“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.” —Herman Melville
A few weeks ago, on April 4, 2018, our nation paused to remember an event that impacted the world. Fifty years earlier, on Thursday, April 4, 1968, a young minister was shot while standing on the balcony outside his room in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr.
The days leading up to the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination were filled with radio and television and Internet broadcasts of voices from the past and remembrances of those who had known him. I listened and watched many of these with intense interest, hearing stories and perspectives I’d never heard, gaining insights I’d never had, making sense of the events of that time as I continue my ongoing quest to understand backwards, to go deeper.
I read that the single rifle shot found its mark at 6:01 p.m., so I suppose I must have been at my house in the small town of Prentiss, Mississippi. I would have been twelve years old, but I have no actual memories of that day. When I try to remember, my only impression of that time in my life is a strong sense of being overwhelmed by fear. And I remember trying desperately to appear brave and confident while I struggled to survive, and from all indications, doing a superb job of pretending.
For some reason, or for many reasons, the events of those days looked different to me this year. Maybe it was because I listened to so many tell their own personal stories, or the stories of members of their families. Maybe I listened more carefully to those stories than I have before; maybe I heard differently because of someone I had a few months earlier gotten to “know” through his writings, someone who had been there, someone who spoke with the authority of one who had experienced what it’s like to be Black, but was White like me.
John Howard Griffin—medical student, soldier, author, musician, and so much more. Blind for ten years due to a war injury, he regained his sight after he had married and had a child. So much about Griffin intrigues me, captivates me, resonates with me, not the least his desire to understand the world of others. His need to understand the world of the Black man was a compelling force in his life, and he realized that the only way he could do that was to become a Black man, to live in his world, to experience what he experienced, if only for a short time. And so, on October 28, 1959, Griffin did just that: he became a Black man. For six weeks, he travelled across the Deep South, from Louisiana to Georgia, as a Black man. He recounted his experiences in his book, Black Like Me. Maybe some of you read Griffin’s story in school as required reading. Not surprisingly, given the place and time of my childhood, this was not the case for me. If you’ve not read this book, I strongly recommend you do, that you allow him to take you into “feeling tone” of what it’s like to be Black.
Griffin darkened his skin by using a combination of medication, a sun lamp, and skin dye. He changed nothing else: the same name, same speech pattern and vocabulary, same clothing, same shoes. To make his experiment valid he changed only one thing: the color of his skin. The result was astonishing, even to him. Having completed his transformation on that late October day by shaving his head, he looked in a mirror. He was shocked at his appearance, and the feelings seeing his image produced in him. Describing that moment he wrote, “I had tampered with the mystery of existence and I had lost the sense of my own being. This is what devastated me. The Griffin that was had become invisible. The worst of it was that I could feel no companionship with this new person. I did not like the way he looked. Perhaps, I thought, this was only the shock of a first reaction. But the thing was done and there was no possibility of turning back. For a few weeks I must be this aging, bald Negro; I must walk through a land hostile to my color, hostile to my skin.”
In that moment, Griffin came face to face with the reality of his own implicit bias. The term mindbugs had yet to be coined, but being human, he was “infected.” I was captivated as I read the story of how his bias disappeared as he walked among people in the Black community, became familiar with their ways, was embraced by them as “one of us.” The mindbug cure—familiarity. Watching the story unfold was fascinating to me.
Griffin summed up what he learned in his weeks as a Black man by saying, “When all the talk, all the propaganda has been cut away, the criterion is nothing but the color of skin. My experience proved that. They judged me by no other quality. My skin was dark. That was sufficient reason for them to deny me those rights and freedoms without which life loses its significance and becomes a matter of little more than animal survival.”
As a result of his experience, Griffin gained international recognition as a human rights activist and worked closely with Dr. King. Although he was vilified by many in the White community because of Black Like Me, others saw him as a spokesperson for the Black community. Griffin resisted this idea. From the beginning of his numerous lecture tours, he insisted: “I don’t stand up here and represent myself as a spokesman for Black people.” In later years he explained further: “I have become far less visible as a public figure involved in racial reconciliation. Once a few whites had to speak out for justice and interracial dialogue at a time when whites would not listen to blacks. But those days are over and it is absurd for a white man to presume to speak for black people when they have superlative voices of their own.”
