Opinion: Answer, if you hear the words under the words


Published: 09-17-2023 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com

“I’m sure you would be welcomed if you returned to one of the Muslim hell hole countries. There is no white privilege and in fact it is whites who are under attack. Obama started all of this racial hatred and it is people like you who throw fuel on the fire. The Democrat Party is the party of racism, Jim Crow, slavery, the KKK and the party which has exterminated 23 million black children at their abortion clinics. Trump did more for all races in this country than any Democrat ever has. You have the mind of an Islamic terrorist.”

The above quotation is the unexpurgated text of an email I received in response to a recent column. Written by someone whom I believe to be a New Hampshire resident, I am thankful they wrote it, thus further confirming to me not only how deeply embedded resentments and racism are in America but affirming that no part of America, no neighborhood from sea to shining sea, is free of the ignorance and bigotry that has been woven into this nation’s narrative for over 400 years.

“I’m sorry,” another New Hampshire resident wrote to me, “but our people are the least racist people on earth perhaps the least racist society to ever exist. We accept everyone no matter their race religion that’s a fact this attack on our society is wrong. Our nation evolved we got rid of slavery in less then 100 years of existence we fought over it in a bloody war. We stopped the racial divides in the south by ensuring civil rights for all of us ...”

Such tribal ignorance is commonplace and hateful emails are not unusual: sadly, it is common, during these dark uncommon days, to encounter people who are not embarrassed to flaunt their ignorance in public or share prejudices with strangers.

Such malign delusions persist at our institutional and residential doorsteps, persist to this very moment and they are sadly embraced and nurtured in many communities, threatening not only our democracy, rights, and freedoms but the personal safety of many Americans.

Sixty years ago this weekend, on Sunday, September 15, 1963, a bomb placed under the steps of Birmingham Alabama’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church — the largest Black church in the city and a recognized gathering place for civil rights activities — exploded and devastated the building, killing four young girls: Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.

Say their names.

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Nearly two years later, on August 20, 1965, a New Hampshire resident, Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian and civil rights activist from Keene, was martyred in Alabama while performing an act of resistance; killed while shielding a young Black civil rights activist, Ruby Sales, while they were working to register Black voters after passage of the historic Voting Rights Act.

Working in 1965; working at the moment when America, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, tried to extend the enfranchise to all its citizens.

Daniels was murdered.

Ruby Sales, who founded the Spirit House Project, dedicated to continuing the work of Jonathan Daniels, became a social justice activist and academic.

Say their names.

Alabama, perversely, remains a redoubt of unreconstructed racists and white Christian nationalists and to this very moment attempts still to deny equal civil and voting rights for African Americans and other minorities by insisting, illegally, upon race-based redistricting maps that favor white interests.

Today, I believe, America stands in tension between Jonathan Daniels and Ruby Sales on the side of justice and those who, denying justice and sacrifice, reject our constitution and embrace authoritarianism in service of perverse interpretations of Christian scripture.

In tension between those who fully embrace this nation and its aspirations and those who deny that all people are created equal.

I remember that during the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, many African Americans used the phrase “stay woke” to heighten citizen awareness of injustices being inflicted upon Black people in America, an awareness dating back to Black protest songs from the early 20th century and today meaning being politically conscious and aware, like “stay woke.”

Stay woke, they are telling us still, stay conscious of the indignities being inflicted upon others, remain conscious of race, caste, gender, and institutional racism — stay conscious even to the ways so-called white moderates try to negotiate their lives between activism and institutionalism, between their privilege and comforts.

Huddie Ledbetter, one of America’s greatest folk singers and composers popularly known as “Lead Belly,” wrote ”Scottsboro Boys” in 1938: “Go to Alabama and you better watch out,” he sang. “The landlord’ll get you, going to jump and shout. Scottsboro, Scottsboro boys, tell you what it’s all about. I’m going to tell all you colored people...”

And, in what may be the first recording of the word ‘woke’ as a call to protest, Ledbetter sings, “in Alabama, be careful and stay woke.”

... in Alabama, be careful and stay woke...

In “The Words Under the Words,” a celebrated poem about her grandmother, poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes “Answer, if you hear the words under the words — otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges, difficult to get through, and our pockets full of stones.”

Answer me, then, if you hear the words under the words.

Answer me: Say their names.