Friday, November 28, 2014

Anti-Slavery Campaign Interview Series. David Evans (Part 1)

Dr. Evans describes himself as growing up in fragmented settings that led to attending Baptist, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran churches. As a teenager lost in various destructive circumstances, he drew strength from biblical teaching he remembered hearing as a boy in a revivalist camp. He then moved into new life as he cried out to Jesus, “Help me.”. He has worked in various ministry contexts. While living in Washington, DC, David was the Junior/Senior High Director of an out-of-school time program on Capitol Hill. Later he served as Community Development Resource coordinator with MCC East Coast. Most recently he was co-pastor of Boonton United Methodist Church in New Jersey. Professor Evans is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the History of Christianity at The Drew Theological School. He has academic degrees from Spring Arbor College in Michigan, Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and Drew University in New Jersey. Professor Evans is interested in how white Protestant American forms of Christianity have been perceived through the eyes/experiences of people who live in the national, religious, and racial margins of the United States. He is currently working on a project exploring Methodist missionaries’ perception of Italian immigrants in early twentieth-century America as racial others. He currently is a faculty in Mission, Intercultural and Interfaith Studies at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.


Yago: David, you are welcome to this blog where we are exploring different ways to name, own, lament and put to rest the energies of enslavement present in today’s world. You grew up as an African-American in a marginalized position in the American society. You have suffered in many ways these oppressive energies. Discrimination was very real to you. You have been in a constant search trying to understand and deconstruct all these oppressive energies. Your will to share with us your own journey is greatly appreciated. I would like to divide this interview in two parts. The first one will cover your understanding of race and your liberation journey as an African-American in the context of an oppressive social system. The second part of this interview will focus on the theological and missiological implications of your deconstruction process.

David, please, what does it mean to you to be an African-American living in the States?

David: My status and role as an African-American signifies both a raced— pseudo-scientific, politically, socially, and systemically enforced and constructed category attributed to somatic features —identity and a chosen cultural identity.  I first recognize that in the United States other people and institutions identify my dark skin and family heritage with the Black race. I choose to use this political and social nomenclature to remind people of the invisible racial force of whiteness as the hegemonic power that defines itself over and against the Black race. But my social identity is not merely an product of white oppressive force, it is also the product of resilient human response to oppression that created new music notes, art forms, speech patterns, Christian spirituality, and family structures that provided the strength to overcome the terror, trauma, and stigma of being black in the United States.

Yago: In your house there was always this understanding that you were descendant of slaves, you were descendant of people who were oppressed. There was the invisible presence of slaves. How African-American families have been influenced by the multigenerational trauma from the time of slavery? What could be the role of memory and imagination in the perpetuation of trauma?

Toni Morrison
David: Both the implied presence of slaves and the history of slavery in cinema and texts was very much a part of my younger years. I could not understand myself, or my family, without their presence. In a way perhaps reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, slaves haunted us.  That is not to say that I was ever able to trace my family of origin back to slaves. Whether or not we had slaves in our history, it was a narrative upon which we built our self-understanding. Whereas white kids were able to trace their genealogy to famous world United States’ leaders or British royalty, my family tree ended with my grandparents’ generation. This meant that I was fascinated with black history and felt obligated to watch black history movies and read black history texts. When I saw other people with skin my hue or darker I cheered for them, felt kinship with them, and felt welcomed by them. In this way, I felt pride in my connection to slavery. We were the people who overcame the insurmountable. 

All of this history was a kind of prosthetic memory. I knew nothing first hand of Africa, the Middle Passage, Sharecropping, or the Great Migration. I was an inheritor of that history; it was given to me. By calling my memory a prosthetic, I don’t mean to suggest that it was false, but in a manner of speaking, it was someone else’s that I made my own. But there was a trauma involved with identifying so strongly with a memory that belonged to someone else. Without first hand experience of this memory, I was vulnerable to the propaganda of white history that named Africa as the dark continent, supposedly void of knowledge, civilization, technology, beauty, health, or dignity. I oscillated between self-hatred and racial pride. It was not until I was almost 18 years old that I learned Africa had cities and organized governments. Until that point, I believed what my white text books had told me, that Africa was a savage place where people like me hid in bushes and ran from lions. The images I saw on television of my contemporary racial relatives from Africa were of starved, malnourished children who relied on the white world to save them. White people seemed to imagine that dark skin signified savagery and need. They patronizingly tried to save Africans, which is probably the only way that one can conceive of saving another. Songs like “Nothing but the Blood” repeated phrases like “What can wash me white as snow?” And because colonialists had epidermailized blackness and whiteness, it was very easy to hate the “one dark blot” that was in myself. Because I was written into this racial community and I in turn imagined myself into this racial community, I was traumatized each time a white teacher, fellow church member, peer, television show, novel, or stranger terrorized me by questioning my capacity to learn, questioned my origins in the biblical narrative, called me a “nigger,” or made my race a perpetual minstrel show, I felt deeply and personally afraid and enraged. I was afraid that the power they spoke from their lips, encoded in their rules, and enforced with their violence would keep me in proverbial chains so that I would never realize the liberty that I longed for. 

