A Track to the Water’s Edge
by John H Bracey
The following is Dr. Bracey’s Francis Day Keynote
A lot that has happened since I agreed to speak three months ago. The topic I gave Agape was an “umbrella” topic…I could make it big or small. It was called “Working for the Beloved Community In Perilous Times.”
I learned growing up in the Congregational Church that you begin with a bible quote; there is one for every occasion. So I dug around and what I found was Second Corinthians: 4, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed. We are perplexed but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.”
I want to talk about race and broader kinds of inequalities, how we got there, and look at some people that can guide us through and see if we can come out the other side. I’m not going to give an academic speech, but I have to start with history. Human beings have always grouped themselves, but sometimes it’s harmless. “My people live on this side of the river. Yours’ live over there. Doesn’t mean a thing, just means you live over there, and they live over here. It’s not a fight; it’s a description. Every people, think their people are the people.
Starting about five hundred years ago, people have taken those groups and attached a meaning to them in such a way as to justify exploitation, slavery, expulsion of the Jews, continual oppression of women, stealing people’s land, murder, and genocide. Up to 1492, “Black” didn’t mean a thing. Then people came out of Europe with a new way of looking at people, which took away their dignity. Being Black did not describe them, it negated them. “You are Black, therefore, you are less than me.” You are red; therefore you are less than me.” That’s new to our planet, it hadn’t been here forever. We have genocide because Native Americans weren’t “entitled” to this land. They weren’t doing anything with it, so take it from them.
Four hundred year later, if you live in a world where scarcity is the law, then you have to invent something called Economics to explain to the people on the bottom why the people on the top are supposed to be on the top, and the rest of us on the bottom. Non-Western societies don’t have economics. They have sharing. Community. You don’t need a book about that. But if I own the land and all you can do is work for me, I have to explain that to you. Long complicated theories of buying land and of the marketplace are all designed to convince you that what I stole from you—whether your labor or your land, is justified. I’m smarter than you, God blessed me. “I’m white”.
If your only value is profit, you’ll do anything. You’ll own people. You can’t justify capitalism if you can buy and sell human beings. My ancestors were capital, means of production, not people. There’s no moral basis for that kind of society or for child labor. You cannot claim to be civilized and allow children to go hungry, be hurt, not have a place to sleep, and claim you live in a civilization. But if profit is your only motive, then you put a child in a factory at eight years old.
We had no child labor laws until the 1920s. We have homeless children today in concentration camps out in Texas right now. Call them tents, but they are concentration camps. You can’t claim to be civilized if you do that to other people, brown people, brown children.
The greatest men who produced this country couldn’t figure out how to deal with race and slavery. Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant man, retired from the presidency and was asked what could be done about slavery. “When I think about that” he said, “It’s like a fire burning in the night; I wake up in a sweat. It’s like a terror. You have a wolf by the ears; you can’t hold it, you can’t let it go.” “Can’t hold it, can’t let it go”; that’s the best you can do? That’s not a plan! Jefferson says, “You deal with it, I’m outta here.”
Alexis de Toqueville wrote Democracy in America, and said that America is democratic except for colored people. Native Americans won’t be a problem; don’t worry about them. They’ll be dead. But about Black people: If there ever will be a revolution in this country, it’ll be because of Black people, not because of slavery. You can abolish slavery, but you can’t make Black people white. They came from slaves, so they’ll be mad and they’ll start a revolution in this country.
White people, abolitionists, spoke out against slavery. One named John Brown, had a very simple solution: kill the slave holders. No slave holders, no slavery. Obviously he was crazy, but he tried. Robert E Lee caught him, and John Brown was executed but he admitted with disappointment: “I made a mistake. In my vanity, I thought we could solve this problem with a little blood. We are going to have to purge this land with blood to get the scourge of slavery out of here.” He thought we could do it with a little bit of blood. We couldn’t.
Take the Civil War. What did armies sing when they went into battle? “John’s Brown’s body lies a-moulderin’ in the grave, but his soul goes marching on.” John Brown was right. If you oppress people, and they know they are oppressed, fixing it will cause a lot of bloodshed. Lincoln thought you could go back and forth and figure it out, but Black people said, “No, slavery, you can’t do it that way.”
In Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he said that we might have to destroy the entire South. Every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall have to be paid by one drawn with the sword. Everything built up by the labor of slaves has to be torn down, and the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous.
