Monday, March 28, 2011

Race in the US: Can't we all get along?

I've mentioned before that I've begun CHATS (Connecting Hearts Across The Seas), a Facebook Reading Group with my girlfriend Ondrea Harrison. We're two months and two books into our journey together, and I think it has surprised us all how much we've been personally challenged. Our first book, Cane River by Lalita Tademy had us in tears as we traveled back in time to the days of U.S. slavery and the Civil War. Our hearts broke over the oppression our ancestors endured: African Americans oppressed by their Caucasian slave owners, Caucasian women oppressed by their men and society, the poor oppressed by the wealthy. Together we praised God that even though racism, sexism and economic disparity still exist in our country, none of these exists at the same magnitude of those times.

But that's not the end of the story. Cane River incited some intense dialogue amongst us ladies, and I realized that the discussion of race and culture in the United States is still a necessary one. And increasingly so: the 2010 U.S. Census revealed some interesting trends in our country.

Hispanics account for more than 1/2 of the U.S. population increase in the last decade; a count of 50 million Hispanics, which equals 1 in 6 Americans
  • The Asian population grew by 43% over the last decade
  • More than 9 million Americans checked 2 or more race categories, up 32% from 2000
  • Racial and ethnic minorities made up about 90% of the total U.S. growth since 2000
The conclusion of these statistics? By mid-century minorities are expected to become the majority in the United States. My opinion? It's high time to retire the term "minority" in our country. My other conclusion? We better start practicing the mantra of Rodney King, victim of the highly-publicized 1991 Los Angeles police brutality case, "Can't we all get along?" And in the family of God, we need to raise the bar even on that. We should be practicing for eternity in heaven where there will be people "out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation." (Revelation 5:9b)

At Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas, where my husband Anthony currently pastors and at our former church of Strong Tower Bible Church in Franklin, Tennessee, church members are practicing for heaven on a regular basis. We do church and life with one another, regardless of race, cultural background or economic standing. It's been an amazing ride during this past decade that I have belonged to a multiracial church, and at this point I wouldn't want to do church any differently.

Am I stating that every Christian should belong to a multiracial church? Or that every church should be multiracial? Of course not. I have friends and family members that belong to and lead churches where the entire congregation comes from the same ethnic group. These churches represent the communities that surround them, and most of them look exactly the way they should. But I do believe that every pastor and church leader must have an open heart to those of other races and backgrounds. After all, you never know when those folks might pay a visit on a Sunday morning, and even desire membership. Are you ready?

Also, our lives extend far beyond the church pews -- or padded seats, for more contemporary church decors. Our lives should regularly touch people of different ethnicities and cultures. A short check list to evaluate this in your own life:

  • Have you invited anyone to your home from another ethnic group in the last six months?
  • When you scroll down your cell phone contacts, are there people of other races represented?
  • At work, school or social events, do you tend to hang out with people that look and live like you?
Self-imposed segregation is common, because we tend to be most comfortable with people like us. The funny thing is, when we make a heart connection with people of other races and cultural backgrounds, we're often pleasantly surprised at how much we have in common. For instance, I have a sister (from another mother) who amazes me with how much we think alike. Ondrea and I share a love of Jesus, a passion for orphans around the world, a heart for those less fortunate and a ravenous appetite for great books. But on the outside, we look nothing alike. What if that had kept us from making a heart connection?

Recently, Ondrea and I have had some deep heart to hearts over Cane River. With her permission, here's just a sampling of one of her emails to me. (By the way, "we" refers to her and another Caucasian CHATS member.) "We were talking about racial reconciliation and how we are really SO far from that in our country. We wished it would be possible to have a very bare and honest discussion about what it feels like to be a white person today. The shame and guilt we carry into any interaction with a person of color (someone unknown to us, not those truly known to us.) We GRIEVE with you over the pain our ancestry has inflicted on your ancestry and what our SHARED ancestry has done to mess us ALL up."

We also discussed our different experiences living in the same city of Franklin, Tennessee. She had witnessed very little overt racism, yet I certainly had my share. At my son's elementary and middle school, a major controversy broke out over some vandalism in one of the boy's bathrooms. Someone had written racial slurs on the walls and created a miniature make-shift noose. Also, in our neighborhood someone had written "KKK" and the n-word on some utility boxes in our block. Anthony was even interviewed for the evening news regarding the incident.

And just last week here in my new home of Arkansas (deeper south than Tennessee), my son Christian said his friend had overheard another boy at an area park say, "I'll be glad when all the black people go home." This boy was obviously young, so my guess is he had to have heard an adult make the comment first.

