What Do Quakers Owe Blacks?
by Bill Brown | July 2002
Don’t feel stupid if you’re confused by this incredibly baffling question. It’s a brain-buster. What Quakers owe blacks, may not be all-embracing as it appears. It is a perplexing proposition. Measurement difficulties may make the question unanswerable. The question, unfitting some may say, is a matter of assessing probabilities upon the basis of evidential behavior and the indeterminacy of religious worship. The drama of the question, its details, intentions, and consequences are fitted to embrace the static purpose of contained truth and spiritual needs of a neglected and dispossessed people.
Culturally, racism is part of America’s national character. Therefore, it would be unreasonable to believe that Quakers would be free of so integral part of our culture. Quakers, unharried by their own racist underpinnings, and espousing a “melting pot” liberalism, deceived themselves with racially emancipated identities. I am not saying that racism is a common trait of Quakers. I understand that the full measure of racial determinants among religious groups would probably find that Quakers are considerably less racist than others. As an etiological agent, racism is a disease or disordered cause agent so deeply rooted in the fabric of our country that it has ruptured some of our religious and cultural cohesiveness. Talk of racism and Quakers leads to “enlivened” conversation that doesn’t fit appropriately into the fabric of Quaker fantasy.
Some Friends find the term racist being applied to them offensive. To them, it is a rotting word synonymous with some kind of social or lack of racial conscientiousness. Indeed, it may be imprecise and simply a deliberative form of linguistic bullying. However, I offer it as a wake-up call for Quakers to emancipate themselves from the archetypal historical mode of thinking—from the abolition of slavery to equal rights for women—shaped by the impassioned debate or discourse. The question of Quaker indebtedness to blacks is an opportunity for deliberative discussion that seems to have little ascendance in our broader culture. There is a temptation, under such circumstances, for Quakers to talk about racial “color blindness.” “Color blindness” is a hoax.
Racism is an expressive cultural process that does not disrupt the dominant discourse of society. It is the acceptance of cultural gestures, customs, and character rooted in the status quo. Racism is a venting term. Its expressive elements serve as a bullying vector. An easy-to-use, efficient, attention-effective gateway term heavily gathered with resonance from disembodied cultural angers, is a pulsating syllable-inflected pejorative that unbearably leaves someone slowly turning upon its point of reality.
Also, its cultural dimension, at the core and surface of visibility and invisibility, is about inattention. For instance, the worship invisibility and cultural disconnection of our “color-blind” diet in our color-conscious society results in an institutional climate of racial ignorance. As such, it throws culpability for racism on the likes of Quakers who are the standard bearers of pacifism and racial justice. “Color Blindness” diminishes our cultural bounty. Mine may be an egregious case of language misconduct. Many Quakers are complicitous in their behaviors and attitudes that are located within the cultural practices of the status quo.
Admittedly Quakerism never occupied the center of black worship. Perhaps its architecture—quiet, introspective, and—spiritually speaking—seemingly lacking in worshipful transparency and thus poor in pious depth. Perhaps the answering of the owing question flows from just such an ongoing misinterpretation of Quaker spiritual vitality and relevance. There is a stillness about Quaker worship that attracts one to God’s voice. There is no pretentiousness; the plainness of language is captivating.
Quakers owe us INCLUSION. The inclusion I refer to is the responsibility of Quakers to increase the moral tone of truth-telling about exclusion. They owe us the courage and good sense to live beyond gossamer loyalties of racial clothing. We are owed a certain amount of internal thinking by Quakers who accept their provisional white identity without question. We are owed a grasp of inside of America’s moral illness: its distortion of black vigor, the exacting horror and evil efficiency of being imprisoned by racism, and the interrupted white pleasures and profits of witnessing us as victims. They owe us the experiential evidence of their commitment to justice. I’m not talking about the self-deceptive hospitable assuagement of the white conscious embodied in racial vanity talk. I’m’ talking about the pseudo pleasantries sheltered in the constrained words used to and about us.
