Enduring Spirit (Dr. Anthony Stringer)

T’is the season to celebrate birth. Having passed through the longest night, we watch the days slowly lengthen and in pagan ritual we celebrate the birth of a new year. Having lit the menorah each night of Hanukkah we honor the improbable victory of the Maccabees over the much larger Assyrian army and we celebrate the rebirth of Jewish nation and temple. Having adorned our evergreen with stars and bulbs and angels, we celebrate the birth of a prophet whose simple message of love would change the course of western history. And having lit the unity candle on this first day of Kwanzaa, we begin the week-long celebration of the fruits born to us by our toils and labors. It is the season to celebrate birth.

As a man, I can know birth only indirectly. I can watch, I can hover, I can try to make myself useful while mostly just getting in the way, but I can’t know birth itself. I am at best a supporting character, a bit player, in the greatest show on earth.

I went to school with my wife to learn how to give birth. We had six weeks of lessons to learn to do that which all other creatures do naturally. We call ourselves Homo sapiens, Latin for ?wise man.? Yet we alone in the animal kingdom lack the wisdom to give birth without instruction. To be honest, if my wife became pregnant once more, we would have to go back to school to learn how to give birth all over again. Because frankly, the only thing I remember from our birthing class is Bill Cosby.

In our final class, our OB-GYN played a tape of Bill Cosby describing what it’s like to give birth. And that’s the only thing I still remember. Now what does Bill Cosby, a man, know about giving birth? Well clearly what he knows, he learned from Camille, his wife. Like any man, relegated to the role of bystander to birth, Cosby was curious what the experience was like. So he asked Camille.

Cosby’s timing was perhaps not the best. This was shortly after she had given birth and was still a bit irritated with the man who was, after all, responsible for her having to go through this experience that he was now so curious about. So she said in response to his questions, “Bill, come here. Come over here and let me grab your lips.” Once she had a firm grip on husband’s lips, with both hands I might add, she commenced to pulling. And pulling. And pulling. And after she had pulled Cosby’s lower lip up over his forehead, she said with obvious satisfaction, “There. That’s what it’s like to give birth. Any further questions?”

Despite whatever womb-envy we men might have, I think that Cosby’s graphic description is about as close as any of us men really want to get to the birthing experience. Birthing, however, carries special significance for me because it was the family business; a business without which my family would not have existed.

Few African Americans can trace their family tree back any farther than their grandparents. Whoever came before that is lost to time. Personal records relating to the birth and death of slaves were rarely made, and when made, were rarely kept. For most African Americans there is no genealogical archive that will let us rediscover those who came before the few family members that we have personally met and known.

Alex Haley notwithstanding, there also usually is no oral history to which African Americans can turn. Slavery was no respecter of marriage or kinship. Slave families were dissolved by a simple bill of sale, with the consequence being that each enslaved generation of African Americans was essentially rootless.

This is not only a human tragedy, it is also a great spiritual tragedy. Because you see, in the spiritual traditions of Africa, the spirit, the essence of a human being, survives only as long as someone is alive who remembers that person. Being cut off from one’s ancestors is a double tragedy, for it robs the living of their family heritage and it robs the departed of the only real immortality – the immortality inherent in being remembered.

But the birthing business made a difference for my family. The women of my family, going back for generation after generation, were midwives. And this earned them a special status among slaves. Because of this special skill, they were not sold or traded and they were allowed to keep their families intact. And as a consequence, I have the good fortune to be able to trace my family tree back for four generations, a rarity among African Americans. So the act of birthing holds special significance for my family and me. It not only gives me the treasure of knowing my forebears, it gives my forebears the gift of immortality. As long as I, and my daughter after me, are diligent in remembering.

There is another act of birth that is significant for my family. My great grandmother, Frances Jones, first tasted freedom when she was ten years old. It must have been a sweet taste, full of promise, just as she was. She would do great things with her freedom. Things she never imagined even with the unfettered prescience of a ten-year-old.

Frances entered freedom better prepared than most blacks of 1860s rural Alabama did. Though born into slavery, Frances was the midwife’s daughter. She never worked the plantation fields, never picked the cotton, never toiled under the lash of sun or whip, and never calloused her hands. She was born into a kind of privilege, if that word can be used to describe anything about the life of a slave. She had grown up knowing her midwife mother, if not her father. She could speak the language the way her master spoke it, with the inflections and mannerisms of the race that dominated hers. At ten, she could read, write, and calculate. And she was not fearful of admitting that she possessed these rare and useful skills, for somehow they seemed not so threatening of the southern social order in a slave girl who would one day succeed her mother in midwifery.

