Care Enough to Run Up the Hill*

Photo by Carmen Ong on

JUSTICE AND MERCY, SO THE STORY GOES, WERE SITTING BY THE SIDE OF A RIVER TOGETHER. Suddenly a body came floating downstream. They run out to rescue the person, bringing them to shore. Taking a moment to relax after the dramatic experience, they see another body coming towards them. They launch another rescue. At the end of that day, the sun beginning to set, they are just about to depart when yet a third body comes floating downstream. Mercy rushes out into the water again, only to look back to see Justice running up the hill alongside the riverbank. “Where are you going?!” yelled Mercy over the rushing waters, “We have to rescue this person!” Justice yelled back, “I’m going to go find out where all these bodies are coming from!”

This was the story Pastor Tate told in church last Sunday. And as they say in our faith tradition, “If you get it early…” (I won’t have to keep preaching). As in, mercy is fabulous, but justice is action. And justice, quite often, is sought out by those who have been wronged, who are have been in pain. And Pastor Tate says God does not waste pain, that there are positives that can come from it. Well, that got me to thinking about African-American history (something I do a lot), and how the pain of enslavement quickly brought on the demand for justice. And we’re not just talking Harriet Tubman, anti-segregationists, and Dr. King. From the minute so many Africans were kidnapped on their own land, justice was sought – in a variety of ways. And that is reason 5,978 that we need Black History Month; and African-American History taught from an early age; and even the dreaded Critical Race Theory, as a framework for cultural and historical discourse.

Most everyone is familiar with the resistance by some to the teaching of Black history in our schools of late. Well, at least the teaching of any kind of meaningful lessons regarding what actually happened on United States soil since this place first became a nation. And then before that. The College Board’s proposed African-American History Advanced Placement courses have recently been ripped to shreds, becoming not much more than a review of the few iconic writers and over-emphasized events that have already been approved for our consumption. Some of the modifications include The Black Lives Matter Movement being an optional subject. I can just imagine the Civil Rights Movement gaining that kind of status. The College Board (a whole ‘nother discussion!) also nixed KimberlĂ© W. Crenshaw who began using the term “intersectionality,” a crucial facet of identity discourse. bell hooks is out, in all probability because of her writings on Queer Studies. Thus film students will not get to read one of the best books ever, Reel to Real: Race, Class and Sex at the Movies. Ta-Nehisi Coates has also been ejected, perhaps due to his call for reparations. Meanwhile young students will miss out on a poignant letter from father to son in the fabulous book, Between the World and Me.

Critical Race Theory has been characterized by this particular group of zealots as an approach to cultural discourse that blames white people for everything, and ignores the myriad contributions that said white people have made to this country. (Because we don’t already talk about that enough apparently). And the 1619 Project might as well have been the Communist Manifesto (not that there’s anything wrong with that) the way folks were/are up in arms at the project – and it’s not just the usual suspects either.

This crusade is much more important than the anti-lynching movement,
because there would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom.

Carter G. Woodson

Back in 1926 Carter G. Woodson chose February for the original Negro History Week, in part because it held the birthdays of two men considered champions of the Black American: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The latter’s narrative is a bit up for debate – as Woodson noted at the time – but no one will be having that nuanced discussion in a classroom anytime soon.

Scholars, educators, and artists are working for justice because mercy isn’t enough at this point. A lot of us teachers are in pain as we watch the hostile takeover of the free-speech classroom. Most Americans wince at the shackles of rules and regulations immobilizing educators around this country. People of color are continually forced to witness their stories bandied about like fairy tales. Students feel betrayed when they discover what they have been taught is only a tip of an iceberg at best. Academics suffer job loss when they challenge the McCarthy-like stances of their institutions. And all this pain in order to appease the discomfort of a small group of people who fear this world that no longer looks or sounds like the world they are familiar with.

Dr. Cornel West – who I am sure is not included in any of the “updated” African-American curricula – said many years ago, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” God knows we need mercy in this world – always. But we also need justice. And if enough of us are willing to run up the hill and see where all the bodies are coming from in the first place, then maybe mercy won’t have to be quite so busy tending to all this pain.

*Borrowed from Pastor Tate’s sermon framework: Care Enough to 1)be curious; 2)pray; 3)go

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