Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: prejudice

An abundance of geese

Greater Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens atlanticus), blue morphs in foreground, Alexandria, Ontario, D. Gordon E. Robertson, 2 April 2010

I asked my wife this morning if we should take today to go to the city for the things we needed, or if another day would be better. Then we got a message that the electricity would be turned off in our area from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. That was our answer. School was cancelled for the day too. When we got home in the afternoon we heard the electricity never had been shut off.

On our way to the city we saw huge flocks of geese overhead. Occasionally there would be a field beside the highway that was covered with birds, thousands of them, the majority white but many a darker colour. Snow geese: we are located on their flyway and this is the time of the year they drop in to glean in the harvested fields. Snow geese are abundant, definitely not an endangered species. It is estimated that the breeding population is increasing by 5% each year.

At one time it was believed that the dark coloured geese that flock together with snow geese were a different species. Further observation has shown that they always flock together and that they interbreed. Nowadays they are all called snow geese, with two morphs of plumage colour: white and grey-blue. Not everybody has caught on to that yet, many casual observers still think they are two different species.

Sadly, many people have also not caught on to the fact that there is only one race of humanity, homo sapiens, with a great variety in colour and size. The Bible says we are all of one origin; the apostle Paul reiterated that on Mars Hill, saying all people are of one blood.

Evolutionary biologists used to dispute that, saying that there were different races of humanity. Genetic science has caught up with them, confirming Paul’s statement. Can we all just accept that?

Black Threads in Our Tapestry

This is Black History Month, so I decided to tell about some little-known aspects of Saskatchewan’s history.

The first people in Saskatchewan were those we now refer to as Indigenous: The Dené, Cree, Saulteaux (pronounced So-toe), Dakota, Lakota and Nakota. Then came the French and Scottish fur traders and explorers. Some of them stayed, took wives of the people who were already here, and their descendants are known as Métis.

Then the land was opened up for homesteading and landless people from Eastern Canada, the USA and Europe were invited to come and settle this “new” land. Well, it was new to most white people anyway, and it was white people who were wanted as settlers.

The homesteaders came from many countries, languages and cultures and of necessity learned to live and work together to survive and prosper. They faced challenges of breaking the land, learning what crops to grow, getting those crops to market, surviving harsh winters and summer insect plagues. A few gave up and left, most couldn’t afford to leave so they stuck it out through all the hardships of the early years and eventually prospered.

The first black person to arrive in Saskatchewan was Alfred Shadd, from a prominent family in the Buxton settlement south of Chatham, Ontario. This was a settlement of people who had escaped slavery and travelled north on the underground railway to Canada. Alfred Shadd saw an ad for a teacher at Kinistino, Saskatchewan and came out in 1896 to fill that position. After a year he returned to Ontario to complete his studies to be a doctor, then came back and settled in Melfort as a doctor. Eventually he also operated a drug store, a newspaper and a farm where he raised Shorthorn cattle. He served on the town council and came very close to being elected to the provincial legislature. He died suddenly of appendicitis in 1915.

Lewis and Lillie LaFayette of Oskaloosa, Iowa arrived in Saskatchewan in 1906. Lewis first worked on a farm near Regina. At times during their first winter the temperature dropped to 60° below zero (Fahrenheit). In 1909 Lewis took up a homestead at Fiske, west of Rosetown and there he raised a family of ten. He farmed with horses at first, then purchased a Waterloo steam engine in 1913. Two of his brothers joined him at Fiske and for a number of years they ran an all-black threshing crew of 22 men, bringing workers from the USA and helping their neighbours throughout the district get their grain in the bin.

Lewis helped organize the first country school in his area, named Oskaloosa school. He helped organize the first telephone service and served on the telephone board. He was also involved in establishing a co-operative grain elevator. Descendants of Lewis and Lillie are now scattered over Saskatchewan and Alberta.

