Author Archives: Richard

About Richard

Godaime Raikage. Sociology of Religion. Japanime. Sports. Liberation. Rod's brother. #AnaBlacktivism

Black Churches Burning: A Brief Look

It has been over a month since the vicious attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In the immediate aftermath of this event at least six other predominantly African American churches in the South caught fire. In fact, just last week at Houston’s Fifth Ward Missionary Baptist Church was significantly damaged by fire. Although arson was not the definitive cause for all these fires it is difficult, to brush these incidents off as merely coincidences would be a mistake. The truth is the United States has a long history of racism, and included in that is a history of White Supremacists burning Black churches down: see this timeline. The way we discuss these occurrences is largely symptomatic of the discomfort that many feel when discussing the issue of race in relation to social problems.

For many who can recall some of the darkest times in American history the very notion of a church burning is very ominous. Church burnings have most often been associated with racialized violence and an attack on one of the treasured institutions in many African American religious traditions. It dates back to before the Civil War and has continued through various Civil Rights periods and into the present. One of the most famous cases of church burning occurred at the 1963 bombing of 16 Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. This particular attack killed four African American girls and helped to mobilize a nation against racism. By 1995 church burnings became such a concern that President Clinton set up a church-arson task force and even passed a law to increase the sentencing for arsonist who targeted religious institutions. Although the task force was short lived before it was disbanded in 1999 it had completed investigations into 827 incidents where churches were burned. Since the task forces disbandment it has been much more difficult to get a good estimate of the amount of churches that have been intentionally burned. Incidents are now reported to the National Fire Incident Reporting System. More often than not most cases are classified as “suspicious” until they can officially be ruled as intentional fires, despite the difficulty in determining this.

For the most part someone has to make abundantly obvious their intentions or the perpetrator must be caught with evidence that supports arson or hate as the main motivations for this crime. It is easy for White Christians like The Gospel Coalition’s Joe Carter to dismiss Black Christians’ concern for domestic terrorism when it comes to church burnings. Church buildings are viewed as sacred places, as spaces designed to confront racism in the midst of a racist society. The White Church’s history of shielding itself from the suffering of Black people and black churches is tied up with the long history of White domination. Needless to say it is challenging to say  at the least to classify many church fires as either arson or racially motivated crimes. However, this does not mean that church burnings have not been closely linked other forms of racial violence in the past. It does not take away from the peculiar timing of the recent church burnings that has coincided with a hate crime that made national headlines perpetuated against the oldest African American Church in the South.

The burning of churches has often been seen as a close relative of two other symbols linked with racial violence and Christendom, namely the burning of crosses as well as the raising of the Confederate flag. These particular symbols have been both directly and indirectly associated with hate crimes in America. There are many arguments that are made to disassociate one of these symbols, the Stars and Bars from its ties to the racist ideology. However, to not discuss race with the Confederate flag is to deny the logic that many supporters have historically used in carrying the flag. It may be true the Confederate flag has not been used as symbol of racism and hatred in every context but it is also true that in far too many incidents it has been. Similarly, it is possible that recent incidents of “suspicious” fires in black churches may not all be arson but the fact still remains far too many in this country’s history have been. Thus it becomes even more important to not disassociate these issues from race. If we continue to not have an open and honest dialogue about race, then incidents like Charleston will continue to be seen anomalies rather than what they are at the present: the norm.

Take Me to Church: Easter, Identity Politics, & Damien Wayne

What does Easter Sunday, Batman vs. Robin, and the Civil Rights Movement all have in common? Well to start with all three were integral parts of my weekend. I guess because I religiously identify with Christianity Easter weekend would inevitably be linked in with whatever I did last weekend. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that the new DCAU film Batman vs. Robin was officially uploaded to one of my favorite anime websites. I took the opportunity to view it on Friday night (highly recommended). As for the Civil Rights Movement, much of my life the last several weeks has been devoted to better understanding the Civil Rights Movement since my trip across the Mississippi Delta and to Tennessee. As I have tried to analyze all three with respect to each other, admittedly a daunting task, I have come to a realization. Batman vs. Robin, The Civil Rights Movement, and Easter Sunday are all connected by the theme of identity politics.

