Sunday, January 16, 2011

Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday

By Ulysses Grant Dietz

Dear God, open my mind and set it free;
open my heart and set it on fire.

You see me today dressed in the full “vestments” of my position as an American curator--something I gave up wearing to church many years ago. This is the uniform I drag out when I go to meetings of the Museum’s board of trustees, or maybe to openings at another museum: the native costume of my people. Think of it as equivalent to the floor-length cope that Bernie wears every year when we chant the Great Litany at the start of Advent. I wear this today because this is, for me, a momentous and somewhat intimidating occasion.

One reason I was chosen to preach today (Bernie sort of tipped his hand in the announcements last week) is that I am entering my second year as a board member of the SO/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race. The Coalition’s mission statement is to achieve and sustain the benefits of a thriving, racially integrated and truly inclusive community that serves as a model for the nation. Words to live by indeed; words that have inspired me for years, and a mission that surely reflects the goals that MLK Jr. set out to achieve fifty years ago. But while I continue to learn how to live out that mission statement here in this town, and to understand how to be a useful member of that organization, you must all understand that it is because of my twenty-five year membership in this parish that I could accept the call to be part of the Coalition’s board. In this place the lessons of my life have come together. This is where my spirit lives and thrives and continues to grow. I just wanted to be clear about that from the start.

The other reason the Absalom Jones Committee zeroed in on me was the accident of my birth. I am the younger son of the youngest daughter of the only son of the eldest son of Ulysses S. Grant. Got that? Great-great grandson; the youngest descendant of my generation. But the unfortunate truth is that in the generations after Ulysses S. Grant won the war that freed the enslaved people of the United States, my Grant ancestors embraced the prevailing racism that followed the collapse of reconstruction. As proud as I am of my longstanding Republican ancestry, it was only when my then 92-year-old mother voted for Barack Obama in 2008 that—for me—the lingering taint of racism was once and for all washed away. It was a watershed moment in my mother’s life (representing the ongoing liberal influence of both of her sons, I might add); a spiritual and intellectual journey of which she was and remains inordinately proud.

I used to joke, thirty years ago when I first started my job at the Newark Museum, that on any given day I was the whitest person in Newark.  I have lived my entire life as a child of WASP privilege, from the silver spoon in my mouth at birth, to my prep school and Ivy League education, to the thirty-year career as a museum curator in what is probably the whitest of all professions in America. Through Ulysses S. Grant I am a descendant of Richard Warren, a passenger on the Mayflower in 1620—although I say so with mixed feelings since I share that same line of descent with the actor Richard Gere, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the folk artist Grandma Moses—oh, and Sarah Palin.  You really can’t choose your family.

You can, however choose your heroes.

Being a dutiful St. Georgian, let’s briefly revisit today’s scripture. Isaiah gives us some great material:
“I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
Thus says the LORD, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers, "Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD…who has chosen you."

Well, that seems to work. I can see the life and work of Dr. King in that scripture.

It’s just as well that Paul’s epistle was eliminated for today in favor of an excerpt from Dr. King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, because I couldn’t get much out it anyway. John’s Gospel is much better—the well known verses about John the Baptizer being the forerunner of Jesus who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  I can’t think of a better foreshadowing of the life of MLK Jr.—prophet, leader, martyr, Christian saint.  But, enough scripture...

I can’t pinpoint the moment in my life when Martin Luther King Jr. became a hero to me. I am fairly sure that my more mature, deeper understanding of Martin Luther King Jr. in all his human complexity—his strength as well as his human weaknesses—came to me through the writing of Taylor Branch, and through his monumental trilogy on Dr. King’s life—Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and  At Canaan’s Edge. But I know that even before reading these books, my admiration and respect for Martin Luther King Jr. had long since taken root.

I can remember, perhaps six years ago, taking my son Alex to the Lincoln Memorial on a cold rainy Thanksgiving weekend and standing with him on the bronze plaque marking the spot where MLK Jr delivered his “I have a dream” speech. For me, to stand on that spot was to visit a holy place, and I was glad that my children are of the generation for whom Dr. King’s importance is taken as a matter of course, and who are taught his life and work in school.

And I also can vividly recall an annual meeting of the Ulysses S. Grant Association held in Washington, DC, perhaps a decade ago. One of our activities that weekend was a private visit to the archives of the Library of Congress, where the curator pulled out various Civil War documents that we were allowed to hold and study closely.  At one point the curator, knowing my connection to the Civil War general, handed me a thin sheaf of typed pages in a protective Mylar sleeve.  I wondered what interest this could be until I read the first words:
“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
There in my hand was the typescript of the “I have a dream” speech—the actual speech that Dr. King held in his hands as he made history that hot summer day in 1963. It might as well have been a piece of the true cross. I trembled to hold that paper in my hands.

