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learning from … Memorial Day

May 27, 2013

Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

At 9 am on May 1, the procession stepped off led by three thousand black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses.

The above is from recent research of Yale historian David W. Blight. He is recalling the very first Memorial Day in the United States, calling it “unknown.” It is unknown, that is, “until some extraordinary luck” helped him uncover the facts.

What I want to highlight here are the facts of who. Who were these “twenty-eight”? How have they been so unknown? How is it that these and the other unnamed “several hundred” have not been remembered easily in the books of history, relatively recent history?

I’m asking these questions on Memorial Day 2103. I’m asking them some as a way to respond to a series of blogposts around a set of contentious blogposts earlier this month.

The series is over at the blog, Political Jesus. For some time now, my blogger friend and friend in real life, Rod, has been asking the very important question, “Can The Subaltern Blog?” In the most recent installment, he points us to blogger Caryn Riswald’s post, where she is calling out an ostensibly sexist blogger for his invitation to the Other, as his others: “If you are a Christian (or post-Christian, or non-Christian) feminist (or womanist), I hope that you will consider contributing a post [here at my, now-safe-and-uncensored, blog].” There’s a lot to take in here. It is worth, as Rod says, to read what Riswald says. I’m only going to repost a bit here for some context. But then I want to come back to Rod’s additional questions before asking some of my own.

In her post, “A Blog of Her Own,” Riswold is responding to “Fellow Patheos writer Tony Jones.” Now, Jones, he is a fellow. That is, he is a man trying to be seen as a male, as a Christian male, as a Christian male blogger, and as a white male Christian blogger, who has made his blog “safe” to visit, “If you are a Christian (or post-Christian, or non-Christian) feminist (or womanist).” Riswold, rather, suggests to Jones, who would bring a “feminist (or a womanist)” over to his blog, that there’s something, “Ick,” or “voyeuristic,” about his invitation. She, then, not only gives an invitation but Riswold also, to any and all who read her blog, issues this strong observation that “some of us” whom Jones is inviting to speak uncensored at his blog already have a blog of their own. She shows where Jones can go:

Here are a few links to religious feminist and womanist voices online. Comments are wide open for you all to post links to the many more that are out there. I’ll do a follow-up post with a fuller blogroll if I can:

Faith & Feminism

Are Women Human?

Sarah Over The Moon

Femmevangelical

Feminism & Religion

Hindtrospectives

Christena Cleveland

Beautiful Mind

You can also head on over to Dianna Anderson’s blogroll, or this Muslim feminist blogroll, or do your own quick searches for the religion or nonreligion of your choice….

Riswold issues this strong recommendation: SO READ THEM. She encourages, “and get busy reading. Do the work. It’s more than worth it.”

Now Rod reads what Riswold writes by inferring a number of questions asked:

Why should womanist and feminist Christians be concerned to “teaching” Jones and his audience what they are doing wrong? Why is this their responsibility, their burden to bear? Why should the experience of Jones and his audience be placed at the center? Isn’t that the problem to begin with?

Read all of Rod’s post here: “Can The Subaltern Blog? Part 3: On “Invitations” And Safe Spaces

Rod does not out me as a male, a white male. But he has very kindly suggested that the “Rhetorical Listening” advocated by me, this white male, is important. As a white male, blogging here, I think I’ve already advised you here, O reader, whoever and whatever constructed race and sex you are:

If you like, you can read from your own position how Rod must do his “Reading [of] Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis from the Margins.”

At that post where I gave you my advice, didn’t we also notice, from Rod, his own self-identities and where that left him reading Rob Bell, who assumes the unmarked (and therefore the no-reason-to-bother-anybody-with-his-maleness-and-whiteness) majority position; I think I said something Rod has had to contend with all of his life now (my emphases on my own words, which are Rod’s words for himself too):

This “black” scholar recently, for example, read a book by Rob Bell and noticed how the privileged author “denies his own whiteness, his own story as a …”

If you, reader, are having trouble keeping up with the rhetoric here, then let me try to summarize or at least highlight the rhetorical point I’m attempting.

Black-ness” and “wo-manness” are marked categories of social construction.

When white male historian David W. Blight recalls the first Memorial Day, it is important that the “Some twenty-eight … workmen” and the “three thousand … schoolchildren” and the “several hundred … women” are all “black.” It is important to remember that because in white history, these have been forgotten until recently. Not one of us white folk know who these many many people were. We have forgotten not only their deeds but also their individual names. We only, now, can identify them by numbers of groups, “women” at the end of the procession, all of them “black.”

