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Archive for February, 2010

I’ve kind of avoided the topic of Black History Month this year until now, almost the end of the month. The reason is, I’ve been kicking around in my mind this notion of “Black History Month Syndrome.” Now, stay with me a minute.

What is Black History Month Syndrome? I’ll define it roughly as “the national, institutional, or personal tendency to reduce the value of racial, ethnic, or cultural awareness and celebration to a designated day, week, or month of the year.” That is, we do our annual observance of the thing for that set period of time, and then we don’t think about it seriously again until that same time next year. This could pertain to our current national Black History Month in general, or any similar type of annual heritage observance. Think of the annual Diversity Sunday at your church, or the great PBS documentaries on race that you have be on the lookout for during that elusive 28-day window in February, or that special issue of Time, Newsweek, or Christianity Today that trots out the usual ethnic or female voices for the annual “special issue” on African Americans or Asians or Hispanics or women.

When I was with Christianity Today, I often felt conflicted about this phenomenon. On the one hand, I rejoiced at the idea of being able to profile a significant nonwhite figure or highlight dynamic things happening in other parts of the church besides the white evangelical majority. However, on the other hand, I disliked the idea that we could only do it in a significant way usually one issue per year. I always felt our ethnic, nonwhite, and female readers could see right through our shtick. They knew we were just paying our annual homage to diversity and that it wasn’t a real living and breathing part of who we were. My argument always was that we should strive to incorporate those diverse voices into the magazine on a more regular basis, not just in annual splashes. We needed to let nonwhite and female readers know that they were a valued part of the evangelical community and not just some exotic oddity that we turned the spotlight on once or twice a year. (To its credit, I think CT does a better job nowadays of being more diverse and multicultural year-round, though I know some critics would still beg to differ.)

Over the years, I’ve struggled mightily with this phenomenon. While I appreciate Black History Month (as well as Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, and Women’s History Month) and value the opportunity to highlight special achievements and honor an important part of our national history, I also long for a time when we’ll no longer have to consign the recognition of that history to a particular week, month, or magazine issue.

That brings me to my main reason for doing this post. I’ve been kicking around this theme of “the myth of post-racial America” for a possible book project, and as part of that I’ve entertained the admittedly outrageous (and possibly heretical) idea that perhaps we should set an actual date in the distant future for the official dissolution of Black History Month, sort of like President Obama setting a withdrawal timetable for our troops in Iraq. For instance, let’s say we resolve that in 2020 we’ll officially discontinue all celebrations of specific heritage months (African American, Hispanic, Polish, etc.) and begin to incorporate a recognition and appreciation of those various heritages into the regular and daily flow of our national calendar and lives. This will mean that we study black history and American Indian history and Hispanic history regularly in our school curricula, that on July 4th we include Native American, black, Hispanic, and Asian historical figures in the mix along with the other great American patriots that we commemorate on Independence Day. (This may also necessitate an immediate abolishment of Kwanzaa and a renewed national effort to remind Americans that Christ did not enter the world as a blonde, blue-eyed European infant.) 

Alright, I know I’m sounding loony now. But my point is, when does it end? Will we always need Black History Month-type observances? Does authentic racial and cultural reconciliation in our country require that we observe our various annual heritage events in perpetuity? Or would true progress in reconciliation suggest that as a church or community or nation we should decide that, at some point down the road, we’ll need to grow out of the necessity of our Black History Months and move on toward a more natural and genuine embrace of the diversity of our nation?

I understand that part of the reasoning behind these various heritage months is that the United States has not always been kind to those on the margins of society. The full benefits of citizenship were not always available to those of a certain race or gender. And to this day, the majority culture still tends to divide the nation based on what it has historically deemed to be the “real Americans.” Therefore, we’ve needed to designate a special time to acknowledge, teach, honor, and celebrate the value and contributions of those groups that have been forgotten, oppressed, or systematically excluded from the national canon of history. But does our nation’s sinful and dysfunctional record on matters of race and diversity mean that we will always need to manufacture these annual days and weeks and months as a reminder of what we’re really supposed to be—as a nation and as human beings?

The apostle Paul said, “For we now know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Cor. 9-12). Might this principle of “growing up” also apply to our annual heritage celebrations and observances?

