Category Archives: Black & White & Other Colors

The Spirit of Ida B. Wells returns to Memphis?

The May 25 New York Times features a description of  MLK50, a scrappy, pot-stirring news  operation in Memphis.  MLK50 was started by Wendi Thomas, a Memphis native and  veteran journalist.

We unapologetically exist to dismantle the status quo where it doesn’t serve low-income residents in Memphis, the overwhelming majority of whom are black,” Ms. Thomas said. “We’re not a black publication, but we frame the news from the perspective of the most vulnerable.”
(
Below: Wendi Thomas)

MLK50 won awards for an investigative report that exposed how a “nonprofit” local Methodist-affiliated hospital Which underpaid its workers, then sued many for being unable to keep up with medical bills in their own facility.

Continue reading The Spirit of Ida B. Wells returns to Memphis?

SAYMA’s Not Safe, III: New Trouble: Threats Against Three Meetings

[Note: this post is not as long as it may appear; some attachments are at the end for completeness and accuracy.]

Two years ago next week, Sharon Smith met her match.

It was on March 16, 2018, in a weekend anti-racism workshop at a suburban Asheville community center. It was presented by the Racial Equity Institute (REI), a Black-owned consulting firm based in Greensboro NC.  Smith was invited as an alumna of REI workshops; for the several dozen regular attenders a $250 fee was charged.

The workshop had barely started, and a trainer was giving an overview, when Smith interrupted. Another participant then told her that REI’s policy was for alumni, attending free, to sit quietly, so discussion was carried by and focused on the paid participants.

This comment set Smith off. As she told a reporter later,

“There’s no way, according to systemic racism theory, that any white woman should be telling a woman of color what she should and shouldn’t be saying. That’s just not OK.”

But as Smith continued to interrupt, as Smith told it,

Jacquelyn Hallum: “Oh NO not today!”

That’s when Jacquelyn Hallum (A Black employee of [the community center]) stood up and said, “Oh NO, not today! We are not doing this today with you, Sharon.” . . . She told me I needed to leave, if I was not willing to be quiet. Since I already have issues with folks trying to dominate me, I said “I’m not leaving.” Then she said she would call security, if I refused to obey, and I said “Go right ahead.”

What happened next, as REI put it, was

She was reminded by multiple alumni and invited to leave the room for further discussion. Unfortunately, all attempts made to peacefully resolve the situation were unsuccessful and those in attendance were forced to respond to her demand to call security, who in turn called the police. The officers again attempted to get her to leave on her own and she again refused. (REI statement; not online.)

Smith was removed and arrested.

Of course, Smith was outraged and claimed “the police used excessive force to drag me out of the room and out of the building.” (However, there were no reports that medical attention was needed).

Yet even more than the arrest itself, Smith was offended by the  disregard of her status the removal displayed. As she put it:

This is a story about how so-called progressive anti-racist white people and their “well behaved Negroes” conspired to shut down constructive criticism from an elder woman of color, with more knowledge, experience and insight into how white supremacy works than anyone in Asheville NC.

This declaration needs unpacking: First, no “progressive anti-racist white people” were in charge here: the policy was made by a Black-owned firm. It was their event, their rules, and its staff of color, along with local people of color, who enforced it over Smith’s objections.

And second, no one will question that Smith is an “elder woman of color”; but what about having “more knowledge, experience and insight into how white supremacy works than anyone in Asheville NC”? (Emphasis added.)

There are about a hundred thousand people in Asheville, including 10,000-plus people of color; it is home to two sizeable colleges, with several more nearby. Who, besides herself, has designated Smith as the number one most knowledgeable person in that whole area on this subject matter?

Still this is definitely her self-concept; it was repeated three times in her account. Based on it, it seems clear her expectation was to be treated as a key resource person, at the center of the proceedings; anything less was an indignity to be resisted. (This is an outlook readers of these posts have encountered before.)

The point of this story is easy to overlook, though important: the ruckus over Smith was unpleasant, but brief; then the workshop resumed. REI was embarrassed by it, but was prepared for such a contingency and managed it with dispatch.

Which is also to say, that the 40-plus other participants got what their $250 paid for, rather than whatever Smith wanted to unload on them.

My hat is off to REI and those who got it done.

But that’s not what this post is actually about. Rather, it has to do with two emails Smith sent out just a few days ago. The emails announced her intention to “shut down” and stop a conference planned for Asheville Friends Meeting on May 9, by force.

The emails are attached in full at the end of this post. But here’s the nub:

The event is “Roots of Injustice Seeds of Change: Toward Right Relationship With Native People.” It’s planned for May 9, 2020 at Asheville Friends Meeting. Asheville is cosponsoring it with two other SAYMA meetings, Celo and Swannanoa Valley. A Friend from Boulder, Colorado, Paula Palmer, is facilitating it.

And Smith does not approve, and she sees it as her prerogative and duty to stop it:

Friends in Asheville, Swannanoa Valley and Celo NC, are up to no good. They are moving ahead with a plan to pay Paula Palmer to do her workshop on “How to be in Right Relationship with Indigenous People” against my objections as a Saponi Matriarch. . . .

This is by no means OK, my Friends.  Because, as a Saponi matriarch, it is unfortunately my responsibility to organize a contingent of NC Natives to shut this workshop down. . . .

This is a warning. IF you will not organize among yourselves to stop Paula Palmer from doing her workshop in SAYMA Meetings, it will cause a similar diplomatic disaster as what happened in New England with FGC.

Don’t say I did not give you an opportunity prevent such a thing from happening.  Don’t say you did not know better, either.

Paula Palmer

To repeat, the full florid text of these threats is below, for reference. There Smith describes her complaints against Palmer’s work. I won’t go into them, nor an analysis of Paula Palmer’s work here. Those are not really relevant. This is:

Here we have three SAYMA Meetings, who have mutually agreed to cooperate in presenting a program that is peaceful, legal, and related to their efforts to bear a more faithful Quaker witness. And Smith has announced her intention to forcibly prevent them from doing that.

Yet even this is not the most unsettling part. What is completely  out of whack, to me, is the fact that SAYMA’s own budget is helping pay for this sabotage of its own meetings. Why on earth is SAYMA doing that? This is only the latest bad fruit that’s sprouted from the tainted tree planted by  SAYMA’s giving in to the URJ payoff pressure, as described in earlier posts here and here. As recognition of this sinks in around SAYMA, can it do anything but worsen the group’s internal disarray?

I wonder what the three meetings will do about these threats. Previous experience in SAYMA suggests that ignoring them is risky. I certainly hope they will not simply cancel it and run for cover. Here I think again about REI’s response. Is there some effective Quaker alternative?

While pondering those gloomy options, let me close with a letter from the past, by Friend Alan Scott Robinson, late of Asheville Meeting. He was a longtime member there, and suffered through several years of Smith’s intrusion there before his death in early 2018. During his last months, he was moved to write the letter below, to a Quaker group struggling with similar issues. I believe there is both comfort, depth and good counsel in his words:

Alan Scott Robinson:
Alan Scott Robinson

Friends, this whole topic is fraught with difficulties. I happen to be tangentially involved with the goings-on in this particular case and it is affecting more than one monthly and yearly meeting, including mine. We may be talking about generalities in terms of the various processes involved in involuntary separation, but the devil, as always, is in the details.

I am sure that each of us Friends has been aware, at various points in our lives, of when we have encountered a “difficult” individual. I am not speaking about a personal dislike. Rather, I am speaking about someone who, for a variety of reasons including criminal behavior or a mental aberration or health condition, or damage to a personality due to some event in that person’s past, makes interactions with that person impossible to sustain over the long haul, and makes the person refractory to change. Many of us have been a part of a Quaker meeting at one time or another that has had to face the question of what to do in such a situation.

The cases I am talking about do not involve matters of philosophical difference, political diversity or even different belief structures. Not really, although in the cases I am talking about, one of those important issues is being used as a smoke-screen to mask and to try to justify the real behavior problem. Behavior that simply doesn’t comport with that required to be in fellowship together.

I’m sure you can think of examples. Behaviors like name calling, wild accusations with little or no basis in fact, paranoid thinking patterns, blaming others for one’s own inappropriate actions (look what you made me do!), taking advantage of another’s good will, failing to contribute to the group in any way that furthers the purpose for which the group is established, expecting the group to “take care of them”, the list goes on and on.

Friends ought to be open to new light, new ideas, new ways of thinking about a problem, and, in most cases, we are. That is the great strength of Friends. But where to draw the line about what behaviors are acceptable and what behaviors are not? Clearly, behaviors that would be out of line in a college classroom setting, a city council chamber or a kindergarten classroom probably cross the line. Screaming, tantrums and physical violence shouldn’t be tolerated in any group setting, and certainly not in a Quaker meeting for worship or business.

One of the strengths of Friends practice is that we are always open to new in-breaking of Spirit. But herein lies a trap. How do we know when a new message is of the Spirit, and when it is an offshoot of a damaged or disordered behavior pattern?

