Gore Vidal famously said that he never missed a chance to have sex or appear on television. Me, I never miss a chance to eat in New Orleans. So when my literary agent proposed lunch there with the actor Wendell Pierce—best known for portraying Baltimore homicide detective Bunk Moreland in “The Wire” and trombonist Antoine Batiste in “Treme”—there was no way I was going to pass.
I was skeptical, however, of the lunch’s purpose. Wendell, a native New Orleanian, was planning to write a memoir of his family’s roots in south Louisiana and how the devastation of Hurricane Katrina renewed his love for the city. He also wanted to write about how African-Americans have always responded to hardship by making art.
He had read my 2013 memoir, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and saw potential for us to collaborate. Knowing Wendell’s formidable reputation as an actor, I was flattered that he had read my book—and humbled that he thought it good enough to consider hiring me to help him write his own. So why my skepticism?
Wendell and I come from the same state and are of the same generation, but we grew up in different worlds. He is a black liberal from the Crescent City; I am a white conservative from the rural hills of West Feliciana Parish. How could we possibly have enough in common to work together? I figured I would enjoy having a meal with the guy, but it wouldn’t go anywhere.
We met at Lüke, the Franco-German brasserie just outside the French Quarter. Following the hostess to our table took longer than usual because everybody in the joint seemed to know Wendell and reached out to say hello. A New Orleans friend had advised me that Wendell is beloved in the city because he is friendly, unpretentious, and genuinely cares about the place. And here it was, playing out in front of me before we even sat down.
It all began in 1987, when I was barely 14. I yearned to feel something more, to do something noble. I sought a deeper meaning for my life, outside of the mundane existence I witnessed many of the working-class adults in my neighborhood struggling with. Rather than succumb to the doldrums of comfort, I wanted to matter. And a twist of fate presented me with a convenient way to fulfill those needs.
My youthful innocence screeched to an abrupt end the night I met Clark Martell.
I stood in my alley zoning out, high on weed, when the shotgun roar of a car bursting down the backstreet broke the calm. A primer-black 1969 Pontiac Firebird screeched to a skidding halt in the gravel beside me. With the amber glow of the streetlamp lighting the car from above, the passenger door snapped open, and am older dude with a shaved head and black combat boots headed straight toward me. He wasn’t unnaturally tall or imposing physically, but his closely cropped hair and shiny boots smacked of authority. Over a crisp white T‑shirt, thin scarlet suspenders held up his bleach-spotted jeans.
He stopped just inches from me and leaned in close, his beady, ashen eyes holding mine. The whites surrounding his granite pupils looked old, timeworn, intense. Barely opening his mouth, he spoke softly, with a listen-closely-now attitude. “Don’t you know that’s exactly what the capitalists and Jews want you to do, so they can keep you docile?”
Not knowing exactly what the hell a capitalist was, or what “docile” meant, my nervous instinct was to take a swift draw from the joint and involuntarily cough smoke straight into his face.
With stunning speed, this guy with the penetrating gray eyes smacked the back of my head with one hand and simultaneously snatched the spliff from my lips with the other, crushing it with his shiny black Doc Marten boot.
I was stunned. Only my dad had ever hit me like that.
The stubbly, sharp-jawed man straightened up and gripped my shoulder firmly, drawing me in toward him. “I’m Clark Martell, son, and I’m going to save your ******* life.”
Matthew Tuininga being interesting:
The primary problem with southern Presbyterian defenses of segregation was not that they assumed an individualistic view of sin but that they embraced a spiritualized, even neo-platonized understanding of the Gospel. Like their Presbyterian forebear Thornwell, men like Gillespie, Richards and Smith insisted that the spiritual kingdom of God does not take concrete social expression. In other words, their political theology suffered from an under-realized eschatology even more than it did from some sorrt of American individualism.
While this under-realized eschatology led them to conceive of the expression of the kingdom in this life in individualistic terms, it also led them to a greater reliance on the Old Testament as the best source of biblical insight regarding social and political life. Lucas points out that the spirituality of the church doctrine did not lead southern churches to avoid speaking toward political matters; it simply made them selective in the issues that they addressed.
I would make the point more specific by suggesting that the doctrine led them to prioritize the Old Testament over the New Testament as a source for political insight. The Old Testament rendered plausible the theological defense of a thoroughly communitarian and segregated vision of political life, while the rejection of the social and political relevance of the New Testament rendered its more radical and inclusive social ethics moot. Thus southern Presbyterians read Pentecost through Babel, and the unity of the nations in Christ through the division of the nations from Israel, rather than the other way around. Only by interpreting the gospel through the law could they imagine that church membership, let alone justice within political society, could legitimately be constituted on the basis of race.
Read part 2 here. Part 3 has not yet been published.
