Coming Awake

"Shards of Light," by Mim Neal

Nowhere on this planet
Where people have built
Shrines, temples, mosques
Or stood to pray (in groves or on mountaintops)
Ever loses the spirit.

Prayers do not disintegrate,
Their power,
To all aware,
Is always available.

Prayers fall on us or
Rise up through archeological debris.
No place is free of them.

And we in turn are free to absorb them --
Not their tenets,
Not their rules,
Not the evil that may have lurked around the edges

But the spirit --
The shards of light.
We are responsible for transmitting that light,
Moving it through the universe,
Giving it to each other.

                    “Shards of Light,” by Mim Neal

My grandfather Carl Birmingham - my mother’s father - was adopted in 1900 by a working class couple in Melrose, Massachusetts, north of Boston.  I have known that my grandfather was adopted since I was young.  I remember a picture of him that sat on my mother’s dresser.  He had long gold ringlets, and was dressed in a white dress and bonnet.  My mother explained that, way back then, little boys’ hair often didn’t get cut until they were older, and that this was how very young children of both sexes were dressed for special occasions.  She told me the picture had been taken at the time he was adopted, when he was three.  

Later I heard stories from my grandfather himself.  He had started working at 12, as an errand boy, a busboy, an office boy.  At age 14 he got a summer job as a bellhop at a resort in Little Boar’s Head, New Hampshire, near Hampton Beach.  There he met my grandmother, four years older, when she arrived to start her job as a waitress.  He told us about carrying her suitcase into the rooming house, and cheerily saying, “see you at the beach.”  My grandmother, if she was listening in on the story, would tell us she thought he was a very fresh young man.

I knew, from my mother, that his adoptive mother had died of tuberculosis when he was five, and that he had been raised by his older sister Alice.  

But I don’t remember hearing much about his adoptive father. At some point I learned that he had worked for Gilchrist’s, one of the big department stores in downtown Boston, as a furniture upholsterer.  He and my grandfather had liked going to Red Sox games together.  After he retired, he came to live with my grandparents in Norfolk, Massachusetts, until his death some time in the 1930s.

And at some point, some time in my 20s, I learned that my great grandfather Birmingham was Black.  His wife was white and he was half African-American, half indigenous (I don’t know from what tribe).   After their teenage son died of tuberculosis they adopted a little white boy named Carl, who had been born to an unwed mother.  

My great-grandfather was Black.  He and my grandfather sat together in the bleachers at those Red Sox games, because that was the only section he was allowed into. They couldn’t meet for lunch in downtown Boston, because none of the restaurants would serve him.

Why did I never hear about this until I was in my twenties?

What family stories do you know?  Are there some you learned later in life?  Are there some you suspect are incomplete, or that have remained family secrets, to die with the last person who did know them?

The writer Dani Shapiro published a memoir in 2019 documenting her discovery, through DNA testing. that she and her half sister were biologically unrelated.  Through internet research she figured out that her parents had used a sperm donor. Her father and all of his beloved family - grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts - were not related to her by blood.  

Why didn’t her parents tell her the story of how she was conceived?  

I’m guessing they were embarrassed and ashamed.  I’m guessing they wanted to protect her from confusion or disappointment, thinking that she could never, ever possibly learn the truth.

Why don’t I know more about my grandfather’s parents?  When we bury my mother’s ashes in the family plot in Melrose, sometime next spring, I’ll stand at their graves and wonder.  

There are other family stories I don’t know.  I discovered, on Ancestry.com, that my grandmother had a half-brother.  On my father’s side there are stories about his older sister, the family outcast. 

Those are just the stories I know I don’t know!  

How many stories do you imagine there are in your family - stories you don’t know?

For the past year or so those of you - those of us -  who have been involved in our racial justice programs have been uncovering stories we didn’t know we didn’t know, learning about what systemic racism means by beginning to learn some of the history of how it became embedded and reinforced in every aspect of our institutions and culture.  

I’ve always been intrigued by philosophy and interested in the history of science.  At some point I learned about (and even read) some of the great European philosophers, and learned about some of the 18th and 19th century founders of the modern disciplines of science:  Boyle - the founder of modern chemistry, Isaac Newton, one of the great geniuses of all time, Locke - the great proponent of democracy, Kant - with his brilliant metaphysics and ethics, and many others.  I never learned that they believed in and promoted racist ideas - that they used their great authority to ground those racist ideas in what they believed were scientific and religious truths.