In our short-attention-span culture where honesty seems an extreme sport and listening is in remission, Quakers owe us affiliated listening. Hearing and understanding us is a central component in the approach to partnership worship. Such attentiveness would forge a coherent sense of empathy and sensitivity. Cooperative listening acts as a check on our “shrill” and ravenous abuse allegations Quakers consider overreactive. Stop treating our entreaties as grist for the pass-it-off mill of indifference. Such an attitude leads to corrosive distrust. A consultative voice, at the very least, would be most appreciated. Respect is the premium Quakers pay for a penetrating curiosity about our felt pain. Non-respectful listening to us is devastating. Worshipful listening is an understated core aspect of Quakerism. Its presence speaks to a ministerial venture in which allied listening demonstrates the rich light of God’s visibility. Also, Quakers must try to override that obligatory “oversensitive” comment.
We are owed revelations of kindness, strength, and unyielding courage to confront the Quakers’ cursory connection with us in the self-deception of their vanity. By this, I mean that because racism foregrounds what Quakers share with the broad pattern of American xenophobia they must deal with their own racial inequalities. I do not expect a racial epiphany that will reveal us as people. Without a doubt, the subject of racism is emotional. Therefore, I expect that Quakers will have the emotional and spiritual strength not to tell me that race is not a part of Quaker consciousness. I will believe that when black mobility has become an Horatio Alger story. It hasn’t. I am caught in the dilemma of trying to be a loving and trusting Quaker in a religious home that seems not to understand my most foundational needs: shelter in a perilous time, comfort from the cyclical cause-and-effect relationship of class and color, and a stable location in the human family.
There is a capricious cruelty to the cost burden of racism’s emotional overcrowding. Its inflicted wounds threaten to psychologically unravel us. Because we (blacks) are uninitiated in the inward discipline of the Seeker congregation we are owed a method of threshing among the worship rudeness’ we encounter. Quakers, with their sense of unadornment and exhibited fitness for plainness, owe us the understanding of functional simplicity. Because materialism is one of the most injurious interests to the character of the black community Quakers owe us some way of qualitatively and functionally dealing with the ornamented furnishings of contemporary America.
Because we have a disproportionate share of the country’s poverty, a vector-borne parasitic disease so widespread in the waste container poor communities, Quakers owe blacks access to elimination of such structural problems and other crucial determinants of unhealthy living. Cockroaches, flies, fleas, substance abuse, violence, and housing-related problems such as lead-based paint poising, and poor sanitation caused by building problems are vectors that typically infect the low-income black community. Quakers owe us their stability, promise, and location—in particular, proximity to breeding sites for survival, safety, and security.
If the Light Within the Quaker heart to be envisaged in such a way that the divine Light will be an actual experience, Quakers must step out of that twilight zone of ill-reason and irrationality when it comes to making their meetings a properly ordered community of diversity. Although Quakerism has no brand equity or down hominess in the black community, Quakers owe us more than an interpretation of the metaphysical character between God and man.
Can Quakers cope with the urgency invested in the question of what they owe blacks? Like a pulp novel, one might begin with an urgency on some dark and dreary place with time scurrying nervously beyond the play-acting of liberal words to the white privilege profit reality of racism. I suspect that there is apprehension in the mind of some Quakers about the dubious benefit of offering widespread access to worship sharing with blacks? After all, isn’t racism the continued bogeyman in the nightmare of American race relationships?
Personally, I live with no illusions that blacks have first cut at racial prejudice in America. Quakers, with their equalitarian leanings, were one of the earliest to offer social testimony relevant to blacks. The Quaker doctrine of equality, which eliminated the sense of superiority or inferiority, meant respect and the absence of behavior based on class, racial or social position. By providing blacks with the empirical theology of the Light of Truth, or the Light Within, Quakers left us poised between two worlds, the spiritual world of Light and the materially intimate world of subhuman treatment. This left blacks with the center of life being Quaker Quietism regulated and ordered by the Light and human reason, while at the mercy of the irrational and mechanistic. We were left in a provisional state, a harmonious state of the metaphysical and not the moral and practical. We sought expression for truth in terms of a unified God, but we did not realize that regeneration was not ours to be had. That we could not be reborn into a higher life.