But for black history month and the role of my family grandfather as educator, grandmother as politician, mother as hard worker/provider, I may have never known I was capable of being anything other than what white people had imagined for me. I, however, had the counter racial propaganda of Black scientists, Black artists, Black musicians, Black preachers, Black inventors who taught me that I could pursue my dreams.  Folks like these encouraged me to dream that there was something beautiful, powerful, and creative about my flesh. Black was beautiful and I was more than the sum of what white supremacy said of people like me. Martin Luther King Jr’s dream gave me permission to dream that the American Dream was my dream as much as it was a dream that belonged to my pale skinned stringy haired friends.

Yago: Your adolescence was quite difficult. You lived in the inner city. You were in an internal struggle with yourself, at war with yourself. You say that you rejected your very humanity. Could you share with us your struggle to find your own identity during that time? How did you internalized the systemic oppression of the American Society?

David: My childhood was difficult, but Lansing, MI did not have an inner-city like Detroit, MI. Moreover, my mother raised us on a middle class neighborhood surrounded by white people. I say that Lansing was a difficult context because it was a city deeply defined by unresolved racial tension. This was the city in which Malcolm X was raised and learned that his father had been brutally murdered by the Lansing equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan, called the Black Legion. I learned here that the word “nigger” was to be feared. In Lansing I learned that white fathers threatened to disown their daughters if they dated black men and I also learned that those white fathers would follow through on those threats. I learned here that white people suffering from white supremacist pathologies could literally kill you and simultaneously deny that racism was a factor. 

At the same time, I was encouraged to be successful. Success is not a universal concept. What one society defines as success is not necessarily how another society will define the term. In the United States, success meant what Wendell Berry identifies in his book The Hidden Wound as “getting somewhere.” This getting somewhere is an abstract concept that most people would agree has something to do with making enough money so that someday you will be free from the obligation to engage in hard labor ever again. This was the mentality that drove white people to enslave Black labor. To have slaves meant that you were successful, because you were free of hard labor. That is to say, someone else was doing it for you! I was pushed towards success, which meant I was pushed towards whiteness. I was taught to talk white, dress white, play white instruments, worship God in white styles, see white women as epitomizing beauty. I was taught to participate in the ideology that threatened most to destroy me.

I lived a bifurcated existence: I was told that I “talked white” when I used proper grammar, called an “oreo” (a chocolate sandwich cookie with a white cream filling) when I dressed in my bow-tie and cummerbund for stringed orchestra concerts. But in the sea of my white honor student peers I was very aware that my kinky hair, wide nose, and dark skin communicated to them that I was black and would never truly belong to their cliques. I learned to pursue whiteness, not consciously, but I wanted success. I wanted to be accepted, profoundly so. I wanted to have the wealth and respect that white Americans had so I dressed like white people, pursued white romance,  longed to live in white neighborhoods, and embraced white music for a number of years until I began to recognized that white people would never accept me in full, because I would always be black no matter how hard I tried to be other. So I embraced white propagandized views of blackness and lived into them. It wasn’t until college that I discovered what had happened to me. I was reading W.E.B. DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk when I read:

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

I fell to the floor under the weight of history. I was aware in that moment that Du Bois’s experience 100 years earlier was mine as well. I could not escape the reality that I saw the world—I saw myself—first through the eyes of the white world. This double-consciousness was a gift, but it was also further evidence of my inner divided self, black and white. And the war that would ensue for years would rage inside of me. For years, I fought the white gaze that I had internalized and then I struggled to embrace not only my dark flesh, but my true self which was shaped by and transcended my racially constructed world.

Yago: Your being  black has formed you in multiple ways. You say that you had a “black cultural education”. What do you mean by that? How would you define it?

