Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sunday, March 4th, 7pm, Gods, Gays, and Guns Book signing @Bluestocking Bookstore

Dear Friends:

I am pleased to announce the first official book-signing for my new book,  Gods, Gays, and Guns: Essays on Religion and the Future of Democracy.  Please share with your networks and I hope to see you there

Sunday, March 4, 2012
Bluestockings Bookstore
172 Allen St.
New York, NY 10002


About the Book

 “Democracy and god have failed”— captures the spirit of this provocative collection of essays. Arguing that the religion must be used for the expansion of democracy, Gods, Gays, and Guns  takes up the topics of gay marriage, economic justice, and social movements. Written in the Parisian cafes, London’s ghetto, and the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake and post-Katrina New Orleans, Gods, Gays, and Guns is a spiritual tour-de-force— revealing a crisis of faith in religion and democracy. With an unflinching pen, Rev. Sekou challenges the reader to rethink the meaning of the role of religion in our global democracy.

You can read a free excerpt from the book at Huffington Post.

Praise for book

"Rev. Sekou is one of the most courageous and prophetic voices of our time. His allegiance to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. is strong and his witness is real. Don't miss this book!" -Cornel West, Professor of Religion, Princeton University

Recent Interviews

Killing the Buddha,
A Called Received

Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture (video), Ethics and Justice

Please join my e-newsletter here

Monday, January 16, 2012

Vocation of Agony: A Personal Meditation on Dr. King’s Legacy

[Ed. Note: The following article will appear in the Spring 2008 issue of Fellowship magazine, and is offered here online in the context of this week's observance of the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968. Click here to subscribe to Fellowship.]

Sitting in our favorite coffeehouse, Tyler Jared, my eldest son, and I are having our “man time.” I am sipping a cappuccino and he is drinking some orange concoction. We stare into one another’s eyes, with an occasional “What?” breaking our silence. We are excited to see each other and saddened by the time we have spent apart. I hold a deep sense of calling that has taken me around the world, but away from him and his siblings. He has grown so much. He is now taller than me, his 13-year-old face starting to break out with pimples, voice cracking, but he is still my baby. I hold his hand and run my fingers through his golden locks. It embarrasses him, but he does not stop me, because I am Dad.

He interrupts the silence. “Dad, everyone knows you want to be like Martin Luther King.” Blushing and flattered, I respond with a flat attempt at humility. “No, no, son, I am just trying to stand in tradition that keeps track of human. . .”

Annoyed, Tyler cuts me off. “No, Dad, everyone knows.” He raises an eyebrow. “You risk arrest,” he states. (He is reminding me of the scolding he gave me for being arrested at the White House, when, to his chagrin, his teenage cohorts saw me being handcuffed on television. I was not practicing what I preached, since I always told him to stay out trouble, and then went and got myself arrested!)

“You organize other preachers. You talk about world peace.” After a pregnant pause, he announces, “But you are not that good at it!” Before I can defend myself – and the entire project of freedom – he notes: “You know that they started another war in Lebanon. Did you know that?”

To my surprise, Tyler had been paying attention to world affairs, including Israel’s bombing in Lebanon in the summer of 2005. He was clear that if I had been “good at it” there would not be yet another war in the Middle East. With the wisdom of a teenager, Tyler concludes, “Look, you should give speeches about it and write a book about it. But you are not that good at making it happen.” And I am left speechless.

Another generation of Clergy and Laity Concerned
On April 4, 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King issued to America yet another stirring warning, responding to her terrible engagement against the people of Vietnam:
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. … We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.
At the Riverside Church in New York City on March 21, 2005 – the same venue where Dr. King had delivered his hallmark “A Time to Break the Silence” speech almost 40 years earlier – I became the founding national coordinator of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Iraq. Representing over 300 faith-based institutions working to end the war in Iraq, CALC-I filled a void of silence by religious leaders that had been evident in the first two years of the war. Less than six months after our founding, CALC-I and our parent organization, United for Peace and Justice, the nation’s largest peace coalition, organized the largest civil disobedience at the White House since the start of the war. Over 370 people were arrested, including 60 clergy. Among the arrestees were Cornel West and distinguished theologian Walter Wink. Yet, we now are entering in the sixth year of the war in Iraq, and due to my poor leadership and to under-funding, CALC-I, like King, is dead. Perhaps Tyler was right.

King’s life
Dr. King proclaimed in one of his final sermons, “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.” The goal of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was “to redeem the soul of the nation.” The soul of a nation is its social structures, political discourse, and quality of life – democracy.