So when insurrection and civil war brought Frances unexpectedly to freedom at age 10, the years ahead must have seemed unbounded in their promise and their potential. And indeed they were. Frances lived to be 87. In the intervening years between her manumission and her death, Frances would go from being midwife to astute businesswoman. She would lay claim to acres of farmland, which she would parcel out to tenant farmers. She would grow rich from the cotton produced and sold from her land. She would purchase and drive one of the first Model T Fords in the rural south and she would have the means and the generosity to send the children of two neighbors to the Tuskegee Institute for their education. Not bad for a woman who spent her first decade as a slave.

The African spiritual traditions, to which I have already alluded, put great stock in fate. When we are born into the world, our future has already been determined. It has already been written. But it is only one of our futures. The African spiritual tradition acknowledges two fates, the one we are born with and the one we make for ourselves. I dare say that it is the latter fate that Frances turned into reality. For who could imagine that a slave would achieve her final destiny. But before Frances got to the full promise of her life, she would have to endure an act of unremitting savagery. It came a spare ten years after she first tasted freedom.

About him, very little has been passed down in my family’s oral history. His name was Burghardt. He was a German immigrant who owned a store. And he raped my great grandmother Frances.

The rape of black women in the south had once been commonplace and civil war had only driven the ugly practice underground. A black woman’s rape still garnered no investigation, no inquiry, and no formal punishment. And so the man who raped Frances had no consequence to fear, not from the deed itself, nor from the pregnancy that came after. A grey-eyed, fair-skinned child with coal black hair that would one day fall as far south as her waist, was born the following October. Hearing of the child’s birth, Burghardt, unashamed and unrepentant, paid a visit to the young mother. Seeing that the child could easily pass for white, he made up his mind to take her to raise within his own family. And he would have, had not Frances found the strength to say no.

I have long wondered what gave Frances that strength. How does a woman who could neither fend off, nor later protest, the violation of her body, the violation of her freedom, how does this woman subsequently deny the will of her rapist?

Frances had been a slave the first decade of her life. A decade in which “no” had not been an acceptable answer to any white man regardless of the wrong he may have done her. Though free, she was without legal protection in this matter. No law and no court would punish her assailant, nor bar him from taking the child should he choose to persist in his claim. She was a single woman with a half-white newborn and no place to shelter her. Unable even to defend herself, what could she offer a daughter? It would have been so easy for Frances to say “yes.” No one need ever know the child was black, not even the child herself. What could Frances possibly offer that would not be trumped many times over by what a white man, even one who was a rapist, could offer her child?

So how could Frances say no and mean it? How could she say no so that Burghardt, with all his power and all his privilege, would find defeat in her defiance? And how could she go from defiant victim to all she would later accomplish in her life? The answer, I have come to believe, is spirit. The spirit that allowed generations of African Americans to endure and, ultimately, to overcome. The spirit that gave Frances the strength of will to keep her child, to raise her child as black, and to guarantee the future generations of my family. Every member of my family has heard this story and understands its meaning. For if Frances had been just a fraction less certain of her convictions, not a one of us would be here today.

Aside from his comical foray into the birthing business, Bill Cosby of late has been giving birth to controversy within the African American community. He, like many others before him, has been calling attention to some appalling statistics. Statistics on health, like the fact that AIDS has become the leading cause of death for black men under 40 and that black women are 23 more times likely to get AIDS from their male partners than are white women. Statistics on family life, like the fact that 70 percent of all black American children are born to mothers who have never been married and that some estimates say that more than 80 percent of the youngest generation of black children will spend much of their childhood living apart from their fathers. Where are all these black men? If they are under the age of 30, one in three is in prison.

Cosby has been calling attention to the ugly underbelly of black popular culture. A culture that glorifies gangsters and pimps in its music, that values athletic prowess over intellectual achievement, and that believes that education begins in the streets rather than in the classroom. Cynthia Tucker – the woman who recently brought Cosby to Atlanta to speak – noted in one of her Journal-Constitution editorials that black children who make good grades, speak the King’s English, and avoid the use of profanity are routinely ridiculed by their peers for “trying to be white.” “Imagine a culture so self-hating,” Ms. Tucker writes, “that it assigns all appropriate behaviors to another racial group.”

Cosby and Tucker are asserting that there is something very wrong with black popular culture in the United States. What happened to the culture that produced activist icons like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King? What happened to the culture that birthed scholars like W.E.B. Dubois and Zora Neale Hurston, poets like Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, musicians and singers like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald? What happened to the culture that birthed ordinary people like my great grandmother who found the courage to do extraordinary things? What if my great grandmother were a single parent today rather than a century ago? Would she have had the spirit that allowed our family to survive? What happened to the culture that nourished that spirit?