One way to know with unfailing certainty is to watch what the actions produce. “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit,…Wherefore, by their fruits ye shall know them.” I do not think that Jesus was saying that people are analogous to the trees in this parable. Instead, I think he was talking about ideas or behavior patterns as being the trees that bear fruit.

If, over the course of a significant period of time, one’s behaviors prove repeatedly destructive to, and out of line with, the group, and if that behavior occurs in repeated patterns that seem to get worse with the passage of time, then it is easy to discern the “fruit” that is borne from those actions or behaviors. Something is wrong and action should be taken, both to help the one suffering from the aberrant behavior as well as the others in the group. Some problems are beyond any solution that can be implemented within the group. If there is some kind of dysfunction or illness mechanism at work, whether physical or mental, most meetings are clearly not equipped to do more than refer the sufferer to professional help.

But what if the sufferer whose behavior continually disrupts the functioning of the group refuses to get help or denies that there is anything wrong or consistently blames others for that person’s own bad behavior, what to do then. What do you do after the same worsening patterns of behavior are displayed over the course of many years?

Asheville Friends Meeting: a sketch from its “Digest” newsletter.

Our meeting is suffering under this type of affliction right now.  . . .

Last First Day, during Meeting for Worship, a visiting Friend arose to speak after several of our meeting’s Friends had already shared vocal ministry. One message had been offered beautifully and there was a wonderful spirit present. Two or three other friends who have become personally involved with, and supportive of, the disruptive person also rose to speak, and the atmosphere was quite different.

Though couched in “Friend-speak”, the messages were filled with accusations, unfounded assertions, name-calling and general enmity. Such a contrast to the previous message! Then our visitor rose. She began by saying that, prior to visiting our meeting, other Friends had warned her not to come. She was very gentle, but she was also wonderfully and refreshingly truthful as she explained that she had witnessed firsthand that very day why the warning had been given, and why the warning had been justified.

It was hard to hear so directly from another Friend that my own spiritual community now had gained a reputation of divisiveness and as a home where the truth is not honored and abhorrent behavior is tolerated. The sad thing is that our visitor had this reaction even though the person who has been the origin of all the disruption wasn’t even there that day. Only her “disciples” were there, and it was enough that their bad behavior and distorted messages and, quite frankly, their frequent lies, came through so loud and clear. This visitor didn’t even have to know the details to understand that something was terribly wrong in our meeting. It was easy for her to discern where the problem originated even without knowing the details. She could feel it in the Spirit just as strongly as if someone had struck her with a stone.

We lost a few more members that day. It was Meeting for Business, and two more Friends joined the ranks of those who have left our meeting for some other spiritual places rather than any longer endure the spiritual (and in a few cases physical) assaults. Our Meetings for Business long ago shed virtually all vestiges of spirit-led activities. Those who come now inure themselves to the inevitable assault and accusations month after month until, finally, they can take no more. The assaults continue in Meeting for Worship. There is no respite except in withdrawal.

Quaker meetings have one essential function, overriding all others. That is to provide a place for corporate worship, a place for waiting together in silence for the workings of the Inner Light to be manifest among us. When one’s spiritual home no longer offers that opportunity, what can be the purpose of continuing to attend?

Is it any wonder that we have lost so many faithful, seasoned and weighty Friends, including three of the last four meeting clerks, several members of Ministry and Counsel committee, and Friends and attenders new and old? We have even had first-time visitors end up in the parking lot in tears after witnessing turmoil and destruction during their first Quaker experience, and watching it as it turned into a screaming tantrum display or a bunch of baseless accusations. When the person around whom all the trouble has been centered was informed that our visitor was in tears and would not be back, the disrupter responded, “Good.” What is a Friends meeting to do in this case?

It would be one thing if this kind of behavior happened once, and the person who was the source of the difficulty was open to listening to “eldering” given in a loving spirit that was designed to point out why the behavior caused troubles, and how to effect changes so that the situation wouldn’t arise again. If a person who has been disruptive once were open to such guidance in Friends’ practices, all would be well.

But what does a meeting do when such a person is refractory to all attempts at counseling and guidance, or even admonishment when unacceptable behavior happens repeatedly? What does a meeting do when there is a display of overt physical violence, violence of such a nature that there would be potential for real physical injury if it were to be repeated? When is enough, enough?

In these situations, there must be a mechanism of separation, lest the whole meeting be destroyed. George Fox would not have tolerated this kind of behavior, and indeed didn’t. Read the story of the life of James Naylor to see what happened to a dear and weighty Friend who “went off the rails.” History has much to teach, and we ignore its lessons at our own peril.

One last comment. Casting someone out because of who they are (gay, transgender, bisexual, intersex, black, brown, yellow, white, tall, short, blond hair or black, language spoken, prior spiritual paths taken, ethnicity, wealth or poverty) should never be accepted or perpetrated.

Behavior is a different matter. Quakers are accepting and open to diversity, but there have to be limits of comportment that cross the line. As one weighty friend in our meeting says, “The meeting has no position if one of you wants to paint yourself purple and run down main street naked. But you can’t do that at Friends Meeting.” <snark> I am reminded of Supreme Court Justice Potter’s answer when talking about obscenity, “I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it.”

Likewise, we may not be able to give a bright-line definition of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, but the test of the fruit trees always provides an answer that can be trusted by anyone willing to look and listen. If, over a prolonged period, the fruit is predominantly or wholly evil, then there is no doubt as to the nature of the tree. Every good tree sometimes produces a piece of rotten fruit, but not all the time, or even most of the time. It is rare. Friends, use the test of the fruit of the tree in your pondering.

in loving Friendship

Alan Robinson


First Sharon Smith email (uncorrected text):

On Thu, Mar 5, 2020 at 1:25 PM Sharon Smith <starsmith13@nullgmail.com> wrote:

Remember the FGC Quaker Sweat Lodge incident?  This is no different.

I was living in Mashpee, on Cape Cod at my mother’s home, when I saw the FGC Gathering registration catalog which listed the Quaker Sweat Loge as a workshop at the Gathering.  I am the one who notified the Wampanoag tribal council that a Quaker sweat would be happening.  They were not pleased. They sent Rachel Carey Harper from Sandwich MM to tell FGC they would not tolerate a Quaker sweat lodge in their territory. Quakers cried and complaimned that they were Spirit led to do it anyway.  So FGC sent Geane Marie Barch as a representative to “negotiate” with the Wampanoag tribal council.  It did not go well for her.

I wasn’t in the room for that discussion, because I am not Wampanoag, but I have close relatives who are, and this is what they told me. The women, in particular, who carry great weight among the Wampanoags, were particularly angry that Friends were not willing to stop doing their Quaker sweat lodges.  Thery told Geane Marie that IF the sweat was going to happen in spite of their objections, they would come to the campus of Hampshire College, where the Gathering was held that year, and shut it down themselves.

I repeat. this situation of Paula Palmer’s workshop on How to be in Right Relationship with Native People, is different.

This is a warning. IF you will not organize among yourselves to stop Paula Palmer from doing her workshop in SAYMA Meetings, it will cause a similar diplomatic disaster as what happened in New England with FGC.

Don’t say I did not give you an opportunity prevent such a thing from happening.  Don’t say you did not know better, either.

Sharon “Star” Smith

“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who are oppressing them”    ~ Assata Shakur

“Good things don’t come to those who wait. They come to those who agitate!”  ~ Julian Bond

“Wealth is not the fruit of labor but the result of organized robbery.”  ~ Frantz Fanon

Second Sharon Smith email (uncorrected text):

On Thu, Mar 5, 2020 at 10:46 AM Sharon Smith <starsmith13@nullgmail.com> wrote:

Friends in Asheville, Swannanoa Valley and Celo NC, are up to no good. They are moving ahead with a plan to pay Paula Palmer to do her workshop on “How to be in Right Relationship with Indigenous People” against my objections as a Saponi Matriarch.

From the minutes of Asheville’s Second Month Meeting for Business:

“Peace and Earth Committee–Pat Johnson* P& E would like to give the whole Meeting the opportunity to co-sponsor a series of programs put on by Paula Palmer, who travels in the ministry of Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples (TRR) rather than just the P & E Committee. Swannanoa Valley Friends Meeting has committed to donating up to $1,000.00 to help cover our budgeted expenses of $1,500. Individuals in our Meeting have already donated $270 plus RJC has committed to donate $50 from their line-item budget for a total of $320. We’re asking Meeting to commit to $280.00. Minute #4: The meeting agreed to support Paula Palmer coming to Asheville and support up to $280 if needed.”

Here’s the thing; Paula Palmer is not in right relationship with Natives in her own region let alone Natives in western North Carolina, so how can she give workshops on this subject?  She wrote a book about the Quaker involvement in Indian bording schools, travels around the country, and possibly the world, giving workshops for money, without compensating the Natives whose pain she exploits to make her living. This is called “cultural Appropriation.  Look it up.

In addition: Asheville and Sawannanoah Valley Friends have been working to be in right relationship with the Eastern Band Cherokee people in western North Carolina, EXCLUSIVELY, but not the Catawba or Saponi whose homeland they live on.  They acknowledge that they live on Cherokee land, while they fail to acknowledge the Saponi and Catawba, who also have a historic claim to the area as their unceded ancestral land.

