Message 31, Summer Reading, Langston Hughes: Love and Humanity, 8-22-10

© Doug Slagle, Pastor, The Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved


If you have noticed the images located on the front of your programs, you may recognize them as particularly meaningful to African-Americans.  The Sankofa bird, symbolized in the first image and idealized in the second, is often used to represent black reconciliation with their past.  For them, injustices inflicted on their ancestors must never be forgotten and are a part of their history and their culture.   Nevertheless, the Sankofa symbols specifically promote forgiveness, love and healing.  African-Americans are urged to never forget their history but, in doing so, forgiveness is offered for past wrongs and love is extended to whites and to all humanity.  Old wounds and old resentments are healed, new relationships based on mutual understanding are forged and a brighter future for all humanity is envisioned.  The sankofa bird is a mythic one who flies forward while looking backward with an egg – thus symbolizing hope for the future.  The symbolic heart is bent inward and then poured outward as a way to encourage inner peace and open expressions of love towards all others.

If you recall, Nelson Mandela’s infant South African government initiated courts of truth in the 1990’s, led by Bishop Desmond Tutu, to examine in detail all of the past apartheid atrocities.  But these courts were designed not to punish or shame but to bring into the light a dark and sordid history.  Reconciliation and forgiveness were extended to the white minority for the pain that had been caused by apartheid – a policy much like our own Jim Crow laws.  South Africa was then better able to bury historic enmity and thereby move forward to the betterment of all.  This was a brilliant manifestation of Sankofa peace and these symbols on our programs are a fitting representation of what we will consider today – love and humanity.

In our journey through the topic of love and poetry, today we will look at another famous American poet and his understanding of love.  This broad topic has many dimensions but, for our purposes, we will consider Langston Hughes and his vision for a human race defined by the beauty of its oneness.  He speaks as an African-American male yearning for what he and others have for so long been denied – equal access, equal treatment, and a heaven on earth community of unity.  His was a vision not for retribution or black power but for a utopia of wonder, peace, beauty, generosity and love between all people.

Hughes was the famed originator of a black cultural awakening called the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 1930’s when black poets, artists, and musicians explicitly celebrated a unique and vibrant African-American culture.  Proud of his heritage, Hughes does not shy away from black vernacular and speech in his poetry.  He openly celebrates its evocative rhythms and cadences.  His poetry reminds one of musical lyrics all set to a beat of jazz, the blues and gospel.   Such expressions highlight African-American culture and its contributions to American arts.  He was the unofficial poet laureate of his culture and the leading force behind promoting a relevant African-American identity in artistic expression.

Poetry for blacks has long been their cultural mainstay.  Under slavery and in subsequent years of marginalization, poetic verse was a way for African-Americans to tell stories, share their history, and cry out for justice.  Hughes used his poetry to write of love, politics, dreams, music and numerous other subjects.  He wrote about ordinary people and ordinary themes but he did so in a way that honored humanity and beauty.  This oral tradition which he captured and immortalized in his poetry, pays tribute to the vibrant contribution of black artists to our culture.  From jazz to the blues to poetry and to gospel music, we are richer for them.  Langston Hughes, as the leader of a black renaissance, may well be the artistic father of many black and white artists today.  Indeed, black artistic expression – such as in jazz – represent a singularly American contribution to the world-wide universe of art.  Like the poetry of Hughes, jazz and other black art forms were born of our own national struggle for freedom and equality for each person.  In that regard, Hughes stands alongside other great American poets like Hawthorne, Whitman, Poe, Dickinson, Frost and Angelou in his chronicle of lives where humanity is at peace with each other, with nature and with the Divine One.  In his words, we find a spirituality that is uplifting, visionary and starkly beautiful.  From the anguished cries of a broken heart in the poetry we read from Emily Dickinson to the hesitant and fearful love of a newly married man described by Robert Frost, we will now read of a Langston Hughes vision of love, perfected in a paradise called Alabama.