After the Civil War thousands of former slaves fled to the Oklahoma Territory where they could vote, go to school and live in relative freedom. Oklahoma became a state in 1907 and quickly introduced segregation and denied blacks the right to vote. Dozens of families decided to head north, lured by the promise of obtaining land by homesteading. Twelve families took up homesteads north of Maidstone, Saskatchewan, the others continued on to Amber Valley, Alberta.

About this time the Canadian government panicked at the idea of the Canadian West filling up with black settlers, and instructed immigration officials to refuse entry to blacks on health grounds, claiming the climate of the country was much too harsh for them to survive.

In 1912 the families north of Maidstone built the Shiloh Baptist Church. Joseph and Mattie Mayes were the best known members of the community; Mattie served as a midwife for many in the surrounding area. The descendants of the original settlers have all moved on by now, but the church and cemetery are maintained as heritage properties, a memorial to this group of black homesteaders.

A grandson of Joseph and Mattie Mayes relocated to North Battleford with his wife and raised a family of seven. They were the only black family in the city and experienced no prejudice. One daughter is now a nurse in Saskatoon, another is a veterinarian and their brother Reuben played pro football in the NFL from 1986 to 1993.

These were the pioneers, the first black threads in Saskatchewan’s tapestry. Many more have followed, at first mostly from Eastern Canada and the USA but in more recent years many have come from the Caribbean and Africa.

About fifteen years ago it was said that most of the workers at the broiler processing plant in Wynyard were people who had come here from Sudan as refugees. For a few years, our family doctor was a man who received his education in Kinshasa, D. R. Congo. He speaks French, English and five African languages. Now he is the main doctor at a walk-in clinic in Saskatoon. I have met two people of African origin who have written and published Christian books after settling in Saskatoon, one is from Zambia and the other from Nigeria.

The tapestry of our province is still being enriched by the addition of these black threads.

Migrations

The Dene (pronounced Denay) people speak a language which has 39 consonants and 116 vowel sounds. That is a total of 155 phonemes. For the sake of comparison, English and French run from 40-45 phonemes (total consonant and vowel sounds).  These people are indigenous to the northern regions of the four western provinces of Canada, plus Yukon and Northwest Territories.

About 600 years ago (the timeline is sketchy), large numbers of these people migrated to the southwest part of what is now the USA. There they are known as Navajo and Apache and their languages are just as complex. It is said that Dene and Navajo people can still understand each other.

The Iroquoian people of Eastern North America, Cherokee in the south and Six Nations in the Great Lakes area, developed permanent settlements sustained by the cultivation of corn. The cultivation of corn originated in southern Mexico and spread south and north from there. It appears that the Six Nations people originated in the south and moved northward.

From where did all these people originate? The most likely explanation is that they came from Asia and travelled to North America over a land bridge that once existed in the area of the Bering Sea. Some indigenous people reject this explanation, because some whites use it as an excuse to claim that the indigenous people are also immigrants.

That is not very valid. The indigenous people have obviously been here thousands of years, spreading throughout the Americas and differentiating into a multitude of linguistic and cultural groups. White immigration to the Americas goes back just over 400 years. We are obviously the newcomers. My family came to North America 380 years ago, but the indigenous people were here long, long before that.

Many of the early European settlers hoped that the indigenous peoples would fade away and disappear. That hasn’t happened. North Americans of European, African and Asian origin are not going to disappear either. What will it take for us all to live together in mutual respect and appreciation?

A first step might be to admit that Charles Darwin was wrong, the white race is not a more highly favoured race destined to supplant all other peoples. DNA testing confirms what the Apostle Paul told the Athenians: God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” There is no white race, or black race, or red race, we are all part of one human race.

WASPs and other Canadians

When I was young, WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), considered themselves to naturally be the epitome of all that was right and good. It was the privilege of the WASPs to grant each other entrance to the best schools, the best jobs and the best clubs. The Orange Lodge bears a large share of the responsibility for inculcating this attitude. To an Orangeman, anyone nonwhite, non-Anglo-Saxon, or non-Protestant was a threat to the good order of society.