I will preface this section by divulging one bias and one disclaimer about the animated film Batman vs. Robin. This section may contain spoilers, and the film has quickly made its ranks into one of my top favorite DCAU films. For starters as I reflect on the film it should be more aptly titled Damian Wayne vs the voices in his head. For those who do not know Batman vs. Robin is the follow up to Damian’s film debut in Son of Batman. Damian Wayne is the newest addition to the list of Robins, which has included Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, and Tim Drake. The 10 year old batmanprotégé has a complicated past to say the least. He was raised by his biological grandfather Ras al Ghul to be the next head of the League of Assassins. He is also the current ward of his biological father Bruce Wayne who is…well Bruce Wayne. Batman has worked incessantly to reverse the psychological influence of Ras al Ghul. Damian constantly hears the voice of Batman telling him “justice not vengeance.” However, this mantra becomes complicated when he meets the mysterious Talon. Talon seems to strongly resemble batman with the exception that he does the one thing that Batman does not…KILL.

Talon’s influence creates yet another voice in the head of the young Wayne heir. Throughout the entire film both Damian and Bruce Wayne must answer challenging questions. For example, are biological similarities enough to create a father and son? However, the biggest questions that Damian faces are questions of his identity. His relationship with Bruce Wayne is complicated by the fact that he must keep it a secret that he is Bruce’s biological son. Tired of the restrictions placed on him by Batman he becomes the protégé of Talon. Even then he does not find a resolution to his crisis because he does not fully agree with Talon’s methods. Simultaneously, Damian wrestles with his training from his grandfather Ras al Ghul. Thus although Damian Wayne takes on the identity of Robin he does not truly know who lies behind the mask. Unfortunately, for Damian by the end of the film he still has no answer, rather he is even more resolved about finding himself and discovering his true identity.

Damian Wayne’s quest for identity, however, is not a new phenomenon. In fact, I contend that the Civil Rights Movement can be better understood if we examine it as a quest for identity, or rather the reclamation of an identity that was forcefully taken away from a group through variously reinforced methods of hegemony and oppression. In fact, even the name Civil Rights Movement can be problematic in helping to fully articulate what exactly the movement stood for and what it was up against. Charles Payne takes up this argument in Debating the Long Civil Rights Movement. He argues what has been termed “civil rights” came to be a summary term for the struggle of the African Americans after World War II that culminated with the Black Power Movement of the late 60’s and 70’s. Payne maintains that after seminal civil rights legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 certain parts of society (namely white America) could not understand why so many blacks were still angry about their collective status. Many stated the mantra “you have your civil rights, so what’s the problem?” Here in lies the problem.

The notion of civil rights undermined the larger struggle that many African American were fighting for. The real struggle for African Americans was to reclaim a place and identity for themselves in a society that had tried everything to prevent this. Forging a pathway to claim natural rights to a shared humanity was the true essence of the movement. Ascertaining public accommodations through protests and courts rulings served as only as the tip of the iceberg. To do this by achieving civil rights could only be a starting point. Economic participation and self-assertion were the bigger aims of the movement. Protection from homelessness, equal chances at economic opportunity, adequate medical coverage, and food for starving minds, bodies and souls, have always been at the core of the movement. The language of “civil rights” is inadequate in that that the work of activists such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark, Ella Baker, and Annie Divine was about helping blacks obtain their “civil rights,” which they did not have. However, these women strongly believe that the movement struggle was about expanding American democratic sensibilities to a much larger audience. It is in this expansion that many were able to find their voice and identity. Native Americans, Chicanos, women, prisoners and various other groups were able proudly assert their identity and fight for human dignity and respect in all aspects of their lives. Thus the movement can be understood also as a quest to reclaim identity in the midst of forces that vehemently opposed this struggle.

Reflecting on the history of the Civil Rights movement leads to a further analysis of our everyday context. In this case it forces an analysis of what it means to celebrate the Easter holiday and all of its festivities. I am not one tousually to embrace any holiday, but I do like tracking the emotions and feelings of those who choose to do so. As I scrolled through Facebook pages I noticed that many of my friends made reference to Easter or pointed out a particular message from an Easter service. As I was in church on Sunday I could not help but notice how much fuller the service was compared to other Sundays. I realized this trend was not particular to the church I chose to attend, but rather was indicative of what happens to many churches on Easter Sunday. I could not help but wonder why so many people concern themselves with paying special attention to what happens on Easter Sunday? I believe that the answer is that Easter has become a symbol which many Christians can feel the most free to exert their Christian identity. The triumph of the Crucified God over the forces of evil speaks hope to believers all over the globe. Is there any other narrative more central to typical conceptions of the Christian faith?