On the other hand, I've also been privileged to witness how Christ can transform a racist man or woman's heart into a heart of compassion and love. When Anthony was ordained as a pastor at Strong Tower, one of the men on his ordination board was Al Jaynes, a Caucasian man in his seventies from the South. Al's first words at the ordination were an apology for the sins that his forefathers had committed against Anthony's forefathers through the horrible system of slavery in our country. With several family members and friends from our hometown of Baltimore present, the majority of the audience was African American. I can assure you, after Al's proclamation, there wasn't a dry eye in the room. My father, who has endured discrimination and prejudice like I'll probably never know, still talks about the impact that Al had on him, and from that day he and Al began a wonderful relationship.

I also think of the late Pastor R.L. "Denny" Denson, who pastored an African American church in Franklin for many years. Moving from Georgia to the Southside of Chicago in his twenties, Pastor Denson grew up with hatred in his heart for Caucasian people and joined the Black Panther Party, the historic African American revolutionary leftist organization. As he grew in age and maturity, however, God captured his heart for Him, then shattered his hatred for his Caucasian brothers and sisters. When I met him in 2001, he had become an outspoken promoter of racial reconciliation in Franklin, the U.S. and around the world. I loved Rev. Denson's heart for God and for people, and even though he often teased me jokingly, yet mercilessly, about my modern woman ways, as he would say, I truly miss him.

There are so many others that have made great strides in the Body of Christ in the area of racial reconciliation. I don't have enough time to discuss Anthony Hendricks, Chris Williamson, Mark DeYmaz, Harry Li, David Anderson, Tony Evans, Erwin McManus, John Perkins and so many others leading racial reconciliation in their churches, communities and the world.

Our country is changing before our very eyes. Racial diversity is more than a trend. It is a movement of God. God's people must be in on this movement. Will you be in on it?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Who Do I Think I Am?

A year ago, while living in my parents' native state of Virginia, I embarked on a journey into my ancestral past. My motivation for this undertaking? Well, I love history and I love a good story, so I had recently followed many others as they delved into their ancestries. Cane River by Lalita Tademy, one of my favorite books that I shared in a previous blog post ("Books That Made A Difference To Me"), chronicles Tademy's genealogical findings in the framework of fiction, much like Alex Haley's Roots. My husband Anthony and I have also enjoyed countless documentaries about genealogy, such as PBS' African American Lives. And occasionally on Friday evenings, I have enjoyed watching the likes of Tim McGraw, Vanessa Williams and Lionel Ritchie discover their family roots on NBC's Who Do You Think You Are?

When I began digging into my family roots, I wasn't sure what I was going to find. Like many African American families, my family is rather colorful. And I don't mean that metaphorically. Our complexions range from "coffee, to cocoa, to cream, to milk, to lily," as Tademy describes her ancestors in Cane River. And fourteen years ago, I cannot describe our surprise when I gave birth to a cream-colored, redheaded child (my sweet Kalin). He was quickly dubbed by the hospital nursing staff as "the mailman's baby," although in my postpartum state, I didn't find the joke funny at all.

You can probably imagine our surprise when, eleven years later, I gave birth to yet another cream-colored, redheaded baby (my precious Jada). Needless to say, Anthony and I knew there were some secrets to uncover in our family trees, and I can't tell you how intrigued I've been to get to the bottom of them. Well, since my Uncle Alvis has completed and documented quite a bit of family history on my father's side of the family, I decided to tackle my mother's genealogy, which I knew very little about. And let me tell you, it's been no small undertaking. I still have lots more research to do, but I'd love to share just a few of the pieces that have already come together.

Genealogy experts suggest you begin with gathering facts from living family. So of course I began my search by interviewing my mother. I discovered my mother had no idea who her grandfather was, only that he was Caucasian. Just two generations before her. Her mother's father. Can you imagine not knowing your own grandfather? And this was not the slavery era either. My grandmother was born in 1901, so we're talking the beginning of the Twentieth Century. If you're reading this, that's probably the century you were born into, so it wasn't that long ago.

I asked my mother if she at least knew her grandfather's name, and she replied "Ned Hudnall". So I began searching on for a Ned Hudnall in the Census reports for Northumberland County, Virginia. I found no "Ned Hudnall" anywhere. So I searched for my great-grandmother, Mary Frances Conway instead. I found Mary in several Census reports, but a couple of those years were of particular interest. In 1910, Mary is listed with two of her children, Elizabeth and Antic (my great aunt and uncle), living with a Caucasian family. My great-grandmother and great uncle are listed as "servants" in the home. My great aunt is listed as a "boarder". The race of my great aunt and uncle is listed as "mulatto". By the way, in 1910 my grandmother, only eight at the time, was living with her older married sister Ella Conway. I found Ella living with this same family in the 1900 Census, as a "house girl".

