A Sense of History
By Dr. Mary McClintock Fulkerson
Professor of Theology
Duke Divinity School
As a member of the Pauli Murray Steering Committee and participant in a Pauli Murray reading group at Asbury Temple UMC, I am having my own sense of history turned upside down. By “sense of history” I mean my family history to be sure, but also my larger conception of U.S. history and church history. The recounting of Pauli Murray’s family history in Proud Shoes is a complex and riveting story of the personal and everyday as well as institutional realities of slavery, Reconstruction, segregation, and the class and “color” fissures that continue in Durham, Chapel Hill and northeastern areas where her ancestors were located. But, of course, it’s not the “official” history of these matters; it is the story of how a white woman married to a slaveholder in Chapel Hill brings up four daughter who are the result of her sons’ rape of women slaves; or the mixed and complicated loyalties of descendents of such rapes; the real and complicated humanity of persons, black, mulatto and white who have to bear the burden of grotesque social sin even as they live out face-to-face, day-to-day interactions with their ‘enemies’ who are also their caretakers and blood kin. These white ancestors are displayed in their vicious racist dehumanizing behavior toward persons of color, their sporadic kindness and humanity, and their total obliviousness to dehumanizing objectification of black bodies entailed by their lives.
What is riveting for me about these “history” lesssons is not just learning about life on the “other side of the tracks” in segregated southern towns very similar to my own family’s life in Arkansas, Texas and North Carolina. I do know something about the embarrassing history of our country, which even today continues to claim to be “colorblind,” and to have moved beyond racism. What is riveting is sharing stories with African Americans my age and younger and hearing what it was like to be told by your parents how to protect yourself from people like me and my family. While I “know” about and acknowledge racism---have written about white obliviousness to racism---having its complexities personalized in ongoing conversations is a deeply rich and painful experience.
I continue to think about the sacrament of communion in relation to this storytelling. Womanist theologian Shawn Copeland has described the character of Jesus’ call to the table in a most compelling way. Her account of Eucharist resonates profoundly with the dynamics of our shared memories, but also invokes a logic that might create a new consciousness. The Eucharist is to create an alternate imagination, as Copeland says, an imagination shaped by the “dangerous memory” of Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, death and resurrection. An alternate imagination, then, cannot be a ‘gathering’ that simply repeats the biblical/theological ritual, failing to surface, acknowledge and attend to such contemporary realities as the continued realities of racism and the exploited, devalued, despised black body. To remember can be a kind of museum activity --- lets us white folks just admire the biblical past; never mind about remembering in order to honestly face and name the present. Faithful Christian memory, then, should do what reading Pauli Murray’s history is doing--- namely, surface our racialized history in all its complexity. It should also open us to move beyond awareness and pity, the sometimes superficial “community” of table fellowship…to enter the deep water of grace that entails lived, honest, and risky connecting.