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Tiffany Eberle Kriner

 

  

 

 

 

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.