WALKING THE TALK
The Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage
©1998 Daniel A. Brown
A Walk into the Past
If you drained the Atlantic Ocean, you would find a trail of bones leading from the western shores of Africa to the east coast of the United States. The bones of millions of black men, women and children; the legacy of the Middle Passage. So observes historian, Dr. John Clarke in the introduction to Tom Feelings' haunting book, “The Middle Passage”. This African holocaust and Diaspora has laid the foundation for the trauma and isolation underlining African-American life today. Thirty million Africans were kidnapped from their homes and dragged screaming to the New World. One third died en route.
As a white American, I presume to be free of racism. I teach diversity awareness in my classroom and address issues of racial injustice frequently. Likewise, I live in the Pioneer Valley which has a reputation for tolerance. But when I first heard about the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, I realized that I've lived the past 30 years with little if any contact with African-Americans or their community. I also began to question how much I had been influenced (however unconsciously) by the media's portrayal of black Americans as gang-banging drug-dealers, teenaged welfare mothers, or cute, flip-talking comedians. I knew the reality had to be different.
The Pilgrimage left the Leverett Peace Pagoda on May 30, 1998, intending to retrace the path of African slavery. Walking through the American south to New Orleans, they would embark by sea to the slave islands of the Caribbean and then on to Brazil. At the beginning of the New Year, the pilgrims will cross the Atlantic in a reverse course to Senegal, West Africa and walk to Angola. They would eventually complete their journey in Cape Town, South Africa a year and a day after they began.
In doing so, African-American members of the Pilgrimage would honor their ancestors who had suffered through centuries of slavery and segregation, inviting their spirits to return home with them to the motherland. Those of European descent would take responsibility for this suffering and offer repentance. Together, these walkers would strive to confront and heal the racism rampant today in our society.
I planned to join them in Richmond, Virginia, walk for three weeks, and then depart in Greensboro, North Carolina. I knew in advance that the daily schedule involved waking at 5:30am for morning prayers with the Nipponzon Myohoji Buddhist order, trudging 15-20 miles a day through the southern summer heat, eating whatever and sleeping wherever. What concerned me more was landing in the middle of a multi-racial, multi-aged (14-65) group of men and women where the tensions of identity and self-discovery would be high. I did not expect nor did I desire an easy experience. It wasn't.
Differences in Perception
The Pilgrimage is undergoing serious growth pains when I arrive. After an initial euphoric honeymoon, the group has found itself below the Mason-Dixon Line, visiting sites of auction blocks, slave rebellions, and executions. These locales traumatized the African-American members while eliciting a jarring curiosity from their European-American allies. Nowhere were these differences and perceptions more visible than at Old Williamsburg village. Old Williamsburg is a living history museum of Colonial America, with period costuming, prim shops and hordes of tourists. In the center of town are the stocks and pillories where families can insert themselves for a great photo-op. To me, it's all very quaint.
Our procession spontaneously sidetracks over to the stocks. I'm about to jokingly put myself in them when I hear the sound of anguished cries rising from the black women near me. Several of them have fallen to the ground, weeping. I stop in my tracks, then slowly back away. Other women wordlessly take water and slowly bathe the wooden edifice, a ritual cleansing of its pain, blood, and terror. They are encircled by their brothers and sisters as the Buddhist monks immediately form an outer circle of prayer around them. The air becomes electric. Several white men in colonial costumes and tricorn hats wander by oblivious to this transformation happening in their midst.
Nosapocket, of the Mashpee Indian nation, shocks us by naming a reality deleted from the history textbooks. Her eyes flash as she speaks, "Is this what you want to see in the middle of your town? People brutalized and humiliated. Violence as entertainment. They did this to their women, their children, their African captives, and anyone who dissented. And they are still doing this to us today!"
Tizita Assefa, an Ethiopian woman of immense grace and dignity, quietly places herself in the pillory. Creating connection with her African ancestors, tears roll down her eyes and stain the bleached, grey wood. Bill Ledger, a veteran of both the Vietnam War and earlier pilgrimages, puts his camera aside and lovingly begins to caress her face. It is an act of compassion and bravery, happening at a time when most of the black participants are leery about their white counterparts even being present at such an emotional outpouring. But we seem to be carried along by a spirit larger than ourselves here. Prayers are said, libations are poured, and then we are away. As our stunned group departs, a visiting family come along and laughingly photographs their children in front of the structures.