In what is considered his most “dangerous” speech – “A Time to Break the Silence” – King employed the tortured phrase “vocation of agony.” King named the challenge of calling upon god in the struggle for social justice. He gave this speech in the midst of death threats, repudiation from SCLC’s board, and merciless attacks in the mainstream and African-American media. A major task of King’s public speech was to rebel against the monopoly on religious discourse shaped by conservative religious individuals and institutions, thereby creating space for the revelation of the prophetic god:
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate for our limited vision, but we must speak..
King carved out a place where the task of religion is to challenge the role of government. His notion of “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” highlighted the role of the United States in both the manipulation of foreign governments and its treatment of the poor (at home and abroad) that has led to a crisis in American democracy.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
This speech was not simply about American foreign policy gone awry but about the very nature of religion and democracy. The role of government in the lives of the poor throughout the world was addressed by his courageous oration. It is centered on a belief that religion and democracy are in dialogue with one another. This dialogue has led to the production of the religious precedent for democratic expansion.

With his chariot waiting in the “hither lands,” King, in his last sermon – delivered on April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination, at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tennessee – linked religion, democracy, and social protest. After a synoptic survey of human social protest and intellectual ingenuity, thereby situating his public ministry and democracy in an intimate conversation with the plight of the Memphis sanitation workers and their strike, King responded to the injunction placed on their march:
We have an injunction and we’re going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.” If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around.
Continuing his theology of democracy and the role of clergy, he posed a rhetorical question, “Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher?” Quoting the prophets of justice, Amos and Isaiah, he acknowledged the presence of clergy from around the country, highlighting the economic boycott work of a young Jesse Jackson. Celebrating “relevant ministry,” he challenged religious leaders to be concerned with this world’s poverty and injustice.

Today, the sermons of presidential candidate Barack Obama‘s pastor, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, have placed race and religion at the center of the public debate once again. Rev. Wright’s critique of U.S. foreign policy stands square with King’s prophetic voice. So hot were Wright’s words that the candidate had to distance himself, and so true that he could not disown the prophet.

Honoring King’s legacy
What does it mean to honor the legacy of Dr. King? Maybe, it means moving into projects of Chicago and living with gang members in their tenement slums, as he did in 1966. King lived off $6,000 a year with four children because he believed in serving the poor over personal gain. He took a $1 (one dollar!) annual salary from SCLC. It is often noted that he had three suits the last year of his life and that he washed out his dress shirt in the sink at night to have it clean for his next speaking engagement. King gave every dime he had to the movement, including the $100,000-plus award that accompanied his Nobel Peace Prize. When rebuked by his own board at SCLC, he still spoke out against the Vietnam war, only to be further rebuked by every major national newspaper. When trashed publicly by Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Bull Connor, and southern city fathers, King never lashed out in anger but always responded as a loving statesman. With death threats abounding, the FBI discrediting his work through its COINTELPRO program, and SCLC funding in question, he went to march with sanitation workers in Memphis – broke, black garbagemen.
That last night of his life, he prophesied the future of America:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
I do not believe that there is a promised land – only exile. With an unrelenting war on the precious people of Iraq in the precocious name of democracy on the one hand, and the unfathomable neglect of the Gulf Coast citizenry on the other, our national spirit seems doomed to continue spiraling toward incomprehensible darkness. The concept of exile is central because I believe that post-Katrina New Orleans, the revival of the noose, the expansion of the prison-industrial complex, right-of-center public discourse, and general hostility toward the poor and the Other in this nation – whose identity is built upon manifest destiny, believing it is a shining city on the hill, a promised land – has shown that America has no “home” for poor black folks. We find ourselves rolling the stone of race and religion up the hill of democracy. It is a Camusian dialectic, perpetually hewing a stone of hope out of a mountain of despair; Martin Luther King Jr.‘s theology encountering Sisyphus’ tragedy.
Roberto Unger and Cornel West in The Future of American Progressivism lay before us our task: “It is not enough to rebel against the lack of justice, we must also rebel against the lack of imagination.” We must claim the words that have been so cheapened in the public discourse: democracy, freedom, and evil.

Democracy is the ability of everyday folk to have discussions and make decisions about their life chances in the context of community. Freedom must be defined as the ability of folk to make informed choices and with adequate resources. Evil is the denial of access to the existential and economic, personal and political, spiritual, and societal resources necessary to make those decisions and choices. In order to be grounded with sure political footing, we must stand on a prophetic tradition, employ historical agency, and execute moral imperative.

As we critique political structures and economic apparatus, we must never forget to love. Love is patient, kind, long-suffering, and endures all things. Love means we care for the personal, political, social, economic, and organizational needs of others more than we do our own individual and organizational desires. Love is that force that cuts across human divisions of race, religion, nation, or creed. Again, King teaches us:
When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another, for love is God. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.” “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.
Love will shed new light on the improvised language and build a new system of ideas and social infrastructure. As we love each other, we will create a loving society preoccupied with peace and justice.

