Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dirty Gays, Clean Church: Mechanisms of Ritual Abuse and Expulsion in Light of the Gospels

I’ve blogged previously about a writing project in which I’m involved. It tells the story of a branch of my family that lived on both sides of the color line in the 19th-century South, in Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. That project is on my mind these days, since I completed a lengthy article about this story several weeks ago, and am now working through some fallout from the article.

That fallout is part of a larger configuration of events and forces in my life lately. Or so it seems. I struggle to do the best I can with the hand I’ve been dealt. And it is a struggle—no way around it. To be gay in our society, to acknowledge who one is and refuse to apologize, opens one to ongoing experiences of oppression and struggle that just does not cease, because the oppression does not cease. As I respond to this calling, it seems important to give as much as I can to others—to alleviate the burdens of others, to combat those who deliberately produce my oppression and that of others to try to wake conscience in those who have the ability to create conditions in which oppressors will find it less easy to lay unjust burdens on the backs of others.

Lately, my giving seems to provoke angry responses. I do not know why this is the case. I only know that it has happened in recent weeks—again and again and again. I offer people a gift and they respond by picking to pieces what I have given them, throwing it back in my face, and telling me I am inadequate.

There is evidently some karmic lesson to be learned here. I am still trying to learn it.

Something of this sort happened with the article I just completed, about the remarkable family that succeeded against tremendous odds in maintaining a family life across racial lines in a culture bitterly hostile to families of mixed racial ancestry. As I think I have mentioned on this blog, the documents that enable me to tell this fascinating story fell into my lap a few years ago, when cousins descended from the white planter who is my long-ago uncle and his spouse of color contacted me and generously made their documents available to me.

Letters from the 1850s to the 1890s; photographs; bible registers; school reports: you name it, this family has held onto its historical artifacts, and they tell an engrossing tale. As I pored over what these cousins shared with me, it began to be apparent to me that this was a story of unusual significance, one whose ramifications they themselves might well be missing, since their families had “passed” from the 1850s, living as white people after having escaped the oppressive racial conditions of the South.

These cousins did not understand the significance of the term “mulatto,” the racial category by which their female ancestor and her children were designated on the census. They spoke of American Indian roots. They developed theories that perhaps several of the children of the white father of the family had African blood. But not their ancestor. He was a half-brother of those siblings, born to the white wife of the planter patriarch.

As gently as I knew how—and because they had asked me to comment on and explain the significance of their documents—I explained to my newfound cousins that the term “mulatto” was used on censuses from 1850 forward exclusively to designate those of mixed ancestry who had any proportion of African blood. I pointed out that the letters they had so lovingly preserved indicated that the white father and mother of color had sent their children north for schooling and freedom at precisely the time in which Arkansas was passing laws which required all free people of color to leave the state or be re-enslaved. I discussed the abundance of evidence these cousins’ documents contained, of the painful decision of a father and mother to part with their adolescent children, to set them up on land away from home, to see them educated in one of the few schools in the nation that accepted children of color.

The painful decision to part with their children forever, since there was no assurance that these children of mixed ancestry who had left the racially oppressive South could safely return home . . . . The letters indicate, in fact, that the oldest son, who most successfully left behind his African-American heritage in Ohio and Iowa, did not come home for thirty years, until the summer before his mother died. It would have been dangerous for him to do so, as a man of mixed ancestry now passing for white in the North, with a white wife and children regarded as white in the community in which he lived.

As I talked with my newly met cousins about all of this, I realized that they understood and at the same time did not understand. Discovering something about ourselves that we have partly glimpsed, but have not wanted to see, because that something is regarded as shameful and as a taint, is not easy. It takes time to see. It takes time to admit, to live comfortably into the implications of a discovery that turns our life upside down—and which makes us suddenly susceptible to discrimination.

Before I began writing about this family, I secured the permission of my cousins. I did not want to—I absolutely would not—betray their generosity in sharing their materials with me, by publishing a story they did not want to have told. They gladly agreed to my writing the story. I told them that, if they wished, I would list them as co-authors of anything I published, since I could not have written anything without their assistance.