It embarrasses me that I have no vivid childhood memory of Dr. King’s assassination in April 1968.  Surely I was aware of him, but I was thirteen, in 8th grade, and my only real memory of that spring was our class trip to Washington DC. I’m sure I was shocked, but I am also sure that Dr. King’s death didn’t affect me the way it did African American teenagers on that sad day. His death seemed distant from my reality, in spite of the headlines that would have come into our home through newspapers and television. But I can say that it was almost certainly the first time the death of a black man had ever made it onto my personal radar, or that of any of my white friends growing up in Syracuse, New York.

I asked my brother Jed what he remembered about this day—he is eight years my senior and was a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He remembers that day vividly.  He was vice president of the powerful student council at UNC Chapel Hill—an ardent young Republican deeply committed to civil rights (which might sound odd, but this was the 1960s, when the idea of a moderate, or even a liberal Republican, had not yet become anathema). That very evening my brother was presiding over the student council in a heated debate over whether the university should actively market itself to black high school students in North Carolina.  Apparently, students in North Carolina’s mostly black urban high schools in the years after integration were still unaware that they actually had the right to apply to UNC, so deeply ingrained was the traditional pattern of segregation. The southern democratic members of the student council were vehemently against this marketing outreach, fearful of how it might change their alma mater. It was the young republican contingent—my brother among them—that was arguing for reaching out to these students who, till that moment, had generally been ignored by this elite southern university.

But the debate ended when the news was received of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis. My brother suspended the meeting and these students—privileged white students—dispersed to ponder the violent death of a figure that, whatever they thought of him, mattered in their lives and had already reshaped life as it was lived in the American South.

It also shames me that I can’t give any account of how Dr. King’s life and death affected someone who was a constant presence in my life as a teenager: a woman named Vernice Curry, the black woman who cleaned our house and took care of us as a family for seventeen years—all of my childhood. If you have read, or even heard of the recent best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help, set in Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960s, you will know that its plot revolves around the complex relationships between a group of black maids and their employers. I remember reading this fascinating book last year with a sense of superiority because my family wasn’t mean like those people in Mississippi were.  I was brought up short by a close friend who asked me just how different my world in Syracuse really was from the world depicted in Jackson?  My life in Syracuse in the early 1960s was full of these black women. Virtually every family on my street had their own Vernice: I remember seeing them going home from work at the end of each day—those who didn’t live in—in their white or pink or pale blue uniforms and white nurses shoes, heading up the hill to the bus stop that would take them to the part of Syracuse I rarely saw or even thought of. It never occurred to me watching Leave it to Beaver or—even more bizarrely, The Andy Griffiths Show, set as it was in the rural South—that a crucial element of my life was missing from those supposed depictions of the world I inhabited. I can vividly remember kissing Vernice’s plump cheek every day when I got home from school. I can remember sitting with her in our family room, while she ironed my father’s shirts and we watched Let’s Make a Deal together.  I can remember her the morning after the sudden and unexpected death of my younger brother in 1969, serving coffee and breakfast to the shocked gathering of my grief-stricken family, dressed in her best crisp white uniform, silent tears rolling down her cheeks. But I have no memory of the Friday morning after Dr. King was killed, or how hard it must have been for her to come to work that day. Did I ask her how she felt?  Did I tell her I was sorry?  How I took Vernice’s presence for granted; and how little thought I gave to what Dr. King meant to her.

Ironically, if my sheltered WASP upbringing wasn’t designed to help me embrace MLK Jr. as a hero, it did prepare me in other ways. It was at my elite New England prep school, Phillips Exeter Academy, that I first had black classmates—classmates who were in many cases my seniors and thus had to be respected. I remember Paul, from Detroit, who called me “boy” and took good natured pleasure in lifting my scrawny little carcass up over his huge afro (I was small in the 10th grade and he was very tall). And I remember another black student, another Paul, slender and effeminate, who lived in my dorm and was the first gay classmate I ever knew from Exeter. He now lives in LA as a performer under the name Paul Outlaw.

