Saturday, September 20, 2008

Creating Sacred Places: Barack Obama and the Legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune

With the eyes of the world on Bethune-Cookman University today as Barack Obama speaks there, I can think only of how different our nation would be now, if the insights of Mary McLeod Bethune informed our imaginations of the common good.

It’s frustrating in the extreme to wake today and read that an AP-Yahoo poll reveals a third of white Democrats expressing negative views of African Americans ( Now. A half century following the Civil Rights struggle, and race still matters. So intently.

Because race has always mattered and always will matter—as long as we choose to let it matter—Mary McLeod Bethune envisioned the school she founded as a place of reconciliation between the races (and the genders). A place in which everyone could gather around a table large enough to include all whose voices needed a hearing, all shoved from the table of participatory democracy in the culture at large. A sacred place, one in which the troubled waters of distrust, suspicion, and rancor—between races and genders, between one minority group and another—could be stilled by communion and dialogue.

Near the end of her life, Dr. Bethune sketched her dream for the college she had founded this way:

So I want this to always be kind of a sacred place—a place to awaken people and to have them realize that there is something in the world they can do; and if they try hard enough, they will do that thing….I think we need leaders now so much. I thought that we would hold conferences, interracial conferences with women of all classes and creeds that we might sit together, think together, and plan together how we might make a better world to live in (Bethune Papers, Bethune-Cookman University; in Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith, ed., Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World [Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999], p. 271).

As the eyes of the world look today towards the sacred place Mary McLeod Bethune founded, the place in which she is buried, what better way to honor all she stood for than to seek, in every way possible, to create such spaces everywhere we can.

Places where people can sit together, talk together, work together, towards goals that transcend narrow self-interest. Places in which the races can begin the painful task of learning to trust each other.

Places that can model racial harmony for the rest of the world by bringing together black leaders and brown leaders and white leaders and red and yellow ones—just as Dr. Bethune sought to do in her lifetime. Places where we grant that, shamefully, naming people’s skin color does still matter, but work to make it matter less for the next generation.

With this prophetic African-American leader as his guide, Mr. Obama will work hard to build leadership teams and grassroots coalitions that bridge gaps of ugly racial separation. What else can he do? The problems of our nation are so deep, every voice needs to count. We cannot afford to exclude anyone from the table.

Not even our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered brothers and sisters. If Mr. Obama looks to Mary McLeod Bethune for guidance—and I surely hope he will, as he speaks at the sacred place she created—he will keep that in mind. And he’ll continue to talk about it and act on it.

Because it is certainly what she herself would have wanted for the sacred place where she struggled so hard to form leadership teams and grassroots coalitions that crossed racial lines.

It's hard work, creating trust where there is so much understandable reason for distrust. It's work that takes many hands and many voices. It's work that demands patience and sacrifice, lifetimes of patience and sacrifice.

But it's indispensable work, if we want to move forward. And we have no choice except to look forward, given the state to which we have now brought ourselves through our cultivation of distrust, greed, dishonesty, and preference for the glitzy and the shallow rather than the substantial and the true. Do we?