A few years ago, a friend of mine told me a story that has stuck with me ever since. My friend, who is white, is a strong believer in racial reconciliation and justice ministries. A talented musician, he leads a multiracial community gospel choir. He shared an experience that he had as a seminary student interning at an African American church. Leading special music during a Black History Month program at the church, he introduced a song by saying, “This month we celebrate Black History, but our prayer is that, one day, we will no longer have a need for a special month like this.” His point, of course, was that ideally someday our nation would progress to the place where a special heritage month was no longer the only time that we would acknowledge and value the importance of black history. However, in an awkward moment, the pastor pulled him aside after the service and politely advised him, “Don’t ever say something like that again.” My friend was very apologetic, and after a brief moment he was able to recognize why what he said was problematic. For that black church leader, the suggestion that we should strive toward no longer needing a Black History Month was tantamount to saying we should work to get rid of Christmas or Easter.

That pastor’s reaction leads me back to my original concern. The question again: If Black History Month and our other annual cultural heritage observances are really accomplishing what they’re intended to, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that the day will come when we will no longer need them?

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I was profoundly moved by this incredible profile of film critic Roger Ebert, written by journalist Chris Jones for the latest issue of Esquire magazine. Ebert, you may know, can no longer eat, drink, or speak, due to a series of surgeries to combat cancer of the thyroid, salivary gland, and jaw. He communicates primarily through his writing and a computerized voice program. Yet, he is more full of joy and in tune with life than he’s ever been. As Jones observes about Ebert:

There has been no death-row conversion. He has not found God. He has been beaten in some ways. But his other senses have picked up since he lost his sense of taste. He has tuned better into life. Some things aren’t as important as they once were; some things are more important than ever. He has built for himself a new kind of universe. Roger Ebert is no mystic, but he knows things we don’t know.

Then Jones quotes this reflection from Ebert himself:

I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Ebert, the article says, is slowly dying. And he knows it. Yet the way he’s currently facing life certainly offers lessons on living for all of us.

I was reminded of a post that I wrote almost one year ago reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the death of Gene Siskel, Ebert’s famous partner in film criticism, and the wonderful though often combative friendship that they shared. Jones’s profile references Ebert’s poignant tribute to his late friend, and reading Jones’s article caused me to go back and re-read Ebert’s piece, too. It was time well spent.

I don’t always know exactly what to do after reading stories as heartrending as Jones’s profile of Ebert, or Ebert’s own written memories of Siskel. But I do appreciate Mr. Ebert’s insight: “We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

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Many of you have probably noticed that I haven’t posted in a while. This became especially embarrassing when I was informed last week that Reconciliation Blog had been named to “The 50 Top Evangelical Christian Blogs” by the Biblical Learning Blog. So, I figured I should try to work my way back into that blogging rhythm. Truth is, I get tired of writing about race all the time. That’s why I took a pass on some of the recent race-related incidents, including Harry Reid’s awkward comments and the whole Blind Side debate (which inspired an excellent commentary from my friend Joshua Canada, by the way).

Anyway, I’m not feeling especially insightful right now, so allow me to indulge my bent for nostalgia again. Ever since I turned 40 last year, I’ve found myself spending more and more time reflecting on the music, movies, and TV programs of bygone eras. Some of you might remember my Hee Haw post from last year as a prime example. Lately, I’ve been flashing back to that iconic Generation-X childhood favorite School House Rock! In fact, I’ve been driving my wife and kids crazy singing and humming various tunes from that classic Saturday-morning series of educational shorts. I’m sure our teachers were helpful, but come on–how many of us actually learned our grammar, math facts, astronomy, and American history from “Conjunction Junction,” “My Hero, Zero,” “Interplanet Janet,” and “No More Kings”?

But here’s the thing: I’d argue that School House Rock was not only educational academically; it also was a great example of racial and cultural reconciliation in action on television. Like Sesame Street and The Electric Company before it, School House Rock reflected the diversity of America, both through its wonderful music and animated characters, who comprised a colorful swath of races and ethnicities. The song “The Great American Melting Pot,” with its mellow Karen Carpenter-esque vocals, even spoke about the importance of that diversity. (On the negative side, I think one of the glaring omissions in the SHR catalog is an honest overview of both the history of the Native American people in this country and the civil rights movement; I guess the early ’70s was still too soon to tackle these thorny subjects on Saturday-morning television.)

I loved that the SHR songs — which were written and performed by an exceptional team of musicians (most notably, Bob Dorough and Lynn Ahrens) — experimented with pop, blues, jazz, folk, country, and other musical genres. In all honesty, the “Rock” in the title was only true in the loosest sense of the term. Still, SHR is a nice reminder of the days before extreme niche programming, back when a single radio station could play everything from Frank Sinatra and Marvin Gaye to Tammy Wynette and Aerosmith.

