By The Rev. Derek Terry
Pastor, St. Peters United Church of Christ, Cincinnati
The amazing Maya Angelou used to recite a mashup of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem- “We were the Mask,” with a few poems of hers, and this piece serves as a great foundation for our talk today.
We wear the mask that grins and lies.
It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes.
This debt we pay to human guile
With torn and bleeding hearts…
We smile and mouth the myriad subtleties.
Why should the world think otherwise
In counting all our tears and sighs.
Nay let them only see us while
We wear the mask.
We smile but oh my God
Our tears to thee from tortured souls arise
And we sing Oh Baby doll, now we sing…
The clay is vile beneath our feet
And long the mile
But let the world think otherwise.
We wear the mask.
When I think about myself
I almost laugh myself to death.
My life has been one great big joke!
A dance that’s walked a song that’s spoke.
I laugh so hard HA! HA! I almos’ choke
When I think about myself.
Seventy years in these folks’ world
The child I works for calls me girl
I say “HA! HA! HA! Yes ma’am!”
For workin’s sake
I’m too proud to bend and
Too poor to break
So…I laugh! Until my stomach ache
When I think about myself.
My folks can make me split my side
I laugh so hard, HA! HA! I nearly died
The tales they tell sound just like lying
They grow the fruit but eat the rind.
Hmm huh! I laugh uhuh huh huh…
Until I start to cry when I think about myself
And my folks and the children.
My fathers sit on benches,
Their flesh count every plank,
The slats leave dents of darkness
Deep in their withered flank.
And they gnarled like broken candles,
All waxed and burned profound.
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.
There in those pleated faces
I see the auction block
The chains and slavery’s coffles
The whip and lash and stock.
My fathers speak in voices
That shred my fact and sound
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.
They laugh to conceal their crying,
They shuffle through their dreams
They stepped ’n fetched a country
And wrote the blues in screams.
I understand their meaning,
It could an did derive
From living on the edge of death
They kept my race alive
By wearing the mask! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
For generations my ancestors kept our race alive— by wearing masks. Four-hundred years of slavery, oppression, disenfranchisement, marginalization, and exploitation. They survived wearing masks. 4oo years of pain, degradation, pillage, and theft. 400 years of methodically systematically attacking the basic humanity and dignity of an entire race of people. 400 years of legalizing and normalizing the oppression of the decedents of African royalty. 400 years of slavery!
Some argue, “Slavery ended in 1865…” I say— Ha! 256 of slavery cannot be erased by the 12 years of the broken promises and the failure of Reconstruction, 90 years of the Black Code laws that lead into Jim Crow, 60 years of “separate but equal schools,” 40 years of racist housing policy, not to mention the war on drugs, and mass incarceration. There have been 400 years of being slaves to laws, and systems that not only oppressed people who looked like me — but worked to literally steal and extract by every means available the economic assets of my people. People who survived such plunder by wearing a mask— faking a smile and enduring to just survive.
Four hundred years ago in August 1619 “20 and odd negroes” arrived in Jamestown where eventually the country that would become America decided that those “20 and odd negroes” and their progeny, and those who would follow for generations would be slaves in perpetuity. This decision made Black people the basis by which this nation could build and develop into an economic powerhouse, by exploiting the labor of the millions of Black bodies, Black families, Black children, Black humans.
What is the significance of the 400th anniversary of the first Black people to arrive in present day America? It allows us to illuminate the fact that four centuries ago the powers that be in this place decided that it was prudent to exploit Black bodies for the purpose of economic development. This anniversary allows us to reflect on the fact that genocide and slavery are America’s original sins, and since then there has been documented deliberate efforts to continue to exploit and steal from the descendants of slaves for the purpose of making America great.
This anniversary enables us to remind those who wish to “Make America Great Again” that if this country ever was great at anytime in history it was great for the White men in economic/social and political power, and it was great at the devastation of this country’s oppressed and marginalized populations.
