Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Lessons from the Sermonizing of Shirley Sherrod Pt. 1

Dallas Morning News reporter and Politics Daily contributer Jeffery Weiss, has commentary on the Shirley Sherrod episode that is particularly interesting.

He refers to it as a 'sermon'. While I definately never looked at it that way, I certainly can admit that it is, in some way 'sermonizing', which I think is more to his point. And I think it gets at something particularly critical as we all got lost in the visual of the White House, U.S. Department of Agriculture, NAACP and FOX News, tripping all over one another while they backpeddled from their misplaced indignation.

Andrew Breitbart, who started this firestorm in an effort to push back on NAACP's call for the TEA party to repudiate (no, I won't go there with the Palin stuff), the racists who appear to frequent their rallies. In an effort to expose 'racists' in the NAACP, Breitbart causes a 2:30/40 video clip to go viral with a mid-level Department of Agriculture official making a speech in which she, a black woman, appears to be bragging about witholding support in her official capacity to a white farmer.

As you know the problem was:

This is not what she was saying in the speech
She was not making reference to an incident that took place in her official capacity
She actually did help the white farmer save his farm
The white farmer and his wife said she helped save their farm and called her a 'friend'

The problem was, no one: not a federal government agency; an NAACP (that seems bent on trying to water down a bold challenge); or FOX News (which seems bent on ignoring the ethics associated with the last part of its name), took the time to watch the entire video that was accessible enough to be found withing 48 hours of the release of the original clip.

This was a story of reconciliation by a woman of faith, who found out that her concern for her people had to be expanded to concern for all poor people. Whether one would call it a 'sermon' or 'sermonizing' it's a great message!

Which I think gets to a point Jeff makes in his analysis.

Breitbart, disingenuous as ever, is insisting (as are some of those who just find it inconceivable that they could be wrong), that it wasn't Sherrod who they were trying to identify as the 'racist', it was the NAACP. The proof? When Sherrod appeared to be refusing to help the white farmer as much as she could, the crowd 'cheered' (*crickets chirping* - *sigh* - *silence*)!

Now virtually anyone watching the video, knows that this is not the case. Yet it has gained enough traction as news outlets, seeking to do real journalism are now investigating whether or not Breitbart has a case. And he, and his supporters, frankly are looking foolish again.

But not if you understand the 'sermonizing' atmosphere of the speech. Weiss captures it brilliantly:

"She starts with that personal testimony. As we've learned over the past week, Sherrod was a lot more than a rural federal employee. She is, as one commentator put it, civil rights royalty. Daughter of a martyr, wife of an activist, she has her own record of service. The top of the speech sketches out some of that history."

"She tells of the casual brutality of the racism she experienced as a child. About her own powerful desire to get out of Georgia and escape the oppression. And about the murder of her own father and a surprising way that event changed her life:

"But I couldn't just let his death go without doing something in answer to what happened. I made the commitment on the night of my father's death, at the age of 17, that I would not leave the South, that I would stay in the South and devote my life to working for change. And I've been true to that commitment all of these 45 years."

"And here's where God steps into the narrative, as Sherrod introduces the story that turned into a controversy:

"I prayed about it that night and as our house filled with people I was back in one of the bedrooms praying and asking God to show me what I could do. I didn't have -- the path wasn't laid out that night. I just made the decision that I would stay and work. And -- and over the years things just happened."

"And young people: I just want you to know that when you're true to what God wants you to do the path just opens up -- and things just come to you, you know. God is good -- I can tell you that."

"When I made that commitment, I was making that commitment to black people -- and to black people only. But, you know, God will show you things and He'll put things in your path so that -- that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people, you know.
Sherrod also describes an event that will surely make it into the Lifetime or Hallmark movie about her life: How her mother, now a widow, faces down an honest-to-God burning cross on her lawn. Goes out with a gun while other members of her community arrive to surround the bigots. But eventually allow them to leave in peace. (A powerful tale that, however, Sherrod did not witness because she was already away at college.)"

"What follows is her now-familiar story about wanting to do the minimum for a white farmer about to lose his family farm, only to be brought around by the realization that unfairness against poor people is an injustice that transcends race:

"Well, working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't, you know. And they could be black, and they could be white; they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people -- those who don't have access the way others have. "

And the response?

"At many points of the speech, you can hear people in the audience saying "Amen," and "That's right" and even clapping. Breitbart may never have witnessed this kind of interaction, but it's not the same as standard applause. A black preacher will spin out a story about some sin that hits the heart of his audience and they'd nod and call out. Not because they approve of the sin, but because they get the message. And because maybe they've fallen or almost fallen in the same place and appreciate his warning."

You don't know that, if you've never been to a black church, or if you've not been introduced to an atmosphere in which this 'sermonizing' has been done.

In the black church, the 'call and response' type of atmosphere is not the sometimes comparatively stoic, placid atmosphere found in white congregations. It is more visceral. It is much more immediate. It does, when resonating, elicit a much more immediate response, as the preacher, or the speaker, shares a story with which the congregation or the audience identifies.

Shirely Sherrod, a daughter of the south, experienced the brutal murder of her father; a murder unrequited by justice and decades later, she's in the position to help a white man whom she feels is acting superior to her. Was she mistaken? Yes. Was she overly sensitive? Yes. But Sherrod comes from a time when not being overly sensitive could cost you your freedom or your life. And when you are reared in that type of atmosphere, it is better to be mistaken about initial impressions than to be naive about initial impressions.

This was a story with which the audience could sympathize. NOT agree, sympathize. In audience of black people, in Georgia, its a safe bet that most of them, if not all of them, had similar stories of injustices meted out by white hands and yet challenged to lend aid to some white person. They could understand her reluctance and they could understand her resentment. It is to that which they responded with 'Amen'. The history of the African-American sojourn in this country is not one of persistent 'indescribable impoliteness' of white people towards blacks. Nor is it simply a matter of institutional incivility. Murder, rape, torture, social stigma and humiliation are all a part of this legacy and there are people alive today, who don't just remember it, but whose emotional and psychological lives have been marred by it.

When we don't cross cultural boundaries to understand one another - our idioms, as well as our experiences, we leave room for all types of misinterpretations of motive. And we leave room to be victimized - not by the people with whom we are unfamiliar - but by the people with whom we are most familiar. In this case, it is the Breitbart's and FOX News' of the world that are playing some legitimate but non-discerning conservatives like a fiddle. And they are able to back peddle and make ridiculous claims, like a 'racist response' to Sherrod's speech, because they've never bother to attend a gathering of predominately black people, or go to a black church. What is interesting is that no one is bemoaning the history of this country that has led to anyone being able to identify with such sentiments.

So far, Jeff Weiss is the only one I've read who pointed out the need to understand the cultural idiom out of which the audience response is drawn. And if you watch the entire video, the greatest, most congratulatory, joyful response comes when Sherrod talks about how a white lawyers' refusal to aid one of 'his own', causes her to look at root cause of the issue she was dealing with: not race, but poverty - the type of poverty that is, after all color blind. At this point, the audiences response is the more celebratory response. Because black people know, at the end of the day, life can't be lived with bitterness and hatred, no matter our experience. Do all black people know it? No, obviously not, but it is actually the most persistent message in the African-American experience.

You don't hear it, if the only experience you have with people who are not like you, are errant snippets of video, gone viral because someone has an agenda that doesn't mean you or any of the rest of us any good.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yawn, Part 1

Gerald Britt said...

Alright class, all of you who do not wish to learn, please put your heads down on your desk so as not to disturb the rest of the those of us who are serious about their citizenship. We all can go to recess shortly...