When my wife and I announced we would be moving back to the States to plant a church in Southeast DC, we met three reactions. People who loved us over these past eight years and appreciated our ministry expressed their love and sadness that we were leaving Cayman. Those same people and many others then quickly sent us tremendous amounts of encouragement, prayer and practical help. Then there were those who had a question. They asked, “Are you afraid?” or “Do you have any fears?”
My elders in Cayman asked that question. The elders here at CHBC asked that question. A few individuals asked that question. And some people have worn their concern on their faces.
When asked the question, I’d usually pause. Not because I didn’t have an answer, but because some fears feel too real when you give them words. So I’d pause. Then I’d say two things: “Truthfully, the Lord has kept us from any fears that we can discern about planting the church or living in Southeast. If I have a fear it would be one thing: bringing my son Titus to the United States. He’s so tender and innocent and the States can be very hard on Black boys.”
That’s my one fear. This country destroying my boy. Ferguson is my fear. I could be the black dad approaching a white sheet stained with his son’s blood. I could be the husband holding his wife, rocking in anguish, terrorized by the ‘what happeneds’ and the ‘how could theys,’ unable to console his wife, his wife who works so hard to make her son a “momma’s boy” with too many hugs, bedtime stories, presents for nothing, and an overflowing delight in everything he does. How do you comfort a woman who feels like a part of her soul was ripped out her chest?
In Chapter 15 of My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass describes the ultimate incoherency of the notion of a fully privatized faith, which can lead a man to act with love at one time and utter malice at another while seemingly feeling no cognitive dissonance from it.
In this specific instance, he has just told of the merciless beatings he would receive from Mr. Covey, a man to whom he was sent for “breaking” as a horse or mule is broken. Mr. Covey believed that fear was the only motivator to compel slaves to labor. As Douglass himself remarks, there was “no earthly inducement” (note the modifier; emph. mine) to extract such behavior, so he would practice deception and spy on his slaves in order to get it. Covey taught his chattels with the whip that his presence should be feared and was never far away, even when he, a dominus absconditus, was not visible to them.
One important piece for conservatives to keep in mind as we feel increasingly beleaguered on the national political scene due to the triumph of same-sex marriage is that people on the left often feel just as beleaguered on the state level. In the current system, the left may win most of the national elections, but the right is winning the local elections. Anyway, all that to say, this New Republic piece is worth reading:
Long before he became the most powerful man in the Alabama Senate, before he controlled billions of dollars in state money and had lobbyists, governors, and future presidents seeking his favor, Hank Sanders used newspapers and magazines as bathroom tissue. His mother would collect periodicals from the wealthy white family whose house she cleaned and bring them back for Sanders and his brothers and sisters. There were 13 children, all told, and they lived with their parents in a three-room shack that their father had built out of one-by-eight boards among the tall pines and chinaberry trees in Blacksher, a speck of a town 50 miles north of Mobile.
This was Alabama in the 1950s, when Jim Crow reigned and a governor’s race was determined by which candidate managed to secure the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan. Life in Baldwin County, where Blacksher was located, may have been marginally less horrid for its black residents than in other parts of the state: The county’s last lynching had occurred in 1919 and some of the white men who perpetrated it had even gone to prison. But there were certain realities by which Sanders, as a black child, knew he must abide. He knew not to spend any of the money he earned picking cotton on the six-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola at the drugstore; those were only for white customers, and a black person who tried to buy one risked more than just being refused service. He also knew not to look in the direction of a white woman. The one time he did, the woman’s male companion threatened to whip him, and probably would have had Sanders’s mother, a strong-willed woman named Ola Mae, not intervened. For Sanders, the fact that there was no electricity or running water in his house—to say nothing of toilet paper—was far less distressing than the constant threat of danger.
In 1954, when Sanders was twelve, he momentarily ignored the intended purpose of a magazine his mother had brought home and instead read an article about Thurgood Marshall’s work on Brown v. Board of Education. The case had no bearing on Sanders’s everyday life. Baldwin County’s schools were segregated and would remain defiantly so for more than a decade after his education in them. But Marshall’s legal heroics wormed their way into the back of Sanders’s mind, and when his seventh-grade teacher asked her students what they wanted to be when they grew up, Sanders surprised himself by saying, “A lawyer.” His classmates—whose professional aspirations tended toward farming or turpentine work—burst out laughing. Sanders began to cry; the other kids laughed even harder, which prompted even more tears. When the episode was finally over, Sanders resolved that he would become a lawyer (still not entirely sure what one was) just to prove his classmates wrong.
Chandra Dharma Sena Gooneratne was getting a doctorate at the University of Chicago in the ’20s. Originally from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), he traveled around America lecturing on the need to abolish the caste system and on India’s push for independence from the British, among other topics.
