As We Lift Each Other: A Reflection on a PYM Continuing Session

Continuing Sessions

Written by tonya thames taylor, Fallowfield Monthly Meeting

“I maintain that I have been a Negro three times— a Negro baby, a Negro girl, and a Negro woman. Still, if you have received no clear cut impression of what the Negro in America is like, then you are in the same place with me. There is no The Negro here. Our lives are so diversified, internal attitudes so varied, appearances and capabilities so different, that there is no possible classification so catholic that it will cover us all, except My people! My people!” — Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on the Road (1942, reprint, New York: HarperPerennial, 1996, 192).

“We claim to be against discrimination in dealing with persons of any religious or racial group. We have never fully implemented this testimony, but we believe we are moving slowly toward making it more effective.” — Jane P. Rushmore, The Quaker Way (npd, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 27).

On January 15, 1979, during a speech about civil rights and identity author James Baldwin repeats what he once hears activist and social critic Malcolm X ask a young man, “If you are a citizen, why are you fighting for civil rights?” This earthy question intrigues me and serves as a query when I battle contrived conflicts that threaten to interfere with my centering and settling in The Spirit. I use this query when I envision myself in a beloved community where love is paramount and humanity is regarded as sacred.

I appreciate the sweet fellowship found in the ministration of The Religious Society of Friends. For me, when Friends meet, it is another opportunity for business, clarity, renewal, instruction, sanctification, and growth. Therefore, I regard the seventh day, eleventh month Continuing Session at Westtown School in West Chester, PA as one of solemnity. The guiding query for the Continuing Session asks for intentional discernment in matters of race and equality. The specific query is, “What is God calling PYM Quakers to do next to end racism and white supremacy in the Religious Society of Friends and Beyond?”

At one segment of Continuing Sessions, I experience sadness when a nonwhite Friend says, “I don’t see myself in that picture,” while looking at a projected snapshot of a newly-formed committee composed of all whites. My interpretation of the convicting statement: Why is there a lack of phenotypical difference? At that moment, literally, my body quakes. Thoughts rush. First, it shifts to folklorist and author Zora Neale Hurston’s recalling of a conversation among black men in the essay “My People, My People,” when they say “My skin-folks, but not kinfolks…” Next, still quivering, I think of tokenism and its implicit logic that nonwhite friends mainly live the same historical and political narrative, devoid of any substantial difference. It boxes an identity. Then, a flashback overtakes my reasoning. I am a child on a summer day in Gulfport, Mississippi. I literally see and feel the rays of the sun in my eyes and go to turn away. Yet, my grandmother gently uses her fingers to keep my face pointed at the sun and says, “Surely as the sun shines, God loves you. You are of God.” Just as it enters, the flashback leaves, but not without my remembering where my sense of profound dignity emerges.

My spirituality is off limits to the machinations of twisted trajectories of contestable, contrived, and conflicted concepts of race. Even considering the engagement of participating in the endlessly laborious exercise of having a binary—contrived identity of blackness and a prescribed religious experience of Friends—spiritually is debilitating. To entertain the thought is to allow earthly concepts to succeed to penetrate the most sacred core of my being. I shake at the thought of my volunteering my body and essence to serve as terrains for earthly saviors, who even with the most noblest of purposes—have done what inequality aims to do: objectify and ascribe character and experience. In the earthly realm, I am wearied by the constant struggle with implied judgments and expectations of oppression that aims to dwarf my spirit. I am familiar with a bitterness that can have me at a tiring state of high anxiety and perplexing agitation. Yet, in The Spirit, my copper-colored body is never captured by the snare of the roots of bitterness. I like to think that I possess an energy congruent with the actions of Grace Douglass, a nineteenth-century Quaker attender who sits in a marginalized space to accommodate the bigotry of some Quakers because her skin is not white. Douglass, refusing the reductive prescriptions of the actions of others, exemplifies what her continual attendance to Quaker meeting, despite marginalization, articulates: in worship, divinity resides within us all.

“Friends,” as Quaker Jane P. Rushmore writes, “regard their religion as a way of life.” (Quaker Way, 25). We recognized that God speaks to us. We are living Epistles to one another and for the review of the world. In meditation and conversations with God, my hope is that we strive to reject the earthly fascination with phenotype and the precipices that accompany such. Needed conversations about structural inequality are welcomed, but we must acknowledge that, the depth of inequality has fractured the identities of all, so no one has full authority or authorship on the issue or can be said to suffer more. Human rights advocate Martin Luther King Jr, at the conclusion of the voter-initiative March from Selma to Montgomery on March 25, 1965, captures the duplicity of oppression as he speaks of the effective use of segregation by a small oligarchy, “[S]outhern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow…And when his [poor white] wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.”

Conversations of white privilege obscure the fault lines of white supremacy and nonwhite agency. Put another way, the lives of human rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Reeb, Michael Schwerner, and Viola Liuzzo complicate misguided arguments of white privilege. When they choose to step outside of the prescriptions/limitations of whiteness, bigots label them race traitors to criminalize and justify any violence the bigots wants to use. The activists lose their so-called privilege because they step out of the boundaries of the dictates of their phenotype.

All, whites and nonwhites, have complex, intersectional experiences that adds to the conversation. Censuring or deferring to one group over the other because of an alleged more authentic voice reimagines the model allegedly being deconstructed, creates a Potemkin village in conversations about equality and assuages any sentiment of guilt of oppression.

I am fully persuaded that the work in the vineyards of equality and peace need as many laborers. Like Hurston notes, we are too diverse to fit into the catholic of any prescriptions based on appearance. I am a citizen and a Friend in The Religious Society of Friends, so my fight is not for membership among Friends, God takes care of that. My goal it to create a beloved community that addresses issues without crushing The Spirit and creating hierarchy.

About the Author

tonya thames taylor is a member of Fallowfield Monthly Meeting, and serves on Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Implementation Committee.