All posts by mahseaevans

One Thousand Words: A Picture of King’s Humanity

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.  In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late….Now let us begin.  Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world.”  –Martin Luther King Jr.

KingchurchEven as I type the above quote, I can hear King’s voice; one that challenges me through words spoken long ago yet which remain as fresh as my last drawn breath. Dr King’s invitation to “struggle for a new world” still resonates with radical force today. His clarion calls to participate in a revolution of values that will usher in a society characterized by an “all embracing and unconditional love for all men” remains beating with prophetic vitality.  It is because of his brilliance, courage and resilience in the midst of fire that his name and legacy is continually evoked in the freedom struggles of today, whether in the streets of Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Stanford FL, or beyond.

As one born seven years after the tumult of 1968 (that included King’s assassination), it is obvious that I never bodily shared the Earth with him.  Nevertheless, it is hard to think of King as dead because his spirit continues to be a living force within this nation’s imagination.  King lives—whether in the faded picture hung above the doorway in my grandparent’s house, or in the countless February-time recitations of excerpts of the “I have a dream” speech in grade school. King lives—whether in the numerous schools, centers, boulevards, or avenues that bear his name, or in my mother’s voice as she recounts how she, as a 20 year old young mother, made it home from her job at the phone company on an early April afternoon when my father was out of town—a harrowing journey of navigating through the mist of fresh anger in Southeast DC–an anger that quickly turned into riots in the aftermath of King’s assassination.

Martin-Luther-King-with-Malcom-XAs a child, my relationship with King was one where he was this transcendent presence hovering across the American landscape; his iconic visage appearing in grainy black and white images commanding crowds with oratory gusto.  When I was a teenager in the early nineties, this unexamined and naïve conception of a hero was challenged.  I was heavily involved in the Black intra-community debate that could be boiled down to one question: “Malcolm or Martin?” Indeed, Malcolm X did give birth to my sense of race consciousness and my burgeoning ideal of Black manhood. However, it is King who is presently nurturing my maturing sense of spiritual formation; his life modeling what it means to be a minister committed to societal transformation.

There is no doubt that King remains an indelible fixture of our popular American imagination—an iconic presence that looms large as a symbol, aspiration, the embodiment of things hoped for; an ideal and a dream. However, I strongly believe that King is most powerful when he is liberated from our force-perched pedestals of mythology. When this happens, he ceases being some transcendent character in our history books, to being one with transcendent character who is firmly rooted in history. Only by enfleshing him in the reality of his humanity can we begin to truly see his life not as an exception, but an example of what is possible.

Ultimately, King was just as human as any of us; the beautiful and flawed creatures that we are. Further, there is a special power in recognizing and encountering each other in the ground of our mutual beingness–to truly see ourselves in each other, to be moved by what we find inspiring in others, and to be appreciative of the myriad of opportunities that our sisters and brothers give us to practice patience and forgiveness.  King was human like me; going through the movements of life that metes out generous measures of both joy and grief. Sometimes these burdens take us to our knees in prayer…and sometimes it has us sitting down with a friend and lighting one up…


Regardless, I am thankful for Dr. King in all of his humanity; one who inspires me to stay engaged in the beautiful struggle of working towards the full realization of the Beloved Community.


Hope Matters: Black Nihilism in the Post-Ferguson Moment

The genius of our black foremothers and forefathers was to create powerful buffers to ward off the nihilistic threat, to equip black folk with cultural armor to beat back the demons of hopelessness, meaninglessness, and lovelessness.

Cornel West is a larger than life character; an impressive man paradoxically enrobed in the simplicity of his all black three piece suits.  He is a whirlwind of wisdom whipping through vectors of verbosity leaving listeners both charmed and challenged by the appearance of his wide smile, and wild hair.  Admittedly, I find his presentation of prophetic earnestness in the Obama era a “little much” at times.  He aspires to be that lone wolf archetype; righteously crying out in midst of a meadow of the fawning uncritical masses. Still, despite my reservations on his present public persona, there is not much I can argue with substantively and his brilliance is undeniable.Cornel West

With that, I did not know what to expect when reading his book, Race Matters. Surprisingly, the short essay format and his elegant yet accessible language made the text very approachable and his concepts clear. Though written decades ago, it still seems particularly relevant for today.

West argues that the usual approaches to confront the issues of racism from traditionally liberal or conservative perspectives are not enough. These paradigms of action inevitably fail because they do not adequately address the “murky waters of despair” that lead to nihilism. West defines nihilism as the “profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness and social despair so widespread in black America.”  He also associates it with the “lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.”

