(African) American Exceptionalism: The Case for Black Supremacy

Readings for 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2 KINGS 4: 8-11, 14-16A; PSALM 89: 2-3, 16-19; ROMANS 6: 3-4, 8-11; MATTHEW 10: 37-42

Today’s first reading from the Jewish Testament’s Second Book of Kings sets the tone for this Sunday’s reflection. It is about a privileged woman (from biblical Shunem) who is given a new lease on life by creating a room “upstairs” for a prophetic presence and voice. Doing so brings her new life beyond anything she had dared hope for.

Her situation taken in conjunction with our day’s other readings can be understood as calling us all to clear space in our minds for recognizing our own inner prophets. Currently, that means attuning our consciousness to the oracular nature of the shouts and denunciations raised in our streets. The black voices resonating there are far more perceptive and informed – more prophetic – than anything we hear from white politicians and talking heads on TV. In effect, the tumult in the streets calls us to recognize the truth of black supremacy.

To see what I mean, let’s think about prophecy as referenced in today’s liturgy of the word. Then consider the analytical advantage native to the truly exceptional among us (our African American sisters and brothers). Finally, let’s entertain suggestions for creating suitable space in the upper reaches of our minds for black prophets who possess the power to change our nation’s collective life.

Prophetism  

The reading about the Shunamite woman comes from the part of 2nd Kings that details the words and deeds of the great prophet Elijah and his successor Elisha. For our purposes today, those details are not important.

What is important is to rethink the category of prophet. Most lump the term together with something like fortune teller. They think prophets are primarily concerned with the future.

But that’s where they’re wrong. Biblical prophets were not principally concerned with the future. They were not fortune tellers. Instead, they were understood as spokespersons for God. Though some functioned as court advisors, most were primarily defenders of the poor and oppressed – the real “chosen people” of Israel’s God throughout the Jewish Testament.

As such, prophets had their eyes firmly fixed on the present. Their task was twofold. It was first of all to denounce and secondly to announce. Prophetic denunciation targeted kings, rich landowners, bankers, the royal classes in general, and temple officials. The habitual crime of the well-off was their systemic exploitation of poor peasants and laborers, and those forced into debt peonage. In fact, if you examine the parables of Jesus, you’ll find most of them addressing the situations of such people. Yes, Jesus appeared in the prophetic tradition.

The second prophetic task was to announce a new future for the oppressed. For the prophets, another world was possible. Another God was possible. Jesus called that other world “the kingdom of God.” The phrase and its parabolic descriptions in stories like the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan captured what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar.

That God was “Father” to the poor, their “Good Shepherd,” the Great Liberator of people like those Jesus himself befriended – prostitutes, beggars, insurgents, lepers, foreigners, drunkards, the hungry and thirsty, social outcasts, children, and repentant tax collectors.

Besides being a prophet, Jesus himself was a poor man – a day laborer (not a priest or rabbi) who had been an immigrant in Egypt as a child. From the beginning of his public life, he was under surveillance and investigation by the authorities. They identified him as a terrorist and subversive. He finished as a victim of state torture and capital punishment.

All of that means that (according to Christian faith) God chose the socially marginalized and rejected as the vehicle for revealing the true meaning and purpose of human life. It’s as if (according to divine epistemology) the poor are somehow more connected with Life itself.      

African American Exceptionalism

What could that mean for our actual world that’s now on fire with insurrection?  And here, let me emphasize that I’m not just referring to Minneapolis, but to the rebellions that Twin City has evoked across the country and across the planet. Does it all suggest that African Americans know more than the rest of us? Does it suggest that as a people, they’re more perceptive – more prophetic – than the rest of us?

Cuba’s great poet and historian Roberto Fernandez Retamar thought so.

I remember 20 years ago when he addressed my class (about half of them African American) when we were in Havana for a month studying “The African Diaspora in Cuba.”

