In the first week of November, Tyshawn Lee fell victim to gang violence in Chicago. Lee, a nine-year-old, was taken into an alley and assassinated, retaliation for his father’s alleged gang activities.
Lee’s death seems, for Chicago, intolerably business as usual. Last year, for example, news outlets reported 82 shootings in Chicago over the July 4 holiday weekend, 14 of which were fatal. Tellingly, The Onion, a satirical newspaper, posted a headline to draw attention to the egregious quality of it all: “Environmental Study Finds Air In Chicago Now 75% Bullets.” The fact that the satirical article made the rounds on Facebook again after Tyshawn’s shooting wasn’t the only one indicates the stupefying sameness of the violence.
For many Christians, events like the death of this boy, or other events tied to the New Jim Crow, it seems important to be able to do something about the events standing behind the hashtags. So, we say, give us a list. Take us to the lessons for our lives.
And just in case you and I feel like that, here’s an article from Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, friend of Wheaton College and an expert in racial reconciliation--22 ideas for action.
But what happens when you ask a scholar of theology and literary studies how to respond? To a woman with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a woman with books, everything looks like a story.
And the substance of what I want to argue here is about story. How should the church respond to a racialized society in the US in light of recent events such as the death of Tyshawn Lee or the racial injustice embedded within our law enforcement system? The church needs to read the bigger story.
This may be the lamest thesis you’ve ever read. I’m not sure, frankly, that it’s not the lamest thesis I’VE ever read, and I’m writing it. So, you know, there’s always the article.
But read me out. In his 1963 letter to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the emancipation, James Baldwin, giant of American literature and pretty much king of the African American intellectual tradition in the 20th century (pace W.E.B. DuBois), defines the problem of race in America as not only one of action for which one may be guilty but more damningly
a problem of innocence, for which one is responsible. He writers to his 14-year-old namesake, “this is the crime of which I accuse my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. . . . It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
This is a troubling statement for a white majority--both the violence of destruction and the wilful innocence that undergirds it.
But Baldwin, as magnificent and full of love as he is for his nephew, and as encouraging as he is about how to resist the violence of white hegemony, has some concerns about his black nephew as well--and his own innocence too. He urges his nephew:“Know whence you came. .. .The details and symbol of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you.” His nephew can’t see, after all, the meanings that have been as assumed as the water to a fish--the meanings associated with blackness, whiteness, integration, acceptance.
His nephew might not be able to see how in the United States, the meanings in those binarisms of black/white, rich/poor, innocent/guilty, citizen/outlaw are being arbitrarily assigned their meanings by the dominant side of the power struggle between each pair. He doesn’t know enough of the story to realize that the rich know what they are because they define themselves against a denigrated not-them, people they deem too lazy or pitiable to work hard enough to be like them. The citizen knows herself to be responsible and “good” by separating herself from criminals both conceptually and philosophically and spatially. The saved, too, know they are saved by contrasting themselves-- by their “Lord, thank you that I am not like this.”
That arbitrary assignation of meaning is a social and political problem, of course, but Baldwin sees this sort of willful categorization, this boxing of people and meanings, in terms of his wheelhouse, namely, story. It is the failure of the story, the failure of white people to know the story and the failure of his nephew to know his own story (and the terms of power on which it was constructed).
Baldwin wrote that failure--the failure of “the protest novel”--novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Native Son by Richard Wright. Books like these, Baldwin says, aim at action, “to bring greater freedom to the oppressed. They are forgiven, on the strength of these good intentions, whatever violence they do to language.” Baldwin writes, ”whatever unsettling questions are raised are evanescent, titillating, remote, for this has nothing to do with us, it is safely ensconced in the social arena, where, indeed it has nothing to do with anyone so that finally we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all.” These books, to Baldwin, put people into boxes and categories, dooms them by the forces that name them nigger.
For Baldwin, protest novels will never suffice, because they’re not faithful to the real, bigger, complex narrative that defies the hashtags and the slogans: “The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization along which is real and which cannot be transcended.”