Out of the mouth of another babe
Having heard about the conversation between his elder brother and I, Gabriel Israel DuBois, my second oldest son, was not to be outdone. Known among his family as the “sensitive one,” Gabriel is the spitting image of me when I was seven. Getting eye to eye with me, he declares, “Dad, you know they shot Martin Luther King.”

Bewildered, I can only say, “I know, son, I know.”
“You know if you keep doing what you are doing they are going to shoot you, too … but I love you and will protect you…”

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Task of the Theologian in the time of Occupy Wall Street
The task of the theologian in the time of Occupy Wall Street is to continue to raise the question of ultimate concern—what does it mean to be human?  Fourteen million human beings in the United States are grappling with the most basic of human considerations—food and shelter—forcing an often aloof profession to deepen its vocational calling.   Nuanced and at times interesting debates about the nature of god and the church are drowned out by the groans of hungry disheartened and disinherited folks.

What must emerge from this crumbling empire and recalcitrant academy obsessed with specialization is the organic theologian.   Appropriating Antonio Gramsci’s organic intellectual, the organic theologian is a scholar who cultivates strong roots in their community, working to maintain links between theology and local struggles connecting to the people and their experiences. She uses her position to articulate discourses for helping communities and congregations develop new modes of being and organizing. The organic theologian does not exist outside of history but rather assesses and articulate moments when the divine is breaking into history through social movements.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement has sprouted upon an unique contemporary landscape.  The three branches of United States government are thoroughly controlled and supported by corporate interest.  The current administration has received 16 million dollars in contributions from the securities and investment industry and appointed veterans of that same industry who facilitated the deregulation which culminated in a world wide economic crisis.   Through international trade agreements and bank bailouts, Congress has served the interest of Wall Street.   The Citizen United ruling of the Supreme Court afforded corporations the same rights has human beings thereby unleashing an ungodly amount of contributions to political campaigns. (President Obama is scheduled to raise one billion dollars for his re-election campaign.)  The media—the fourth estate—created to serve as the informative caretaker of the democracy—extols the virtues of the wealthy , demonizes the poor and those who protest on their behalf.   And the dominant theological project in United States declares that wealth is a sign of favor from god.

In this thorny political and theological terrain, Occupy Wall Street Movement has come to the public discourse in search of not only policies but meaning.   The organic theologian must consider these holy acts as signs and wonders in the last days of the empire.   The incarnation of the Occupy movements serves a reminder of the embodied sacrifice that is Jesus of Nazareth.  “Can anything good come out of the Occupy Movement?” is the question of pundit and politician alike.   The greater question for the organic theologian is “What does it mean to human in the decaying democracy?”  “How do we honor “the body and blood”of those arrested and beaten by the police?”  “What is the measure of our reasonable service?”

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

President Obama is protected by the most sophisticated intelligence apparatus human history. That same apparatus is unjustly executing another Black man. I am not asking Obama to be the Black president. I have the same expectation that I have of every president. That he is judge according to the best of the prophetic tradition. Every president since Lincoln has to contend with a left of center tradition that sought democratic expansion. I demanded it of Clinton and led the largest civil disobedience at the White House under Bush against the war in Iraq. I have been consistent in my criticism under the rubic of the prophetic tradition

