Countless persons of color have lived and died seeking to challenge and empower America to transform its creeds into deeds.
In his poem, “I Too,” Langston Hughes writes about blacks being sent to the kitchen when company comes: “Tomorrow I’ll be at the table when company comes. Nobody’ll dare say to me eat in the kitchen then. Besides they’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed. I too – sing America.”
It seems sometimes that it is only when death comes to a gifted, bold and deeply patriotic Black American does America, in massive ways, “see how beautiful” they are. But I am not sure that in the moments of grief and celebration of their lives, America is “ashamed.”
James Cone the leading proponent of Black Liberation Theology wrote in his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree: “It has always been difficult for white people to empathize fully with the experience of black people.”
But Jane Harvey, in her book, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, suggests that she, as a white person who is Christian, has an understanding of the lives of King-Baldwin-Cone- and Franklin that could and should inform our present and future. In her Introduction under the heading “Reconciliation Has Failed,” she writes, “But when Black Power offered its analysis firing the imagination of many Black Christians, white Christians’ response was not to respond to what we heard. Instead we fled. Living into a reparations paradigm is difficult. It requires dwelling in painful truths. But it is honest in ways that I am convinced are potentially liberating and transformative for us all.”
The death of Aretha Franklin has taken place when the USA is at a place where we have never been. It is obvious that the rhetoric about democracy – “Liberty and Justice for all” – for many is patriotic rhetoric and nothing more. The slogan that states our national purpose is to “Make America Great Again” by becoming what it once was does not resonate well with me. Does the “Again” include affirmation of the enslavement of my black ancestors – the racial segregation that I have experienced and the lynchings that are now acknowledged in a Museum in Alabama? Would leaders in Germany bring Germans to their feet cheering if they said their purpose was to “Make Germany Great Again?”
What might the life and death of Aretha Franklin and the lives and deaths of Martin Luther King, James Baldwin and James Hal Cone mean for America?
“America has a hole in its soul.” That hole was created in the ways it has treated and treats its “Family” members who sing: “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered; We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” These family members have made “Soul Food” out of the morsels of democracy America has thrown away.
Could the life and death of the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin inspire America to engage in speaking words and doing deeds of Reparations not just on behalf of its family members whom it has “dissed?”
But in Reparations that close the hole in its soul that has wounded all of our family?
Aretha sang as nobody could, R-E-S-P-E-C-T! America is in the process of losing its self- respect. We who have seen America from the “bottom up” can be the nation’s “wounded healers.” AMERICA, Do you want to be healed?”
Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell is a civil rights leader, who walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., supported voter drives in Mississippi, marched on Washington, and joined the march from Selma to Montgomery at Dr. King’s request. A life-long United Methodist minister, the civil rights movement inspired Rev. Caldwell’s ministry, leading him to also advocate for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in his denomination and in society. He is a former president of the Black Methodists for Church Renewal, served United Methodist Churches in the Boston area, and was superintendent of the Boston District of Methodism’s New England Conference. A graduate of Boston University School of Theology, he is a recipient of the School’s Distinguished Alumni Award. His email address is: Caldwell firstname.lastname@example.org.