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Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Help, the Quote, and Fortune

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert with Carol Carter Walker, Worship Associate

The Help, the Quote, and Fortune

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

October 2, 2011

Sometimes there is a confluence of current events that make one sit up and take notice, and reflect on the meanings generated. Today’s sermon is inspired by three cultural events that were current in the late summer when I was planning sermons for the fall. Actually, at first I had only two in mind – the popular and controversial 2009 book I’d just belatedly read, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, which had been made into a movie that was released on August 10th, and the contentious mis-quotation on the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the new national monument honoring him.

Even though we are not Trinitarians, I was looking for a third!

Then I became aware of the year-long program of events at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts called “Fortunes Bones: Honoring a Life. Celebrating our Shared Humanity.”  That made three, I’m all set!

I hoped I would find a common thread between the three or some way to tie them together in a pretty bow.  And, I did find a common thread, but it’s not pretty.

What came to mind was a Bible verse, one that reigns along with “the truth shall set you free” (and a few others) in my personal collection of life-guiding truisms. It is from the book of Exodus in the Hebrew Scriptures, “The sins of the fathers shall be revisited upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

The Help is an historical novel set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early sixties, Jim Crow era still, civil rights era emerging. A recent college graduate, white, nick-named Skeeter, comes home to her family’s plantation with the dream of becoming a writer and no prospects of a husband. She gets the idea for a book from a chance comment by her friend’s black maid, Aibileen:  her son, who had been brutally treated by his employer and died as a result, had dreamt of writing a book about the experience of being black in Jackson. Skeeter’s idea was to interview maids about their experiences working for white families: what has it been like to take care of a white woman’s home and children while your own are left to be tended by someone other than yourself? To love those white children into adulthood, when they then turn against you and act toward you just like their parents did?

The only problem is:  will any of them be willing to take the risk of telling the truth about their white employers? First Aibileen, then Minny, and then a dozen or so other maids, decide to participate; some are motivated by their faith, remembering that even Moses begged God not to call him to lead; others are motivated by anger, and still others by the moral courage inspired by the civil rights movement. I especially loved the scenes portraying Aibileen’s prayer life and her church community, for that is where she drew her strength.

Their fear was, of course, well-founded in those times, and very palpable to the reader and vivid in the movie. In fact, the assassination of Jackson civil rights activist Medgar Evers in his own front yard, in front of his children, takes place that year, in a neighborhood not far from the homes of Aibileen and Minny. His death prompted this conversation between them, from Aibileen’s point of view:

“What they gone do to us, Aibileen? If they catch us… “  I take a deep breath. She talking about the stories. “We both know. It be bad.” “But what would they do? Hitch us to a pickup and drag us behind? Shoot me in my yard a front a my kids? Or just starve us to death?” “This ain’t… we ain’t doing civil rights here. We just telling stories like they really happen.” (p. 196).

But, the women don’t fully believe their own mollifications, and when the book finally comes out their attempts at anonymity are foiled and repercussions do unfold.  But, as if the author was aiming for a movie, the novel is a Hollywood-like tale; the worst that happens is a few lose their jobs, but Minny and Aibileen do okay at the end. And Skeeter lands herself the job of her dreams, with her publisher, in New York City.

It’s the stories of the maids that make the film, and the novel, revealing – at least for me as a white person whose family never had a maid and who did not grow up in the south. While mostly appalling, sometimes humorous or touching, the stories jive with all I’ve read and learned about the mores of those times; in fact, the author cites as a valuable source a 1988 book by Tulane professor Susan Tucker, which is based on 42 interviews of black and white women who were, or employed, domestic servants in the 1960’s.

But what should give us pause, as people who want to understand and dismantle racism, is the way both book and movie portray Jackson, Mississippi’s young white mothers:  as caricatures or stereotypes, ditsy, self-absorbed, back-biting women. By under-developing these characters in her novel, I think the author makes it easy for white readers and moviegoers to distance ourselves:  we would not have been like them! But, the historical record shows otherwise. Almost all were just like that, and some were worse.

The legacies of slavery are like the Biblical sins of the fathers and mothers revisited upon the children, down through the generations - today known as disparities, discomforts and injustices between the races. The book is an easy read and the movie features excellent acting, and it’s good that they have brought an examination of slavery’s legacies to the public’s attention again.

There is a different and more ironic legacy at work in the controversy over the misquotation on the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the new national monument honoring him in Washington. The controversy, as provoked by Maya Angelou’s criticism and then others, regards the chiseled words “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

On September 1st, the Washington Post editorialized, “Last month, Hurricane Irene forced the indefinite postponement of the official dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. The delay could prove fortuitous if the people in charge use the added time to do some erasure and re-inscription of the quotation on the side of the main sculpture — and this time get it right.”

The editorial went on, “’The Drum-Major Instinct,’ a sermon Dr. King delivered on Feb. 4, 1968, is about the folly of wanting to feel important, of seeking recognition and praise. That is a basic human impulse, he said, but it is dangerous and can lead to many social ills, including bigotry: ‘A lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct, a need that some people have, to feel that they are first and feel that their white skin ordained them to be first.’

Dr. King argued that the instinct can be harnessed for noble ends, but only by doing good works and not by seeking accolades for doing them. Notably, he sought no such accolade himself. ‘If you want to say I was a drum major,’ he said, ‘say that I was a drum major for justice.’

Remove that ‘if”’ — as the architects of the monument did — and you are perversely left with the sort of bragging that Dr. King decried.”

Probably many of you are like me:  we compose letters to the editor in our minds, but never send them. Well, this time I sent it, and, to my surprise, it was published! It was short, so their edits were few:  they added a comma and removed two exclamation points!

