Am I Black Enough to Be a Slave?

Last Wednesday night at church we had our annual Black History Month Program, recalling all that black folks have suffered in this country and remembering God’s faithfulness through it all. Nora, who’s two now, wasn’t settling into audience participation so well, so she and I spend a good part of the evening away from the gathering. But when it was getting late, Leah took her home for her bath and I went back into the church to get JaiMichael. We stood with the whole congregation to belt out “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” then JaiMichael and I bundled up to walk home.

“Am I black enough to be a slave?” JaiMichael asked as we walked down the slope of the church’s parking lot.

“Do you mean now or two hundred years ago?” I asked.

“I mean, would they do all that stuff to me?” We talked about race for a minute, and I watched a seven year old struggle to make sense of the story this country tells him about who he is. Then we got to the cross tie in the parking lot that JaiMichael likes to use as a balance beam and he said, “Watch this, Dad. I can balance with my eyes closed.” Seven year-olds can be deep, but not for long.

Still, I kept thinking about the ways race continues to shape reality for all of us in this country. Slavery was abolished 150 years ago, but that did not end the institutionalized racism that re-emerged as Jim Crow in the South (and ghettos in the North). The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s made great strides toward freedom and justice for all, employing the nonviolence of Jesus to abolish Jim Crow. But 50 years later, as I’ve heard my friend Rev. William Barber say, “Jim Crow has become Mr. James Crow, Esquire.” What was once “segregation now, segregation forever” has become a crusade for “law and order.” Our prison population has increased eight fold over the past 30 years. More African-American men are caught up in our criminal justice system today than were  enslaved in 1850.

What, then, do I tell JaiMichael? Is he black enough to be a slave? I know the statistics. He’s black enough that one out of three of his friends will go to prison at some point in their life. He’s black enough that he’ll be subject to random searches by the police in our neighborhood. I have a responsibility to introduce him to this reality.

But we also know another reality. We are members of the church that learned to pray in brush arbors when Master wasn’t looking for God to make a way out of now way. We’re inheritors of that great tradition of black and white folks who said God didn’t make anyone to be slave, so they would create an underground railroad of safe houses to usher slaves to freedom. We are a community that remembers there is no shame in going to jail for doing what is right—that sitting down to a meal together may be illegal, but it’s right. And right will win in the end. We celebrate black history month so that we can remember this reality too.

In the context of our present prison industrial complex, I’m exited about Project TURN. Inside North Carolina prisons, classes meet every week that are made up of half incarcerated students and half seminary students from Duke Divinity School.

Women in a. Project TURN class

Small as they may  be, these classes are spaces like the 1960’s lunch counter where those who are legally segregated can sit down together and begin to imagine a new future. I continue to be amazed by the way this experience is leading to new friendships and new imagination, both for the students who come from the outside and for the students who are incarcerated. The beloved community is coming to life behind razor wire. Truth is, no walls will be able to contain it. God is creating a new society within the shell of the old.

Thankfully, as we find our way forward, our church has taught me a song that I can pass on to my son. It says, “Before I’ll be a slave / I’d be buried in my grave / and go home to my Lord / and be free.”

Yes, JaiMichael, this old world can be terribly mean. And I sure wish I could spare you from its troubles. But what I know is that Jesus has met us in the midst of this mess. And if you hold onto Jesus, you’re free. Even if this world’s system kills you, it can’t make you anything less than a child of God. God, my son, is greater than any force that will come against you.

For more on Project TURN, see a recent article by its director, Sarah Jobe and another in  The Christian Century.

  • Jim

    Wonderful question….

    My only quibble is with your comment “Slavery was abolished 150 years ago…” On paper perhaps. As Douglas Blackmon has recently noted in his book “Slavery by Another Name” the practice continued into the early 1940s with the full institutional support of the Jim Crow South, the nodding complacency of the Fed, and the participation of some major corporations such as U.S. Steel.

    While pre-Civil War slavery was a horror, Jim Crow slavery was at least equal to it. Brutal in a different way…

    It ended in the 1940s because the practice was becoming an issue for FDR’s war efforts as both Japanese and German propagandists began to notice in public.

    Great essay…thank you.

    • http://www.jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      This is a good point Jim. I find Michelle Alexander’s argument in The New Jim Crow extremely compelling (and deeply disturbing, as it confirms the experience of so many of our friends.) She says the system of mass incarceration that we now have has created an underclass very similar to slavery, and worse in some ways. Even if you come across some money, you can’t buy your way out of being “criminal.”

  • Bishop Andrew Gerales Gentry

    We continue to have “convict leasing” we just have a larger population pool! More and more states are either considering privatizing prisons or have already done so. More prisoners more money. Slavery also is alive and well whether it is child labour for corporations in the US by foreign subsidiaries or outright ownership of persons by Moslem extremists in the Sudan. Last I heard a person would cost you about 200 American dollars there.
    There is an old Russian joke that says that Karl Marx was completely wrong on what he taught about communism and completely right about what he taught about capitalism!
    Racism is alive and well and its face today is largely the Republican Party and until the vanilla ice cream liberals get a backbone like an Old Testament Prophet it will continue in good health! God forgive us.


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