“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come. This is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom; something without has reminded him that he can gain it. Consciously and unconsciously, he has been swept in by what the Germans call the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America, and the Caribbean, he is moving with a sense of cosmic urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. Recognizing this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand public demonstrations. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations. He has to get them out. So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit- ins and freedom rides. If his repressed emotions do not come out in these nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence. This is not a threat; it is a fact of history.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail
I am called to write to you today.
I write to you out of love and yearning. I write to you in hope that my words are direct and clear. I write to call you in.
Over the last year or so, I have found myself more and more irrevocably connected to the pain and struggle of what it means to be a conscious black woman in America. It is not as if that connection wasn’t there before, but this last year, for various reasons, this edge of reality has become more keenly sharpened in my soul.
It is the reality of Trayvon Martin, in whose face I easily recognize that look of both innocence and maturity. My own son wears hoodies all the time, even in the summer. Just a few weeks ago I struggled to keep the hysteria from creeping into my voice when I told him to take off the hoodie he was planning on wearing that day. It is the reality of Eric Garner, in whose build and stature I recognize my brother. New York? Check. Loosies? Check. Asthma? Check. It is the reality of Dajerria Becton and Sandra Bland. In their faces I recognize younger me and current me. I recognize the real and ever-present dangers of being too forthright toward the very law enforcement that is supposed to be sworn to protect and serve, yet might not miss a beat to violently prostrate me like a piece of property on an antebellum plantation. It is the reality of the massacre of the Charleston 9, in whose faces I see my grandparents, my aunts and uncles and cousins. They are like my family because we are likely related, in no small part to the indelible history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade of which part is the Barbados-Charleston route.
- Ethel Lance
- Tywanza Sanders
- Cynthia Hurd
- Depayne Middleton Doctor
- The Rev. Clementa Pinckney
- Susie Jackson
- Myra Thompson
- The Rev. Dr. Daniel Simmons, Sr
- Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
It is the reality of the millions of black and brown bodies inhabiting the neighborhoods in which our meetinghouses stand. Neighborhoods that house other Trayvons, Erics, Dajerrias, Sandras and the same-names of countless other souls murdered at the hands of police violence. Meetinghouses that on any given First Day are thin in their ranks of blackness and brownness.
And I write this letter because yet again, I find myself uncertain that you clearly understand the full breadth and weight of the pain – the marginalization, the invalidation – that is so ready to erupt from the souls of Friends of Color… that IS erupting.
I have heard this pain personally from other Friends of Color. It is searing. It is chilling. To watch the emotions unfold across another person’s face and hear it in their voice and know in my bones that they are also telling my story, it almost closes off my breath from leaving my lungs. I can’t breathe. Almost. I just cry.
And you have heard this pain too, most recently in ministry from Young Friends at this past Sessions. And yet… I don’t feel like you really heard the messages because: yet again, there were choices made to change the Continuing Sessions query, to neuter it into a version that would have never be able to properly seed truth in our community; yet again, the decision was made to speak cautiously and not give sufficient space and time to at least attempt to heal the pain of Friends of Color. So when you–as the leadership of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting–say that “you hear” and “you understand” but then time and again do things that show that you do not truly hear and understand the pain of Friends of Color, we feel marginalized, we feel invalidated.
So, you have to do better.
You can do better.
It is a moral imperative.
In the same letter I referenced above, Dr. King writes: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Dr. King further states: “The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
These two particularly, prescient passages isolate, for me, the edge on which PYM and the Religious Society of Friends stands. We can no longer timetable. We say no longer say “wait.” We can no longer maintain the status quo. To continue to play those roles means we are diminishing our relevance in today’s increasingly, polarized world, while clinging untruthfully to past courageousness of isolated Friends. And it means we are forfeiting our path toward a Beloved Community.
In the coming months, the Continuing Sessions query will be unveiled in more and more places. “What is God calling PYM Quakers to do next to end racism and white supremacy in the Religious Society of Friends and beyond?” It is a simple yet bold question, and one that is so needed to be asked today, as ever before. Those of us who have lived and are living this life, fighting from the margins, fighting toward the center, welcome this query and are indeed “moving with a sense of cosmic urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.”
But I recognize there are those who will be fearful and angry and racked with guilt. They will write to you or speak with you out of that place of fear and anger and guilt. So Friends, I urge you, I beseech you now as Dr. King did in his letter “to meet the challenge of this decisive hour” and the many more hours ahead. Reach out to other f/Friends who can help you walk this path, for it will be challenging. Trust in the messages shared from f/Friends of Color most connected to the truth and struggle of what it means to be non-white in a white supremacist world. De-center whiteness from leading this part of the journey. Listen. And above all else… Love.
I close now with another quote, also partially taken from the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, but then expanded in the book, The Struggle That Changed a Nation. I actually first saw this quote on a Quaker calendar for October or November 2014. It has stayed with me because of its connotations to thread gathering and connections and patterns.
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
My reality is your reality, whether or not you want to open your eyes to see it.
But I pray with all my heart that you do.
This letter was originally written and sent to specific Friends in leadership in August 2015. I received considerable repercussions…. as well as support. Thank God for the support and the love, for they continue to sustain me in dim spaces, shining a light that shows the way forward.
I release this writing now to the world, because I must. Censorship must not win in the struggle against racism and white supremacy.