The Awful Grace of God
The Awful Grace of God
By Sheri Bailey
On April 4, 1968 it fell to presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy to announce the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. to a crowd of Black people. In testament to the sincerity of his words -- where he spoke was one of the few cities that did not burn in the aftermath of pain and grief that gripped America in the wake of the tragedy.
The words of this white man of privilege who himself would be dead by an assassin’s bullet a mere two months later carried a power, poetry and brevity comparative to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and like that less than three minute eulogy, RFK’s words on that April 4, 1968 occasion will also survive the ages. He implored his audience to not react in anger at the “awful grace of God.”
He spoke of the loss of his brother to violence and said that he could understand why Black people would have anger and hate in their hearts against a white man but he hoped that they would not. He asked them to, “Say a prayer for understanding … compassion.”
He continued, “Let us do as the Greeks said, “To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the light of the world.” Let us dedicate ourselves to that. Let us pray for our country. Let us pray for our people.”
On July 7, 2008 I was working on Juneteenth business at the home of the board president when suddenly his wife came into the office and said, “Sheri, there’s a woman here who needs to talk to you.”
Confused I went outside where a woman explained how she was driving behind a pick-up truck that had hit my car and sped off. With her young daughter in tow, they followed until they were able to get the license plate.
I had been assaulted by a thoughtless stranger, but what looked like buzzard’s luck turned out to be truly profound luck. My assailant had not even bothered to run his truck through a carwash, so when a diligent police detective paid a visit it was clear who the culprit was. And this is where it gets profound. As the detective shares details about his visit he casually mentions that the assailant’s ’93 Dodge pick-up sports a Confederate flag emblem on its back bumper!
Now here’s the deal. Whenever I see the rebel image, I go ballistic. I speed up, flash the middle finger and generally put myself and whoever else is in my car or nearby in grave vehicular danger. But with this incident of a thoughtless young man hitting my car I now realize that it is not about me telling white southern folks that they shouldn’t claim a Confederate flag as a symbol of their heritage. However, when a state flies that symbol over its capitol than it represents everyone and that’s wrong.
One of my one-act history plays features the following eight abolitionists: John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner and David Walker. They are wax figures in a museum where the Curator has recently placed a Confederate flag. Using the actual words and writings of these eight historical figures a debate about whether or not to burn the controversial cloth is the core of the 50 minute play. In February 2009 during a performance at Riddick's Folly in Suffolk, VA a woman interrupted the performance with these words, "Nat Turner killed my family!" She directed this statement towards the actor who was playing the role of Nat Turner and she said it like it had just happened and not 178 years previously. Also in the audience where members of the Sons of the Confederacy who were concerned about what we intended to do to their flag. A big part of my theatre work is about bringing together people who would not ordinarily be in the same space and getting them to speak openly and honestly in the post-show discussion about what they've just seen onstage. Check out the post-show action at www.youtube.com/juneteenthva
In the end, I've come to realize that a scared young man using a symbol as a shield against his deepest fears is to be pitied. As a playwright I want to be a part of the healing that comes with finding the courage to honestly engage with those with whom I disagree. As a playwright I have the skills to tell a range of stories about the human condition and now I understand that all of those stories must be told with hope and not hate. As a southern, Black woman playwright I must connect stories of the past with the world we live in today. People must have ways to witness how on the backs of daily acts of simple decency and courage each of us can lift up those who would be burdens.
An eyewitness taking the time to report a minor traffic incident and a detective doing his job are examples of how each of us can make our communities stronger. It is an elderly woman coming to see a play written and performed by people whom she assumes will not understand her pain. And it is in those times when the world makes the least sense that it becomes the job of all of us to help the rest of us to understand and to accept the awful grace of God.