Hatred can come out of nowhere.
I was once camping on an island in the middle of Lake Ocoee when someone sped by in speedboat shouting a racist slur at my friend Alex who was sitting right next to me. Alex did not seem surprised or alarmed. As the boat sped off into the distance he turned to me and said something he clearly did not really mean, “Now there goes a brave man.”
On another camping trip a group of us were swimming in a swimming hole near a waterfall in the middle of the Cherokee National forest when an old man came out of nowhere and went on a racist diatribe against my friend Creed in an effort to run us all off. He forgot to factor in that he was outnumbered.
Hatred can come out of nowhere
In the Unitarian Universalist church we often speak about the beauty of the earth and the wonders of nature but the truth is we can be camping on a island in the middle of a lake or swimming by a pristine waterfall in the wilderness when hatred comes out of nowhere.
There’s no escaping it.
A friend recently told me about his wife who was working as a nurse in a hospital when a patient insulted her and demanded a white nurse. Such outrages happen daily across the country.
When the President recently referred to Haiti and African and Central American countries as shitholes (that’s one word I though I’d never say from the pulpit) his behavior was shocking to some of us but not surprising to all of us. As the Reverend John Butler says, “The problems in the White House are symptomatic of the problems in every house.”
Call me naïve but up until recent times I thought we were making some progress in this country. However after careful reflection I am coming to understand why Malcolm X once said that when white people talk about racial progress its like a mugger who pulls the knife halfway out and calls it progress.
Now as a white person it is tempting for me to get defensive about such comments but then I remember how hatred can come out of nowhere. I remember that day on island or that afternoon by a waterfall or that nurse who has to figure out how to heal someone who hates her.
Malcolm X said if black people feel wary of white people it might be because , “If all of your ancestors have been snake bitten and you have been snake bitten then you just might want to teach your children to be wary of snakes. “
Over my sabbatical I reread The Autobiography of Malcolm X with special attention to the Epilogue by Alex Haley. I also read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a book about racism in the criminal justice system. Both books are good books but anyone who has ever read them can tell you than can be some heavy reading and so I decided to read something light, fun, escapist so I picked up a copy the Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.
I’m told that my choice of an escapist book says something about me-as 19th century literature is not everybody’s idea of escapism. Nevertheless, I picked up the book in the same way someone might go to see a blockbuster action movie. I was hoping to be immersed in a rollicking tale of swashbuckling adventure-and it worked- at least for a little while.
For a little while I escaped into the world of imagination in the company of the musketeers D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramas as they defended the honor of the Queen of France from the Machiavellian maneuvering of Cardinal Richelieu and the fierce vengeance of Milady de Winter.
The book is a good read. Strictly speaking, the musketeers are not paragons of virtue. Many of their choices do not measure up to contemporary ethical standards. The musketeers have a puppy dog quality to them, overly eager and overly energetic and hormone driven. They bumble into each other and other people with testosterone-fueled dreams of fame, honor, glory and romance. Their unity has a sibling like quality full of mutual adoration and mutual competition nevertheless we all know the oath that binds them together, “All for one and one for all.”
I enjoyed the Three Musketeers so much I decided to read the next book in the series and then the next book and then the next book and then the next book and finally finished the series with The Man in the Iron Mask.
Over my sabbatical I was in France serving as minister in residence and guest preacher to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Paris. During that time I decided to take a pilgrimage to The Chateau de Monte Cristo, the historic home of the author of the Three Musketeers Alexandre Dumas.
This chateau is named after another one of Dumas’ famous books The Count of Monte Cristo which is a story of revenge about a man who is falsely imprisoned in an island fortress with disastrous consequences for him and eventually for the people who put him there.
In the Chateau de Monte Cristo there was an exhibition where I learned something about the author that I did not know before. During his lifetime Alexandre Dumas was a constant target for racist attacks.
His father, Thomas Alexandre Dumas, was the child of a Haitian slave and a rebellious French nobleman. Although his father was mixed race all existing portraits showing him to be a very black man.(Picture of Thomas Alexandre Dumas below)
If you look closely at photographs of the author Alexander Dumas you can see that his hair is approaching what we might now call an Afro. Because of his heritage he became a target for bigots. The exhibit contained racist broadsides that had been printed in the press and repeated in salons. There were also cartoons depicting Dumas as a cannibal with exaggerated lips and hair and savage-like appearance. The attacks were so constant that sometimes Dumas found ways to deflect them with a witty comment. When someone told him that his family was descended from monkeys he replied, “Yes my family starts where yours ends.” (Picture of the author below)
One of the more interesting things that I’ve learned since the visit to that home is that many characters in Dumas’ novels are patterned after his father Thomas Alexandre-Dumas, who left Haiti and made his way to France where he got military training in fencing, swordsmanship and combat. He came of age in the comparatively egalitarian era of the French Revolution and was able rise from a new recruit to a brigadier general in the French army and commander of over 50,000 men. He was the first person of color to become a brigadier general in France and the highest ranked military person of color in the Western world until Colin Powell surpassed him in rank in the late 20th century.