Cornel West and the Crisis in Black Leadership
May 20, 2011
By Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou
The recent controversy ignited by Cornel West’s critique of President Barack Obama and subsequent critiques of Dr. West reveal a fundamental crisis in Black leadership. Traditionally, African American intellectuals and activists have encountered the office of the President as outsiders with a nuanced understanding and repertoire of tactics including electoral brokerage, inside strategy and social protest (organized and rhetorical).
These tactics have been executed against “The White Man.” The oppositional politic was the normative means of encountering the office of the Presidency and the deployment of fierce rhetoric was an accepted means of public engagement. Both the candidacy and presidency of Barack Obama are a disruption of that rhetorical and tactical tradition. The African American tradition of speaking truth to power has been complicated because that power is now embodied by “A Black Man.”
This is a unique moment in American democracy. The white supremacist gaze in the United States demonized black bodies, subjected their intelligence and interrogated their national allegiance. Barack Obama’s winning campaign called into question these deep seated notions that shaped U.S. public policy and perceptions.
Hence, the Obama presidency is an electoral and existential victory. The way in which African American people make meaning for themselves inside the American empire has been recast. There is a widely accepted narrative about Obama’s election. While it is true that his presence in the White House is because of his intelligence, effective fundraising apparatus and sophisticated campaign machinery, the red carpets at the inaugural balls were soaked in the blood of martyrs.
The presidency of Barack Obama is a by-product of African Americans’ 400 years of struggle for access to the democratic project called America. The President has often located himself in that tradition and trajectory. He has strategically trafficked in the prophetic rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement and employed the homiletical rhythms of the Black Church. He has conveniently used these cultural signifiers in a way that is titillating to the national consciousness—linguistically embodying Black folks’ quest for a more democratic society.
Moreover, Black folks take great pride in the presence of three generations of African Americans in the White House. The real image of a beautiful Black family beaming into the homes of all Americans has a deep impact on the psyche of the nation, and a denigrated people. There is a collective desire on the part of Black America to protect and shield their existential idol-President Barack Hussein Obama. This is a new space in U.S. history—racial and collective national memory. The right wing backlash, contemptible treatment and flat out disrespect consistently directed at the President and First Lady only serve to reinforce this protective existential and racial logic.
However, there is a counterpoint to this protectionist logic. Based on the criterion set forth by the African American freedom struggle, there is an expectation beyond physical and psychic symbolism. Behind the ad hominem attacks, personal slights and blogosphere punditry, what is at stake in West’s complaint is this prophetic expectation—there must be public policy to reflect the very tradition that the President uses and benefited from in his rise to power. Is it inappropriate to have this expectation of the President Barack Obama? Is it appropriate for Black folks to levy a critique and action against a Black man in the White House? Or must Black leadership focus on defending the President from racist attacks?
The protectionist logic combined with the ultra conservative Republican Party has circumscribed the political vision of the vast majority of African Americans.  The logic goes that criticism of the President is tantamount to supporting ultra conservative politics. Regardless of his legislative record, African Americans will vote for him in record numbers. This electoral allegiance is not a negotiating tool, but, rather, an existential duty. The protectionists cheapen any critical conversation about the President’s agenda. The only legitimate engagement is an insider strategy—access to the White House and supporting the administration’s agenda at all cost. Accordingly, organized and rhetorical protests are, vehemently, dismissed.  In this formulation, the aforementioned questions and West’s lamentation remain unanswered.
The improvised electoral options guarantee that the President will not have to provide any substantive policy response to underemployment, unemployment, foreclosures, affordable healthcare, quality public education, expanding prison industrial complex and affordable housing—all of which affect African Americans, disproportionately.  This makes him no different than any other president. Hence, he should be treated as such.
Every president since Abraham Lincoln has had to contend with an organized and rhetorical protest—the prophetic tradition.  This tradition has always focused on the nation’s treatment of the most vulnerable citizens—the least of these. Under the prophetic gaze, politicians have either been celebrated or rebuked.  Fredrick Douglass and the abolitionists supported the Underground Railroad and offered stern public rebukes of Abraham Lincoln for not ending slavery. A. Phillip Randolph and the broader labor movement marched and chastised Franklin D. Roosevelt until the creation of the New Deal. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement pressured and protested the Kennedy and Johnson administration into the passage of Civil Rights and the Great Society legislation.
King once remarked that electoral politics are thermometers—measuring political climate; social protests and movements are thermostats—setting political climate.  Organized and rhetorical protests have set the climate for an effective insider strategy and subsequent electoral allegiance in the voting booth. Prophetic rhetoric and organized rage have created the context for the passage of public policy that improves the quality of life for the least of these. The contemporary political climate is such that there are very limited possibilities for progressive social policies to emerge from the administration, itself. A recalcitrant Congress, a right of center Democratic Party and two decades of neo liberal policies require that the President serve a right of center agenda which has been at odds with the prophetic tradition and the needs of the most vulnerable.
Hence, African American leadership can not go it alone. The challenges facing democracy are nothing less that the retraction of the promise of the Civil Rights Movement, dismantling of the Great Society, and reversal of the New Deal—let alone an ever expanding prison and military industrial complex. Cornel West’s critique is part and parcel of a grand tradition of fiery prophetic rhetoric that must be connected to social movements. In order to shift the political discourse and create the conditions for progressive policy, a new multi racial and multi issue coalition has to emerge. Rhetorical protest must be matched with mass organizing.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Reporting on the London Riots for Vibe Magazine

V Exclusive: VIBE Investigates Mark Duggan's Death In London, New Details Surface
While most of London is quiet, Broadwater Farm is still burning for information concerning the death of Mark Duggan, the young father whose death in a police shooting sparked days of rioting across the UK. It was initially reported that the early August shooting death of the 29-year-old London man was because he fired at officers.

But according to several eyewitness reports and ballistic evidence obtained by VIBE correspondant Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, who is currently investigating in London, Duggan did not brandish a weapon at the time he was shot. Although he did have a gun when he was pulled over while riding in a cab, he kept it in a sock. Investigators have determined that both bullets found at the scene were police property, raising serious questions about the official police account.

On Thursday Aug 4, at approximately 6pm, he sent the following text message to his friend: “"Yo fam, you on the block? Watch out for green VW van. Trident just jammed me.”

At 6:07 the friend replied to the text and got no response. Eight minutes later, Mark’s brother Marlon got a call from an eyewitness saying that Mark has been shot. Ever since that moment, misinformation about what actually occurred began circulating British media. According to Hold the Front Page, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) admitted to “inadvertently” misinforming the public about the details surrounding Duggan’s death.

