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Posts Tagged ‘Race’

Hello friends. It’s been almost two years since I last posted here. Inexcusable, I know. But now that my gig as the editor of UrbanFaith.com is winding down, I hope to have more time to share some thoughts here. And in the coming months, I’ll have a lot more to say about my new book project. So please stay tuned.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share briefly about a 1940 film that’s become one of my favorites for the holidays since I first discovered it three years ago. It’s called Remember the Night, and stars Fred MacMurray and the lovely Barbara Stanwyck. Written by playwright and screenwriter Preston Sturges, here’s how IMDB.com summarizes the film’s storyline:

Just before Christmas, Lee Leander (Stanwyck) is caught shoplifting. It is her third offense. She is prosecuted by assistant distric attorney John Sargent (MacMurray). He postpones the trial because it is hard to get a conviction at Christmas time. But he feels sorry for her and arranges for her bail, and ends up taking her home to his mother for Christmas. Surrounded by a loving family (in stark contrast to Lee’s own family background) they fall in love. This creates a new problem: how do they handle the upcoming trial?

I’m not sure what it is about this film that has caused me to look forward to it every Christmas season. The film isn’t as inspiring or humorous as a popular classic like It’s a Wonderful Life. And at times the pacing feels much too slow. Yet there’s something about the interaction of the two main characters and their respective transformations from self-centered individuals into giving, selfless people. It has that familiar Dickensian sort of moral arc that informs most great Christmas stories — from A Christmas Carol to Miracle on 34th Street to How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Then, of course, there’s the classic love story of an odd couple falling for each other and becoming better people for it.

But I think there’s also something sadly disturbing about the film that draws me to it each year. It has to do with the relationship between MacMurray’s character John Sargent and his African American valet Rufus (portrayed by actor Fred “Snowflake” Toones). Toones was a charactrer actor who made a career out of playing comedic supporting roles in dozens of films during the 1930s and ’40s. According to his IMDB page, Toones’s “standard characterization was that of a middle-aged ‘colored’ man with a high-pitched voice and childlike demeanor.” Some have referred to this type of character as the “loyal Tom,” others as a “Sambo.” Whatever the label, it’s clear that the filmmakers of Remember the Night viewed Rufus’s servile status as both comic relief and a natural fact of life in the world of the main characters. (It’s interesting that, again according to IMDB, Toones actually ran the shoeshine stand at Republic Pictures, where he was under contract from 1936-1947.) In fact, some of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film are not the climatic moments showing the emotional evolution of Lee and John but the demeaning and truly racist manner in which John addresses Rufus. Yet it is not something that is dwelled upon in the film. As I said, it’s mostly taken for granted as the natural backdrop of the story.

This got me to thinking about both this movie and other pieces of pop culture that I’ve liked in the past that also feature questionable racial elements. Should I view these things as being offensive and reject them outright, throwing out the good with the bad? Or should I simply view them as a historical statement about the times in which they were made? In the case of Remember the Night, I’ve chosen the latter course. I confess that the film fascinates me in odd ways. I wonder about the interaction of the actors on the set in real life: Did Mr. Toones face actual racism from the cast and crew in addition to the insults that were piled upon his character in the movie? Did director Mitchell Leisen and Mr. MacMurray understand that John Sargent’s condescending tone toward Rufus was wrong, and were they hoping to demonstrate this injustice by their film’s portrayal of the white man-black man relationship in 1940? Or was this just the way it was, both in art and life, for this group of people?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I still plan to watch Remember the Night again this year and study the actors’ faces for clues. The movie will air tonight at 9:45 ET on Turner Classic Movies channel (TCM). If you have a chance, please watch it (or DVR it to watch later) and let me know what you think.

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I learned yesterday that my dear friend Dr. Howard O. Jones passed away on Sunday at age 89. Dr. Jones was the first African American evangelist to join Billy Graham’s ministry team back in the 1950s. In my book, Reconciliation Blues, I talk about some of the hostility and discrimination that he encountered from other Christians because of his race. I helped him write his autobiography, which was published by Moody in 2003.

As I worked with Dr. Jones, I was struck primarily by his passion for God and for preaching the Good News. The gospel seemed to naturally exude from him, no matter what he was doing or discussing. He was a preacher to the core, and he sincerely believed that a relationship with Christ would provide the answer to any problem or trial that we face in this life.