Did you know that a great debate took place for nearly 200 years, long before Darwin, about whether or not all human beings were actually descended from Adam?

Many of those great thinkers subscribed to the two-ancestor theory, and argued that Africans and Native Americans were descended not from Adam but from a different, inferior “first man.” This was a great comfort to imperial ambitions and to those who profited from the slave trade. And although Immanuel Kant favored monogenesis - the theory that there was one common ancestor, he also declared that “Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of whites.”

When I studied American history I learned a story about a Great Melting Pot.  No one mentioned that, throughout our history, white European immigration was encouraged to fill labor shortages that existed because whites in all parts of the nation refused to hire Blacks.  No one told the story of civil rights struggles going back to the 18th century.  That’s the 1700s.

You probably remember that early last summer Donald Trump planned a political rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma for June 19.  There was controversy about the rally because of public health concerns about spreading COVID-19. 

And, with the heightened racial awareness following the George Floyd killing, the date of the planned rally received national attention.  June 19 is Juneteenth, a celebration honoring the end of slavery.  June 19 is the day in 1865 that the news came to Texas about Lincoln’s emancipation decree.  It’s a holiday celebrated most widely in Texas, but in other parts of the country as well.

A Trump rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth was additionally offensive because Tulsa was the site of a horrific race massacre 1921. 

An entire prosperous and self-sufficient African American community in the Greenwood section of Tulsa - 35 acres - was attacked by ground forces and private aircraft and burned to the ground, leaving 10,000 people homeless, scores wounded, and over 100 dead.  It has since been called the worst single act of racial violence in American history.

When was the first time you heard of Juneteenth?  When was the first time you heard of the Tulsa massacre?  How much do you know about other massacres and forced dispossessions of African Americans throughout our history?

I learned about the Tulsa massacre a little over a year ago, when I first read Jacqueline Woodson’s wonderful novel Red at the Bone.  The grandmother of one of the characters was a toddler who survived the fire.  The family passed down the story - the story of life in Tulsa, of the massacre, of how they moved away and went on.

Was shame the reason we didn’t learn all these stories?  I think we didn’t learn them because our not-knowing is one of the ways that systemic racism keeps its grip on all of us.

But today - no one can claim or rest in ignorance.  We know the stories exist. We’re learning them.  They are uncomfortable, painful, potentially identity shattering stories.  Stories that can make us all of us realize that we may not be who we think we are.  That challenge us.  We know, for example, that the song “Welcome Table” is a song from slavery days.  “I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days.”  It was a song sung by people who did not get a seat.

How do you feel about all the stories you never heard and still don’t know?  Angry? Confused?  Maybe you identify a little bit with Jessica’s eagle friend Joe, who felt like he was waking up from a long dream.

Our Jewish members, friends and neighbors are celebrating the most holy time in the Jewish calendar - the ten days between Rosh Hashanah, which began last Friday night, and Yom Kippur, which begins tonight at sundown.

The Jewish calendar puts structure and ritual around an annual reminder that we need to take stock, examine what we have done to harm others, ask forgiveness, grant forgiveness, and make amends where we can. It also helps us to remember we are formed by stories - our personal stories, our family stories, and the stories that create and sustain our society and culture.  We’re living in a time when some of us are, for the first time, finally actually hearing the painful stories of how systemic racism has developed and how deep it goes.

Justin David, the rabbi at Congregation B’Nai Israel in Northampton, wrote:

The rabbis teach us that Yom Kippur, with its fasting, prayers and communal confessions “effects atonement between human beings and God.” 

But ultimately, the rabbis emphasize that Yom Kippur ... does not “effect atonement” among human beings themselves.  For that, say the rabbis, no amount of ritual will do – our only recourse is to make amends and set things right with each other.

May we embrace our responsibility for transmitting the light, moving it through the universe, giving it to each other.

May we, as Rev. Jodi Hayashida prayed, stop turning from the truth of who we’ve been and who we are, finding courage to step into all that will arise from that knowledge.  May we allow it to turn us toward repentance, reparations, and a collective demand for justice.  

May we support and hold one another in that quest.