Cosby’s message has not gotten a friendly reception. In turning attention from the enemy out there – that is racism- and focusing on the enemy inside – the rot at the core of black popular culture – Cosby has found himself at the center of controversy. How dare he say these things publicly? Yet say these things he does, convinced that there can be no response to the enemy out there without dealing with the enemy in here. Black Americans must rediscover the spirit that allowed our greatest generations to endure.

There are many places to look for that spirit. I would not be a Unitarian Universalist if I claimed only a single source. But in this season of births, I want to draw attention to the birthplace of that enduring spirit: Africa itself. Looking for spiritual inspiration in Africa can be daunting. Although they have much in common with one another, there are at least 1300 distinct spiritual traditions on the African continent. Where does one start? And what does one start with? These spiritual traditions include many anachronisms. There is no place in the modern world for spirit possession, divination, and animal sacrifice.

But I would also argue that there is no place in the modern world for a single sex ministry, enforced celibacy of the priesthood, and restriction of a woman’s right to choose. And that’s just Catholicism. If we add to the list the denial of evolution, the subordination of wives to their husbands, the rejection of the right of gays and lesbians to marry, and any of the many concepts of holy war, we will find that it is not just the traditional African religions that need to be dragged into the 21st century. We can make pretty much the same statement about each of the major western religions. And which do you think will change the quickest? The anachronisms of Africa or the anachronisms of Rome? I’d put my money on Africa.

So what do we get when we persevere in seeking spiritual answers from the diversity of Africa? Kwanzaa is a good example of what we get. Dr. Maulana Karenga, chair of the Black Studies Department at California State University, studied the harvest festivals of the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Zulu, and other societies of southeastern Africa. All of these harvest festivals had in common a time of ingathering to reaffirm the bonds between people, a time of special reverence and respect for life’s blessings, a time to honor one’s ancestors and to commemorate the past, and a time to recommit to one’s ideals.

Weaving together these elements, Karenga created, in Kwanzaa, a hybrid holiday: a synthesis of the ancient and the new, a celebration of Africa and its values, but reconfigured for America. And so Kwanzaa began as a small celebration in Long Beach, California in 1966, but grew to be celebrated by millions around the world. However, even though it is based on African religious culture, Kwanzaa does not happen in Africa except in a few places where Africans have brought it home after visiting America.

This, I believe, is a model for the future of African spirituality. Its future lies in a synthesis of something new from the encounter of the ancient and the modern. And this is the model I have followed in shaping my own personal spiritual practice. I can’t claim to have plumbed the depths of every one of those 1300 African spiritual traditions. But I have gained much from my reading, and from my personal travels in South Africa and in the transplanted African communities of Brazil. I have come to know a little, and it has enriched my spiritual practice.

I can’t in the space of one short sermon describe all the ways I have looked to Africa for spiritual inspiration. I do want to describe one practice that has grown from this search. Across Africa, offerings of food and beverage are made to the ancestors because it is believed that the living and the dead are in symbiosis. Ancestors survive in the memory of the living who are, in turn, guided by the power and wisdom of the ancestral.

My daughter learned about her ancestors through a tradition we have made in our family of continuing to celebrate the birthday of each deceased family member. Growing up, she heard stories of her ancestors and viewed their photographs, year after year, so that they would become as much a part of her memory as they are of mine. I trust their immortality, and indeed eventually my own, to my daughter, knowing that one day she will be sharing stories about them, and about me, with her children and grandchildren. We end each of these birthday celebrations by pouring a libation to the ancestor and then saying together, “May we each, and all, leave good memories for those who follow to honor us.” That has been my guiding principle as a father: leaving my daughter with those good memories so that she will some day want to honor me.

Is Kwanzaa a solution for what is wrong in black popular culture? Can the African American community heal its internal wounds by rituals like my family’s birthday celebrations for our ancestors? Complex problems never have simple solutions. At best such Africa inspired spiritual practices are only a part of a solution. But I can attest to the power of such practices within my own life. I always hear whisperings of ancestral voices during my times of trouble and confusion. The lives of my ancestors speak to me, their stories transmitted in those birthday celebrations.

The power of their personalities points the way to potentialities that I may yet discover within myself. My great grandmother’s courage in facing down her rapist so that she might keep her child; my grandfather’s devotion to community service as a rural Methodist minister; my grandmother’s unflagging tenacity in raising ten children alone after her husband’s death; my mother’s boundless creativity; my father’s amazing capacity to fix anything that became broken; my favorite uncle’s love and good humor as he became a surrogate dad after my own father’s death. I carry all this potentiality within me and am inspired, nourished, and guided daily by these indwelling spirits. I listen for those voices within me and trust they will be there when I need them. I have yet to be disappointed by the spirits I carry within.

Please join hands and repeat after me. “In this season of birth and celebration, may we each, and all, create good memories, for those who follow, to honor us.” Amen. Please greet one another, and then go in peace. Happy Kwanzaa.