"The media and politicians are portraying Mark as a notorious crime dealer and a gunrunner, while members of this community consistently say he was a simple man and father of four,” said Sekou, who has been speaking to Duggan’s family, friends and community activists.

The cab driver who was present at the time of Duggan’s shooting is currently unavailable for comment. Duggan’s family still does not have his body but they are planning a funeral for the first week in September while still trying to get to the bottom of the situation."I'm going on Panorama to tell the world that they murdered our boy,” said Stafford Scott, a Tottenham community organizer of over 20 years, about his visit to the BBC TV program tonight.

Story still developing. Watch for Rev Sekou's full report in the next issue of VIBE.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Prophet in Exile: A Personal Meditation on James Baldwin

August 1, 2011
By Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou 

After the re-election of George W. Bush, I was done with America.  Less than a year into Bush’s second term, I left the United States for the first time. At the tender age of 34, I moved to Paris to be like James Baldwin. With money from a writing fellowship, I was confident that I was going to compose ‘the book’; but I was not convinced that I would return to the States.  Upon the City of Lights streets, I would walk, wander and wonder. Having been seduced not long before my move by French existentialism, I wrestled with what it meant to be a Black preacher with an artist’s heart and a love for Sophia.  I tramped about Paris, in a black scarf, black sweater and black pants because that was Baldwin’s attire when he first arrived in Paris.

I chose to live in Saint-Germain-des-Prés –the haunt of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.  My small apartment was on rue Sabot and set above a café that was rumored to be where Baldwin and Camus had their infamous falling out. Every morning, I made my daily trek to the edge of Jardin du Luxemburg and into a cramped “bodega” owned by an Algerian family. After “salaam” and “bonjour,” I went straight to the meat cooler, grabbed a block of cheese and baguette and swiftly made my way out the door.  Frequently, I met other expatriate Paris residents. Tanny Stovall, the Dean of Black Expats, held a weekly “Brothers” soirée in his flat near the Bastille.  Having left the United States over four decades before, he knew just about every writer, painter, musician and intellectual who came searching in Paris. (I was just the latest casualty of American democracy.)  Tanny told fabulous tales about “Jimmy.”

Before day break one cold December morning, in a drunken stupor, I stumbled from the “Brothers” soirée to the train station, Gare de Lyon. With the aid of a faithful and meticulous translator and several cups of coffee, I was sober when I arrived to the Hotel de Ville de Lyon, where I was scheduled to deliver a lecture on humanity and nonviolence.  In the well-appointed lecture hall, gold Baroque sculptures lit by fifteen wall-mounted chandeliers and an additional twenty or so hanging from the ceiling, I began my discourse with two quotes as existential books ends: “The artist must never side with those who are the makers of history but rather those who are the victim of it,” admonished Albert Camus.  In like manner, James Baldwin, my other soul mate, demanded that, “the artist must embrace that state of being that most men must necessarily avoid, that is the state of being alone.”

After the lecture, I exchanged a few pleasantries with Mayor Gérard Collomb.  He was a man after my own heart—a socialist and an admirer of Baldwin.   And as most of my conversations with French intellectuals and politicians, he reminded me that I was “like” Baldwin, because I had come to France to write.  There was a strange kind of freedom in Paris. It was the first time in my life that I did not experience the “burden” of race.  In fact, my time in Paris was relatively privileged—my ideas mattered. Everywhere I went, soirées, cafes and bookstores, people wanted to know what I thought. Paris was the first place that I understood what it meant to be an organic public intellectual—using one’s ideas to struggle for justice. After hours on end and several bottles of wine, I knew for what Baldwin was searching.  I had found a space where I was free to think. Later, I would learn that this was not the case for Blacks born in Paris.

Le Devoir Collectif de la Mémoire, a mostly Arab and African group of Hip Hop artists, activists and at least one white Trotskyite, invited me to speak at their meeting.  In November 2005, a young African man died as a result of being chased by the police. Hence, Arab and African youth, who already felt alienated from French society, expressed their rage by setting cars ablaze in Saint Denis and other Parisian suburbs.  The Collective was responding to this crisis and asked me to give a talk on Hip Hop as an organizing tool.  They encouraged me attend a large conference that was being organized in Saint Denis at the University of Paris-VIII.  Inevitably, they reminded me that Baldwin marched on their behalf in 1960s; and because I was “like” Baldwin, I must do the same. I attended the conference and marched in the streets chanting: Fraternité! Liberté!  Égalité!

Living in Paris, provided me an opportunity to explore the philosophy of liberation movements and reconsider the prophetic tradition of the Black church. Reading and re-reading Sartre’  Existentialism as Humanism, Camus’ The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus and Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, the spirit of my grandmother was a constant presence. I missed the deep ocean of love in which the folks of the Arkansas Delta bathed me. Holding conversations in my head between Baldwin, Camus and my grandmother, I began to formulate a systematic consideration of existentialism, prophetic religion and activism. In James Baldwin, I was able to reconcile these traditions and would emerge from my exile with new philosophical lens and theological considerations.

