Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God”

An hourlong teleconference with

Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

1 PM to 2 PM ET

WATER spoke with Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas for November 2015’s WATERtalk. Kelly Brown Douglas is the Susan D. Morgan Professor of Religion at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. A leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, she is widely published in national and international journals. Her latest book, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books (2015)] examines the deep roots of  “Stand Your Ground” culture in America and the challenges it brings for the Black Church community and others. Kelly Brown Douglas is ordained in the Episcopal Church and currently serves at the Washington National Cathedral. WATER thanks Kelly for a rich hour of conversation about racial justice in America. Q&A session followed.

 This is a book I never saw myself writing. I can earnestly say I was called into this book kicking and screaming. It didn’t come from my head in many respects – it came from inside of me, but the push and pull to write it came from outside of me.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, I was very aware of other deaths and murders of young black males – Oscar Grant and others. But for some reason, Trayvon’s murder struck a chord in me. I thought, maybe naïvely, we’d at least gotten past that – what was nothing more than a 21st century lynching. Perhaps it struck a chord because I had a son, a little older than Trayvon, and was struck by his mother’s pleading.

I was also struck by the way in which Trayvon was demonized – he was already being blamed for his own death. I could not understand why could most folks outside the black community couldn’t get it, that something was desperately wrong, that a great injustice had been done, that he had been murdered. I couldn’t understand why people were quickly coming to the defense of his killer.

Then Jordan Davis was killed at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida. For a year I worked in Jacksonville – I knew the exact spot where Jordan was killed. Here another young black male was shot for no reason – that struck a nerve.

I had to figure out what was going on – why history seemed to be repeating itself. It certainly seemed to me that this time, for our generation, was our Emmett Till time. I was further compelled, after the trial for Trayvon’s killer, because I didn’t think he would be acquitted totally. After that, my heart immediately dropped and my phone immediately began to ring.

The next day, I was to preach at my church (then the Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington, DC). That morning, there was a silence like someone had died. Nobody had to say anything – we knew what was in each other’s hearts. We took time for people to say what was on their hearts and minds, and what struck me was that no one blamed God. They all testified in the justice of God.

All of that came together, and I started on this journey.

I thought it would lead me back to the legacy of slavery. I did not realize it would lead me back to Tacitus…he had certainly left my memory banks long ago!

Tacitus is mentioned in Reginald Horsman’s book Race and Manifest Destiny (Harvard University Press, 1986). I followed that trail and began to recognize how embedded in America’s identity this notion of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism is. Once I found that, the story began to tell itself. The Puritans and Pilgrims who first came to this country really believed not only that they were the new Israelites but also that they were the remnant of these ancient Anglo-Saxons from the ancient woods of Germany. They really believed that they were carrying forth the banner of their Anglo-Saxon ancestors.

This made me realize that the non-white body in this country was really never meant to be here.

What became clear to me, and what is the disturbing thing, is that this moment we find ourselves in is not a moment. Black bodies that in this moment are under siege are part of a long history and narrative. It’s about how America has long identified itself as an Anglo-Saxon nation, and what supports this is white supremacy. What became clear is that we’re talking about stand your ground culture. We’re talking about whiteness standing its ground.

The stand your ground law comes from the English common law that says you can protect your castle. But I discovered that the white body was the castle. Anywhere that white bodies travelled, they had a right to stand their ground. Would Trayvon have had the right to stand his ground? He was going home, and the assailant got out of his car. It was really Trayvon’s ground to stand, but had he done so he would have been jailed, if not where he is now.

This whole construction and cherished property of whiteness protects this narrative of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism. They [white bodies] have the right to the free space. In this country, you have to yield and give whiteness the right of way.

Once I understood that, the next question became, “Why us?” How does blackness get constructed? Why is the black body always the guilty body? Why do all these dead black kids have to defend themselves in their death?

I discovered, even more poignantly than I knew before, how the chattelled black body has become the criminalized body – transformed like a virus. The goal of this system of oppression, of white racism, is to keep the black body out of the free space. Free space is synonymous with white space.

We know from the prison industrial complex that this has been effective.

The image of the black body as the chattelled body has become part of the collective imagination of the U.S. I always call it chattelled slavery because the black body has never been seen as human. It was always considered property, belonging to the other. That becomes important in revealing how the black body has been acted upon. I was struck by how embedded that was.

In turning my focus to black faith, I found that black faith has always been that contesting narrative, the narrative of resistance to the Anglo-Saxon exceptionalist matrix with its ideology of white supremacism. It has been that narrative that said God didn’t create us to be slaves. While Europeans might have introduced the African continent to chattel slavery, they did not introduce the continent to God. They knew God when they were free and God knew them, and that is enough to know that God created them to be free.

Even in the midst of all the crucifying realities of what it means to be black in America, black people understand that this is not the last word, that there is hope, that the evil of whiteness cannot sustain itself. There’s a power on the side of black people as they struggle for freedom, greater than any power of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism.

