We’re going to start with words that are not my own:
[Recording]:“They say our people were born on the water. When it occurred no-one can sayfor certain. Perhaps it was in the second week. Or the third. But surely by thefourth, when they had not seen their land, or any land, for so many days thatthey lost count. It was after the fear had turned to despair, and the despairto resignation, and the resignation gave way – finally – to resolve. They knewthen that they would not hug their grandmothers again, or share a laugh with a cousin during his nuptials, or sing a baby softly to sleep with the same lullabies that their mothers had once sung to them.
The tealeternity of the Atlantic Ocean had severed them so completely that it was as ifnothing had ever existed before, that everything they ever knew had simplyvanished from the earth.
Some could notbear the realization. They heaved themselves over the walls of wooden ships toswim one last time with their ancestors.
Others refusedto eat, mouths clamped shut until their hearts gave out.
But in thesuffocating hull of a ship called the White Lion, bound for where they did notknow, those who refused to die understood that the men and women chained nextto them in the dark were no longer strangers. They had been forged in trauma.They had been made black by those who believed themselves to be white.
And where theywere headed, black equaled ‘slave.’ So these were their people now.”
NikoleHannah-Jones, New York Times Magazine, The 1619 Project Podcast, Episode 1,0.57”- 3’15”, published August 2019.
That’sthe story of the founding of our nation. It’s not the story children are toldin schools. In any school across the US, children are told that this nation wasfounded by people seeking religious freedom, that we broke from England becausewe didn’t want to be ruled from the outside and that instead we created asystem of laws based in the idea of self-determination.
WeThe People Of The United States.
We,the People. Written in 1787 as part of the Preamble to the Constitution. TheConstitution is the document of laws, the document designed to create a systemof justice and fairness and prosperity. We the People ofthese United States, in order to form a more perfect union…
Wewrote that a decade after the Declaration of Independence. It’s really therethat we define what it means to be American, what this new nation is really allabout…
Wehold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that theyare endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among theseare Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Butthat’s not the whole story. There were ships bringing people in a search forfreedom. And there were ships bringing people to a life of enslavement. Thenation that was born here was born into a life-affirming, brand-new andtransformative vision of freedom that had room to be made manifest. But thatvision was far more narrow then than it is now.
Thehistory of the United States is evolutionary. We are Not Yet. We are inprocess. We are becoming. And we are becoming, not only because of those whitefolks on the top of the ships with bold ideas about elections and free speechand press and freedom to worship. We are becoming because of those peoplechained on the bottom of those ships, those people who came here enslaved whohad to fight – and whose ancestors continue to fight – for the very life, liberty and pursuit of happiness we claim. It’s the people brought here without access to the America our founders were creating who, in fact, have been the architects of our freedom.
Ourfounding fathers – and maybe a few mothers – had a vision unlike anything thathad before been considered. Because of this vast land with so much space toexperiment, the ideals of the Enlightenment had room to take hold. This wasgoing to be a land of opportunity, a place people could think and speak withoutfear of governmental retribution. This would be a place leaders were accountableto the people, where every person had a voice and a vote, where no single person or even branch of government held all the power, where hard work would mean economic advancement. The strict social moors, infallible monarchs and forced religion of Europe would find no purchase here.
Thatvision, though, was intended specifically for white men and even more for whitemen with some means. Freedom may have been radical, but it was also narrowlyinterpreted. When the Declaration of Independence was first written, thatindependence was designed to include enslaved people, but the Southern colonieswouldn’t sign it. The decision was to fight that fight another day. And we did.
Theongoing enslavement of people after leaving Britain and declaring ourselves tobe children of the Enlightenment, created a moral contradiction white peoplehad trouble justifying. To live in this dilemma, white people told themselvesthat black people were less than human, thereby alleviating guilt and solidifying a racial caste systemwe have yet to fully dismantle.
Ifthe Declaration of Independence was the fist step, the second step towardliving our ideals of liberty was achieved when slavery was ended and freedslaves were recognized as citizens of this country. That wasn’t a given. One ofthe original plans was to deport every single person with African heritage.Every person whether they were slave or free, even if they had been born heregenerations earlier and never knew another land as home, they were all going to be put on ships and sent to Africa. Frederick Douglas lead the fight to remain in this country, bringing his opinion directly to President Abraham Lincoln, the author of this scheme. The 14th Amendment ensured that allpersons born on American soil would be free, enjoying all privileges of citizenship.
Withthe Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 1stand 14th Amendments, we have the building blocks for the American Dream,for a nation that embodies a bold vision of self-evident truths, creating theopportunity for every person, equal under God, to life, liberty and the pursuitof happiness. And yet, 150 years later, the vision has yet to be realized.