Millions of African-Americans migrated from the Jim Crow South in search of a better life.  The North represented The Promised Land—free of the limits on Black mobility and opportunity so rampant in the southern states. In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin recalls there was no milk and honey to be found.
All of Harlem is pervaded by congestion, rather like the insistent, maddening, claustrophobic, pounding in the skull that comes from trying to breathe in a very small room with all the windows shut. . . Harlem wears to the causal observer a casual face; no one remarks that-considering the history of black men and women and the legends that have sprung up about them, to say nothing of the ever-present policemen, wary on the street corners-the face is, indeed, somewhat excessively casual and may not be as open or careless as it seems.  If an outbreak of more of than the usual violence occurs, as in 1935 or in 1943, it is met with sorrow and surprise and rage…
In the face of such a violent existence, religion could offer a safe place.  Though Baldwinleft the church at the age of 17, the signs, symbols and songs never left him.  Prophetic religion served to inform his project for years to come. Hence, the stories and songs of his childhood hold artistic and cultural significance.  In The Fire Next Time, he recounts his conversation experience.
I underwent, during the summer that I became fourteen, a prolonged religious crisis, I use the word “religious” in the common, and arbitrary, sense, meaning that I then discovered God, His saints, and  angels, and His blazing Hell.  And since I had been born in a Christian nation, I accepted this Deity as the only one, I supposed him to exist only within the walls of a church-in fact, of our church-and I also supposed that God and safety were synonymous.
Upon graduating from high school he moved to Greenwich Village. Eventually, Baldwin felt that need that I know all too well: that he must leave the United States. Fifty-seven years before I began my exile, he set sail forParisto be more than just a Negro writer.  I followed him as he followed Richard Wright, and other artists—searching for freedom.  The very place that he left to become a better writer was the very place to which he had to return, existentially, to finish his first novel.  The exilic Psalm 137 being played out on the Seine: Baldwin sat down at his river of Babylon, yea, he wept, when he remembered Harlem.  In a 1961 interview with radio personality Studs Turkel, Baldwin recalled coming to honor his past:
And I finally realized in Europe that one of the reasons that I couldn’t finish this novel was because I was ashamed of where I had come from and where I had been, and ashamed of life in the church and ashamed of my father, ashamed of the blues and ashamed of jazz, and, of course, ashamed of watermelon, because it was, you know, all these stereotypes that the country inflicts on Negroes that, you know, that we all eat watermelon or we all do nothing but sing the blues, and all that. Well, I was afraid of all that, and I ran from it.
Using his religious epistemology, Baldwin made meaning out of the absurdity of being.   Baldwin’s fiction serves as an elegant and elongated description of the prophetic quest for meaning. His creative non-fiction served as terse prescriptive testaments.  Go Tell it on the Mountain, his semi-autobiographical novel, was drawn from the Christmas hymn announcing the birth of Jesus.
Go tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born
The powerful work describes the life of the protagonist that is very similar to the life of Baldwin.  A child preacher, in search of love from an unloving father, was not at home anywhere.   James Baldwin was a prophet in exile.  By prophet, I mean that his writing and activism called into question the prevailing norms, chastised the democracy and pointed us all to a new way of being. Abraham Joshua Herschel notes in his book, The Prophets, that: “The prophet is human, yet employs notes one octave too high for our ears. He experiences moments that defy our understanding.  He is neither ‘a singing saint’ nor ‘a moralizing poet,’ but an assaulter of the mind.” Baldwin assaults the conventional wisdom of the day.

He sits in the pantheon of the existentialist prophets—Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. James Baldwin embodied the existentialist quest for making meaning in a world that denied Black folks meaning. No Name in the Street is taken from Job 18:17, “His remembrance shall perish from the earth, and he shall have no name in the street.” His being was in exile from Western democracy.
I know in any case, that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West. . . And this meant that in, some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State building, a special attitude.
That “special attitude” was prophetic existentialism—a religiously grounded critique of meaning making in the midst of exile. His existentialist writings are shaped by the constraints of racist and homophobic society and a freedom in exile. While homelessness and namelessness are features of exile, Baldwin turns them on their head to speak his special truth to the world.  When questioned by a report about being born poor, black and gay, Baldwin responded that he “hit the jackpot” because he had started so low in society.  From the place of “lowness,” Baldwin called upon our better angels by naming our demons.

