Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

January 27, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Finally, Black Civil Rights Movement Is Dying

Last week, Martin Luther King tributes were taking place across the nation. And the spirit of MLK and the courageous acts of our foremothers and forefathers of the civil rights movement are etched indelibly in many of our hearts.

But the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King’s era of the 1960’s, many would say, is dying a slow and necessary death.

And for many African Americans of younger generations, who are now the beneficiaries of the racial gains from the Movement, feeling the Movement’s’ slow death is like a welcoming boulder gradually being lifted from their shoulders, especially for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.

With many key African American organizations and institutions of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s still resistant to address this generation’s outwardness about their sexual orientations and gender expressions as a civil rights issues, these organizations and institutions have not only lost their mantle as part of a prophetic justice movement for this day and age, but many of our present day key African American organizations and institutions of the Movement have also lost the moral high ground that was once so easily associated with them.

For example, the bedrock institution in the African American community, we all know by now, is the Black church. And it was also the bedrock of the civil rights movement. In March of 2010, African American Princeton’s Eddie Glaude Jr. published an obituary for the black church in the Huffington Post titled, “The Black Church is Dead.” Glaude talked about several of the problems facing the African American community, but no where in his piece did he talk about anti-gay ministers and homophobic congregrations.

According to the PEW Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, 87 percent of African Americans identify with a religious group and 79 percent say that religion is very important in their lives. The Pew report also showed that since 2008, African-American Protestants are less likely than other Protestant groups to believe that LGBTQ people should have equal rights. And since hot-button issues like gay adoption and marriage equality have become more prominent, support for LGBTQ rights among African-American Protestants has dipped as low as 40 percent.

A groundbreaking study in July 2010 came out titled, “Black Lesbians Matter” examining the unique experiences, perspectives, and priorities of the Black Lesbian Bisexual and Trans community. One of the key findings of the survey revealed that there is a pattern of higher suicide rates among black LBTs. Scholars have primarily associated these higher suicide rates with one’s inability to deal with “coming out” and the Black Church’s stance on homosexuality.

But with various pockets within a community homophobic, clerics closeted and a church on the “down-low” about sexuality it cannot save itself from itself. And perhaps as many of us LGBTQ Christians in the Black Church have known but Glaude finally stated it: “The Black Church is Dead.”

But with a dead church so, too, will follow important historic organizations that were birthed out of the civil rights movement and headed by black homophobic ministers.

One example is the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

“We should’ve closed it down years ago,’’ Andrew Young, who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr., said after Rev. Bernice King announced to the Atlanta Journal Constitution this week that she will not be taking her oath as SCLC’s president. “I saw this as a lost cause a long time ago.’’

But many in the LGBTQ community felt, with Rev, Bernice King at the helm of the organization, queer justice was certain to be a lost cause.

In 2009, Rev. Bernice King was bestowed the honor to be the eighth president and first women to head SCLC, co-founded by her father, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While it isn’t clear if Bernice King was a legacy pick for SCLC, it is, however, very clear to many of us in our LGBTQ communities that she would not be carrying out her father’s legacy.

Rev. Bernice King’s track record concerning LGBTQ civil rights has been less than humane and antithetical to the legacies of both her parents.
For example, Rev. Bernice King’s most audacious sign of desecrating her father’s legacy was the December 2004 march titled, “Stop the Silence,” promoting an anti-gay agenda.

Beginning the protest march by lighting a torch at her father’s grave site and then passing it on to her spiritual mentor and the march organizer, Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, who has recently been embroiled in a sex scandal for molesting pubescent boys from his church, whom he calls “spiritual sons,” King stated that “I know in my sanctified soul that he (Dr. King) did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage.” Therefore, given the homophobic vitriol Rev. Bernice King has spewed out over the years, the LGBTQ community is always braced to see what next she’ll say and do, and especially if given the bully pulpit she would have had as president of SCLC.

Comprised mostly of conservative clergy and parishioners, our churches and historic justice institutions remain in an intentional time warp. With its refusal to speak on present-day issues not only plaguing the African American community but plaguing all Americans, these churches and organizations exist as a visiting museum tethered to the 1960’s civil rights era rather than exist as an organization faced toward the challenges of today.

Like the many who gathered last week to commemorate Martin Luther King Day, I, too, am committed to the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I not only miss King’s wisdom, I miss the sound of his voice, the things he said with that voice, and the choir that resounded within him with that voice.

King once told a racially-mixed audience that “Eventually the civil rights movement will have contributed infinitely more to the nation than the eradication of racial injustice.”

If King were alive today he would want us to look at homophobia.

 

Reverend Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker and theologian.  She has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

Huck Finn’s n-word: Preserving Artistic Integrity or Ethnic Property Rights?

January 14, 2011 at 11:35 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

As Americans we have a hard time talking about race in this country when the n-word is not involved. And when this epithet is, predictably, we behave schizophrenically.

And much of the kerfuffle is about who’s staking a claim on its use.

The now recent kerfuffle concerning the n-word is focused on Samuel Langhorne Clemens’, known fondly to us as Mark Twain, New South Books edition of the 1885 controversial classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

In a combined effort to rekindle interest in this Twain classic and to tamp down the flame and fury the use of the n-word engenders both from society and readers alike, who come across the epithet 219 times in the book, Mark Twain Scholar, Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University in Alabama, proposed the idea that the n-word be replaced with the word “slave.”