Please understand that in 1619, when “20 and odd negroes” landed in Jamestown, they actually were not in Jamestown. Historian Michael Guasco wrote, “Selective memory has conditioned us to employ terms like settlers and colonists when we would be better served by thinking of the English as invaders or occupiers.” In other words, we should remember that in 1619 America was not America. It was an experiment. What we have been conditioned to call Jamestown was actually a space occupied by British invaders in Tsenacommacah — the name given by the Powhatan people, the indigenous population who had inhabited the space for centuries. 400 years ago American was not America… We idealize and legitimize the White European position in America, but 400 years ago they were the strangers, they were the undocumented! 400 years ago America was not a certainty. It was not the land of the free and the home of the brave. Yet through the genocide of the indigenous population, and the enslavement of Africans, this country was built and established through violence, plunder, and the free labor of Black humans who survived wearing a mask lest they be beaten, lynched, or imprisoned.
For those who wish to make America great again, we must remember that if it was ever great in the first place it was not great because of manifest destiny; it was not great because of Good Christian values; it was not great because White male forefathers worked so hard, won the west, and saved their money and built this great nation with their own two hands.
Remember that if America was ever great, it was great because those in charge decided that it was okay to kill the natives who dwelled here before the British immigrated and occupied the colonies; it was okay to treat African descendants as subhuman— so much so that they could/should be owned bought, sold and bred like animals. That it was okay to beat them and to sell their children, and that is was okay to rape their women without consequence. And still my ancestors survived by wearing a mask— by faking it, by trying each and every day to look all right even when they weren’t all right.
If the country was every great it was because it had 400 years of legally stealing resources from millions of it’s Black humans. Slavery— 256 years of free labor— unpaid labor that build cities, colleges, institutions, and the very buildings that our elected officials occupy today— that’s theft. 90 years of Jim Crow— literally charging Black people the same taxes as our White counterpart, yet limiting access to public resources and accommodations and the ballot box. That’s theft. Separate, but equal schools— stealing recourses from Black taxpayers and their communities and not ensuring that those dollars went into the schools that educated Black children. Substandard buildings, inadequate or a lack of books. Overcrowded classes. A failure to educate Black children with the same fervor and intent as their White counterparts. That’s theft. Housing discrimination— charging Black people more for less. Redlining. Refusing to insure their property. Contract (lease to own) deeds that charged Black people rent on a house for years before they could own it— miss one payment and they have no equity and were evicted. That’s theft! Or what about the fact that Black soldiers from WWII or Korea in many states were denied VA loans— government loans— simply because they were Black. Legally taking federal resources out of the hands of Black people who earned them and putting it in the hands of White families— That’s theft!
Stealing our health! Consider there are neighborhoods all across this country right now in 2019 occupied by Black people who have lifespans 20 years less than their White counterparts, because the powers that be don’t care that companies pump pollutants into their fresh water sources or air, and using those resources to keep the more affluent air and water quality better. That’s theft.
But slavery ended in 1865.
Consider food deserts— there are neighborhoods in this country right now in 2019 that have 12 liquor stores, half a dozen That’s nutritional theft.
But how is it 400 years of slavery?
Consider the fact that I am six times more likely to be killed by the police than a White person. Theft of Black bodies. Or the fact that if little White Jordan and little Black Jordan break the same rule in classrooms all across this country, little Black Jordan will receive a much stronger punishment. So when the rest of the class is in the room learning to read, little Black Jordan is in the hallway or in the principal’s office being punished, but more than anything not learning to read. Theft of Black minds/children .
We say 400 years of slavery because for 400 years we have watched our bodies stolen, our resources stolen, our property stolen, our health, wealth, children, access, and opportunities stolen, because one day 400 years ago after “20 and odd negroes” arrived in what we now call Jamestown the powers that be decided it was okay to see Black people as less than— less than human, less than worthy, less than important. And through it all, the generations my ancestors lived on the edge of death and kept our race alive by wearing a mask.
And because of masks you thought we were happy; because of the masks you thought we were okay with it; because of the masks you thought you could keep stealing, keep making everything great for you at the detriment of us— but this year, 400 years later we say it stops with us!
Ain’t no more shuckin’ and jivin’; ain’t no more steppin’ and fetchin’; ain’t no more kowtowing and scratching where we don’t itch and laughing where we were not tickled. It stops with us! It’s is a brand new day! The masks are off and we demand to fall heir to the promises that this country makes to its citizens.