And it was in the hallowed halls at Yale that I lived in close contact with Jews for the first time in my life—Yale’s housing service must have assumed my German last name was Jewish, and so all three of my freshman roommates were Jewish. It was from them that I began to learn about the vast Jewish community in the tri-state area around New York City. Growing up in Syracuse I’d never even eaten a bagel. The unwritten quotas that had kept the number of Jewish students strictly limited at the Ivy League schools into the 1960s were gone, swept away in the rapid cultural changes spearheaded by the civil rights work Dr. King. And, of course, it was also at Yale that I met Gary Berger, and became the first person in my family’s history ever to marry outside the Protestant country club, in more ways than one.

But it was also during my Ivy League education that I came to grips with what being part of a disenfranchised minority could mean. Being gay at Yale in the early 1970s meant either being invisible (a path not open to black students, or for that matter, Jewish students) or being marginalized and denied access to the sort of power networks that made Yale such a good place for the Bushes, the Buckleys, and even for the Clintons.

But I don’t want to minimize the importance Dr. King’s legacy by trying to make too much of myself as part of an oppressed minority. I was born lucky, and my life has been blessed, and unlike Dr. King I am lucky enough to have lived long enough to regret growing older—but I have also lived long enough to see the young fruit of Dr. King’s labors begin—just begin—to ripen.

Choosing to settle down in Maplewood 30 years ago was a stroke of luck.  I wanted to find Leave it to Beaver, to recapture the blinkered vision of my happy childhood in Syracuse. We arrived here, fully expecting to be tolerated at best by the people in town. Instead, Gary and I a found a town that may have looked like the 1950s, but was already starting to live out a new vision—the vision created by MLK Jr in the 1960s and fostered by folks like the people who founded the SO/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race fifteen years ago. But these towns, like this church, remain to this day a bubble of integration and acceptance of diversity in a state that is still among the most segregated in the nation.

Dr. King said on the steps of the Lincoln memorial in 1963:
I have a dream that one day... little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. [W]e will be be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands..."

My children, who are not white, have never been taunted because of their skin color, nor because they are adopted, nor because they have two fathers, nor because one of their fathers is Jewish.  They have black friends, and Asian friends, and white friends, and even gay friends—all of which would have been unimaginable in the Syracuse of my childhood.

The road to civil rights paved by MLK Jr. is not complete. The legal instruments of justice and equal civil rights for all Americans are largely in place—with some glaring exceptions. Living into those legal facts, however, is still, as we all know too well, a work in progress.  But we are on that road, and together we are moving forward.

Martin Luther King Jr. died a year before the historical beginning of the gay rights movement (or, as the conservative right calls it, the Gay Agenda). Coretta Scott King, in 2004, two years before her death, angered the more conservative side of her community when she spoke out in favor of same-sex marriage, saying “Gay and lesbian people have families, and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil union…” You can’t imagine the impact that her words had on me and my family.  Mrs. King didn’t need to say that. Her late husband’s legacy would have been safe even had she kept silent. Which is why her speaking out made such a difference.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s mission was to bring justice and equality to his people.  And his people were black people.  But his people were also all people. Jesus was the messiah for the Jews—but he was also the messiah for the gentiles. His people came first, but he embraced all people, especially the despised and the marginalized. Dr. King spent his life reaching across the gaps that divided black from white, one religion from another.

Let me close with a quote from a recent song (introduced to me by my children) called I’m Not Afraid:
I'm not afraid to take a stand
Everybody come take my hand
We'll walk this road together, through the storm
Whatever weather, cold or warm
Just let you know that, you're not alone
Holler if you feel that you've been down the same road.

If you don’t already know it, the song is by Marshall Mathers III, better known as Eminem. I don’t pretend that MLK Jr would remotely understand the anger, violence, or misogyny that routinely appear in Eminem’s lyrics. But I do know that this brilliant wordsmith has formed a bond with the community of black hip-hop and rap musicians that is unprecedented in the history of American music. Eminem, like him or not, could never have happened without the work of MLK Jr. We are all on the same road, and if we choose not to walk alone, we’ll follow Dr. King’s example and reach out for each others’ hands. The chief lesson that I’ve learned from my years in this parish, in this town, and now on the board of the Community Coalition, is that we’re all in this together. And the seed of that lesson lies in the life of MLK Jr.

As a final blessing, here’s the simplest possible prayer, one that my father said to us every night as children, as he marked our foreheads with the sign of the cross. Both my brother and I carried on this tradition as long as our children would allow us to.
God bless you, and keep you, and fill your heart with love.
What more can we ask? Amen.

© 2011 Ulysses Grant Dietz