From Mess to Mosaic

How many of you know Hildegarde Grey?   She’s a long time member of our congregation.  She couldn’t be here this Sunday, so to make sure you know who I’m talking about, here’s her picture.

She looks a lot like me, doesn’t she?  By a show of hands, how many of you think this is Hildegarde Grey?  Not very many of you.  Well let me explain why you’re wrong.

Hildegarde is a former president of our congregation and a former chair of the Board of Trustees of the Mountain, our UU camp and conference center in Highlands, North Carolina—–which is where I got to know her.  I was serving on the Mountain board during the time Hildegarde was its chair.  And actually, I didn’t just get to know her at the Mountain, I got to be her, which is why I can, with a little creative leeway, claim this is a picture of Hildegarde Grey.

I got to be Hildegarde on another one of those occasions when she couldn’t be present.  She’s a very busy lady.  And on that particular occasion, she was busy being a grandmother.

How many of you think this is Hildegarde’s granddaughter?  Show of hands, please.

We’ll it’s not.  This is a picture of my granddaughter.  Beautiful, isn’t she?  She sure is.  Since Hildegarde and I can kind of shift identities, I thought I’d pass my granddaughter off for Hildegarde’s, just for a few minutes.  Just go with me here—-just imagine that this beautiful kid was being born on that day and consequently Hildegarde couldn’t be at the Mountain for a very special event.

It was the 20th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Mountain.  An auspicious occasion, and one on which as chair, Hildegarde was expected to give a speech.  Since Hildegarde couldn’t be there, she asked me to read her speech for her.  I said sure.  Why not?  I knew Hildegarde to be well-spoken and I was certain it would be a good speech.  And if it wasn’t, it would be her fault and not mine.  After all, I wasn’t writing the speech, I was only delivering it.  So why should I worry?

Well I admit that I got rather busy.  I didn’t actually read her speech ahead of time.  I just trusted her ability to write a good speech and my ability to do a good job spontaneously interpreting it for an audience.  So the anniversary of the Mountain came, and there I was, a bearded black man, standing at the podium—–much like I am today——-looking at a room of about 200 people.

Standing there, I took in the busy professional camera crew and the scurrying professional photographer that the Mountain had hired just for this occasion.  Andy Warhol’s words about everyone getting 15 minutes of fame flashed through my mind.  I know that’s kind of grandiose, but I’m not on camera very often.  I’m not exactly a television personality.  So it seemed like maybe, maybe this was my 15 minutes of fame.  It suddenly became important to me to do a good job.  How could I know whether I would ever get any more such minutes of attention and notoriety.

So standing at the podium, I acknowledged and waited for the applause to die down.  Just to set the mood, let me have some applause.  Please.  Very good.  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  So, I acknowledged and waited for the applause to die down.  And when it did, I folded my hands atop the podium and began to speak the words that Hildegarde had written with the kind of solenm dignity that was appropriate for this auspicious moment in the Mountain’s history, and appropriate for my personal 15 minutes of fame.

“Good morning,” I said looking directly into the camera, “ I am very pleased to be with you, and I’m  Hildegarde Grey.”

I got a somewhat different reaction from them.  It was mostly just stunned silence.  But you see, in a way—–in a way, I did become Hildegarde Grey.  And that’s why your vote was wrong.

Now this is Hildegarde’s real picture of course.  She looks much lovelier than I do.  But, my point is, identities are complex.  Indeed, identities can be messy.  Now I showed you a picture of my beautiful granddaughter.  In fairness, I must show you a picture of Hildegarde’s grandkids as well.

Great looking kids.  Almost as beautiful as mine.

Part of our collective identity as a faith movement is that we are democratic.  That is part of who we are.  And our democratic spirit highlights the messiness of our broader identity.  There was a democratic vote taken at the most recent General Assembly of our denomination.  At issue was whether we should hold our 2012 General Assembly in Phoenix, Arizona as it is currently scheduled, or whether we should join the many other liberal organizations—-both secular and religious—-that are boycotting Arizona over its recently passed anti-immigration legislation.  The vote didn’t go as I expected.  The vote was to go forward with our meeting in Arizona in 2012.

Now I’m not going to rehash the pros and cons of this decision, nor the creative ways in which we will turn General Assembly into a protest of the ugliness Arizona is attempting to write into law.  I only want to point out this morning, what this vote says about the complexity, the messiness of identity.  We are, to the best of my knowledge, the only major faith movement in the United States with an elected Hispanic American as its leader.  And we are, paradoxically, the only liberal faith movement on record as opposing anti-immigration legislation, that is also going to hold its major annual meeting in Arizona.  Whether this decision is right or wrong, whether you agree or disagree with it, you have to admit it points to the complexity, the messiness of identity.

