The Challenge of Becoming “Woke,” Addressing Issues of Race and Racism in Madison, Wisconsin

Over the last couple of years Saint Andrew’s has put a lot of its time, attention, and energy into addressing the racial disparities here in Madison and in Dane County.   We have offered book studies.  We have offered class and conversations around whiteness and black history.  We have worked to partner with the people at St Paul’s AME church on the east side of town.   And we have had well over a dozen people attend the Justified Anger’s Black History for a New Day course at Fountain of Life Covenant Church.

I had enrolled in the class at Fountain of Life a year ago but was only able to attend the first three classes before life got too complicated and other commitments and responsibilities forced me to drop out.  I was eager to enroll this spring, and to finish the course, because between those three classes last year and the Conversations on Being White class here at St Andrew’s, I had begun to get a sense of how deeply racism is embedded in our constitution, our legal code, and our economy.  I get a lot of push back from people when I start to talk about institutional racism and I wanted a deeper history and understanding to buttress my arguments that the deck is stacked against people of color in this country.  I got that education and more…

For instance, I didn’t know that while most slaves were held in the south where cotton farmers needed a large labor force to work the fields, most of the ships that carried kidnapped peoples across the Atlantic were built, maintained, and sailed out of Rhode Island and other northern states.  I didn’t understand that the cheap cotton harvested in the south was shipped to mills in the north where huge profits on the finished goods were only possible because of the artificially low labor costs.

I didn’t know how the laws of this country were written, and then changed, over and over again, to withhold citizenship and the vote from black people.  Nor did I understand the ways that black people were, in accordance with the laws of this land, exploited after the civil war, often being forced to labor under conditions worse than they endured under slavery.

I didn’t know about the long, sordid, history of lynching as a tool of terror in this country; and was shocked by the picture postcards that were produced, sold, and sent through the mails; with crowds of smiling people standing around the bodies of black people who had dared to become successful, to raise their eyes, or to speak in their own defense, thus offending those in power.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t learn any of this history in the many years I spent in American history classes.  And the fact that I had never learned these stories is just as upsetting as the stories themselves.

I didn’t know… but now I do.  This history, our history, helps us to hear differently the stories that are being written today, right now, here in Madison and in Dane County.  Knowing this history, when our African American brothers and sisters tell us stories about getting pulled over on a regular basis for “Driving While Black”; about being followed by store employees and security, about being stopped by the police for walking in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time of day;  about being denied equal access to housing, jobs, and positions of leadership in Madison and in Dane County, we have to see them as part of a larger picture, a system that is set up to benefit one group at the expense of another.  We can no longer dismiss these stories as anomalies, as the work of a few bad actors but must see them as the ongoing legacy of a system that is unjust, inhumane, and immoral.  A system that has benefited most of us in ways that we have never been forced to see, believe, or confront.

I didn’t know.  And perhaps we didn’t know.  But I, and hopefully we, know now.  And therein lies the challenge.  If you don’t know, you can’t be faulted for not acting.  Once you know, once you are “woke” to the reality, a failure to work for change moves from complacency to complicity.  Once you know, once you find yourself aware, once you see the truth, inaction ceases to be a moral and ethical option.  Our Baptismal vow to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human
being,” calls us to action (BCP page 305).

So what will we do?  This year the Diocese of Milwaukee will be reading Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debbie Irving.  Last year the Diocesan Read was Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson and we had some great discussion and conversation around the book at our Diocesan Convention.  We will have that same opportunity to discuss Debby Irving’s book at this year’s convention.  I have five copies of Waking up White on my desk and would love to give them to people who are interested in leading a book group, either in their own home or at the church between now and our convention in October.  I’d like to see us offer several groups and then come together as a larger community to discuss what we have learned.  You will find an article elsewhere in this edition of the crossroads with a review and more information.  Please email me at rector@standrews-madison.org if you are interested.

There are lots of other options:

Sign up for Leanne Puglielli’s class “Conversations on Being White” the next time it is offered.  We will give you lots of notice that it is time to sign up.  Sign up for the “Black History for a new Day” class next spring at Fountain of Life Covenant Church.  Go to Netflix and watch 13th and learn how the Thirteenth Amendment shifted slavery from the cotton fields to the prison system.  Log into Wisconsin Public Television and watch the PBS documentary Slavery by Another Name and learn how the peonage system perpetuated slavery in this country, often under worse conditions that existed on the plantations.  Read “Just Mercy” by Brian Stevenson or “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  None of these are likely to be easy reads or easy movies to watch.  They will challenge us to check our assumptions, to be willing to believe some things about ourselves and our society that are uncomfortable, and to be willing to recognize the benefit we have accrued, even without knowing it, through a system that is stacked in our favor.  It will cost us something.  But the cost of complacency becomes complicity when we know that there is work to do.

Finally, keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to get to know our friends at St Paul’s AME.  I am working with Pastor Joe to create more fellowship opportunities and to find a project that might allow us to work side by side as we get to know each other better.  You will be hearing lots more about these opportunities as the summer progresses.

Peace,

Andy+

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