October 20: “American Nightmare, Part 2” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
It’s one of those songs that is in our hymnal, that I’m troubled about inviting white people to sing any more. Many thousand gone – that’s an understatement, certainly. Many thousand gone in the holding pens on the African coast, waiting for the great American and European ships to arrive, with English calico, metal work, and bullets, to trade for people who would be made into slaves. Many thousand gone, hundreds of thousands, a million probably, on the cruel transatlantic crossing, stacked like cargo, fed unfamiliar, indigestible food, no washing, no exercise, no medical care. Many thousand black families separated forever, many thousand black bodies tossed overboard when the load needed to be lightened for the ship’s sake. Many thousand gone from disease, from suicide, from crushed uprisings before they ever saw the shores of land again. Many thousand gone in the island ‘conditioning camps’ or ‘breaking plantations’ where they spent weeks or months being taught the ways of slavery and made to look like good bargains before being taken to the costal markets in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia. Many thousand gone, sold away to plantations all over the American south, to feed the insatiable commercial demand for cotton, or sugar cane. To labor in the burning sun, under the driver’s lash, without relief, or hope, or mercy, or dignity.
All the museums will tell you the same story – many thousand, many thousand gone. They show you the delicate ships’ drawings, how to fit a dozen more bodies when the space was already packed with misery. The crude ironwork of manacles, collars, chains, is on display; the casual enforcement of subjection, the ingenuity of cruelty. We know all this, of course, we who have done a little bit of historical homework, but that is not the same thing as standing in front of a pair of little black bolted metal cuffs, sized for a child’s wrists. Many thousand gone. The story doesn’t change, no matter who tells it, in Montgomery, Alabama, or Jackson, Mississippi, or Memphis, Tennessee.
I’ve been learning to think about trauma over the last couple of years, and its impact on the bodies and brains of human creatures. Trauma, the kind of overwhelming suffering that we can neither escape, nor control, nor make sense of, changes the way our physiology functions, and the way our minds process experience. The whole system of slavery, it seems to me, is predicated on trauma – on the traumatizing of individuals, in traumatized communities, by a trauma-afflicted system. We don’t know everything about how to help people heal their trauma, but we know one thing that doesn’t work, and that’s telling them to just get over it. We know that healing only starts when everyone acknowledges the truth of what happened. Whether or not you want to call slavery America’s original sin, it is clearly our foundational trauma, and its effects are still with us.
There are, historically, various kinds of slavery. Slavery in the Roman empire was different from slavery in the Ottoman empire, was different from slavery on the African continent, was different from slavery in 18th century Europe, was different from slavery in Brazil. I don’t know that much about the other types, but it seems to me that slavery USA-style doesn’t work without the trauma; it’s a necessary component. And what I learned from all those museums telling the same story over and over again, was that it takes a village to keep that level of trauma going, but slavery doesn’t have to be on the books in order to be perpetuated. That was what the culture of white privilege in the American south figured out once the civil war ended and the 13th amendment passed and the slaves were technically not slaves any more. Once the erst-while power structure saw what the world without their special privilege would look like, and said no way to that, they realized that it was the trauma, not the law, that effectively makes a slave, and they found most of those tools still in their hands.
Which brings us to lynching, and Montgomery, Alabama, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, with its Legacy Museum. I want so much to tell you about this amazing place, and its founder, Bryan Stevenson, but that is going to have to wait for a future day, because there is another story that you need to hear first.
That story is told in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, in Jackson. Opened in 2017, it consists of seven galleries in a circular arrangement around a central space into which the viewer moves at the end of each exhibit. Because of its focus specifically on Mississippi, the first gallery begins with the arrival of enslaved Africans into that state, the slave trade, and the conditions of slavery up until the end of the civil war. This leads directly into the second gallery, which focuses on the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, black codes, the culture of Jim Crow, and of course, lynching. According to the NAACP, between 1882 and 1968, more lynchings occurred in Mississippi than in any other state. There was a full set of Klan regalia displayed, including robe, badges, and hood, that dates back more than a century now; I stood and looked at it for a long time. How does mere fabric become so imbued with menace, with the power of oppression and willful evil? Other galleries conclude with major civil rights movement turning points — the killing of Emmitt Till, Medgar Evers’ assassination, the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.
