I Ask No Monument: The Legacy of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (Santa Barbara)


as preached at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, August 20, 2023

Thank you for welcoming me in your pulpit for a second Sunday in a row. These past few days we have been blessed to spend a few days with your lead minister and her family. Julia, Adam, and Cassia have been great hosts and shown us something of the glories of your city: the incredible farmers market, the rough scramble and cool stream of Rattlesnake Canyon, the sanded beaches, and, of course, the wineries.

When I was with you last Sunday, I offered a sermon on the first Unitarian minister of African descent. The Rev. Robert Wedderburn was active in London from roughly 1802 to 1828. During that period, he preached a remarkable form of Unitarianism that blended African and Caribbean religion with Christianity to proclaim a vision of liberation in which slavery was abolished, the Earth was held as a common treasury for all, and every one was a child of God.

I offered my sermon as part of an effort to help you re-imagine the Unitarian Universalist tradition. In your gorgeous sanctuary, we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses–religious ancestors–whose names are inscribed on the stained glass. In recent months, you have done the hard work of questioning the legacy of one of these ancestors, Thomas Jefferson, and his awful commitment to white supremacy and slavery. You have made the decision to remove his name from your sanctum and replace it with another name to inspire you on the unending journey towards love and justice.

Robert Wedderburn is one name you might consider. Another is that of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. We heard something of her life story during the time for all ages. Were you familiar with her before then? She was a nineteenth and early-twentieth century Unitarian and abolitionist. A longtime member of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, she holds a central place in the African American literary tradition, which is to say the literature of the United States. A path breaker in so many ways, in the middle of the nineteenth-century she demanded equal access to public works. A full hundred years before Rosa Parks, she refused to give up her seat on a streetcar to a White man. One of the first people in the United States to make a living solely as a writer, she was the author of the first known short story by an African American. The creator of dozens of poems and numerous essays, she wrote four novels. This makes her responsible for almost half of the major works of fiction written by Black people in the United States prior to the turn of the twentieth-century.

Harper’s place in the Black Republic of Letters is such that a fragment of one of her poems is inscribed on the walls of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. It comes from the poem I read earlier. It runs:

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

I will return to this stanza and a discussion of her Unitarianism shortly. Before I focus our attention more closely on Harper, I want to zoom back out and talk with you about the overall intention of these two sermons. It is captured in a phrase I uttered earlier and a word I have used multiple times. The phrase is “living tradition” and the word is “canon.”

Unitarian Universalism is a living tradition. Rather than taking the sources that inspire us as fixed, we view them as ever changing and ever expanding. What speaks to one person, or one generation, does not necessary inspire another. The phrase “revelation is not sealed” is a commonplace amongst us. It is meant to remind us that your life, and mine, contain within them an infinitude of marvels, an expansive and expanding opportunity to encounter a world that might rouse us to, in Harper’s words, “embrace every opportunity, develop every faculty, and use every power God has given… [us] to rise in the scale of character.”

The word “canon” closely connects to the living tradition. In his description of the African American literary canon, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., observes canonical “texts signify or riff upon each other, repeating, borrowing, and extending metaphors book to book, generation to generation.”

The Unitarian Universalist canon might be understood as those texts which inspire our living tradition to change and grow from generation to generation. It is filled with works by preachers and theologians, novelists and poets, essayists and scholars. These are the people who you might routinely hear quoted from this and other pulpits. They are the ones that ministers study in seminary and who lay people read in discussion groups. I speak of those on your stained glass windows like Channing, Emerson, Martineau, Parker, Socinus, and Ward Howe. I also invoke Forrest Church, Margaret Fuller, A. Powell Davies, Mark Morrison-Reed, Marilyn Sewell and Thandeka.

They are the ones whose words often inspire our worship. “I am a living member of the great Family of All Souls,” said Channing. “Within us is the soul of the whole; the wise silence, the universal beauty,” taught Emerson. “A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come,” wrote Fuller. “The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all,” advised Morrison-Reed. “Religion is the human response to being alive and having to die,” preached Church. “As we age, our aliveness shines forth from the depths of spirit, if we dare go there,” counseled Sewell. There is “love beyond belief,” proclaimed Thandeka.

If you have heard me preach in the past, you will have probably observed that my personal canon extends further than the canonical texts of Unitarian Universalism. To offer a highly abridged litany, I frequently find myself in dialogue with Gloria Anzaldua, Hannah Arendt, W. E. B. DuBois, Audre Lorde, Subcommandante Marcos, Nina Simone, Tu Fu, and W. B. Yeats. What about you? What are the texts that form your personal canon, the works that inspire you, that you find yourself in repeated conversation with?

