Time to Learn from a Blues People by Alex Mikulich

It is time for people who “think they are white,” to paraphrase James Baldwin, to take up the politically impossible call of the Gospel to social, economic, and spiritual racial intimacy. Simply stated, that means embracing blackness socially, politically, and spiritually. Embracing blackness means embodying and enfleshing freedom with and for, that is, being on the side of blackness and black people. White Catholics siding with and for black people is nearly impossible in the context of the Roman Catholic Church’s social-historical role in the genesis of the transatlantic slave trade and anti-black white supremacy.

I contend that one of the critical conditions of the possibility of transformation into a culture of racial justice and equality is people who live the lie of anti-black white supremacy to embody a “blues hope,” to draw upon M. Shawn Copeland’s felicitous phrase of a mystical and political womanist theology. Copeland is not alone in calling America to live the blues. Cornel West, the iconoclast and prophetic philosopher, reflected on being black post 9/11 in a conversation with Toni Morrison:

Since 9/11, all Americans feel unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hatred, and that’s been the situation of black folks for 400 years. In that fundamental sense, to be a nigger is to be unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hatred. And now the whole nation is niggerized, and everybody’s got to deal with it. And I think that we are at a moment now when a blues nation has to learn from a blues people.

In her “Meditation on the Blues,” in The Uncommon Faithfulness of African American Catholics (Orbis, 2009), Copeland invites readers to contemplate multiple meanings of a spiritual journey to “the crossroads.” She begins by explaining that in African spirituality the cross is two intersecting roads “where earthly and the spirit worlds meet” to “nourish each other.” She evokes images both of a crossroads where Jesus was crucified and of the blues musician Tommy Johnson, who invites musicians to go to the crossroads at midnight to retune instruments. “Figuratively,” she writes, the “crossroads not only evoke potentiality, openings, and creativity but also improbability, caution, even chaos.” She explains that in “African American expressive aesthetics,”

the multiple meanings of the cross and crossroads condense in the blues, in the creativity, style or “cool” (meaning appropriate conduct), power or áshe of the blues player. Keenly attuned to the indistinguishable yearnings of Saturday night and Sunday morning, the blues are jagged, raw, liminal, bursting with eros, shocking, yet true. The blues reverberate the depth of sorrow and hurt experienced by men and women who live hidden and in uncommon faithfulness in the shadows at the crossroads.

The blues did “not just happen,” rather, they are the “musings and moanings of African people in response to their ‘peculiar experience’ in the new world.” While the blues are not a set of propositions “nor a reductive interpretation of the black lifeworld,” Copeland celebrates theologian James Cone’s description of the blues as “the essential ingredients that define the essence of the black experience, the blues are a state [of] mind in relation to the Truth of the black experience.”

All Americans, I argue, stand at a crossroads where evading our legacy of slavery, racism, and persistent white racial privilege is an act of idolatry and denial of the permanent achievements of Africans in diaspora, including the uncommon faithfulness of African American Catholics. Copeland invites all of us to bring our body, heart, mind, and soul to the crossroads where “heaven and earth” meet before the cross of Jesus, where we may experience grace re-tuning individually and collectively. We stand at an historical crossroads of societal impasse as a “dark night of the soul,” in multiple forms of social and moral decline, where Copeland calls us to re-tune our lives to one another and God.

Walking to that crossroads of the dangerous memory of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ will be no easy task for any person or community who has attached themselves to social, political, and economic power and privilege. Especially at a time when black Americans are crying out to breathe with George Floyd and yearning to live free of police, state, and vigilante violence, privileged white Americans find themselves in a different bind at the crossroads of this historical moment. Through the sin and lie of white supremacy, too many white people of faith find themselves segregated and disconnected from the pain, sorrow, and cries of brothers and sisters who struggle to live at the crossroads between the death-dealing scourge of coronavirus that disproportionately devastates communities of color and anti-black violence.