In No Name in the Street, he critiques his childhood faith with democratic fire and prophetic brimstone:
. . . in exactly the same way as the Christian church has betrayed and dishonored and blasphemed that Saviour in whose name they slaughtered  millions and millions and millions of people.  And if this objection might seem trivial, it can only be because of the total hardening of the heart and the coarsening of the conscience among those people who believed that their power has given them the exclusive right to history. If the Christians do not believe in their Savior (who has certainly, furthermore, failed to save them) why, then, wonder the unredeemed, should I abandon my gods for yours?  For I know my gods are real:   they have enabled me to withstand you.
The Fire Next Time sustains Baldwin’s indictment of America and extends to pathological self hate.  In a letter to his namesake nephew, he cautions:  “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.  I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t you forget it.”   Baldwin unpacks what it means to be an exile without self love—a state which ate James Baldwin’s father alive.  Baldwin reflects on his step-father, the younger Baldwin’s grandfather.  “Well, he is dead, he never saw you, he had a terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.”

Nobody Knows My Name confronts personal exile and its use in social critique. His early life was so tortured because of lack of love that he so desperately craved from his father.   “Not merely the key to my life, but to life itself.”  With his common agility, he leaps from the private to the public, personal to political, and landed firmly on the ground of being that is love-uncovering and the nakedness of the human experience:
. . . when lovers quarrel, as indeed they inevitably do, it is not the degree of their pigmentation that they are quarreling about, nor can lovers, on any level whatever, use color as a weapon,  This means that one must accept one’s nakedness.
For Baldwin, the experience of love caused one to be free and bound; freedom as in the home of one’s lover’s arms and “a bondage which liberates you into something of the glory and suffering of the world.”  To love yourself is to live in exile, yet be free. Like the hymn undoubtedly sang in the church of his and my childhood, “When nothing else could help, love lifted me.”  My Parisian sojourn concluded at the American University in Paris with a lecture entitled, Les émeutes et l'espoir. I compared the plight of French Arabs and Africans to African American exiles, like Baldwin and myself.  My grandmother’s hope was at the heart of it all.

Shortly thereafter, I returned to the United States.  I am writing ‘the book,’ still. I have returned to Paris a half of a dozen times.  Each time I am tempted to stay a little longer. The struggle for the least of these to which I was called continues to beckon me back the United States. I take solace in knowing that Baldwin marched with Martin Luther King, debated Malcolm X and shared the rally stage Bayard Rustin. As a pastor I have used Baldwin’s work and words many a Sunday.  Still, every now and then, I get that nagging feeling that I should be, in Paris, writing.  There is a simple truth about Paris, Baldwin and me. On rue Sabot in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, I did what Baldwin did –in my small flat I embraced the very thing I was running from.

