Archive for August, 2009

The Death of A Liberal

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

I never thought I’d live to see the day when the word “liberal” was a bad word. Progressive is the preferred appellation these days to describe those who believe in justice and fairness for all. But debating the difference between “liberal” and “progressive” is not why I came on the blog today.

With last night’s passing of Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts comes the end of an era. The death of Camelot, again? Yes. The death of the Kennedy franchise in politics? Yes. But also the death of old line liberals  and old fashioned liberalism Senator Ted Kennedyin this country. For years there you could find portraits of  Kennedy’s older brothers, John and Bobby, along with that of Martin Luther King, on the walls of black homes, black business, and on the fans of black churches. “Good white folks” are what black folks white folks like the Kennedys. Meaning they were the kind of white folks you could count on to speak up on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.  I will resist the urge to romanticize what documents  amply show, which is that Ted Kennedy, like his brothers before him, was a very imperfect of a man. But the last of the Kennedy dynasty did manage to do something his brothers before him did not, and that was to die the death of a patriarch. Ted Kennedy died both patriarch of the Kennedy clan and patriarch of a particular era in American political history.  Patriarch, you say? Yes, patriarch. Meaning Kennedy lived long enough to outlive his sins and to ascend to the ranks as  sage and icon in his profession.  Sure, he died with one of his lifelong goals, universal health care, within reach though struggling on Capitol Hill. But you can bet that he managed to accomplish lots of good in his 47 years in Congress.

Anybody here remember an  old song from the 60s written as a tribute to Abraham (Lincoln), John (Kennedy), Martin (King) and Bobby (Kennedy) whose politics left them murdered at an early death? Ted Kennedy outlived King and his brothers, but he couldn’t outlive the influence of the era in which they lived and worked. The song captured the hopes (and tragedies) of that era . Scroll down and click to hear the late Moms Mabley’s beautiful rendition of “Abraham, John, Martin and Bobby.”

Here are the song’s lyrics.

Anybody here seen my old friend Abraham?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed lotta people but it seems the good they die young
You know I just looked around and he’s gone

Anybody here seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed lotta people but it seems the good they die young
I just looked around and he’s gone

(brief instrumental interlude-organ)

Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed lotta people but it seems the good they die young
I just looked around and he’s gone

Didn’t you love the things that they stood for?
Didn’t they try to find some good for you and me?
And we’ll be free
Some day soon, it’s gonna be one day

Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill
With Abraham, Martin and John

A Stitch in Time

Monday, August 24th, 2009

I promised to send this 1989 photo of Prathia to a sister blogger over at Prathia’s Daughters a blog dedicated to women in ministry committed to social activism. The photo of me standing beside women I admire and have befriended over the years is one of a number of photos I keep nearby me here in my study. Taking the photo out of its frame and scanning it into the computer for  Prathia’s Daughters and looking at it again and again has brought back sweet memories.

The photo was taken 20 years ago at my 1989 graduation from Princeton Seminary.

PTS graduation

I had the dubious distinction that year of becoming the first African American woman  to earn a Ph.D. in Old Testament. At least that’s what they tell me. That’s what the history books say. Of course, none of that was on my mind at the time. I had gone to school like they told me so I could get a good job. The job I wanted at the time was something that combined my interest in religion with my desire (since childhood) to teach. I had no earthly idea at that moment what all that meant. But I would soon learn.

I’d managed to skip attending the graduation ceremonies from my undergraduate college and the one I was supposed to attend when I completed my master’s degree program there at Princeton. Why did I not go? Bourgeois affairs. Counterrevolutionary. Rituals I had little to no use for. Or, so I reasoned. Seemed like good reasons at the time. The truth was that none of my peeps  had the money or wherewithal to come north for my graduations. So why bother? But thank God for friends. My then and now good friend M. Elaine Flake, standing there to my left, insisted that I march in the graduation ceremony and be hooded as a newly minted black Ph.D. I seem to recall in fact that she threatened to disown me if I didn’t. She got that this was a historic moment even though I didn’t at the time. Sure enough Elaine showed up for my graduation. As did other friends.

Thank God for friends who were then and are now smarter and wiser than I am.

