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In the last several months I have visited services in several faith communities – Jewish, Catholic and Muslim. Sunday before last I was in my own house of worship, Union Methodist, a historically Black congregation. After religious services, we gathered in the basement to discuss the vexed question of whether or not our pastors could or could not officiate over same-sex marriages. The meeting took no formal vote, but the overwhelming sense of the gathering was that all people had a right to equality. A thirteen year-old girl stood up and cried when she spoke of the bullying of a boy at her school. An elderly Caribbean woman denounced gay bashing. A middle-aged father of two spoke of how he had slowly come out to his two daughters. A Puerto Rican psychologist spoke movingly of how his early view of homosexuality had turned him away from a call to the ministry. A young man from the Deep South spoke of the long darkness in his soul as he wrestled with demons, sexual and otherwise. We had church.
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The “funeralizing” of Nelson Mandela has ended. It was part MLK Day, part rock concert. Pundits, starlets and TV personalities fought for air-time to proclaim their nearness to the departed leader.
But, for some of us who marched outside the Chicago consulate of apartheid South Africa in the dead of winter in years gone by, Mandela is more. He was part of a nonracial African National Congress that promised not only political power, but also economic justice. The anti-apartheid struggle was only about campus divestment campaigns and denunciations of the white minority rule in the UN. We must remember that workers, especially mine workers, long demonstrated against the workplace color bar.
Nelson Mandela was an almost miraculous man. Above all, the transition to majority rule from 1990 to 1994 was peaceful. This is a magnificent testament to Mandela’s perseverance, tact and political acumen. However, by the time of his passing the wealth gap between the new black elite and masses has become a chasm.
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Recently I attended a preview of Twelve Years a Slave, a film graphically showcasing bondage in Dixie. In one scene I watched a white man in a sadomasochistic frenzy rape a young black woman -blood and semen seemed to drip in equal measure. I left the theater shocked and angry. This was the ultimate form of human degradation. I trembled. We seem to be under a continuing curse of psychotic racism spurred by a bloodlust so strong that even God Himself cannot cure it. Slavery is our own “Original Sin.”
It took some days to erase the searing images from the movie. As a historian I began to reflect. The actor who played the central character, Solomon Northrup, is Anglo-African Chiwetel Eijofor. When he mentioned that he is of Igbo descent and had heard of slavery in the West Indies, my antennae went up. Slavery in Igboland was a central fact of its nineteenth’s century economy. It seems that Eijofor wished to isolate a particular variety of slavery, one far removed from African realities.Americans do talk a lot about race and history, but are bound up in a highly stylized version of it —-The Dixie Narrative. By the last quarter of the twentieth century, the paternalistic image of U.S. slavery summoned up in Gone with the Wind and other works on the “Gallant South” had been consigned to the junk heap of history for most of us. The turbulence and violence of the 1950s and 1960s meant that the nation would, thank God, never again embrace any benevolent view of slavery.