I also was struck by Dr. Jones’ devotion to his beloved wife, Wanda, who had been his partner in ministry for more than 50 years. Together they raised five kids and traveled the world to preach the Word of God. When I first met Dr. Jones back in 1997, Wanda had been battling the effects of Alzheimer’s disease for a few years. I recall accompanying Dr. Jones to the Oberlin, Ohio, nursing home where Wanda was a resident for the last few years of her life. I remember the tender way that he fed her and read to her from his Bible. Though she could no longer speak, her eyes seemed to light up as he spoke to her. When Wanda died in 2001, Dr. Jones was devastated. But he held on to his faith in God, and he would tell Wanda’s story (and pass out copies of her book) wherever he went.

Dr. Jones was a great man of God who loved Christ with all is heart. I’m grateful that  I had the chance to know him personally and to help him record his story for posterity. He leaves behind a legacy of faith, courage, and reconciliation that should inspire the church for generations to come.

If you’re interested, you can read my 1998 Christianity Today profile of Dr. Jones. I interviewed him for Decision magazine back in 2002. Also, his autobiography, Gospel Trailblazer, is available through Amazon.

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There’s a great conversation going on at David Swanson’s blog regarding something I said in my commentary on Shirley Sherrod that was published at UrbanFaith.com. At one point in that commentary, I suggest that, to the minds of some white people, being called a “racist” might feel like the equivalent of calling a black person a “nigger.” It was just one of those secondary thoughts that occurred to me while I was writing that I decided to include in the article, but it turned out to be the line that David, and I’m sure many others, got stuck on. So, the discussion at David’s blog revolves around whether that observation is true. Most of the participants over there disagree with my suggestion, but I think their thoughtful responses prove that it’s a worthwhile idea to ponder.

Anyway, my good friend Shlomo chimed in at David’s blog to defend me against some of the mild criticism I was getting there, which I thought was very generous on his part. Thanks, Shlomo. But, as I noted in a comment that I left there, I’m not offended by those who disagree with my statement. In fact, I love it when folks can wrestle honestly with this race stuff.

All that to say, I thought I’d post the response that I left at David’s blog here too, just in case you’d like to read it.

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I was a bit reluctant to comment here at first, because I don’t want to come across as sounding defensive. But I do want to thank David for getting this excellent discussion going, and my dear brother Shlomo for coming to my defense.

But, I must say, I was not offended by Tomi’s statement. Part of my purpose in writing the Sherrod post (and most of the race-related commentaries that I write) is to get people thinking about the issue from different perspectives. I’m black, but as I write I try to place myself in the shoes of the white or Asian or Latino or Native American persons whom I hope will read my stuff. With the Sherrod piece, in particular, I was trying to imagine the situation from the perspective of the white conservative who has heard the “racist” label pointed in his direction for too long, even as he observes in our culture what seems to him to be racist and hateful talk coming from the very black folk who would dare accuse him of prejudice and hate.

As I’ve listened to Breitbart, Glenn Beck, and other lesser-known but still outspoken conservatives, it occurred to me that, to their minds, the “racist” tag must hurt in the same way that they believe the n-word hurts black people. How else to explain the fervent expressions of anger and resentment that the r-word elicits from some white conservatives? In making that observation, I was not suggesting that the two words are truly equal in their historical power to hurt and humiliate. But in this current era of racial change and upheaval (some of us might call it progress), where many whites feel threatened by what they sense as a loss of their rights and privileges, that r-word may feel to them like an unassailable weapon that smears and dehumanizes them and, more or less, shuts down the possibility of any further discussion.

So, on the one hand, I agree with Tomi that it was a “ridiculous” comparison for me to make. But I suspect it doesn’t sound as far-fetched to some of our more conservative brothers and sisters.

Last week, after the Sherrod story blew up, NPR’s Tell Me More had playwright Anna Deavere Smith on to discuss how Americans talk about race in politics, media, and personal relationships. As she chatted with host Michel Martin, she said something that really stuck with me. She said:

“Everybody thinks they know about race because everybody has one. But knowing about race has less to do with the race you have; it has to do with the race you don’t have. It has to do with the extent to which you seek out that which is different from you to have knowledge and to create collaborations. And I think that’s what we don’t know enough about right now.”

I thought that was a brilliant assessment of where we are in America with race—and where we need to go.

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I know that most folks are tired of hearing about the whole LeBron James saga. For the past few weeks, it’s been nonstop speculation and rumors. Then, finally, last week James shocked the world, especially Northeast Ohio, with his decision to bolt to Miami for better weather—and presumably a better chance to win an NBA championship. I reflect on the drama in a commentary at UrbanFaith.com, where I explore the various messianic monikers that have been attached to James by his marketers and himself (e.g., the King, the Chosen One) and I wonder whether now a more appropriate biblical metaphor might be “the Prodigal Son.”