In most of the historical novels I read as a boy, WASPs were portrayed as brave, honest, trustworthy and heroic. Everyone else was shifty-eyed, cowardly and obviously not to be trusted. Years later, after I learned to read French, I found exactly the same attitudes in French-language historical fiction for young people. Except that the roles were reversed: the French were honest, heroic and good and the WASPs were the ones who were shifty-eyed, cowardly and untrustworthy. I suspect the same self-congratulatory attitudes would be found in the literature of all peoples.

In the span of my lifetime attitudes have shifted radically. A large segment of our society wants to blame all the sins of the past on the WASPs, including many of the WASPs themselves. The WASP label is not much used anymore, the current term is White Privilege. All kinds of people are seeking reparation, thinking that punishing the representatives of White Privilege will somehow make life better for themselves.

I suppose that this might make some sense if there was any sign the other groups would then get along with each other. There doesn’t seem to be much chance of that. Blaming others, demeaning others, seeking retribution, are not ways to build a peaceful society.

Many of the abuses of the past were done in the name of Christianity. That makes the task of reconciliation difficult. Rejecting the Bible, rejecting the fundamental tenets of Christianity, leaves people with no landmarks, no shared sense of direction. Many believe they see a way forward, yet their goal constantly shifts and seems to get farther away. If nothing changes, current trends will lead to anarchy and chaos.

I did not choose the colour of my skin, my ethnic heritage or the religious affiliation of my parents. Neither did anyone else. It is not our job as Christians to defend the sins of the past, or to apologize for events in which we had no part. But it is our job as Christians to point out that reconciliation between people doesn’t work well when people are not reconciled to God. As Christians, we must believe and proclaim the whole counsel of God.

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20.)

Black day in July

Sunday, July 23, 1967. Detroit police officers raided an unlicensed bar in the offices of the United Community League for Civic Action. They found 82 black people celebrating the return of two soldiers from Vietnam and decided to arrest all 82. A crowd of people gathered on the street, largely outnumbering the police officers. The officers left, fearing for their safety, and people began looting a nearby clothing store. The looting spread through the neighbourhood and into other neighbourhoods.

State police were called in to assist and eventually Governor George Romney sent in the National Guard. The rioting went on for five days and only ended when President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the army. Forty-three people died and 2,000 buildings burned.

The best-known song about the riot was Black Day in July by Canada’s Gordon Lighhtfoot. It contains lines such as:

Black day in July
Motor City’s burning and the flames are running wild

And you say how did it happen and you say how did it start
Why can’t we all be brothers, why can’t we live in peace

Why indeed? It helps to know a little of Detroit’s history. Huge auto assembly plants made Detroit into a booming city, drawing people from all over, many from the US South, both black and white. Anti-black feelings ran high. In 1943 the Packard Motor Company placed three black workers on its assembly line and all 25,000 white workers walked out. Three weeks later race riots broke out that lasted three days and left 43 dead.

White residential neighbourhoods made it known that they intended to remain white. If a black family moved in, they faced intimidation, threats, pickets, smashed windows and attempts to burn their house. In 1956 the mayor of Dearborn, a Detroit suburb, boasted that his city was more segregated than Alabama. Schools were completely segregated.

By 1967 black people made up 30% of the population of Detroit, but the police force was 93% white. Many police officers had strong anti-black feelings. A survey showed that the black population of Detroit felt that police brutality was their number one problem.

The Michigan National Guard was almost entirely made up of young white men from rural areas. They were sent into an urban centre that was unlike anything in their experience, to face a mob of black people that was terrifying to them. They were armed with lethal weapons. Nothing good could come from that combination. The army units that were sent in were integrated, disciplined and able to communicate with the rioters. They were the ones who brought the riot under control.

