Sunday, 6 February 2011

Bury Me In A Free Land

"Moreover I have heard the groan of the Children of Israel whom Egypt enslaves and I have remembered my covenant. Therefore, say to the Children of Israel: "I am the Lord, and I shall take you out from under the burden of Egypt, I shall rescue you from their service; I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgements. I shall take you to Me for a people, and I shall be a God to you; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who takes you out from under the burden of Egypt." Exodus 6:5-6

This past week, our screens and newspapers have been filled with images of mass protests in the name of liberty in the land of the Nile, and the refusal of a modern day Pharaoh to relinquish power. Much has been said about this struggle and the possible results and consequences for Egypt, the Middle East and the wider world it may bring about. It brought to my mind a poem I had found on a link on the Unitarian Ministries International website's section on Black History Month. The poem is entitled "Bury Me In A Free Land" and was penned by Frances Harper 1825-1911 an indefatigable struggler for freedom. The poem is beautiful and the life of the amazing woman who wrote it is even more inspirational.

Frances was born in Baltimore to free African-American parents. Orphaned at an early age she was raised by her aunt and uncle, a minister who was a passionate abolitionist and campaigner for civil rights at a very difficult time in US history. She found work as a seamstress when young, in a Quaker home whose religious principles clearly influenced her later in life, but her mind at that time was focused on writing and indeed she wrote her first poetry at the age of 20. In less than a decade her writing had become very popular and her reputation began to grow throughout the United States. Following a worsening situation for black people in Maryland, she moved to Ohio where she resolved to use her talents to educate others and ended up teaching at the Union Seminary. Her mind always on the suffering of her fellow black Americans, she joined the American Anti-Slavery Association, an organisation that bravely braced hostility and significant violence in its campaign for emancipation. While living in Pennsylvania she and her husband helped many escaped slaves flee to safety in Canada on the Underground Railroad, (the network of informal and secret routes and safe-houses) and it was during this time that she came to know of Unitarianism, a denomination that was known for its pursuit of abolition. Frances travelled around the country giving talks and lectures to strengthen the resolve of abolitionists and to open minds closed with prejudice and fear. Abolition was not the only controversial cause she supported and advocated. She believed strongly in women's suffrage and urged women to think beyond the limitations placed upon them by society as in powerful writings such as:

"Talk as you will of woman's deep capacity for loving, of the strength of her affectional nature. I do not deny it; but will the mere possession of any human love, fully satisfy all the demands of her whole being? . . . But woman—the true woman—if you would render her happy, it needs more than the mere development of her affectional nature. Her conscience should be enlightened, her faith in the true and right established, and scope given to her Heaven-endowed and God-given faculties."

She was also a supporter of prohibition, believing as many people of faith did that alcohol was the source of far too much harm to the poor and vulnerable. And of course she was also a committed, proud and faithful Unitarian, cleaving to her faith in the Divine Unity, and striving to emulate and follow the teachings of the man Jesus. During this time she continued with her writing and in 1892 she published the highly successful "Iola Leroy/Shadows Uplifted" one of the first African American novels. Throughout her career much of the money she made from her writing was used to assist the freeing of slaves. Such was the regard she was held in for her political advocacy that she was made vice president of the "National Association of Colored Women", whose objective was to "furnish evidence of the moral, mental and material progress made by people of color through the efforts of our women". In her role she worked with the association in its battle for women's suffrage and in its campaigns against the Apartheid-like Jim Crow laws. This woman, engaged as she was in the struggles of so many in her nation, was no Dickensian Mrs Jellyby caricature. Despite her heavy responsibilities she still found time to help feed the local poor and work to bring the young people in her vicinity out of delinquency. She died a heroine of Civil Rights and Unitarianism on February 22 1911 having invested for herself a great treasure of the type that Jesus taught us:

"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust corrupt, and where thieves do no break through or steal:
For where you treasure is, there will your heart be also."
Matthew 6:19-21

Throughout her life Frances was deeply moved by the biblical figure of Moses, and wrote poignantly about him in several of her poems, speaking about him in many of her lectures. The story of the exodus from Egypt resonated with her struggle to bring African-Americans out of slavery into a land that honoured its creed of liberty. I find the following words of hers deeply moving, speaking directly as they do to my own deeply held beliefs:

"Had Moses preferred the luxury of an Egyptian palace to the endurance of hardships with his people," she asked, "would the Jews have been the race to whom we owe the most, not perhaps for science and art, but for the grandest of all sciences, the science of a true life of joy and trust in God, of God-like forgiveness and divine self-surrender?"

She saw Moses as an example of leadership that could be beneficial for the release from servitude of her own people languishing under the fetters of slavery and prejudice. I think it more than fair to say that she herself lived the words that she placed into Moses' mouth in her poem "Moses: A Story on the Nile":

"Let me tell thee, gracious princess, 'tis no sudden freak nor impulse wild that moves my mind,
I feel an earnest purpose binding all.
My soul unto a strong resolve, which bids me put aside all other ends and aims,
Until the hour shall come when God - the God our fathers loved and worshipped - shall break our chains,
And lead our willing feet to freedom."

One cannot downplay the success and strength of this woman, to have achieved so much when state and much of society where actively working against people of colour. Following on from my post of last week, how narrow we imagine our potential to be! And how Frances Harper and the many like her inspire us to be more than we are, to broaden our perspectives and not feel that our environment prevents us from actualising our potential.

Our press and other media have been filled with opinion as to whether or not the events in Egypt are good or not. Ironically those who were silent when the pro-western people of Iran rose up against the obscurantist and totalitarian religiously criminal regime ruling their country recently, and who where even less supportive of the calls for freedom in the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon are some of the most eager celebrants of the ever developing revolution in Egypt. And equally ironically, those who were vociferous defenders of the ousting of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and who offered justification for the war in Iraq on the grounds of freedom and democracy, are now some of the harshest critics of America for "abandoning" such a useful ally in the form of Mubarak! Truly confusing times of political and ethical cross-dressing.

Personally I only hope that dictators everywhere tremble in their extravagantly wealthy homes, and lose sleep over the prospect of their abused and suffering people rising up against them. I also hope that both the protesters in Egypt and those of other countries heed the words of Martin Luther King uttered in that most moving and history-defining speech in Washington 1963 when he said:

"In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."

There are people of bravery and integrity in country after country ruled by despotic dictators and it is our duty to help them as much as is possible for us to do, even if only to write them a letter or email of support, to show them that what they do is valued by people around the word. To this end we should take seriously the words of Isaiah:

"Is this not the fast I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness
to undo the heavy burdens
to let the oppressed go free.
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out:
When you see the naked, that you cover him and not hide yourself from your own flesh?"
Isaiah 58:6-7

One such courageous individual is Catherine Buckle from Marondera in Zimbabwe. After having her farmland and property stolen in 2000 by Robert Mugabe's so called War Veterans, she has been writing and blogging about the troubles of her beloved country. She dedicates herself to making known the wrong that was done and continues to be done to millions of Zimbabweans, both black and white, by a government that cares nothing for those to whom it is responsible. I highly recommend her blog, if nothing else to remind us of what is going on and to inspire in us courage to deal with the thankfully much smaller problems in our own land and communities.

In these times of great change may the Almighty, in whose Hands are the hearts of Kings guide the nations to a more peaceful, united, respectful and holy future.

Make me a grave where'er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth's humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.
I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.
I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother's shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.
I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.
I'd shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.
If I saw young girls from their mother's arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.
I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.
I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.


Steve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve said...

Another very insightful piece

Zahhar said...

I just discovered this poem. Looking for a good, well formatted copy online to share Facebook. I like your post here.