Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Racial History

Defending My Space

For the last several weeks I’ve been dealing with more health issues, which I’ll report on later. I’ve also been re-reading my book, Confessions of a Beginning TheologianThe excerpt below gives a peek into life with my father, an ordained clergyman. It also describes my inner struggle to maintain my identity as a young white girl in a preacher’s family.

The memory may seem to be about parental authority. In reality, it’s about what it took daily for me to live (and die) due to my father’s overbearing commands, passed on to him by his rage-aholic clergy father.

We’re in a mess these days, dealing with layers of abuse, anger, and self-righteousness passed from one generation to another. Tomorrow is an official voting day. What will become of us? Do we have the courage to step up and out of order? Not just in our frightened hearts or minds, but in the way we live our adult lives regardless of the cost.

~~~

I’m about eight years old. I’m sitting at the dinner table, just around the corner from my father. The table is set, the food is spread before us, and we’re all in our seats waiting to begin. We haven’t yet asked the blessing. I’m playing with my dinner fork, just to the left of my plate. I’ve moved it a few inches away from my plate.

My father’s voice interrupts me. “Elouise, put the fork back where it belongs.”

I move it to the right, in the direction of my plate. “Elouise, put the fork back where it belongs.”

I move it slightly closer. My father’s voice remains firm and controlled. “Elouise, put the fork back where it belongs.”

By now my sisters are watching to see what will become of me. My mother is silent. This has become an event. Slowly I raise my hand to my fork and move it ever so slightly closer to my plate.

My father persists. So do I. Many repetitions later he’s satisfied; the fork has been returned to its proper place.

He proceeds with the blessing. He doesn’t know what I know: the fork is ever so slightly to the left of its proper place.

My father’s mission as a parent was to train us to keep the rules. My mission as his child was to break and keep the rules simultaneously.

Back then, perseverance meant getting through another day, using whatever survival skills lay close at hand.

If my father was persistent, I would be more persistent. If outward rebellions were too costly, I would invent creatively invisible yet superbly effective inward rebellions. If I was ordered to sit down and stop talking, I could continue standing and talking on the inside for as long as it took to comfort myself.

Indeed, this was the better way. In the private spaces of my mind no one could put me down, refuse to listen to me or try to break my will. In a family system intent on turning out obedient daughters, I survived by being secretly disobedient.

This memory from the 1950s, published nearly 20 years ago, is as vivid today as it was then.

The territory I defended was interior. I applaud the little girl who figured out how to do this. Nonetheless, my efforts were costly. They required constant vigilance, no matter where I was.

Abuse of power destroys safe space. It expects and demands behaviors, words, looks on faces, subtle and open signs of unquestioning and subservient submission.

What does it take to create and maintain safe space? Not just in our marriages and families, but in neighborhoods, nations, churches and schools? And how does my personal history connect with the racial history of the USA?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 29 March 2017, reposted 7 November 2022
Photo of 1938 family dinner found at bbc.com
Story excerpted from my book, Confessions of a Beginning Theologian (InterVarsity Press 1998)

A Gift from Maya Angelou

This morning I woke up with one of Maya Angelou’s poems on my mind. She wrote it for Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993. She could have written it for today. It’s nearly 6 minutes long, well worth every second. There’s a link below to a printed version of the entire poem.

Why this poem? Because of the last lines. They grabbed my gut when I first heard them. Her words took me back just two years earlier. We were deep into planned conversations at the seminary where I was then on the faculty. In addition to Rodney King being on our minds, we’d had our own share of distressing racially charged incidents. Feelings were running high.

We were placed into small groups and given a set of questions to guide conversation. We met several times in mixed groups, with student, staff and faculty involvement throughout.

I’ll never forget a black student’s comments to me. I’d asked for examples of times when black students felt ignored, unwelcome or uncomfortable. At that time the seminary had at least 35% black African-American students. His response stunned me.

He said that when he passed me in the hallways I never looked him in the eye or greeted him. It didn’t matter where I was going or what I was doing. It didn’t matter that I’d never had him in a class. He felt unwelcome and unacknowledged as a human being.

He wasn’t angry. He felt offended, and put on guard. Not looking him in the eye, not even saying ‘Good Morning’ or ‘How’s it  going today?’ was, for him, a signal that he didn’t count in my world. Or worse, I thought he wasn’t worth getting to know.

