Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Race, psyche, body, the Bible, personal safety, and local ethos

I pen this postscript [in 2009] in Montpelier, Vermont, a fortuitous set of circumstances having brought me to this historic capital in a state, several of whose cities and towns were purportedly home to stations on the Underground Railroad....
      As I wander the streets immersing myself in the local culture of this unusually vibrant town, I appreciate how much has changed in more than two and one half centuries, how different our experience must be from that of my Africana forebears who came here in the early to mid-1800s on a different kind of journey.  The leader of the free world is now African American.  Vermont was a "Blue State" in the last presidential election.  Cars with "Obama-Biden" bumper stickers abound.  I am here voluntarily, rather than through forced exodus.  I am a citizen whose basic rights are protected by federal and state laws.  I have a choice in lodging.  I arrived by light of day, rather than under the cloak of darkness.  For the most part, local merchants have greeted me with warmth.  By and large, I am no different than any other tourist.
      Yet, from time to time I am conscious of palpable feelings of "otherness."  On some occasions I appear to be almost unnoticeable to [the] passerby; on others, the continuous "gaze" of the random onlooker makes me feel hyper-visible.  It could be that I am an obvious anomaly in a state with an overall population that is roughly 96.8 percent White and only 0.8 percent Black.  Perhaps it is because in a city of 7,760 any newcomer stands out, particularly if that woman or man is a person of color; or that at 52, I am twelve years older than the typical Montpelier resident.  Whatever the case, whether in clergy collar, business attire, or the urban bohemian garb de rigueur for so many, I seem to attract attention.  Blending in is difficult to say the least.  I have the occasional thought of perhaps retiring here.  Yet, as was the case with those Africans who sought liberty here and farther north long ago, I am conscious of how race and the experience of Diaspora have been written into my psyche and my physical body.  I wonder how such may have been etched, subtly or overtly, into the collective consciousness of Vermonters.  I realize that nearby cities like Jerusalem, Goshen, and Jericho reflect colonial American inscriptions of the Bible onto the state's landscape.  I wonder what subtle messages about person hood, derived from that same source, have been comparably inscribed, and to what extent they are in conversation with the ideals espoused in the state's Constitution and the tradition of political autonomy that continues to find expression in local Green initiatives and secessionist rhetoric.  I wonder why questions akin to these seem to arise whether I am at home or on the road.  I also wonder if such musings about the Bible, personal safety, and local ethos have been and remain a hallmark of life in Diaspora.
      Nonetheless, I recognize that by conjuring -- and refusing to relinquish -- memories of the Underground Railroad, Montpelier has become, at least for me, holy ground; and my trip here has taken on a special quality.  Consequently, this postscript has been transformed into a contemplative reflection on both The Africana Bible and the milieu from which it has come.  As far as my role in preparing these closing words, it has evolved.  I am, for the moment, far more than simply a general editor writing a concluding essay from a hotel situated along the Winoooski River.  I walk in the footsteps, and hold close the memory, of those passengers for whom that secret railway was the route to freedom.  I write realizing that The Africana Bible is, in fact, part of the cultural fabric they helped to write.
      Narratives of crisis, social dissolution, pilgrimage, exile, displacement, and restoration have been the primary texts through which many of ancient Israel's scriptures have been parsed and alongside of which they have been read in various Africana settings.  Every experience -- actual, imagined, or hoped for -- is a prism for interpretation, a canon for appropriation.....
above, an excerpt from the chapter "Notes from a Station Stop: An Editorial Postscript," by Rev. Dr. Hugh R. Page, Jr., Dean of the First Year of Studies, Associate Professor of Theology, and Associate Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Notre Dame, in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel's Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora.  (HT David Ker)


Rod said...

Well articulated postcript on the experience of otherness.

J. K. Gayle said...

Rod, Thanks. I'm imagining that you're also attesting to Dr. Page's testimony yourself?

Rod said...


Yes. :)