David: Identifying with black culture resulted in friends, family, and leaders in various black communities introduced me to writers, inventors, pastors, educators, politicians, slaves, share croppers, blue collar workers, movies, books, videos, dances and artifacts that are products of African experiences in the Western world. I felt an obligation to know everything that pertained to blackness and was often required by my white peers to speak for every aspect of Black culture/society that may be related, or unrelated, to the conversation at hand. The same impulse I had to acknowledge the presence of another Black person on the sidewalk drove me to learn all that I could about black pop culture as well. I also learned that there was what Ralph  Ellison would call “lower frequencies” of history and myth that were unacknowledged by white structures of power. And probably more likely were impossible to acknowledge due to the refusal of people intoxicated by white  supremacy to see that racism is more than an individual prejudice, but rather that it is a systemic power that affects every social and cultural system in the United States. Black culture acknowledges the systemic power of racism in language, art forms, and community building. When Black communities speak of “the man” they are conjuring the image of powerful white institutions that deny access to resources and rights to people of color which negatively affects their quality of life.

I learned that Black people must work together to keep resources within their communities and create aesthetics that help form positive self-efficacy within Black children. Some of this learning was overt, like when my mother would purchase Black Encyclopaedias or take us to Black Churches like the Church of God in Christ. Other lessons were less formal: fraternal handshakes in the hallway at school, “neck check” greetings on the street, fear in the eyes of my caregivers when interacting with governmental officials. African American society represents what some have called a nation within a nation. And like any other nation, this African American nation has lessons to teach.

Yago: You say that many of the African-Americans are not trying very hard to hold to history. History has a hold on them. Why? How do you experience it?

David: Ellison has said that, “Too often history dances to political arrangements.” Given the politics of race in our nation and where black people find themselves, if we take Ellison’s statement seriously we might conclude that official histories have a role to play in the subjugation of the black race in the United States. 

James Baldwin (1924-1987)
James Baldwin suggests that white people in the United States “imagine a history that flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it).” In light of this, what incentive would African Americans have to hold onto a history that has only existed to legitimize white domination? This revisionist history does have a hold on African Americans because it is a history that authorizes police forces to racially profile and so-called criminal justice systems to disproportionately incarcerate African Americans to such an extent that the United States now holds a higher percentage of it’s minority population in prison than any other nation in the world.

Yago: You say that race is more about being raced, being named, that is about choosing. You say that race sometimes becomes a stigma. Could you say more about that? How?

David: In almost every context in United States discourse, darkness signifies something ominous, ignorant, backwards, evil, sad or depressing. The symbols of Christianity in the United States reinforce this idea. There’s a salvation bracelet that kids make at some Christian campgrounds that signifies sin as black. Demons throughout the history of Christianity have been described as dark imps. Conversely, most characters in the Bible, especially Jesus, are represented as white people. Children and adults spiritually formed in such a context implicitly learn that darkness is something to avoid. This racial manicheanism adds cosmic significance to racial folk beliefs and stigmatizes dark skin. The epitome of this phenomenon can be seen in those who teach the so-called “Curse of Ham.” Though the curse was on Canaan, they believe that not only was Ham the father of all dark skinned people on earth, but that he was stigmatized with dark skin because he looked upon Noah’s nakedness and cursed.

Yago: Can we say that a good part of African-Americans have taken the stigma of being raced and turn it into something that gives them a positive sense of identity?

From the film "12 Years a Slave"
David: One of the greatest miracles and beautiful stories of American history is the story of African descendants taking on the religion of their oppressor. That is not to suggest that all African descendants became Christians. But for those whom did, not only did they adopt a God whom they were told mandated their slavery/oppression, but they were able to see through the oppressive elements of that story and embrace a liberative element. Many of these courageous Christians constructed a liberative hermeneutic and a liberative theology that not only helped them survive chattel slavery, but also transformed the United States of America in the post-Civil War and Civil Rights eras. The spirit to love dark flesh in the face of a society that persistently denied that anything dark could be lovely is a demonstration of the resilient spirit of humanity. I think this the kind of history that led James Baldwin to say, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it..”

Yago: Could we say that the identity foundation of the African-American has still to be found?

Yago: You couldn’t trust white people, as a group, and as a social entity. You needed to know what they think the people who wanted to destroy you. You needed to be aware of what they were about. Could you share with us the main insights of this process? What methodologies did you use to get to know? What did you discover?