Grant and Sherman destroyed the South. We are coming for your house, your cows, your fields. If you had said, “Give me a million people to die to free Black people,” people would say, “We are not doing that”. A million casualties. More people died in the Civil War than all of America’s wars put together in order to free Black people and treat them like human beings. That’s the price of inequality. Most of the people who died were white people. Their blood was shed because they wouldn’t deal with race.
Race doesn’t just hurt me, it hurts you too. Even today, you can’t get away with it. You free me peacefully, or you have to free me the hard way. Oppressed people don’t stay oppressed forever; if they can’t live, they will die fighting. White people are scared of people of color. They are not going to admit they are wrong and that they owe Black people. And they pay for that.
Today, white people have lynch mobs because they are afraid of Black men. Black teenagers. White men are afraid their daughters will marry Negroes. That’s the White man’s problem. Racism and patriarchy joined together, not to mention gay people– having sex with no offspring is perverted. Sex is part of productivity. All these things are related: racism, sexism, homophobia. People only have value for what they can produce, and those that are different from us are not human. The only way to get past that is to talk about the Beloved Community.
King saw the Beloved Community in the swath of divinity in every human being. If we are all divine we are all the same. And if we are all the same, then we cannot hurt each other, because to hurt another human being is to hurt ourselves. Every human being, no exceptions. I’m going to love you not because you can give me something, but just because you are a human being. Once you understand this, you will not hurt another person and you will not take what is theirs’. Agape is the highest form of love.
In 1955, at a Unitarian Church, I heard Howard Thurman preach about the inner light, there is a light within you that makes you a human being. God’s divinity is in us all. If the light goes out, then oh, what a darkness. You hold on to that, you never give that up. That’s why we are here. That makes us move.
Have you heard of Olive Schreiner? No? Is it because she is a woman? In 1925, on a retreat, Thurman heard someone read something called “Dreams” written by a white South African woman named Olive Schreiner. He said, “That’s deep; Who is that? A white South African woman? Not a black man? How did she get in my head?” Thurman read her, translated her, and published the first edition of her writings in the US, called, “A Track to the Water’s Edge.”
I will close with that vignette: It is a powerful allegory in Schreiner’s book called “Dreams”. A woman who’s asleep and wakes up trying to go toward freedom. She goes up to the water’s edge but there is no bridge. An old man comes along and she asks: “How do I get across? There is no bridge”. He says: “Take off your clothes. They drag you down”. She takes off her clothes. She has a baby. He says: “Put that baby down, he draws blood from your breast.”
She puts it down. He says, “Go.”
“There’s no bridge” she says. “Be quiet, listen. What do you hear?” She answers: “I hear the sound of thousands and thousands and thousands of footsteps of those who came here before me.” He says, “How does a locust get across the stream? Some come down and jump into the water, and their bodies get washed away. Then some sink and the others pile up on top of them and their bodies build a bridge so the others can cross.” She said, “Who is going across this bridge?” His reply: “All of humanity.” “And what about those who are washed away? What do they get out of it?” she asks. “They beat a track to the water’s edge.”
You’re not going to win today, so don’t worry about Donald Trump. We may not get across in our lifetime or our children’s lifetime, but what we can do as an individual person is beat a path to the water’s edge.
Persecuted but not destroyed, we beat a path to the water’s edge. I get where I am because of where my parents and grandparents went. I keep moving so my children won’t have to walk where I went. With the rest of your life, the time you have left, you can beat a track to the water’s edge. That’s your life. I’m not a religious person. If religion is how I get to heaven, I don’t want to be there. What are you DOING to bring God’s kingdom? God will reward work, not ritual. Don’t talk about it, or pray about it, but do it!
Olive Schreiner lived in 1890, isolated in South Africa, isolated, but she empowered the Civil rights movement of the 20th century. Olive Schreiner, we should know her name. She had a vision that echoes in our lives in the 21st century.
It is not freedom unless everyone is free. Every human being on the planet is you: no exceptions. You are not perfect. Work on that. And if you work on that, you will be in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., Thurman, and you will validate Schreiner’s contribution to this world. That’s what I want you to take away from today. Olive Schreiner, “Dreams”, “Track to the Water’s Edge”.
John Bracey, professor, W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Excerpts from Olive Schreiner poem, “Three Dreams in a Desert” appear in Howard Thurman’s book, “A Track to the Water’s Edge: The Olive Schreiner Reader”.