All The Stars Aflame

All The Stars Aflame

It is pleasant and sunny on this Ohio morning in mid-July 2020.  The temperature is still in the low 70s:  a good time for my 8-year old daughter Chloe and me to weed the flower beds in our backyard.  “Tell me a story,” she says, as she often does.

“About what?”

“Our family.”  She means our forebears.  Of late we’ve been tracing our family tree on

“The people on my mom’s side of the family,” I say, “enslaved other people in South Carolina.”  I would not long ago have said “owned slaves,” and it still sounds odd to my ears to express it the new, disquieting, but more accurate way.  “They grew mostly cotton.  What do you suppose is involved with growing cotton?”

She guesses that it involves planting, harvesting, and processing the cotton.

“It also involves weeding.  A lot of it. That is what slaves mainly did:  weed the rows of cotton.”

Like most of us, Chloe dislikes weeding, and the idea that people could be forced to spend their entire lives at this chore makes an impression.  She asks how our ancestors thought it was okay to make people do this.

The actual answer to this is complicated but I just say, “The Bible.  Slaveholders would point to Bible verses, like Leviticus 25, verse 44:  ‘Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids.’”  “Heathen” are people who don’t believe in God.  Europeans saw Africans that way, and when they enslaved them they also made them Christians, and taught them Bible verses like that to make them think that slavery was okay.

Chloe does not miss the contradiction that people who were now converted to Christianity could still be heathens.  Our ancestors did not miss it, either.  “They told themselves that they were civilizing Africans, that their lives as slaves in America were better than their lives in Africa.  Of course, once the slaves knew about the Bible they also knew about the Exodus. When they worked in the fields they would sing songs, and one of them was . . .”—I start to sing:

“Go down, Moses

’Way down in Egypt land.

Tell ol’ Pharaoh

Let my people go.”

They were singing about oppression and freedom and there wasn’t anything their masters could do about it.  “People find ways to resist,” I tell Chloe.

Chloe knows something about that.  We have a “Black Lives Matter” sign in our yard and have marched together in a Black Lives Matter demonstration.

Later we take our 2012 Honda Civic to a shop to have the muffler assembly replaced.  We enter the shop wearing masks.  None of the three men inside is wearing one; I can read on the face of the man behind the cash register that he isn’t too happy we are.  Wearing a mask, or not wearing one, in the United States in the midst of a global pandemic is a political statement.

One of the men leaves to drive our Civic onto a hydraulic lift to have a look at the muffler.  I shoot the breeze with the other two.  I happen to mention that Dan Snyder is changing the name of the Washington Redskins.

I might as well have picked my nose and eaten the booger.  The man behind the desk grimaces in disgust. “I’m just sick of it,” he says.  Everybody is offended by everything, he says—oblivious to the fact that he himself is offended that Snyder is changing the name of the Redskins.  What’s next? The Atlanta Braves?  The Cleveland Indians?

“The Pittsburgh Steelers,” offers the other man.  “Because it offends thieves.”

I don’t challenge them because it would be pointless.  You can’t change anyone’s mind without first taking time to get to know them and as for “speaking truth to power”—well, how much power have these guys really got?

Very little, I think.  Like me, they possess white skins, and for centuries that has in itself conferred power.  But those centuries are behind us and the curtain is at last closing upon the era of white dominance.  That is what the man is really sick of.

I can understand: I was born in North Carolina in the waning years of legal segregation.  One of the first things I learned was that white people were better than other people.  It is a hard thing to unlearn.  Part of me will never unlearn it.

The repair shop is within walking distance of our house, so Chloe and I leave the car and head home on foot.  We talk some about what the man said and what he really meant.

Back in the 1960s, I tell her, a Black man named James Baldwin wrote a letter to his young nephew on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, telling him in a way that was eloquent and heart-breaking that he must love the whites who would insist he was worthless.  I had to paraphrase much of what Baldwin said for Chloe but I have his words before me and can tell them to you directly.

“Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame.  You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. . . . Well, the black man”—and he could just as well have said the Native American, the Hispanic, or the Asian—“has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar:  and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”

Look up:  all the stars are aflame.

2 Replies to “All The Stars Aflame”

  1. See how capitalism works? “I would not long ago have said “owned slaves,” and it still sounds odd to my ears to express it the new, disquieting, but more accurate way.” Thereby, you’ve removed the essential labor relation of slavery, and made it a race relation, which is false. With this falsehood, you misled Chloe from the get go. Congrats.

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