The riots accelerated the movement of white people to the suburbs. The population of the city, once 1,850,000, shrank to 700,000. Some auto assembly plants closed due to mergers and loss of market share to imports. Downtown stores closed. There are thousands of empty houses, plus empty apartment buildings and at least two huge auto assembly plants that have been empty for years. In 2013 the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy.

Detroit city is now over 80% black, the suburbs probably close to 80% white. Prejudice and segregation are less blatant but have not altogether disappeared. There are hopeful signs that Detroit may be reviving, but it is not likely it will ever be the city it once was.

Beware. Prejudice is like a boomerang, it can come back at you and destroy everything you thought you were trying to protect.

Prejudice + Poverty ≠ Hopelessness

Some years ago I read an article in Ebony magazine written by a man who had grown up in one of the worst black tenement ghettos in Chicago.Drug dealing, crime and violence were the everyday reality and the police felt the area was too dangerous to send in individual officers to patrol.

Like almost all the other children in this ghetto, this man and his two siblings grew up in a single parent home without much money. Their mother wanted her children to escape the ghetto and the first step was not to give in to hopelessness. She introduced them to the library and to museums and did everything that she could think of that was educational and free. When they went to the store to buy something she let the children pay and then count the change to see that it was right.

All three of those children finished school, went on to university and established professional careers. And they moved their mother out of the ghetto.

The man who wrote the article was now a lawyer. He wrote about going back to visit his old neighbourhood and trying to look up the boys he had grown up with. Some were dead, others were in jail, all the rest had criminal records. None had escaped the hopelessness of the ghetto.

There are a multitude of government programs to help children escape the effects of prejudice and poverty. Billions of dollars are being spent. What are the results? A lot of well paid government jobs to administer the programs. Besides that – not much.

One mother with hope and determination made a difference. No government program can create a mother like that.

Strange ideas about strangers

“If a white person marries a black person,” my father said to me one day, “their children will be born with one black leg and one white leg, one black arm and one white arm.” I was still in my early teens but I didn’t think such a thing was possible and I told my father so. Then I asked him if he had ever seen anyone like that. He didn’t answer, but he never again brought up the possibility of people having Holstein markings.

Not all strange ideas like this should be labelled prejudice. If someone grows up only hearing thinking like this and never has opportunity to see whether it is true or not, they are just uninformed. In times gone by, when there was less opportunity to meet people who were different from yourself, these ideas might last a lifetime.

My father grew up in the USA around the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th. He absorbed the prevailing attitude toward black people of that era and never encountered anything in his adult travels in the USA or Canada to contradict that attitude.

My mother grew up in a very conservative Plautdietsch speaking home, yet she was much more open minded in her attitude toward other people. It seems that she learned that from her father. Before he was married he had worked in a community where there lived a black man who had been born in slavery and moved north to Canada. Grandpa learned some of the old Negro Spirituals from this man and taught them to his 14 children. While they lived in Manitoba, their home was a place where Indians often stopped for a drink of water, a bite to eat or just a place to rest on their journey. They knew they were welcome at the Henry Letkeman home.

Grandpa was blind, in more ways than one. My mother grew up in that setting and told those stories to me. One of my cousins lives not too far away. Our fathers were brothers, our mothers were sisters. He worked for years with First Nations (Indian) people in housing projects, and in evangelism. I observe his attitude towards people who are different and I know that he did not learn that openness from his father.

We both owe a lot to our mothers – and to Grandpa Letkeman, who we never met. He died before we were born. But, thanks to the attitude he inspired in our mothers, we did not grow up with strange ideas about strangers.

Who let these people in?

There is a fine Christian lady doctor of our acquaintance who believes Canada is letting in way too many people from Asia and Africa. She is originally from South Africa, but left when black people were allowed to form the government. She fears for Canada’s future.

She’s wrong of course. The native people of Canada tell us the problem began when English-speaking people arrived over here. The first white people to arrive, those who spoke French, respected their elders and their women. The second white people, the ones who spoke English, respected neither their elders nor their women.