Let’s now read together “Daybreak in Alabama”.  You can find it on the back of your programs.

When I get to be a composer
I’m gonna write me some music about
Daybreak in Alabama
And I’m gonna put the purtiest songs in it
Rising out of the ground like a swamp mist
And falling out of heaven like soft dew.
I’m gonna put some tall tall trees in it
And the scent of pine needles
And the smell of red clay after rain
And long red necks
And poppy colored faces
And big brown arms
And the field daisy eyes
Of black and white black white black people
And I’m gonna put white hands
And black hands and brown and yellow hands
And red clay earth hands in it
Touching everybody with kind fingers
And touching each other natural as dew
In that dawn of music when I
Get to be a composer
And write about daybreak
In Alabama.

Long before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington mall, Langston Hughes gives voice to the hopes of millions of African-Americans – that in the red clay corners of the deep South, where Jim Crow still lived and where strange fruit, as Billie Holiday sang, would appear as lynched men and women hanging from trees, even in that place…human reconciliation might one day appear as soft dew sent from heaven.  This lyrical poem can almost be sung with its cadence of blues like rhythm.   As much as it envisions a perfect world in one Alabama daybreak, the poem is also a political protest against a culture of segregation and discrimination that, in keeping with Hughes’ poetic words, might more aptly be called nighttime in Alabama.  Hughes implicitly, but beautifully, condemns racism not just in Alabama but across the entire United States.

In my message two weeks ago discussing love and fear, I quoted from the Bible the verse that says, There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” Just as this Biblical verse applied easily to Robert Frost’s evocation of how fear, doubt, jealousy and anger intrude into our relationships and prevent us from fully loving another, so too does it apply easily to the poem today.  When that daybreak in Alabama does occur and when all the hues of the human rainbow hold hands in true unity, there will be no more fear.

Racism, as we all know, is deeply rooted in fear of the other.  Such fears rise up subconsciously within us as past traditions and experiences tell us that the other, who appears different from us, is to be feared.  This stranger in the night, to borrow from Frost’s poem that we read two weeks ago, may well be the stereotypical black man who, in our racist fears, is determined to rape, and steal and take away jobs.  Racism may subtly be manifested in opposition to Cincinnati’s planned street cars as fears that trains from Over-the-Rhine to downtown will bring those of color and those of the underclass deep into the center of our city’s powerful and elite.  Racism may play some role in opposition to our President.  While many have honest disagreement with his policies, others may harbor visceral but subconscious fears of an intelligent and powerful black man.

Marianne Williamson, the noted contemporary spiritual writer, has said that while love is of god, fear is definitely of satan.  In her mind, fear is the motivating force behind all of history’s atrocities.  It has spawned war, holocaust, slavery, murders, suicides, hatred and general violence.  As she writes, “Fear is imagination predicting the worst possible outcome. When the imagination is engaged in repetition and emotion, it becomes a belief.” And it is an absence of such fears and deep rooted beliefs that Langston Hughes writes in his poem.  It is a vision born of centuries of oppression and black survival – of dreams of god’s eternal heaven where everlasting sunlight, goodwill, natural beauty and perfect love all co-exist.  When the possibility for change is not possible in the present, African-Americans have turned to faith, to saviors named Jesus and Moses, and to dreams of a true heaven.  As a white man having grown up in a privileged corner of our nation, I cannot possibly know the pain and the yearning of African-Americans who daily experience subtle and sometimes overt forms of racism.

To speak of the sins of racism in a progressive church is a simple task.  Indeed, Langston Hughes may well be a hero to most of us here and I could very easily preach to the choir, so to speak.  Yet in our careful reading of his poem, we find this composer of a new heaven on earth speaks to each of us as well.  As a white liberal, I can claim pride in the election of an African-American President and I can note that our nation has come a long way toward ending segregation, discrimination and prejudice.  Such open forms of racism are not within me nor are they within this congregation.

