September 7, 2011: Cheering for God in the Reagan Library
In my last paid job, at a Quaker peace project next to an enormous military base during the height (or better, the depths) of the Iraq-Afghan wars, I spent a lot of time looking for spiritual resources for that work, and the life that went with the job. For a long time it seemed pretty hard to find any. I read a lot of academic theology and other “spiritual” works. With a few notable exceptions (to be dealt with in future posts), for a long time it seemed pretty hard to find more than an occasional nugget; too much was weak tea or thin gruel.
But then, in early September 2011, after watching a televised Republican presidential candidates’ debate, hosted by the Ronald Reagan Library in California, I abruptly realized that in fact I had found some, and they had crystallized into convictions.
Amelia Boynton was my landlady in Selma, Alabama. She was also a prominent local civil fights activist, one of the handful of Black Selmians who had managed to badger her way onto the voting rolls despite segregation.
When she was knocked out cold on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge during the “Bloody Sunday attack on March 7 1965, she was 54 years old, and had been a working advocate for thirty years. When the Voting Rights Act was signed in August, she was about to turn 55.
Mrs. Boynton lived for 48 more years. That was long enough to see a Black mayor elected in Selma, a Black woman sent to Congress from its district, and a Black man sitting in the White House oval office.
But she also lived long enough to note that the poverty rate in Selma and the Alabama Black Belt was still as high in 2015, 50 years after the Bridge was first crossed. She also saw the Supreme Court cut the heart out of the Voting Rights Act, with the 2013 Shelby County decision. She was then102.
Two years later, she joined the Obamas, Congressman John Lewis (who had also been knocked out during the 1965 attack) and many others to cross the Pettus Bridge on the march’s 50th anniversary. And that time, like the Act itself, she was on her last legs. Mrs. Boynton died that August, a few days after her 104th birthday.
Mrs. Boynton was one of many pillars of the struggle for voting equality. Yet the arc of her life is uniquely emblematic of it, tracing its rise to a summit of achievement, followed by a backslide which is sinking ever closer to where she started out.
Its course marks my first reflection on the 2022 midterm aftermath: what we’re facing now, on many fronts, will take a long time to repair. Voting rights demolition started well before this election, and more is all but certain to come. Regaining its upward momentum will likely take a long time.
Long-term: This observation should be a truism, a platitude. But in my experience, it isn’t. Americans, and too many liberal Quakers (including me) have assimilated to a culture of ever-shortening attention spans. Along with fast food, fast cars, fast internet, a fast track and fast weight loss, we expect a fast lane to social change and justice.
Sometimes big change does happen “fast’: after 65 long years of formal Black disfranchisement, it was a mere five months (the blink of an eye in Congressional time) from “Bloody Sunday” til Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act.
But that was likely a once-in-a-lifetime cataclysm. Much more often, it takes longer. A lot longer.
This is a bipartisan truth, which the right seems to have learned and applied better: the movement to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act took 48 years. The crusade against Roe vs. Wade lasted 49; neither took their “eyes off the prize.” (How long will it take to topple Obergefell and same sex marriage?)
Looking further back, I see the smiling visage of my personal Quaker hero, Lucretia Mott: bringing encouragement she worked to end slavery for more than 50 years, and for black equality thereafter. And she “inherited” that imperative from her parents’ generation. However imperfectly, it’s fair to say Quakers labored and agitated on this matter for a century.
Lucretia also worked for women’s equality almost as long, though women did not win the vote til four decades after her death in 1880.
Such long-term labor, planning, or even attention, is increasingly rare today; for too many of us, a “long term” view barely extends beyond the next election — and have you noticed? These days, election season never ends. Yet how many of our Quaker institutions know how to transmit this long term Quaker work ethic to our children? (Hint: not many.)
I have no magic potion for reawakening the capacity for Quakers to think up and put together long-term work. Nevertheless, I maintain it’s the starting point for moving from hand-wringing irrelevance to faithful witness and actual influence,
And I think I’ve found a few clues. I’ll share some of them next time.
For now, here’s a teaser: during the civil rights years, freedom songs helped me and so many others hang on. And one, which I recall joining while in jail, sums up a lot. No one knows who “wrote” it; the movement did. It’s called “A Constant Struggle.” Here’s the refrain; verses varied:
“They say that freedom, is a constant struggle. They say that freedom, is a constant struggle. Yes, They say that freedom, is a constant struggle. . .