Paul Goodnight
Paul Goodnight

This destructive feeling is baked into the makeup of a white supremacist society that originally regarded black bodies not as humans, but as commodities to be exploited and later as masses to be regulated or incarcerated. However, West points out that throughout history, blacks combated racist systems by implementing multiple modes of resistance including the creative and cultural ways that sought to protect the spirit of the people; a project of soul survival.

Today, there remains an insistent need to sustain and create new “powerful buffers” that counter the racist cultural narratives of black worthlessness in order to affirm that black lives do in fact matter.  Events like the unrest in Ferguson and the non-indictment of the police officer who killed Eric Garner in Staten Island can lead one to become seduced by a insidious cynicism; a disposition of the soul that causes one to give up and give in to despair. Hopelessness is equivalent to a type of death, therefore life-affirming efforts to combat nihilism is vital. Scriptures says that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” In like manner, where there is no hope, there is no sense of meaning or motivation to continue the struggle for a more just world.

Author and cultural critic Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about the existential threat of nihilism especially within the Ferguson moment.  He discusses the presence of fatalism and the rage that can sometimes stem from the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. The thrust of his argument is that, despite its justification, “fatalism is not an option” because it saps the energy to fight on to make life better for future generations. He argues that our own presence today is the evidencing or manifestation of the hope of our ancestors. As such, we are obligated to struggle on and resist the urge to give up. Coates discussed these ideas while being interviewed by Chris Hayes on MSNBC. The whole segment is worth the watch!

West ends his first chapter by exploring an idea which he terms a “politics of conversion.” It is an approach to making change rooted self love and in restoring a “hope for the future and a meaning to struggle.”  Maybe the task for today’s leaders, and especially spiritual leaders within the black community, is to not only support political efforts to effect change, but to creatively re-imagine new ways to equip our communities against the existential and spiritual threat of nihilism. I wonder what new creative expressions and methods could emerge if we allow our spiritual imaginations to be unfettered and free? Still, no matter what strategies of resistance and self-affirmation develop as we navigate through this Ferguson moment, one thing that will always remain true is that hope matters.

I conclude with a song by Mos Def, as he reminds us that “there is always a way, no matter what they say.”


From Maryland Soil: A Reflection on Frederick Douglass and Family

yngdoug3In the opening pages of the introduction to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, I was greeted with a succinct summary of the legacy of this great man. Editor David W. Blight writes, “Frederick Douglas was the most important African American leader and intellectual of the nineteenth century”(1). Here is a man who lived the first 20 years of his life as a slave and eventually became the premier voice of social change in his era. His influence was so vast that he eventually counseled the Commander-in-Chief of the same country that once legally sanctioned his enslavement.

Much can be written about Frederick Douglass’ intellectual heft and his incredible ability to make a compelling argument through his rhetorical skills. However, my connection with Douglass is much more personal and really begins with the first four words and last word of his first sentence, “I was born in…Maryland” (39).

Maryland is my root soil; the place where I am “of.” It is the place that locates the living tendrils of my roots that extends through many generations of dark bodies who worked dark lands. Even though I was born and raised “Up North” because my parents moved to Connecticut before I was conceived, my large network of extended family all resided in Maryland. My parents were both raised in Calvert County; about15 miles southeast of this nation’s capital. They, like the generations that preceded them, grew up in the segregated South; working tobacco fields and raising crops.

Just this summer I visited my 96 year old grandmother, Mary Ford Pumphrey, and my 93 year old grandfather, Methuselah Pumphrey. They live on Old Sands Road in Lothian Maryland. I read to my grandmother her favorite Psalm (Psalm 139), and walked with my grandfather around the five acres that surrounded his modest country home. In between sharing stories of his youth and offering words of advice that was filled with an easy wisdom afforded to a quiet man who makes it his business to listen, my grandfather identified and had a story for every individual tree on the property. He spoke and I listened…intently.

