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Black in America: On coming to terms with our racial history

3.1. 2019 Written By: Regina Shands Stoltzfus 1,566 read

Photo: Regina Shands Stoltzfus. Photo by Olivia Copsey.

This article comes from the March issue of The Mennonite, which focuses on “Lent: repentance and transcendence.” Read more reflections online or subscribe to receive more original features in your inbox each month.

When I was a kid growing up in Ohio, just about every summer our family loaded up the car for a trip down south to see relatives. Road trips then, as a Black family, meant strategizing around bathroom stops and meals along the way. As a child, I was oblivious to what my parents understood completely—not every place was safe for us.

In 2018, many people seemed surprised to realize that Black bodies are heavily policed. Story after story hit the news, detailing how African-Americans, engaged in everyday activities—sitting in a Starbucks, leaving an Airbnb, sitting in a common room in a dorm—were deemed suspicious enough for bystanders to call security or law enforcement. Over and over, I heard or read in online commentary the sentiment, “This is not us. This is not the America I know.”

Except, it is precisely the America many know. The policing of Black bodies is a very American thing. Within the lifetime of many people alive today, entire communities subjected their white citizens to do exactly what we’ve been seeing in these news accounts. The difference today is that cell-phone cameras document and post online for hundreds and thousands and millions of people to see. Hence the outrage.

The first Fugitive Slave Law of the United States was signed by President George Washington in 1793. This legislation provided for the return of suspected fugitive slaves (i.e., any Black person) from any state or territory in the Union. By 1824, other states, including Indiana, the state where I live, passed their own laws that required white citizens to detain suspected fugitives (again, any Black person). Whites and Blacks who participated in abolitionist activity were subject to trial and conviction. The federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 subjected every free Black person in the North to capture by slave hunters; under the terms of the law, a person simply had to swear to a justice of the peace that their captives were fugitive slaves. Private citizens could be deputized in order to do the hunting, and anyone who resisted and/or helped supposed fugitives could be fined. Some states, such as Indiana and Oregon, enacted legislation to keep Black people from settling in the state.

But even documenting these events is not new. Ida B. Wells Barnett, an African-American journalist and teacher, painstakingly documented hundreds of lynchings and called on America to pay attention. She did this at risk to her own livelihood to make America sit up and pay attention to what was happening to its African-American citizens.

The notion of citizenship is what is at stake here. The establishment of Black codes was a prolonged response, at least in part, to the granting of citizenship to African-Americans by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Established after the Reconstruction era, Black codes restricted the movement and rights of African Americans, ensured racial separation and segregation, and contributed to a socialization process needed to ensure that ordinary Americans would not question, or at least not defy, the codes. During Reconstruction, laws that discriminated against Black people were repealed in an effort to remake the south after the Civil War. By 1877, the grand experiment ended as Democrats regained power and discriminatory laws were reinstated. Even the Supreme Court, in 1883, walked back on the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had forbidden discrimination in public spaces. The saturation of these legislative acts in cities and towns across the country helped make segregation and separation seem normal, natural and, most of all, necessary. Segregation was supported by the legal system, enforced by police and held firmly in place by violence or threat of violence from law enforcement or even ordinary citizens emboldened by discriminatory laws of segregation.

These codes, and the customs they engendered, were not limited to the South. Indiana codified the movement and behavior of African-Americans. While the 1816 constitution prohibited slavery (some early white settlers of the Indiana territory brought enslaved people with them), the civil rights and freedom of movement were restricted for Black people: They could not vote, go to public schools or testify against a white person in a court case. Black settlers had to register and post a $500 bond guaranteeing good behavior. The 1851 Indiana constitution prohibited Black people from moving into the state (registered African-Americans could remain). The article in question was repealed in 1866, but that did not end the animosity and suspicion directed toward Black bodies; one of the most famous photographs of a lynching happened in Marion, Ind., in 1930. Three Black men had been accused of raping a white woman, who later recanted. The iconic photograph inspired the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” penned by Abel Meeropol and recorded by Billie Holliday.

Recent calls for civility in conversations about race and racialized violence are troubling because they posit these instances of violence and potential violence as simple disagreements—two different sides of the same coin. This call to civility even seems to have some relationship to the Black codes and their purpose. For these codes did not only govern placement—where in space and place your Black body could be—but behaviors as well.

As an African-American Mennonite Christian in 2019 who has witnessed the rise and fall of the myriad ways Christians have talked about the race problem (prejudice reduction, diversity, racial reconciliation), I remain convinced of at least a couple of things:

We must teach, learn and talk about our racial history in the context of our faith without glossing over or spiritualizing it. Absent historical context, the recent spate of people having law enforcement called on them continues the mistake of localizing blame upon hapless employees or clueless bystanders who have been socialized to believe Black bodies are dangerous and up to no good without any other information. This historical amnesia also makes it easy to defend these practices because “there’s always another side to the story” and perpetuates the myth that Black people calling for protection from violence is somehow anti-American.

We must include such teaching and learning as part of our congregational and denominational life together, including worship. In the same way the African-American struggle for freedom and civil rights was narrated and sustained by biblical study and interpretation, liturgy and worship, so too might contemporary church communities discover old and create new “works of the people” to sustain today’s liberation movement. Liturgy makes our faith concrete and visible and sustains us for the journey ahead as the people of God. It’s hard, long-term work. But it’s also necessary work, and some of us still believe it is possible.

Regina Shands Stoltzfus is associate professor of peace and justice studies at Goshen (Indiana) College.

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