And so when I completed the article—forty pages, the preliminary to a book-length study, I hope—I sent it to them for their perusal. And found that they were still uncomfortable with the story as I had told it—with the story as their own documents tell it. They continued to insist that their ancestor was not a child by the spouse of color (though the bible record they themselves had shared with me, in the handwriting of the white planter who fathered six children by a free woman of color, clearly indicated that their ancestor was the son of the white planter and his wife of color). A woman he could not ever legally marry, due to the miscegenation laws that prohibited interracial marriage in that time and place, but a woman with whom he lived in an open, faithful marital union for 50 years . . . .

This has led to several weeks of back-and-forth phone calls and emails about the article, in which my cousins have sent information seeking to explain their interpretation of the data, and in which I keep pointing to the data itself, and what it clearly says. As we worked through these issues, I re-read Shirlee Taylor Haizlip’s The Sweeter the Juice, a beautiful, painful chronicle of her attempt to re-establish bonds with her mother’s siblings who had repudiated her mother and that branch of their family, when they made the decision to “pass” as white.

Haizlip’s account reminded me again of how difficult this struggle to live with an unwanted or misunderstood and stigmatized part of ourselves can be. As I thought about that, I wrote my cousins to tell them I would gladly withdraw the article from the publisher who had promised long ago to publish it. Or, if they preferred, I would remove any reference to their names in the article.

They emailed back immediately to tell me no, of course not. They are proud of their family. They want to see the article published. And they are grateful that I have worked hard to weave their documents into a story that finally makes sense.

As they emailed me about this, they said something that speaks loudly and clearly about how difficult this struggle of claiming our identity can be, when that identity is subject to scorn: they told me that their father lived with great pain for many years in his small Midwestern town, because of people’s lack of understanding of his background. This admission tells me that they have known, without knowing that they knew: they have known that their white ancestry runs back to a woman with African blood, even as they have told themselves that they do not have racially mixed ancestry.

(As we all do, since the myth of a pure race is a lie, since we all share the same DNA and ultimately descend from the same African woman far back in the mists of time, and since—as Haizlip notes—those of us with colonial American roots almost always have, whether we know it or not, African blood somewhere in our bloodlines.)

And so this journey with my cousins in recent days has made me think about churches and how they behave. In what the churches do to gay human beings today, there is a very strong assumption that people bearing a blot ought not to be welcome in the Christian community, because they pollute that community and taint its sacred spaces. This deep anthropological sense of pollution is at the heart of what the churches do to gay folks today, and why they feel justified in behaving as they do.

There is, running strongly through the thinking and behavior of many Christians today, the assumption that if the churches can identify the blot of sin in one stigmatized group and can exclude that group, the churches will be free of sin. We place our sins on someone else—someone easy to scapegoat—and then we exclude that demeaned object in ugly public rituals of humiliation, and we assure our own righteousness in doing this.

As I think about these mechanisms of projecting guilt onto despised others, it strikes me that the churches have somehow failed—at a very fundamental level—to catechize their members. They have failed—at the most fundamental level possible—to read the gospels to their communities.

The gospels make it very plain that we are all tainted, that we all share the blot of sin. The gospels indicate that we are invited to communion with God and with other sinners who welcome God's love precisely because we are sinners. We are loved by God as sinners, because we are sinners, not because we are pure and righteous.

The gospels decry, over and over, my attempt to use you as an object, as a scapegoat which gives me the illusion that I am clean because I have succeeded in making you dirty. The gospels place a mirror in front of me so that I realize that the moment I seek to engage in such scapegoating, I have revealed not your sin, but my own.

It is hard to imagine that those “pastoral” leaders of the church who stir hatred against gay persons today have read the gospels. Or that, if they have done so, they really believe the gospels and take them seriously.

The church today faces a very serious challenge, vis-à-vis gay human beings. This is not so much the challenge of refraining from doing harm, of welcoming, of binding up wounds. It is the much more serious challenge of learning to read the gospels again, and of helping to catechize believers who, for several generations now, have been permitted to nurse attitudes towards a selected group of their brothers and sisters that are radically inconsistent with the gospels and with the life of Jesus.