This is racist white supremacist behavior, for several reasons.

  1. These Friends have “tokenized” (look it up) the Cherokee people, by cherry picking which Native group they will recognize and seek right relationship with, while negating the existance of other native peoples in the same reagion.
  2. They have chosen sides in a historic land dispute between local Native groups. In fact, there is a troubling history of the Cherokee involvement in slavery. Not only did they eslave African Americans, but also their Indigenous neighbors, such as the Catawba, the Saponi, and people from a variety of Virginia and Carolina tribes, some of whom eventually banded together to become the Lumbee.
  3. They are wilfully engaging in these racist practices because they are aware that I am a Saponi Elder–not Cherokee–who has told them specifically, that they do NOT have my permission to bring Paula Palmer’s workshop into my territory, as they are not in right relationship with me, or the Saponi and Catawba, whose land they are on.

According to the mission statement of the Asheville Racial Justice Committee, their responsibility is to hold the Peace and Earth Committee accountable, NOT donate to their racist plan to host a workshop.

*I shut dfown Pat Johnson’s “Right Relationship” workshop at SAYMA 2019 for the same reasons.  She and Asheville Friends refuse to aknowledge the Saponi and Catawba people whose land they live and worship on.

It is fairly common knowledge that, the appropriate Indigenous protocols for anyone doing ceremonies or workshops in a people’s territorry requires workshop presenters to first akcnowledge the Native peopes whose territory they are in and second, get their approval, BEFORE proceeding.  If the elders or tribal leader do not give their permission, one should not proceed.  It does not mean Friends can cherry pick which native group in a region to aknowledge or gain approval from.

Note: Asheville Friends changed the name of Peace and Social concerns to Peace and Earth at some point before I arrived in Asheville.  But it is telling. let us see if the racial Justice Committee is able to act in accordance with its mission.

This is by no means OK, my Friends.  Because, as a Saponi matriarch, it is unfortunately my responsibility to organize a contingent of NC Natives to shut this workshop down.

Sharon “Star” Smith

“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who are oppressing them”    ~ Assata Shakur

“Good things don’t come to those who wait. They come to those who agitate!”  ~ Julian Bond

“Wealth is not the fruit of labor but the result of organized robbery.”  ~ Frantz Fanon

SAYMA: “Born for this”? Or Standing in the Way?

[Note: This post includes strong language.]

Few Quakers I’ve run into are as certain of the divinely-mandated quality of their vocation as Sharon Smith, aka “The Intruder.”

Last July 4, after she was confirmed as Clerk of the SAYMA Uplifting Racial Justice Committee, capping a three-year struggle, she put this with stark certainty in a blog post:

“What are the chances, a birthright Native and Black Friend of color with years of experience at Quaker process, clerking committees, etc., who is also called to ministry to challenge racism among Friends, would be among SAYMA Friends in the southern Appalachian Blue Ridge area, which just happens to be my stolen ancestral land, at this very time. I am also the closest thing SAYMA has to an authority on Critical Race Theory, the exact combination URJ sorely needs if it is to lead SAYMA toward its stated goal of becoming a welcoming multicultural anti-racist faith community.  I was literally born for this.”

Similar statements recur frequently in the blog, called “Mixed Blessing.”

“Born for this.” The declaration carries layers of irony. Because despite this voiced certainty, the four years of her available blog entries, supplemented by other documents, exhibit and underline a deep, unsettling paradox:

On the one hand, Smith is preternaturally sure of her calling.

Yet why does this minister despise the subjects of her ministry so deeply, stridently and divisively?

In fact, there are two kinds of Quakers who have been special targets of Smith’s relentless challenges, so laced with ire and loathing in word and action. They are:

White Quakers. And–

Quakers of Color.

I’ll leave aside here the travails of white Quakers who bear scars from dealing with Smith. Yes, she has a handful of “white friends,” the sort of “allies” she often scorns when claimed by other whites. But their numbers are small, and in any case, the rest of us white Quakers, in the light of her version of “Critical Race Theory,” are – well, let her say it:

News Flash: There are no innocent white settlers in Amerikkka.  No matter how or when your people arrived here.  ALL white people benefit from white supremacy.  Period.  The concept that it could possibly be otherwise, in your particular case, only exists in your defensive imagination.  Get over it.”   and in a July 2019 email to SAYMA activists, she quoted an article that, she wrote,

“Reminds me of you Quakers.  ‘If you’re white and live in America, the smarter you are, the less likely you are to say you agree with racist stereotypes or principles. But you’re not more likely than your dumber counterparts to actually want to do anything about racial inequality.’”  And she linked to an article: “‘Smart People Are As Racist As Less-Smart People–But Smart Enough To Hide It.’”

Not only are we whites thoroughly racist, we deserve every bit of comeuppance and suffering imaginable, and then some. But here we’ll simply stew in these, our own imputed prejudiced juices. That’s because what struck me while reviewing Smith’s blog posts was the large number of Friends of Color (FOCs) she detests equally, or even more.

What is the evidence for this? Good question. Principally, it is her own words. In particular, a blog post, called “Open Letter to SAYMA Friends of Color,” posted Jun 8, 2019. (Unless otherwise noted, the quotes that follow are from this “Open Letter.”)

It’s lengthy, but going through it carefully I was able list fourteen FOCs whom Smith denounced as adversaries and obstacles to her  work of “challenging” racism.

These fourteen Friends were from New England, New York, Philadelphia, Friends General Conference, and later SAYMA. They included influential committee members, yearly meeting clerks and former clerks, staff and former staff; altogether a substantial and weighty company, whose organizational reach stretched from eastern Massachusetts to South Carolina.

And all of them, in Smith’s studied conclusion, were against her, betraying her numerous times, in many places. For instance:

“The so called weighty Friends of color in New England Yearly Meeting were silent,” about what she declared to be a “political lynching” aimed at her there in 2005-6.

“AND, they were so easy with the idea of everyone’s focus being on me as the problem,” she added, “instead of the rampant racism in New England YM. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the same pattern of behavior among Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and SAYMA Friends of color. I have a hard time understanding it.”

And from the New England Yearly Meeting experience, there emerged a pattern, Smith asserts:

“Since that time . . . all other Friends of color, especially those who attended [a 2006 FOC] retreat [on Cape Cod], have acted like they don’t know me.  Including the current secretary of New York YM, who managed the financial arrangements for the retreat on Cape Cod, and the former clerk of NYYM. Whenever I reached out to any Friends of color for support of any kind, they simply ignored me.”

I’m leaving out most of the names on this list, because they don’t deserve to be dragged through the mire again here. Interested readers can find their identifications in the blog post. Yet there’s one exception, for reasons which I hope will soon become clear. As Smith insisted:

“But there is absolutely no excuse for Vanessa Julye. It wasn’t like she did not know who I was, or had never heard of me. I met her several times at Quaker anti-racism events, such as the Burlington Conference in New Jersey, and we attended several Beyond Diversity 101 courses together during that time. She knew exactly who I was AND that I was a target of Quaker racism. Yet she, as the Black FGC coordinator of the Ministry on Racism, always held herself aloof and took a hands-off approach.”

Julye was (and still is) with Friends General Conference. And, Smith says,

“Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, I do not attack her for no reason. We have a long history, going back to The Quaker racial hysteria in Sandwich Monthly Meeting/NEYM (2006). For someone whose FGC recognized ministry is supposedly to support Friends of color and bring Friends of color together, she has done none of that for me, or any other Friend of color I know.”

The ”evidence” in support of these charges is mainly a catalog of times when Julye did not go along with Smith’s intrusions into various events, at FGC and in other settings. One which especially rankled was Julye’s non-response to Smith’s plea for a reference for an unsuccessful application to be a racial justice staffer for a Quaker organization.

Another was a dispute in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting which pitted a newcomer FOC, Avis Wanda McClinton, now on the list, but then a Smith ally, against McClinton’s monthly meeting. Smith wrote that,

“when I arrived on the scene to support Avis Wanda McClinton, in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, as she suffered from racism at Upper Dublin Friends Meeting/Abington Quarter, we faced massive resistance from Philadelphia YM Friends of color, including Vanessa Julye.

[McClinton’s] Meeting publicly declared themselves an “All white Meeting” [NOTE: This statement is false.] and again, NO Friends of Color stood up to support Avis Wanda, either.

We saw Friends of color stand up in public and say, shit like, “These are good kind people, why are you calling them names?” and “I don’t see the racism Avis is talking about.”

Vanessa was right in the middle of it, as the designated PYM representative of FGC AND the Philadelphia YM Undoing Racism Group–their expert on Friends of color and racism. She knew all too well that what was happening was indeed racist, and still she said absolutely nothing, at every opportunity to stand with and for Avis.”

Smith for a time became Clerk of an informal support committee for McClinton, as the dispute dragged contentiously on until late in 2017.

