screaming even about the death of the worst criminal, because we should be upset that we live in a world that breeds murderers and rapists and tyrants and gives them space to inflict pain. But we should especially have no problem crying out to God for the lives of these young black men and women, who have been character assassinated for the relatively small crimes they some of them might have committed. This disguises the fact that they died, at the hand of vigilantes, police officers, systems that oppress them, abuse, drugs, economic depression, and a myriad of other things. Our young people are dying every day. They are dying because they are bullied by peers and family members for their sexual orientation. They are dying because their futures are being stolen from them. They are dying. They are dying. And we should be pissed. We should be crying out to God. As John Donne once wrote, “Any…death diminishes me because I am involved in [hu]mankind.” Any of these deaths should make us cry out because these were children of God, created in God’s image.

As Rev. Toby Sanders reminded me last night, Jesus ate at table with prostitutes, sinners and tax collectors. The religious people of his day balked at the fact that he was a doctor come for the sick. He was hanged as a criminal between two thieves. From a human perspective, he did commit the crimes for which he was accused. He did claim he was God when he was a human being. He did intend to usher in a new Kingdom, and thus incite a rebellion against the unjust kingdoms and empires of this world. He and his disciples did break the Sabbath laws of his day. He told one of those thieves that was with him that he would be in paradise with Jesus. We need to stop allowing criminal actions to numb us to death. Because none of us are saints either. And we should stop letting character assassination give us an excuse for not caring. Young people are dying. We should care. We should care about how we can help them make better choices, help them emerge out of systems that lock them into hopeless lives, help them love themselves and others.

So, I need to cry out. But again, the question is, to whom and with what voice, and in what context, and alongside whom should I be crying out? What can I do from where I am, out of who I am and what I do? The first speaker of the night, who stood in for Bonnie Watson Coleman, encouraged us all to think about how we could be involved, how we could take up responsibility, how we could give voice.

Bottom Line: Black Lives Matter, we should care, we should cry out and act out.

INSIGHT 2 – De-sanitizing the Bible

The psalms were used last night. As a person studying the psalms personally and academically, this made me glad. But the psalms that were used were mostly the lament psalms and imprecatory psalms, ones not often used in our churches. These are the psalms that cry out to God, that curse the “enemies.” These “enemies” were reframed last night as oppression, racism, hatred, and anything etc. It is fairly clear that, even in the Psalms, there were movements to anthropomorphize things like physical illness into “enemies.” The Psalms anthropomorphize God. Nevertheless, these Psalms usually make people uncomfortable. Yet, I do not think it is unreasonable to consider the ways in which we might sing the imprecatory psalms against those “enemies” in our world that are institutional structures and systems of sin, oppression, and hate.

And, of course, we need to be bold to realize that we have all, at times, wanted to sing these songs. Most of us have breathed out threats against others, have been enraged. And God hears these songs. Because God desires our honesty and authenticity in prayer. This is some of the work that I am doing in my dissertation, so I could go on and on about this. I won’t.

But, as several of the speakers, Nyle Fort and Toby Sanders in particular, convicted me, we need to stop sanitizing our Bible. We can put it in context, we can help unearth the realities to which it points, we can disagree with it, we can converse with it, we can read it ironically, but we shouldn’t just paint over the parts of the Bible that we don’t like. We cannot ignore them. Because to do so is to ignore the fullness of our humanity. And this is a humanity that Christ came into --- in the flesh --- and came to save. And if we are committed to retaining the Biblical record, to using it as scripture, and to using it well and responsibly, we cannot avoid dealing with the messy parts of the Bible.

We must continue to struggle with how to do this. But we must be committed to this struggle.

Bottom Line: We need to struggle honestly with our messy scripture.

INSIGHT 3 – Our Bodies Matter

I was not able to attend the post-conversation, but I was struck by a tweet quoting Dr. Brittany Cooper: "Our trauma lives in our very bodies. I want a theology that tells me how to work the trauma out of body.” [3] This embodiment struck me last night. This emotion struck me last night. I have become more and more convinced that we are actually incapable of bracketing out our emotions. Being “unemotional” has become valued in modern society. Making decisions rationally. But I think that our rationality is inescapably tied to our emotions, embodiment and experience. Really, this points back in some ways to the use of the imprecatory psalms, but I think overall that what we must do is to clarify, be upfront about and be honest with our emotions.

Raw emotion was expressed last night. But it was not emotion without erudition. It was not “thoughtless” emotion. It was emotion expressed because thought had been given. It was emotion filtered through thought. It was emotion that evoked deep insight and solid exegesis of biblical text.

Bottom Line: As Dr. Cooper voiced, we need theologies that address the body and its emotions. 

INSIGHT 4 – The Continuing Conversation

Rev. Toby Sanders gave the last meditation of the night. He admitted that he was only starting the sermon and that we would have to take it home to finish it. This is how I feel about the event as a whole. The conversation actually has been going on for a long time. I am entering it fully and consciously at this point. And it is not done.

What I want to know, in particular, is how others responded to last night.

I also want to know why, in general, there is radio silence about the issue of race from so many of my friends and colleagues who are not black.

I also want to know what conversations white people (in all their various ethnicities and identities) need to be having.

I also want to know what conversations biracial people, like me, need to be having.

Bottom Line: This is not the end. More conversations need to happen; more actions need to be taken. God is on the move. Are we listening? Are we following? Are we willing? 



[1] Here’s a brief historical snapshot about the song "Strange Fruit":

Here’s Holiday singing the song in 1959:

And here are the lyrics:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

[2] I learned about this through a class on Spiritual Autobiography that I took with Dr. Yolanda Pierce during my Master’s program and am indebted to her insights. Any confusion about this is my own and not her teaching. If I misrepresent history, that's my fault.

[3] Recorded in the following twitter status:

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