The Rest of the Story: One Confession, Ten People, and Many Questions about Racism and Rural Action

“What’s the deal with that colored fella out in the parking lot?”

An older patron asked me this question when he came into the library to return his DVDs. It was so unexpected and inappropriate that I stood dumbfounded for a few seconds before responding with a mix of confusion and irritation:

“Pardon me?”

“I said, What’s the deal with that colored fella out there?”

I knew what “colored fella” he was talking about since we only have a handful of regular patrons who are people of color. This gentleman was the only adult black patron that used the library on a regular basis.

A bit flustered and frustrated, I told the inquiring patron that the young black man was “one of our regular patrons.” I didn’t think he was entitled to any more information. He seemed satisfied and went on to pick out a couple new DVDs.

That patron isn’t a bad man. He is kind to the staff. He’s a widower who always follows any reference to his late wife with “God rest her soul.” He supports and celebrates his son who is a cross-dressing, transgender comedian. People are complex and prejudice can be subtle.

The truth is that we do have problems with some younger adults who hang out on our property to make illegal sales and do drugs. They leave needles on the ground where children play. And they happen to be white. But our dear patron either didn’t know about them or didn’t find them a real danger. He was only concerned about the one black dude sitting in his car to smoke before coming inside for technology tutoring.

I encounter very little overt racism where I live. In fact, while most of us don’t use “woke” terminology, most folks around here consider it a non-issue. After all, the Underground Railroad ran right through many houses in our county. We supported a United States free of slavery during the Civil War. We are friendly, grounded Midwestern farm folks who believe “all men are created equal” and no one should face discrimination based on the color of their skin rather than on the content of their character. We are good here.

That’s part of the story. A good part. But what about the rest of the story?

We still have to face…

  • that part of us that locks the doors when driving in downtown Columbus
  • that part of us that shouts “shut up and dribble” when a black Cavs player shares his opinion on a social issue
  • that part of us that rolls our eyes when a black politician points to racism as the cause of a social ill because they must just be “emotional” or “race-baiting”
  • that part of us that feels the need to point out the race of a lover when a homegrown white wife leaves her family and “runs off with a black man”
  • that part of us that makes jokes about discovering some black or minority heritage so we can get a scholarship or a better job
  • that part of us that can’t distinguish between protesters and rioters and carries on about those “thugs” in the cities
  • that part of us that hears grieving citizens crying “black lives matter” and feels the need to shout back “all lives matter”

At this point some people shut down. “You’re saying that we need to walk around flagellating ourselves for being white and policing everyone’s language for PC infractions! You’re saying we can never disagree with an African-American’s opinion unless we are evil racists!” Not true at all. I do know people who assert those things but I’m not one of them.

I’m willing to provide a personal example to illustrate what I’m talking about. When I was in college, I was dating a girl who was a student at the same college. After a few weeks of dating, I began to notice someone flirting with my girlfriend! Being an insecure late teen, I began to eye this guy with disdain and feared for the security of my new romance. The thing is, there was something more intense about this competitive force inside me. You see, this flirting guy was African-American. I’m embarrassed and ashamed to say that when I saw him moving in on “my girl,” I found myself calling him the N-word in my mind. I fantasized about using words or fists to protect what was mine and remind him of his place.

I’m a laid-back, friendly guy with a Quaker heritage who gets along with most folks. My parents never once used that slur. Martin Luther King was my hero and I was enamored and inspired by the civil rights movement. Where was this coming from???

It came from inherited, internalized stereotypes and an unspoken, unconscious belief in white supremacy. You see, we have to watch those sneaky colored fellas who seduce (or rape) white women and come in to steal our possessions and our jobs.

Of course, I would never say those things and I wasn’t like the “redneck racists” I knew. But I had to face the fact that I was haunted by the societal “sins of the fathers” that were passed down to me without my consent. I have done a lot of work to name these trans-generational sins at work within me and around me and learn a new way that reflects the beloved community or reign of God for which God longs and toward which God draws us.

Here’s the thing…

I live in a largely white small town in a rural region. I’m working on my broken thinking but I wrestle with what to do to help change our broken systems. I see the protests and people I know marching in those protests but it feels like such a distant reality from where I live and work. We have few very people of color. I’m not aware of a local KKK chapter. And I hear most folks being disgusted by these recent acts of police violence.

It feels like all the action is happening in the cities. It feels like a problem “out there” and “over there.” And yet in my ministry to rural people and communities I continually push back against the assumption that cities are the sites of both our big problems and big solutions. So, I’ve been asking questions like:

What does this movement look like in a rural context?

What is my role in this moment?

What do racial injustice and police violence look like in small towns?

What do racial healing and liberation look like in rural regions?

How can rural congregations become agents of transformation and reconciliation during this time?

What resources do we need? What do we need to learn?

Let’s be honest, a lot of people believe that rural folks are a big part of the problem. They are the ones waving the confederate flag and preparing for a race war. They are the ones blaming immigrants and minorities for their problems. They are the ones voting “against their interests” and supporting morally bankrupt leaders out of racial resentment.

Sadly, there is some truth in this narrative. It is part of the story. A bad part. But what about the rest of the story?

I want to make three points that are easily missed when it comes to discussions about race and rural.

First, black people are rural people too. Isn’t this obvious? Not really. In our popular imagination we tend to think of black folks as city folks and rural folks as white people. One reason for this is the “Great Migration” between 1915 and 1970 when a large percentage of African-Americans moved North and into cities. Since then there has been a “New Great Migration” that has led many black folks back to the South (both urban and rural).