In his riveting presentation, he described the descendants of African slaves as the world’s most exceptional people. They are, he said, the strongest, most beautiful and most intelligent humans on earth.

Professor Retamar reasoned as follows:

  • Slave traders in Africa began by selecting the sturdiest, best looking and smartest specimens to sell to their slaver counterparts in the New World. (It’s the way the market works.)
  • On the Middle Passage to distribution points like Cuba, up to half of those so carefully selected perished; only the strongest survived.
  • Then on auction blocks in places like Charleston and New Orleans, none but those with the best characteristics and strongest bodies were again selected by discerning slave buyers. (They examined teeth, hair and limbs as if the slave wares were horses.)
  • Only the best and brightest of those so purchased survived the harsh conditions of slavery to reproduce and have their offspring once again culled and selected.
  • The repetition of such processes for 300 years produced the super-race of people that continues to exhibit admirably courageous survival characteristics to this very day. Despite all the obstacles, they’re the authors of the unparalleled moral achievements embodied in slave rebellions, the abolitionist movement, and in civil rights struggles – the most spiritually-grounded, inspiring and influential causes in the history of the world.
  • Moreover, African American achievements in the arts, especially in music including spirituals, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and hip-hop rank with the highest contributions that westerners have made to world culture. The black community’s tremendous athletic achievements are second to none.

Yes, Dr. Retamar concluded, the African diaspora represents the best and brightest of the human race. They are the most beautiful, strongest and smartest of humans. Their wise and perceptive prophetic presence is based on an American experience that is truly exceptional. It has much to teach us about what blacks are especially privy to – about the nature of Life Itself and the unending struggle for justice.

Today’s Readings

With all of that in mind, please reread today’s liturgical selections. As I said, they’re about making room for prophets (like Elisha and the ones in our streets) in the upper reaches of our minds. What follows are my “translations” of the readings. You can read the originals here to see if I got them right.

2 KINGS 4: 8-11, 14-16A: Despite obstacles of wealth and power, even the privileged can make room for prophets who speak for the poor. But to do so, the rich must carefully create space in the upper reaches of their clouded minds. “Up on the Roof,” they should cultivate quiet, rest, and space for reading and enlightenment. Such provision will free their inner prophet and yield new and unexpectedly welcome life.

PSALM 89: 2-3, 16-19: So, repair to your own “upper room” every day and there discover transcendent security, strength, joy, fidelity, and commitment to God’s justice. Doing so will even confer ability to discern political leaders who exhibit such qualities.

ROMANS 6: 3-4, 8-11: In fact, the whole point of following Jesus the Christ is to die to the comfortable but misleading wisdom of the world and rise to God’s new life as exemplified in the poor man, Yeshua. That life is lived entirely for justice despite the world’s threats.

MATTHEW 10: 37-42: Notwithstanding such intimidations then, be open to prophetic voices. Depart from familial truisms even as taught by your parents and (ironically) as accepted by successfully indoctrinated children. Such departures represent the only way to find your True Self. But be forewarned: the state will incriminate and crucify you even for giving a cup of cold water to thirsty oppressed people. Do it anyway and learn to live with the resulting fulfillment and happiness.

Conclusion

Today, we are called to imitate the Shunamite woman who welcomed the prophet Elisha.

She prepared space for him, and provided him with a bed, table, chair, and lamp. She welcomed him to her dining room, fed him, and made him feel at home.

Today’s liturgy of the word calls us to do something similar. It suggests that we use this time of COVID-19 respite to make room for our inner prophet who turns out to be black and (because of a unique experience of oppression) is especially insightful and aligned with the divine purposes of the universe.

This is the time to figuratively enter that space in our attic, to turn on its lamp, to meditate and read something like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. While we’re at it, we might watch something like “The Help,” “Malcolm X,” “Amistad,” or “Glory.”

Today’s readings (and our very times) call us to rethink everything, turn it upside down, see it with new eyes, and perhaps recognize the truth of black supremacy.