The sin of anti-black white supremacy is loss of the desire and capacity to lament with and for people who live in the “afterlife of slavery,” Christina Sharpe’s description of the quotidian black struggle to face the immanent (structured into our culture) and imminent (always-already) threat of death. Lament is not only a critical feature of the blues, it is also central to Catholic faith—we sing during Eucharist that we too, with God, “hear the cry of the poor.”

Not unsurprisingly, lament goes to the depth of faith of the people of Israel. The biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman explains that the loss of lament implies a loss of authentic praise and thanksgiving to God. Authentic praise of God arises out of experiences and expression of lament. In fact, the cry of Israel initiates salvation history (Ex. 2:23–25). God hears the cry of the afflicted and acts with mercy (Ps. 107); Israel responds with praise and thanksgiving. Brueggeman writes that the “proper [biblical] setting of praise is as lament resolved.” By “setting,” Brueggeman refers to the social construction of reality and what Catholic social thought practices in “reading the signs of the times,” since Vatican II. Understanding a people’s experience in a particular setting is critical; recall that the setting of Israel was bondage under pharaoh, and in the last 500 years living in the afterlife of slavery is when Africans in diaspora articulated lament in Gospel and blues music. Examining the loss of lament in scripture, Brueggeman contends that Israel loses an authentic relationship with God and covenantal interaction that is genuinely concerned with economic and social injustice.

Brueggeman finds three movements in Israel’s relationship to God in the pattern of lament in the psalms. These movements begin with crying out in hurt, anger, and pain to submitting hurt, pain, and anger to God in prayer. If a growth of mature faith develops, this moves to ritually, liturgically, rhetorically, and emotionally relinquishing power, privilege, and economic advantage in favor of restoring justice and covenantal relations devoted to caring for the most vulnerable first. That relinquishment is expressed in thanksgiving and praise to God. Conversely, where lament is absent, Brueggeman explains, the “cry of justice is forfeited.”

Lament makes a difference in Israel’s life because it “shifts the calculus” of the status quo of power and ignites a transformation in the distribution of power. The crucial question that Brueggeman asks is “what happens when the appreciation of lament is lost in our time?” He answers that:

it shifts the calculus and redresses the distribution of power between the two parties, so that the petitionary party is taken seriously and that the God who is addressed is newly engaged in a way that puts God at risk. As the lesser petitionary party (the psalm speaker) is legitimated, so the unmitigated supremacy of the greater party (God) is questioned, and made available to the petitioner.

The loss of lament reinforces “docility and submissiveness” before the powers that be, engendering social practices that consolidate the political and economic monopoly of the status quo. Not unlike times when Israel reinforced the status quo of unjust covenantal relations with neighbor and God, so in our own times predominantly white churches and congregations have not only lost a desire to lament the unjust loss of life, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among too many others, we have fostered a silence that only affirms the social, political, and economic status quo. That silence itself gives life to the “yes” men and women who dare not discourage pharaoh, in this case Donald Trump, from fomenting more violence and inequality.

How might white Americans enter a process of transformation rooted in lament? A key  starting point, I believe, is for people who benefit materially from white privilege and power to cross over, that is, to become humble and open to being afflicted by the experience of losing your own father, brother, sister, daughter, or friend to the knee of a policeman (George Floyd), to the gun violence of vigilantes while you were out on a run (Ahmaud Arbery), to not being able to sleep in your own room safely (Breonna Taylor), or not being able to play as a child in a park as police arrive out of nowhere and open gun fire without warning (Tamir Rice).

For whom and what do you lay down your life (Jn. 15:13)? If there is a way where there is no way, it is embodying a blues hope, lamenting with and for people afflicted by anti-black violence, and following the lead of African American Catholics that we may yet glimpse the possibilities of new birth in God’s beloved community.

This is an excerpt of a draft manuscript of Alex Mikulich’s Embracing Racial Intimacy: A Way of Unlearning White Supremacy.

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