New address: 24 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210-1409.
As one of the first Afro-American ministers in Unitarian Universalism, have you felt a certain obligation toward or served a particular function for the next generation of Afro-American ministers in the faith? If so, what advice have you offered them? I did and I was attentive to the generation that came immediately behind me. But then, in 1989, I moved to Canada and began spending less time in the U.S. In 1995 I became a Canadian and my major responsibilities were in and to Canada. 9/11 happened and crossing the border became a real hassle. And eventually as the CUC [Canadian Unitarian Council] separated from the UUA [Unitarian Universalist Association] the ties became very distant. But to the degree my concerns had become institutionalized it did not matter. Black Pioneers, How Open the Door and Been in the Storm So Long were in print. I had helped to form AAUUM [African American Unitarian Universalist Ministries] and later DRUUM [Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Ministries] and to develop the Beyond Categorical Thinking Workshops. However, when asked the advice I offer is this: I don’t trust an institutional culture that asks you to sacrifice yourself in order to redeem it and save the world. This is what the UUA does. It invests an inordinate amount of hope in the people of color who take up the call to leadership. Given these hopes, which are large, and intentions, which are good, often you—as an individual—will not be seen clearly. Therefore, you need to be ruthless in your own self-assessment. You must differentiate your needs and gifts, strengthens (and weaknesses) from what the movement may ask of or offer you. No one will intentionally set you up for failure, but if their hopes and your strengths are mismatched that can be the result. You carry a special burden in being asked to respond to the movement’s good intentions. Do not to do more than you can. Do not give into the seduction. And do not deceive yourself. Just say NO.
What was the writing process like as you worked on this book?
Drawn out is the best description. What else can one say when it took twenty years? It took so long because I was busy with our children, church and other projects. Nonetheless for ten months every year I collected material, tinkered with what I had and wrote sermons that might become a chapter all the while looking forward to summer when I could give myself over to writing. Often I was disciplined but sometimes not. I’d get up, go jogging, meditate, journal, prepare breakfast, then write for three to four hours. But sometimes I’d become obsessed. First thing in the morning I’d get up, sit down and write until my legs grew cold and numb. Other times I would get on a roll late at night and lose all sense of time until I’d collapse into bed in the early hours of the morning. Sometimes when I was stuck I’d give up and go swimming. Occasionally an answer to a problem would come as soon as I stopped focusing on it, but most often not. An answer would come, but not on my schedule. I could lie in bed with dictionaries and thesauri stacked around me and spend hours looking for the right words. Sometimes I’d cry after facing a painful truth about my life. Sometimes in the night my mind would begin racing and I would have to get up and write the thought down. Mostly, I would write and edit and rewrite and edit again. And I never got good at doing what Annie Dillard writes about in The Writing Life: killing my babies—those nice passages, even the beautiful ones, that the flow of the story made extraneous after an unexpected turn or two. When my editor, who was better at spying these than I was, would cut one I would rage and curse and then agree; but not always. I loved the process: the odd scrap of interesting information to work in; the word play, foreshadowing and alliteration; the mining of my own unconscious; and editing it over and over as if sanding a piece of furniture.
In the Epilogue of your book, you write of your children and their facility with multiculturalism. Do you think we’re headed in the direction of an ever-increasingly integrated society? What might that look like?
It doesn’t matter what I think, that is what demographics point toward and probably our genetics profile, as well. With a global economy and financial crisis, with Facebook and environmental degradation, none of which respects national boundaries, our interdependence is obvious and integration inevitable. There is no doubt about that but I’ll pass on predicting what that cultural synthesis will look like except to say that race will become increasingly meaningless because it won’t tell you much about who a person is. On the internet who knows what you are and who cares?
How do you think Barak Obama’s election might affect the state of race relations in the United States?
Cultural change is generational and therefore from the point of view of a single life time seems slow. The X-generation grew up with a steady television diet of Bill Cosby being fatherly and wise, Oprah dishing out advice and Michael Jordan defying gravity. Now African American coaches tell white guys what to do and win Super Bowls. But with Obama the next generation of African American children will know that they can be anything they set their minds to, while Euro-American children will grow up looking up to an African American President. Their world view will be fundamentally different from earlier generations in ways we cannot begin to understand. The old stereotypes will not disappear with Obama’s inauguration. They will, however, without a doubt crumble with each passing generation.
You share a lot of personal stories about your family. How have they reacted to the publishing of this memoir?
My wife, Donna, loves it but, of course, she is deeply implicated in its writing. My father said he enjoyed it. My children bought copies for their friends. My sister-in-law thanked me for giving her a copy and said I was hard on my Mother. Her first cousin, after apologizing for being on the wrong side of the family, recommended it to her family and friends. The rest of them have remained silent.
You write about your experiences as a student and later a teacher at a very special boarding school in Switzerland called the Ecole d’Humanite. What is this school like today? Do you think you will ever go back there?
The school is always changing, it has to if it is to be responsive to the needs of today’s students, but it does so while striving to remain true to its principles. Mornings no longer begin with calisthenics and cold showers, but students are still served porridge, peel potatoes and do chores before going to class; there is still lots of theater, hiking, and skiing, decisions are made in community meetings, and most importantly students remain responsible for their own learning process. I am in regular contact with my friends at the school and visit as frequently as I can; the last time was 2004, the next time will be for the all-school reunion and 100th anniversary in 2010.
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Last updated on Wednesday, June 2, 2010.
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