Those words pierced my heart when I read them for the first time a few months ago. I recalled what I had written in the beginning of my story: “What was an integral part of my culture at that time was racism. Having grown up in Mississippi in the 1960s, that I know all too well,” I had asserted with certainty, as if I knew firsthand the experience of racism, of being treated as “less than” simply because of the color of my skin. I know nothing of that pain, of the damage that is done to the human soul. I made that statement in ignorance; reading it now I feel ashamed of my “preposterous assumptions.” It is true that I know about racism; I have lived in a culture and a time that embraced racism as “normal.” But I have not been touched personally by that experience, my humanity has not been questioned in that way. It is not my voice that needs to be heard, but the voices of those who have lived in and through the pain. Their voices are ringing out strong and clear, and are truly “superlative;” those are the voices we must still ourselves to hear.
A few weeks ago, on April 26, three weeks after the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was opened to the public in Montgomery, Alabama. A “Lynching Memorial,” it is called. It is described as “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow…” Over 800 steel monuments hang there, each engraved with the names of Black people who were lynched in American between 1877 and 1950. Over 4,400 names, and the list keeps growing, with more monuments waiting to be claimed and engraved and hung. Stories are told, voices speaking from the past. Superlative voices, voices that speak the truth with authority and power, voices we all need to hear and acknowledge. When my grandchildren are old enough, I hope to have the opportunity to walk through this memorial with them, to learn and remember together.
I believe it is important for me to stand solidly with Black people as they continue their struggle for justice and equality, but the reality is they have no need of me to speak for them. That would be absurd, as Griffin pointed out. Their experience of being considered “less than” simply because of the color of their skin is not my experience, and that is not my story to tell.
But I do have a story to tell. In many ways it parallels their story, for at its heart is the issue of justice and equality. I know what it’s like to be treated as inferior, as having a “place” I must be sure to stay in, a role in society and in the church that is subordinate, a deference and demeanor I must don, simply because of what I am—a woman. I know the damage this does to the soul, that it did to my soul. This is my own experience. This is my story to tell, and the time to tell it has come.
There’s so much to tell, so many interconnecting pieces to weave together to bring coherence to the story, to make it make sense to you as it does to me. I struggle with where to begin. I’ll start by using something written by someone who has extensive knowledge of the much larger story to put what I’m going to say in perspective and connect it to what I’ve said so far.
In his article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, professor Paul Harvey had this to say: “By the 1970s, many white southern believers accommodated themselves with remarkable ease to the demise of white supremacy as fundamentally constitutive of their society. Thus, in the recent controversies within southern church organizations, race has been one of the very few items on the agenda not in dispute. Today’s conservatives, for the most part, have repudiated the white supremacist views of their predecessors. Since the 1960s the standard biblical arguments against racial equality have become relics, embarrassments from a bygone age. But their philosophical premises have not. Indeed, they have found their way rather easily into the contemporary religious conservative stance on gender. For religious conservatives generally, patriarchy has supplanted race as the defining first principle of God-ordained inequality.”
That passage from Harvey’s article sparks so many thoughts, is so tightly packed with ideas to explore, yet I can only touch on a few right now. The 1970s—my experience at the little mission church in Jackson, my confrontation with the pastor that led to my resignation. Getting to know Sams in Switzerland, the words of the WMU woman, my challenge to her, the delayed response of others who were present. Yes, this had been a time of change. During those years, the “standard biblical arguments against racial equality” did fall into disfavor in southern churches—well, most of them anyway. In some cases, I think that instead of becoming “relics” and being abandoned, these arguments simply went to ground and were (still are) hidden, lying dormant, waiting to resurface when the cultural climate might become more favorable. The curse of Ham belief is still around today; it’s just not acceptable to speak openly about it. And while it is true that the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America, did repudiate and repent of their stance on race, this didn’t happen until 1995—150 years after the denomination was founded, primarily around the stance taken by southern Baptists on the issue of slavery—they believed it to be a biblical mandate, the clear teaching of scripture. To their way of thinking, to question whether the Negro should be enslaved was to question to authority of the Bible. It took a century and a half, but their thinking finally changed.
