A Thanksgiving time memory
November 27th, 2013
When I was in my teens, Thanksgiving time meant anticipation mixed with dread.
On the one hand, there was my late-November birthday and the big turkey feast to look forward to. But on the other, Thanksgiving was when Harold Colbert came to town for a four day revival.
Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night, and twice on Sunday, Brother Colbert preached fire and brimstone, railing against the evils of Coors Beer and White Owl Cigars (neither of which seemed to me to be the chief temptations of the congregation).
These were services in the true Pentecostal tradition: lots of singing, even more preaching, and ending with a prayer line in which those who felt the need for prayer for healing or blessing or reconsecration (which surely meant virtually every person in church) stood in line so that they could receive prayer with the laying on of hands.
Colbert would put olive oil on the index, middle, and ring finger of his right hand and touch it to the forehead of the one seeking prayer and call on the Almighty for blessing, deliverance or healing, whatever was needed.
Often the supplicants would be overcome by the power of the Holy Ghost, grow week in the knees and become slain in the spirit and, after being caught by those so assigned, would lie on the floor speaking in tongues. More often, should the supplicant not sufficiently feel the Holy Ghost, the power of Colbert’s right arm was there to assist.
While my father looked forward to Colbert’s revivals with excitement, I was decided less enthusiastic. As a pastor’s son, there was no chance of my skipping services, and as I didn’t find his sermons much instructive or uplifting, I had only hours of boredom to anticipate. But I did learn the art of stepping into a prayer line and mingling with the post-prayer parishioners returning to their seats, thus appearing to participate while avoiding strain on my neck.
And while I didn’t enjoy his sermons, I found the man charming and enjoyed the time he spent with our family. His stories took me outside of the small homogenous town and gave me a taste of something else, something bigger.
Colbert was one of the few African-Americans that we knew. Another was a church member and, filling out the roster, my sister-in-law’s nephew, whose father lived in Belize.
And based on this limited sample, we made our assumptions about black people.
You would think that this would result in universal adoration and a desire to rally against injustice. These were three people who we liked and about whom the only differences we could find was the hue of their skin. And certainly no one in our social circle would actively and intentionally discriminate or say hateful words or treat any of these people as inferior. That was un-Christian.
But quiet bigotry and long-standing prejudice are powerful things. Rather than see the physical examples of people in front of us and change the unspoken presumptions about what black people “are like”, our community subconsciously decided that there were two types of African Americans, our blacks, and those radicals down there in Oakland who were doing sit-ins and demanding bussing and protesting and causing all sorts of problems.
We didn’t actually know anything about the blacks in Oakland – other than what we read in the paper that scared and troubled us – but we liked our blacks. Probably more so because they weren’t the Oakland type.
It never occurred to us that the black people we knew and liked were just exactly like the ones who lived in Oakland, with the same opinions and the same anger about unfairness and indignity, and that the only difference was that they didn’t have the luxury of living somewhere that they could protest. It somehow even slipped our attention that Brother Colbert lived in Hayward, a stone’s throw from Oakland.
It was easier to just divide “them” into two groups. And though we didn’t use these terms, we did think in terms of the ‘good blacks’ – the few ones we knew and probably what ‘most real ones are like’ – and the ‘bad blacks’ who we read about in the paper.
I think that this is a common reaction when reality comes into contact with prejudice. Survival instinct has ingrained in our psyche a fear of the other people, the other tribe, the other cave. And letting go of the fear of the unknown is unsettling.
But we’re also geared to learn from experience. Which can set up a conflict.
Our solution is often to assign two entirely contradictory assumptions to the now-less-unknown group and arbitrarily assign its members according to how we perceive them to fit. That way we react from our experience – for some – but still cling to what we’ve read about or heard about or fear.
Even the gay community is not immune.
With regularity I hear about, how rural people “think”, what Republicans “are like”, what conservatives “want to do to us”, how Christians “really believe”. Sure we all know instances of rural Americans, Republicans, conservatives, and Christians (and even rural conservative Republican Christians) who don’t fit those presumptions, but seldom does that change our presumptions. Rather, we go by what we read about on the internet, what we fear.
And, to an even greater extent, we are the subject of this odd double-classification. Those who fight against the rights and equalities of gay people frequently do so while genuinely believing that they like gay people… just not the ones who are causing trouble.