If you are interested in learning more about him I highly recommend the book The Black Count by Tom Reiss. Reading the book I could see how Thomas Alexandre Dumas helped inspire his son to create such vivid characters and write such good stories. He had the courage approaching foolhardiness of D’Artagnan, the gravity and brooding nature of Athos, the romantic spirit of Aramis and the brute strength and appetite of Porthos. Indeed, Thomas Alexandre Dumas was such a larger than life human being that his son had to create 4 different fictional white characters to try and capture the essence of one black man. (In the BBC series The Three Musketeers the character Porthos is black as a tip of the hat to this history.)
General Dumas was like one of those action movie heroes who can fight off five or six people at once only he actually could do it in real life. Incidences of him defeating multiple assailants are well documented. He was constantly volunteering for the most dangerous missions and defying the odds to achieve victory. Napoleon saw him as a rival. He was also once falsely imprisoned in a military fortress so not only was he D’Artagnan and Aramis and Athos and Porthos he was also the Count of Monte Cristo.
So by now you may be wondering why I am telling this story about an immigrant from Haiti, an immigrant from Haiti that fought bravely for the revolutionary ideals of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” , an immigrant from Haiti who inspired his son to write some of the most widely known and celebrated works of literature the world has ever known. Here’s why.
February is Black History month but I am here today to tell you that there is a lot of Black History hiding in the middle of supposed White History. And along those lines let me tell you about another book, one of the hidden gems of world literature, a book by Alexandre Dumas that is rarely if ever mentioned Georges.
The story is set on the Isle of France, an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa now known as Mauritus. Dumas describes Georges as a mulato, “one of those unfortunate colonial beings that cannot be forgiven for their color no matter how much success or wealth…they attain.” He writes about the sense of inferiority Georges feels in the presence of whites. He feels robbed of his self-respect.
Georges is a man who is tired of feeling like he must spend his entire life apologizing for his own existence. Eventually he becomes angry not only at his oppressors but at those who accept their own oppression. He is able to affirm his own worth and dignity. All of this leads up to Georges’ decision to lead a slave insurrection against the French colonial powers. As he launches this violent revolution he declares, “I have a prejudice to fight. Either it must destroy me or I it.”
One cannot help but feel that the author of this book Alexandre Dumas is working through some of his own emotions about what it is like to be on the receiving end of hatred and racism. The thoughts of Georges seem to offer us a window into his soul.
Because I am a good person I am not going to tell you how this story ends #nospoilers. However I can tell you that this book is an adventure story that could compete with any Spielberg movie. The story has battles at sea, shark attacks, sword fights, hand to hand combat, armies clashing, dramatic rescues, narrow escapes, separated lovers and romantic reunions. Our hero is often in peril. Alexandre Dumas is nothing if not an entertaining storyteller.
However, as I bring this sermon to a close, I want to say that my point this morning is not to recommend good literature to you, even though I do recommend these books to you. Instead today I want to remind you what was true then is true now, the wealthy and the successful are not spared the viciousness of racism. Bryant Gumbel, a wealthy, successful, famous television broadcaster has talked about his own experiences with racism saying, “You can’t buy your way out of it. You can’t educate your way out of it…this is nothing to do with the victims and everything to do with the culture of demeaning a person of color.”
Hatred can come out of nowhere. There is no escaping it. We have yet to create a culture where the knife of racism has been completely withdrawn from the body or where every child is free from the danger of snakebite. And yet the fact is that racism is a lie. Bigotry is a lie. Prejudice is a lie and this is important for us to know because it’s the truth that sets us free.
And the truth is that there is a unity that underlies our diversity. Nothing disempowers the bullies of the world quite like unity. The best way to address intolerant is to be sure the forces of fairness always outnumber them. As Rumi wrote – all of the people, all of the religions, all of the singing is one song. As the Haitian flag tells us “L’union fait la force.” Unity makes strength. Or as Dr. King used to say, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” No one is free until everyone is free. There are truly global implications for the oath made famous by the three musketeers, “All for one and one for all.”
(The Reverend Chris Buice delivered this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday January 28, 2018)