WHY CAMILLE DUNGY CAN’T GET OVER THIS ELECTION
First published by LitHub January 2017
During the prayers of the people on the Sunday after America’s recent presidential election, the pastor read the prayer card of a congregant who sought comfort and support for those who have been imperiled as a result of this new administration: Black people, Hispanic and Latinx people, LGBTQ people, women, children, refugees and other immigrants, people of different faiths, especially Muslims, disabled people, and those with health concerns. In the same way he expanded on the prayer for the woman whose nephew is dealing with the loss of a job and the prayer for the woman whose husband’s service dog recently died, the pastor expanded on this prayer card, adding context intended to heighten the communal relevance of an individual’s appeal. He read off all the many people listed on the card and then he said, Let us pray for those who are on the outside of our society looking in.
In my pew in the middle of the church, I cringed as if I had just been slapped.
Perhaps, for the record, I should state that I am a black woman.
I also identify with, or am friendly with people who identify with, several of the other groups named in the prayer.
I am telling you this so you might understand some things you might not otherwise know.
After the service the Sunday after the election, my daughter joined the other children who would make up the youth choir. The music director made a point of letting me know how happy she was that we had committed to be there. My daughter can read, and the other children look up to her and follow her lead. There aren’t many children in the church. It is largely a congregation of people over 70, which is often the case for Mainline Protestant churches. But my daughter connected quickly with the 8-and-under members, and I understood that my family could be part of the young pastor’s efforts to welcome new generations into this fellowship.
We first visited this church at the recommendation of friends of my parents. We attended the second and third time and then stuck around because my daughter had befriended the pastor’s daughter. Now, in the children’s choir, my black daughter and the pastor’s blonde girl sat beside one another, working on the lines of a new song.
My daughter and the pastor’s daughter had become dear friends in the way that five- and six-year-old girls bond. When it was time for us to leave the church, I had to look for the two of them in the closets and corners where they liked to hide. Their playtime was prolonged this way, but compromised. They were forced to keep quiet and still in the hopes that we wouldn’t notice them. When we did find them—we always found them—they scampered toward the parking lot hand in hand.
If the door was unlocked when they arrived, both girls would climb into my car. The pastor’s daughter huddled on the floor below my daughter’s car seat like a small pet who hoped to be immovable. Sunday after Sunday, and once after a church dinner hosted at the pastor’s house, the pastor himself had to physically remove his daughter from my car.
I want to go home with them, she would tell him. I don’t want them to leave, she would say.
The song they practiced after church was new to the children, but it wasn’t new to me. I grew up as a Presbyterian, singing in youth choirs, attending Sunday school. I was confirmed in the Presbyterian church. My husband and I were married by a Presbyterian minister. We christened our daughter in a Presbyterian church. I am not just an Easter, Mother’s Day, and Christmas churchgoer. My family and I have been known to participate as lay leaders and to serve on committees overseeing church governance. The denomination’s liturgy and traditions are central to my belief system and my vocabulary. They are the reason I wanted my daughter raised in this church.
The Sunday after the election, as I collected my daughter for choir practice, the Sunday school teacher asked me what I saw when I looked at the symbol for the Presbyterian Church USA. Though I was still slightly dazed by what happened during the prayers of the people, I was able to answer without hesitation. The flame of the spirit, and the dove, I said, pointing out these elements on the drawing she held toward me. And, I said, in the Cross, I see the open arms of Christ.
The Sunday school teacher was taken aback. She told me that she’d taught the symbol and its meaning to the children that morning, but she didn’t think most people in the church thought much about what the image contained. Moments later the pastor’s wife came in the room to collect her daughter. As if to confirm her point, the Sunday school teacher asked the newcomer the same question she’d asked me.
That’s the symbol for the Presbyterian Church USA, said the pastor’s wife. She seemed to have been caught off guard by the question, but she continued her response, I don’t know what it means.
I was surprised by the pastor’s wife’s answer, but I shouldn’t have been. Not everybody is like me. Some people don’t need to read meaning into everything they see.
In 2013, the Public Religion Research Institute conducted a study aimed to “better understand the composition of the public’s social networks.” This study revealed that the network of close friends and family claimed by the average white American is made up of 91 percent white people. When I feel like I am often the only black person in my daily social situations, it is because I am often the only black person whom the white people I am surrounded by actually know. According to the study, only 1 percent of the typical white American’s social network is black.
The average white American’s social network is also only 1 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian, and 1 percent mixed race. The rest of the non-white people in the average white American’s social network represent some “other race” (1 percent) or a group PRRI defines as “Don’t know/Refused” (3 percent). I realize this doesn’t add up to 100 percent, but these are the figures presented by PRRI. I suppose, when it comes to thinking about race in America, not everything adds up.
Another result of this research was the discovery that, in many cases, the same black friend is counted by several people within a white social network. So, though I might be able to count nine white friends at my church, all nine of those people would only be able to count me when asked if they had any friends who identified as black.
African Americans make up about 13 percent of the total U.S. population. If social integration had been effective, none of this would make sense. Shouldn’t black people make up at least 10 percent of white Americans’ social circles? But the PRRI research reveals the failure of the integration of the average white American’s social networks. The statistics I cited above only reveal averages. These averages actually inflate the number of non-white friends and family members claimed by individual white Americans. “Fully three-quarters (75 percent) of white Americans report that the network of people with whom they discuss important matters is entirely white, with no minority presence,” write the study’s authors. Fill a room with 100 white Americans and 75 of them will tell you they have no non-white people they count as family or friends. None at all.
The homogeneity of the people in his social network might go a long way to explaining the pastor’s pronouncement—on the Sunday after the election of a Presidential candidate who actively promoted intolerance of anyone who was not an able-bodied white man—that all those people he held up in prayer were clinging on the “outside of society looking in.”
