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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

Patches of Black History | February 4, 2024 Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake

"All classes of people under social pressure are permeated with a common experience; they are emotionally welded as others cannot be. With them, even ordinary living has epic depth and lyric intensity, and this, their material handicap, is their spiritual advantage."

~ Alain LeRoy Locke



Welcome to our message today, our first during Black History Month 2024. We need to set aside time to reflect on the presence of African people from the time before this place was a nation until this present moment. When Carter G. Woodson initiated Negro History Week in 1926, he intended to set aside a time when Black young people and others would look deeply and scholarly into the African American journey. This story was/is intertwined with the story of the nation, a nation that too easily denied, destroyed, and desecrated this journey of extraordinary accomplishments, achievements, and contributions to the nation. The aim was to erode ignorance and give due respect to the ancestry and legacy of a people kidnapped from their nations and brought to a strange land. In many instances, these people not only survived but also thrived.


This is what my homiletics/preaching professor called a patchwork sermon/message. Place a patch here and there, somewhere else, and see if they somehow are connected.


One patch where from his spiritual depth and imagination, Dr. Howard Thurman describes the journey from the old land and worldview.


From my cabin window I look out of the full moon, and the ghosts of my forefathers rise and fall with the undulating waves. Across these same waters how many years ago they came! What were the inchoate mutterings locked tight within the circle of their hearts? In the deep, heavy darkness of the foul-smelling hold of the ship, where they could not see the sky, nor hear the night noises, nor feel the warm compassion of the tribe, they held their breath against the agony.


How does the human spirit accommodate itself to desolation? How did they? What tools of the spirit were in their hands with which to cut a path through the wilderness of their despair? If only Death of the body could come to deliver the soul from dying! If some sacred taboo had been defiled and this extended terror was the consequence – there would be no panic in the paying. If some creature of the vast and pulsing jungle had snatched the life away – this would even in its wildest fear be floated by the familiarity of the daily hazard. If Death had come being ushered into life by a terrible paroxysm of pain, all the assurance of the Way of the Tribe would have carried the spirit home on the wings of precious ceremony and holy ritual. But this! Nothing anywhere in all the myths, in all the stories, in all the ancient memory of the race had given hint of this tortuous convulsion. There were no gods to hear, no magic spell of witch doctor to summon; even one’s companion in chains muttered his quivering misery in a tongue unknown and a sound unfamiliar.


O my fathers, what was it like to be stripped of all supports of life save the beating of the heart and the ebb and flow of fetid air in the lungs? In a strange moment, when you suddenly caught your breath, did some intimation from the future give to your spirits a wink of promise? In the darkness did you hear the silent feel of your children beating a melody of freedom to words which you would never know, in a land in which your bones would be warmed again in the depths of the cold earth in which you will sleep unknown, unrealized and alone?

 

A patch of painful aspiration, Frances Harper's The Dying Bondman. Born free in 1825 from free parents, Frances Harper was the first Black woman to publish a novel. She gained a reputation as a popular poet and abolitionist in the decades leading up to the American Civil War. Much of her work was rediscovered in the twentieth century and preserved for its significance to some of the leading social movements of the nineteenth century, including temperance, abolition, and women’s suffrage. Born free in 1825 from free parents, she was the first Black woman to publish a novel.

 

Life was trembling, faintly trembling

On the bondman’s latest breath,

And he felt the chilling pressure

Of the cold, hard hand of Death.

He had been an African chieftain,

Worn his manhood as a crown;

But upon the field of battle

Had been fiercely stricken down.

He had longed to gain his freedom,

Waited, watched and hoped in vain,

Till his life was slowly ebbing—

Almost broken was his chain.

By his bedside stood the master,

Gazing on the dying one,

Knowing by the dull grey shadows

That life’s sands were almost run.

“Master,” said the dying bondman,

“Home and friends I soon shall see;

But before I reach my country,

Master write that I am free;

“For the spirits of my fathers

Would shrink back from me in pride,

If I told them at our greeting

I a slave had lived and died; —

“Give to me the precious token,

That my kindred dead may see—

Master! write it, write it quickly!

Master! write that I am free!”

At his earnest plea the master

Wrote for him the glad release,

O’er his wan and wasted features

Flitted one sweet smile of peace.

Eagerly he grasped the writing;

“I am free!” at last he said.

Backward fell upon the pillow,

He was free among the dead.

                                     – Frances Harper 

 

Personal Defiance of Slavery from a free woman.


Bury Me in a Free Land


Make me a grave where’er you will,

In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;

Make it among earth’s humblest graves,

But not in a land where men are slaves.


I could not rest if around my grave

I heard the steps of a trembling slave;

His shadow above my silent tomb

Would make it a place of fearful gloom.


I could not rest if I heard the tread

Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,

And the mother’s shriek of wild despair

Rise like a curse on the trembling air.


I could not sleep if I saw the lash

Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,

And I saw her babes torn from her breast,

Like trembling doves from their parent nest.


I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay

Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,

And I heard the captive plead in vain

As they bound afresh his galling chain.


