‘Vessels’ part of story of being black in the United States

“But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us” (2 Cor 4:7).

The Illinois and Missouri area Justice and Peace Committee of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ sponsored a study day on diversity Sept. 12 to listen and learn about “Race, Space and Identity.”

Participants wanted to understand better the depth and breadth of racial tensions and violence in the metropolitan area and, indeed, across the United States, and also perhaps why this is happening to take positive steps in contributing to easing tensions and, through education, perhaps changing the way people see “black and white.”

One speaker, Dr. Jonathan Smith, led the first discussion during the morning, and Nichele Moore, Esq., program director for the Family Law Office under Catholic Urban Programs, facilitated group discussions later in the day.

Dr. Smith teaches in the African American Studies Program at St. Louis University where his work focuses on the history and ideology of race in American culture.

Going back to St. Paul’s words on “earthen vessels,” Dr. Smith asked participants to think about different types of vessels, including slave ships and how blacks were brought to this country: in the holds of slave ships. They traveled below decks and were certainly considered a “treasure” by those who were bringing them to this country.

“Race is a way to distribute spacial power,” Dr. Smith said. “It lets us know where we can be and where we can’t be.”

Africa is a continent, not a country or a state, and “Africans did not see themselves as one large group,” he said. Africans saw themselves as members of tribes.

Whites know little about what is described as the “Middle Passage,” a stage of the journey between Europe, Africa and the United States when people were brought to this country against their will to be sold.

“Nearly one third of the Africans that came across were 15 and under,” Dr. Smith said.

People, as cargo, were measured by height, so boys became men and girls became women; their childhoods disappeared “in the middle of the Atlantic.”

Whites took up space “above decks,” but some of them were “captured” as well, especially the cabin boys.

If the ship carried a “good cargo, the cabin boy becomes expendable,” Dr. Smith said.

If the cargo, the people Space figures into a narrative about runaways when that person moves from one “space” to another, as in crossing a boundary to another state.

“The very quality of life changes” when space becomes a determining factor in describing people.

Through the years segregation was about space, Dr. Smith said. Certain “spaces” were reserved for blacks, i.e. neighborhoods, rail cars, drinking fountains.

Rereading information about Michael Brown, who was killed in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 9, 2014 in view of “space” he occupied changes perspective. “We heard how tall he was and how much he weighed,” Dr. Smith said. “These are all spacial details.”

Although confrontations with police capture headlines, “education, health care and housing affect far more black people on a daily basis than police brutality,” Dr. Smith said.

To make changes, systems must be disrupted, he added. “We have to be much more intentional about disrupting spaces.”

To make changes, everyone needs to be reeducated to see the space they occupy and think about the people who are let in or kept out of those spaces.

No one should believe people —who are treasures — can be bought or sold.