“At the end of each [of these exhibits], people needed a moment,” says Richard Woollacott, one of the museum’s designers. The center gallery offers that area for reflection, processing and internalizing, as well as honoring martyrs of the movement. Unlike the other galleries, there are ample places to sit down, and a ring of high up clerestory windows brings you back into daylight. The room is dominated by a huge, mobile-like, interactive artwork entitled This Little Light of Mine that hangs from the high ceiling. As people enter the space, its great spirals of stretched white fabric pulse with different colored lights, and recorded voices begin to sing this widely-known theme song of the civil right era. Eventually you are hearing a full choir in surround-sound, feeling the music vibrate in your body.
Some historians suggest that This Little Light was originally written by Harry Dixon Loes, a white composer, around 1920 as a children’s song. While Loes did publish an arrangement of it in a songbook for children, he never said he created it. It is true that the song appears to be of 20th century origin; there seems to be no record of it among the plantation songs of slavery time. In order to understand how it became one of the most enduringly popular ‘freedom songs’ of the protests in the 50s and 60s, you have to know a little something about Fannie Lou Hamer.
You have to imagine being born the 20th child of share cropper parents in 1917 in rural Mississippi, where a jealous white neighbor can poison your family’s cow and two mules, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. You have to imagine growing up on a plantation, recovering from polio, and starting to work in the fields at six years old, often hungry. You have to picture dropping out of what little school there was at age 12 to pick cotton full time; two to three hundred pounds a day, and using the Bible at Sunday school to continue teaching yourself to read. And when the plantation owner found out you could read, being assigned to keep the time cards and do the bookkeeping as well. When she was 27, still working for the man who had been her parents’ boss, Fannie Townsend married “Pap” Hamer, a tractor driver on the same plantation. Several years later, during surgery to treat a fibroid tumor, a white doctor performed a hysterectomy without Fannie’s knowledge or consent, as part of a state program to reduce the number of poor blacks; a procedure that came to be known as a ‘Mississippi appendectomy.’ The Hamers would later take in and adopt several children from their extended family, but Fannie never forgave the system that had stolen from her the possibility of having a baby. Nor was that the only price that she would pay with her black woman’s body for her aspirations to full human personhood.
Sometime in the mid 1950s, Fannie Lou Hamer began attending meetings of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership near her home in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. In August of 1962, encouraged by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee whom she had encountered at these meetings, Hamer traveled with a group of 17 other black volunteers to the county seat in Indianola for the purpose of registering to vote. As was intended by the state, she failed the so-called ‘literacy test,’ and her effort to register was denied; none of her fellow passengers was successful either. Their return trip was interrupted by local police, who stopped the bus for being painted the wrong color, and ordered it to return to Indianola, where all the would-be voters were arrested. It was on that fateful journey back to the police station, not knowing what risk awaited them, that Hamer used her deep and powerful voice to hearten her companions, and fling defiance at their persecutors. “This little light of mine,” she sang, “I’m gonna let it shine.” Although the group was quickly bailed out, when she got home Hamer found that her boss was informed of her registration attempt, and he immediately fired her, threw her off the plantation where she had worked most of her life and where her home was located, and informed the local Klan. He also prevented her husband from leaving the plantation to be with her. For several weeks she moved around from house to house, staying with a succession of friends, trying to avoid reprisals by the white power structure. One house where she was a guest was shot up by night riders, luckily, no one was home at the time. She would later reflect, “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been a little scared — but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”
She tried again in December, and again in January, and finally passed the test, only to learn that she must now pay two years of poll taxes before she would be allowed to actually vote. By June, she had become a field secretary for SNCC, and was invited to attend a Southern Christian Leadership Conference in North Carolina. On the way home, the group she was with made a stop in Winona, Mississippi. When one of them tried to write down the car number and badge number of a police officer who ordered them out of the café where they had tried to buy food, the group, including Hamer, were all arrested. This time, they were not so fortunate. They were attacked and beaten by officers in the jail’s reception area, and then taken to cells where the guards forced other inmates to beat them even more viciously, as well as remove the women’s clothes and grope them. Hamer suffered permanent kidney damage and multiple painful injuries, as well as a blood clot over one eye that never fully healed. Arrested on June 3, the group was released on the 12th, only to be stunned by the news of Medgar Evers’ assassination that same day. But Fannie Lou Hamer was not about to let her light stop shining.
