My Boat Is Enough for the River | August 14, 2022 by Rev Dr. Dorsey Blake
In my last message I reflected on some of my experiences at the Children's Defense Fund’s Annual Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute held at Alex Haley Farm. After I had finished the written message that Saturday and had sent it to Bryan Caston to be formatted (Yes! Bryan does that too), I turned on the television and was surprised that the TV film, Roots, based on Haley’s book was being shown. The next day in Thurman Hall after the worship service, I was gifted a book by Marian Wright Edelman (founder of the Children’s Defense Fund) titled The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small. What an intriguing title!
Roots traces Alex Haley’s family roots from Gambia where Kunta Kinte was captured and brought enslaved to what was to become the United States. Young Kunta remembered his freedom in Gambia and fiercely resisted accepting his lot as a slave. He refused to answer to the name Toby, the name given him by his slave master. No! He was Kunta Kinte. Even with a lacerated back due to severe whipping, he rejected accepting this slave name. For the slave name held a slave identity. Pained by the whippings that left Kunta near death, Fiddler, an older enslaved person, queried Kunta one day on what did it matter what the master called him? He knew who he was! Fiddler in his effort to save his young companion was saying: “You know who you are, your authentic self, regardless of the name to which you are required to answer.” Whipped again and asked to say his name, Kunta responded “Toby.”
While this may appear to be a victory for the slave master, it was not necessarily so. Concession to answering to the name Toby did not mean accepting slavery as legitimate. The capitulation to accepting the name Toby was predicated on another piece of advice from Fiddler: There’s going to be another day.
Historian Kenneth Stampp in his powerful book, The Peculiar Institution, declared: “A wise master did not take seriously the belief that Negroes were natural-born slaves. He knew better. He knew that Negroes freshly imported from Africa had to be broken in to bondage; that each succeeding generation had to be carefully trained. This was no easy task, for the bondsman rarely submitted willingly. Moreover, he rarely submitted completely. In most cases there was no end to the need for control—at least not until old age reduced the slave to a condition of helplessness.”
In chapter IV, To Make Them Stand in Fear, Stampp outlines steps employed by slave masters to create the ideal slave. These steps were part of a systematic approach to controlling the slave.
(1) Establish and maintain strict discipline. “They must obey at all times, and under all circumstances, cheerfully and with alacrity.”
(2) Implant in the bondsmen themselves a consciousness of personal inferiority. They had “to know and keep their places,” to “feel the difference between master and slave,” to “understand that bondage was their natural status.” They had to feel that African ancestry tainted them, that their color was a badge of degradation.
(3) Awe them with a sense of their master’s enormous power. The only principle upon which slavery could be maintained . . . was the “principle of fear.”
(4) Persuade the bondsmen to take an interest in the master’s enterprise and to accept his standards of good conduct. “The master should make it his business to show his slaves, that the advancement of his individual interest, is at the same time an advancement of theirs. Once they feel this, it will require but little compulsion to make them act as it becomes them.”
(5) Impress Negroes with their helplessness, to create in them “a habit of perfect dependence” upon their masters. Many believed it dangerous to train slaves to be skilled artisans in the towns, because they tended to become self-reliant.
These were the disciplines confronting Kunta Kinte as he attempted to maintain his integrity, his sense of somebodiness, his memory of his African homeland and ancestors, and a measure of control over his own life. These same disciplines were employed throughout the peculiar institution of slavery.
I am reminded of Dr. Thurman’s story about his grandmother and the Black preacher who declared to the enslaved: “You are not slaves. You are not niggers. You are God’s children.” This is the type of affirmation that is needed in the soul, in the total being of the disinherited.
For Dr. Thurman the issue of identity is essential to examining personal commitment. Who am I?
We all have multiple identities. Kunta Kinte was an enslaved person, a male, of person of African heritage, a Muslim, a son, a kidnapped person living in a strange land with no concept of where his traditional material home was in relationship to this place to which he must adapt. He has been cut off from an ancestry and heritage that had given him meaning, support, and an affirmative worldview. What turmoil there must have been within? What trauma must have populated his days!
The idea of multiple identities is not new. It is dramatically expressed in Christian Scripture through the encounter of Jesus with the man who lived among the tombs, the obviously dead.