Oh Lord, we’ve been struggling so long That we must be free, We must be free . . . .”
NOTE: Besides being a columnist for the New York Times, John McWhorter is also a professor of linguistics, and a survivor of some years in a Friends school. He also publishes an online “newsletter,” in which these observations appeared for thy edification.
Fish don’t know they’re wet, and we English speakers don’t know we’re weird. Have you ever thought about how odd it is that English uses the same word for “you” in the singular and the plural?
Possibly not, because to speak English lifelong is to sense this as normal. But try to think of another language where there is only one word for “you.” Imagine if in Spanish one used “usted” to mean both one person and several, or if in French there were no “tu” and “vous” was the only word ever used to mean “you.” As often as not, languages do even more than just distinguish the singular and plural in the second person, marking distinctions of politeness as well. In Hindi there is the informal singular “tū,” the more formal “tum,” and then “āp” for addressing elders and others to whom one is meant to show respect.
And in cases where English serves as the foundation for brand-new languages, one of the first things people do is fill in the “you” hole. When the British first arrived in Australia, one of the ways they initially communicated with Indigenous people was through a pidgin English with a limited vocabulary. That pidgin was later used throughout the South Seas area, and ultimately flowered into actual languages. One of them is now the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea. In that language, Tok Pisin, no one puts up with this business of using “you” for all numbers of people. Rather, they get even more fine-grained than most others: They address two people as “yutupela” — you two fellows — and three as “yutripela.”
In creoles such as Jamaican patois and Gullah, which stem from a creole English created by slaves from Africa on plantations in the United States, right away a plural “you” pronoun was borrowed from the Nigerian language Igbo: “unu.” In Gullah this comes out as “hunnuh.” For example, in the 1990s, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt ran an ad in Essence magazine, presumably in response to the film “Daughters of the Dust,” which featured Gullah dialect, with the Gullah translation for “We think great-great-great-grandma would’ve loved Lawry’s” as “Oona gal tink we’s nana beena lub de Lawry’s Seasnin’.” Why Igbo was used for creating a plural “you” is impossible to know. But the mystery itself seems almost to suggest a kind of urgency, as if the creators wanted to fix a problem so eagerly that they went with the first thing someone happened to seize on.
And of course, way back when, English itself had “thou” for the singular and “you” for the plural — or actually “ye,” as in “Hear ye” — the form “you” was used as an object, as “thee” was in the singular. This was all like a normal language. But after a while standard English booted “thou” entirely, despite how noble and quaint it sounds in the Bible. Today it holds on in many rural dialects in Britain, often as “tha” — recall the gamekeeper in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” saying to the protagonist, “Tha mun come ter th’ cottage one time.” But seemingly everywhere else in Europe today, even in standard language, one toggles between “tu” and “voi” (or “lei”) (Italian) or “ty” and “vy” (Russian) or “du” and “ihr” (or “Sie”) (German). What happened with English?
So, William Penn has been canceled and erased, wiped away in the Great Dismantling:
In 2016, a long-running Penn lecture series in Philadelphia was redubbed the “Seeking Faithfulness” lectures.
Then, in late 2020, a Washington DC Quaker hostel and conference center, founded as William Penn House in the late 1960s, was scrubbed and rechristened “Friends Place.”
In April of 2021, across the pond, Friends House in London, which has twenty or so rooms named for various Friends, deleted Penn’s name from the list; I’ve not seen if the space has been renamed. [Update: it has been renamed for Benjamin Lay, the very dramatic early slavery protester, who was disowned for his disruptive actions.]
In the abstract, I have no problem with renaming (or no-naming) Quaker facilities; our buildings are not sanctified, but functional; memories and attitudes about the dead evolve, and even reverse.
One instructive case is the Quaker burial ground on Nantucket island off the Massachusetts coast. Thousands of Friends are interred in it, with no name markers at all, except for a few headstones placed later by some renegades, described as “heretics” by earlier worthies.
That was the Nantucket way: however different while alive, in personality, position, wealth or poverty, all those Friends ultimately testified to equality in the anonymity of their graves. So it goes.
But not always.
I find I can’t go along with erasing Penn. It’s not “principle” in this case, but practice: his figure keeps popping up in my mind.