Maybe they are not texts at all. In our visual and digital culture there exists all kinds of canons. They exist in television: think the Sopranos, Star Trek, or the Jeffersons. They are present in social media: bring to mind last week’s ridiculous poolside reenactments of the Alabama Sweet Tea Party or one of the almost infinite memes featuring the grumpy cat that used to circulate, “I had fun once… it was awful!!!” They can be found in painting–Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” and Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits–and photography–Robert Capa’s “Death of a Spanish Loyalist” and Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” We might even seek them out in cooking. My latkes are an interpretation of my mother’s. Whenever I make them I find myself wondering how they compare to hers.

In truth, we could search for canons in every form of cultural production. They are rooted in the things we think of as traditional or influential and then extend into the contemporary moment–the living tradition. In our epoch some forms of canon even appear almost anti-canonical in the sense that the self-referential domain of social media composition is more ephemeral than literary ones. Nonetheless, each of us carry canons in our heads of texts, digital creations, and visual objects that influence the way we extend metaphors and repeat earlier constructions in our own lives and creative acts.

This sermon might be taken as one instance of how canons shape our communications. Another, slightly flip, example from my own ministerial career comes from that canonical production, “The Muppet Show.” I suspect many of you are familiar with it. It aired in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was followed by numerous television shows and movies.

Several of its characters are ubiquitous almost anywhere television exists. I refer to Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and Gonzo. In particular, I mention two characters Statler and Waldorf. Do you know who I am talking about? They are two older gentlemen who sit in the balcony of the Muppets’ theater and frequently comment upon, and often gently heckle, the rest of the Muppets as they perform. Often, they have dialogue like this:

Statler: Boo!
Waldorf: Boo!
Statler: That was the worst thing I’ve ever heard!
Waldorf: It was terrible!
Statler: Horrendous!
Waldorf: Well, it wasn’t that bad… There were parts of it I liked!
Statler: I liked a lot of it.
Waldorf: Yeah, it was good actually.
Statler: It was great!
Waldorf: It was wonderful!
Statler: Yeah, bravo.
Waldorf: More!
Statler: More!
Waldorf: More!
Statler: More!

One of the congregations I served had a couple of members like that. They were two older gentlemen who sat in back of the sanctuary every Sunday, drinking coffee throughout the service. They had been members since sometime in the 1940s and had seen many a minister come and go. They always had commentary for me on my sermon. I learned an enormous amount about preaching from them. If my sermons ever strayed too far into the esoteric they would let me know. And they often reminded me that I was preaching to a specific community with a specific tradition and location. If I wanted to be effective I needed to remember where I was–understand the canon of that particular religious communion.

One Sunday a friend of mine came to preach the sermon. After the service ended they talked to the two gentlemen in back and then later told me, “Dude, you totally have Statler and Waldorf in your congregation.” It was not meant as a slight–as humorous and cantankerous as they are Statler and Waldorf are important members of the Muppet community. Rather, it was a common referent point, an invocation of our shared canon, that allowed me to reconceptualize my relationship with these two older congregants. It helped me clarify that preaching is a performance, that there is a canon present within it, and that many of my congregants want me to be both accountable to that canon and that one way to respect the freedom of the pulpit is to critique what the minister preaches, and encourage the minister to do better.

This sermon, along with my sermon from last week, are meant to help inspire you to think differently about the canons we invoke in this pulpit and in this congregation. Some people describe Unitarian Universalism as a predominantly White tradition. The intention of these two sermons is to challenge that assumption by illustrating the ways in which Unitarian Universalism has always been shaped, and continues to be shaped, by people from Africa and the African diaspora.

This brings us back to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. It would hard to find a more influential or forceful statement of nineteenth-century Unitarian theology than those found in her texts.

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

The verse is an expression of our tradition’s commitment creating this worldly justice. Its speaker is uninterested in personal glorification. She makes no reference to eternal reward or future salvation. Her concerns rest entirely upon the horrors that humans visit upon other humans. There is the pain that people held in inhuman bondage experienced on the forced labor camps known as plantations–the lash, the chain, and the way in which women are “Bartered and sold.” And there is the immorality of men who believe they are White which turns other human beings into “prey,” captives, and slaves.

What hope exists, the poem implies, rests with those who hear its plea “bury me not in a land of slaves” and act to destroy slavery. It is a humanist vision. Harper seems to be telling us that God is not coming to save us. We must save ourselves. The profound moral evil that she challenges has been created by humans. It is up to humans to uncreate it.