I know there are more important things happening in the world, and that when it comes down to it LeBron is only a basketball player. But, as Washington Post columnist and ESPN analyst Michael Wilbon says in this great piece, the LeBron story touches on so many other cultural flashpoints beyond simply sports. We’re talking issues of money and power, family and friendship, civic pride and loyalty, manhood and responsibility, and, of course, race.

You’ve got Dan Gilbert, the bitter owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, posting a scathing anti-James screed at the team’s website, accusing his former employee of betraying the team as well as his hometown. You’ve got folks in Ohio burning jerseys and scrambling to dismantle the gigantic downtown murals of LeBron that, to the outsider, always appeared just a little bit too excessive (like a shrine to a Greek deity, or like the Jackson brothers strolling triumphantly over the earth). And now you’ve got Jesse Jackson accusing Gilbert of viewing James as a runaway slave.

You knew the race angle was coming. It’s never too far away when you’re talking about professional sports in America, especially in the NBA, where 99 percent of the ballplayers are black and 99 percent of the franchise owners are white. William Rhoden’s controversial 2006 book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is just one of many commentaries linking pro sports in modern America to the slave trade of yesteryear. 

I wish Rev. Jackson wouldn’t have been the one to verbalize the obvious pachyderm in the room (“There he goes again, injecting race into everything!” folks will say), but there it is.

Personally, while I think it’s probably impossible to completely extract race from the issue of power relationships in pro sports, I believe Gilbert should be allowed to rant, rage, and generally come across as an emotional jerk without being accused of racism. He simply reacted like any scorned human being whose business just lost an estimated $100 million in value probably would. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. That said, I think it would’ve been wise for him to wait a few days before issuing a statement. The unintentional damage that he caused his franchise through his outburst could be worse in the long term than losing LeBron James.

Still, it’s unfair to imply that Gilbert is acting out of a “slave master mentality” just because he happens to be white and LeBron is black. That doesn’t excuse the fact that Gilbert might be a mean, arrogant, and impulsive billionaire who was trying to save face. But why add “racist” to the equation without sufficient proof?

But back to LeBron James. As long as he’s still able to do the things that LeBron James does on the basketball court, his reputation as a superstar player, though tarnished, will recover. The real tragedy, in my view, is the way James made his announcement. He had every right to leave Cleveland, but why do it in such a … ahem … cavalier manner? He was apparently so disconnected from the reality of his decision—and focused on his own self-interest—that he could not grasp the full implications of rejecting his former team and his devoted fans in Northeast Ohio on national TV in an overblown ESPN special. Or, as some have speculated, maybe he did it that way to inflict maximum pain on Gilbert and his franchise for some behind-the-scenes reason.

Either way, I hope James will someday grow into a more mature understanding of humility and compassion. Come to think of it, in an odd way, maybe that’s why he’s going to a place with two other elite stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (not to mention team president Pat Riley). Maybe he’s leaving the comfort, security, and adoration found in Cleveland because in his home state he’ll always be venerated as “the Chosen One.” Maybe he needs to escape to Miami to become human again.

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An interesting (and creative) Associated Press analysis here about what both Professor Henry Louis Gates and Officer James Crowley might’ve been thinking during their now-infamous run-in a couple weeks ago. The reporter uses the official police report as well as Gates’s on-the-record statements following the episode to piece togehter a sort of dramatic timeline of what could’ve been going through each man’s head during their fateful encounter.

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May I vent for a moment?

For me, the saddest thing about the Henry Louis Gates incident is that we’re no better off now as a nation than before it happened. Like President Obama, I’d hoped it would become a “teachable moment,” a chance to learn from each other’s experiences and understand both the pressures felt by well-meaning police officers and the pain and indignity felt by African American men in these types of encounters. But even Obama hasn’t been able to finesse the national conversation in a way to get us all on the same page—or least in the same ream of paper.

Those who say Professor Gates was completely wrongheaded and unreasonable aren’t willing to take seriously the history (both distant and recent) that has defined the relationship between African American men and law enforcement. And those who say Officer James Crowley was just a racist, rogue cop are not willing to take seriously this man’s totality of experiences as both a public servant and a human being.