Dr. King put it this way, “Be true to what you said on paper!” It stops with us means that we demand you remember that, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all humans are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” We want our truths self evident, too. We want our rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness just like everyone else.
It stops with us means that from now on we are included in the preamble! We are the people, too! We want a more perfect union for us, too! We want established justice, too! We want our domestic tranquility insured. We want our common defense provided for. We want our general welfare promoted and our blessings of to ourselves and our prosperity secured as well! It stops with us!
It stops with us means that if you want us to stop kneeling when you ask in song “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” That we are included and allowed to be brave and free without the injustices we face as unarmed citizens, who’s only crime is being Black at the wrong place and the wrong time.
It stops with us means that we demand our country live out the meaning of the pledge that we learned in school— liberty and justice for all. It stops with us means that we are included in the all!
It stops with us is a declarative statement that includes not just Black people but all people. Everyone. All American’s. We have to stop treating race and social justice like a gift to minority populations. When we do the right thing for one group we all benefit. You see, the race problem in our country is not just a Black or a Brown problem, it is an American problem. It stains us all. It messes us all up. Dr. King wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail, “In a real sense, all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
Superficially, we can understand that discrimination limits one group, and the problem with such limitations is that one day we may find ourselves in a group that is limited… Yet I challenge us to dig deeper and consider the moral dilemma discrimination causes. You see, when we subjugate others simply because we have the power/position/authority to so, our humanity is reduced. You see, when we attack the dignity or humanity of others it stains our own. When you poison another you get some poison on you in the process. It reduces you and the goodness in you. If constricts your ability to be as amazing/great/powerful as you can be.
Earlier this month, an article came out in the “New York Times” abut a 38-year-old secretary in Mississippi who gave her reaction to how the 45th president was handling the shutdown and she said, “I voted for him, and he’s the one who’s doing this. I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.”
That’s the problem with the dog-eat-dog mentality of many in our country. Many think its perfectly acceptable that the “right people” are hurt, and usually when those in social/political/economic power are deciding who should be hurt more often than not it is the people who look like me, the people who have been hurt for 400 years. Of course Black people do not own the monopoly of being marginalized and oppressed— the gay, the transgender, the female, the poor, the Latino, the gender non binary, the not skinny, the not young, the not beautiful/pretty… I could go on and on. But there are millions of people in the country who are okay with the idea of oppression, they just want to make sure that they aren’t the ones being oppressed. This is problematic, and it must stop with us!
How do we do that? Well, lot’s of ways, I contend that we need thousands, maybe even millions of small/deliberate community organizing/grassroots efforts in schools, neighborhoods, towns, counties, cities and states from sea to shining sea. There is not one answer, but I argue that one common goal must be justice— to make this country work for everyone not just those with money and power. I propose two foundations to start.
One, education. We must remove all masks and start telling real, raw and uncomfortable truths. Educating ourselves to the experiences of others beyond our comfort zones, our homes, our neighborhoods, our friends, our political parties and religious backgrounds. W.E.B. Dubois once said, “Herein lies the tragedy of the age… that humans know so little of humans.” We must learn the truth about experiences that are not are own. I’m tired of White people on social media telling me how to be Black; how to feel when an unarmed Black person is killed by the police; how to deal with the real fear (not paranoia) that I feel when a police car pulls up behind me, Stop calling me crazy for crying real tears when I heard that George Zimmerman was not guilty. Understand that I’m not overreacting, when I am pissed that you try to justify what happened to Tamir Rice, because he was tall and big for a 12-year-old. That’s the story of my life— big, Black, and a burden to scared White people who discount my humanity because I never looked like Opie or a friend on “Leave it to Beaver.’’
