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Aug 19, 2019

Sermon: The Rainbow Sign: The 400th Anniversary of Slavery in the United States

as preached August 11, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus 

We have just rung our church bell twenty-one times. Mallet has struck metal for each of the “twenty and odd” Africans who arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia in late August 1619. Their arrival was a pivotal moment in this country’s history. African Americans have provided this country with its some of its foremost artists, religious leaders, philosophers, politicians, and scientists. African American culture has given the United States, and the world, powerful and popular musical traditions that shaped global culture: the blues, jazz, hip-hop, house and techno, rock ‘n roll, and soul. And African Americans have again and again pushed this country to be a land of freedom and equality rather than a land of slavery and injustice.

The Africans who arrived in Virginia were kidnapped by English pirates from a Spanish slave ship originally destined for the Caribbean. At least a few of the names given to them by their kidnappers were recorded. There was a woman called Angelo and a couple called Antonio and Isabella. They were the parents of William, the first African American born in the English colonies. He was born free. Slavery did not become hereditary until later.

Angelo, Antonio, and Isabella, and the others who arrived with them were natives of West Central Africa. They arrived on an English ship called the White Lion. The ship’s crew is believed to have traded them for food and supplies. They were the first Africans to be brought to English North America. And their arrival marks the beginning of chattel slavery in the colony of Virginia.

1619. It is a year that is just as foundational to the United States of America as 1776. The two years represent the contradiction that lies at the heart of the country. From its very inception, the United States of America has proclaimed itself “the land of the free.” From its very inception, the United States of America been built upon unfreedom. It is like the late Toni Morrison observed, “the presence of the unfree [lies] within the heart of the democratic experiment.” Unfreedom has, from its point of origin, warped the very idea of freedom. To build one person’s freedom on another person’s slavery is to turn freedom itself into a lie.

I have a friend who has a joke about this. He says, “Whenever white folks start talking about freedom, I start to look around to see what, or who, they are trying to steal.” Often freedom for people who believe themselves to be white has come at the expense of everyone else. And just as often, African Americans have proclaimed that freedom is either for everyone or no one. It is like Martin King observed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

This contradiction between freedom and unfreedom has led slavery to be called America’s original sin. Unitarian Universalists, as I said last week, could use a more robust understanding of sin. And theological language is illuminating when we attempt to understand the legacy of slavery.

Sin can be understood as estrangement. Estrangement is a form of separation in which there are, at a minimum, unfriendly feelings between the estranged parties. It is the mission of religion to help us overcome sin. Sin, I am suggesting, is not a cosmic thing, a metaphysical reality. It is something to be found in our human relations (and in our relations with the planet). When I speak of slavery as a sin, I am speaking of a pattern of estrangement that was actualized in the material conditions of people’s lives. The institution of slavery was a set of behaviors, and set of beliefs, that enabled people who believed themselves to be white to imagine other human beings as primarily tools and instruments for producing wealth. When an enslaver looked at someone they had enslaved they did not see the pain in the eyes of another human being. They did not see another being whose purpose in life was to love and laugh, imagine and create. They imagined they saw someone who existed to serve them, who existed to be exploited to build wealth. In their crass imagining the enslavers estranged themselves from their own humanity. In their fierce resistance those who had been enslaved proclaimed theirs.

Sin is overcome by practicing and preaching love. For if sin is estrangement then salvation might be understood as a coming back together, a reunification. And the impulse that brings us back together, and that binds us back together, is love. I am not speaking of romantic love. Instead, I refer to what in the Christian lexicon is called agape--goodwill towards all; the desire that all humans can be free. Salvation, the overcoming of estrangement, then should be understood as basing our lives, and our society, upon a love that honors all human beings.

Sin and salvation, freedom and unfreedom, all of these have a distinctly earthly flavor. Our Unitarian Universalist tradition teaches us not to look for salvation in the next world but to see it in this one. It teaches that sin is not a cosmic thing, a metaphysical reality, but something found in human relations. This is why the Universalist lay leader Fannie Barrier Williams said, “I dare not to cease to hope and aspire and believe in human love and justice...” It is why the Unitarian minister Egbert Ethelred Brown prayed, “May we know that without love there will never be peace. Teach us therefore to love.”