This is an important way to read, for example, Rob Bell. Why has he forgotten his whiteness? Rod doesn’t forget Rob’s “color” and he has remembered his name.

Then we come to Tony Jones wanting “feminist and womanist authors” to come to his blog. They will validate the fact that he, a male, is not a misogynist or a gynephobe or a sexist. Their coming (at least the womanists’ coming) will show the world that he is not a racist either. Notice how Tony does not say he is male, or white, because of course this must be assumed.

But what do we make of Riswold? Pardon my pun, but can Rod really give her a pass? She reads a black woman, quotes her, by saying:

I think this is one instance where I’m totally with Audre Lorde (okay, not the only one…):

Notice, nonetheless, that Caryn Riswold is self-idenifying as many things and among her many voices is included her blogger voice at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carynriswold/, which is also named feminismxianity. For her engagement with Tony Jones, her “Fellow Patheos writer,” the categories shared with this “fellow” are white and Christian and writer. “The Master” is “Tony Jones” for “Caryn Riwold.”

But is she as such really listening to and attune to Lorde? The latter finds important these marked categories:

the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older

How much of what Riswold wants to deconstruct of Jones is constructed on the backs of such marginalized peoples, so very very different?

How many of the “several hundred … women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses” on the first Memorial Day only very luckily and very relatively recently recalled were “poor”? Were any “lesbians”? Were any “older”? Weren’t each and every one of them “Black”? And how important is their color if Riswold’s own color gets a pass? How if her economic class gets assumed and unmarked as middle or upper middle? How if her sexual orientation need not be named? How if she’s not “older”?

Rod kindly linked to a blogpost of mine where I a white male was describing what I had been learning from Jacqueline Jones Royster. In that particular post, I was quoting a number of powerful and profound sentences from Royster, historian. It is her history, her sisters’ history, their history together. I had not quoted from her very important essay, “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own.” Now Rod has quoted this essay of Roysters when struggling to read Rob Bell:

Womanist understandings of human subjectivity, from writers like bell hooks and Jacqueline Jones Royster, teach us that acknowledging, affirming, and celebrating difference is essential to embracing the Stranger’s humanity.

In mentioning hooks and Royster, Rod is noticing their difference, from him. What Rod has learned from others who celebrate difference is not that difference is to be called on, at whim, by those who are at the center of their society. hooks, who is not Korean or Korean American, does describe an example of what can, and does too often happen, in situations of remembering and of learning and of teaching. In her book Teaching to Transgress, she writes:

Often, if there is a lone person of color in the classroom she or he is objectified by others and forced to assume the role of “native informant.” For example, a novel is read by a Korean American author. White students turn to the one student from a Korean background to explain what they do not understand. This places an unfair responsibility onto that student.

Who bears responsibility, then, in remembering the past?

My daughter, who is white, has been reading in her public school, in the South, in the United States, as an assignment, the novel The Help. The teacher is a female, a white person. The school is majority hispanic, latino/latina. What my daughter is only now coming to realize is that her own daddy (that would be me) was born to parents in the South, in the United States, before the Jim Crow laws were overturned. Her late grandfather (that would be my daddy) recalled to our family before he died the name of the help in our household in 1962 and 1963. As he fought terminal cancer, we would recall our earliest memories and the people who we first remembered. To him I recalled “Nancy,” and he quickly remembered her family name. He reluctantly admitted he never met her family. When reviewing the film “The Help,” I recalled some of this very recent history of ours; I wanted us to listen to bell hooks retelling, recounting, remembering. In writing this blogpost on Memorial Day 2013, I wish we could remember how we have forgotten. I believe our forgetfulnesses have all too often led to those material circumstances for others that neglecting our own differences (while looking only to the Other’s glaring and marked Differences) has caused. Here, in these United States, bell hooks has had to remember the daughters of those several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses.

With them, we do well to remember:

Their lives were not easy. Their lives were hard. They were black women who for the most part worked outside the home serving white folks, cleaning their houses, washing their clothes, tending their children — black women who worked …, whatever they could do to make ends meet, whatever was necessary. Then they returned to their homes to make life happen there. This tension between service outside one’s home, family, and kin network, service provided to white folks which took time and energy, and the effort of black women to conserve enough of themselves to provide service (care and nurturance) within their own families and communities is one of the many factors that has historically distinguished the lot of black women in patriarchal white supremacist society form that of black men. Contemporary black struggle must honor this history of service just as it must critique the sexist definition of service as women’s “natural” role.

Aren’t there a few things that may be worth remembering and learning from … Memorial Day.

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