School House Rock also allowed occasional nods to the Bible and Christian culture. For instance, many of the songs featured gospel-flavored idioms. Check out the use of the Noah’s ark story in “Elementary, My Dear,” as well as that song’s “gospelly” vamp.

I know I’m not alone in my affection for School House Rock, so I thought I’d try something different here at Reconciliation Blog and offer up my personal list of the Top 10 SHR songs. These kinds of lists are subjective by design, and they often rile up those who think “this” or “that” should’ve been included or left off. But that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it? So, here we go — my roundup of “the best” School House Rock songs. Once you’re done reading and listening, please feel free to share your own lists — or to tear mine to shreds. Or both.

#10 Sufferin’ Till Suffrage
Not only did this one firmly lodge in my mind the helpful fact that women gained the right to vote in 1920 through the 19th Amendment, it’s also a jazzy tune that reminds me (both in musical style and feminist swagger) of Donny Hathaway’s great theme to the classic sitcom Maude.

#9 Verbs: That’s What’s Happening
Ah, now this was perhaps the funkiest of the School House Rock tunes. I mean, this one is full-throttle ‘70s groove. Plus, it painted a positive picture of an urban neighborhood that still had its own movie theater where kids could go see matinees by themselves, and then run home to the loving arms of their parents. When I was 6, I wanted to live in this community.

#8 The Preamble
This one makes my list simply for the fact that it, probably more than anything else, helped me pass my junior high Constitution test. And I know I wasn’t the only one that used this song’s catchy, banjo-driven tune to help me memorize the “We the People” preamble.

#7 Three Is a Magic Number
Such a sweet song this one is. I used to love how it talked about “faith and hope and charity,” while featuring that precious portrait of “a man and a woman” who “had a little baby … they had three in the family.” There’s also an interesting reference to the “ancient” and “mystical” Trinity.

#6 Interjections!
I love the voice of Essra Mohawk, who sang this one, as well as “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage.” The song also has that Handel’s Messiah vibe, with its exuberant chant of “Hallelujahs” as its coda. I always could relate to the little girl at the episode’s close who would bemoan, “Darn! That’s the end!” I, too, wanted the song to go on and on.

#5 Figure Eight
Like the Charlie Brown TV specials, and Vince Guaraldi’s accompanying scores, there was always something just a little melancholy about many of the SHR songs. For me, this one was the most introspective and melancholy of them all. Being a mildly melancholy kid, I loved it. What’s more, I still hear Blossom Dearie’s breathy and delicate vocals in my head whenever I’m doing math that involves multiples of eight.

#4 Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla
A great song featuring Latino characters and their busload of kangaroos, aardvarks, and rhinoceroses. The narrator, Albert Andreas Armadillo, presents the strange case of Rufus Xavier Sarsaprilla and his sister, Rafaella Gabriela Sarsaparilla, and demonstrates quite convincingly how pronouns make our lives easier.

#3 Naughty Number Nine
This has to be the bluesiest of the SHR songs. Put your headphones on and listen to the jazzy horn section, the mellow bass, and the rich vocals by Grady Tate, the veteran jazz musician who also teaches at Howard University.

#2 I’m Just a Bill
I used to always think this one, along with “Conjunction Junction” and a few others, was sung by Ray Charles. Only years later did I discover that the actual vocalist is a white singer and actor named Jack Sheldon. His is one of the most soulfully distinctive of the SHR voices, and this song gave many of us a running start for our U.S. Government classes in high school. Maybe this should be required viewing for some of our current lawmakers.

# 1 Little Twelvetoes
I know this isn’t among the most popular SHR songs. I personally never cared for this one as a kid; however, my appreciation for the lyrical depth and musical sophistication of this song has grown over the years. There’s something both progressive and psychedelic about this one. I hear traces of Jimi Hendrix, Steely Dan, and Pink Floyd. For me, this song above all the others demonstrates how musically serious the SHR songs were. Even though they were primarily writing for grade-schoolers, Bob Dorough and the other composers never assumed that their listeners were too young to appreciate clever and complex musical arrangements. There’s also an underlying message in this song, I believe, about celebrating our diversity, sharing our gifts with others, and recognizing the value of those who might be different from us.

Well, I could easily list another 10 SHR songs, but I’ll leave this as my best-of. Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think.

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