[The specifics of the conflict are not germane to this post; more details, from McClinton’s perspective, which the meeting vigorously disputed, are in this Friends Journal article from 2014.]

But the lessons Smith argued from the issue were apropos and twofold:

“Remember, Philadelphia YM acquired its wealth through cheating Indigenous people out of their lands and trading in Black and Indian slaves. Now they use that wealth to buy the allegiance of a few desperate and/or despicable Friends of color and to suppress dissenters. I am a witness. I saw so much unFriendly behavior from Friends of color and white protectionism in PYM, I could write a book on that alone.”

Sharon Smith.

“Desperate and despicable.” That is the catchall description for all those Friends of Color on Smith’s long list – desperate, despicable, and cravenly cadging paychecks from the spoils of stolen white wealth. But the saga was not finished with this chapter.

In 2016, SAYMA invited Vanessa Julye to give the keynote at its annual sessions. By that time, Smith was living in Asheville, and had been very controversially active there. She was galvanized by the news:

“Suffice it to say, Vanessa Julye is no Friend to me, Avis Wanda, or any other Friend of color. So, when I heard that the SAYMA Planning Committee had chosen “Unraveling Racism” as its theme for . . . 2016, and invited Vanessa Julye to be Keynote Speaker, I was adamantly opposed. And, when I shared my concerns about Vanessa with the Planning Committee they refused to take my concerns seriously. They also refused to consider any of my suggested alternatives.”

But if she could not quash the invitation, Smith resolved to disrupt it. Which she did, with loud angry questions at Julye’s keynote presentation, which turned the SAYMA visit into a platform for Smith’s airing of her years of carried grudges.

“So please, she wrote later, “do not believe for one minute that I am the person you were most likely told I am. I am not in the habit of cussing’ folks out in public or calling people House Negroes easily. Believe me, Vanessa had it coming.”

Besides this intrusion, Smith was also locked in a long struggle with Asheville Meeting over whether it would be made into a base for her “ministry.” She wanted to live in a guest room in the meetinghouse, have her ministry formally endorsed and financially supported by the meeting. In the midst of much internal turmoil, the Meeting repeatedly rejected these requests. Smith was only able to hear white racism even in the plainest statements of principled disagreement:

“[M]y clearness committee . . . asked to meet with M&N [Asheville’s Ministry and Nurture Committee].  It didn’t go well.  They basically said, the Meeting does not approve of Sharon or her racial justice ministry, and does not want to be associated with it.  My support committee was upset, but, being all White Quakers, they were also unwilling to challenge the Meeting’s racism–because they didn’t want to be contentious?  Whatever their reasons, it goes to White people being unwilling to hold other White people accountable.” 

Thereafter, Smith pursued her quest in SAYMA. Building on her success in disrupting Vanessa Julye’s appearance, she managed to push through creation of an Ad Hoc Uplifting Racial Justice (URJ) Committee in the June 2016 session.

A key characteristic of the new group would be that all its members would be FOCs

This segregated character troubled some white Friends: hadn’t they been called to witness against segregation not many years ago?  Hadn’t some there taken risks, even been arrested in the cause? Didn’t they know of others who gave their lives to end segregation?

But that was then; in 2016, cries of racism, white supremacy and safe spaces elbowed aside these doubts. Smith was added to the initial URJ committee along with several other FOCs.

But the early days of the URJ group did not go well. By summer’s end, the committee was all but dormant: the members feuded with Smith and most left. SAYMA was unable to find Friends of Color to work with her.

The committee stumbled through 2017 and 2018. As SAYMA’s 2019 annual session approached, the Nominating Committee proposed Smith to be the new Clerk of a reconstituted URJ. There was widespread doubt about this, but also much timidity: any questions were met with the cries of “Racism,” “White Supremacy” and ”safe spaces” which terrified some and silenced others. Smith was added to the rebooted committee.

The committee was not only re-formed,  but SAYMA also agreed to allocate as much as $18000 of the yearly meeting’s modest budget to it, without meaningful accountability for what would be done with the funds. It seems clear that, despite all the sneers at others who benefited from what she derided as stolen wealth from slavery and native removal, Smith had long wanted just such a sinecure, and now felt that it was now within her grasp.

At this point the story overlaps with some points in our initial blog post. It was during the 2019 session when Smith announced she was going to “shut down” an approved workshop she did not like, and indeed disrupted it thoroughly.

There was however fallout from this foray which becomes significant here: two women Friends, we reported, protested Smith’s intrusion, though in vain. One was a white woman, Robyn Josephs; but after she had spoken, as Smith recalled

“Robyn was still talking, and yes, crying. She said, “I don’t want someone who does not believe in loving their enemies and forgiveness to be clerk of SAYMA-URJ, but I will accept what the body decides.”

As Robyn’s performance shifted from a few pitiful White woman tears to body wracking sobs, Avis Wanda [McClinton] stood up. She walked over, stood next to Robyn and announced, “That Friend speaks my mind.” Avis then said to Smith, “I am probably jeopardizing our friendship by saying this, but I do not think you are ready to be the clerk of SAYMA-URJ” because of your “bad behavior” and “anger management” issues. “Your behavior yesterday was unconscionable. People feel like they are going to be targets.”

And with that unexpected declaration, McClinton moved from the small circle of Smith’s allies to the long list we’ve been examining here, of traitorous Friends of Color, one of the few on the list who not only differed with Smith but spoke openly of it.

Smith’s public response was more patronizing. Rather then “desperate and despicable,” in a December 7, 2019 email she said that Avis,

“is cognitively disabled and not sophisticated enough to understand that what y’all did to me was absolutely about your white supremacy and colonial domination. That you [white Friends] reached out to her seeking absolution for your white fuckery proves the depths of your evil.”

Despite these dramatic moments, Smith’s nomination as Clerk of the re-formed URJ Committee was slipped through in the closing session of SAYMA 2019, and she has since been working to consolidate her success.

But two problems persist: First, she has still been unable to attract any FOCs from SAYMA to the Committee. Her reputation seems to preclude this. As Shaun Davis, a commenter on the first post put it,

“I am a Friend and African American woman living in Atlanta. I joined the URJ committee in 2017 after Sharon recruited me to join. I left in 2018 because I did not like the way people were being treated in the group or the way business was being conducted. I wrote an email to another African American committee member about my concerns, and it so happens that Friend had already decided to leave the committee. I don’t think my letter went much further.”

Smith’s response to similar reports was predictable:

“Interesting side note concerning URJ membership: Ever since SAYMA-URJ was approved as a Yearly Meeting committee which only Friends of color can serve, it has been extremely difficult to find Friends of color willing to do the work of URJ. The prevailing narrative seems to be, “No one wants to work with Sharon ‘Star’ Smith.” When I explained that the reason SAYMA Friends of color are so unwilling to serve as URJ members, is due to the racism they would most certainly experience–exhibit A being the way I have been treated—they [Friends in the representative session] were genuinely shocked.”

The second issue for URJ-Smith, as reported earlier, is that it is now time for SAYMA to consider its next budget, and growing opposition has been voiced to any further funding for the URJ Committee. This reflects the voicing of longstanding and strengthening doubts about the wisdom of Smith’s presence and role. SAYMA’s Representative session is slated to take this up this coming Saturday (March 15) — assuming, that is, its members are not all locked down in quarantine by that time.

Smith is lobbying for continued funding, and warning of “a racist conspiracy” (Email, January 10, 2020)

If the representative meeting actually happens, Smith’s conviction about being divinely directed may collide with SAYMA’s more modest dependence on the Spirit working through the group. We shall see.

Meanwhile, this pandemic-shadowed spring may offer more time to ponder the conundrum posed earlier: “Despicable” means so bad as to deserve to be despised. So which kind of Quakers, given the record explored here, does Smith despise more? Whites? Or Friends of Color?

To this I’d add another: how does it benefit SAYMA, the Society of Friends at large, or racial justice for SAYMA to be paying for this?

Smith, by the way, is not pondering. She has already announced her next target in the campaign to establish her authority to judge and even stop any activity within SAYMA’s Quaker realm which displeases her. And a conference coming up only weeks away is now in her sights.

Details on that here tomorrow.

 

The initial blog post is here.

 

A Sad Yearly Meeting Report: SAYMA Is Not Safe

Dear SAYMA,

Recently I received an invitation to propose a workshop for SAYMA 2020 this June.

[NOTE: SAYMA is the Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting & Association; it has member meetings in North & South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, West Virginia & Kentucky.]

I have many fond memories of lively workshops and rich Quaker fellowship at SAYMA, going back over fifteen years.

And I have just the topic for a workshop: a new book, Passing the Torch, which combines the stories of eleven Friends of a certain age, an appealing and diverse sketch of the elder generation.

But I won’t be sending SAYMA a proposal this year, I’m sorry to say. And I’m even more sorry to say why:

I won’t be proposing a workshop for SAYMA 2020, because SAYMA is not safe.

I believe you know why I was forced to reach this sad judgment:

It’s because over the past three years, SAYMA’s annual sessions have been invaded and repeatedly disrupted by an Intruder who has done great harm to the yearly meeting and its reputation. Keynote speakers have been derailed; members and visitors have been subjected to frequent, loud expletive-laced rants; campus security has even been called; all to no avail.

