January 29, 2010

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Are we really free at last?

Cynthia DewesSoon it will be February, and the annual celebration of Black History Month. Considering this, along with the recent Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and the seasonal Kwanzaa observance, turns our thoughts to this nation’s largest racial minority.

Those of us who are black probably think it is about time we are being recognized as part of Our Gang. Certainly we are as patriotic as the next guy, and we contribute to American society in so many ways.

After all, the story of blacks in this country is the original and most impressive immigrant success story in U.S. history. They were brought here against their will as slaves, yet they eventually advanced to become Supreme Court justices,

internationally revered statesmen, artists and athletes, and even president of the United States.

Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, some Americans continue to point out that blacks (like whites, which is not mentioned) are not always good citizens. Some are criminal, some are moochers, some refuse to avail themselves of educational or societal supports they wrongly view as “white” traps.

There are blacks, again like some whites, who believe that black values are often at odds with white values. They fear losing their identity to the majority culture or not being able to measure up to the national ideal because, no matter what they do, they will always be different. Their color constantly puts them in the role of The Other.

Like most racial and ethnic minorities, they fear being branded as less valuable citizens than the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and other whites who largely founded this country. It reminds them of the early idea in our political system that a Negro only counted as three-fourths of a white man.

But everyone, black or white, should remember that America is an experiment in human justice. The white WASPs and others who wrote the Constitution and fought for political independence were seeking individual freedom based on the fact that all men are created equal by their Creator with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Of course, this is an extension of the Christian belief that all (wo)men are created by a loving God with the inherent freedom to discern and do God’s will. It is only fair that all of us, black, white or what-have-you, should be able to make choices which determine our own fates.

Again, the only catch in this arrangement is the fact that we are human. We may be made in God’s image, but we ain’t perfect. The chief example of this is that the very society which set out on the idealistic path of equality promptly allowed the practice of slavery. It took a Civil War to end its legality.

To add insult to injury, it took another century before laws and general practice finally changed enough to make true racial equality possible. Today, non-discrimination is the name of the game and Jim Crow is no more.

Sounds good, but in fact we have not yet reached the Christian goal of genuine equality before God. The result is we have the disaffection of many blacks, and the suspicions of many whites. We follow the letter of the law, but not always its spirit.

Some may think that celebrating a Black History Month and other such events is superfluous in an inclusive society such as ours. But I think they provide an opportunity for all of us to examine our own motives and behaviors in light of what it really means to be a Christian American.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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