I am inclined to agree. Many French-speaking fur traders married Indian wives. Some of them brought their wives and children back to Montreal, which was the headquarters of the fur trade. Others settled down in the West with their wives and children. The English-speaking fur traders, mostly Scottish and fine upstanding Presbyterians, scorned such intermingling with non-white people.

Of course, many of them had summer wives in the West, as well as a Scottish wife in Montreal. What’s a man to do after all? Neither family was to know anything of the other. And when they retired, either back to Montreal or to Scotland, their western families were conveniently forgotten.

Other people of Scottish background came to Canada from Ulster, bringing with them their fierce Orange sympathies. The Orange men had a visceral hatred of anyone who was Roman Catholic, did not speak English, or did not have white skin. They did their utmost to make governments conform to their beliefs, leading to numerous riots, the burning of the parliament buildings and military action against the Métis in the West.

When the Canadian prairies were opened for settlement, many of the immigrants came from Eastern Europe and gradually the Orange sentiments became submerged in the new reality. Thousands of Chinese men came over to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway, then stayed to run Chines restaurants in every little prairie town. Eventually, Chinese women were allowed in too. Nowadays of course, Chinese immigrants have money and that makes them much more welcome.

A few years ago a small town in Scotland discovered that there was an Indian community in Saskatchewan whose people had the same last names as they did. After some investigation and a few visits it was found that they were indeed long lost cousins. Their ancestors never would have conceived that such a thing could be cause for celebration, but it was.

Some Christian denominations attempted to transform the Indians into Christians by forcing them into residential schools. That did not work out very well. Then they tried to force the government to make the whole country more Christian through prohibition. That didn’t work either. So now we content ourselves with sending missionaries to all the heathen lands and often express regrets that many countries won’t allow missionaries in.

In more recent years, people from all these countries begin to show up in our towns and cities. We worry about all these strangers in our midst and complain that we can hardly understand them when we encounter them as store and office clerks. We are afraid that they may bring with them much of the strife and animosity that exists in their home countries.

But they left their home countries because of that strife and animosity. We claim to have something better because we know the Prince of Peace. Why not share that acquaintanceship with these newcomers?

Negro is not a polite term for black people

Back in November the U.S. Army acknowledged that Negro was not an acceptable term and removed it from their regulations, leaving Black or African American as the acceptable terms. Isn’t it about time for Christian people to catch on?

Granted, it was once acceptable for black people to be called Coloured (Canadian spelling — “colored” looks like a washed-out crayon to me, my spell checker doesn’t like it either). But that always was kind of a funny label — we all have some kind of colour in our cheeks don’t we?

Negro was once considered acceptable too. But why should we use a word in English that means black in several of the Latin tongues? Why not just say black if that’s what we mean? And if the word is considered as demeaning by the people we are talking about, why would we insist on using it? This is not political correctness, Coloured and Negro were deliberately chosen as labels for people who were considered inferior.

Thirty years ago, Dorothy Shadd Shreve suggested AfriCanadian as a useful term for black people in Canada. I like it; too bad it hasn’t caught on. (She wrote a history of the black churches of Southwestern Ontario entitled The AfriCanadian Church: A Stabilizer.)

Negro comes from the Latin word Niger, which simply means black. This Latin word also provided a name for the Niger River in Africa and the countries of Niger and Nigeria. In Acts 13:1, we read that the church in Antioch had five spiritual leaders: “Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” In plain English, Simeon was called “the Black”, no doubt because he was black.

Daniel Whedon, in his commentary, suggests that Simeon who was called Niger was the same as Simon of Cyrene who helped carry Jesus’ cross. (Simon and Simeon are the same name, one being the Greek form and the other the Jewish.) He cites several other scholars on this point and it seems quite plausible. Cyrene was a city in that area of North Africa that is now Libya and appears to have been a crossroads for people of Africa, Europe and Palestine. There were Cyrenians in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and Acts 11:19-20 says that it was men of Cyrene and Cyprus who first brought the gospel to Antioch. Whedon is also of the opinion that Lucius of Cyrene is the same as Luke the writer of the gospel of that name and of the book of Acts (saying that Lucius and Loukas appear to be Roman and Greek versions of the same name.)