This is the message of her novel “Iola Leory.” Written in 1892, I want to suggest that it is the one of the great Unitarian novels of the nineteenth-century–a strong statement since the genre includes the works of Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. It centers on the experiences of African Americans prior to, during, and following the Civil War. It contains depictions of debates on how to resist and overcome slavery that I have not encountered elsewhere in literature.

One scene details a code that enslaved people used to communicate the successes and failures of the Union Army as it moved through the South. In it Harper shares, “In conveying tidings of the war, if they wished to announce a victory of the Union army, they said the butter was fresh… If defeat befell them, then the butter…. [was] rancid.”

Another scene offers an analysis of how African Americans in the South understood their relationship to the Union Army and what freedom would mean for them. Late a night a group of them meet in a cabin to debate whether or not to escape across to Union lines as the war’s front approaches. They discuss how they might help the older generations flee. One man decides to stay behind because he cannot bring his aged mother with him. A different man shares with the group that understands why the Union Army grants them freedom. It is less an expression of a commitment to destroying slavery and more in line with a desire to undermine the Confederacy. He tells his audience why army officers will not return enslaved people to their so-called masters, “if a slave runs away… He is called contraband, just the same as if he were an ox or a horse. They wouldn’t send the horses back, and they won’t send us back.” Nonetheless, he resolves to join the Union forces because he believes that the Union will have to give its supporters their freedom.

The primary themes of Harper’s novel are ones that I often visit in my preaching. Harper describes how race is socially constructed. The title character, Iola Leroy, is so fair “no one would suspect that she has one drop” of African American blood “in her veins.” She passes for White until it is revealed that her mother was partially of African descent. Then, through the legal fiction of race, she is transformed into a Black woman and sold into slavery by an evil White relative.

The principal objective of life is cultivate good character. Character is vital to overcoming white supremacy. It comes from the virtues we cultivate and is expressed in the deeds we do. Harper wrote, in words that appear to canonically prefigure one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous utterances, “one of the great mistakes of our civilization is that which makes color, and not character, a social test.”

Jesus is taken as a moral exemplar, a great teacher, rather than a figure who died to save humanity from original sin. The Trinitarian theology of the slave masters is portrayed as “white folks’ religion.” It is counterposed with more human oriented religious practices that seek the creation of justice in this world. It is humans who created white supremacy, she wants her readers to know, and it is humans who have the power to overcome it.

A final theme is present in the novel which, quite frankly, we would be well advised to discuss more often. It is the connection between white supremacy and gender. Harper’s novel and other works are explicit in showing how the construction of white supremacy has been the project of men who believed that they were White. The relative who sells Iola Leroy into slavery is a White man.

What Harper’s novel and her poem “Bury Me in a Free Land” both make clear is that sexual exploitation was a central part of white supremacy during slavery. It arguably remains so today. Harper covers this matter in, by nineteenth-century standards, graphic detail and shows how White men routinely sold their own children into slavery.

Harper’s frankness about the relationship between racial and gendered oppression is one of the many things that she brings to the Unitarian Universalist canon. Reading her works has reminded me that whenever we talk about dismantling white supremacy we are actually discussing dismantling the entwined moral evil of racial and gender hierarchy. It also prompted me consider how the Unitarian Universalist canon is structured and maintained. It has caused me to ask the question: What is my role, and this pulpit’s role, in sustaining and expanding that tradition? And to ask: What exactly compromises my canon?

I hope that my sermons have encouraged you to ask similar questions. And that this sermon has inspired to probe even a little further and think about your canon–those texts and creative productions–that help you interpret, move through the world, and, to invoke Henry Louis Gates, Jr., extend the metaphors of into your own lives. What teachings do your personal canons contain and reinforce?

It is a good question to end on. Carter G. Woodson was the man who originated Black History Month. He envisioned that it would place people from Africa and of African descent “in History” and as crucial players in the construction of canons within the United States and elsewhere so that there might share with each other “history of the world void of national bias, race hatred and religious prejudice.” These sermons have been offered in that spirit. It is my hope that they have helped expand your conception of the Unitarian Universalist tradition. As the lives of Robert Wedderburn and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper should remind us, it has always been a multi-racial tradition.

To speak of this tradition is to remind ourselves of one of your tasks as a contemporary congregation. We are called to constantly challenge and expand our own congregational canons so that they might empower us to grow an ever stronger a beloved community, in Woodson’s words, free of “national bias, race hatred and religious prejudice.”

I end not there but with words that riff upon the closing of Harper’s “Iola Leroy.”

May the evils and horrors we struggle with
be lifted from all of our lives;
may peace, like the glorious morning dew
descend upon our paths.

When we ourselves are blessed,
we are called to bless the lives of others.

Amen, Ase, and Blessed Be.

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