“The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups. There is no equivalent slur in the English language. As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact. Even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative,” Gribben writes in the introduction of the new edition.

I think for grade and middle school students, the word should be removed. I remember reading the text as a sixth grader at a predominately white public school in Brooklyn and suffering mightily from both the teacher’s inept ability to contextualize the text and from my classmates’ insensitivity concerning the epithet. But several years later, unfortunately, I experienced “deja vu all over again” with this text. This time, I was a first year student at Wellesley College and suffering mightily, because of the professor’s ineptitude in contextualizing the use of racist language.

Gribben’s intent in substituting the epithet with the word “slave” is to make the book user-friendly for a certain school-age group so that a teachable moment on the inflammatory use of racial epithets can be civilly addressed and analyzed in a learning environment. However, because of an often volatile reaction to Twain’s use of the n-word in“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” we miss not only the intended lesson but also the beauty of the story and the bonding that take place between Huck (the protagonist) and Jim (an adult enslaved African American who escaped from slavery) because both are runaways trying to reach freedom.

I am troubled, however, in this recent kerfuffle concerning the n-word how many of us African Americans, in particular, go back and forth on its politically correct use.

Let’s do a walk down memory lane:

In December 2006 we blamed Michael Richards, who played the lovable and goofy character Kramer on the TV sit-com “Seinfeld” for using the n-word. The racist rant was heard nationwide and shocked not only his fans and audience that night at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood but it also shocked Americans back to an ugly era inU.S. history.

In July 2008 we heard the Rev. Jessie Jackson used the n-word referring to Obama. And Jackson using the word not only reminded us of its history but also how the n-word can slip so approvingly from the mouth of a man who was part of a cadre of African Americans leaders burying the n-word once and for all in mock funeral at the 98th annual NAACP’s convention in Detroit in 2007.

And in 2009 Dr. Laura Schlessinger ending her radio show, a week after she broadcast a five-minute-long rant in which she used the N-word 11 times.

In 2003, the NAACP convinced Merriam-Webster lexicographers to change the definition of the n-word in the dictionary to no longer mean African Americans but instead to be defined as a racial slur. And, while the battle to change the n-word in the American lexicon was a long and arduous one, our culture’s neo-revisionist use of the n-word makes it even harder to purge the sting of the word from the American psyche.

We must, as Americans, look at the systemic problem of what happens when an epithet like the n-word, which was once hurled at African Americans in this country and banned from polite conversation, now has a broad-based cultural acceptance in our society today.

Popularized by young African Americans’ use of it in hip hop music, the bantering and bickering over this word today is no longer about who has been harmed or hurt by its use, but who has the right to use it, which is why some people are publicly pulverized and others are not.

Our culture’s present-day cavalier use of the n-word speaks less about our rights to free speech and more about how we as Americans – both White and Black – have become anesthetized to the damaging and destructive use of this epithet.

Many African Americans, and not just the hip hop generation, state that reclaiming the n-word serves as an act of group agency and as a form of resistance against the dominant culture’s use of it, and therefore the epithet gives only them a license to use it.

However, the notion that it is acceptable for African Americans to refer to each other using the n-word while considering it racist for others outside the race, unquestionably sets up a double standard. Also, the notion that one ethnic group has property rights to the term is a reductio ad absurdum argument, since language is a public enterprise.

African Americans’ appropriation of the n-word as insiders neither obliterates the historical baggage with which the word is fraught nor obliterates its concomitant social relations among Blacks and between Whites and Blacks. Just because some African Americans use the term does not negate our long history of self-hatred.

The n-word is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language that was and still is used to disparage African Americans. However, today the meaning of the n-word is all in how one spells it. By dropping the “er” ending and replacing it with either an “a” or “ah” ending, the term morphs into one of endearment. But, many slaveholders pronounced the n-word with the “a” ending, and in the 1920s, many African Americans used the “a” ending as a pejorative term to denote class differences among themselves.

Language is a representation of culture. Language re-inscribes and perpetuates ideas and assumptions about race, gender and sexual orientation we consciously and unconsciously articulate in our everyday conversations about ourselves and the rest of the world, and consequently transmit generationally.

My enslaved ancestors knew that their liberation was not only rooted in their acts of social protests, but also in their use of language, which is why they used the liberation narrative of the Exodus story in the Old Testament as their talking-book. The Exodus story was used to rebuke systemic oppression, racist themes, and negative images of themselves.

However, too many of us keep the n-word alive, because reclaiming racist words like the n-word does not eradicate its historical baggage and its existing racial relations among us.

Instead, it dislodges the word from its historical context and makes us insensitive and arrogant to the historical injustice done to a specific group of Americans. It also allows Americans to become unconscious and numb in the use and abuse of the power and currency this racial epithet still has, thwarting the daily struggle many of us Americans work hard at in trying to ameliorate race relations.

I think Gribben’s is trying to do that with his edition of Huck Finn.

Reverend Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker and theologian.  She has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

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