War Of Shame

Copyright © by SuZi, 3/8/12


  Shameful, bloody, American history is a sweep of hegemony, of group-held prejudices that in old-school definitions would qualify as a form of fascism. Yet, the cultural consensus is one of a polemic, of a welcoming of multi-culturalism—and indeed, syncreticisms abound: just witness the food enfranchisement of edibles that were previously the realm of Italian, Cuban, Mexican folk cuisine that are available at every interstate highway exit; the incorporation of previously separate musical folk genres into corporate entertainment as varied as fashion, home decoration and the music industry itself. Our cultural paeans shout the virtues of democracy—of multi-cultural inclusion—and too often these slogans paradoxically become the justification for colonization, for more tyranny, for more bloodshed.

  Contemplation of ancestral misconduct is an overwhelming prospect, especially in our current culture of narcissism, especially in our current culture of a return to a sort of economic feudal system. Unless our individual commitment is an overt commitment to hypocrisy, to narcissism, then our obligation is to stagger to enlightenment, to true egalitarianism—or, at least, an existential effort to be responsible, mindful.

  Thus, the entrenchment of racism in America, the tacit social assumption of segregation, must no longer remain a de facto transgressive subject  for public meditation. Even as America stumbles into its early decades of the twenty first century common era, racism flourishes in political discourse, albeit in the diaphanous veils of policy debate.

  Policy does not dictate the private—in as much as there are those who slobber at the prospect that it might. Despite public policy insisting that schools and places of work and commerce must be accessible to all folks, no matter their race or physical ability, our private lives are often –too often— bare witness to segregation that is frequently born of race-separation, albeit hidden under the lacey language of different cultural behaviors. Whether Up North, or Down South, sometimes whole areas of public space will be covertly designated as gathering points for one group or another; in places where space is compressed and these groups must picnic side by side, the groups themselves rarely show visual intermixing of races, unless the event is a social offshoot of a work environment. Our third place (not home, not work) racial experiences most often mimic the segregation of our home environment, with  a sort of sad tolerance for those few families  with integrated and-or mixed-race kitchens.

  Capitalizing on the hectic nature of modern economic stressors to provide limited time available for third place involvement, and also capitalizing on the society-wide despair that is now epidemic—without yet fomenting social change—houses of religion purport to aid in the enlightenment of its constituency—congregation—yet too often maintain a policy of hierarchy (obedience) that also includes either obvious segregation, or tokenism of mixed race acceptance among those who park in its pews. One Southern Baptist (if the denomination makes any difference) person said of the segregation visible in various local churches—all of the same denomination—that “they have a different worship style”. When asked to elucidate, given the example of, say, the singing of Amazing Grace, this person said “At a conservative white church, you sit there and listen, or stand as instructed by the leader, and sing or mouth the words. At a black church, people are jumping in the aisles and waving their hands, they make noise during the service and shout out” (Bruns). Smaller congregations may prefer their service given in Spanish of a dialect spoken in the homes of the church members. Another person said the folks attend the church that their family attended in generations previous, and further added, “For black people, it was the only thing they had”, indicating that ownership –or its lack—would necessitate a small, racially unionized community (Coleman). A third person attends a church with a large number of participants related to each other by marriage or ancestry, and is committed to this particular church for that reason: community and family are intertwined.

  Racially, the three testimonials above are from a White Person, a Black (African-American) Person and an Oriental (Pacific Island—if that matters) Person, but it is the intersection of community and family, of community as family, that is the feather of hope that ought to give flight to uplifting American society from its centuries of tactic fascism. Historically, there are blueprints from which to build : one being the recent (2011) record written by Rev. Jerome G LeDoux, SVD, War of the Pews, which is the memoir of a building—St Augustine Church in New Orleans—and of the winds of history that have blown around the church, including those of Hurricane Katrina, since its founding in 1843 by free people of color on the property of an independent French (White) person, through the bumbling restoration efforts in the storm’s aftermath.

  Rev. LeDoux’s record goes to great pains to be both readable and historically accurate, without ever loosing sight of his oft repeated thesis: That St Augustine Church is the oldest integrated consecrated church in the United States. Carefully detailing the social climate of the church’s

  “168 years of service”(foreword), the memoir of the church becomes a history of the social climates through which the church has stood, and the efforts made by those who attended the church—often multi-generational families—to attend to the oppressive storms of tyranny that beleaguered their personhood. The text is an alternative history: a specific, nuanced history of racism in the United States and how these policies were challenged in a community and, in some cases, in the nation.

