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The Urban Reservation

Many African American communities in the inner cities have come to resemble reservations. Ironically, it began in the sixties as the Civil Rights Movement celebrated its breakthrough legislative achievements. Buckle your seat belts and observe the realization of Manifest Destiny.

(By Mel Currie, member of Channing Memorial Church)

My previous sermons on Labor Day weekend: Talking to the Person in the Room, The Sanctity of Life

I don’t really give sermons. (My wife might dispute this.) Perhaps it would be better to describe what I’m about to deliver as a viewpoint illustrated by a slice of life.

Sometimes the stars align. I remember the alignment this past April clearly.   I left the Maryland Correctional Institution for Men (Jessup for short) and pointed my vehicle north to the City of Baltimore.  Baltimore’s Civilian Review Board meets monthly to consider written complaints submitted by citizens who have had an encounter with a BPD officer that they deem to have been less than satisfactory. I had just left a classroom full of men who had an encounter and at least one felony conviction before enrolling in my class. That day, my class heard me speak to them on the matter of trigonometric identities, after which I had walked through what I call “the airlock,” negotiated the passageway under the barbed wire and climbed into my car.

By the time I reached central Baltimore, driving through the teeth of rush hour, well over an hour had elapsed. I was fifteen minutes late for my meeting and out of patience. Patience has never been my long suit. I was in a frame of mind that would easily lead to my arguing even with those who agreed with me. Well, this paints a picture of how I wrestle with my corner of the Social-Justice universe these days.

The title of this essay/sermon is The Urban Reservation. What do I mean by that? Let’s step back in time and make a gradual approach. In many sermons it is common practice to cite various texts. I’ll be unorthodox and quote myself.  At the very beginning of my as yet unpublished novel I write: 

One hundred and fifty centuries ago my ancestors crossed the Bering Land Bridge and established a receiving line in North America. Then they waited for my European ancestors to conquer the Atlantic and drag my African ancestors to the Big Bang.

This year we commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in what is now the United States of America. Two hundred and fifty years of involuntary servitude was followed by a century of Jim Crow.  The Urban Reservations are the phase in which we now find ourselves.  The Civil Rights Movement established its crowning achievements in the sixties and, strangely, that’s when African American communities in the cities began to morph into reservations. American society asked its usual question:  Who are the best and the brightest? The answer to the question landed me (and three years later, Ben Carson) on the Yale campus.  Quite a few of my friends and relatives, many of them worthy of a college education, but not in the top 1 percent, were sent to Viet Nam and came home broken.  Then the War on Drugs began. Communities became reservations. These four centuries of African Americans in North America are Biblical in scope. Are we still in the equivalent of the phase when God is repeatedly hardening Pharaoh’s heart? Or are we wandering in the desert?

When contrasting his people, Native Americans, with African Americans, the scholar Vine Deloria wrote the following in his book entitled Custer Died for Your Sins:

We gave up land instead of life and labor. Because the Negro labored, he was considered a draft animal. Because the Indian occupied large areas of land, he was considered a wild animal.

I would extend what DeLoria said to where we are today. Native Americans are essentially viewed as an endangered species. People would love to drive west and see a Native American atop a distant hill mounted on a pony. African Americans are domesticated creatures, many reside in the urban reservations, serving as scapegoats, the foundation of what is sometimes called the Welfare State. This is what we have in the wake of the drive to fulfill a destiny that was so manifestShenandoah is a beautiful song, but it has undertones…undertones.

Play Shenandoah.  

Starkly beautiful. It could be heard as Manifest Destiny’s anthem. Crossing the Atlantic was generations ago and forgotten. Memories of the dear home in the Shenandoah Valley were fading. Westward the wagons!

Here’s another quote, this one due to Susan Sontag. It’s brutal.

If America is the culmination of Western white civilization, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilization. This is a painful truth; few of us want to go that far…. The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al, don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone—its ideologies and inventions—which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.

Ouch! I think that what she wrote is too harsh. It is, however, interesting to note that she wrote this in 1967 with, among other things, an expression of concern for the ecological balance of the planet. She is talking about an insatiable appetite.

Okay, I’m giving you a slice of life and the problem with slices of life is that they’re sometimes raw. Now a bit more about my existence as a city mouse.

The city of Baltimore is divided into nine police districts.  For two years I have represented the Southwestern District. This past spring, on those days when I was not coming directly from teaching at the prison, I would take the subway from my home on the western edge of the city to downtown, where the Civilian Review Board meets to consider complaints lodged by citizens against police officers. The subway has stops in some of the most troubled neighborhoods of the city. I see the trauma etched on many of the riders’ faces. The reservation is more than just a place. It is, more importantly, a state of mind. 

