Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture
In the summer of 2016, the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture committed to a series of platform meetings addressing racism from a variety of perspectives. Each included small group discussion to share reactions from the very different experiences of those participating.
We began with a July 3rd program that included an excerpted reading from Frederick Douglass’ 19th century speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” A narration filled in some of the history behind the speech and summarized the parts that were not read. The Fourth of July, still a holiday of celebrating freedom, did not originally bring freedom for those who were enslaved or those who were original inhabitants of the continent. Discussions brought out many parallels to today.
On July 10th participants shared their own stories about what they learned from their families about race, gender, and sexuality; what views they’d changed; and what motivated them to change. On July 17th, we saw a film about reforestation in Haiti, followed by lively discussion.
On July 24th, Clergy Leader Jone Johnson Lewis talked about an interesting personage with some connections to Ethical Culture: Moncure Conway. The talk was in response to earlier questions in our discussions around the history of racism, pondering what was going on in the minds of those who enslaved people of color. Conway’s story offers some insights because he was raised in a family that enslaved people, and then he became an ardent abolitionist, even freeing dozens of those his father “owned.” His story is different in many ways from the stories told in conventional history books about abolition, enslavement, and the Civil War.
On July 31st, we were delighted to have a concert of songs of resistance and protest, led by the Society’s artist-in-residence, DuPree. She explained the history of the songs and her passion for how songs have and can still motivate social change. One outcome is that she will be teaching songs to the Ethics for Children participants in the coming year.
Jone led the August 7th platform, “Color Blind Spots,” on how it doesn’t require one to be an active bigot or even a bad person to be a participant and reinforcer of today’s system of racism, the disadvantaging of some over others simply on the basis of identified race. Jameson Bennett, co-founder of New York-based Fintech Start-up CEWEBITY.com and SiriusXM radio producer, led the August 14th platform, talking about new ways of combating racism by embracing the digital revolution to create radical civic engagement at state and local level.
August 21st saw guest Jé Hooper, his partner Michele Stanback and some friends in a creative performance piece, “Black Sacred Communion: Phenomenology of the Black Body in Ritual Performance.” The focus was on the reality of sacrifice of black bodies and blood. The morning included the reading of names of all the African Americans killed by police in just one year, 2015. It was a powerful experience as we took time to recognize each as a person of worth.
On August 28th we were honored to have as a guest the author Jacquelyn Woodson, talking about her work including her new adult book, “Another Brooklyn,” and her award-winning “Brown Girl Dreaming.” And we wrapped up the summer on Labor Day weekend, September 4th, with a discussion of what people learned from the summer’s focus, and what they’d like to see in the future.
Also meeting at Brooklyn Ethical many weeks since this spring has been a new group, Lucy’s Children, which is working to educate us about race and racism, and eventually take other actions, including possibly offer a curriculum on race to others as well. The name is to signify that we are all one human family, symbolized by Lucy, from an early human ancestor in Africa. We’ve learned how “race” is a social construction, not a biological fact (there is no gene for race). We’ve also learned some of the ways power and economics led to the paradox of a nation calling its people free even as those declaring such freedom held people of African descent as slaves, and participated in genocide and violent displacement of those who were indigenous to this land. This paradox ensured that even after the ending of slavery, the myths of race were powerful enough to continue the fact of racism in new forms. Lucy’s Children is meeting three Friday afternoons a month this fall, continuing its work.
Race and racism are important topics in the world today, with powerful impact on each of us, and all of us in some way tied into the system of racism. Brooklyn Ethical is proud to do its part to break through some of the ignorance and naïveté that keep the system of racism functioning.