Such a ‘simple’ thing. It was hard for me to hear, yet right on the money. I agreed to try this out for several days. Not just with him, but with other students as well.

The first few days were tough. I discovered I was especially reluctant to greet male students of any color. A sign of fear, especially around black men, and fear of sending mixed messages or worse. At the same time, it was a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

Here’s the very last stanza of Maya Angelou’s poem, “On the Pulse of Morning.” You can see why it caught my heart.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 24 August 2017
Video of live reading found on YouTube

Defending My Space

I’m about eight years old. I’m sitting at the dinner table, just around the corner from my father. The table is set, the food is spread before us, and we’re all in our seats waiting to begin. We haven’t yet asked the blessing. I’m playing with my dinner fork, just to the left of my plate. I’ve moved it a few inches away from my plate.

My father’s voice interrupts me. “Elouise, put the fork back where it belongs.”

I move it to the right, in the direction of my plate. “Elouise, put the fork back where it belongs.”

I move it slightly closer. My father’s voice remains firm and controlled. “Elouise, put the fork back where it belongs.”

By now my sisters are watching to see what will become of me. My mother is silent. This has become an event. Slowly I raise my hand to my fork and move it ever so slightly closer to my plate.

My father persists. So do I. Many repetitions later he’s satisfied; the fork has been returned to its proper place.

He proceeds with the blessing. He doesn’t know what I know: the fork is ever so slightly to the left of its proper place.

My father’s mission as a parent was to train us to keep the rules. My mission as his child was to break and keep the rules simultaneously.

Back then, perseverance meant getting through another day, using whatever survival skills lay close at hand.

If my father was persistent, I would be more persistent. If outward rebellions were too costly, I would invent creatively invisible yet superbly effective inward rebellions. If I was ordered to sit down and stop talking, I could continue standing and talking on the inside for as long as it took to comfort myself.

Indeed, this was the better way. In the private spaces of my mind no one could put me down, refuse to listen to me or try to break my will. In a family system intent on turning out obedient daughters, I survived by being secretly disobedient.

This memory from the 1950s, published nearly 20 years ago, is as vivid today as it was then.

The territory I defended was interior. I applaud the little girl who figured out how to do this. Nonetheless, my efforts were costly. They required constant vigilance, no matter where I was.

Abuse of power destroys safe space. It expects and demands behaviors, words, looks on faces, subtle and open signs of unquestioning and subservient submission.

What does it take to create and maintain safe space? Not just in our marriages and families, but in neighborhoods, nations, churches and schools? And how does my personal history connect with the racial history of the USA?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 29 March 2017
Photo of 1938 family dinner found at bbc.com
Story excerpted from my book, Confessions of a Beginning Theologian (InterVarsity Press 1998)
Response to WordPress Daily Prompt: Territory

A Day! Help! Help!

I think Emily wrote this little gem just for today. Read on. My comments follow.

A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!
Your prayers, oh Passer by!
From such a common ball as this
Might date a Victory!
From marshallings as simple
The flags of nations swang.
Steady – my soul: What issues
Upon thine arrow hang!

c. 1858

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

Emily Dickinson wrote this poem in the years leading up to the Civil War (April 12, 1861-May 9, 1865). I can’t help making a connection to what’s happening now in our country.

The short poem grabs my attention. There’s no such thing as an ordinary day. Like an arrow poised to fly through the air, each day arrives full of potential for Victory. Which I take to be a Victory for good. The good of all who dwell on ‘such a common ball as this.’

Common ball, you say? Doesn’t that mean a formal occasion focused on gorgeous apparel and elegant dancing? The kind of show that delineates the rich from the poor, the ins from the outs, the titled from the untitled?

Perhaps, but I can’t help noticing these are the years leading up to the Civil War, also known as the War Between the States. Or the North against the South, or vice versa.

And so I vote for the ball being this terrestrial ball. The planet on which we live. Or even better, this great dance of life to which all are both invited and entitled. A dance choreographed by our Creator, the true Host of the Party.

For me, the question is simple: Will I participate as a full partner? Or will I be relegated to the kitchen, the stables, the dungeon, or any other situation that keeps me in ‘my place.’

“Your prayers, oh Passer by!” Will each and all of us win together? Or will business return to business as usual?

I pray your day might be dated a Victory that bodes good for us all. No matter how insignificant your Victory seems to you.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 24 March 2017
Response to WordPress Daily Prompt: Ordinary

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