June 16: “Fortifying Legacies” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
“My father died only at the end of his life,” concludes Sam Keen, in reflecting on his personal legacy of promises ultimately kept. It is a touching story of connection and mutual awareness between a father and son; a willingness to claim love, and acknowledge its obligations; to testify to its meaning. Not all stories about fathering have that tenderness and intimacy, and it is important to acknowledge this if we would observe a celebration like Father’s Day. On the one hand, effective parenting is hard work, involving as it does vigilant attention, constant self-sacrifice, self-awareness and self-control, healthy boundary setting, flexibility and learning, patient guidance, protection from harm and solace for injury, example-setting, affection, celebration, respect, and pretty much every other virtue known to the human condition. As Keen observes, “My father did all of those things for his children a father can do, not the least of which was merely delighting in their existence.” So there’s that, too.
Though some do it with spectacular grace and devotion, not all those who find themselves in the role of fathers are able to meet such challenges; a few don’t even try very hard. Some of us here today have known fathers who didn’t try; some had those fathers, some have been those fathers. We’ve also known folks who tried hard, in every way they could figure out, and somehow missed the connection anyway. We’ve known children who longed for different kinds of fathers, and fathers who wished they had different kinds of children. Even when the outcome is deeply good, the process is not always easy all the time. Many of us have also known people who made no biological contribution to our existence, who nevertheless did all sorts of fatherly functions in our lives. To me, these ambiguities do not spoil or diminish Father’s Day; rather they deepen its meaning and importance. Fathering matters, to all of us – whether or not we are fathers, whether or not we had the fathers we wanted, whether or not we succeeded in being the fathers we hoped to be.
The role of father is not only personal and familial; it is also cultural. Its meaning is defined by society as much as or more than by DNA. And historically, we have multiple collective fathers; national founding fathers, intellectual fathers, fathers of faith, the forefathers of our various communities and identities. As Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us in his message to his son, part of the duty of individual fatherhood is to transmit that heritage of cultural identity. Last week, we spoke about the four pillars of meaning in life, as identified by Emily Esfahani Smith, which included belonging, purpose, transcendence, and story-telling. That final function, of narrative, has both an individual and a collective dimension. Each of our lives has its own narrative arc, that moves from birth to growth to maturity to death to legacy, featuring our particular challenges and accomplishments, failures and transformations and discoveries. Every biography is a story in itself, as we often see in the spiritual odysseys presented by our own members here at All Souls. Each of those stories holds its own set of meanings.
Yet those stories do not take place in isolation; they are also part of a collective narrative about groups of people – those groups we belong to, and those groups we are not part of. And it seems to me that those collective narratives, while they are always subject to a variety of interpretations, are more than usually contested now, in our 21st century American culture. The historical narrative of the American quest for freedom and greatness, of European discovery and the immigration melting pot, of incrementally increasing freedoms for women, people of color, and other marginalized identities is being deeply and appropriately questioned. The political narrative of fair elections, equal votes, and the rule of law seems up for grabs. The Enlightenment narrative of reason and progress as an intellectual birthright appears not as universal as some of us perhaps once thought. The dominant narratives, the ones that were supposed to define the reality within which other, more specialized stories happened, are being challenged, and other collective stories are being proposed. #metoo. When They See Us. The water defenders of Standing Rock. People arrested for using a public restroom, or on trial for leaving water in the desert to save lives. What is the larger story that our individual lives are part of?
One element of parenting, I think, whether mothering or fathering, has to do with mediating these context narratives to our children. Maybe you are the first person in your family to attend college – or maybe you hope that your child will be. Maybe generations of your family have attended Princeton, and you hope that your child will, too. Maybe there is a family business that your grandfather built, and you hope that your child will one day run. Maybe your uncles and brothers and ancestors have always been police officers, or ministers, or sailors, and you hope that your children will follow in those paths. Maybe your family narrative is the story of immigration, from Ireland, or Poland, or Greece, or Mexico. Or, maybe it is about the ships your ancestors survived on, and the plantations they built, and how they got over the oppressions of the Jim Crow era. There might be stories about how everyone in the family plays a musical instrument, or attends protest marches, or makes potato salad a certain way. Our individual narratives are shaped by our family narratives, sometimes in compliance, and sometimes in resistance. And our family narratives fit into the larger cultural stories that we imagine to be about us, or not about us.
The story of Juneteenth is one of those larger cultural narratives that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Here is the way in which I first learned it; President Lincoln freed the enslaved people in the United States with the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January first of 1863. But evil southern rebels withheld this information from their slaves, and it was not until they were defeated by the north in April of 1865 that the news of their freedom began to reach enslaved blacks, especially those in the outskirts of the Confederacy. It took even longer to be announced in Texas, where it was not until June 19th — years after the proclamation, and months after Lee’s surrender — that Major General Gordon Granger issued a military order in Galveston, officially informing the people of that state, both white and black, that legal slavery was at an end. Because various communities in different locations received the news on different days, the anniversary of this announcement became abbreviated as “Juneteenth,” which the former slaves celebrated, and then the people lived together justly and happily ever after. That’s one story.
