Words from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted in Racing to Justice, [i] by John A. Powell:
“Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly
affects all indirectly.”
“We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools,” Dr. King said.
His words make me think of my husband’s village in eastern Nigeria. It’s called Enugu-Nanka, and it’s one of seven villages that make up the town of Nanka. I’m not thinking of the scientific and technical genius, but the ethical commitment of being in brotherhood.
For in this village the commitment, the sense of belonging, is so strong that it is inescapable. People from the town – as is true of most towns in sub-Sahara Africa – are tied together in a network of mutuality. They know that what affects one, affects all.
Anita told you that I’m the replacement for a Buddhist speaker. She told me the summer services are devoted to the sources for our UU living tradition. African traditions aren’t mentioned, but I believe they fit in several places:
First I can place African traditions into the source that says, “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the
spirit.” As long as we don’t mean only Euro-centric cultures, we can include African practices. I can assure you that an Igbo Dibia or Shaman has direct experience of transcending wonder.
Someday I’ll give a sermon about the Dibia, but not today.
I can also see the place for African religious practice in the source: “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life,” that is again if we accept that
African religious practice is a religion of the world.
But the source I want to draw on this morning says, “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”
I am perhaps stretching the meaning when I say that African customs serve for me as deeds of prophetic women and men. But they form part of my background that challenges me to confront structures of evil.
I believe the white privilege I have, and most of us here have, is part of a structure of evil. It is not evil intent on my part or yours. We cannot help having this privilege. But it does harm us
all by separating us by race, especially in our country today in our fraught situation of separation between black and white.
What if we knew that we belonged together? What if white and black were tied together in a
network of mutuality, one community, where we know that what affects one, affects all?
Just over a year ago I was close to finishing my memoir. It was in writing that I wrestled with the question of where I belong, why I grew up without knowing I had a community, and how I came to feel part of the community in Nigeria.
My husband Clem is Igbo, one of the three largest tribes in Nigeria. As I learned to belong, I asked whether he had ever had to wonder about this question. He had always known he was part of a place and group of people. He knew that whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. He felt the network of mutuality.
He says, “I was born with it. It’s part of me.” In fact, Clem wasn’t even born in the village. His parents lived in mid-western Nigeria where his father was working in the logging industry. So I
challenged him, as I do now and then. “I don’t think you were born with this sense. But I do think it is taught so strongly that it feels inborn.”
As I looked at the strength of the ties, I have come to believe there are many factors that make an Igbo know that he is not only part of, but responsible for, his family, clan and village. They form ties that bind him for life and after.They cannot be broken and cannot be ignored.
I’ll describe eight and ask if we can we learn from any of them.
The first is language. I don’t mean just that the people share a common language, though that is certainly part of belonging. No, I mean the words people use for relationships.
I was surprised and a little disturbed the first time I visited my husband’s village after we were married. Men and women both called me, “Nwunyem, or nwunye anyi, my wife or our wife.”
“What do they mean?” I asked my husband.
“They are telling you that you are part of the village and part of our family now,” he said. I relaxed and enjoyed being greeted so familiarly.
In Igbo custom, we say “Nna anyi, our father,” to speak to an older male in the village, whether directly related or not. And we speak to children with a similar phrase, saying our child or my child, again whether or not the child is a direct relative. We all belong to each other in the village.
Second is sharing food. Traditionally children ate together out of one bowl. The rules were strict – the oldest child takes first, but cannot take more than his or her share. In Clem’s childhood, there was often only one piece of meat for each person. The children would finish the other food first, then take the pieces of meat one by one, with the oldest taking the largest.
The ceremonial breaking of kola nut is a common experience; it’s the third method of teaching to belong. Children will observe it from a very young age. Presenting kola is a requirement to
welcome visitors, whether at a wedding party for hundreds or when your neighbor shows up at your door for an evening chat. The guest or guests are invited to take home a nut, or one lobe of a nut. The people who are visited and the visitors are united by this
The fourth, sharing belongings, is also taught from early childhood. When a child is given something special, a treat, a toy, a book, a grown-up will often ask for it back. The message – we share our belongings – is reinforced.
I remember feeling bad for my own children before I knew this custom. They thought they had been given something for themselves, and then they were immediately asked to give it to another grown up. But I soon learned, as they did, that the adult always says in the end, “No, you keep it.”
Fifth is the commitment to help out relatives, other clan members, even fellow villagers. We belong together; we are all part of the family or community. People ask for many forms of help. Often they ask for help in finding a job. An African is obligated to help, and sometimes hires his relatives. What we in the West term nepotism is often fulfilling an obligation. Relatives or clansmen are asked for help, to get a visa, or go on a call to a prospective bride.
Sixth is dressing for events. When there is an occasion like our 50th wedding anniversary celebration in Nanka in December, all the family members wear clothes from the same or similar fabric. You can see our immediate family on the cover of the program. But there were about 40 people, all related, who were dressed in the similar cloth.
The system of belonging to an age grade is the seventh. Every child belongs to his or her age group or age grade in an Igbo village. The groups are children born within four or five years of each other. During their teens, they give themselves a name.
When our daughter performed her traditional wedding in our village, the girls in her age grade surrounded her as she came before the assembled guests, a jug of palm wine on her head. The men of the age grade served as surrogate age grade members for her husband, an American who had no group of his own.
