by Susan K. Williams Smith
The late Congressman John Lewis said “our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime.” This lifelong journey wore on people, he knew; it was like water wearing down a rock, causing it to crack and break, but he said, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic.”
The tendency toward despair is real. Struggling for racial justice in this country is socio-spiritual isometrics; the wall against which we must push has been thickened over time by the steady addition and thus accumulation of racial hatred characterized by the smugness produced by white privilege. The entire world has been taught how to think of African Americans; even those whose family has been in this country for just a generation feel entitled to use racist language in talking to us who have been here for generations, and tell us to “go back” when in fact, it is they who might really be directed to do the same. We have been here. This country is our country. We were brought here to build it and we did. And still, we have to fight for basic human and civil rights.
It is wearying.
In 1899, the two-year-old son of W.E.B. DuBois died of diphtheria. DuBois was crestfallen, his pain made all the worse by the belief of both him and his wife that the child might have lived had he been able to receive medical care that was not available to Black Americans. He wrote, “In the poise of his little curl-crowned head did there not sit all that wild pride of being which his father had hardly crushed in his own heart? For what …shall a Negro want with pride amid the studied humiliations of fifty-million fellows? Well-sped, my boy, before the world had dubbed your ambitions insolence, had held your ideals unattainable and taught you to cringe and bow.” (William A. Jones, Jr., God in the Ghetto, p. 24)
Here it is 2022 and we as African Americans are still expected to “cringe and bow.” The phrase “law and order” is a euphemism for keeping Black anger, frustration, and despair under control; it is another way of saying “Shut up and dribble.” Those who are wealthy and primarily white worry little about “the law” unless they do something to offend another powerful, wealthy person who then has the money to attack and destroy them. They are able to purchase freedom from accountability while they throw their weight around to remind everyone who is in control and make sure certain people are very often put away for having committed minor offenses.
We watch and we cringe. We watch and we cry and get angry. We watch and try to deal with our spiritual and emotional fatigue, and we can feel despair creeping in. It is like a parasite that makes its way into our spirits, causing pain and fatigue, and malaise. We want to give up not because the cause is not good and right, but because we are tired of having to fight the same battles over and over again.
But the Negro spiritual says, “walk together children. Don’t you get weary!” The lyrics tell us not only to walk together, but to talk together, sing together, and shout together – which means it’s saying we are to work together. The spiritual tells us to do that because “there’s a great camp meeting in the Promised Land.” What we are looking for, though, is not an eschatological victory “in heaven,” but some real, lasting victories on the campground called “here and now.”
The weariness will remain with us because we are fighting for equality – which many of our white brothers and sisters do not believe we are entitled to have. Some really believe that the social structure that makes some people “more than” and “more deserving than” others is the will and the work of God. And so, the fight is a spiritual one, God having been plopped right in the center of the ring, giving us water and wiping our sweaty and bloodied brows.
But even as God is used to justify the oppression of others, God is also the reason our weariness has not overcome us. God in the middle of the ring gives us the hope and the strength we need to get up every time we are knocked down. On the one hand, God’s silence is disappointing, but on the other hand, God’s presence keeps us going.
So, we continue to engage in what Lewis called “the struggle of a lifetime.” We push against the immovable and trust the strength God gives us in spite of the efforts to make us turn away…and dribble. God is, in the end, our very present help. God gives us hope and strength “at break of day.”
Amen and amen.