[“The Intruder” is my name for Sharon Smith, based on a long, well-documented pattern of intrusive, disruptive behavior. Smith is not a member of any SAYMA meeting; indeed she is not a member of any formal Friends Meeting. She claims to be a “birthright Friend,” but is habitually vague about which meeting. The last Meeting she had any overt connection with, Sandwich Meeting on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, found her so disruptive over several years that in 2007 it reluctantly issued a minute of disownment against her.]

Her intrusions at SAYMA have been under the guise of a self-styled “anti-racism ministry,” and she brands any objection or disagreement with any aspect of it as  “white racism” or worse terms.  But that “ministry,” over several years and in numerous Quaker settings, has left a trail of disruption, division and demoralization that few avowed enemies of Quakers since the anti-abolitionist mobs could match.

And last summer, the disruption at SAYMA sank to a new low. For one thing, it torpedoed an approved SAYMA workshop. The Intruder pronounced herself the Overseer and Ruler over SAYMA’s program, then entered and disrupted a workshop that was underway, because the leader had not asked the Intruder’s permission.

That charge was technically correct. The workshop leader had not sought the Intruder’s permission; because the Intruder in fact had no such authority. Instead, the workshop proposal had been submitted to the SAYMA planning committee, which weighed it as it did others, and then accepted it. That is, the leader and the Committee had followed SAYMA’s good order.

This good order meant nothing to the Intruder. (In fact, she later bragged about her achievement in wreaking havoc in the workshop in an open internet posting.) The workshop was thoroughly derailed, and the leader was reduced to tears.

Two Friends spoke up in protest during later open sessions, urgently objecting to the Intruder’s behavior. But the pleas for redress for the workshop demolition went unanswered and unheeded. SAYMA is not safe.

Nor is its bank account. Thus emboldened, the Intruder pushed through a demand that she be made Clerk of the Racial Justice Committee, and that she personally be paid on its behalf more than $10,000 from SAYMA’s funds, with zero accountability.

I have heard several Friends who were present speak of the deep unease they felt about both the procedure and the content of these actions. But all were then either intimidated or cowed into silence, and left with continuing regret afterward.

It pains me to say this, but SAYMA from 2018 through 2019 in this and other incidents, has showed itself progressively unable, or unwilling, to protect its own good order, its approved workshops, its program, speakers, attenders, officers and budget from flagrant abuse.

The uneasiness of the Friends who were silent last summer has been fully vindicated in the months since. After being paid several thousands of SAYMA’s dollars, much of which was admittedly used for the Intruder’s personal expenses, the fruit of the new committee’s labor has thus far been 1) a steady barrage of obscenity-laden email tirades including demands for more money, and 2) a handful of links to various race-related articles, videos, and fee-charging workshops.

Setting aside the tirades, the Intruder’s concrete work product, namely the link emails, have cost SAYMA something like $600 apiece over nine months. Most recently the committee announced a daylong workshop for May at Berea KY Meeting; SAYMA participants, besides the $10,000, are to pay $50 each. It also urged SAYMA Friends to join a video seminar for $95 each. Someone clearly hopes to profit off the committee connection.

Some might consider this $10,000-plus for spasmodic clipping and forwarding a steep price tag for markedly sparse  output. Yet the Intruder is now loudly insisting that $10,000 more be allotted her annually in the coming two years, again with no accountability, along with the presumption that such payments will thereafter be made permanent. Again, any doubts or questions are loudly derided as more proofs of white racism.

SAYMA will have a spring representative session on March 14th, to consider, among other items, its next budget. The omens for it are not promising: I have seen recent emails from the Intruder, threatening SAYMA’s Presiding Clerk, Assistant Clerk, Finance Clerk, and Clerk of Ministry & Nurture, unless her demands for continuing payments are met.

Quite frankly, this whole affair has the look of an old-fashioned protection racket: “You pay me, or I’ll make your lives hell.” The Intruder has certainly been making good on that threat. SAYMA is not safe.  She’s turned liberal Quaker guilt and habitual conflict avoidance there into a substantial payday, and may well do it again.

If so, the cost will be more than the number on a budget sheet. I am advised that, as a result of these disheartening spectacles, attendance at SAYMA in these years has declined measurably, with  indications that in current conditions the decline is likely to continue. Furthermore, there are reports that more than one SAYMA monthly Meeting has quietly resolved to withhold contributions to the yearly meeting under these circumstances.

To be sure, the Intruder has a circle of supporters.  In mid-January she was already warning them of a “racist conspiracy” by one SAYMA Meeting. Had they joined the Klan en masse? No, merely  expressed doubts about future funds.

Such conversation-stopper epithets may not work this time. But one other effect of this simmering dissension is that SAYMA may be drifting toward another bitter distinction, of being the first liberal yearly meeting since the 1850s to suffer an outright schism.

A liberal split?  Wait — isn’t that what happens to pastoral and evangelical groups??

Well, usually. But I am not exaggerating what has been bubbling below SAYMA’s surface. It could happen informally, by accelerating the attrition of recent years. But it could happen more formally. Given a few more of the Intruder’s obscene diatribes, threats or workshop-like debacles, it would be lamentable but no surprise to see one or more SAYMA meetings heading for the door. (One lesson from recent evangelical splits is that, if a meeting owns its own meetinghouse, institutionally a split is relatively painless. Psychologically and spiritually are another matter, though.)

My pondering of this, and the invitation to propose a 2020 SAYMA workshop, were all made more disheartening by poignant memories: twice in the decade past, I brought a granddaughter with me to SAYMA, hoping she would have an uplifting young Quaker community experience there.

Both of them did — in fact, each had a terrific time, for which they and I are still very grateful.

My granddaughter, center, at SAYMA, 2011, with Friends.

Today I have seven grand- and great-grandchildren, more than half of them multiracial. In the “good old days,” I would eagerly look again to SAYMA as a time for them to have a superior Quaker community experience, plus a chance to learn something constructive about the ongoing work of racial justice.

But let me speak plainly here: I would not bring any of them within 50 miles of a yearly meeting in which the Intruder has so distorted and undermined Quaker processes and values. SAYMA now is not safe for them.

The Intruder’s brand of “ministry” has repeatedly produced the opposite of its stated goals. It has sown open rancor and division, and reaped destruction and alienation. That “ministry” is a model only for what not to do, and has made SAYMA unsafe and unsuitable for the nurture of a rising Quaker generation.

It would also be hazardous for an adult workshop, such as I have presented in years past. I have told the Intruder plainly of my views of her so-called “ministry.” Also, some of the writers in my book have said and written things she does not like. And she has more than once been allowed to pervert SAYMA into a stage on which to act out her resentments and vendettas.

I’m not afraid of her profane harangues. But what business do I have subjecting other visiting adults to such an unwelcome hazard? Why does SAYMA permit –- and pay for it?

It has been tragic to see, even from a distance, the disarray into which the Intruder has pushed SAYMA. It’s even sadder because there is no real need for it to continue. A few other groups have dealt with the Intruder firmly, to re-establish and preserve their good order.

SAYMA could do this if enough of its weighty members recovered some Quaker grit and resolve.  We value those virtues so highly in our stories of classic Quakers, women and men alike. SAYMA needs some now.

I wish SAYMA Friends the best as they gather to do their yearly meeting’s spring business. They can handle this challenge, if they’re ready. After all, they’re not being asked to make SAYMA perfect.

We just want them to make it, once again, Safe.

“Passing the Torch”, Author Speak #6: Diane Faison Mckinzie

Diane Speas Faison McKinzie.

[In midlife, Diane Faison and her family faced multiple traumas while living in Richmond, Virginia., including the murder of her mother-in-law and family conflict over her estate.] Diane writes,

After all this, it was no surprise that my husband said he wanted to leave Richmond. I don’t want the children living in this atmosphere, he said. I said OK. Now out of the Navy, he said he wanted to find a teaching job somewhere quiet in the country. Before long he found a position in Farmville Virginia, about fifty miles away. I was teaching in Richmond, so soon he was driving from Richmond to Farmville and back every day, 50 miles each way.

I finished up my contract in Richmond and found a position in Brookville, about 5 miles from Farmville. . . . Soon we bought 70 acres that was mostly wooded. On it we built our dream house,  finished in 1987. We were also both very involved with the schools there in and around Farmville, which was in Prince Edward County.

I guess I need to say something about Prince Edward County. By the time we got there many years had passed since the days of lunch counter sit-ins and Dr. King’s big march. But major civil rights history was not far away.

In 1959, when a federal court ordered Prince Edward County to desegregate its schools, the county reacted by closing them all. White students were issued vouchers to pay tuition at a new private “segregation academy.” Black students were left to fend for themselves. Their schools stayed closed til 1964.

Prince Edward Academy, the segregated private school organized for white students when the county’s public schools were closed to avoid integration. Local black students were left on their own. The academy still exists, renamed the Fuqua school, and has in recent decades admitted a few students of color.

