Good Afternoon. I would like to thank Karen Moore who has been a dear friend to me and my family. I have been invited back to beautiful Grace Church to share in your Black History Month Observations, and for this I am indeed both humbled and grateful. The challenge I received, as best as I understand it, is to share with you the development of my consciousness or awareness of the injustices suffered by Black peoples and the continued disparities and discomforts in which we continue to live. I have also been asked to explain how I have applied this awareness to my life in the United States and my life as a priest. Initially, let me share that much of these thoughts have been crystallized over time and experiences and shaped within the crucible of my time dwelling and working in Brooklyn, Queens, New York City, Port Elizabeth, Newark, Elizabeth and Springfield N.J. I have been blessed by many who have actively shared as mentors and friends who assisted greatly in my wrestling with what at times may seem to be much larger struggles than I initially assumed. Shirley Hollie-Davis presently pursuing her Doctorate of Letters at Drew University is an African American by birth and is presently writing a crime novel with a Caribbean flavor, and Canon Leroy Lyons, who is no stranger to this community having spent 40 years as a priest in Plainfield and is originally from Tobago, my home island, have both provided support and guidance in the shaping of my consciousness.
My brothers, sister and I were raised in a loving home and in a close community with an extended church family. Fealty to family, community, church and to God was always expected. Living in Tobago, our interaction with a white community was tangential and sporadic. We have a running joke about this half -white man who so wanted to be viewed among the few would often times ask and answer his own question “How many white people are there in Tobago? Just a few of us. Just a few of us!” was the answer to the joke. As Black children, we learned and were confident in our worth, our intelligence, our beauty. We were the first children of our nation’s independence, so our lives at that time were infused with our cultures and our histories. You could see this confidence as people walked down the streets proud of their bodies and taste the excitement in our food. We understood the weight and destructiveness of slavery, but we saw Black men and women involved in making and enforcing laws, teaching and preaching the gospel. Most importantly for us is the fact that we owned property. The boast of a Tobagonian is to be a landowner. Ownership brought independence, wealth and self-value. We seemed to be safe from the open-ended bigotry that pervaded our lives, but when faced with this bigotry or hatred, we were armed with the truth of all we had learned about ourselves. This self-knowledge is invaluable to any successful struggle against hate. It is not only important to know people are created equally by God, it is important to know the contributions of all people in developing God’s world. This awareness is what my parents and by extension Tobago gave to me and my siblings. It is what I brought to the United States and what I bring to my pulpit each Sunday. I must confess that I find it extremely difficult to preach about universal suffering as part of the centricity of cross bearing expected of us as Christians when the burden of the cross seem to lie heavier on some than others.
I have been a parent for eight years. Parenting is struggle, but it is a job I think I’m pretty good at. I hope I am giving my children all of the things, thoughts and ideas my father gave to me. And, I have learned that you cannot appreciate all the things your own parents do or have done for you, until you become a parent yourself; you can only pray you do half as good a job as they did for you. Every day my wife and I drop our children off on the curb of a dangerous, white world, and we ask ourselves, “Have we done enough?” This world is dangerous because of the insidious nature of the new racism developing in the United States. It gnaws at children’s self-esteem and creativity. It provides only half or partial truths. Winston Churchill is believed to have said, “History is written by the victors.” If the white man believes he is victorious over all of us, can we trust his view and understanding of history? Can we trust he believes children, our children, should be nurtured, loved, allowed to develop pride in themselves and in their community? Can we trust that his armed police forces will not be waiting for our sons on lonely, dark roads in the middle of the night? Have we done enough? Have we all done enough to combat this terror we and our children face each day? Freedom for us has always been dangerous. Freedom for us has been a crime as far back as our oldest memories. In short, life for the descendants of the African slaves (for us and our children) is dangerous. At an early age my American son began to pine for a land he has only visited, but with which he has attached the concept of freedom. He has received a promise from us to remain in America until age seventeen then he can go home to Barbados.
While all African Americans know the background of Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, not many American Blacks know the West Indian backgrounds of civil-rights era activists like Stokely Carmichael, born in Trinidad and was a server in the local Anglican Church. During his most formative years, his parish was led by one of the most Afro-conscious priests in our diocese. One may never know how much that impacted upon his life. Many do not know that Malcom X’s mother was born in Grenada, or that Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica. Each one of these activists understood and advocated for political and economic equality and knew these components were necessary for African Americans to take their rightful place in American society. They also knew the danger presented in changing the status quo of this established white society. Stokely Carmichael stated, this change in the status quo would mean for those who were oppressing Africans the loss of a lot of economic benefits and profits and political power. Consequently, white society would have to struggle for their very economic life to ensure that there were no changes in their political status quo. These activists, whether raised in Omaha or Brooklyn, were brought up much like I was in a Caribbean home where truth and hard work were important ideas instilled at an early age. There is strength in knowledge, in money and in political independence. The most valuable tool given was a joyous and emancipatory understanding of freedom and self-worth.