In 1964, she helped organize the Freedom Summer voter registration activities, and was vice-chair of a group of 68 black delegates who traveled to the national democratic nominating convention in Atlantic City to challenge the credentials of the usual all white delegation from Mississippi as unrepresentative of voters in their state. The protest group was refused, but it received national attention, and in a televised speech, Hamer told of her experience of being jailed and beaten, concluding, “All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens, and if our Freedom Democratic Party delegation is not seated now, I question America …” They were not seated, of course, but by the ‘68 presidential nominating convention, the Democratic party had rules requiring delegations to be racially integrated, and Hamer was one of the recognized Mississippi delegates. She went on the be one of three women who formally challenged the seating of the Mississippi congressional delegation in the House of Representatives in January of 1965, claiming that because blacks were excluded from voting, their election was not legitimate. Although the three women were cordially received in public, the House nevertheless voted to reject their challenge and seat the white congressmen as usual.
Hamer herself ran for local and national political office, never successfully, even though she was a compelling speaker, personable, and incredibly hard working. She would go on to help found the National Womens Political Caucus, urging mothers to unite as a political bloc, saying, “A white mother is no different from a black mother. The only thing is they haven’t had as many problems. But we cry the same tears.” In her local community she supported Head Start and assistance programs for the poor, and she started a cooperative farm and a land bank to help blacks own property in spite of white resistance to selling to them. Her activism came at a price; her husband and her adopted children both lost jobs when their white employers learned of their connection to her. Daughter Dorothy Jean died at the age of 22 from internal hemorrhage after being denied admission to the local hospital because of Hamer’s reputation as an activist. The combination of post-polio syndrome, hypertension, diabetes, and the permanent results of the severe beating in ‘63, along with stress, grief, and constant work and travel, compromised her health. In 1972 and again in 1974 she was hospitalized for exhaustion and mental breakdown, and in 1976 she was diagnosed with and had surgery for breast cancer. She died in 1977, at the age of 59.
Fannie Lou Hamer lived the American nightmare. Poverty, hunger, back-breaking labor, enforced ignorance, injustice, exploitation, abuse, contempt, violence, persecution, medical malpractice, police brutality; she experienced it all. A woman of intelligence, with a fundamentally generous and motherly spirit, she was treated with condescension and disdain by the power structure she confronted. All she ever asked for was an equal vote and an equal chance in life, for herself and for her community. When she ended her meetings and speeches and campaign rallies and demonstrations with “I’m gonna let it shine,” she wasn’t fooling around; that was no trivial announcement.
You don’t stand in that circular room of light there in Jackson, surrounded by the historical evidence of crushing hate and violence and cruelty and self-congratulating privilege, without feeling the weight of the national heritage we all carry, whether you are white or black or something else. You don’t hear “I’m gonna let it shine” without hearing the echo “Many thousand gone” back behind it.
But it is our song now; she bequeathed it to all of us. As Elijah Cummings reminds us, “It’s our watch now.” This little light of mine is the defiant triumph of the human spirit in the teeth of many thousand gone; the last gasp of resistance to being snuffed out and obliterated. Part of what I learned last summer was that to sing this song is to promise solidarity in the face of overwhelming suffering and trauma and loss; it is to claim a sacrificial faith in who we might be, in spite of everything. In the mouth of a white person, it is a pledge of awareness – that we will not, as our siblings of color can not – when the going gets tough, wrap ourselves in our unconscious privilege and go back to sleep. This song is a practice of, and a witness to, the disciplines of non-violence, even when your fingers ache to slam a fist into the face of arrogant, arbitrary power. It is a message that the bullies of history do not and will not have the last word, no matter what cruelties they inflict without consequence. It proclaims that even those of us
who benefit in so many secret ways from systems of supremacy can one day turn and start pulling bricks out of the elaborate structures of cultural racism. It’s a song about persistence and determination and grit; about the light that so many centuries have sought to extinguish; a light that has been kept alive against all odds, fed with the smallest scraps of discarded hope, and when all else was taken, with heart’s blood. It is a song of rage against the fantasy of better than, worth more, and knowing your place; it is a refusal to not shine. It is a weighty song, something to sing us awake from nightmare; a thread to follow, up into the light of a new day; a spell to cast for healing the trauma of generations. The power of this song has more than once stopped violence in its tracks, and saved communities from despair. It is no trivial thing, this song, this heritage that all of us bear — the trauma that lives in black bodies, the blood that lingers on white hands, the comfort that lulls us, the money that bribes us all to silence, the long history of false starts and despair — and the will to wholeness, that even when it can do nothing else, will sing, and in singing, once again begin to shine. Listen.