I might submit to you that Baldwin dedicated his career in fiction writing to embracing the living story the full human complexity--to reading bigger in the world.1
Baldwin’s 1953 novel Go Tell it On the Mountain is the story of John Grimes, a boy caught between all those binarisms within a situation of urban poverty in a racialized environment. But in the story, it is what is behind the story--the bigger story, as it were-- which reveals the falsity of those categories and definitions and sets John Grimes truly on his way in the world.
Even the STRUCTURE of the novel demonstrates the centrality of the bigger story. Go Tell it On the Mountain is one full day long--from when John wakes up on Saturday through church the next morning. It’s a high stakes day: his 14th birthday, but also a day when his older brother gets stabbed and when John either WILL or WILL not get saved. The bulk of the novel, though, is actually an excavation of all the backstory that got all his ancestors and John in this mess in the first place. The large thick middle of the Go Tell it On the Mountain is the bigger story.
For some readers, the terrible irony of Go Tell it On the Mountain is that John goes through the pain and terror and exploration and desire and euphoria of his 14th birthday knowing nothing about the history that is shaping his whole life. His experiences are interpreted utterly without that absolutely vital bigger story. Which is why readers often feel uncomfortable at the novel’s resolution. How much can what John doesn’t know hurt him later? Fair enough. But Baldwin DOES give the bigger story to US. John Grimes may not know his bigger story--and might be all the more vulnerable because of it. But we get to, if we read it. We, the church, need to read harder for the bigger story.
I’ve felt this a lot lately, as my discipline, with its particular attention on language and story, has really felt and drawn attention to the hashtagification of story. Many people have experienced the events of Ferguson and New York--and continue to know them solely through single words and phrases: “Ferguson,” “handsupdon’tshoot”, “blacklivesmatter,” ”icantbreathe.”
In some ways, hashtagification is only the latest manifestation. One only has to think of the history of the freedom struggle in the United States to be able to come up with many more such stand-ins for a larger story: “Harper’s Ferry,” “Emmett Till,” “Four Little Girls,” “Black is Beautiful,” “Black Power.” Names substitute for stories, locations for whole histories, slogans for struggles much longer and deeper than the embroiderable phrase.
We might just be reading the stories of of LaQuan McDonald, Tyshawn Lee, of Michael Brown, of Eric Garner in a way that makes them smaller, less alive, less vivid and complex. I can say a name, or a word--a single word, and you already have a take.
There’s something to be said for that, sometimes. As Hemingway well knew and wrote, there can be a lot hidden beneath even a place name, if you get to know it.
But you need to get to know it before you drop it. And literature is a great place to start with that project. Writers such as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Sandra Cisneros, Chang Rae Lee (just a beginning) can help us expand the story.
And in your very READING of it you put in light of the kingdom of God who makes all things new. That is, reading bigger means that ANY situation/act can be--and ought to be recognized as part of the bigger story of God’s kingdom. When we put the stories we see here in the context of God’s bigger story--our ossified definitions of blackness and whiteness, of crime and criminal, of poor and rich, of saved and sinner--get challenged by the God whose resurrection makes all things new.
In light of God’s bigger story, taking up the listicle article doesn’t mean you have a 22 step plan to being all good at justice. It means you join in the bigger story. And, if that seems like an inglorious path, so be it.
For white people, this may be especially the case, since the investigation of the meanings of the stories and terms, in reading bigger, we may be in danger of losing our hashtag-perfect identity and privilege. That is, sometimes you lose the feeling that you are virtuous or right. It’s scary, but you can begin. You can read bigger.
For people of color, reading bigger means understanding of the background--it’s, in the words of Baldwin, knowing “whence you came,” and knowing that you, like John Grimes, are “on your way”--the meaning isn’t locked in the binarisms of the Jim Crow in which we live now. Maybe you’re too young, like the hero of Go Tell it On the Mountain, to know the depths of the backstory that warrants any given spiritual or political or social crisis. It’s scary, but you can begin. You can read bigger.
1 Those of you who know African American literature of course, know that my thesis--that we should read the bigger story--is a play on the name of the protagonist of one of those protest novels--Native Son. Bigger Thomas is his name. But if I make that play, so does Baldwin in Go Tell it On the Mountain. His 1953 novel is itself an instance of reading Bigger--the quintessential black city boy doomed by a racist social fabric--bigger.