When I arrive at the downtown office, I deliberate with my fellow board members and we come to decisions on the merit of the complaints. If a complaint is sustained, a disciplinary recommendation is made. The urban reservations are patrolled by a police force with a substantial number of its members drawn from the white working class, a class that historically has been an economic and social adversary of African Americans. That evening, we sustained about half of the complaints, which ranged from abusive language to excessive force. We recommended termination in one case. The commissioner is not required to follow our recommendations.  The commissioner is not even required to acknowledge receipt.

On those Thursdays when I escaped the prison for the Civilian Review Board meeting, I left a class that held fourteen men who were African American and two who were white. The accents of the corrections officers were in many cases foreign. Ironically, the correction-officer occupation has been very attractive to West African immigrants. They’re a bit late to the table, but in another sense right on time. At present, I believe that ten different West African languages are spoken by corrections officers at Jessup.

Unlike the reservations in the West, the residents of the Urban Reservation do not have sovereignty.  What does sovereignty buy you anyway? Sometimes, not much. In 1862, a Dakota Reservation in Minnesota was supposedly the home to a sovereign people. But when the Dakota were faced with the arrival of a brutal winter and likely starvation, they left the reservation and launched warfare. Of course, it did not end well for them. The Dakota War took place seven months before the turning point in the East at Gettysburg, the turning point in the war that some say was waged to free the slaves.

At the end of the brief Dakota War, Abraham Lincoln signed off on the largest mass execution in U.S. history, the simultaneous hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota. If they had been accorded the usual treatment for enemy combatants of a sovereign nation at the cessation of hostilities, almost all of them would have been allowed to return to the reservation.

On the way to the scaffold, it is said that they sang the Dakota Hymn, perhaps the only hymn composed by a Native American that has made its way into wider Christian circles. The English title is Many and Great. Let’s listen as they walk to the gallows. 

Play the Dakota Hymn

One wonders why the residents of the inner city have not repeatedly, and in great numbers, launched raids from their reservations.  But it essentially doesn’t happen. Almost predictably, when the pain of injustice is inflicted, the urban reservations burn.  Why? One should expect that the answer to this question is the same as the underlying reason that millions of men come home from work in frustration and beat their wives, terrorize the children, wreck the furniture. In the classical psychology experiment, the observation is that if an electrical current is run through a cage, shocking the rats inside, they turn on each other.

So, what about pulling themselves up by their bootstraps? That’s what my fellow Yalie Ben Carson would recommend.  He was a freshman when I was a senior. He is still a freshman. He has no recognition of the fact that we were both only one bad break away from being consigned to the reservation for life, or worse. It could have been something as simple as a run-in with a police officer, during which we failed to comply with a lawful order.

The reservation was not created by its inhabitants.  It was created by the Nation and the sins of the Nations must be addressed by the Nation.  Whether you’re, for instance, a recent immigrant from Europe or Asia, or, as almost all African Americans are, in possession of a long American line and a descendant of both slaves and masters, we are all citizens of the Nation. The problem is ours to fix. All of us. Let’s listen to a song about a shelter, a haven.

Play Grandma’s Hands

What about grandma’s hands? I remember the hands of both of my grandmothers. But, of course, Grandma’s Hands should really be taken as a metaphor for community. Can we stretch it further and make it a metaphor for Nation? If we cannot, our grandmothers’ hands are simply cold comfort.

The students in my class at Jessup, almost to a man, did very poorly.  It was a difficult course and I’m a demanding teacher.  Two-thirds of the class withdrew formally or switched to the pass/no-pass option, but almost all of them kept showing up.  They knew that being present was good for them. It was good for me.  I had one student who consistently received Bs on the hour exams, while his classmates did D work or worse, mostly much worse. I chided him about not finding a way to take it to the next level.  At the end of the semester he turned in his final exam and the score was 97. I get choked up thinking about it. I shook my student’s hand and told him that he had finally arrived and would receive an A in the course. My book, Mathematics: Rhyme and Reason, had been released by the American Mathematical Society a few months earlier. I wanted to give him a copy and thank him for being the balm on what had ultimately been a satisfying, but at times trying experience for me.  But I knew that I was not permitted to give him the book. Teachers are not allowed to give students at Jessup anything. The prison administration is concerned about the potential to pass contraband.  The Goucher Prison Education Partnership was not about to rock the boat to try to get the prison administration to approve this gesture.

But, by all means, I felt he should have the book. By all means. I had donated a copy to the prison library at the beginning of the semester, but I wanted this student to have his own, with words handwritten in it from me.  When the semester ended, I was no longer allowed to communicate with former students in any way. I’m not allowed to drop them a note to ask how they’re doing. That’s the rule. I turned to the prison librarian, who happens to be my neighbor and lives in the next block.  He’s allowed to take things in. That was the legitimate path for my first donation. I told him that I wanted to donate another book to the library and that I hoped my A student would be the first to take it out.  (Pause) By all means…