Freedom and unfreedom... 1619. The first Africans arrived in Virginia. They arrived after enduring the brutal Middle Passage. They had been forced into a ship in Angola and cramped below deck. We have no words from them describing their experiences, but we do have the words others who survived the journey from Africa to the Americas. The abolitionist Olaudah Equiano was one of them. Kidnapped as a young boy in what is now Nigeria, he published “The Interesting of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” the same year the United States Constitution became the law of the land. He described the Middle Passage as “filled with horrors of every kind.” He recollected his time confined below deck this way: “with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing. I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me.”

At least two million people--daughters, sons, children, mothers, fathers, parents, lovers, friends, artists, prophets, singers, geniuses, dancers, poets, human beings--died in the Middle Passage. Some succumb to illness. Some were beaten to death when they resisted. Some jumped from the ships rather than endure unfreedom. Let us honor them with a silent prayer.

And a poem: “August 1619” by Clint Smith.

Over the course of 350 years,
36,000 slave ships crossed the Atlantic
Ocean. I walk over to the globe & move

my finger back & forth between
the fragile continents. I try to keep
count how many times I drag

my hand across the bristled
hemispheres, but grow weary of chasing
a history that swallowed me.

For every hundred people who were
captured & enslaved, forty died before they
ever reached the New World.

I pull my index finger from Angola
to Brazil & feel the bodies jumping from
the ship.

I drag my thumb from Ghana
to Jamaica & feel the weight of dysentery
make an anvil of my touch.

I slide my ring finger from Senegal
to South Carolina & feel the ocean
separate a million families.

The soft hum of history spins
on its tilted axis. A cavalcade of ghost ships
wash their hands of all they carried.

The soft hum of history spins / on its tilted axis. 1619. The first Africans arrived in Virginia not as slaves but as indentured servants. Europeans who lived in the colony were in a similar legal state. Indentured servitude was a system whereby an individual was bound to work for an employer for a particular period of time. At the end of the contract the individual was free to sell their labor to whomever they liked. If they could find land to work, they were also free to live as a farmer. Many poor Europeans made their way, voluntarily and involuntarily, to the English colonies as indentured servants.

Why is this technical distinction between indentured servitude and slavery necessary? Because slavery was created explicitly to divide Africans and poor Europeans. United in mutual love they were a threat to the wealthy elites of the colonies. Estranged through slavery, Africans and poor Europeans could both be exploited to produce wealth for the rich men who owned plantations and factories.

This condition of estrangement was intentionally created to shore up the power of the wealthy. It was created through the legal system. The Africans who arrived in Jamestown, if they lived long enough, died free. Their children were born free. They sometimes united with the children of European indentured servants for greater freedom for the poor. This mutual love was unconscionable to the men who owned most of the land in the colonies, men who understood freedom as the freedom to earn money and not the freedom to be. They passed laws that, in essence, created race and created slavery as a racial condition. First, they passed laws that declaimed that only African people could be slaves. And then they passed laws that said that an individual’s legal status followed that of their mother. If the mother was an African slave then the child, no matter the color of its skin, would be a slave.

Freedom and unfreedom. Sin and salvation. Africans resisted and imagined true liberation from the beginning. They ran away almost as soon as they arrived in the Americas. In the dismal swamps, the mountains, in the deep recesses of the forests, they formed maroon societies. Sometimes joined by poor Europeans who had fled indentured servitude, sometimes joining with Native Americans, free Africans created communities where true freedom was the norm. Interracial solidarity--the salvation of mutual love--overcame the sin of slavery. These communities, as the political philosopher Cedric Robinson has described them, were “communitarian rather individualistic, democratic... Afro-Christian rather than... materialist.” Over the centuries they provided safe harbor for people escaping slavery. Over the centuries they offered a space where people could dream freedom dreams outside of or on the edge of a society where freedom only existed for some people. Many of these free maroon societies lasted until at least the Civil War when they provided bases of operation for African American guerrillas and Union loyalists in the struggle end chattel slavery that the Civil War became.

Freedom and unfreedom. Sin and salvation. Here is an uncomfortable truth about the United States: enslaved people laid the foundation stones of the White House. Enslaved people placed the Statue of Freedom atop the Capital dome. The American Revolution was at least partially about the freedom of men who believed themselves to be white to enslave others. In 1772, four years before the Declaration of Independence, slavery was outlawed in England itself. Men like Thomas Jefferson feared that Britain would eventually abolish slavery in the English colonies. This dynamic prompted the English writer and politician Samuel Johnson to ask, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of” slaves?