In a recent article about Gooneratne, Desai notes that visiting scholars from Asia and Africa, like Gooneratne, were startled to encounter anti-black discrimination. But some of these people, who were lugging around colonial baggage from their own countries, found a way around racism.
Gooneratne, for one, used his turban while traveling in the Jim Crow South to avoid harassment, and advised others to do the same, Desai writes.
“Any Asiatic can evade the whole issue of color in America by winding a few yards of linen around his head,” Desai quotes Gooneratne as saying. “A turban makes anyone an Indian.”
If you’re interested in this topic, a professor at my alma mater has written a fantastic book on how American racism influenced our foreign policy throughout the 20th century.
Jamie Campbell writing about her experience as an African-American teaching at Biola:
Most of my student’s parents grew up in an America that, from their own report, was “much simpler.” People didn’t need to talk about race because the Civil Rights Movement had more or less effected a social/racial equality, irritations of political correctness aside. And the Cosby Show proved that if Black people worked hard enough and studied hard enough they didn’t have to be thugs or drug dealers or welfare queens. And wasn’t it enough that they had a Black friend in college? They aren’t racists. They didn’t own slaves/put Japanese Americans in internment camps/treat their Latino landscaper badly. And they taught their kids to be colorblind/not see color/everyone is equal.
But their children know that universal equality is false.
Don’t miss part two where Jamie’s husband Andrew, who is white, talks about the same issue.
Every year, in January and April, we commemorate the extraordinary career of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. But there is probably no figure in recent American history whose memory is more distorted, whose message more bowdlerized, whose powerful words are more drained of content than King.
A few years ago, in preparation for a public lecture on 1968, I re-read the most important book on King and his politics to come out in the last decade: Thomas F. Jackson’s From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice. Jackson, a former researcher with the King Papers project at Stanford, has read King’s every last sermon, speech, book, article, and letter. What Jackson finds is that from the beginning of his ministry, King was far more radical, especially on matters of labor, poverty, and economic justice than we remember. In media accounts, King was quickly labeled the “Apostle of Non-Violence,” and, by the mid-1960s, portrayed as the antithesis to Malcolm X. While King adhered to nonviolence for his entire career, the single-minded focus of the media on the horse race between Malcolm and Martin led reporters to ignore King’s more radical pronouncements. They simply didn’t fit into the developing story line.
At Sunset Hill Cemetery, dawn breaks with headlights.
It’s just after 6 a.m. on a muggy June morning in Valdosta, Georgia, when two Altimas and an F-150 roll up the hill and past the headstones. Other cars follow, heading west and then north, past Nicholas George (1904-1938) and Nancy V. (1943-2008) as they turn back east and brake to stop. The passengers exit and gather around the grave of Kendrick Johnson. The police chief had been clear: Only immediate family would be allowed, but here stand cousins and grandparents alongside adopted aunts and football teammates.
“I’m gonna let y’all say a little prayer,” the police chief announces. “Then we’ll get going.”
Heads look toward Grandma Barbara, then bow. The headlights have been shut off, the sky has turned orange, and for a moment all is silent but the screeching rattle of cicadas.
“Lord Jesus, we lift this child to heaven,” Barbara begins, and all around her the others nod. There is no tent, no hearse. There are no pallbearers, no black suits. There are two backhoes — an orange Kubota and a yellow Deere — and there are empty faces and swollen eyes and T-shirts that call for justice.
“You seen him,” Barbara calls out, her voice stretching thinner with every word. “You seen how he looked. You seen his face.”
Kendrick’s cousin Solomon Arrington stands 20 feet away, near the parked cars. Ever since the morning the detective knocked on his door, he still can’t sleep in his own bed. His mother, Keisha, will find him sitting up on the couch late at night. What would have happened, he wonders, if he’d been in school that day?
Tra Durden wipes his brow and stares ahead at no one. Freshman year, Durden was out on the football practice field with Kendrick. Months later, after he heard Kendrick had been found dead, Tra punched their high school’s walls.
“You know the truth, Lord,” Barbara says. “We pray that you bring justice. We magnify you, Jesus. We praise you. We pray this in your name. Amen.”
Shovels break the earth. Jackie Johnson looks on for a moment, then away. Her shirt says “KJ’s mom” and her eyes are wet with tears. Her husband, Kenneth, studies the crane operator’s every move.
The orange backhoe plunges into the dirt. Scoop after scoop, the hole deepens and the mound of displaced soil grows. Then a man in a brown shirt and brown gloves drops into the hole, his head poking out just above the ground. He connects a pulley and begins yanking the chains, right hand over left, then left over right, then right over left again. Inch by inch, the casket rises from the earth.
They didn’t come to bury Kendrick. They came to dig him up.