The bottom line: As Eric Holder suggested some months ago, we’re a nation afraid (or simply unwilling) to put in the kind of concerted effort required to truly understand each other across racial lines. I understand that many of us are weary of having to either defend against knee-jerk accusations of racism or educate our fellow citizens on its daily realities. But until we resolve to lay aside our anger, distrust, and cynicism and love our neighbor as Christ commands, nothing is going to change.

Okay, I’m done. I’ll probably read this later and regret hitting publish, but just had to get that out.

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Lively conversation happening over at The Atlantic on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog. His post “The Myth of Black Confederate Soldiers” reminds me of conversations I’ve had in the past with folks who attempt to downplay the role of slavery and race in the Civil War. This is always surprising to me.

I’ve told the story before about how, when I was editor of Today’s Christian, I heard it big time from Confederate sympathizers who took me to task for publishing an article about the origin of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Silly me; I didn’t anticipate that emotions were still so raw over the outcome of the war. At the same time, I find it both revealing and truly miraculous that we can get on as fellow believers quite well (and, heck, you might even be a faithful reader of a magazine that I edit), yet we can hold fundamentally different views on issues so central to who each of us are. I think this is a testament to the unifying power of God’s love—but also to the fact that there are a lot of difficult things still left to talk about, if we ever hope to move our relationships from thin to thick. In any event, the discussion following Coates’s post offers some good food for thought.

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Wow! Some strong words today about race relations in America from Eric Holder, our new attorney general. In a speech to Justice Department employees commemorating Black History Month, Holder said the workplace is largely integrated but Americans still self-segregate in their private lives.

“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” said Holder, who is our first black attorney general. Race issues continue to be a topic of political discussion, he added, but “we, as average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race.”

More from Holder’s speech:

As a nation we have done a pretty good job in melding the races in the workplace. We work with one another, lunch together and, when the event is at the workplace during work hours or shortly thereafter, we socialize with one another fairly well, irrespective of race. And yet even this interaction operates within certain limitations. We know, by “American instinct” and by learned behavior, that certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks, at best embarrassment, and, at worst, the questioning of one’s character. And outside the workplace the situation is even more bleak in that there is almost no significant interaction between us. On Saturdays and Sundays America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some fifty years ago. This is truly sad. Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race conscious and yet is voluntarily socially segregated.

You can find Holder’s complete speech here. Pretty bold statements for someone who has only been in his job a few weeks. I tend to agree with him. In fact, some of his comments read like things I’ve been saying during my talks at churches, Christian colleges, and conferences. I hope Holder and others in the new administration are able to help America talk about these issues in a more honest and forthright way.

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In the recently released film New in Town, did you know Renée Zellweger was supposed to be Angela Bassett or Gabrielle Union? That is, Ms. Zellweger’s character was originally written for an African American actress. I honestly didn’t give much thought to the opening of this movie (and based on its weekend box office, neither did anyone else) until I read this piece in The Root, detailing how Kenneth Rance, the African American screenwriter of the movie, watched it go from a vehicle for a black actress, as he originally conceived it, to a vehicle for Ms. Zellweger. Rance’s experience is fascinating, if not a little sad.

Then today, I ran across this post from popular conservative blogger La Shawn Barber about the evolution of the movie and the sacrifices artists sometimes make to get their art out there. Ms. Barber has a personal connection to the story, and she poses a thought-provoking scenario for all of us to ponder:

Imagine yourself in [Kenneth] Rance’s situation. Someone wants to buy your work and make your movie, which no doubt will open doors and build your network of people in the business who can help get subsequent movies off the ground. But there’s a catch.

Is changing the race (sex, religion, nationality, etc.) of your main characters a small price to pay?

Great question. Well, what do you think?

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National Public Radio’s fascinating roundtable on race and the presidential election continued today with a segment on Morning Edition and another on All Things Considered. This is a reconvening of the diverse panel of black, Latino, Asian, and white voters from York, Pennsylvania. Their candid discussion is worth your time.

A few questions occurred to me as I listened to this morning’s segment that I’d love to hear you interact on:

  • What does the McCain/Palin slogan “Country First” suggest to you?
  • Who is Joe Six-Pack?
  • When Sarah Palin says things like, “[Obama] is not a man who sees America as you and I see America. We see America as a force for good in this world,” what does she mean by “we”?
  • Does Barack Obama include pictures of his white grandparents in his political ads as a way to reassure white voters?
  • Would an African American with darker skin have gotten as far as Obama has in a presidential race?
  • What does it really mean to be patriotic?
  • Do you think there will be any type of post-election violence motivated by anger and tension from either side of the race line? 

Those are just a few of the questions that spring to mind. You may have others. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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