But like the dew that Hughes envisions blanketing his perfect Alabama, so do the fine droplets of subtle racism still exist and still pervade even some of us.  Indeed, for many African-Americans today, the hideous forms of racism are not of concern to them, for they have largely been addressed.  The inner fears, the subtle forms of racial attitudes and covert racism that still exist even among white liberals are what concern many blacks the most.  Those are the fears and prejudices that someone like myself may not even know I harbor or am unwilling to admit.

Experts say such forms of subtle racism exist in the small ways we think about others who are different.  This everyday racism can take the form of indifference, cautious body language, avoidance of others and even inappropriate words that we use.  In one such example offered by experts in the field of subtle racism, a young black male student living in a Boston apartment building was asked by the manager to stop walking around the complex listening to music on his headphones.  He was told this was distracting to other residents even thought he was perfectly quiet.  When the student observed other white students doing the same thing and never being reprimanded, he knew the real reason for his warning.  It was fear of the stereotypical black man up to no good.

In another example of subtle racism, a leading fashion magazine described the process Oprah Winfrey goes through each day before she appears on her TV show.  The magazine writer offered that Oprah is turned into a glamorous figure as make-up artists work to make the lines of her nose appear thinner and the contours of her lips less thick.  And her hair is regularly and laboriously straightened.  The message of the article is that black women are not glamorous in their own right but that thin noses, white appearing lips and hair straightening make them so.

And I must admit to my own covert forms of racism.  I commented recently to Ed that, after seeing a wonderful picture of President Obama swimming in the ocean with his daughter Malia, the image struck me for some reason with the full realization that an African-American family truly resides in the White House.  As proud and happy as my brain tells me that this is true, something deep inside me noted the texture of Malia’s hair – and its distinctive African-American look – as the reason for why the photo had an impact on me.  Such a trivial observation of her hair brought home my own racist demons for even noting such a difference.  What lurks inside of me that is rooted in my own fears of the other?

Experts indicate that people often refer to Hispanics, for instance, as Mexicans, even though Latinos come from all over Latin America.  Or some assume all Asians are good at math and science or that many Jews are involved in financial careers.  Even worse, some of us would never tell a racist joke, finding them offensive and troubling.  But how many of us will rebuke someone who uses such humor and tell them it is unacceptable?  Put another way, how many of us fear Over-the-Rhine, rationalizing that we are justified in our fear of crime?  Or, is our supposed fear of crime really a fear of those who are different, who walk the streets in the middle of the day with low slung blue jeans and no apparent job?  To be blunt, are such fears of Over-the-Rhine racist?

Well intentioned and kind members of this congregation implored me when I began my work as Pastor to be careful working here alone during the day.  In their concern for me, is there not a sense of fear rooted in stereotypes that poor people of color are all criminals or that I am less safe here than in an office in the suburbs?  How many workers and students have been killed by enraged co-workers in mostly white and suburban office places or schools?  Why aren’t those places, and those mostly white groups not viewed with fear?  Why do I myself sometimes harbor fearful thoughts when an African-American male walks towards me on the streets outside?  Stereotypes have an evil and pernicious influence within each of us when we hesitate to hug a black person who smells differently, or when I treat an African-American homeless man in a way that might be condescending or some of us look at a gay flamboyant man as outrageously odd.  What other inner demons must we confront – those we either won’t admit to or may not even know exist?

Activist Tom Wise says, Since hardly anyone will admit to racial prejudice of any type, focusing on bigotry, hatred, and acts of intolerance only solidifies the belief that racism is something ‘out there,’ a problem for others, ‘but not me,’ or anyone I know.  Subtle racism becomes even more important to address and change.” Within my honest and true self, I must admit that I am not yet ready to participate in an Alabama daybreak.  I too must pray and hope for a perfect dawn in myself – where perfect love casts out even the smallest of my fears and where these white hands of mine might touch and feel and caress the hands of all persons without any vestige of fear or prejudice.