If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms

Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,

My eye would flash with a mournful flame,

My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.


I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might

Can rob no man of his dearest right;

My rest shall be calm in any grave

Where none can call his brother a slave.


I ask no monument, proud and high,

To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;

All that my yearning spirit craves,

Is bury me not in a land of slaves.


"All classes of people under social pressure are permeated with a common experience; they are emotionally welded as others cannot be. With them, even ordinary living has epic depth and lyric intensity, and this, their material handicap, is their spiritual advantage."


Patch three affirming life within oppression.

Dr. Thurman stated that if he could just hear these songs, the Negro/African American Spirituals, he knew that nothing could stand against him, not even the ingrained racism of American society.



Thurman writes:

The fascination of the flowing stream is a constant source of wonder and beauty to the sensitive mind. It was ever thus. The restless movement, the hurrying, ever-changing stream has always been the bearer of the longings and yearnings of humanity for a land beyond the horizon where dreams are fulfilled, and deepest desires satisfied. It is not to be wondered at that in this spiritual there is a happy blending of majestic rhythm and poignant yearning:


Deep River, my home is over Jordan.


This is perhaps the most universal in insight, and certainly the most intellectual of all the spirituals. In a bold stroke it thinks of life in terms of a river. The analogy is complete in the first place because a river has a very simple beginning. It increases in momentum in depth in breadth in turbulence as it cuts a broad deep channel across the continent.  It is the nature of the river to flow; it is always moving, always in process, always on its way.


Life is like that! Life on this planet began its long trek across the aeons in a simple single cell form in far-off ages in some primeval ocean bed. Your life and my life began as a simple form, moving through varying stages of prenatal fulfillment, until by a great climactic spasm you and I were born. Our life represents essential process.


The analogy is complete again because a river has times of flood. Through melting snows and heavy rainfall, the channel sometimes becomes swollen. The river that once was full of peace and quiet balance, bearing on its bosom much to sustain and make glad the life of man, becomes a wild, unrestrained monster. It is the flood time of the river. Life is like that!


There is a time of anguish, tragedy, a time of the swelling waters. The answer is a larger opening to the sea.


The analogy completes itself. The river has a goal; and, the goal is the sea. It is from the sea that the river comes. It is to the sea that the river goes.


 Life is like that! The goal of life is God! The source of life is God!


Deep River, my home is over Jordan--Deep River, I want to cross over into campground.


Patch four

Tomorrow Is Rosa Parks’ birthday. “Born Rosa Louise McCauley on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. McCauley attended rural schools until the age of eleven. Before that, her mother taught her "a good deal about sewing ". Wikipedia states: She started piecing quilts from the age of six, as her mother and grandmother were making quilts. Putting her first quilt together by herself around the age of ten, which was unusual, as quilting was mainly a family activity performed when there was no field work or chores to be done. She learned more sewing in school from the age of eleven and sewed her own "first dress [she] could wear."


Parks was a seamstress and secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advance of Colored People (NAACP) when she defied bus driver James Blake’s order to vacate a row of four seats in the "colored" section in favor of a white passenger, once the "white" section was filled. Was this just a personal statement? Was she just too tired to move as some have suggested? No! Emphatically no! She had been an activist at least since 1943 with the NAACP and had recently attended training sessions at the Highland Folk Center in Tennessee which trained activists for worker’s rights and racial equality. Was she a mystic, revolutionary, or both? As a mystic she experienced the current situation in public transportation to be demeaning. It undercut the unity of all of creation and its creatures. From her faith background in the African American Episcopal Church (AME), she knew such segregation was against the oneness demonstrated in and by the life of Jesus. As a revolutionary, she knew that the present situation was detrimental to masses of people. It was an old order that needed to be swept away for a new one, more just and compassionate.

 

Unraveling of the tapestry?


Black History Month must not merely be an opportunity to look back. It is critical to look forward. What must tomorrow bring? And what part do I play? Daily, bombs against Palestinians are unleashed. Draconian laws are passed preventing the search for freedom from nations on or near our southern border whose flight in many cases is due to our nation’s interventions in their home countries. Transgender rights are denied. Women’s rights to control their bodies and lives now rest with reactionary politicians. Deceit and lies abound. Wars abound. And we keep funding them while refusing help to those in need in this country.


Dr. King reminds us: We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. . .. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on. . .. We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.



 

I dream of a world of infinitive and valuable variety; not in the laws of gravity or atomic weights, but in human variety in height and weight, color and skin, hair and nose and lip. But more especially and far above and beyond this, is a realm of true freedom: in thought and dream, fantasy and imagination; in gift, aptitude, and genius—all possible manner of difference, topped with freedom of soul to do and be, and freedom of thought to give to a world and build into it, all wealth of inborn individuality. Each effort to stop this freedom of being is a blow at democracy—that real democracy which is reservoir and opportunity . . . There can be no perfect democracy curtailed by color, race, or poverty. But with all we accomplish all, even Peace.”

– W. E. B. Du Bois in The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History (Oxford University Press, 2007 [1947]), 165.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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