We need education! It can only stop with us when we remove all the masks and deal with the truth of the Civil War— and understand that half of this country was willing to go to war and kill a substantial portion of one generation of men in order to protect the institution of slavery. We need more education! Moreover, We must educate ourselves on the truth of how those in social, economic, and political power normalized and legalized oppression, marginalization, and disenfranchisement for 400 years. Why is this important? Because education and knowledge cripples the lies and motives of those who wish to oppress others. It’s easy for a politician to get on TV and lie and say that they are “trying to protect the integrity of voting,” if they are speaking to a community that is mostly clueless to how this country spent it’s entire history trying to keep certain people from voting. It’s easy for people to believe that building a wall on our southern border isn’t racist, if they are clueless to the bigoted immigration and naturalization history of America. It stops with us means doing the hard and uncomfortable work of learning from our past and understanding how we consciously and subconsciously support the oppressive systems that erode the words of our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.
As a student at Crozer Theological Seminary, a young Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”
We must supplement our education. We must tell the truth. Challenge our minds to realize that what we learned in school may have been patriotic propaganda. They weren’t settlers— they were invaders, they didn’t win The West, they stole it. Those who built the White House weren’t workers in government housing, they were slaves in shacks. It stops with us means that we learn, and teach, and think and use our knowledge, understanding and wisdom to change the status quo.
Furthermore, it stops with us is a call to action! That’s the second thing we need. First education, and then action. To get off of our privilege, of our woe is me, of our “it won’t make a difference,” and get to work.
When Frederick Douglass wrote about how he escaped slavery he declared— “I prayed for 20 years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” The problem with many of us is that we are complaining and not running; we are tweeting and not running; we are arguing on Facebook but not running; we are watching the news and reading books and not running.
Beloved it is time that we do the work of changing the world.
Voting is a good thing, but working and volunteering to change the laws, to right wrongs, and to ensure justice is even better. Maybe your action is calling your congressperson and senator, writing the governor, getting together a vanload of people to head to the capitol and let your voices be heard. Maybe your action is volunteering at an underfunded inner city school or community center, maybe its joining in on a protest or working with a nonprofit that supports your values. Everyone’s scope or reach is different, but we must all dare to reach and stretch. We must stop wearing masks that allow bully’s to think that we are okay with their racism, sexism and homophobia.
I know that it may piss some people off that I lump the “isms” and phobias together but remember that MLK said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Also, in our actions, we must always fight for and side with what Dr. James Cone called “the crucified peoples of the word.” We must stop electing, protecting and making excuses for bullies.
This ain’t 1619! I ain’t a slave anymore! I reject anyone or anything that seeks to perpetuate my or any other group’s oppression— it stops with us!
Ella Baker said, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes!” We must work and fight, and work some more. March, protest, boycott, litigate, sue, strike, whatever to ensure that the evil exploitation of slavery and all that came behind it stops with us.
After 45 was elected President, I was pissed. I remembered when he asked Black people, “What do you have to lose. You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, — what the hell do you have to lose?” I was angry, heartbroken, and felt powerless— not because of him but because I thought he was just a symptom of a larger problem. I was pissed that so many in our country ignored his racists, sexist crudity and cultural ignorance… I was big mad! But then one day I sat in my office and I thought when Dr. King said: “Fly, If you can’t fly, then run, If you can’t run, then walk, If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”
And I thought how do I do that? One of my favorite mantras is “Promote what you love instead of bashing what you hate.” And so I pulled out my notebook and filled it with ideas to promote my values, to combat racism and promote social justice, and I have tried real hard to do that work ever since. So, since that election, my church has opened our doors to the greater community and in deliberately diverse ways studied books and films on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, We’ve read and discussed the souls of Black folk with lots of White and Black folk, We’ve read Tanehsisi Coats, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King and Cornel West. We’ve studied feminism and womanism. We’ve collected nearly 1,000 books for children in grades 1-6, with at least one main character a person of color or differently labeled, and we distributed those books to inner city schools and community centers. We’ve had workshops on race, rage and fear, we’ve installed a monthly soul food Sunday meal and seminar, where we bring together a diverse group of people across a wide range of ages/races/class and talk about race in a real, meaningful, and impactful way. We now have a reputation in Pleasant Ridge for being a safe place to have brave and difficult conversations— real and honest dialog.