Just as Damian Wayne and movement leaders found out, discovering one’s identity is no easy task. In a religious context, Christians depend on Christ for our identity. In a world where what it means to be Christian changes from denomination to denomination and even from congregation to congregation, how does one find their Christian identity amidst Christianities? In Batman Vs Robin, I noted above that Damien Wayne felt connected with Batman (the drive for justice) and Talon/Ra’s Al Ghul (the drive for revenge). Damien is committed to the League of Assassins as a community just as much as he has committed himself to the BatFamily although they have what seems to be conflicting values. Who is Damien held accountable to? Whose voice does Damien listen to? For Christians, we strive to listen to Christ, yet do we listen to Christ who healed the sick and lived in solidarity with poor? Or do we prefer to sing of a Triumphalist Christianity? It is critical to question the dominant Resurrection narrative that is a staple of Easter sermons and the entire Easter weekend festivities. What must also be emphasized are other qualities that allow one to identify as Christian, namely the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ identity does not solely lie within the realm of a Resurrected savior but also as a socio-political revolutionary. He was someone who took up the divine call to be committed to justice and equality. Easter weekend should be a time to embrace these aspects of Jesus’ narrative as well. How different would an Easter service look when the message from the pulpit to the pews embraces a divine call for social and economic justice for all? Situating Christian identity is far more complex and nuanced than what can be written in this piece. However, this conversation can be started by expanding narratives from which Christian identity is approached particularly during those rituals and festivities that many Christians find most filling such as the Lenten/ Easter season.

Photo Description: From Amazon.com, Batman & Robin Volume 1: Batman Reborn, photo has Batman and Robin on the cover in front of a red and green car. Damian Wayne is Robin.

Lessons From #Selma50: #4: Mississippi STILL Burning #TCUCRBT

Frederick Jermaine Carter, 26, was found hanging from a tree in an upscale , mostly white subdivision in Greenwood, Mississippi. Authorities originally ruled it a suicide. However, local residents know the truth. Jermaine Carter was the victim of a good ole fashioned lynching. According to U.S.A. Today, Carter was last seen with his step-father in Sunflower County Mississippi. He had a history of wandering off resulting from a mental illness. Tragically, he was the victim of a heinous hate crime because of his decision to wander into an white suburban neighborhood. He was a victim of what many in Mississippi have known and experience all too well, the phenomenon of “not knowing your place.” Sadly, this case of a modern day lynching that occurred in December of 2010 never received any national recognition and is virtually unknown to all besides the residents of Greenwood and nearby areas. Make no mistakes about this incident though, many residents still vividly remember this incident and are certain that this was not a suicide but yet another terror attack by white supremacy that is still deeply entrenched in much of the country today.

 

I first learned of this story from a female receptionist from the Hampton hotel that I stayed in while in Greenwood. I went to write a reflection on my experiences in Greenwood and my visit to various historical sites in the area such as the Fannie Lou Hamer burial site, the remains of the store in which Emmett Till’s infamous encounter with Carolyn Bryant occurred, and the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center. As we talked I learned more about Mississippi in a two hour conversation than I did from any of the historical sites I had visited. My conversation with this woman shaped my next lesson I learned from visiting Selma and other civil rights historical sites. The history of places like Greenwood, Mississippi is often left solely in a historical context. However, the truth is that many of the issues that plagued these areas are still alive and well over 50 years later. In essence, as the receptionist told me “not much has changed in the state of Mississippi,” at least as far as the everyday living conditions of the citizens are concerned.