Harvey refers to “philosophical premises” presented as biblical arguments that have faded away in the context of racial equality but continue to be used to undergird biblical arguments for gender inequality. What was he talking about, and did what he said have substance?
We can take a look at some of those “philosophical premises” in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher who lived and wrote in the early 1800s. Those who know tell me his writings on ethics were good and are still studied today. But then there’s his essay titled “On Women” in which he lays out clearly his thinking about what he refers to as the “Number Two of the human race.” Here are some of the things he wrote:
“It is because women’s reasoning powers are weaker that they show more sympathy for the unfortunate than men, and consequently take a kindlier interest in them. On the other hand, women are inferior to men in matters of justice, honesty, and conscientiousness.”
“…it will be found that the fundamental fault in the character of women is that they have no ‘sense of justice.’ This arises from their deficiency in the power of reasoning already referred to, and reflection, but is also partly due to the fact that Nature has not destined them, as the weaker sex, to be dependent on strength but on cunning; this is why they are instinctively crafty, and have an ineradicable tendency to lie.”
“[women are] intellectually short-sighted” “…hers [woman’s] is reason of very narrow limitations. This is why women remain children all their lives…”
“Women should never have the free disposition of wealth, strictly so-called, which they may inherit, such as capital, houses, and estates. They need a guardian always; therefore they should not have the guardianship of their children under any circumstances whatever.”
“When nature divided the human race into two parts, she did not cut it exactly through the middle!”
Talk about stereotyping and sexism! That’s enough of that; I’m sure you get the idea. Schopenhauer certainly didn’t mince words. But his thinking wasn’t new; his ideas can be traced all the way back to the writings of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. In his time, Schopenhauer’s thinking wasn’t offensive. In fact, just as was Reverend Charles Carroll’s book pronouncing that the Negro is not human but is in fact a beast, Schopenhauer’s “philosophical premises” were influential, and persuasive, and persistent, especially when they were proclaimed as sanctioned and mandated by God as his “created order.” From what I have seen and know and have experienced, I have no doubt that Harvey is on target in his assessment of the conservative religious community’s stance on gender, especially since the 1980s. But maybe there’s some rethinking taking place. Maybe we’re heading for a long overdue course correction. I for one pray that we are.
A few weeks ago, on May 3, Bible teacher Beth Moore posted “A Letter To My Brothers” on her blog that created quite a stir in the Evangelical Christian community. I read her letter carefully, listening for what she said and what she didn’t say. It was a start; I’d wondered several times over the past few years if she would ever speak up, and what she would say. She said what she could, and I’m sure it must have been hard for her to write that letter. But it needed to be written, and she did it. Good for you, Beth.
When I heard the news two days ago that Paige Patterson has been removed from his position as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I felt encouraged, and hopeful. I knew Patterson had been one of those who, in the 1990s, led the charge in asserting that assigning women a subordinate position is “God’s way,” and how influential he had been in Evangelical circles. I knew that when asked about his views on women by a news reporter in 1997, Patterson had responded: “I think everybody should own at least one.” He considered that comment to be humorous; I consider it to be revealing of his deeply rooted belief that women are relegated by God to an inferior position. He is not alone. It is this belief, this attitude of heart that must be addressed, and not just the words he spoke or counsel he gave, that must be exposed and denounced, for this kind of thinking is no more consistent with the words and actions of Jesus than is racism.
I have so much more to say, but I think I’ve given you enough to chew on for now. And before I go on, I have a letter I feel the need to write as my next post. There’s much I have to say to Beth Moore.
 John Howard Griffin, A Time To Be Human, 1977.
 Paul Harvey, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, “Religion, Race, and Culture in the American South.” Online publication date: March 2015. http://religion.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.001.0001/acrefore-9780199340378-e-7
 Arnold Schopenhauer, “On Women”. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/schopenhauer/arthur/essays/chapter5.html
 Beth Moore blogpost https://blog.lproof.org/2018/05/a-letter-to-my-brothers.html
 “Prominent Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson removed as seminary president after controversial remarks about abused women” – The Washington Post, May 23, 2018.
 Barry Hankins, Uneasy In Babylon: Southern Baptist Convention and American Culture (The University of Alabama Press, 2002)