Hidden History

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History involves perspective. We sometimes forget that. I was alive when human beings first reached the moon, so maybe I’m a bit blasé about what a great technological accomplishment that was. Down here on earth we were still having trouble with the human rights thing—still are, incredibly. Working in my own silo I hadn’t heard of Hidden Figures and wouldn’t have gone to see it if my wife hadn’t suggested it. It’s hard to be reminded of the world into which I was born and how terribly backward it was. For all my conservative upbringing we were never racists. Of the two African American guys I remember attending my elementary school, I was proud to call both of them friends. I could see no reason not to think of them as friends. We lived in the same town and had the same basic needs. I had no idea the struggles they really faced.

Although offering social commentary, gently coating it with humor, Hidden Figures follows the story of three mathematicians who made America’s participation in the space race possible. Moreover, they were all women. African American women. Brilliant, but unequal under the law. I was glad for the darkened theater as I couldn’t keep my eyes dry thinking of the terrible backward step we’ve taken since November. This nation has never been fair to African Americans and police statistics bear that out. Given equal opportunity, I can’t help but think of what me might accomplish. How this nation could support a bigot for the highest office in the land I can’t compute. It sets the clock back before I was born. We wouldn’t be where we are not without shining examples of humanity like Barack Obama.

We are fighting for the future. Over the past few weeks every few days I’ve been attending marches, rallies, and political meetings. I’ve been signing petitions until my clicking finger is numb. I wish there were more that I could do. The blatant racist, sexist maneuvers by Mitch McConnell should stand out as a mark of shame on all who claim the name American. Silencing Elizabeth Warren from reading a letter by Coretta Scott King regarding Jeff Sessions. When our children’s children look back on this age they will rightly wonder how people who’ve been privileged all their lives could turn their backs on progress in the name of racial insecurity. And how Mr. McConnell could’ve had the appallingly bad taste to do so during Black History Month. History involves perspective.

Sporting Chance

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I didn’t watch the SuperBowl last weekend. In fact, I haven’t had television service for over two decades now. I don’t really miss it too much since I don’t have time to watch TV (the commuting life leaves time only for sleeping and working, except on weekends). Still, for special events, I think, it might be nice to see things live. (My wife raises this point every time the Olympics roll around. I seem to recall them being every four years, but now it seems they’re seasonal, and about twice as frequent. Could it be that advertising revenues are really that important? Maybe I missed that, not having television…) Even when I have managed, over the last couple of decades, to pull the SuperBowl onto a fuzzy, snowy screen, it was for one major reason—the commercials. I wonder what that says about a society? I now spend precious weekend time watching commercials on YouTube, sometimes having to watch a commercial for the privilege of watching a commercial. The substance without the fluff of the actual entertainment.

So it was that I saw the Mophie commercial about the apocalypse (here’s the link, in case you’re as entertainment-challenged as I am). So as the world comes to an end, the weather goes even more wonky than we’ve already made it go, Fortean fish fall from the sky, dogs walk their owners and priests steal plasma television sets. Then the punchline, God’s cell phone dies and the end of the world ends. It isn’t the shock of seeing an African-American God—Morgan Freeman led the way there with Bruce Almighty—but rather the technique, the divine delivery, if you will, that is the shock. Not even God is anything without his cell. (I wonder when we’ll see a Latino woman as God? Dogma came close, but not quite.) Is the smartphone really not the deity here?

God, it seems, has become a null concept. I don’t mean because of different racial or gender presentations, but I do mean that the concept itself is completely up for grabs. God, according to Anselm of Canterbury, is that being greater than which nothing can be conceived. In fact, God seems to be that which people worship, more of a Tillichian ultimate concern. A wired world should, in theory, be a world headed toward peace and equality. If we know what’s going on everywhere, shouldn’t we be doing our best to ensure that it is fair and just? The truth of the matter gives the lie to such optimistic musings. I would hate to confess just how much my phone bill is every month. Even without the “triple play” (no television) it is the biggest expense after college tuition and rent. And it goes on, in saecula saeculorum. When I pull out my smartphone, I gaze upon the face of the Almighty. And perhaps that’s a good thing, because how else would I entertain myself without television?

Fashions to Slaves

Howard Thurman was a theologian who held saintly status in my days at Boston University. As an African-American he’d experienced episodes while growing up that nobody should have to face. I remember him writing about being stuck with a pin in the hand by a caucasian girl who declared, “you don’t feel pain.” That image has stayed with me for decades. Unfortunately, that image hasn’t remained alone. I’ve been reading about slavery in the ancient world. No matter your race, slavery was considered a kind of ontological state. The color of your skin didn’t matter; your social status did. Slaves, you see, were less than human. When the slave trade began its hideous trans-Atlantic business ventures, essentially an entire race was classed as subhuman, because it is easier to feel good about mistreating a subhuman than it is a fellow being with a soul just like yours, if only purer.

This is not to deny the very real and troubling, criminal mistreatment that African-Americans experienced during the colonial period. The deeper problem with slaves was that of social status. If you look closely enough, you can always make someone “the other.” Heck, we’ve done it for millennia with those of the female gender. Something that has always bothered me has been how sociologists, political scientists, and historians constantly overlook the concomitant issue of class. In the new world we like to image we’re a classless society, but we’re not. The plight of many African-Americans today is economic. If you prevent people from having access to education and good jobs, they become much more easy to repress. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out, just someone with the will to look. Those who write the history are those comfortably ensconced in offices and with research assistants, and people who empty the departmental garbage for them after hours.

Photo credit: Jun, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jun, Wikimedia Commons

How easy it is to suppose that the other is not the same as me! Most people do not like to challenge their preconceived notions. This is one of the real values of an education in religious studies. Take that intimate belief and put it under a microscope. Many would leave the lab screaming. Those who remain, patiently probing, learn uncomfortable truths. If the biologists are right—and there seems to be no reason to doubt it—all people evolved from common ancestors and we have more in common than we have that separates us. Skin color is only skin deep. Gender differentiation is merely in the service of species reproduction. What really makes us different is culture. And culture always requires classes. As even the ancients knew, some tasks are odious, and it is far more pleasant if we can compel someone else to do them. First, however, we must use our religion to explain why they can be made our slaves. If anyone doubts this, read Howard Thurman and see if he can’t change your mind.