And guess what the last name of that Caucasian family is? Yep -- Hudnall. I could feel the search for my great-grandfather heating up.

The head of the house was James Hudnall and his wife was Susan. They had three sons, William, Bertrand, and Richard Llewellyn. A logical conclusion: one of these sons is probably my great-grandfather. But with a name like "Ned," probably a nickname, I hit a brick wall. After searching the Hudnall family online, however, I found a family historian amongst this family. He and I emailed each other for a few months. He too found my ancestors living with this Hudnall family. Here's an excerpt from one of his emails: "Being a son of the family that employed both your great aunt and your great-grandmother, and most likely with your great-grandmother living on the premises, there would have been more opportunity for the two of them to have had a liaison." The nature of that liaison -- a love affair or a forced physical relationship -- I may never know.

Well, the obvious question in my mind was, which Hudnall son fathered my grandmother? Well, there's one more clue in this story. My mother had once mentioned an "Uncle Simon" that she remembered from her childhood. Uncle Simon's background was sketchy, but her understanding was that he and her mother (my grandmother) had the same father, but different mothers. She described him as being fair-skinned with sandy-brown hair and hazel eyes. When I researched this puzzle piece, guess where I found my Great Uncle Simon living in 1930? He was living with Richard Llewellyn Hudnall, the son of James Hudnall. Richard Llewellyn, the head of the house, was fifty-two and Simon was twenty-eight on the 1939 Census. If you do the math, that makes them twenty-four years apart. Could Richard Llewellyn have been Simon's father, and therefore my grandmother's father? It was possible that even though Simon was never recognized as a son, his lodging and material needs still could have been met by his father. Or maybe Richard, a medical doctor, was an uncle taking care of his brother's son.

Either way, there are two legacies represented here. The first legacy, indicative of the racial climate of the time, was the biracial child born to an African American mother and Caucasian father. Everyone in the family, and in the town for that matter, knows exactly who the parents of this child are. However, because of the stigma of the birth outside of marriage and outside of strict racial boundaries, there are no written legal documents of this father-child relationship. Thus a century later, I am unable to identify my great-grandfather with one hundred percent accuracy. The second legacy evident here is the Caucasian family's willingness to care for the biracial children born into their family line. These children were given housing at the very least, as they are listed living with their family members over several decades.

In an essay "My Most Unforgettable Character," a fellow townsmember of Richard Llewellyn shares a heartwarming description of the town physician. "Scion of an old aristocratic family, Dr. Hudnall placed less importance on ancestry than he did on the man himself. He was interested in everyone regardless of color or creed... Dr. Hudnall's office was like a small pharmacy and it supplied medicine gratis to those who could not pay for it. Long before Social Security was even thought of this community must have had, through the bounty of this good man, an early and unique Medicare system for the indigent." My eyes teared over this essay. This man of valor could have been my great-grandfather or great-great uncle.

My search to fill in the missing pieces of my ancestry puzzle has been intriguing and exciting some days, discouraging on others. I envy my Caucasian friends who can trace their family trees back to England, Germany and Scotland. I even envy those African Americans that can at least trace theirs back to slavery times. In 2011, the legacy of secrecy in my family saddens me. My grandmother Elmira has family bibles where she has listed every name on her mother's side, but left her father's side blank. She never spoke about her father to my mother or any of her children. Was she ashamed to have been the product of a controversial relationship? Was her heart hardened towards her father because he never openly acknowledged her? Unfortunately, it's impossible for me to ask her these questions now.

I identify with Bliss Broyard, author of One Drop, a memoir that sheds light on her biracial father, who passed for white his entire adult life. Comparing her genealogical search to that of other "amateur genealogists," she said, "I envied these people. Whereas they were unraveling a ball of thread that started with family stories and yellowing photos displayed in the hall, my lead was a dusty, tangled thing that had been kicked under the bed years before. Unknotting it wasn't going to be easy."

I pray that as I continue my research, God will help me detangle and unknot my "ball of thread". My heart longs to right the wrong, shed light on the darkness and straighten that which is crooked. I know I'm only one person, but maybe God can use me. Lord willing, the story of "who I think I am" might even bring some healing.