My members don’t just read and learn, they go out into the community and combat challenges and work, I learn so much from them. So much in fact that because of the journey we have taken together, I get invited to travel across the country and visit communities to talk about the work we’re doing, and, sometimes I train on how my church is able to be Black/White, Democrat/Republican, young/ young plus, financially struggling millennials/ financially comfortable baby boomers, progressive/liberal/moderate/conservative, gay/straight, without alienating or ostracizing anyone.
I’ve said all this not to brag on my church— but I do love it and my members. We are not a large church, we are a strong, smart, ministry/justice oriented church. I’ve said it to say that I’m not just telling you what you should do, but I’m sharing and trying to relay that I endeavor to practice what I preach. If it’s going to stop with us, it’s going to take action!
In closing, after 400 years of slavery and the ills that grew out of it, it must end with us. Please consider this: My grandfather owned a janitorial cleaning company, and that was my first job. I started working with him in the summer after about the sixth grade in the evening and I received a crisp $100 bill each Friday. Hallelujah, thank you Jesus. Don’t tell Uncle Sam! lol. I worked along side him at one of the places he cleaned. He had employees he dispatched to other places and always cleaned a few clients himself. I picked up trash with my headphones on and a Discman in the pouch around my waist. I wiped counters, ran the vacuum, dusted, and mopped floors. There was a routine.
Yet he never let me clean/scrub the toilets. “I don’t want you to do that! You are going to college. Ii work hard so that you don’t have to do that.” I wanted to/ I didn’t mind. I wanted to prove my work ethic. He wouldn’t let me. You see, beloveds, there are things that the previous generation did that kept our race alive, kept us going, jobs that they did, masks that they wore sacrifices they made so that we didn’t have to.
Fast forward to my first church I pastored I was 21 years old, nearing the completion of my undergraduate study. Shelton Chapel AME church in Viola, Kentucky. It was 286 miles from my home. A four-hour drive in the middle of the country with a cornfield on one side, a cemetery on the other. A few carloads of friends and family ventured down with me to clean the church. We brought abled bodies, cleaning supplies, and snacks. My grandfather brought mops and buckets and everything else… When he went into the restroom, we realized that the septic tank had issue and came back up in the toilet and there was water from it all over the men’s bathroom floor. It was disgusting and a mess. Then my grandfather said, “Oh, here you need to get this…” The man who wouldn’t let me scrub a toilet as a child was now saying, “Go ye therefore and mop up that nastiness.” I said, “What am I supposed to do?” He said, “This is your church, your responsibility, you are the leader” I was like, “Dang!’’ and I mopped it up, cleared it all, sanitized, cleaned the mop heads and the bucket. You see I learned an important lesson that day. I was nearing the completion of my undergraduate degree. My grandfather had done his part. It was my turn.
For 400 years, those before me kept our race alive wearing masks. Now, if it’s going to stop with us, we need to not be afraid to do our part.
You do our future a disservice if you never give your children/grand children the opportunity to clean up messes. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t make the mess, understand the mess, caused the mess. I was the pastor, the leader, the youngest adult in the room. My body was in better shape to do the work. You see, we must be willing to clean up messes we did not make, because we eat from trees that we did not plant, and drink from wells we did not dig. If I am anybody worth anything, I am who I am and where I am, because my grandfather sacrificed and my parents sacrificed so that I could do more than they thought they could, and go further than they thought they could; and now is the time to thank my ancestors with my actions. If I am anybody worth anything, it is because the men and women at Young’s Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church thought it not robbery to pour into me ever chance they had.
I speak the names of those who are now ancestors: Geneva Dooley, Laura Dooley, Ruby Doyle, Pat Frye, David Strong, Irene Smith, Mary Agnus Robinson, Isom Pointer, Ida Bailey, Sallie Barbour, Clive Groves, Becky Terry, James Wilton Terry Jr., Joyce Guess, Frances Cotton, Zoe Mundy, Viola Bowen, and countless others who always took the time to encourage and help me so that I could run further than they did.
Every round must go higher and higher. 400 years of masks; 400 years of slavery. But today, no more! Never again! Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around. O my head, I hear freedom in the air! I shall not be moved! It stops with us. Period.