 

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Frederick Jermaine Carter was lynched a mere ten minutes away from where Emmett Till was murdered in the not too distant past. On August 28th, 1955 the fourteen year old Till was taken away from his great-uncle’s barn house. At which point he was beaten, his eyes were gouged out, shot in the head, and his body was disposed in the Tallahatchie River with a 70 pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. What was the crime that Till committed? Secondarily, it was speaking/ whistling at the married 21 year- old white woman Carolyn Bryant. Primarily, it was the violation of the unwritten law in Mississippi in which white power reigned supreme. Much like Frederick Jermaine Carter, Till had ” stepped out of place,” and was made into an example to anyone who dare challenge the rule of law. Lynchings, however, are not the  only parallel between what we know as a historical view of the reign of white supremacy and its current state.

 

Voter disenfranchisement is just as big an issue as it has ever been. It is no secret that although Mississippi had a larger African American population in various spots throughout the state, many did not have any control over their political circumstances during much of the 20th century. In fact it was only at the expense of much bloodshed that voting equality came to the state. This process did not happen overnight rather it was a  long and gradual process. Pivotal in the development of these rights were the establishment of COFO (Council of Federated Organizations), The Freedom Summer, the MFDP (Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party), and the  notorious death of three civil rights workers in 1964 (of which the 1988 film Mississippi Burning is based on). Today while there is an absence of blatant terror tactics, other more formal, legal methods have been put in place to disenfranchise African American voters. The private prison industry has played a major role in this endeavor. As I found out, Mississippi is home to several private prison imported from other states including California. Not only does the state import the prisons but it also imports the prisoners from those states as well. These private prisons are not usually located in the city but outside of suburban areas. This allows the total population of  the prisons to count towards the overall population of the suburban areas. With the inflated population growth suburban areas are afford more representation in local politics. So although the prisoners do not get to participate in the political process they are used as political tools to enhance the political power of the elites who already dominate political systems. The vote of African Americans becomes minimized in favor of those who live in suburban areas. Thus in many instances even if African Americans constitute a larger portion of the population this is not reflected in the political representation in various areas.

 

Beyond voting disenfranchisement, the historical narrative that dominated the perception of Mississippi still exists today in other aspects as well. Whether it be in education, public accommodations, employment opportunities, or public housing. Walking through cities such as Greenwood, it is immediately apparent which part of the town a person is in. When one is in an impoverished neighborhood with dilapidated houses and very few businesses one can be sure they are in a predominantly African American neighborhood. However, when one crosses the railroad tracks the stark contrast is unmistakable. The predominantly white neighborhoods are filled with plenty of houses rich in history and texture that can  be marveled at. This did not happen by accident. The receptionist that I conversed with in a Greenwood hotel gave me an anecdote of housing discrimination that she had personally experienced. She and her husband tired of their lot in Greenwood attempted to purchase a living space in a different part of the town. For a small living space in the white part of town the realtors would not budge on their offer of 950 dollars a month. However, the woman alongside her husband decided to encourage one of their white friends to also attempt to purchase the same space. Their friends were offered the exact same space for 400 dollars. According to the receptionist this practice was not uncommon for the area and many of the  African American residents had given up on trying to move to other parts of the  town.

 

These stories help to illuminate the dangers that arise when we only consider the historical context of places like Greenwood, Mississippi. We forget about the ongoing struggle that continues in these places today. We forget about understanding the changes that are necessary to affect the day to day lives of the individuals that still live in these place. We become deceived into believing that white supremacy has all but vanquished in society. Voting disenfranchisement, housing discrimination, educational disparities, and lynching are not just historical artifacts of a distant past. They constantly shape the realities of many who deal with systemic inequality in the present context. If one needs furthers proof of this look no further than a recent news story from the LA Times. On March 19, 2015 (yesterday), the body of 54 year old Otis Byrd was found hanging from a tree in Claiborne County, Mississippi. It has been reported that Byrd, an African American male was found with his hands tied as he had seemingly tried to escape the noose. At this stage authorities have yet to rule whether this death was a homicide or suicide. However, much like the residents of Greenwood in the case of Frederick James Carter there are serious doubts that this was a suicide. Something that has thought to have been long since eradicated from our society in all probability has reared its ugly head again, modern day lynchings. The point here is clear. Unless we recognize that white supremacy is not a socio-historical artifact relegated to the past,  these incidents will continue to occur.

 Photo Description: “Emmett Till Historical Marker. Sumner, MS. Green sign, gold text, square shape, describing the events of Emmett Till’s lynching.. Found on Flickr. Jimmy Emerson 3/22/2008.