Quaker worship was persuasive, even plausible, to blacks for whom a godly connect was of primary importance. We looked at Quakerism through the lens of freedom and faith, rather than comprehending the nature of societal limits through the lens of practicality. Comprehending worship involvement was of primary importance. Religion is the contact point between blacks and Quakers—not only worship, but other things, like freedom and, ultimately, the politics of non-violence as an evangelical commitment in the active war against racism.
They owe us the liberal language of God-talk and the sense of taskcraft. In confronting the irrational fact of hatred rooted in the engagement of skin color we need the strong counterweight of the Quaker inward presence of quiet exercise. We do not need to be, as was George Fox, a “public Friend.” Quakers owe us an understanding of Fox’s designation concerning Substance and Shadow, Eternity and Time, and the uplifting power of Fox’s philosophical view.
We are not owed an interesting dramatization of our plight enacted in pageantry scenes of brutality and ending in deafening hosannas. Nor are we owed the genteel personifications of utopian fantasies. No! The rich reality of more than a perfunctory attention to the decorous visions of a truly cooperative society, and the impertinent assaults against the rapier innuendoes saddled upon us is what we are owed. I am irritated by the vagaries of the impiously idealistic Quakers too committed to bourgeoisie conventionalities to honor in common the social gospel of our spiritual ancestors. Our struggles are outfitted with a veritable arsenal of warriors who refused to subordinate their worship to the tyrannies of their time outfit our struggles.
I am sobered with the belief that Quakers are not intoxicated with the behavior of life towards blacks. Just as the existential hero is cured by truth while suffering the ordeal of the uninitiated, I understand the conditional nature of debt burden. What Quakers owe blacks is a new infatuation of ontological awareness. It is a phase, a rush of alertness, a primary drama of revelation. Perhaps revelation is too much, somehow; too biblical; too heroic; familiarly grandiose, and therefore disfiguring.
America, the great Rubicon of opportunity, where Quakers were the worship alchemists whose elixir of survival provided moral and physical salvation for Africans imprisoned with unfamiliarity’s everywhere in evidence: people with pale skin; unconquerable words and language; fierce dilemma of malleable perceptions of anger and joy; complex ideas that mistook and confused; and tricksters whose sleight of hand and deceit revealed the somber fictions of life. If anything, Quakers owe blacks their unique qualities of reflective spirituality. By this I mean the listening and confidentiality one encounters with the contemplative risen soul that is the preserve of Quaker worship.
Quakers owe us the consummated act of Listening. The kind of listening that requires one to measure oneself in relation to blues grooves and the emergent understanding of gospel growls and spiritual grousings as a source of moral equipoise, not to mention a principled sense of worship. This is neither the interview listening that generates data, nor the dumbed-down Gerber food renderings for tête-a-tête documentaries of the unintelligible. It is a kind of interlocutory listening that brings social recognition and human relationships centered on understanding as a helpmate. In the variable and complex parameters of listening, Quakers owe us the kind of listening that can eventuate in fairness of understanding.
Quakers owe blacks their engaged and focused reflection on the demystification of the racial issue—making it an empathetic issue—and connecting it to justice. They owe blacks the equity, liberty, and familiarized connection or sense of affiliation to the action of radicalized justice ministry. Such a broad collaboration of Quakers, taken not out of guilt but an understanding of the issues and the affect of Quaker willingness to relocate their nourishing, can provide a sanctuary for them.
Friends are one of the most visible exponents of idealistic sentiment about equality of human beings. That’s why they owe us a moral understanding of religious interest and the transcendent. They clearly understand the multiple problems that plague us: perpetual poverty of shelter, hunger, joblessness, powerlessness, and living daily with racism. In an unshowy manner, they owe us the arresting stoicism of their meretricious behavior in tawdry situations.
