Thursday, April 3, 2014

Freedom to move…

From 1915 to 1970 about six million black Americans migrated out of southern states to other states. Historians call it The Great Migration, and an awesome book I just finished- The Warmth of Other Suns- chronicles this vast, complex event. The book offers many statistics, but its author- Isabel Wilkerson- wanted to make the story personal (and not boring). So she focused mainly on three southern-born African-Americans who moved to different states in different decades.
We read of dreams hatched, sought, deferred, denied, lynched and sometimes reached. Involving so many over so long, of course, important nuances and broad trends emerged. Though her three characters’ stories are mostly typical, she claims, full of striving, heartache, change and incredible courage.

But I don’t have 660 pages, so here are some stats: Before 1915, 10% of black Americans lived outside the South; by 1970, that jumped to 48%. Chicago prior to The Great Migration was 3% African-American; mid 40s by 1970. Similar shifts transpired in Cleveland, Detroit, LA, Oakland, Philadelphia, New York. Yet a popular memory persists about migrants in early-mid 20th century America, that they were primarily Irish, Central Europeans or Latino. In fact, their numbers, however significant, pale in comparison to African-American migrants. Perhaps that perception lingers because folk distinguish between international and internal migration. But maybe it’s also because of many folks’ discomfort about The Great Migration’s main driver: Jim Crow laws and racism.

Some of you, I know, remember when black Americans were still legally segregated in the South. You maybe saw or were turned away by “Colored Only” signs I’ve cringed at in grainy pictures. Or perhaps you recall northern versions of Jim Crow; not a legal regime, but- say- whites abandoning neighborhoods as black Americans moved in (or shooting/bombing newly purchased homes, as happened to Billie Holiday or in Chicago’s Cicero neighborhood).
This book brought that history to life for me in profound, shocking ways. To think that’s but a few decades past…. To think it’s not simply history…

After all, I live in a neighborhood as ethnically diverse as any in Minneapolis- 45% black, 30% white, 11% Asian/Pacific Islander, 7% Latino/Hispanic. Not twenty years ago, Folwell was nearly monochromatic. Things changed rapidly in the mid-to-late nineties. And as its demographics became more colorful, longtime residents wondered and worried. I’ve heard neighbors complain recently, “What’s happened to this place? Why are these kids so (insert negative racial stereotype here)? What about my property value?!” To these neighbors, the issues feel new. But Wilkerson paints a portrait of similar conversations repeating across the country during The Great Migration’s several decades.

Which is to say that, for all our nation’s progress in overcoming its Original Sin (slavery), we’re not yet living in Paradise restored. It’s no coincidence that my diverse neighborhood is also among our city’s poorest. Further, Wilkerson argues persuasively that common explanations for why black communities are also often poor communities (that there are “special pathologies” in African-American culture, or rap music, or young, black men with hoodies) miss the point that our nation brutalized and failed centuries’ worth of its first non-native “colonists” and their ancestors. Within my grandparents’ lifetimes, millions were driven to new homes because they were terrorized on the streets, at their jobs, in their houses, had siblings hung as strange fruit from poplar trees.

Among our denomination’s four main priorities is becoming an “Anti-racist/Pro-reconciling Church”. Yet it’s common for white seminary students to ask, “Is that goal still necessary?” Absolutely. Particularly as churches remain more segregated than most neighborhoods, and misunderstandings occur frequently across color lines, with sometimes tragic results. But Galatians proclaims, “For freedom, Christ has set us free.” That must remain our greatest dream, claimed for all people, whomever their ancestors, wherever they moved from or why. Because God so loved the world, we can be freed from the sin of fearing the worst in people. Because Christ conquered death, we can be freed from suspicion in order to form more perfect unions. Jesus freed everyone to be as courageous as humanly possible, even if that means moving thousands of miles with no guarantees but a hope to struggle, survive and succeed.

Grace and Peace,
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