  Rev. LeDoux’s work does not refute that of another alternative (alternative to the omissions and glosses found in corporate—and often not even American owned corporations—American history textbooks that are the generic timeline foisted upon the educational system) text, that of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, but elucidates and makes  personable events of our inherited story. Zinn describes, in his chapter “Slavery Without Submission” how “A study of blacks in Alabama in the first years after the [Civil] war […] that they began immediately asserting their independence of whites, forming their own churches, becoming politically active, strengthening their family ties, trying to educate their children” (195). However, LeDoux’s chronicle details, rather entertainingly, the founding of a school for slaves and free people of color by Marthe Fortiere in 1823 –-nearly fifty years earlier than the note on the same topic in the Zinn text (which, in all fairness, predates in publication LeDoux’s work, but which was not apparently useful enough for LeDoux to cite). A further comparison might be made between the two texts regarding The Niagara Movement: whereas Zinn’s passage, in part, states that, “[…] to protest lynching, peonage, discrimination […] W.E.B Du Bois sent out a letter to Negro leaders […] calling them to a conference” ( 340), LeDoux’s text makes person-identified this event through the historical personage of Homer Plessy—a St Augustine parishioner, who challenged the Separate Car Act that went to the US Supreme Court  in 1896. LeDoux imagines Plessy’s meditations while recounting the details of the organized challenge to this policy (230-240), while maintaining detailed historical acknowledgement, such as in his reference to “Le Comite de Citoyens […] the foremost of those civil rights organizations and the prototype of the most effective activist organizations to follow”(229). While both texts are scrupulous in delineating details of American history—particularly details egregiously skimmed superficially in standardized textbooks—LeDoux’s text takes an even more specific vantage point than that of Zinn’s, is entirely different in tone without sacrifice to scholarship, and is equal to Zinn with the concept that history is made by the acts of people, that positive change is possible.

  Of course, a religious leader ought to be a cheerleader for optimism, but LeDoux’s text is never far a field from the lesson of the history he is recounting. In detailing the actual War of the Pews that gives the book its title--although LeDoux recounts a number of conflicts centered around St Augustine that he dubs wars—LeDoux’s point reaches a didactic tone that is fascinating in its charm:

   Whites were crisscrossing in front of free people of color, and the latter were constantly bumping into whites in every nook and cranny of Faubourg Treme. There had never been that much social contact, however incidental and fleeting, between free people of color and whites[…]. Now the frequent, high profile social contact in the war of the Pews involved religious worship, the most sacred activity of any person, or any people, of any nation. It had taken a perceived racial crisis revolving around the newly built church to bring the reluctant races together(177-178).

  LeDoux reiterates both community activism and the force of history through his memoir of St Augustine—and so focused is LeDoux on emphasizing the history of the church as focal that he refers to himself in the history in which he played a part in the third person.  In the Post-Katrina Restoration of St Augustine’s community (the building itself stood the storm well), LeDoux discusses the donating of the paintings of Tom Feelings to the church:  “ St Augustine Church, which at its very inception on October 9, 1842, seated slaves in the short pews on both sides of the nave, was now housing the masterful rendering on canvas of the horrific Middle Passage of those same and other slaves” (300). LeDoux never looses sight of how it has been the interaction of the church’s community—an integrated community than now hosts tourists on special mass days—that has buttressed and maintained the longevity of both the parish itself and the community the church quite literally serves.

  Assaults to the St Augustine as a parish came from a variety of sources in the two centuries of its consecrated function, most recently in the form of thinly disguised racism from the Catholic organizational structure itself in  Post-Katrina Restoration. LeDoux details both the experience of the storm—he did not evacuate—and the fubar governmental response, “The depth of bureaucratic ignorance, feckless oversight of storm-prone areas of our country, and callous insensitivity to the raw problems of our citizens were underscored when President Bush told FEMA director Michael Brown […] ‘ Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job’ “(25), but the ‘February 9, 2006 bombshell of Archbishop Alfred Hughes” (36) regarding the intended dissolution of the parish is the opening salvo of LeDoux’s lesson. In these many, carefully presented chapters, LeDoux depicts both an unfeeling, hegemonic structure making a tyrannical decree and how a community of people—integrated people and not all Catholic -- fight past exhaustion to keep their historic community from obliteration. Through his text, LeDoux paints the parish of St Augustine’s as a community not only of geography or ancestral affiliation, but as one of shared concern for those things which are beyond the scope of numbers—the new deity in our culture. St Augustine’s includes jazz music in its services, because jazz was born in the neighborhood of the church (Faubourg Treme: LeDoux discusses at length the music of church being found a few blocks later in Congo Square, now called Armstrong Park), yet music is of unquantifiable value, despite corporate music industry profiteering. Famous musicians are featured performers at St Augustine’s and there’s no Ticketmaster taking the cream; if LeDoux’s text is true, the parish survives on donation.

  LeDoux’s text is both an alternative history text regarding the oppression of racist policy and those who fought for their civil rights, as it is a memoir of a historic building and the community in which it stands. Key and twining these two points is the function of the church as a focal point for that community and how it has become “the prototype and most effective activist organization,” and how it has done so by remaining—with few exceptions—integrated throughout its history. The existence of this example of community solidarity is our lesson for contemplation: if we remain segregated, vitriolic in our loyalty to powers that are insensitive to our raw needs, spouting empty slogans of oppression and colonization, then we are not a democracy, we are a hypocrisy. It need not be a historic building that is the sun to the orbit of our lives, nor need it be an institution or sanctified structure; nonetheless, our charade of a multi-cultural polemic is in rags and it is up to our own hands to weave a truer society, even if by means of one integrated barbeque bash at a time.


Informal References


Bruns, S. (interview) March 2012

Coleman, A. (interview) March 2012

LeDoux,  Rev. Jerome G. The War of the Pews. Margaret Media.2011

Zinn, Howard A People’s History of the United States. Harper 1990


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