Whatever one makes of all this, it is evident that one of the principal leaders of the first Gentile church was a black man. The NIV and ESV still persist in listing him as Simeon called Niger as if that was a name and not a description. Excuse me if I’m missing something, but there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to avoid using the word black, except for some slight possibly of embarrassment over revealing that there were black people in the early church.

Pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction

My personal observations, perhaps not very scientific but still quite realistic I believe, have convinced me that a substantial portion of humanity is afflicted with a strange malady.  This malady manifests itself when a person meets, or even hears of, someone with a different colour of skin.  The symptoms are that this person then seems to become unable to absorb any more information about the person of a different colour.  I have chosen to call this pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction.

This is not really the same thing as prejudice.  Many people afflicted with this disorder would profess nothing but good will for people of another colour.  They just seem unable to understand each other or to relate to each other in any meaningful way.

I know that a great many white people are afflicted with this.  Here in Saskatchewan, when a white person encounters an Indian (or First Nations) person, he tends to instinctively think of all the stories he has heard of Indians with broken homes, a drinking problem and an inability to hold a job.  Of course there are many Indians who are hard-working, responsible and sober.  We tend to identify them as being white people, thus not allowing their example to change our “knowledge” of what Indians are like.  It may take years of acquaintanceship before the white person is able to absorb any other information about what the Indian person is really like.

Many Indian people have their own knee-jerk reflex perceptions of what white people are like, thus both groups face major hurdles in learning to know each other.

No group of people is immune from this malady.  An Indian couple on a reserve in Eastern Canada adopted a black child.  The band council passed a resolution denying this child membership in the band and the privileges that would go with it.  A Christian Indian lady of my acquaintance says that her mother, who is of 1/8 white ancestry, is known as “White Woman” on the reserve.

The same symptoms are manifested, though to a slightly lesser degree in Canada, in the way whites perceive black people and the way black people perceive white people.  I recall an incident while we were living in Montréal and worshipping in a small mission congregation.  One Sunday morning a young black man stepped into church, saw only white people and immediately became very nervous.  I went to speak to him and invited him to join us, but he looked at our literature rack and seized upon that as an excuse, saying he had only come to get some information and he would come back another time.  He never did.  I have often kicked myself for my slow thinking, for there was a black lady seated on the side of the church that was not visible from the doorway.  Would it have made a difference if I had quickly called Esperanza and asked her to help this young man feel at home?

How would I have reacted if the tables were turned and I was the only white person walking into a church full of black people?  I would like to think that while I may not be totally cured of pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction (it seems to be a congenital disorder in most of us), I have had enough experience in being around black (and other non-white) people that I would not immediately panic and run for the nearest exit.

We might like to think that a disorder such as pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction could not exist among Christian people.  Yet I observed in Montréal that most evangelical denominations had separate congregations for blacks and whites.  There were only a handful of congregations where black and white people seemed able to worship together.  No one seemed to have a valid reason why it didn’t work in other denominations.  I would suggest that it is due to the undiagnosed presence of pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction.

The first step toward being cured of pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction is to admit that one has it.  This is pretty hard on our pride, for we like to think of ourselves as warmhearted, magnanimous people without a trace of prejudice.  But how do we react when we meet someone of another skin colour?  What if we meet a whole group of people of that colour?  Or do we perhaps do our best to avoid such a situation?

We can avoid any but the briefest contact with people of another skin colour and convince ourselves that we are entirely free of such a thing as pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction.  That is self-deception.  I don’t know of any other cure but to spend time with people who look different that we are and discover that they really aren’t very different after all.

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