In it I only said,

“There is a simple solution to the problem with the misquoted inscription on the new memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. Change it from ‘I was…’ to ‘He was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.’ In his sermon warning against egotistic self-promotion, King said, ‘If you want to say I was a drum major, say I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.’ So let’s say it! He was!” (Letters, September 6, 2011).

I visited the MLK Memorial last week. It is a wonderful thing that Dr. King has finally been honored and his words preserved, that one misquotation – which remains – not withstanding. I since sent my suggestion to the memorial’s leadership, but the postponed official dedication is now only two weeks away.

What I think makes this misquotation ironic is that the idea and impetus for the memorial came from Alphi Phi Alpha, the fraternity of which King was a member, which he once roundly criticized, as I remembered reading in Taylor Branch’s book Parting the Waters:  America in the King Years 1954-63.  I looked it up. It was in 1957 during a speech at the Montgomery Improvement Association’s second annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change. Ironically, he criticized Alphi Phi Alpha for a kind of self-promotion similar to what he was warning against in the sermon from which the quotation was lifted. Indeed, the misquotation suggests that somebody in charge of the monument didn’t understand the point of the sermon.

As reported in Branch’s book (p. 230) “[King] told the audience of having attended a convention of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, at which it was boastfully announced that the membership spent $500,000 for liquor. King said acidly, ‘A handful of Negroes …spent more money in one week for whisky than all of the 16 million Negroes spent that whole year for the United Negro College Fund and for the NAACP. Now that was a tragedy…’” 

It seems to me that fraternity’s sin of over-indulgence was revisited upon their successors in the form of an embarrassing error these five decades later!

I hope that the quotation is corrected, for the sake of the children of our children, down to the third and fourth generation! And it’s good that the controversy got people talking about the meaning of Dr. King’s words.

The third current event explicitly examines the legacies of slavery, by bringing to light a painful, true story and declaring – through poetry, music, academic discourse, and public dialogue – “Never Again!” The story is that of a captive African man (aka a slave) in Waterbury, Connecticut, named Fortune, who (along with his wife Dinah and four children – Africa, Jacob, Mira and Roxa) was owned by a physician. After Fortune died in 1798 – and this is awful, I need to warn you – (pause) the doctor boiled his corpse. In death, he became a medical specimen for anatomical study, and years later a walk-by exhibit at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, a skeleton known only as “Larry.” In 1970, it was removed from display out of respect. As the event brochure flatly states, “To date, Fortune’s bones have not been buried.”

The events will creatively bring together insights from many disciplines:  public health, medical education, ethics, religion, archeology, anthropology, music history and more.  and feature a requiem composed by the local, Unitarian Universalist, African-American composer and singer Dr. Isaye Barnwell. It was commissioned by the Waterbury Symphony, to set to music the text of a book-length poem called Fortune’s Bones:  The Manumission Requiem written in 2004 by Connecticut poet-laureate Marilyn Nelson. A full symphony, three choirs, seven soloists and a chorus of African bells will perform Dr. Barnwell’s cantata. It will, she says, “metaphorically set Fortune’s bones to rest.”

At the opening event, I heard Ms. Nelson read aloud the opening poem, written in the voice of Fortune’s wife Dinah describing her duties as the house-slave of the physician to include dusting the skeleton in his office, which she knew to be that of her husband. Can you imagine?! I’m not sure we can.

Then, Dr. Barnwell sang Dinah’s song from the cantata. I felt like weeping, and I imagined…

As the event series brochure says, “The questions raised by Fortune’s story go beyond a single community or historical era. Who speaks for Fortune? Who has the right to his remains? And what can we learn from his life and its aftermath?” It will end with a multi-faith celebration of his life and of our shared humanity, and a collective declaration that there will be no more Fortunes, no more Tuskegee experiments, and no more Henrietta Lacks (she was a young African-American Marylander who was treated at Hopkins for cancer in the 1950’s and died, from whose body tissues were taken without her knowledge and used to grow cells for research purposes). We will declare no more experimentation on human beings without their expressed consent.

Thinking about Mr. Fortune’s bones and about the segregation, racially motivated violence and mistreatment, and racism portrayed in The Help, which Dr. King and the civil rights movement sought to end, I ask myself, I ask you:  exactly what is the ethical basis for judging these things to be wrong, sinful, evil?

What if the standard for our behavior was simply:  would we treat our father, brother or son this way? Our mother, sister, or daughter this way? Aren’t we all, in the beginning and in the end, family? To the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation, to the thousandth generation… we are the human family.

Let ours be the legacies of good more than sin, equities more than iniquities, right more than wrong. And let us regard each other as family, as beautiful. So may it be.

HYMN #1053   How Could Anyone Ever Tell You – You Were Anything Less than Beautiful?

*[Deleted in delivery due to lack of time:

James Horton, Professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University, explains the persisting legacies of slavery, in this way,

“The problem of race in America at the end of the 20th century is not the problem of slavery. If it had been the problem of slavery, it'd have been over in 1865. But as a Christian nation, a nation that saw itself as a Christian nation, as a nation that saw itself built on the principles of freedom, we had to tell ourselves that there was something about the slave that justified slavery. It is that justification of slavery that we are still trying to deal with, more than 100 years after the abolition of slavery.

It would have been so much better if we could have said: I have the power to hold slaves. Therefore I hold slaves. Has nothing to do with the slaves. Has to do with my power. Then, when I no longer had the power, slavery is over, we could move forward. But because we are America, because we have this vision of ourselves, we had to say to ourselves that there's something wrong with the slave. And when we said that, it put us in the position of then having to deal with that notion of racial inferiority, long past the end of slavery.”]

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