So I’m going to ask you to take another vote.  Not on Arizona, but on this picture.  Now this very stately elderly woman, named Laura, belongs either to me, or to Hildegarde.  By a show of hands, how many of you think this is a picture of Hildegarde Grey’s Grandmother Laura?  How many of you think this is a picture of my Grandmother Laura?

Good, you’re learning.  This is my Grandmother Laura.  The woman who helped raise me and the woman who first taught me the importance of identity.  You see, my grandmother, despite all outward appearances, was fiercely, I would say even defiantly, proud—-of being a black woman.  Though she would have said “a Negro woman.”

My Grandmother Laura owed her existence to an act of violence.  The rape of her mother—–not an uncommon occurrence in the slave south, nor even in the years after manumission.  Even after the Civil War, a black woman’s rape garnered no investigation and risked no punishment.  Raping black women was a white, male privilege.  My Grandmother Laura, in her youth, a grey-eyed, fair-skinned woman, with straight, coal black hair, was a product of that privilege, and of that violence.

Her mother’s rapist, and her would-be father, seeing that my Grandmother Laura could easily pass for white, made up his mind to take her to raise within his own family.  And he would have done so had Laura’s mother not refused to give up her white-appearing child.  Though raised within a Negro family, my grandmother had many opportunities to enter the white community and pretend to be one of its own.  She never availed herself of those opportunities.  To her death at age 93, she was proudly, indeed fiercely, a black woman.  Though she would have said “Negro.”

Identities are complex, and they are messy.  My grandmother’s defiance of superficial appearance in order to claim an identity she found more essential, put me—–I believe—–on a determined path to know and understand my own heritage and identity.   That identity, however, got a shock.

A few years ago I discovered that I am not who I thought I was.  Now, I have long been aware of my personal contradictions.  I am a clinician who at least sometimes craves for days when I don’t have to see patients, a scientist who sometimes would rather be writing a sermon than a research paper, an aging political radical with an occasional twinge of conservatism, an atheist who keeps getting poked in the eye by God.  When it comes to identity, I am admittedly something of a mess.  But some things about my identity I thought I knew for sure.  Then I found out about my mutation.

The mutation is present in my mitochondrial DNA.  You may remember from high school biology, that mitochondria are like tiny power plants inside our cells.  They liberate chemical energy for use by the cell and are essential to our survival.  One of the most amazing things about mitochondria is that they have their own DNA and they undergo their own form of reproduction.  Mitochondria are, in fact, thought to have once been a completely different species of life—–a type of bacteria that invaded the cells of animals, found it a hospitable place to live, and decided to stay.  Mitochondria live within us in symbiosis.  We supply the mitochondria with a safe place to live, a consistent supply of the raw materials they need, and in return they give us the chemical energy that drives every single thing our bodies do.  It’s a pretty good deal for both them and for us.

But it’s also a little spooky to think of ourselves as a colony.  To think of ourselves as not just one species of life evolving on this planet, but as two distinct species of life engaged in a cooperative evolution—–a co-evolution.  Each of us does, as Walt Whitman proclaimed, contain multitudes, though perhaps in a different way than he meant.

Our DNA lies in the nucleus of our cells and we inherit half of our DNA from each parent through sexual reproduction.  Mitochondria, on the other hand, never learned about the birds and the bees.  They have their own DNA, and they have no need for sex.  To make more mitochondria, they simply make a copy of their DNA and divide.  And they’re done.  Not very romantic, but certainly efficient.

And as more proof that evolution is all about women, mitochondria dispense with any need for a man.  We get our mitochondria exclusively from our mothers.  Our mothers’ egg cells are the only sources of mitochondria.  We get none from our fathers.  So quite literally, each of us, as a human colony, as a fusion of two life forms, is the product of two types of reproduction—–one sexual that combines DNA from our mothers and our fathers, and one asexual that brings us DNA solely from the mitochondria of our mothers.  So it is from my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother, and all the mothers that came before, that I have inherited my genetic mutation.

And what is this mutation that has so upended my life and changed my perspective on who I am.  It is a mutation that I share with most of you in this sanctuary.  It is one of the mutations that defines most of you, and now apparently me, as white.  That’s right, courtesy of the science of human genetics, and despite all evidence to the contrary, I learned a few years ago that I’m Caucasian.  Who knew?  I even have a certificate proclaiming my new racial identity.

The first 150,000 years of human evolution took place in Africa.  But some 50,000 years ago, groups of early humans perhaps motivated by climate change, began traveling along the eastern coast of Africa.  Always hugging the coastline, they made their way from Africa into Europe and Asia.  And from Europe and Asia they made it into the Americas.  At each spot along the way, some people settled and remained, but others kept moving on, or their children moved on, until over the millennia every major land mass on the planet became populated by humans and our human mitochondria.  Those that stayed put, at each location along this journey, provide a genetic signature of that place in the world.  In attempting to trace a person’s ancestry, the geneticist matches DNA with the genetic signature of each of these stops along the human journey.