Other points of view bring additional facts to the picture. One is that Lincoln’s order in fact freed only the slaves in those states then in rebellion against the government; not those in states that had either never joined the Confederacy, or had already capitulated. Another is that in order to realize their ostensible freedom, many of the enslaved in Texas still had to escape from their places of bondage, and many, perhaps thousands, were shot or caught and hanged while trying to do so. Many continued to be held until the summer labor and harvest seasons were over, and only released in the autumn months, even though both they and their captors were aware that this was illegal. But a year later, things had changed enough that the formerly enslaved came together to celebrate their freedom, to wear the fanciest, formerly forbidden clothes they had, and to enjoy together the rarest commodity of their previous lives, chosen leisure. Over time, this anniversary celebration also became an occasion for black speakers to be heard by their community, and for geographically distant family members to come together, sometimes after years or decades of separation. It became a collective process of an-amnesis; a practice of not-forgetting. As it grew in importance, the observances spread, carried to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places as blacks migrated away from Texas. White authorities increasingly resisted allowing the celebrations to take place in public parks, or granting employees time off in order to attend. Nevertheless, the words of Frederick Douglass, from 1852, continued to ring true to black ears:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity.”
If the descendants of enslaved people in America were to celebrate freedom, it would be on Juneteenth, not the independence day of the 13 colonies that had acquiesced in their dehumanization.
As the brutal policies and customs of Jim Crow and the culture of lynching tightened their grip on black communities during the first half of the 20th century, there seemed to be more danger and less to celebrate, and Juneteenth observances began to die out. By the time of the second world war, it was an historical artifact.
Yet the idea of this anniversary remained a “source of strength” for young people, according to Rep. Al Edwards of Houston, who says, “Every year we must remind successive generations that this event triggered a series of events that one by one define the challenges and responsibilities of successive generations. That’s why we need this holiday.” Juneteenth was restored to modern cultural consciousness by Ralph Abernathy and Coretta Scott King, who intentionally chose June 19 following Dr. King’s assassination in April 1968 for the culmination of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign that he had been leading. Rep. Edwards then led the initiative to declare the date a state holiday in Texas, which was successful in 1980. Since then 45 other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit, including both Missouri and Kansas.
Fortifying Legacies is the theme of this year’s Kansas City Juneteenth celebration. Legacies can be as personal as a peach seed monkey, or as public as a whole history of oppression. Both are true; both are real; and yet they are not of equal significance. I love the story of the peach seed monkey; its intimacy, its delicate reciprocity, its innocence. The making and keeping of promises is, indeed, a holy matter; something that can shape a life. And yet, compared with the legacy that Ta-Nehisi Coates must bequeath to his son, the peach seed monkey is insubstantial, a sweetness without gravity, an artifact of privilege. Now we do not know what other conversations Sam Keen had with his father; maybe they also talked about narratives of suffering and oppression, and the ways in which their lives were or were not part of those stories. But it is entirely possible that they occupied a social location in which that discussion would have been optional; in which the implicit narratives would have been about progress, and the responsibilities and justification of entitlement, and the rest of the world becoming more like them. Privilege is a legacy, as is oppression. They are both inherited from our fathers and our forefathers, literal and metaphorical, whether we desire them or not. They come to us as stories – stories that we are told, and that we are not told, about the past; stories that are rehearsed at anniversary celebrations, and stories that are silenced, within ourselves, within our families, and in our cultures.
The celebration of Juneteenth is an effort to fortify the legacy of a people who carry a particular narrative; the descendants of those who were once enslaved as the property of people with white skin privilege. The story of this nation is a lie unless that story, along with others, is part of what we all remember; the transfiguring of black bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold. Along with all the tender demands of nurturing love and protection, this too is the duty of fathers; to tell the stories that embed our personal achievements, failures, and struggles in a larger narrative; to connect us each in our delightful uniqueness, to the ethical gravitas of our shared history. If the arc of the moral universe is to be seen to bend toward justice at all, it must be viewed over lifetimes and generations, in a story that is renewed and reclaimed with every telling, as it is passed from father to child.
The 28 year old school principal James Weldon Johnson sought to recount that story again for his community at the turn of the last century, when he composed a poem to be read by black school children celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Soon after its initial recitation, James’s brother, John Rosamund Johnson, wrote a musical accompaniment to Lift Every Voice and Sing, turning the poem about singing into an actual song. During the three decades before an act of congress made The Star Spangled Banner the official national anthem in 1931, Johnson’s hymn to survival in adversity and faith in the future was frequently proposed for that status, hence its continuing identification as “the black national anthem.” As a father figure to the pupils in his segregated school, Johnson was delivering to them a fortified legacy; an interpretation of their ancestors’ experiences that would help to frame their own struggles, in community and as individuals.
Today our culture wrestles with this question of legacy; the legacies of privilege and of oppression; the narratives that tell us who we think we are, where we think we have come from, and what direction we are going. The fourteen days in between Juneteenth and what we have been pleased to call Independence Day make a good moment to bring those stories to mind; to consciously inquire what they mean to each of us, and to our communities. For whether we be women or men, whether we be parents of our own children, or teachers, or role models, or tellers of history, our legacies father the future. May we be willing to hear, and to speak, the difficult truths and the stories that are hard to hear, in the service of more equal justice and freedom. Let us fortify our legacies so that together we might indeed face the rising sun of a new day begun, and march on until the victory over all forms of supremacy is won. Let us lift every voice, and sing.