When people were stunned that the community of the nine black parishioners killed in South Carolina forgave Dylann Roof, that was grounded in a black faith that believes in the justice of God. Black forgiveness is always connected to the justice of God. It had nothing to do with exonerating Roof – it’s that I can release myself from the sin of Dylan Roof because I believe the love and justice of God is bigger than that. There is no human justice that can make up for the loss of loved ones, and I can move forward instead of getting trapped in that cycle of sin. Like the early progenitors of the black faith tradition knew during enslavement – that they were not bound by the injustice of slavery.

Discussion/Q & A

Maya Combs: The cover art of your book strikes so many chords. What inspired you to pick this bold and beautiful cover?

KBD: Like the book, I didn’t pick it – it picked me. It’s by Margo Humphrey at the University of Maryland. A dear friend, a fellow professor at Goucher, has a partner who is an art curator at the University of Maryland. He came back from an art show one Monday and said, “I have your cover.” He showed me a postcard of this and did much of the legwork in negotiating with Margo and Orbis [the publishing company of Stand Your Ground]. I’m just privileged Margo allowed us to use this and that others can see her work.

Joe Scinto: What’s the basis for the attitude of white people against blacks? It’s almost like my attitude when I was a teenager and hadn’t yet met any black people – but I did, and my attitude changed. Now that attitude is all over society.

KBD: In short, we have to understand that people are socialized into a particular sense of themselves, into this narrative of whiteness and what it means to be an American. Until white people go back and recognize the myth of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, we cannot move forward. James Baldwin, in his anthology The Price of the Ticket (St. Martin’s Press, 1985), asked what the price of the ticket was to be black in America, but that before we could answer that, we have to answer what the price is for the ticket to be white in America. White people need to go back and claim their history, claim what it meant to become white in this country. Those who look like white Americans also have to understand that they are raced and what that means.

Mary E. Hunt: So much of the media focus has been on black male bodies – and with good sense. How do we hold together the sacred lives of black women in a way that they’re not obscured by black men, but that black men can also been seen in all their vulnerability. How is religion useful in its claims to equality in front of the divine? I’m thinking also of black trans women.

KBD: While there has been a focus on black males, black females have found themselves under attack. The black male is seen as predatory, the most threatening body to the white space. The most common caricature of black female body is the angry black woman. They, too, are seen as a threat to white space.

Black mothers have also been portrayed as breeders of criminology – as still responsible. Black women have not been free of the attack on their bodies. We can see this in Renisha McBride, Rekia Boyd, and Sandra Bland. The little bikini-clad girl who was roughed up in Texas. Trayvon Martin’s friend was demeaned in the courtroom, and who can forget how Michelle Obama was portrayed on the cover of TIME? Most recent in the media was the black mother who came to get her son during the Baltimore riots. Why is this image, a mother slapping her son, looped over and over? They lifted this angry black woman image up, though there were other mothers doing other things.

Just in Gaithersburg, near here, a black trans woman was killed – the twenty-first this year. We have to talk about the war waged against these bodies that are seen as a threat to white hetero-patriarchy.

In terms of religion, I think we have to constantly lift up that anyone who draws breath is a sacred child of God. The breath we breathe is the breath that comes from God. For those who aren’t religious, I also argue that the arc of the universe bends towards justice. Some call that God.

Phoebe Knopf: How does the black church witness so beautifully through a history of overwhelming suffering, so tender and mighty? To a God of love with incredible power that is deeper than all the evil?

KBD: I believe the black church has been able to witness because the black church understands the paradox of the cross. Black faith itself is a paradox. Even in the height of human evil, what the cross represents, God’s love and justice prevail. One has to understand the cross to understand the depth of God’s solidarity with the crucified class of people. Black people live the cross, so central to black faith. Two stories have to be there: exodus and the crucifixion and resurrection. When black people sing “were you there when they crucified my lord?” there is a transcendence of time because they understand they are with Jesus and God at the cross, and Jesus and God are with them. The paradox of black faith is the paradox of the cross.

Diann L. Neu: Would you say more about spirituals – they seem so central?

KBD: In the spirituals, crafted during the time of enslavement, you begin to find the early theology. They’re testimonies of faith. We find the understanding of the God who is on the side of the oppressed, the spiritual identification of black people with Jesus and Jesus with them. They always equated salvation with liberation on earth. There are coded messages – Canaan was going north to freedom, for example. Freedom and liberation are manifest in history, so that salvation is the justice of God on earth.

The double message of the spiritual is always about body and soul – that bifurcation is foreign to the African spiritual traditions that informed black faith. The spirituals are a window into how black people navigated their reality of oppression.

Mary E. Hunt: What’s next? What plans or projects might you have going forward?

KBD: I had to end this book, but then Michael Brown happened (hence the epilogue). The book could keep going, which is a tragic reality but brings home the depth of the problem in this country. Susan Thistlethwaite has done marvelous work on violence on women’s bodies – a leading voice among theologian about racial justice. We are teaming up for a book about violence against women’s bodies, particularly black women, and trans women.

Note: Susan Thistlethwaite will be leading our April 2016 WATERtalk on her new book, Women’s Bodies as Battlefield: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women.

WATER thanks Kelly Brown Douglas and wishes her every blessing in the year ahead. The next WATERtalk will be December 9th from 1 to 2 pm ET with Beverly Lanzetta on the topic of “Interfaith Contemplation: A Path that Shaped My Life.” All are welcome.