Throughout the history of this country it has most often been African Americans who held out a different vision of freedom. It is not a vision of freedom based in the ability to enslave others—a vision of freedom rooted in estrangement. It is a vision of freedom based in a belief, in the words of the abolitionist Martin Delaney, “that God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.” It is a vision of freedom organized around the idea of universal equality.

The great W. E. B. Du Bois called it abolition democracy. He coined the phrase abolition democracy to distinguish the genuine democratic beliefs of the great abolitionists who opposed slavery from the false democracy of the slave holders. He summarized it in deceptively simple terms. It was “based on freedom, intelligence, and power for all men.” He wrote those words in 1931. If he were alive today I am sure he would have rephrased them to include women and transgender people.

After the Civil War, proponents of abolition democracy demanded full legal rights for the formerly enslaved. They also demanded what we might now call reparations for slavery. They recognized that political freedom is essentially meaningless without economic autonomy. When your entire livelihood is dependent upon some landlord or employer it can seem impossible to vote and act for your own interests.

Alongside political freedom and economic independence, abolition democrats worked for a third thing: universal free public education. They understood that in order for democracy to function community members had to be educated enough to identify and advocate for their own interests. They had to be able to distinguish truth from falsehood, knowledge from propaganda.

Abolition democracy is the greatest of the American political traditions. It is only one that actually offers the possibility of freedom for all people. It proponents form a pantheon saints. In that pantheon are people of African descendant like Phyllis Wheatley who said, “In every human breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom; it is impatient of oppression and pants for deliverance.” And Harriet Tubman who wrote, of the struggle for freedom, “I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death.” And Frederick Douglass who gave a speech asking, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” And Martin King, and Ella Baker, and Malcolm X, and Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others. It is a pantheon that includes not only people of African descent but all of those who have held out a vision of love that can conquer hate, a vision in which the estrangement of sin can be overcome by the salvation of equality.

Writing about the contradiction between unfreedom and freedom that lies at the heart of the United States, W. E. B. Du Bois argued more than a hundred years ago, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” Writing as an advocate of abolition democracy, though she does not use that term, the African American journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones posed her answer to Du Bois’s problem in the form of a question, “What if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we have never been the problem but the solution?”

It is a hope that I cling to in these troubled days. It is why I look to people of color and women for leadership in the face of a blatantly white supremacist President who aspires to authoritarianism. It is the saints of abolitionist democracy who have most boldly articulated a different view--a view that proclaims the salvation of love for all. In this desperate hour, when democratic societies are under threat, when racial injustice is increasing, when inequality is growing, when we face the existential threat of climate change, let us turn to their vision of freedom. Let us a proclaim and live an understanding of freedom not born from estrangement and separation but love and unity. For now is the crucial time, not just for you and for me but for all who come after. We live in a moment like the one James Baldwin wrote of at the end of his magnificent meditation on the civil rights movement and race in America, “The Fire Next Time”:

“If we… do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”

Let us inscribe the words of Baldwin, and all the other abolition democrats, known and unknown, on our hearts. 1619. On this four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Angelo, Antonio, and Isabella, who we know only by the name given to them by their kidnappers, and the other “twenty and odd” Africans who came with them, let us commit ourselves to a vision of freedom for all. It is not a vision of freedom to exploit. It is a vision in which you and you and you and I and all of us can truly be who we ought to be. It is a vision we find articulated in the hymn “Life Every Voice and Sing” which I now invite you to join me in singing.

Note: In addition to my own research, this sermon drew upon the 1619 Project of the New York Times especially the essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Slavery 1619 Jamestown Virginia Point Comfort England 1776 United States of America Sin Salvation Fannie Barrier William Egbert Ethelred Brown Middle Passage Clint Smith Olaudah Equiano United States Constitution Indentured Servitude Cedric Robinson Toni Morrison Samuel Johnson Thomas Jefferson Abolition Abolition Democracy Martin Delaney W. E. B. Du Bois Phyllis Wheatley Harriet Tubman Frederick Douglass Martin Luther King, Jr. Ella Baker Malcolm X Fannie Lou Hamer Nikole Hannah-Jones White Supremacy James Baldwin

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