From Cairo to Christ by Abu Atallah, Free for CAPC Members
Simply put, From Cairo to Christ is an uplifting, illuminating, and convicting read.
Christ’s awful wrong is that he’s dark of hue
The sin for which no blamelessness atones;
But lest the sameness of the cross should tire
They kill him now with famished tongues of fire,
And while he burns, good men, and women, too,
Shout, battling for his black and brittle bones.
— “Christ Recrucified”, Countee Cullen 1922
My husband and I recently went to the coast to celebrate our wedding anniversary of eight years. We, along with our baby, made the 2.5 hour drive north from Portland to a low-key little beach town on the Washington peninsula. There was the usual pacific beach stuff–bookstores and terrible espresso, a kite museum and salt water taffy shops. But one of the main attractions was a tourist trap billed as a “free museum.” According to Trip Advisor, it was the #2 Thing To Do in the town. We pulled into the parking lot and stared at the gaudily decorated entrance, crowded with large wooden carvings of bigfoot and old fishermen, various metal contraptions from the 1800s, and neon-colored sweatshirts. We first noticed the several large “Indian Chief” statues and gave each other a look. That’s probably OK, isn’t it? It’s so hard to know these days, there are so many things to make you feel uneasy. But it’s just a wooden man, nose like a bridge, bright painted feather headdress, arms folded at the entrance to the museum. It’s just a caricature, is all, it’s probably OK, but maybe it isn’t. Maybe it is just OK to me.The way we have treated black bodies is so profoundly evil that it replicates itself, over and over again.
We wander around the museum. The center aisles are stuffed with typical tourist junk: coffee cups with a picture of a dolphin, ceramic crabs, personalized shot glasses. The periphery of the store is covered in old-timey machines and oddities, the walls full of pictures and badly-taxidermied animals. There is a two-headed calf on display, I am sure it is a fake, but I hold my baby up to it and snap a picture anyways. There are ancient scales you can step on and for a penny find your your weight. There are mechanical music boxes from brothels in Wisconsin, peep shows where you pay a nickel and see a cartoon woman possibly lose her shirt, a creepy alligator man named “Jake” wearing a Santa hat. Then, in the corner, we saw it. Similar to an old fortune-telling machine, there was a box with the head and torso of a boy in it. Pay ten cents, the box said, and the boy will play you a song.
The boy in the box was black. Black like the caricatures you have seen out of the corner of your eye, black like the glimpses of a history not very well known to some. Knobby hair, wide nose, ebony skin, large, red lips. Pay a dime, and the metal boy shudders and raises a harmonica to his lips. A horrible, jangly tune will be produced. I know this, because I did it. I paid five cents, and watched the boy perform for me.
My husband and I looked around, embarrassed by what we had done, by the awful noise emitting from this machine, wondering if anyone else found this machine disturbing. The picture underneath the boy, the decoration on the box, was a peaceful scene of black men and women working green and gold fields underneath a cool blue sky. I had to look closer to be sure. It was a picture of a plantation, and of slaves, and up above in the box there was a boy performing music to the ones who demanded it of him. A torso, a head, his hands, his lips. A little boy, disembodied, there only to do our bidding. I felt cool disbelief, then hot shame, and finally a warm helplessness. Should I say something? To whom? Would it make any difference in the long run?
But what I was really asking was this: how do we ever change the very worst parts of ourselves?
That same day at the beach, I heard that the officer who shot and killed Tamir Rice was not going to be indicted. He would not be charged. There would be no investigation. He was an officer with a history of instability, and Tamir was a little black boy growing up in the box of Cleveland. His body was taken in seconds, he was shot for no crime and now will receive no justice on this earth. Even as I type those words my guts feel sick. I have a minor case of what Reinhold Niebuhr calls “a sublime madness of the soul.” When Niebuhr was younger he decried detached, rational liberalism, saying it “lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks. It is too intellectual and too little emotional to be an efficient force in history.” But when he was older, he did not say much when confronted with the legacy of racism in America, of the 5,000 lynchings that had occurred, the struggle for equality and rights, the need for Christians to be at the forefront of the movement. When he was older, he lost his madness. When he was older, his silence grew louder, his thoughts ever more rational.
James H. Cone writes movingly about the similarities of a Christ who was crucified and the black bodies who were lynched in America. But at the time of these atrocities, Christians said little. It was the black poets, many of them non-religious, who saw the striking similarities. Christ identifying with the oppressed communities was one element of their work–but so too was pointing out that the vast majority of those directly responsible for the lynchings were self-identifying Christians themselves. People used to go to lynchings, they would dress up, pose for pictures, send postcards of the bodies swaying from the trees to friends and family far away. They went to church, they prayed to God, they looked straight into the camera. They had logical and rational arguments for every single abuse they perpetrated on black bodies, and this is what scares me most of all.
At the beach town, a deep unease settled upon my husband and I. We grabbed our baby and left the free museum, but we could not forget that little boy in that music box. We walked on the sand next to ocean until my husband, ever affable and prone to peacemaking, told me he needed to go back to the store. I felt nervous. We went back and he asked to speak to the manager. About what? One of the music machines, he said, the one in the corner. Oh, well, it’s not for sale. I don’t want to buy it, he said. I found it greatly disturbing, and I would like to talk to the manager about it. I guess it’s not very “politically correct,” huh? The woman said, mostly to herself. She went and talked to the manager, sitting in an office enclosed with glass in the back corner of the store. She came back and told my husband the manager was too busy to talk right now. That’s ok, he said, smiling. I can wait.
He waited in front of the glass, smiling pleasantly. The manager eventually came out, none-too-pleased. My husband explained how that music machine made him feel. I think you should either take it down or put up a sign, he suggested. A sign detailing our nation’s tragic racial history. Without a sign or context, he said, it is just too disturbing, it’s a black boy playing slave music for white people who have a spark of fondness in their eyes. Well, the manager said, the machine is from the 1920s. It was a different world back then. Besides, I don’t have the power to take the machines down. There is a time for madness, when the situation demands it. My husband politely asked who he could talk to about it, and the manager gave him a business card. Later, we noticed she was listed as the president of the museum. There was no one higher up than her. We left the museum wondering what was worse: perhaps many people like my husband had complained about the music machine to deaf ears and blind eyes; or perhaps nobody, in all the years of tourists excitedly perusing the curiosities of one of the most well-known stops along pacific northwest coast, ever once thought there was a thing wrong with that boy in the box.
Of course there is a time to talk about the limits of the law, the need for vast reform, the layers of deeply entrenched racist policies and beliefs undergirding all that we hold dear. But there is also a time for madness, when the situation demands it. The connection is clear to me, now. The way we have treated black bodies is so profoundly evil that it replicates itself, over and over again. Slavery, lynchings, police shootings. All legal ways to kill, to de-humanize, to crucify, all alike in their grim means and ends. I am just now realizing this, which is in itself a great sorrow. But underneath the horror, underneath the despair and helplessness, there is another thought: the Christ that identifies with the broken-bodied, feels so very far away from me. He is up on the tree, himself, he is bleeding out on the playground while the officers look on, he is suffering while I quietly tell myself it is probably OK, isn’t it?
For more on the tragic history of lynchings in our country, go to Without Sanctuary, or read James H. Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
Image Credit: D. L. Mayfield
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