By Sophia Ventura-Cruess
Now, if we were in person, I’d have us all stand up, or raise our hands for this, but you can go ahead and just make this a mental practice I’m going to name some names and I want you to think to yourself whether or not you know the story of the person:
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Fannie Barrier Williams, Gloster Dalton, Amy Scott, Lewis Latimer, James Cunningham, Sylvia Lyons, Egbert Brown.
Now, I’m making an assumption but I’m going to take a guess-that the majority of the people I just mentioned are unfamiliar to us. Admittedly prior to preparing my remarks for today, these names were unfamiliar for me as well. And that unfamiliarity is what I want to talk about today. The folks I just mentioned: Williams, Dalton, Cunningham, Watkins were all prominent Black leaders and founders of the faith tradition we are gathered under today. Yet, despite these individuals being instrumental to the founding of historical UU churches, like First U in Philadelphia, the folks I just mentioned along with thousands of other leaders of color or, who have been shaping our religious tradition for centuries, have remained as Revered Mark Morrison Reef of the UU church in Rochester states “Black Holes in the White UU psyche” .
And in my brief time today, I want to press into the consequence, the failing, the harm that permeates from those “black holes” and silences so many stories not only in our UU history, but in the larger scheme of American history. I would argue, that we are currently witnessing and quite frankly suffering the effects of a century long American project to neglect, stifle, and expunge the oppressive crux of our origin story. Due to the racial reckoning that occurred over the summer, there has been a strong push for white folk to become accountable for anti-racism. A lot of this accountability work is very present focused and very individual centered, and although I applaud that process, today I want to take us in a different direction, to think more rigorously about what it truly means to meant to be historically accountable to and for antiracism.
The racial wounds and battles, and division we are witnessing in America today continue to bleed with fervency, because we as a nation and as a people have failed to engage in historical atonement. As a nation, we have been deeply concerned with developing and securing our image as “the land of the free”. And in conjunction to that work, we have dedicated equal time to concealing the dark underbelly that sanctioned America’s rise. That underbelly being racial exploitation, violence and conquest. Plainly put, America is not innocent. And I urge us, to reject the temptation/ lure of framing our nation solely from the boundaries of exceptionalism and glory. For us, as a congregation to be honest in our conviction to anti-racism today, we have to account that our country, one of which we are often tremendously proud of, and can continue to be, despite accounting for our dark underbelly, that our country from its initial birth was built on a lie. The United States was designed around a lie that white people, white people’s freedom, white peoples pursuance of happiness, while people’s existence mattered more than anyone else. And that lie is what brings us into the moment we are in today, the reason we need an explicit principle in our progressive community, dedicated to antiracism. When the founding fathers penned our founding documents proclaiming that “all men were created equal” they solidified our founding lie and sin by conditioning the right to exercise American democracy on whiteness.
As we gather today, hopefully prepared to officially adopt the 8th principle into our religious community, we have to ask the question, how did we arrive at this moment, and do we have the moral fortitude to truly answer that question. When asked what was needed to achieve racial equity in this country, James Baldwin said “new laws, gestures of sympathy, and acts of racial charity would never suffice to change the course of the country’ -the only thing that can “save” us is “a confrontation with our own history, which is not your past, but your present, “your history has led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change yourself by looking at what You are doing in the NAME of your history!”
I challenge us to expand our common progressional concept of time and stop viewing the racial oppression of the past as a bracketed and mediated incident of the before. And rather fully understand it has having a cyclical and immediate effect to our personal and collective present. For us to be accountably anti-racist in 2021, we have to not just understand American political history beginning in 1776, with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but also and of equal importance, understand the birth of our nation as occurring in 1619 when around 20 enslaved individuals were brought to shores of Point Comfort Virginia. For us to be accountably anti-racists in 2021, we need to acknowledge that we, as residents of Orange County are gathering on the stolen land of the Acjahemen (Asheman) peoples. For us to be accountably anti-racist in 2021 we have to understand that the 8th principle is needed because so many of us do not know the vibrant history of people of color within our own faith.
When we fail to authentically interrogate the connections of our troubling history to our current sociopolitical environment, to our present relationships in the community, we are complicit in upholding that original lie. When we do not link our ongoing epidemics of police brutality, inhumane immigration practices, mass incarceration, climate degradation to the systemic and American pattern of racialized exploitation and violence against peoples and land, we entrench the original lie. When we believe that racial justice today can be achieved without deeply reconciling the past, we preserve the lie. To return to Baldwin he stated ‘”to be truly free is to be healed”. For the United States to be truly free- we have to embark of the process of healing, which requires us to be truthful about the violence of the past, its contributions to the present, and relinquish our reputation of innocence. When asked “why reopen wounds that have closed” Horacio Verbitsky, a prominent Argentinean journalist, said…because they were badly closed. First you have to cure the infection, or they will reopen themselves”. To engage in historical atonement, to go back and account for our American stories with honesty that is the starting point to curing our infection and repairing our original sin. When we shatter the myth of American innocence only then can we begin the long process of truly recognizing and respecting the generations of trauma, struggle, and resiliency that communities of color have weathered in this country.