Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Right Reverend President and the Concern of Cheap Grace

I love my President. I listened intently to his most recent and thoughtful eulogy. After listening, I texted several of my close ministry colleagues and contemplated my thoughts, weighed my emotions and considered how to respond (if at all). Through my (cyber) dialogue with them (which will continue in the days to come), I have come to applaud and appreciate how POTUS drew upon the best and most redemptive ideas,  tropes and themes of the African American Religious experience. The Black Churches attributes of faith, hope, love and justice came shining through.  President Obama was careful and thoughtful to highlight what the Black Church has persevered through and has come to mean to the faithful and to our communities writ large. Mr. President became “Mr. Preacher” (as we call those in the Black Church who become associated with the ability to inform and inspire from the pulpit platform).  Bishop Barack stood squarely in the African American preaching tradition as he called the names of the nine victims who were murder at “Mother Emanuel,” honored the family, and lifted up the life, love, and legacy of the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
I also understand the ubiquitous platform whereby the President stood. He is, after all, the leader of the American empire. To that end, there were also a few things that drew my concern and attention. POTUS did not speak directly about how the cultural production of white supremacy has created an environment whereby even those raised in a “post-racial society” can carry out racial terrorism. Furthermore, the President explicitly stated, "[THE KILLER] DIDN'T KNOW HE WAS BEING USED BY GOD." I cringed. 
As a public speaker who veers from my printed manuscript, I understand extemporaneous impulses and the dangers (and benefits) thereof. I'm not sure if POTUS prepared this statement or merely just, "went with it." Nevertheless, this statement coupled with a few others bordered on theological shortsightedness and misrepresentation.  The “Reverend President” and Theologian-In-Chief ought to have, like all of us who attempt to articulate divine insight through human instruments, room to err.  I grant him that.  POTUS also can, like all of us, be subject to loving critiques (like the one I’m attempting to offer here). 
The evoking of “grace” as a theme was present throughout the eulogy and rang true to the tenets of the Black Church historically. The grace we have extended and encountered is nothing short of “Amazing” (as was the movement led by POTUS to invite the congregation to celebrate in song as he led “in tune”).  We love it and live it.  And yes, the President called out very relevant topics of mass incarceration, poverty (a word many of his critics tried to condemn him for not saying), America’s “original sin” (racism), and the inadequacies of our current social structure.  Yet, the type of grace POTUS asked us to extend (which is indeed part of the Gospel mandate) has the potential to border on cheap. Bill Maher asked, “Should we forgive them so quickly?”  Maher went on to suggest that right wingers like Fox News may use the Charleston Massacre as a means of condemning any (black) victims who don’t forgive “like the good people of Charleston did.”  Is there space in the Presidential rhetoric of tragedy to affirm black rage?  Can black folks both sincerely forgive and be sincerely angry?  It is not a far reach to surmise that POTUS requested that Black victims employ grace to a violent white supremacist in ways POTUS himself is reluctant or unwilling to extend to Islamic Jihadists like ISIS.  Again, he is the leader of the American Empire.  I get it! 

I also get our conflicting and complex relationship with civil religion.  For instance, many of those who bought POTUS’s eulogy wholesale as the sermonic second coming, spent the same morning condemning the SCOTUS ruling on Marriage Equality that POTUS has been championing for a few years now.  I can understand (and to some degree appreciate) the support and critique from both sides of the congregational aisle.  What I hope we can all glean from this is the need for us to pay close attention to the ways in which rhetorical theology – the association with and appropriation of religious rhetoric as a means of theological, political and/or social affirmation and persuasion – and our political leader’s religious sensibilities can do us harm or good.  It is ultimately up to us to study and show ourselves approved.  

                                                                                                             -Rev. Earle J. Fisher

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Social Death By Misadventure: Rachel Dolezal and the Manipulation of Blackness (Part 1)


            C.Thomas Howell once portrayed a college student, Mark Watson, who used tanning pills to  appear Black in an effort to get admitted to Harvard Law School on a scholarship available to African Ameicans and vis a vis a minority quota.  In this comedy, which I consider dark and lacking humor, Howell’s character oft times finds himself in a conundrum because he doesn’t maintain the sterotypes of a Black male (i.e. physically endowned, great athlete—basketball player), and must wriggle his way out of these situations by positing that he is an “exception” to the aforementioned stereotypes, which is supposed to be funny.  Twenty-nine years later, Rachel Dolezal seems to be the living embodiment of the 1986 cinematic exploitation movie “Soul Man.”    
The thing about minstrelsy, or Blackface, is that it is a brand of antiquated humor, only funny to those of the lighter hue, that exaggerates the socially constructed stereotypes of the African-American that satirize human inferiorities, both intellectual and physical, that are definitely not solely attributed to those of African descent or the darker hue.  It has even been lampooned and inverted in popular culture, particularly entertainment, by positing the Black exception as odd or unnatural in that he or she who is of African descent to be the polar opposite of the infantile, ignorant, shiftless, and overtly foolish imbecile that has been the standard for African American stereotypes since we set foot on the land that is now the United States of America. 
The problem I have with Rachel Dolezal is her manipulative use of the agency of "passing" when it is profitable, convenient, and comfortable.  Identifying and experiencing American Blackness are fruits from a different bowl.  Her faux complaints of racial harrassment and discrimination aside, I would like for her to be Black when it's condemned not when it's cool. Yes, she attended Washington D.C.’s  Howard University (a prominent black college) and married and divorced a Black man, and had Black adopted siblings, and has served as the Alaska-Oregon chapter President of the NAACP, serves as an adjunct instructor in Africana Studies at one of Washington state’s colleges, and wore braids and curls and got an orange tan, yet all of the aforementioned things do not make her Black. 
 The Black American experience is much more nuanced than the music, soul food, civic organizations you have membership in, college courses you teach, or romantic relationships you choose. Braids or 'fros don't cut the mustard, folks.  The conundrum lies in the alleged allegations that she has been a victim of racial discrimination and harrassment because of her race or ethnicity which is a lie in and of itself.  She is a white woman who has chosen to become aesthetically, and for all intents and purposes, Black.  The media alleges that the threats she says she has endured and the letters she has received and the noose planted in her yard are all a hoax.  And this is what’s troubling.  The Black American experience isn’t a game.  The Black lives that have been lost solely due to the stereotypes perpetuated that suggest the Black American is a menace to society and a harbinger of skullduggery and criminality are no joking matter and definitely not something that should be taken with a grain of salt.  There is a huge difference between wearing a costume & wearing a hue or attire that cannot come off or be discarded in a closet or found at a beautyshop or tanning salon.