It’s important to avoid the pitfall of thinking that African-Americans (as a whole) are “them” (out there, in the city) and we need to learn how to relate to those outsiders. They are “us.” “We” need to discern how to live rightly together and repair our common home.

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Display that Ashlyn and I created at our library to encourage education and conversation in our community

Second, there are conversations and confrontations taking place that you probably don’t know about. Communication in small towns is often informal and conversational. Don’t underestimate the conversations taking place on small town front porches or in the local barber shop and public library. While I’ve heard shallow and harmful things said in these “third spaces,” I’ve also heard things that surprised me, inspired me, and even moved me to tears (and action). Public acts of solidarity and symbolic demonstrations are important but don’t dismiss the informal interactions, private dialogues, and lover’s quarrels that will never make the papers.

An interesting aside to this point: there has been a rising and surprising movement of small towns and rural regions stepping up and speaking out for racial and restorative justice. News outlets ranging from Buzzfeed to the Washington Post are taking note. They are talking about candlelight vigils in Norwood, Colorado and protests outside the Wind River Reservation in the middle of Wyoming and a march in Alliance, Ohio. Anne Helen Petersen wrote:

These protests cut across demographics and geographic spaces. They’re happening in places with little in the way of a protest tradition, in places with majority white population and majority black, and at an unprecedented scale. People who’ve watched and participated in the Black Lives Matter movement since 2015 say that this time feels different. And the prevalence of these small protests is one of many reasons why.

Third, there’s a great cloud of witnesses. We do have to discern our particular role in this moment but we don’t have to reinvent the wheel of justice. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea how many remarkable organizers, activists, healers, and prophets have been working in rural America for so long. And many of them are black and brown folks.

I want to share with you 10 people you should know about. There are lots of great lists out there for folks who want to learn more about racism and justice. These, however, speak specifically to the dynamics of race and rural. Five are black and five are white because I think it’s important to have models of both black empowerment and white ally-ship.

Leah Penniman started her own farm to end racism in the food system
Leah Penniman on Soul Fire Farm
  1. Leah Penniman--started Soul Fire Farm in New York where she helps folks, especially Black and Latinx folks, learn about gardening, sustainability, restorative justice, and cultural roots. She said: “And so, when I say that farming while black is an act of defiance against white supremacy, it’s really reclaiming our right to belong to the land in the face of all of these attempts to drive us off the land.”
  2. Ralph Paige–organized black and rural farmers into cooperatives and developed legal assistance funds and credit unions to enable self-sufficiency and land ownership. In 1992 he organized a protest in which a caravan of farmers descended upon Washington; he carried a live pig with him for effect.
  3. Fannie Lou Hammer— tireless, spirited civil rights activist who organized for voting rights, political representation, and economic opportunity, eventually founding Freedom Farm Cooperative and the Pig Bank in Mississippi. She believed in the principle: to free ourselves we must feed ourselves.
  4. Myles Horton-– educator and organizer who founded the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, where Horton used social gospel teachings and Danish folk school methods to empower mountain people and activists to work for change. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis all trained at the Highlander Folk School.
  5. Clarence Jordan–farmer, Greek scholar, and founder of the Koinonia Farm in Georgia, an inter-ethnic community where people learned agriculture, spiritual growth, and reconciliation. Jordan envisioned the farm as a “demonstration plot for the kingdom of God.”
  6. George McLean–journalist, entrepreneur, and community developer who oversaw the “Tupela Miracle” in which a rural county in Mississippi was transformed from poverty to prosperity and blacks and whites worked together to integrate the schools peacefully.
  7. John Perkins–preacher, activist, and creator of the Christian Community Development philosophy of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. Though his ministry originally focused on cities, he later drew from his rural childhood and reached out to rural white communities he previously despised.
  8. Thomas Merton–monk, scholar, and author who lived inside a monastery in rural Kentucky but had an impact on the world that is still reverberating. Merton can model what it looks like when we are physically apart from work happening in the cities but can remain spiritually engaged as allies and contemplative critics (without becoming what he calls a “guilty bystander”).
  9. Wendell Berry–farmer, poet, and social critic who returned to his native Kentucky to root himself in a place and heal the land with good work, community, and regenerative farming practices. In The Hidden Wound, Berry uncovers the wounds of racial injury perpetuated by his southern tobacco-farming family and the damage our broken worldview continues to have on our country (to whites and Native people as well as black folks).
  10. bell hooks– educator, scholar, and activist who exposed the intersection of racism and sexism and created the bell hooks Institute in Berea, Kentucky to continue her work of confronting exploitative systems and building beloved community. In her book Belonging: A Culture of Place she writes about her experience growing up in Appalachia where she experienced belonging and a sense of place; she also included a candid conversation with Wendell Berry about racism.
Thomas Merton's Contemplative Politics | Front Porch Republic
Wendell Berry and Thomas Merton with poet Denise Levertov in the Kentucky hills

Notice the diverse roles and spaces these folks inhabited: educators, activists, entrepreneurs, farmers, authors, monks, community organizers. They give me hope that the work of racial liberation and reconciliation is taking place in rural settings as well. We are not too far from the action, outside the kingdom, or without guiding lights. But we have to remember the rest of the story and find our part for the telling (and living) of a new story.

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