They reopened just about the time I started teaching after college. So in one way it was all over. But the memories were still fresh. And one of them was particularly meaningful to me: Late in 1959, the American Friends Service Committee started work in Prince Edward County, with an office in Farmville for what in 1960 became its Emergency Placement Program.

Through it families in non-segregated areas volunteered to take in black students from Prince Edward to attend school there. That program lasted four years, til the schools reopened. It enabled many black students to complete their disrupted high school work.

Prince Edward students demanding the reopening of their public schools. The county schools were closed from 1959 to 1964.

Friends = Quakers. The connection stayed with me. I learned about their tradition of quiet worship, without a church hierarchy. I liked that idea too. I often spent time on our land in silent meditation. My husband, now out of the military, sometimes talked reflectively about all the killing in war. About the time our house was finished, a gentleman who lived nearby decided to start a Quaker worship group, under the auspices of a regional association called Baltimore Yearly Meeting. We began to gather at his barn for meeting, alternating with our house.

Those were good years. The children grew, moved on through school, into college and out into adult life. Both my husband and I were honored for our work in the schools. And each February, when Black History Month came along, we joined in eagerly.

It was in 1988, when I started thinking about the coming February, that I got a bit restless. I liked to do things with my students that were different. But in Black History Month, very often the observance came down to students reading something and writing a report. Suddenly that sounded too dry. I wanted something unique.

Harriet Tubman during the time she worked as a spy and scout for the Union Army during the Civil War.

So I went to the library. This was still the old days, when libraries had shelves full of books and barely any computers. I had to touch the books, lift them and open them. And when I came to the Black history shelf, my hand brushed a book and it fell to the floor.

I picked it up. The title was, The Life of Harriet Tubman. Of course, I knew about her. Or so I thought. But I turned the pages anyway.
As I read about her this time, something came over me. I felt as though, this is me. I felt I was being encouraged to be Harriet’s vessel to tell her story, to embody it. (Quakers call this a leading; for me, that’s what it was.) I felt I had to show the students who this woman was. Such a small person, but with such a huge courage.

The idea began to grow in my mind. I had older relatives, who didn’t have much schooling, who still talked in something like the old slave dialect; I had heard it all my life. So I felt that’s how Harriet talked. And it came naturally to me as her voice. I didn’t have to study that part.

I never wrote a script. After all these years, I’ve never had one. I read it, I felt it, and I spoke it. I was following the tradition of my people: I didn’t have to read it. Storytellers of my people don’t have scripts. But I keep learning about Harriet. Every year I find out something new about her, and I might add it to the performance, and I might not.

After that first performance in 1989, I began to get requests to perform at other schools. And those were very fulfilling too.
Yet in time, big changes came. One morning in 1997, my husband tugged me awake. When I saw him I screamed: his chest and groin were covered with blood. It was an advanced case of cancer, which he had not told anyone about.

From there I had more than a year of caregiving as he went through surgery and chemo and experimental therapies, and got weaker and weaker. When he died in 1999, I was more than devastated; we had been married thirty-one years. . . .

[In 2015, Diane married Crawford McKinzie, and moved with him to Gibsonville, North Carolina. . . .]

spring Friends Meeting, Snow Camp NC.

When I moved to Gibsonville, I felt an overwhelming need to find another Friends meeting to be part of, and I started searching for one. I finally found Spring Friends Meeting in Snow Camp, NC, where I do feel like I belong. Spring had an unexplainable spiritual atmosphere that felt like a warm hug. Maybe that was partly due to the fact that the Meeting has been in that spot since the late 1700s; so many Quakers have lived there, and many are buried nearby.

Mack had been career army, twenty-two years, and was a Vietnam veteran too. He had been in field units there, often under fire in combat areas, sleeping on the ground with rats and taking baths mainly in the rain, — and both the rain and the ground were running with toxic Agent Orange. Even now, sometimes he has flashback nightmares, muttering “They’re coming, they’re coming” in his sleep, and striking out, even at me.

This 2019 movie created powerful images of Harriet Tubman’s work.

After four good years together, Mack fell ill, and as this is written, he is contending with a number of very serious conditions. I’m again being a caregiver, essentially fulltime, juggling doctors’ appointments, tests and procedures, savoring his good days, and weathering the others.

Harriet Tubman, at left, as caregiver and advocate for elderly veterans, her family members, and others, at her home in Auburn, New York., circa 1887.

This routine, I confess, wears me out. And I remember that Harriet too was a longtime caregiver. She built a house in Auburn, New York, where she cared for the poor, including Civil War veterans who were afflicted with what we would name PTSD, but then was called “soldier’s heart.”

Later she took care of her second husband and her aged parents there. She did this work for almost as many years as she was active in the Underground, and then the Civil War. Learning this strengthens my identification with her; besides my second husband, I too took care of my aging parents. She did this caregiving until her own health failed; she lived until 1913.

Diane as Harriet.

In my situation, I often get tired, and frustrated. Times of relief and release are sparse. I know that in Harriet’s years of caregiving, she found support in her religious faith and her church community. And at Spring, with Friends, when I lead the meeting, or sit and listen in the meeting, it gives me the same renewal like I feel also came to Harriet. And I have to add that the most renewing moments are when I’m performing as Harriet. . . . Even after thirty years, and several hundred appearances, speaking Harriet Tubman’s words and evoking her spirit refreshes and renews my heart and soul.

More of Diane’s story, of growing up in the time of segregation, and being a military wife during and after the Vietnam War, is in the pages of Passing The Torch.

And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; (more details here. )

Previous posts featuring Passing The Torch Authors–
1. Barbara Berntsen

  1. Carter Nash
  2. Helena Cobban
  3. Why Passing the Torch? Why Now?

5. Douglas Gwyn: “I received a distinct calling”

6. Marian Rhys: “I stopped trying to talk with Friends about evil . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

Why “Passing the Torch”? And Why Now?

Quakers are often very interesting people.

And generations come and go.

These are the modest theses behind the new book, Passing the Torch. In fifty-plus years among The Religious Society of Friends (our rather pompous official name), its members, attenders, hangers-on and even antagonists, I have kept bumping into and hearing about interesting people. And many very interesting people.

And having had what some call a good run,” my generation (beginning, as I did, in the depths of World War Two, and extending, with a stretch, to the early 1960s), is now on its way out.

“Generations come and go,” is how the Preacher of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (one of my favorites) dryly put it. And its our turn. Then the Preacher rubs our noses in the fetid fact of evanescence: in future generations no one will remember what we have done here.”

The remains of the reputed “Ozymandias” statue in Egypt.

This last, I think, many of us don’t yet believe. After all, we were told, from many quarters, for a long time, that we were a critical, historic vanguard. Now some voices are condemning us as the heralds of decadence, decay and disaster, which seemed to be running amok in our culture as these pages took shape and the curtain begins descending over us.

We’re also not the first ones to think we can escape this descent into the abyss of the forgotten. Indeed, attempts to defy this fate are among the oldest recorded human activities. Such efforts come in many forms, prominently monuments, stories, and books or other writings.

A Torah scroll, filled with stories, one of the oldest existing copies, in the possession of the Samaritan community.

Of these, stories are the most weightless, typically composed and carried in memory and words. Yet they are the most durable; though they too can die. The biblical Exodus saga is one of the oldest such stories, at least in the Jewish-Christian world. The retelling of key passages at annual Seders includes elements that are likely 3000 years old or more. And that ritual storys role in the persistence of Jewish culture and religion is inarguable.

Have we, this gaggle of eleven authors, elder (mainly American) Quakers done anything to elbow our way into the species memory? Usually this query is rhetorical, a set-up for some ambitious, maybe even landmark argument, which favorable critics will be tempted to call bold” or ground-breaking.”

In Passing the Torch, I was firmly resolved to resist this urge to grandiosity. Here there is no carefully representative group, honed to tick all the boxes. Nor is this a manifesto or a mea culpa, though it reflects our feelings and opinions.

Instead, I wrote to some interesting people, a varied bunch of a certain age, who are Quakers, and invited them to tell their stories, and offer some summary counsel, what we call Advices, to those coming up. Ive dropped a few of my own, I hope sparingly enough to be palatable.

Were a motley crew, few of us famous, but we are varied and in my view all have done interesting things. In these pages you will find Friends in the thick of wars, behind bars, facing dire disease, murder, raising families and — since all are Americans – confronting racism and prejudice in many forms and some unexpected guises. Yet they also took time to settle in Friends worship and business, making their own diverse way amid its highs and lows.

Eleven lives, now moving into the sunset. Among us are several centuries of Quaker experience and thought. Its a longstanding Quaker tradition that, whatever we say or write, it is above all our lives that speak, across the world, and beyond our generation. That’s what Passing The Torch tries to get at.

What does it all add up to? Some good reading, that much I know. (Now available on Amazon.) Beyond that,  Ill leave it to others with more degrees; or defer again to that ancient Preacher in Ecclesiastes:

8:16-17: Whenever I tried to become wise and learn what goes on in the world, I realized that you could stay awake night and day and never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. The wise may claim to know, but they dont.