With the exception of two graduate students from Borneo, the members of my own family were the only people of color I have ever seen in regular attendance at this particular church. Though, honestly, it came as a surprise, the Sunday after the election, to learn I was perceived as an outsider in a congregation I thought of as my own.
Even before the prayers of the people, the pastor had made it clear that he wasn’t concerned about me.
The sermon talked to the (white) people in his congregation about what they will need to do to in order to continue to get along with (white) people who might have voted differently a few days before. The sermon seemed to be about maintaining a comfortable civility in a community that did not want to be pulled apart.
The pastor suggested we practice the art of turning the other cheek. He quoted the scripture passage that said that if your assailant asks for your coat you should give him also the shirt from your back. The sermon also quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. but it did so unaware of the fact that there were two people in the church who had been young (black) people in America when Dr. King was alive.
My parents look at our current political situation and then at their granddaughter and worry that they are going to have to live through the same struggle again. The candidate who won this election did so on a platform that stated its intention to repeal many of the laws that have protected my parents’ lives, and my own. I’m fairly sure the sermon, had it taken the church’s black congregants into account, would not have asked all of us to give away also our shirts if we are stripped of the liberties we have fought with our whole lives to defend.
The idea that we can wait and see, that we can be forgiving and gracious to powers that would destroy our bodies and our lives, made me want to vomit. But I knew that the sermon wasn’t addressed to me. My imperiled body was not part of the “our community” the pastor was talking about. The pastor was talking to the white people in the room. Giving them tools for resistance using the language of Dr. King, but corrupting the core principles of the resistance movement of which Dr. King was a part.
Nonviolent resistance was not a matter of sitting back and forgiving, waiting to see what would happen next. Nonviolent resistance was an active refusal to allow derogatory and damaging physical, legal, and cultural violence to continue to take place behind the scenes. Because of the nonviolent resistance movement, which brought the struggle into the open and into America’s living rooms via the television screen, average white Americans had to confront their complicity in a system built on intolerance and violence. They had to confront the fact that they were a part of the system that incited such violence. That this violence was being enacted in their name. The nonviolent resistance movement forced White America to look at the brutality visited on black bodies. It would not allow people to pretend that they did not know the symbols of power this violence was meant to enforce. The nonviolent resistance movement compelled white Americans to understand their culpability in the slapping of all those cheeks.
After services, Presbyterians have a tradition of congratulating the pastor on his well-delivered sermon. Because I am a child of this tradition, I stood in line with the rest of the congregation. When it was my turn to shake the pastor’s hand, though, there were tears in both my eyes and my throat.
I am a professor of English and creative writing. Language is important to me, and so is the act of teaching. I tried to draw on this part of my identity to help me say what I needed to say. The language you used during the prayers of the people, I told the pastor, was hurtful and dangerous.
This was not what he expected, obviously, and he looked wounded and surprised.
All those people you listed, I continued, we are not “on the outside of society looking in.” We are part of this society! We are at the very center of what America has been built upon. But the rhetoric you used during that prayer is a rhetoric of exclusion.
By now the pastor was no longer shaking my hand in the normal, absent-minded manner of the reception line. We were standing still, hands clasped together but not moving, as if we might either begin to spar or to hug.
You mentioned women in that list! Women make up more than half the population. We are not outsiders looking in! I said. And then, it seemed, I was finished. I couldn’t say anymore because I was choking on tears.
So far in this essay I have written that the worship service I attended on the Sunday after the election made me cringe as if I had been slapped, made me feel sick to my stomach, made me feel unwelcome in a place where I thought I belonged, made me cry. That is an accurate summary of how I am feeling in the wake of this election and as the new administration begins to fulfill its agenda.
But my daughter is just a little girl, and I am trying to be careful not to convey my pain and uncertainty to her. I don’t want to be the source of her suffering.
While I was standing in the narthex talking to the pastor, my daughter was busy playing with the pastor’s daughter, coloring in a black and white picture intended to teach children the basic tenets of our church.
I have decided to stop attending this church.
After I finished saying what I had to say to the pastor, he apologized, telling me that I should always tell him if something he says or does is hurtful. This was a generous gesture on his part, but it put the responsibility for raising awareness squarely on my shoulders.
So often this happens. Because the average white American knows so few nonwhite people, they also know little about our experiences, our suffering. I write that believing that the average white American’s suffering would not, in fact, be substantially different from mine if they were to experience the same sort of things nonwhite Americans experience in this country every day. But, rather than working to widen their own circle of experience, they ask us to be their emissaries, translating our suffering into terms they can understand.
It is quite possible that, on reading this essay, the pastor will be offended by my offense. He might say that he tried to be inclusive, to open a door for me, and all he got in return was my anger and reprimand. He might ask why he should even bother trying if that’s all the thanks he will get. I could be wrong about this particular pastor and his particular response, but I have been on the inside of situations like this enough to predict how things would likely play out.
When he didn’t see my family the next Sunday morning or the Sunday after that, maybe he understood what we were trying to say. Why would we ever want to return?
The service I sat through that Sunday morning worked such violence on my spirit I could not bring myself to go back again. Making the decision to protect myself, though, means that I have hurt my daughter.
She looked forward to Sunday mornings and those hours she spent with her friend. Every Sunday for more than a month after the election, my daughter cried. And I can’t get her excited about attending any other church.
And who knows how that pastor’s daughter is feeling. The rhetoric of exclusion that emboldened a presidential campaign—and now a whole administration—has caused me immeasurable pain. It is likely that this rhetoric has also hurt the pastor’s daughter. Now, for reasons I doubt she understands, she has lost contact with a little girl who might have been her one black friend.
First published by LitHub January 2017