The last is what ties a child to his place forever. It is customary to bury a lock of a new baby’s hair, the placenta, or the umbilical cord, in the family compound. An older male relative undertakes this task. He prays to the ancestors and declares the connection to the earth, the clan, the immediate family, and the place. Here’s what I wrote about this in my memoir when I described the naming ceremony for our oldest child, our son Chinaku. Papa is Clem’s father:
“The stub of Chinaku’s umbilical cord has fallen off when he was two weeks old. Clem had told me to save it and bring it along for the naming ceremony. Now Papa asked me to bring it to him.
“‘I bury this cord which binds Chinakueze to Nanka, to our compound, and to our people forever,’ he said. ‘Whenever he returns he will know that he belongs here. When he is away, he will always know that part of him is here.’ He placed the cord in the small hole that had been dug earlier.”
Can any of these customs help us create community and overcome the divisions of racism? Do we already experience customs that show us a sense of belonging?
We most likely can’t bury an umbilical cord in the memorial garden to show that a newborn belongs to us, nor with our mobile society do we need to tie children to a specific place. But to show we are a community, we could incorporate into our Sunday services the mention of anyone who has died and whose ashes were placed in the memorial garden, so the person belongs to us all and we share grief with the family.
We already do share publicly with child consecration. Can we make more of these ceremonies to foster the sense of belonging, even if it’s not for life? Could we have more pictures on the website, on our Facebook page, or even around the sanctuary?
I know that we usually refuse to put anything on the windows, but lacking walls, couldn’t we? Are our windows more sacred than our people?
Could we honor people more than once a year at the annual meeting? One candidate during our search said they do a special event once a month to honor a specific person, a senior in the congregation, recounting his or her achievements and activities that have served the congregation. If we gathered around and described this person as ‘our father’ or ‘our mother’
wouldn’t it be a meaningful event that creates community?
Two events we do have that are excellent community builders: our candle-lighting and potluck dinners. Everyone seems to agree that sharing joys and concerns, and sharing food, foster a sense of community.
Can we reinvigorate our neighborhood circles to reinforce the feeling of belonging? We already have a semblance of age grades – the seniors, the youth, and recently a young adults group. We have interest groups like UGNO and our choirs. These help us know we belong.
But we are still primarily a white church in a mostly white town with our white privilege. I’d like to think that we can draw on our strength as a community here to actually put our white privilege to work.
I’ll offer a few suggestions of how we can use our privilege to confront racism. I’d be happy to hear others from you after the service.These come from two sources.
The first source is Wiley Reading who writes in the online journal Everyday Feminism. This is from Jan. 21 2015. [ii] Reading says, “. . . You want to be respectful,. . not disrupting the work people of color are already doing. But as white people, we do have a responsibility to do something. You see, we’ve got a leg up on being listened to.”
If you read my blog you’ve already seen his suggestions!
First is to watch and record. We may not encounter an episode in Westport, although they happen with some regularity – both my husband and my son-in-law have been stopped for driving while black, a common phrase used by black people. But many of us travel regularly to places where harassment of people of color happens. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as an arrest. It can be a question in a store, or a person detained at a building entrance for ID when whites are not.
Grab your phone and start recording.
Second is to speak to other white people about racism. Because we have privilege, we generally are given a hearing.
I find that I can talk about “Black Lives Matter,” why it’s is important and relevant. I say, “black lives matter because black lives didn’t matter for two hundred or more years when blacks provided free, labor that enriched not just southern plantation owners but also northern cotton
merchants, bankers, ship-owners, and traders.
“Black lives didn’t matter when the civil war ended, emancipated slaves had been promised forty acres and a mule, and the promise went unfulfilled. Black lives didn’t matter when the country turned its back on the lynchings carried out by Ku Klux Klan.
Black lives don’t matter when police feel threatened and shoot, not because they are bad people but because our society has taught us to fear black men. The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are
merely men enforcing the whims of our country.”
In encouraging us to speak up, Reading says, “Even though it’s painful and it’s personal and it doesn’t always work, engaging in these conversations with other white people is vital.”
Third is to work for voting rights, or today for the restoration of voting rights. Help with voter registration.
I have two more suggestions. These come from Aaryn Belfer, writing in San Diego City Beat. [iii]
She says, “Put a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard. Yes, it will get stolen and defaced. Get another one. Encourage neighbors to do the same.
“Get informed. Read The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist, or The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.” Read the new book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates that I quoted earlier.
I’ll close with words from two other people I respect.
You may have read Jon Stewart’s words – I saw this on Facebook or Twitter a couple of nights ago when social media was alive with his departure.
He said, “I can guarantee you that every person of color in this country has faced an indignity, from the ridiculous to the grotesque to the sometimes fatal, at some point in their . . I’m going to say last couple of hours, because of their skin color. Race is there and it is a constant. You’re tired of hearing about it? Imagine how ***ing exhausting it is living it.”
The other is John Powell , an expert on civil rights and race, whom I heard in his interview with Krista Tippet. I was drawn to his words about belonging and the beloved community.
He said, “Each of us wants to belong and to be loved. White and black, young and old, gay and
straight, we all want this. To get there – to create that sense of brotherhood in our country, where Black Lives Matter as much as white lives, is the challenge.
So let’s remember the lessons from the Igbo village that teach people they belong. We also recall and celebrate the sense of belonging we have in our own community here at The
Unitarian Church in Westport. We can stand on both of these as we confront the evil of racism in America.
We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.
[i] John A. Powell, Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society, Indiana University Press, September 6, 2012