At the Carter Grove Plantation Museum later that day, our African-American colleagues seclude themselves in the recreated slave-quarters. Within their own circle, they release their emotions in a rising crescendo of pain and grief. Trills, cries and screams rend the air. Their voices conjure visions of chains and lashes. Of families torn apart. Helpless children sold downriver. Bloodhounds hunting young men and women into the forests. But what seems worse is having one's free-will torn away and violated by others who cannot even recognize your humanity.
With this catharsis echoing in my ears, I leave the area and buy a postcard from the Carter Grove gift shop. It depicts a cozy slave hut full of smiling black folk. They wear fresh clothing, play music, and appear to be having fun together. Viewing this, I wonder if white Americans will ever comprehend the ordeal of captivity.
This day drastically alters the spirit of the Pilgrimage. We break off into two groups, having endless meetings of "Black Caucuses" and "White Allies". It is an uncomfortable development which appears to threaten the cohesion of the Pilgrimage. But there is no room here for fake unity, where black and white people nervously grip hands and sing "We Shall Overcome". The real work of honoring diversity is the gritty, daily reality of sharing space with people who reflect back at you all your fears, doubts and prejudices. In this regard, the Pilgrimage is a microcosm of America, a land in danger of being torn apart by its racial separations. These separations can destroy us, too. This possibility pushes each individual up against themselves and forces them to ask, "Why am I here? How badly do I want this vision of healing.? Can I truly 'walk the talk?"
But others see our purpose and unity despite the internal struggle. In dozens of towns and cities along our route, community organizers, mostly African-American, have labored to make sure we have a place to sleep and a meal to eat. Sometimes these havens miraculously fall into place at the last minute. In the morning, we circle around our hosts and sing our appreciation and thanks. In return, we receive their affirmations which are like rocket fuel for our souls. The black elders bless all of us in the name of God, thanking us for our example, praising our diversity and commitment to racial healing. These are men and women who grew up in a world of lynchings and "whites only" exclusion. Living, too, in a world of invisibility when TV, radio, movies and advertisements were a sea of white faces, voices, and values. One woman commends us, saying, "You are walking for what we have waited our lifetimes to accomplish." These are powerful words, words we have to live up to.
At Melton Grove Baptist Church in Winfall, North Carolina, Reverend Alvin Boone is passing the collection plate. We are in the sanctuary which radiates a simple wooden coziness, highlighted by the stained glass windows that the congregation has lovingly restored over the years. A choir of kids has just sung for us. Other youngsters from a nearby bible camp ask us questions with innocent, disarming faces. The townspeople here don't have much but they have put us up and fed us.
It is here, as in the dozens of other black churches we have attended, that the strength, faith, and vitality of the African-American community are best manifested. Inside structures mighty and small, we worship together besides proud mothers and fathers cheering their children at youth choir rallies, ministers working tirelessly to uplift their congregations, and organizers sacrificing what little they have to nourish their neighborhoods. This dedication has been the norm for decades. The 150 year-old, cathedral-like Saint Paul African Episcopal in Raleigh was created by members who vowed to live only on bread and molasses until funds were raised for its construction.
After making the rounds, the plate returns to Reverend Boone. $111 is collected and handed over to us as Sister Felton, the choir director, extends a fervent Hallelujah. She offers strength and protection over us, as honored by our presence as we are by hers. Various pilgrims get up to speak, but their voices are quavering from the prayers and generosity given so freely. The next morning as we hit the road, our walk is more crisp and harmonious as if we have all been spiritually revitalized.