What Quakers owe may seem an odd question. An answer requires some diversionary routes between the embracing by the Society of Friends and the blacks that betook themselves to the bosom of Quakerism. The owing by Quakers is a transformative truth that is economic, not physical: Quakers and blacks share the same degree of unpromising classification. The shifting axis of direction defines the spatial reality that each enjoys. The goal of Quaker spirituality never was to capture the heart of blacks with religious aspirations and the actuality of George Fox and John Woolman. Blacks and Quakers are related to each other not by any fixed coordinates, but by the proximity of our layered contexts of worship connections. Blacks hovered in that space between the indefinite boundaries and dimension of American culture and the geographic fiction of Africa. We are still trying to reconcile and transform ourselves into a national distinctiveness.
Quakers have built a reputation for human brotherhood based on acknowledgment of God’s presence in all people. This wholistic embrace of human spirituality heralded a religion rooted in the freedom of fulfillment by willingly accepting a shared hope for all humankind. Amazingly, despite Quakers’ reputation for challenging the institutional assumptions about race, they too demonstrated the white privilege of racism. Quakers owe blacks the honesty of facing this terrible reality.
They owe blacks the favor of shared friendship, and the avoidance of broken promises. Blacks, having weathered the blatant attacks of economic, educational, and national racism, do not need the off-balance accounting used to deceive believers, and hide the behind-the-scene history of racism. Quaker racism is and has been benign—but racism nonetheless. Clearly, the space between reality and rhetoric is considerable. Quakers are not accustomed to being asked to plead guilty to racism. Some even resent calling any attention to any past history of Quaker racism.
Quakers owe us the honesty of not refurbishing the unremembered racism of Philadelphia Quakers and their well-defined experience of refusal to blacks. Quakers owe blacks the realization that racial change is personal, not political: one changes one’s location, not one’s society. Nonetheless, in such a case, the internal boundaries and external coordinates hold special meaning. This is because the conscious boundaries, the old division, separating the uneasy artificiality of one’s sense of place being rooted in the curiosity and narrowness of people like themselves is extant. People still live in the enclosed locality of community and familial boundaries that make them xenophobic.
Quakers may not have slandered, persecuted, or denounced blacks, but there was a coziness with racism that was certainly within the pivotal degrees of cooperation with the status quo. Racism is a virus that quietly lurks in the Society of Friends. Excuse me while I pause a moment to cry for those who admit to the guilty pleasure of heedless judgment that racism didn’t exist among Quakers. They are the very ones who owe us methods of dealing with the stupidities, absurdities, and scandalous abuses that allowed them to override their intellectual, moral intuition, and logic.
Only someone carrying the burden of senescence would believe the Society of Friends is free of racism. Perhaps we need a randomized, double-blind clinical trial to test the efficacy of Friends thinking about racism in our worship community. Quakers, who currently see themselves beyond the threat lever of racist, are an immunology naïve population about the existence of weaponized prejudice. Help in finding the points on the compass that direct us to the locus of classification and accessibility beyond the outer periphery, to which we still belong, and to act as an index to the space and place where we may have the opportunity to live beyond the double zone of marginality and cultural borderland, is what we are owed.
Early Christian opponents of slavery who formed the first anti-slavery society in Philadelphia in 1775, were unapologetic evangelists who carried God’s message forbidding the holding of humans as chattel. Quakers owe blacks the Christian responsibility of a public argument both morally and spiritually against the senseless assumption that white privilege is not racist. For well over two hundred fifty years The Religious Society of Friends has borne witness to the supremacy of God’s commands. And the transparency of Friends’ disruptive actions and demands that America reforms its moral conscious, may best be noted in the introduction of respect paid for a penetrating curiosity about the felt pain of blacks.
In 1848 Quakers sheltered fugitive slaves, published an anti-slavery newspaper, and established a Free Labor Store, which refused to sell products made by slaves. They were noted for their benevolent attitude toward blacks. However, though they were not flagrantly oppressive of blacks, they did not welcome blacks as equals. My point is that the intensity of Quaker agitation did not act as a guarantor of human recognition. It is certainly true that Quakerism provided blacks with a model for benevolence, moral commitment, and inspiration. However, race consciousness, always a part of American culture, was certainly embraced by a significant portion of the Quaker community. Quakers wanted to “improve” and “elevate” blacks to the acceptable white level.
I am unsatisfied with such nightmare wisdom as the way to champion a more racial synthesis in the Society of Friends.