Monday, July 11, 2011


Queering Democracy and Christianity

July 7, 2011
By Guest Contributor
By Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou
A few years ago, I interviewed to serve as the Senior Minister of a church in the Bronx. I was excited about serving as a pastor in the poorest congressional district in the country, plus the “Boogie Down” is the birth place of Hip Hop. Surrounded by the thick cloud of pollution that is the air and decaying housing while being serenaded by blaring sirens and Nuyorican accents, the century old white stone church stood in all of its majesty.
I rang the door bell. A tall stately woman with a graceful all gray hair cut invited me into the small conference room. The Pastoral Search committee was waiting–five “little old ladies” dressed in their Sunday morning best on a weekday evening. Directed to the empty chair at the far end of the room, I greeted each one of them with a hand shake and slight genuflection. I anxiously took my seat at the head of the table. “Mother,” a small, dainty, if not fragile, yet dignified elder, sat directly across the reckoning table.
After a softball question from the tall woman who initially welcomed me, “Mother” came-a-swinging. With disdain in her voice she asked, “Reverend Sekou, what do you think of gay marriage?!”
Taking a deep breath, I hesitated. In the silence she forcefully reminded me, “And you know what the Bible says!”
With head bowed in deference to my elder I said, “Mother, the Bible says, women be silent in the church.”
The committee nodded in recognition, as I continued to seal my fate.  “You got around that, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” they all said.
“Bible says ‘slave be obedient to your masters.’”
“Yes, yes,” they perked up.
“We got around that.”
“This is true,” Mother conceded.
“I think we can get around this,” I said.
“Black folks looked at the text that affirmed their humanity and rejected the text that did not. Do not gay folks have the right to do the same?  In fact, I would argue that the Bible does an amazing job arguing for justice for all.  Did you know that there are over 3,000 references to poverty and the poor in the Bible?”
They nodded in collective astonishment and deployed the cultural idiom, “Umph.”
Taking it up a notch, I leaned forward and preached, “And it really makes God mad. In the Bronx, with the highest rates in poverty, per capita imprisonment, HIV/Aids cases, and asthma in New York City, should we not be focused on that work? I am doing what you taught me, ‘Mother.’ Black women like you taught me that wherever folks are catching hell I am to show up. Gay folks are catching hell so I gotta show up. Black folks should not ever be part of denying anyone rights.”
Collecting my emotions, I sat back. The committee agreed to send my name to the broader congregation to be voted up after a Sunday morning sermon.  This story does not end perfectly, though. I did not become the pastor of that church. I lost the congregation vote, 16-8. It seems, in that case, I was only able to convince the five “little old ladies” and three living husbands. I persuasively converted five older African American church ladies and leaders. They left that interview believing that gay marriage was consistent with their own sense of theological agency and the African American freedom struggle.
Bible verses are often cited as the god-given admonition against gay marriage, same gender loving, and as the penultimate guide for relationships. First, there is the ever popular Old Testament Leviticus 20:13, “If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.” In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul poses and answers questions concerning the unrighteous. He writes in his first letter to the church at Corinthians, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived, neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.” In this same letter Paul offers some very clear instructions for women. “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
Paul also writes to the church in Ephesus and encourages, “[s]laves, be obedient to them that are [your] masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.” As signification of their faithfulness, the text demands obedience of women and slaves to those “placed over them” and calls same gender loving an “abomination.”
Black folks applied a hermeneutic of suspicion to the Bible and the Constitution. Faced with an oppressive Christianity that justified their bondage and beating, they ingested scriptures that fed their ontological desire to be liberated. They, in turn, rejected texts that were counter to their beingness. To be Black was to be queer, signifying that to be queer is to be at odds with the democracy. Through the blood stained freedom struggle of the small, but prophetic, church, Black folks queered democracy and Christianity, changing the oppressive systems into symbols of liberation for all to behold. Perhaps, then, if queer folks use this hermeneutic of suspicion, they can also reclaim the liberating promise of Christianity and democracy. Linkages can made between the African American struggle for civil rights and the struggle for the rights of queer folks.
Coretta Scott King, noted activist in her own right, makes the connection. Speaking once upon a time at a gathering for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Mrs. King believed articulated a common struggle between civil and queer rights.
I say “common struggle” because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere. Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.
King believed that the rights of citizenship were god-given. He often
noted that he wanted America to be true to what she said on paper. This sentiment emerges out of the prophetic tradition. The prophetic
African-American Christian tradition has always read the biblical narrative in close proximity to the nation’s founding documents–the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence that have served to expand democracy. There have always been religious forces that promoted democratic expansion. What has moved history and expanded democracy has been prophetic minorities willing to risk life and limb to seize the public’s imagination and transform politics and public policy. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, and the Civil Rights (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) are public policy testaments to the prophetic tradition of democratic expansion. Based on this tradition, religion in the public sphere must aim to continue democratic expansion.
With this in mind, the passage of legislation that denies gay marriage and adoption restricts democratic expansion instead of expanding democratic access. Such actions are counter to nearly two centuries of small yet vocal religious social movements to expand democracy. The religious precedent of democratic expansion mandates that such religious calls for restriction have no place in public policy.
Equally, there are religious denominations that ordain queer folks and administer the sacrament of marriage to same sex couples. The first sentence of the First Amendment of the Constitution states that: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof[.]” Given the religious dogma used to justify anti-gay marriage legislation, state laws and a proposed Constitutional amendment are a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution because they impose one form of religion over another. The repressive forms of religion, such as those citing same-sex association as Biblical abomination, or encouraging the enslaved to be obedient to their masters, have only served to undermine the democracy–and these restrictions cut against the religious precedent for democratic expansion. In concurrence with the constitutional formulation, the Iowa Supreme Court struck down the passage of a ban against gay marriage. The Iowa decision privileges democratic expansion over religious restriction.
As a result, civil marriage must be judged under our constitutional standards of equal protection and not under religious doctrines or the religious views of individuals. This approach does not disrespect or denigrate the religious views of many Iowans who may strongly believe in marriage as a dual-gender union, but considers, as we must, only the constitutional rights of all people, as expressed by the promise of equal protection for all. We are not permitted to do less and would damage our constitution immeasurably by trying to do more.
A new distinction based on sexual orientation would be equally suspect and difficult to square with the fundamental principles of equal protection embodied in our constitution. This record, our independent research, and the appropriate equal protection analysis do not suggest the existence of a justification for such a legislative classification that substantially furthers any governmental objective. Consequently, the language in Iowa Code section 595.2 limiting civil marriage to a man and a woman must be stricken from the statute, and the remaining statutory language must be interpreted and applied in a manner allowing gay and lesbian people full access to the institution of civil marriage.
Religious discourse in public policy must be about the expansion of democratic opportunity. Marriage grants over 1,300 civil rights to its participants, including property rights and end of life decisions. This must be extended to queer folk as part of the democratic expansion. To deny civil rights is to cut against the grain of both the best of the Black Church, and the prophetic tradition that has served to make America more democratic. In a word, the anti-gay marriage movement is anti-democratic.