It is a far more tense situation several days later when we abruptly detour off the road into the courtyard of troubled Westwood Apartments. A cluster of one-story projects with broken windows and collapsing roofs, this is the stereotypical image of Black America projected by TV shows like "Cops". Our police escort watches nervously from a safe difference. As the ritual circle is made, we invite local residents to join us. Several women and children furtively come forward. The young men hold back but are greeted by several of the Pilgrimage elders who engage them as brothers, not threats. The circle is quiet but respectful, cameras are silent. We sing a prayer to the four directions, honoring the African ancestors and then we ask the residents to share their thoughts with us. With her neighbors understandably suspicious, one woman gazes at us and says, "Thank you for caring about us. Thank you for trusting us to come here with your prayers." I feel sick inside. These are the forgotten people, the outcasts we have been conditioned to despise. But I sense that it is here that the soul is America is being measured.
Half-Full or Half-Empty?
The next day I meet Bill Newkirk, the NAACP director of a small town outside of Raleigh. Leaning against his car, we talk for an hour, allowing ourselves to trust the perceptions of the other. He is an introspective man who carries his sadness as a visible weight.
I ask him bluntly to tell me about the racism he's encountered. He answers that several years ago, he confronted the police commissioner over the department's previous policy of taking black men in custody to the nearest courthouse basement and beating them insensible. Since this confrontation, the practice has stopped but he notes, "We've had to fight for everything. Every basic human right and need, we've had to fight for. We have to battle just to hold on to what we have." Bill is bitter about the rollback of affirmative action policies: After 300 years of slavery and segregation and but only 30 years of supposed equal rights, African-Americans are still, in his words, in a "catch-up" mode. With inferior institutions and second-class education, they cannot begin to compete with their white peers in the high-tech marketplace. I later learn that in nearby Greensboro, schools in the minority inner-city are closing at the same rate that new ones are being built in the all-white suburbs. A predominately African-American school population has only 20% black teachers and fewer minority administrators. A high-school student observes bitterly that her white teachers "don't care about us. They don't give us a chance."
Bill believes that crack cocaine, which he calls "our new shackles", was deliberately introduced into black communities by the white power structure. This thought is shared with many of his peers. "Why," he asks, "are wealthy white cocaine offenders merely fined while African-American crack users fill the American prison system at a record rate?" Bill confides in me that people need to be better educated about each other's culture, that most racism he has experienced is unintentional. But as a man of faith, he concludes with a chilling thought that America's racial climate is so out of balance that only divine intervention can save it.
Overall, white Americans get defensive over accusations of racial injustice and become completely unnerved by black rage, the source of which we cannot even begin to understand. "Don't they have enough already? What more do they want?" are reactions, more often muttered than openly expressed. My own doubts were immutably erased when I overheard Doris Stith, a community worker from Tarboro, who said, "We African-Americans have given more to this country than we could ever possibly take." Representing her people who have always been fighting for survival in this new world, her words resonated in my consciousness and formed an epitaph for this journey of self-discovery.
A Walk into the Future
"Racism is killing us. This walk isn't as important as going back to your community and making change," Chrissy Taylor says softly, yet emphatically to me as I prepare to depart the Pilgrimage. She and others are signing my copy of “The Middle Passage” which is destined for my classroom. A gangly young woman with straw-colored dreadlocks, her family and ancestors have lived in Georgia for generations. Her grandparents have friends who were lynched and her grandfather is still terrified of dogs, the legacy of having them sicked on him as a youth. She adds, "No matter how nice a person you might be; to them, your white face means the Klan." My first thought is how unfair that is, but that reaction is replaced by acceptance. I wish instead that I was continuing on south so I could visit their home with Chrissy. There I would humble myself before them and pray that we could tear down our walls and together build a bridge.
For it is a wide river to cross but it can be done. Already, Pilgrimage friendships are forming across the racial divide. Pilgrims are slowly reaching out to each other in trust, seeing beyond the societal masks to the individuals within. They are learning, too, that the camaraderie developed on a yearlong pilgrimage endures forever.
I reflect on the bravery of these people whom I have been honored to share these three weeks with. They have willingly put their lives on the edge for an entire year, offering their ritual prayers outside prisons and community centers, inside churches radiating hope and homeless shelters emanating despair. Despite the daily uncertainties, the heat and the blisters, the Pilgrimage is witnessing for the America to appear which long ago told the world it stood for freedom, justice and equality.
As the Pilgrimage walks on, my prayers walk with them.
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