Since publication of Alex Haley’s book Roots, and the airing of the television series based on that book, tracing one’s family tree has been extraordinarily popular within the black American community.  Because of slavery, few of us, can do what Haley did.  The absence of any record of slave births, marriages, and deaths, the systematic dismantling of black families when spouses or children were sold away for profit, has left most black Americans with no paper trail to follow their roots back to mother Africa.  So many black Americans, including myself, have turned to genetic testing as a way to penetrate the veil of slavery in order to get a glimpse of what lay before.

I understood well the limitations of genetic testing for purposes of determining ancestry.  The technique provides palpable proof of one of the many ugly secrets of the slave era.  Black female slaves were raped by their white owners in numbers too large to imagine.  Numbers so large that 30 percent of the time a black person’s nuclear DNA—–the DNA that we inherit equally from fathers and mothers——-cannot be used to trace African ancestry.  A third of black Americans alive today have European ancestry evident in their DNA.  Consequently, for a third of black Americans, it is only the mitochondrial DNA—–the DNA that comes to us exclusively from our mothers, that reliably traces back to Africa.  I knew from my family’s history, and my grandmother’s portrait, that I was in this one-third.

My grandmother’s fierce pride in being a black woman, despite her outward appearance, is legendary in my family.  So while I was certain that because of my grandmother’s provenance, any attempt to trace my African ancestry was doomed to failure using my nuclear DNA—-that is, the DNA that includes what my family inherited from a rapist——I was equally sure that my mitochondrial DNA—–the DNA that comes to me exclusively from the women in my family—–would give me a glimpse of my African ancestry.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Even in my mitochondrial DNA, I am more akin to people in Europe than I am to anyone in Africa.  I contain multitudes, whether I wish to or not.

Perhaps anticipating my disappointment, the geneticist reassured me that my test results didn’t mean that I don’t have any African ancestry.  No, they don’t.  They just mean I don’t have enough to find the African forebears I was seeking.  They’ve kind of disappeared in those multitudes.

So what does it mean now that I’ve learned my ancestry isn’t exactly what I thought it was?  If you think about it, the ramifications are mind-boggling.  First of all, I’ve screwed up the national census.  39.9 million African Americans don’t live in the United States, it’s actually 39.8 and some odd hundred-thousand.  Sorry about that.  I didn’t mean to mark the wrong box.  I just didn’t know.

I’ve also apparently perjured myself on all those jury surveys I’ve filled out for Dekalb County.  Should I confess being white and turn myself in?  While ignorance is no excuse when breaking the law, I’ve never actually been selected for jury duty, so perhaps the judge will be lenient with me.

And what about white privilege?  Can any of you who have been Caucasian for longer than I have, tell me where I go, with my genetic certificate, to claim my white privilege?  Will my certificate get me a better deal on my next car purchase?  Will it motivate my realtor to show me houses in better neighborhoods?  Will it get me a better raise next year?  There has got to be some way for me to cash in on being Caucasian.

But more seriously, what this does mean is that there is more than I will ever know about even my mother’s side of the family.  One of the women on that side of my family was European.  I’ll never know who she was, or what circumstances drew her into my black family tree, during the time of slavery.  But she is now a part of me.  A part of her floats in every cell of my body.  She is part of the multitude.

And even more seriously, I have been reminded of the intellectual bankruptcy of race as a biological concept.  It has no meaning, it has no biological significance.  Culturally I will always be proudly, even fiercely African American.  Racially, I don’t know what I will call myself.  Perhaps I’ll start leaving that question blank when I fill out those census or jury survey forms.  I am African American.  But I am a mosaic.  I contain multitudes.

And so do you.  Even more importantly, so does our country. Sarah Palin may not like it.  The Tea Party may not like it.  But it’s true.  We are a mosaic.  We can declare English the official language and Christianity the sole religion of the land, but we will still be a mosaic.  We can stop eating tacos and felafel.  We can stop listening to Raggae and dancing to Salsa, but we will still be a mosaic.  We can close our borders and criminalize people who come here for the same reason most of our forebears did—–simply seeking a better chance in life.  But we will still be a mosaic.

Unitarian Universalists went to Arizona this past week, and we will go to Arizona in 2012 and do what we did in 1912 and 1812, and all the times before in the messy history of our country.  We will be neither confused, blinded, nor deterred by differences in race, sex, sexuality, nation of origin, or belief.  We will stand on the side of faith, of love, and of welcome.  Sarah Palin will not like it.  The Tea Party will not like it.  But we will be a mosaic.  Even in Arizona.  Amen.