I always thought it odd that first generation Caribbean immigrants felt superior to their African American brothers and sisters. They may state that “Children from the Caribbean went to better primary schools, didn’t skip classes, had parents who taught them manners, and had more respect for authority and their elders. West Indians are willing to work hard, and African Americans are lazy. More than anything, Caribbean people can’t stand being mistaken for a black American”. The beliefs in these differences, I believe, became part of the epic struggle between Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois in the early twentieth century.
It has been one of my joys to be a priest for a congregation of mixed Caribbean and African Americans and I have come to look for the similarities, not the differences, in people. By the second generation many black immigrants find they have become black Americans. The clipped cadences and other linguistic markers that once identified our parents as foreign have faded. Another key factor, I suspect, is the lack of land ownership in the United States. Caribbean families may have had property back in the islands, but here they are growing up with no heritage of wealth to leave for their children. My friends, despite origins, we are in this fight together; our truths, histories and cultures are mingled. We are one being oppressed by one white thumb.
During my assimilation process, I had to abandon many of the vestiges of being a “proper Caribbean man’” to eventually assume my place a black man in America. Many would seek to escape by regular ‘home’ visits or in the maintenance of fleeting reminders of a Caribbean culture. But as we struggle to guide our children through risky pathways, it takes a toll on us mentally and physically. Soon we begin to fall apart as the scourge of mental illness wreaks havoc in our communities and life-styles diseases debilitate us as we struggle with the dichotomy of who we are and what we are required to be in order to survive. Many who have not experienced the rigors of assimilation never fully understand that it can be a part of a process to break your spirit, your mind and your very being in order to become ‘just another black person’. As I sought to piece together the fragments which are now held together by a deep faith in God, a passionate love for my family and a spirit driven for equity for all Black people. Yet, there are yawing gaps that cry out for fulfillment whether it be for a time past or hopes invested in your children. Sadly, unlike others we do not have the freedom of time to reflect or repent for it seems we are always on the run. My friends, if I may say the most startling difference for me between life then to now is how much running has to be done in order to survive. At times you long for rest to the point of surrendering. The same trait that Afro-Caribbean folks would condemn in their African American brothers eventually comes home in our children as the oppressive weight of discrimination takes its toll. They run from our churches, our teachings, our practices and our cultures. The only place they don’t run from is our homes, their only safe space.
My friends, every day we struggle to achieve independence for ourselves and our families. In our own way, we each step out onto the curb of bigotry. What do we carry with us? As a priest, it is important for me to keep my parishioners and church independent from institutions that would dictate how monies are spent, how we worship and how we interact with our community. This is a struggle; a struggle against centuries old prejudices and irrelevant ideas. It is a struggle against the belief that Jesus was a victim and not a proactive agent of God. His death is the declaration of a rebellion against those who would take the political and economic powers and independence from the people. His life and his sacrifice are declarations that life should be lived without fear and death has no sway over those who believe in freedom. These are some of the ideas and beliefs we should carry as we step out onto that curb each day.
We deserve good jobs, we deserve good schools, we have a right to vote for our beliefs and for our freedoms, we have the right to be proud of our collective cultures and histories. As a young boy growing up, I would often times see ships sailing beyond the horizon and would often wonder what lies beyond the horizon. I truly believe I was being shaped and sustained in order to join the struggle for freedom for all of God’s people. God bought me to this land for a purpose and a cause.
This is what I believed as a young man from Tobago and what I believe as an older man, a husband and a father. There is much work to do for our communities and we need to work together for success. My friends, know yourselves and believe in yourselves as you believe in our Jesus. In those certain beliefs, you will find success and victory.
I often wonder how the world would have been if the crime of slavery had not been committed. I wonder how African peoples might have developed without chains around their feet (both literal and figurative) and how the rest of the world would see us without the blinding misconceptions developed because of the collective slave experience. Ghosts of the slave experience still insidiously determine how people of African descent are viewed, how they interact with one another as a people and how they interact with society as a whole. The lopsided implementation of justice and the violence in deed and in thought are what continues to stand between those who wish to look at diversity as a gift and those who still harbor centuries-old animosities. The ultimate dream of mine is to assimilate into this American society like any other immigrant. The Irish, Jews, Russians and Italians faced adversity, but were able to assimilate and become part of the oppression for one reason and one reason only, the whiteness of their skin. How do one define freedom when one can only look skin deep? How can one see freedom beyond the depth of one’s skin? It is our goal, as one people, to provide our children with the necessary tools to support their quest for equality; It is our goal, as one people, to initiate and participate in a conversation that can provide all Americans with the information needed to move this Nation forward from a level of prejudice and fear to a level of equality. We, as one people, need to create the level playing field through political activism, through education, through protest and through living a Christ-centered life knowing all God’s children are free, equal and loved.