“And the Oscar Goes To…”

Exodus 15: 20 – 21 – Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN

February is Black History month. This morning I would like for us to transcend the ages and begin our celebration in Africa, two thousand years before the birth of Jesus. Two thousand years before the birth of Jesus, Moses traveled to Midian, in the southern part of the fertile crescent. There, Moses married a dark-skinned Midianite woman. That is, Moses married an Ethiopian, and the Ethiopia people in her family became counselors and advisors to Moses. The woman that Moses married was named Zipporah. Just recently, Dee Dee Seek sent me a text telling me that her favorite person in the Bible is Zipporah. I did not know much about Zipporah and I asked Dee Dee, “Why Zipporah?” Dee Dee very eloquently described Zipporah and then she added this, “Zipporah was courageous which led to personal risk taking! After God gave Moses his job assignment at the burning bush, he returned home to share the event with her. After she listened to everything he had to say, after some thought she said four words, ‘I’m coming with you,’ which meant for her, that she was returning to the land where she was not only wasn’t welcomed but disrespected, condemned, used for entertainment and held against her will, by the same man that her husband had to negotiate with. This was a very risky move for her, but she was willing to take that risk for her own life to help her husband and his nation of people.” Dee Dee added, “She did a have a good relationship with Miriam but Moses did have to catch some lip from his brother for his bridal choice! Prejudice has a longstanding history!” During this Black History month, I give thanks for the courage of Zipporah and those who follow in her footsteps.

After 400 years of enslavement, the Hebrews led by Zipporah, Moses, Aaron and Miriam fled Egypt. They crossed the Red Sea.  Meanwhile, the Egyptian army pursued them.  They made it across the sea safely and into the land of freedom.  They could only take a few precious items with them in their hurry as they tried to escape from the Egyptians.  What was one of those items that Miriam took?  A tambourine.  Miriam packed a tambourine even before she knew how the story would end.  In our scripture passage this morning, Miriam plays that tambourine and dances. She trusted God enough that even though the situation looked dim, she would dance again.  She would have reason to celebrate again.  She trusted that the God of the Dance would provide music once again.  During this Black History month, I give thanks for those who sing of dance in an age of despair. In the words of Otis Moss III, “Being born black means you are born with a Blues song tattooed on your heart, and at the same time you still have a Gospel shout that is welling up in your soul about to come out.” Miriam packed her tambourine.

During the time of the crucifixion, the Jews were condemning Jesus and calling for his death. The Roman Centurions drove nails into the hands and feet of Jesus. But Africa, represented by Simon of Cyrene, a black man from Northwest Africa, stepped in when everybody else was stepping back…Simon of Cyrene bore the cross of Christ up Calvary’s hill. During Black History month, I give thanks for the faithfulness of Simon of Cyrene (A Sermon for Black History Month, Bishop Blake).

In the book of Acts, an Ethiopian eunuch asks, Philip “What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”  Eunuchs were excluded from the Sanctuary because they were gender variant. The eunuch was asking Philip to be courageous enough to believe that the eunuch too was loved and welcomed and accepted by God. Philip boldly baptizes the eunuch into the family of God. The first gentile convert to Christianity is a black Ethiopian gender variant person. During Black History month, I give thanks for the resilience of the Ethiopian eunuch.

In the areas of science, art, medicine, government, law and culture, many of the nations of Africa were competitive with, and in many cases more advanced then, the other nations of the world in Europe during this period. All of this was devastated by the slave trade; by slavery and by colonialism. It is estimated that nearly 20 million Africans were made captive over the span of some 300 years, from 1517 until 1840. Perhaps not more than half of those shipped out from Africa ever made it alive in the New World (The Black Church in the US, William Banks).

What was the impact of the loss of 20 million of its inhabitants on the culture and nations of Africa? As Karen Rose quoted on her Facebook page this month, “They did not take slaves from Africa. They took engineers, doctors, architects, parents and children, then made them slaves!”

Yet, given all that African-Americans went through, the African American culture still produced Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, MLK, Malcolm X, Colin Powell, Barack Obama.   From the early days of slavery to one holding the highest position in the land, African Americans have exhibited determination, resilience, persistence, and tenacity. I give thanks for the celebration of Black History month!

Tonight, more black history may be made at the Oscars with 15 black nominees. Black Panther received seven nominations, including Best Picture, making it the first superhero film in history to be nominated in the category.  (Show video clip.)

Green Book has also been nominated for Best Picture. This movie is based on the Green Book, an actual book first published in 1936 by a postal carrier named Victor Hugo Green. Like most African Americans in the mid-20th century, Green had grown weary of the discrimination blacks faced whenever they ventured outside their neighborhoods. Green Book provided a rundown of hotels, service stations, drug stores, taverns, barber shops and restaurants that were known to be safe pots of call for African American travelers. Though largely unknown to whites, it eventually sold upwards of 15,000 copies per year and was widely used by black business travelers and vacationers alike.

In the true story movie, Green Book, Tony Lip, an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx accepts a job driving the renowned African-American Jazz Pianist Don Shirley through the Deep South in 1962 using the ‘Green Book.’ (Show video clip.)

BlacKkKlansman, another true story, was also nominated for Best Picture. In 1978, Ron Stallworth was working as a detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department when he came across a classified ad to find out more about the Ku Klux Klan — and answered it. Two weeks later, he got a call on the police department’s undercover operations line. It was the local KKK organizer. He asked Stallworth why he was interested in the KKK. Stallworth responded, “I want to join because I was a pure, Aryan, white man who was tired of the abuse of the white race by blacks and other minorities,” Stallworth recalls. In his new memoir, Black Klansman, he tells the story of how he hoodwinked the Ku Klux Klan into thinking he was one of them.

Unless, we think that racism is something of the past, BlacKkKlansman was released on the one year anniversary of Charlottesville and Spike Lee, the director, connected the 1978 story to 2017. (Show video clip.)

I give thanks for the possible black history that may be made tonight with 15 black nominees. But I also grieve that it has taken so long. In 2016, you may remember the hashtag#OscarsSoWhite in response to an all-white slate of acting nominees. This sent the Academy into a tailspin, resulting in an ambitious membership overhaul to diversify. As a result, in 2017, “Moonlight” won Best Picture and deservedly. By the way, Barry Jenkins, who is the Director of both Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk will be speaking this Tuesday night at the University of Redlands. You won’t want to miss it!

But there is still work to do and voices to raise. For tonight is Spike Lee’s very first Academy Award nomination. Lee has been making movies for the past 30 years. This should have been one of many for Lee, starting with the 1989’s “Do the Right Thing.” Undoubtedly, we often have failed to do the right thing.

When I asked people of color within the congregation what is the best way for white allies to support Black History month, this is what I heard:

  • Celebrate the contributions of African Americans throughout history and use your voice to speak out against injustice, discrimination, and prejudice.
  • Support black business owners.
  • Diversify your support. Remember that many people have multiple marginalized identities. For example, when thinking of ways to support the Black community, don’t just think of Black men. Black women face the stressors of both racism and sexism. And Black people who identify as LGBTQ often experience marginalization at the intersection of racism, homophobia, anti-trans sentiment, and other factors.
  • Remember we are individuals. Black Americans are often put into the same category by historical experience, but it’s important that you see us as individuals and not just members of a collective group.
  • Keep growing and continue to be ever aware of your own white privilege.

As we celebrate Black History, may we rejection the racialized imagination of America. May we dream of a world not yet created. May we affirm that Black History is sacred history. May we celebrate Black History not just in the month of February, but all year long! Amen.