James Baldwin, a well-known African-American author and activist was told by Bobby Kennedy in 1961 that perhaps in only 30 years a black man would be elected President.  While Kennedy was only off by 17 years, Baldwin’s response to him reflects what we consider today.  He said that he did not care so much that an African-American would be elected President.  He cared more about what kind of country the first African-American President would lead.

And it is clear that while we have come a long way since 1961, the dream of Langston Hughes, even with the first African-American President, is not realized.  The Shirley Sherrod case, which many of you know about, is a perfect example of racism that is still alive and well in our nation.  Sherrod, an African-American Department of Agriculture official, was falsely accused of herself being a racist by using words from a speech of hers completely out of context.  Instead of being vilified and used as an indirect attack against President Obama as she was, Sherrod should instead have been elevated as a heroine of a Hughes like Daybreak in Alabama.  Her own father was murdered by a white man who was then later acquitted by an all-white jury.  In her speech, she spoke of her own struggles to overcome anger and bitterness towards all whites and how redemption came for her as she came to know and assist, as a government official, a small white farmer and his wife.  Her perspective is Jesus-like in its ability to overcome hatred and find, instead, love.  Far from now having a stereotypical viewpoint that all whites are racist haters of people like her, she now sees others through a Jesus prism of concern for all humanity and particularly the outcast, the poor and the marginalized.  It was in that sense that she came to see the plight of the small farmer as linked to the African-American struggle to find justice, equality and fairness in our nation.  As despicable as the columnist’s actions were in falsifying Shirley Sherrod’s own words, I am nevertheless grateful for what he did.  He made known to the world a Sankofa heroine – one who has herself replaced hatred for love.

It is interesting to note that most anthropologists around the world do not even classify separate races within the human species. The American Anthropological Association asserts, The concept of race is a social and cultural construction formulated in the 18th century.  Race simply cannot be tested or proven scientifically.  It is clear that human populations are not demarcated or biologically distinct by so-called racial subgroups.  The concept of race has no validity in the human species.” If this is so, then human prejudices against others are based solely on perceived differences based on mere appearance.  Beyond certain outwardly distinct characteristics, there is no biological difference in human kind.

Ultimately, Langston Hughes’ poem Daybreak in Alabama is a plea in behalf of all persons and not just African-Americans.  It is a vision of an Eden like re-creation where, as the Bible says in the Book of Revelation, the Divine One will wipe away every tear, every lament and every sense of pain.  The poem evokes a day when, as the Bible also symbolically says, lions will lie down with lambs.  Traditional enemies will find love for one another.  Bigotry, for Hughes, attacks the kind of spiritual peace that exists when kind fingers symbolically touch everybody and everything.  Indeed, Hughes seeks fulfillment not just of dreams for heaven on earth but also for the American dream yet to be a complete reality.  In this regard, Hughes is a champion for all persons marginalized by a predominant power structure.  He wrote in one of his poems,

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.

I am the poor white, – fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

For each of us, the poetry of Langston Hughes still resonates today.  It is far too simple to claim prejudice exists out there – and not in here.  Human nature causes each one of us to view the world through personal prisms of either fear……. or understanding and love.  Even as we claim to be people who love one another, how often do we act instead with fear of the other – fear of our own shortcomings, fear based in stereotypes and misperceptions, fear rooted in false assumptions?  If I claim I lack fear, I lie to myself.  Our goal, as Hughes so evocatively wrote, is to seek perfection – to invoke the Sankofa bird of reconciliation and forgiveness.  For him, that goal is found in a utopia of red clay soil, pine trees, and a dew blessed Alabama where the Divine composer conducts a symphony of humanity in perfect love with itself.  May we each seek the same…within ourselves and in our world.

I wish you all, my dear friends, much love and much peace.

As always, I open up our time up today for your thoughts and comments.  Of particular interest to me is not so much a discussion of how terrible racism is.  I am interested, instead, on how subtle forms of racism might insidiously lie within us.  How do we conquer our own fears and our own prejudices?