Open letter from China

Cornel West, author of Race Matters and professor of African-American Studies at Harvard, has noted that the greatest moments of change in this country have come from times of heightened public discourse and debate. The Abolitionist movement, the Women's Suffrage movement and the rise of Populism, the Civil Rights movement, the Peace movement and the re-emergence of feminism in the 1960’s are prime examples. 

These movements all arose out of extended public debate: the overflow of small group dialogue and consciousness-raising.  West predicts that if we cannot find the ability to talk to and understand one another, the dreams of freedom, equality, and justice that spawned this country may soon lie shattered at our feet. 

Public discourse is becoming increasingly religious and theological and yet, it is not very diverse.  Political leaders often make reference to the all-powerful male God of might who punishes “evil-doers” and rewards the righteous.

We need to understand the power and the dangers of the intersection of politics and spirituality.  We need to realize that our concept of the Divine has direct, profound political impact.

We need to seize this historic moment to break up this western hegemony of religious imagery and bring forward the rich variety of forms of the Divine that have existed in the human family for thousands of years, especially, but not only, those that are dark and female.  Further, we need to encourage and support artists like Janet McKenzie whose groundbreaking painting "Jesus of the People" --on this page, at right--embodies the kind of inclusive vision that can bring balance and wholeness to the lives of everyone, male and female alike.

At the same time we have to remember that female images of the Divine are not in themselves transformational.  They can be used for oppression and exploitation, as well as empowerment.  It is how the Divine is imagined in relationship to the human that is important.  We must also have diverse models of women and men, but especially women, who are powerful, spiritually resourceful, compassionate and effective in the work of protecting and healing the world, including its environment and its children.  We need to know their stories and to make them known to our children. 

Whether we seek to heal racism, protect the environment, promote peace or empower women, narrow religious and spiritual imagery creates stumbling blocks, instead of starting blocks for making us comfortable enough with our differences in order to understand and talk with one another. 

The Keepers of Love: how our mission to heal racism is being fulfilled today

The Keepers of Love began in 2000, growing out of my research into an untold, hidden, repressed, African-American version of history that runs, sometimes parallel, sometimes in opposition to, the accepted, “official,” white narrative.  Research into county historical records and interviews with local residents in Harrison County—at one time the largest slave-owning county in Texas—led me to the discovery of Love Cemetery, an African-American communal burial ground that the local community had been locked out of for forty years. Research became activism as I helped organize a grassroots, interracial committee, made up of local religious leaders and lay people, to work on restoring community access to Love. The work of this committee—both its internal struggles with the assumptions and hidden prejudices that can sabotage even the most well-intentioned groups, and the outer work overcoming the obstacles to reopening and rededicating the cemetery—stands as a model for the kind of compassionate discourse that is the beginning of reconciliation.  

Metaphorically, Love Cemetery stands at the center of a much larger body of unearthed history that Galland has been excavating since 1985.  In some cases the material reaches back to the time of slavery and post-civil war Reconstruction. In particular, Galland has researched stories of “landtakings,” the theft of land from African Americans, and forms of slavery that continued well into the 20th century and even up to the present day. Unlike South Africa, the United States has no officially sanctioned effort toward “Truth and Reconciliation.”  If racial healing is to occur, it must begin with efforts like The Keepers of Love. Only by giving voice to the voiceless, by telling the hitherto untold parts of our shared history can the true scope of the wound be discerned.   

As the work on Love continues, I’m writing a book about this experience, The Keepers of Love, to be published by Harper San Francisco (2006-2007). The book unpacks the tangled black and white historical narratives that meander through this region like the sloughs and bayous that give the land its character, and chronicles the work of reconciliation that underlies the reclamation of Love Cemetery.  (Love includes Native American burials). By telling the story of this one act of interracial and intergenerational reconciliation, my intention is to provide a model of the kind of small community action that can contribute to the healing of the deep racial wounds that prevent democracy from achieving its full flowering in this country. 

For updates on The Keepers of Love, visit IOD's blog [go]                   Artist: Janet McKenzie