Sarah Palin assures us that she has gay friends. Ex-gay groups for decades felt concern and pain for the poor person trapped in the homosexual lifestyle and railed against the militant activists who were forcing them to stay gay.
This month, when Rep. Jo Jordan, a Hawaiian legislator who is a lesbian, voted against equality, The Christian Post, Christianity Today, and Deseret News were but a few of those who rushed to tell the story and defend the woman from her homosexual critics, thus propping up their good gay/bad gay dichotomy.
But it is not only our opponents who have difficulty in letting go of presumptions and double-classification. Sometimes even those who have spoken in favor of civil equality can see gay people as either good or bad, depending on the extent to which we challenge their assumptions of superiority.
Take, for example, Alec Baldwin.
Baldwin, certainly no conservative, has long been a supporter of gay causes. If questioned, there is no doubt but that Baldwin would tell you that he believes – and genuinely so – that gay people should have all the same legal rights and privileges as heterosexuals and that those who disagree are biased and bigoted and hateful.
But Baldwin also has the bad habit of using anti-gay slurs or challenges to someone’s masculinity whenever displeased. Most recently he was caught on film by TMZ calling a photographer a “cock-sucking faggot”. He has since insisted that he called him a “cock-sucking fathead” or, alternately, a “cock-sucking maggot”, neither of which seem credible.
Personally, I don’t see this outburst as an indication of “secret homophobia”. I think it’s an example of a man who says things that he himself knows are unacceptable but who is emotionally out-of-control and has issues with masculinity.
But irrespective of whether Baldwin used the word “faggot” (he did), it is Baldwin’s latest assertion that illustrates that he, too, sees gay people not simply as people, but through the eyes of double-classification.
Baldwin, who was in negotiation for a show on MSNBC, has been dropped. And his response is sad, but perhaps to be expected. (Gothamist)
“Martin Bashir’s on the air, and he made his comment on the air! I dispute half the comment I made… if I called him ‘cocksucking maggot’ or a ‘cocksucking motherfucker’… ‘faggot’ is not the word that came out of my mouth. That I know. But you’ve got the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy—Rich Ferraro and Andrew Sullivan—they’re out there, they’ve got you. Rich Ferraro, this is probably one of his greatest triumphs. They killed my show. And I have to take some responsibility for that myself.”
You see, the good gays are okay… but those “fundamentalist gays” are intolerant. They don’t accept it when you accidentally toss out “faggot”. They don’t let you backtrack and claim you used “maggot” instead. They even object to “cocksucking” as an insult.
Baldwin makes the same mistake that my town made about blacks. He assumes that the people who are not directly confronting him must surely agree with him. He fails to see that we all, nearly every gay person, finds his behavior and language choices offensive. Even the hairdresser he pulled out to vouch for his non-homophobia.
This is not to suggest that every gay person should confront or denounce Alec Baldwin. That would accomplish little other than reduce his double-classification to a single classification: his enemy.
Certainly there would have been little accomplished had the few blacks we knew in our small town taken up the role of activist. They would have personally suffered and probably only inflamed racial strife.
But perhaps someone will have the standing and trust to speak to Baldwin about the reality of his offense and let him know that he needs to get off the defensive. Perhaps a ‘good gay’, not one of the ‘fundamentalist wing’, can break through.
I recall Harold Colbert talking to my parents about race issues. And to their credit, they listened. And while they’ve never quite conquered their own racial consciousness (my father recently described his doctor as “an Indian fella from India” but assured me that “he’s the best doctor around”), they’ve come a long way.
The road to equality and decency always requires those who stand firm and lay out their demands and the terms by which they are willing to live. The activists and the militants. The “fundamentalists”. Without Dr. King and the many other civil rights activists, there would have been no change.
But it has also been largely the gentle discussion of the ‘good blacks’ that let their neighbors know that these demands were not unreasonable. That it wasn’t just “some blacks in Oakland” who objected to poor education and discriminatory housing lending and tiny daily demeaning acts. And it was their often overlooked efforts that paved the road for much of America to stop seeing African Americans in terms of ‘what kind of black’ they were but in terms of what kind of person they were.
Much of time, anyway.