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From the mouths of babes

Here in the Bible Belt I hear a few white men (mostly, and occasionally white women) appearing to question the reality of white privilege, and speaking in terms that seem to assume that the fundamental locus of moral questions is the individual, rather than the more complex, and I think more realistic vision of the New Testament: that, indeed, individuals must accept or reject a call to live according to a vision of the good and liberating and rightly ordered will of God; but that there are also, in fact, great powers of deception and lies and injustice woven into the very fabric of human existence, of our communities, and policies, and institutions; and no less important, woven into the stories we tell. I came today, looking through old journals, upon disturbing stories I had long forgotten, from when I was a younger man, still a boy in many ways, and Laura and I were living in Nairobi, Kenya. The country was relatively new to independence, the marks of western colonialism still manifest in numerous social realities, of language and commerce and cultural morays. Laura and I were working at a school in a slum. My friends Sammy and Francis would take me out into the streets, and we would visit a particular group of street boys, boys who lived on the streets, who ate out of the trash piles, who survived literally trash-pile to hand to mouth. They slept and took refuge in a wretched alley, each end of the alley way blocked by immense piles of garbage, garbage that would ooze a yellowish filth over my shoes as I would try to ease my way up and over, trying to get to their little street-boy village hidden away behind those piles, the smell of that refuse searing the nostrils, staying with one for days, long after the yellowish muck had been washed from one’s shoes.

One day—April 6, 1994—we went to visit, and began to discuss Bible stories. These African boys began to discuss the origin of the black man. “Obviously,” one said, in my own paraphrase, “the black man was the result of something going wrong with the white man—after all, we know Adam and Eve were white, because we’ve seen them on movies.”

Then another street boy told the story of Noah: when Noah was building his ark, he grew weary, and so took a rest. While he was resting, some people came and started using the ark as a toilet. It was used to such an extent as a toilet, that it was filled with shit. As the people who had just used the ark as a toilet departed, their skin contracted an awful disease. They approached Moses to ask what they should do to cleanse themselves from the disease. They were told to go back to the ark, and cover themselves with the shit found there, and they would be healed. They did so, finally emptying the ark of the human waste, covering themselves in it. Such, so this young African said, was the origin of the black man.

Let the white men and women who have ears to hear, hear.

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