 And 4:12:  So I realized that all we can do is be happy and do the best we can while we are still alive. 13 All of us should eat and drink and enjoy what we have worked for. It is God’s gift.

(And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; more details here. )

Previous posts featuring Passing The Torch Authors–
1. Barbara Berntsen

2. Carter Nash

3. Helena Cobban

 

“Passing the Torch” – “I did a year in prison for that . . .” “Passing The Torch” Authors Speak #2

Carter Nash is one of the authors of the new book by and about American Quaker elders, Passing The Torch:

Carter Nash

I’m a 65-year-old gay man of African descent. I was born in Huntington, West Virginia at a time when Jim Crow laws were still in effect. The hospital I was born in was segregated and my mother being very fair skinned was placed in the white maternity ward. When I was born, mom was moved to the colored ward.. . .

I wasn’t born into a Quaker family (officially) but into an African Methodist Episcopal one. I was christened at St James A.M.E. in Ashland.

My father being in the Navy we moved around quite a bit. Neither of my parents were big church going people. . . .

As a seeker I visited different places of worship, many not Christian. After a while I felt that I wasn’t finding what I needed. Also, I still fully believed in the American two-party political system.

I was at the time a rarity, a black Republican in Philadelphia. I had joined the GOP because while they only had two at large seats on city council, those two council members were greatly under-appreciated in what they could do. They were still on city council and they could deliver services.

I was quickly asked to be the Republican committeeman for my district. This allowed me to call either of the two GOP city council members and say who was to get things done.

For instance, I was working at a public school and there was an abandoned car on the sidewalk outside the school yard. The principal tried calling for a couple of weeks to have it removed with no luck. I finally told him I would take care of it. I made a call in front of him that morning and it was gone that afternoon.

The school was a special school that was almost completely federally funded. At the end of the year I received a letter letting me know not to return the following year as a result of system-wide layoffs. I had been bumped out of my job. I made a couple of calls (including to a US Senator’s office) trying to get my job restored. I was told that I shouldn’t worry, all would be alright, and it was. An additional position was created at the school for me.

I volunteered on the campaign for governor of Richard Thornburgh. There were two reasons I supported Thornburgh: there were things I knew about his opponent, the former Philadelphia District Attorney, and Thornburgh had the support of Elsie Hillman, the Republican National Committeewoman from Pennsylvania.

Elsie Hillman (d. 2015) former Republican National Committee member from Pennsylvania, and friend of Cater Nash.

While working on the campaign my grandmother died. I was crushed. I was living in Philadelphia, she was in Kentucky and I didn’t have the money to get myself and my mom (who was in a wheelchair because of MS) there. At about midnight I was in tears and called Elsie Hillman at her house in Pittsburgh and somehow when I left my house that morning to go to work I found $1000 in my door. The Republican Party of those days no longer seems to be. There was a time when the Republicans were really caring and respectable. My great grandmother was a Republican. . . .

Later I moved to York, Pennsylvania and operated an “escort service”. This was for the most part a gay prostitution ring. This was before HIV/AIDS. It was also at a time when many gay men were afraid of being outed even more than they are now. I got into this business because a friend said he needed someone to answer his phone when he out on calls (yes it was long before cell phones), I wasn’t working, and it sounded interesting to say the least.

He had ads in some gay papers and magazines to find clients. After a while a couple of his friends were involved in going out on calls. We took Master Card, VISA and American Express. There was one older man who worked for us who was married and had two sons in high school, he had a good professional career and his wife knew he liked men. He found this a good way to hook up. He used the company car to go on calls and he refused to keep his portion of the fees (he’d give it to me). One of the best stories is about the time a priest called in with a bad credit card, that was the only bad card anyone ever tried using.

I can say that one of the best things that happened was when some jealousy arose between a couple of guys causing the police to get involved and shut us down. This was good because HIV/AIDS was just starting, and I was looking for a good way to get out of the business. It could have been a good deal more financially rewarding but that wasn’t the purpose.

When the police came, I took all the responsibility and charges as I couldn’t see others having their lives ruined. The police couldn’t get my records as they were kept on in digital form on a cassette tape (in those days people didn’t have home computers for the most part, the one I had required a TV, a cassette player and the unit that connected the two).

The district justice I appeared before the evening of my arrest was interesting in that he gave me instructions on how to operate the business within the law!!! I ended up getting 30 days and a $500 fine. While I was waiting for the final disposition of my case, I committed credit card fraud to survive, I did a year in state prison for that.

When it was time to be paroled from state prison, I needed to put in my parole plan (papers saying where I was going to live and work). Mine said that I was going to stay at a roach hotel in Carlisle along with a letter from the state unemployment office saying they would help me locate work. When the plan came back approved the state parole officer in the prison said he had never seen such a weak plan be approved. I still knew people on Governor Thornburgh’s staff, and we’d stayed in contact while I locked up, I don’t know if that helped or not.

I had a bit of trouble getting a job when I arrived in Carlisle, until one day I went to put in an application and started off by saying to the boss, named Bob, If my having just gotten out of state prison is going to keep you from hiring me tell me now and I’ll just go away.

But Bob told me to sit down. About a week later I got a call saying when I was to start. It was almost a year later when I learned my being so up front was what got me the job.

Bob was one of the best bosses/people I have ever known. It was little things that made him great. I was working in a restaurant that he had just opened (he made his real money at his body shop). I was the only African American working there. Almost all the customers were white.

Once a dance floor was put in for use on the weekends more African Americans came. When Bob overheard a waitress comment “the place is getting dark” she was let go on the spot. Bob and his wife didn’t care that I was black or gay, they were just good people. The only time I’ve been drunk in the last 44 years was the night I learned Bob had died. . . .

How did Carter Nash get from a state prison to Quakerism (and live to tell about it)? The answers are in these pages.

And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; more details here.

A previous Author’s post, “Pray for Segregation!” is here.

Yale, the Indian, the Puritan, & the Politics of Display & Discussion

Yale University plans to move a controversial stone carving from a pillar by the entrance to a renovated library to a museum setting for study. The carving shows an Indian with a bow facing a musket-carrying Puritan.

(Below, two views of the carving:  on top is the original, with musket; below, today’s version, musket covered. In its future home, the covering will come off.)

Penn, under review also.

Such campus “cleansing” is also occurring on other campuses, and in different settings, particularly religious. And it is controversial.

For instance, recent efforts to marginalize  or “cancel” William Penn by some Pennsylvania Quakers seem to me short-sighted. Yes, Penn once owned some slaves. That was a blot, but on an otherwise remarkable record, which I consider well worth remembering, grappling with, and yes, in many respects celebrating.

But back to Yale. A law professor there decried the move in today’s Washington Post. The move, and its motivation, in his view, have serious drawbacks. As he put it:

Anthony Kronman, Washington Post: 

This kind of ethical cleansing is bad for many reasons. One is that it discounts the importance of discomfort in the process of learning. Discovering what your conscience demands is the reward for confronting ideas that shock it, and maturity is the prize of learning to live with ambiguity.

Another is that it confirms the wish to have one’s field of vision seamlessly fit one’s system of values. It invites the smug belief that a real problem has been met simply by removing an irritant from view.

A third is that it reinforces the belief that those who lived before us were blinded by prejudices we have thankfully overcome. But that itself is a prejudice — one that powerfully shapes campus life in an age otherwise devoted to the eradication of prejudice in all its forms.

Anthony Kronman

This trend places moral self-confidence ahead of the life of the mind, which is always more than a little dangerous, because that adventure should put even our firmest convictions at risk. . . .”

All these points, made about college-level education, in my view apply to religious/spiritual life too. As Kronman also argues, 

“Our students must of course be free from physical harm. But they must also be free from the spirit of moral conformity that today represents a danger of a more insidious kind.. . .” 

Besides “students,” this hazard also faces many religious seekers and their faith  communities.

But let’s also hear the other side. The university released the following statement on August 22 about moving a historical piece:

Yale University is moving a decorative piece of stonework from the main entrance of its Center for Teaching and Learning. The decorative piece will be made available for study and viewing, and written material will accompany it and place it in historical context.

A carving, created during the construction of the building in 1929, depicts a Puritan settler holding a musket pointed toward the head of a Native American. During renovation of the building to accommodate the Center for Teaching and Learning, the project team in consultation with Yale’s Committee on Art in Public Spaces determined that leaving the depiction in place would have the unintended effect of giving it a place of honor that it does not deserve. The university consulted faculty and other scholarly experts, who concluded that the image depicts a scene of warfare and colonial violence toward local Native American inhabitants.

The decision to move this carving, contextualize it, and make it available for study is consistent with principles articulated by the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming (CEPR) and adopted by the Yale Corporation in December 2016.  The university has an obligation not to hide from or destroy reminders of unpleasant history; at the same time, the university chooses the symbols and depictions that stand in places of honor. The prominence of this carving changed when its location became a main entrance to the Center for Teaching and Learning.
When the carving was originally discussed in the spring of 2016, the CEPR had not yet been formed and articulated principles. A team in charge of planning for the construction project decided to cover the depiction of the musket with removable stonework. Covering over the problematic aspect of this carving is not consistent with the principles subsequently adopted by the university in the CEPR report; and therefore, when the carving is relocated, the covering stonework will be removed.