Here comes the importance or unimportance of the name again. When Jesus asked a quite simple, empathetic question: “What is your name?” The answer was “Legion, Toby.” With so many factors, demands, relationships commanding him, he was tortured within and excluded without. It has been suggested by some scholars that Legion referred to the Roman Legion that enforced the rule of Roman over the variously disinherited, including this particular individual. In a sense, he like Toby was being dangled by external colonial powers over which he had no external control. What Jesus was able to impart to him, however, was that he did have internal control. Jesus invited him to go within to find his true identity and therefore strength – identity and strength to deal with external powers.
This again is what Fiddler conveyed to Kunta Kinte: You know your authentic self.
The idea of knowing who you are is a key to living your life. Thurman calls this yielding to the real citadel. The process may not be easy. It may take time. There are so many strings pulling us.
This is true not only of the enslaved, the Legions of the world, but also of the prominent (not clearly enslaved), such as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Who Am I?
Who am I? They often tell me,
I step out from my cell,
composed, contented and sure.
like a lord from his manor.
Who am I? They often tell me,
I speak with my jailers,
frankly, familiar and firm,
as though I was in command.
Who am I? They also tell me,
I bear the days of hardship,
unconcerned, amused and proud,
like one who usually wins.
Am I really what others tell me?
Or am I only what I myself know of me?
Troubled, homesick, ill, like a bird in a cage,
Gasping for breath, as though one strangled me,
Hungering for colors, for flowers, for songs of birds,
Thirsting for kind words, for human company,
Quivering with anger at despotism and petty insults,
Anxiously waiting for great events,
Helplessly worrying about friends far away,
Empty and tired of praying, of thinking, of working,
Exhausted and ready to bid farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I then, this today and the other tomorrow?
Am I both at the same time? In public, a hypocrite
And by myself, a contemptible, whining weakling?
Or am I to myself, like a beaten army,
Flying in disorder from a victory already won?
Who am I? Lonely questions mock me,
Who I really am, you know me, I am thine, O God!
Bonhoeffer’s answer is the same as the answer to Legion and Kunta Kinte. We belong to something larger. “Belong to” is different from “owned by.”
Kunta was only seventeen when he was captured in Gambia and forcibly brought to this country. He was a child, belonging to a family, tribe, community. He had membership in a long and comprehensive lineage. He honored and was honored by life.
Dr. Marian Wright Edelman, a leading advocate for children, writes:
God, we have pushed so many of our children into the tumultuous sea of life
In small and leaky boats without survival gear and compass.
Forgive us and help them to forgive us.
Help us now to give all our children the anchors of faith and love, the rudders
of purpose and hope, the sails of health and education, and the paddles
of family and community.
I love the image of the immensity of the sea and the smallness of the boat. Yet, there is a relationship in which they complement each other when the boat has sufficient gear and compass, when the children have what they need to successfully negotiate the journey upon the water. The child in the small, finite boat moves forward upon the infinite with confidence, not knowing all that will happen but feeling secure in their relationship with the All Encompassing. The child and Bonhoeffer journey with God. Kunta rests on the vastness of his people’s legacy. There is a sense of spaciousness that opens the individual beyond the entanglement of the individual self so that the self can rest in the enormity of life.
Many of the disciplines of slavery, of empire with which Kunta, Legion, Bonhoeffer struggled are still in place. They are more subtle, yes. And, because of this, we may not see them as clearly as we should as practices that make us stand in fear. But let us look at them again. Do they govern us in any manner?
(1) Establish and maintain strict discipline. “We must obey at all times, and under all circumstances, cheerfully and with alacrity.”
(2) Implant in the bondsmen themselves a consciousness of personal inferiority. We have “to know and keep their places,” to “feel the difference between those in power and ourselves, consumers, “to understand that lack of decision-making and enforcement is our natural status.
(3) Awe them with a sense of their master’s enormous power. The only principle upon which docility and a feeling of impotence could be maintained . . . was the “principle of fear.”
(4) Persuade them to take an interest in the master’s enterprise and to accept his standards of good conduct. “Those with systemic power should make it their business to show us that the advancement of plantation capitalism advances us. Once we feel this, it will require but little compulsion to make us act in compliance.”
(5) Impress us with our inability to create change, create in us “a habit of perfect dependence” upon what is.
May we never incorporate these fear inducing techniques. Rather may we embody Fiddler’s declaration: There’s going to be another day.
You may be hurting or afraid. Show up.
We’ll gather healing on the way. Show up.
We will be strong; we will be brave. Show up.
Dream of the world we will create. Show up.
- Joe Davis