To my immediate right is Rosemary Bray (McNatt).  We were girls pretending to be women back in the 70s there in New York City.  (Can you say “Sex and the City”?) How did we meet? I seem to recall that Rosemary had posted a note on a bulletin board at a well known feminist bookstore there at 92nd and Amsterdam asking whether there were other black women out there who wanted to join her in starting a black women’s literature reading group, and I gave her a call. (This was back before email, Facebook, and cell phones, y’all.) I was working as a broker at Merrill Lynch at the time, and Rosemary was an editor at Essence magazine. We met and became fast friends. In her capacity as an editor at Essence Rosemary was able to see to it that my first article would be published in Essence magazine. Thanks Rosemary. I owe you.

To Rosemary’s right is the indescribable Debyii Subabu Thomas, an AME minister and now professor in the Communications department at Howard University. At the bottom of the photo, her bushy ‘fro peeping out, is my fellow AME friend Paulette Coleman, art educator and urban planner, whom I’ve known since we were students in Cambridge, Massachusetts and both members of the Artisha Wilkerson Jordan Missionary circle of St. Paul AME Church. That’s right. Long before I was a minister I was a missionary in church. That’s where women clergy got their start back then, in the various women’s auxilaries in church. Things are different now. Now you don’t even have to have spent any time getting to know women in the church, you don’t have to like church, and you don’t even have to know God to go into ministry these days. But that’s another story.

There to the extreme right in the photo is Prathia Hall Wynn.

Remembering Prathia (1940-2002)

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Prathia In 1962 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was visiting Terrell County, Georgia speaking to a congregation whose church building had recently been burned to the ground by the Klan. The name of the church was Mt. Olive Baptist Church. In the service was a young SNCC worker and college student, Prathia Hall.  She had distinguished herself as someone with great oratory talents and possessing a strong religious background, so she was on the program that night to pray.  As she prayed Prathia drew on her talents as the daughter of a Baptist preacher and began to intone her own vision of the future by peppering her prayer with the phrase, “I Have A Dream.” King was impressed; and as ministers often do King would later go on to incorporate an inspiring phrase he heard from someone into his own speeches. By late1962 the phrase, “I have a dream” had become a fixture in sermons King frequently gave as he traveled the United States.

So who was Prathia Hall?

Prathia Hall grew up in Philadelphia. Her father, Reverend Berkeley Hall, was a Baptist minister and a passionate advocate for racial justice. She left her undergraduate studies at Temple University to join the throng of college students who were heading south to be freedom fighters and to take part in the movement taking place there. Prathia joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and eventually became one of the first women field leaders in southwest Georgia.  Prathia would later go on to become a preacher, following her father’s footsteps as a Baptist minister. She helped break barriers for women’s leadership in the Baptist church by distinguishing herself as an outstanding preacher. In 1962 she was the first woman to be received into the membership of the Baptist Minister’s Conference of Philadelphia. After her father’s death Prathia accepted the call of Mount Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia to come and pastor the church her father once pastored.

Prathia later enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary where I met her. We were classmates, she focusing on ethics while I focused on biblical studies.  I remember the long talks we had about God, ministry, life, love, and the struggle for justice. I don’t recall her making any special effort to impress me with her SNCC credentials. Neither do I recall her saying a word about having influenced ML King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.  She was always in great demand as a speaker even while she was still a graduate student at Princeton, probably because she had been speaking and preaching for a long time before she arrived at Princeton. I got a chance to watch Prathia juggling studies, pastoring, her travels as a speaker, along with her most important job of being single mom to two rambunctious teenagers. I would often go down from Princeton to Philadelphia to preach for her at Mt. Sharon Baptist on those Sundays when she had to be out of town. Prathia Hall (Wynn) eventually graduated from Princeton with a Ph.D. in ethics, specializing in womanist ethics, theology, and African-American church history.

In 1962 Prathia Hall inspired the imagination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  by lending him a phrase(”I Have A Dream”) that would become a staple of his preaching and the signature of his life work. It seems only fitting decades later that Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall would go on to become an associate professor at Boston University School of Theology, holding the Martin Luther King Jr. Chair in Social Ethics. Prathia Hall died on August 12, 2002, following a long illness.

I am remembering Prathia Hall this week.