Reconstructiongave us a window into the potential of a new world. From 1867-1879, AfricanAmericans held public office, ran schools, purchased land and started movingtoward self-determination. That came to a stretching halt just before 1880, butthe hope for a better way didn’t die. Over the next 140 years, AfricanAmericans have been the people who have called this nation to live into our ownideals, our own vision of who we are. Frederick Douglas forced white Americans to see slaves as fully – and not 3/5ths – human. Sojourner Truth fought for women’s right to vote as soon as the Civil War ended, pushing a conversation very few people were having. Robert Abbott created the first black press, challenging us to live into the promise of the First Amendment and Rev. Richard Allen created the first historic black church, the foundation and source of social and economic liberation for 200 years. Other people who became the embodiment of America include Harriet Tubman who literally walked people from bondage to freedom and The Honorable Thurgood Marshall who codified equality into law. Of course, there’s Rev. Martin Luther King who pushed our nation to end segregation, and Malcom X who designed a new world of social and economic independence, while Michelle Alexander has raised our awareness about mass incarceration, uncovering yet another way America is still “not yet”. This isn’t a list of influential black Americans. This is a list of people who created this nation. Each of these people are catalysts for the American Dream.Their work moved and continues to move us ever closer to becoming a free nation where its citizens might have access to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Whitepeople tend to think of this as a flawed, but pretty wonderful place to live.We expect systems to work and we celebrate the founding ideals. Black people knowthe system is broken, that it was created for white people. Frankly, as long as the system is broken forsome people, the system doesn’t work.
Iwas struggling to write this sermon. I wasn’t feeling like this should be mysermon- that this isn’t my story. My story is white. My people haven’t beenhere from the beginning, those weren’t my ancestors who imagined this newworld. But it’s me they created this country for. White people. My peopleweren’t white when we first got here, but we were made white like a lot ofother people in this land of black and white. And once we were white, we were Americans and this became my story.
But,mine is not the story of the slave or the culture created around living intoemancipation or the forging of a real land of the free. I had a hard timewriting this sermon because I know it shouldn’t be my voice telling this story.My voice has other stories to tell, but the story of becoming a people on thewater, chained in the bowels of a ship crossing the Atlantic- that’s not mystory. That’s why I didn’t tell it.
Andyet, not preaching a sermon about black history wasn’t the right choice either.This is a history we need to know. The whitewashed history of American historybooks can’t be the only story told. So, I’m preaching this sermon, aware of mylimitations and hoping you will forgive me.
Asa white person, I was not taught how to talk about race. I was, though, taughthow not to. It was impolite to notice if someone wasn’t white. If it had to benoticed as part of a story, it was best to say it in such a way as todemonstrate your own indifference with something like, “so-and-so, who happensto be black” as if their race was nearly irrelevant. And the truth is, whenyou’re part of the dominant group, you don’t have to notice other people. We can tell the story of how white men imagined America and we can be proud of our people and erase any other people in the story. I hear it and see it all the time. I saw it from this pulpit a few weeks ago. I see it and hear it all the time. I’m sure many of you do too.
So,this Black History Month, we’re telling stories and we’re seeing people. Andwith that, I’m going to let Nikole Hannah-Jones have the last word:
[Recording]“When I was a kid — it must have been in fifth or sixth grade. Our teacher gaveus an assignment. It was a social studies class, and we were learning aboutdifferent places that people came from, and this was her way of kind of tellingthe story of the great American melting pot. So she told us all to research ourancestral land and to write a small report about it, and then to draw a flag. Iremember kind of looking up and making eye contact with the other black girl who was in the class, because we didn’t really have an ancestral land that we knew of. Slavery had made it so that we didn’t know where we came from in Africa. We didn’t have a specific country. And we could say that we were from the whole continent, but even so, there’s no such thing as an African flag. And so I remember going to the globe by my teacher’s desk — it was on the windowpane along the left side of the classroom — and spinning it to the continent of Africa and just picking a random African country.
SoI went back to my desk, and I drew that random African country’s flag, and Iwrote a report about it. And I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed, one, because I waslying, but I also felt ashamed because I felt like I should have some othercountry, and that all the other kids could trace their roots elsewhere, and Icould only trace my roots to the country that had enslaved us.
Iwish now that I could go back and talk to my younger self and tell her that sheshould not be ashamed, that this is her ancestral home, that she should be asproud to be an American as her dad was, and that she should boldly and proudlydraw those stars and stripes and claim this country as her own.”