David: Social location implicitly served as the first “method” of knowing white oppressors, if it could be called a method. The fact is that people who live on the margins of society—have less power, less access to resources, less choice, etc…— often know about the people who have more power better than those powerful people know themselves or their context. In my academic career, however, I have become more deliberate about knowing and learning about white society. To do this, I engage in a deliberate study of the history of white religion in the United States. While American historians have studied white people for a long time, they have only been studying them as white people for around 25 years. The insights of Du Bois, Baldwin, Ellison, and Morrison have served as theoretical tools for my study.

Yago: “Evans” was the name that the slave master gave to your ancestors. The only thing you know is that you are from the enslaved population. Here we are talking of the quest for home. You don’t know who you are in that sense. Could you share with us how important is to have a home?

David: One of the difficulties of with identifying with the African American narrative is that home is an elusive concept. There can be little doubt that the United States of America is “home.” But the history and present reality of this nation is that an African American can expect to be discriminated against in her homeland because she does not look like a European-American. Her ancestors were forced here in the Middle Passage. She may identify with Africa, but it is likely that she has never been there. Her culture, then, is purely American, but America denies her. Malcolm X used this disoriented experience to recommend that blacks could not know who they are, because the white man had robbed them of that knowledge. I think he is right to an extent, but what he is right about is true of everyone. Identity is constructed. Some of us may feel more stable in our identities than others, but we all have multiple origins and relationships with space, race, and nation. “Who am I?” may prove to be one of the most basic questions of human existence, yet those who live on the margins may feel the anxiety of that question more acutely than others.

Yago: You say that trauma is the past but it is also very much the present. The black body is still being used as a commodity. Could you share with us how the dominant history related to slavery keeps shaping today’s social, economical and political structures? Can we say that there is a new Jim Crow in today’s USA?

David: Since John Winthrop declared the Massachusetts settlement to be a city on a hill European Americans have suggested to their European competitors that they have a more equitable society. They have done so by exploiting a population of underclass people not formally recognized as citizens. Today those people are immigrants from Latin America. Every racial minority group has served this purpose at some point in United States history: American Indians, Africans, Asians, and today’s Latin Americans. That exploitation and oppression takes on many forms. You have rightly identified Michelle Alexander’s concept of the New Jim Crow as one of these. By stripping convicted offenders of their right to vote and visible status in the United States, white America has once again found a way to exploit the labor of a large segment of the minority population by mass incarceration, the largest of any nation in the world.  

Yago: You talk about the importance of naming and owning white institutional structures very much present because of its invisibility. We are talking of internalized organizational cultures that we don’t put into question. How important is to develop an organizational intelligence in the process of deconstructing white mentality?

David: It is essential. We live in an age where it is likely that racism thrives because of institutional policies and practices far more than because of individual or personal prejudices. But if we are only trained to see bad behavior and pejorative language, then we will perpetuate systems and institutions that negatively affect the quality of life for millions.  

Howard Thurmon (1899-1981)
Yago: Howard Thurmon says that “hatred begins when there is contact without fellowship.” What does it mean, in practice, to be diverse within an institution?

David: The fact of diversity is just that, a fact. But being diverse says nothing about the quality of that diversity. Is it an integrated diversity? Is diversity celebrated? Does everyone recognize the diversity within themselves or is diversity only perceived of as something outside of themselves? The truth is that diversity is a fact of life. For a diverse environment to thrive everyone must recognize that diversity is an essential component of a healthy ecosystem and this diversity must be welcomed and celebrated. The alternative is precisely what Thurman described here. Contact without fellowship will engender resentments between those who have more and less power. This is likely the cause of much of the conflict in the world.

Yago: You say that there are some segment of white society believing that they are just as much victims of racism as black folks. For you this is very disturbing. Why this segment of white population feels to be victim? Why is it disturbing to you?

David: As the United States attempts to move in the direction of providing equal access to goods, resources and rights, those who have attempted to hoard access for themselves feel threatened. What they often fail to know is why they feel threatened or how much power they have. Most of them have been taught to ignore power differences and to believe that everyone has the same opportunities. 

By paying attention to power and attempting to create a more equitable society some policies in the United States appear to favor a minority group over a historically empowered white group. From the white perspective, this gives people of color unfair advantages. In a vacuum this analysis would make sense. Historically, however, whites have constructed a society of unfair advantages from the beginning, they lose nothing but the ability to exploit their neighbors by correcting these injustices. What I find disturbing is that white society has more power than their any other group and have discovered that there is power in claiming victimhood. By denying that they have power, but using power to dictate the conversation they have created a very hostile relationship between diverse groups across racial, political, religious and economic lines. The failure to see this could have catastrophic consequences.