Throughout my childhood I traveled many times “down south” to Maryland. What I remember most is the trees and how I felt that they were mysteriously tasked to hold ancestral secrets in trust. I thought of this and my walk with my grandfather when I read Douglass’ account of journeying with fellow slaves to the Great House Farm:

“While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness” He said of the sorrow songs, “they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves…every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.” (47)

This is the Frederick Douglass that interests me; the living flesh who toiled under a Maryland sun whose oppressive strength was magnified by the unrelenting humidity. I am interested in the young man who was given a “magical root” by an old slave named Sandy Jenkins for the purpose of protecting him from the whips of overseers (78-79). I am interested in the communities that nurtured him, laughed with him, cried with him, and pray with him. Why? Because as I reflect on my times in Maryland soil, I recognize that Douglass’ time and my own are not so far apart from each other….OakTree

After reading the Psalms to my grandmother, she took one of her many naps. I lingered in the room and looked through a seemingly ancient photo album. I opened it to see the sepia-toned images of my stoned face ancestors who looked back at me in photographs developed over a century ago. Some of those old folks whose hands touched my grandmother with care also touched the instruments of toil with hands that were not free. Maybe those same hands that broke the soil also broke bread with another fellow Marylander named Frederick. Maybe their voices were part of the chorus of voices that broke the wooded silence by sharing the melodies of those “wild” songs that reverberated in the recesses of Douglass’ memory long ago.

Who knows?

One thing that I am sure of is this: notions of the Past can be deceptive and history stands surprisingly closer to the Present than we think. With that in mind, I am challenged to channel my grandfather’s inner calm; seeking to stay quiet enough to listen to the lessons that the ever-present presence of the Past has to whisper to our Present.


Cone’s Black Theology and the Womanist Spirit

As I immersed myself into the words of James Cone and his complex justifications in his book, A Black Theology of Liberation, I was immensely impressed with the clean logic of his argument.  His conclusion is made clear even in the first few pages when he describes Christian theology as,“…the study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence for the gospel which is Christ” (1).

This definition becomes the ground to erect a (Christian) black theology which identifies the oppressed community as the black community, and Christ as “black” because Jesus would be both identified within the black oppressed community, and the work of the Christ would be the project of “black” liberation.

I admire Cone’s theological integrity and how he demonstrates a dedicated commitment to present an unapologetically black theology using Christian resources. What I find most compelling is his insistence that the theological task, whether taken from an approach from Tillich or Barth, is only relevant when juxtaposed with how it relates to the lives of black folk.  Cone states that, “the purpose of black theology is to make sense of black experience” (25).

Though I honor Biblical resources and Christian traditions as part of my spiritual legacy and present religious language, I have a low Christology and am not interested in Christian apologetics.  Because of this, Cone’s (understandable) insistence on crafting a liberation theology through a Trinitarian conception of God and his concurrence with Barth that “the only legitimate starting point of theology is the man Jesus who is the revelation of God” (23), becomes ultimately problematic for me.  I question if there are ways of constructing a Black theology or understanding of the activity of black spirituality that is not dependent on the theological and exclusive claims of Christianity?

Womanist notions of black spirituality and Alice Walker’s invoking of “Spirit” as a descriptor of the person and work of God offers a more inclusive framework to imagine the varied ways that the black community theologizes today. Delores S. Williams speaks about how “black womanist’s love of spirit is a true reflection of the great respect Afro-American women have always shown for the presence and work of spirit”  (271). In contrast to Cone’s systematic approach to theology, Williams’s evocation of Spirit opens up a greater possibility for theological imagination. She notes that even in the black church,“…women (and men) often judge the effectiveness of the worship services not on the scholarly content of the sermon, nor on the ritual, nor on the orderly process. Rather, worship has been effective if the ‘the spirit was high’…” (271).

She goes on to say how the evidence of the God’s work is found within the divine encounter, and how privileging the “presenc-ing” of the Spirit allows womanist theologian to “give authoritative status to black folk wisdom” (Music, poetry, idioms, folk tales, and other cultural artifacts) (270). This flattening or democratization of the ground of what is considered sacred allows for a more creative approach to how conceive our “doing theology.”

Further, I am reminded of Methodist Pastor Carlyle Fielding Stewart III who says that, “African American spirituality has created a context for the emergence of a culture of creativity engendered by creative and resistant soul force…” (133). In short, there are many ways that the Spirit of God moves in the black community, and manifests as a source of liberation and creativity that seeks the total flourishing of the black community.

Sunni P

One arena where this creative force is displayed today is in the poetry of Sunni Patterson. As you observe her performance below–the words and setting, the text and sitz im lebem (that’s for you, Rob)–please consider:

What elements of womanist ideology are being exemplified in this performance?

Though there are allusions to Christian resources, the poetry is not explicitly Christian. What are some general observations about this poet’s “ministry,” and how it seeks to meet the needs of the black community?

Sunni Patterson Live at the Signature: A Poetic Medley Show

My Mama’s House is a River