In explaining the decision to move the decorative corbel and restore the covered part of it, President Peter Salovey said, “We cannot make alterations to works of art on our campus. Such alteration represents an erasure of history, which is entirely inappropriate at a university. We are obligated to allow students and others to view such images, even when they are offensive, and to study and learn from them. In carrying out this obligation, we also have a responsibility to provide information that helps all viewers understand the meaning of the image.  We do so in a setting that clearly communicates that the content of the image is not being honored or even taken lightly but, rather, is deserving of thoughtful consideration and reflection.”

What do you think? And as the Puritan goes, so goes Penn? And which other worthies?

The library entrance. The carving is at the bottom of the pillar to the viewer’s right.

“White Lies,” Selma, Two Murders, & A Cameo

One sunny day in April last year, I woke up in Selma Alabama, prepared to go to jail.

It was just for a friendly visit, though, with two new acquaintances: Andy Grace and Chip Brantley. I met up with them first, for a generous southern breakfast at Mr. Waffle, on Highland Avenue, with my pants cinched up tight: It’s The Law.

Mr Waffle, keeping up standards.

Andy and Chip teach journalism at the University of Alabama. They were working on a big podcast project about Selma intended for NPR. It’s about two civil rights murders there, and is now online, at their website, as “White Lies.”

In their research they found my books on Selma, and tracked me down, about an interview. Turns out, I was planning to visit Alabama before long, to be on a panel in Montgomery marking the 50th anniversary of Dr, King’s murder.

As a certified living fossil on the shelf of artifacts from a genuine piece of “history,”  I’ve done a few such events. So I offered to make a side trip to Selma, and give them my personal guided tour with the interview.

The Reeb Memorial, on the corner where the Silver Moon Cafe stood, outside which he and two other ministers were attacked. The others survived.

That starts with the Selma jail. On the way we passed the compact corner memorial to James Reeb, a Boston Unitarian minister, who was attacked with two others in the heat of the movement, and died of a fractured skull the next day. Three men were tried for his murder, acquitted by an all-white jury; all are now dead.

But there was talk of a fourth man there, who evaded prosecution, and could be still alive. Chip and Andy were still in search of him.

Wilson Baker.

I had no leads about that, so we moved on to the jail. It’s still where it was, though in 1965 it was part of City Hall. That’s moved, and the Police now have the whole building. High on the wall of the downstairs hallway is a photo of Wilson Baker, who arrested me. Later he became Sheriff, and word is he was a good one. Up on the second floor, the small cellblock remains.

Those yellow bars even now look solid enough to withstand the collapse of the whole block. Which may not be far off, the collapse that is; most of the buildings close by look empty, boarded up or just abandoned.

As a landmark of black liberation, I told Andy and Chip, Selma fifty-plus years later is a hot mess. The poverty rate is as high as it was then. More than a dozen payday loan shops, their vampiric essence camouflaged by bright colors, crouched along Broad and Highland, the two main business streets. The house where I rented a room in ‘65, a solid Black middle class dwelling then, stands empty, literally falling down, like so many others on that, the “historic” side of town. If there’s any money in that history, it looks like payday usury vacuumed it all up.

The Boynton House, where I lived in 1965, empty in 2015. The museum project fizzled, and by 2018 the house was in even more dilapidated condition.

History is still plentiful in Selma, if ramshackle, but there’s only one spot of beauty I remember, and I discovered that late: less than a mile west of the Pettus Bridge stands the Live Oak Cemetery, often called the New Live Oak, though it goes back to the 1820s.

Old live oaks, in New Live Oak.

The big moss-draped trees, the greyed, crumbling, mostly Confederate headstones and slabs, the multi-colored lichen splotches on almost everything, all are classic, archetypal, undead Old South: Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, only in color.

The grave of General Edmund Pettus. After the Civil War, he was later elected a U.S, Senator, and reputedly once was head of the Alabama KKK.

New Live Oak has recently been made newer by construction of an elaborate memorial in honor of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

This is the work of a local Neo-confederate group, which won a long, acrimonious court fight with the Black-controlled city administration for control of an acre of land there.

Neo-Confederate activists Todd Kiscaden, left and Pat Godwin, being interviewed, March 2015. Godwin was the spearhead of the Nathan Bedford Forest memorial in the New Live Oak Cemetery.

Forrest had only a brief connection to Selma: he attempted to defend the city from surging Union forces shortly before Lee’s surrender in April 1865.

Even so, for true Neo-Confederates, Forrest is an immortal, an icon: a brilliant tactician, a relentless, fearsome  fighter (biographers say he personally killed thirty Union soldiers in hand to hand combat) and a founder (and first Grand Wizard) of the original Ku Klux Klan.

The new Forrest monument, looking toward the Pettus bridge.

There could hardly be a visage more discordant – or revealing — than that of Forrest, glowering east over General Pettus’s grave and toward the eponymous bridge which the courage of local blacks, and tagalongs like me, turned into a civil rights landmark. The local devotees of Forrest’s flock have struck back with billboards, and more solidly, with this shrine.

Radio guys Andy Grace (left, with hair) and Chip Brantley (right, with headphones), getting familiar with the Forrest monument at New Live Oak.

But I can turn my back on Forrest; then it’s no wonder I linger there. Andy and Chip did too; pictures of them at New Live Oak are on NPR’s publicity webpage for “White Lies.”

From there we headed for another burial ground, about 25 miles northwest near Marion.

The Heard Cemetery, near Marion, Alabama. Jimmie Lee Jackson’s marker is next to the red wreath.

This one, the Heard Cemetery, lacked the allure of Live Oak: no venerable trees, only secondary growth; no stone wall, no fence, no sign; it lay exposed, within gunshot range but easy to miss, along Alabama Highway 14. It was much smaller, with only a scattering of markers, and a single sizable headstone.

Jimmie Lee’s headstone. The orange spots and notch at the top are among the bullet damage. There are several more, visible from closer up.

That marker was our goal; and despite lacking the amenities of the genteel Dixie death cult, the Heard graveyard enclosed what Chip and Andy most wanted to visit, the resting place of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

Here I knew a little something. I had been part of the funeral cortege which carried his coffin here from the church in town, behind his family and Dr. King, through the rain.

I knew about how his killer also got away with killing another young black man a year later, then walked free for more than four decades. And how Jackson’s family finally caught a brief glimpse of justice; heard a rumor of it, topped a thin, crumbled slice of it with the curdled margarine of old grief.

Jimmie Lee Jackson, left. His killer, James Fowler, right.

I had also visited the cemetery a year or two earlier, and could point out the dozen or so places where the granite had been nicked and gouged by bullets. It still stands, but within gunshot range is not hyperbole. (An earlier blog post on the shooting of Jackson is here.)

From there we soon wrapped up the interview, and I headed off to Montgomery.

I admit I soon mostly forgot about the project; several such interviews have wound up on disks or as transcripts on some obscure library shelf, waiting to enlighten, or bore, a stray grad student or two. Other such relics have been of use to me, though, and I do not despise them.

But now, more than a year later, the podcast is done and out. And amid all the recorded palaver, I turn up for a cameo in Episode Five, describing — well, that’s enough of a spoiler. They uncovered history I knew nothing about in solving their cold case; let them tell you that part of the story. . . .

An abandoned house, one of many, near the Brown Chapel AME Church, which was the gathering place for the Selma voting rights movement.
A collage of bumperstickers from a van belonging to one of the Neo-Confederate activists.

 

 

Colorism & Daylilies: A Confession

For seventeen years, I lived in the Washington DC area; in fact, inside the Beltway by a few miles.

Some misinformed persons think this area is glamorous. I didn’t much care for it. Congress and all that didn’t impress me: they were necessary, but burdensome, pretentious, and viewed up close, mostly boring.  Likewise for the weather: winters were cold. And summers were particularly tough: long, hot, heavy, humid.

In the early years, my access to air conditioning was spotty; many nights were sweaty and oppressive, with box fans rattling ineffectually by open windows.

Worse, in 1985 I delivered mail from my car on a long rural route, from winter to fall. I don’t recall much of those bookend seasons. But in between, there were six-day work weeks, pushing through the midday highs, as waves of engine heat radiated punishingly across the front seat of my weathered Chevy wagon. Open windows were part of the deal, neutralizing an already tepid a/c.

"Ditch lilies." Unlovely to me.
Ditch lilies. So hardy, so ugly.

That seemingly endless summer deepened the dread of those months, and cemented my hatred of the most visible  harbinger of their arrival: stands of orange daylilies.

They popped up seemingly all over. Turned out they were wild, commonly called “ditch lilies,” because they took root in all sorts of hard-to-grow-stuff places. Hot weather only seemed to encourage them. Continue reading Colorism & Daylilies: A Confession