Looking for information about archives of Unitarian Universalist materials, I tried to contact the UU Historical Society people and found them in state of transition. No website, a new title, no physical existence. In fact, I stepped into a river of memory and institutional force. The denomination itself was a product of Enlightenment, one of the great movements of white culture that gave us the very concept of progress and participated vitally in the industrial revolution. A big part of its emphasis on rationality was “Progressivism” which applied straight thinking to social progress. Much of the resulting focus has been on feminism and racism.
I was put in contact with Rev. Connie Simon, who is the new organizer of the UU historical society and a vital black minister which was a surprise since usually it’s old white guy. Aside from totally confusing her about who I was since I’ve been gone from the movement long enough to be a living but obscure archive myself, the subject of Mark Morrison-Reed came up. Since Mark is black and hopes to integrate black issues deeper into the UU movement, he’s written many books; he and his wife Donna are now retired from active ministry. Mark was two years ahead of me at Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago.
Mark and I didn’t interact much but he says he remembers me. I certainly remember him, misinterpreted him as arrogant, without time for an old (40) atypical white woman like me. Now I got curious. Rev. Connie is in awe of his formidable scholarship, but I discovered one of his books was personal: “In Between: Memoir of an Integration Baby.” Yesterday I finished it — it had come the day before.
Much overlap here and a lot of it explanatory. Mark’s struggle to remain in his high-powered family while defending his identity included years at a Swiss boarding school in scenery much like Glacier National Park where I am (close anyway). He has the same kind of struggle that I know of as Blackfeet Indian fights to become educated and vital in the larger affairs of the nation. It’s familiar to those called “half-breeds.” A bit of it is like my own cranky path to being an “intellectual” in a place that dislikes “brainy” people, esp. female versions. One of Mark’s threads is the Swiss foehn wind, a version of the sequence of catabatic air movement that famously affects people. Our version here is called the “Chinook”, and welcomed because in winter it eats snow. Blowing as I type.
What I thought was arrogance — since he was a cherished anomaly in Hyde Park which is a village of privileged whites in the middle of what was then the rubble of former neighborhoods across the South Side of Chicago — was mostly preoccupation with his work in a time of violent but morally driven change. The demands from the outside political world were as strong as those from his own psyche and family. He does not hold back from telling personal tales. But he protects the privacy of his white wife except for the relevance and value of their marriage. He does not ignore his friends no matter their color, age or gender.
I won’t suddenly become motivated to rejoin the UU’s nor study Black history on this continent. (Donna was Canadian and Mark moved his citizenship and location to Canada as well.) My political affiliation is now post-Enlightenment, post-Newtonian, and even post-humanism. The strand of these movements that is labeled “nature” has now for me become the key to an astounding new understanding that’s far beyond squabbling over theism.
Nevertheless, I’ve been time and memory hopping through Mark’s book. He doesn’t say much about Meadville or even about the U of Chicago Div School, but mentions much about the First Unitarian Church where he was an active livelong member. Over there I attended church and used the services of the Outside-In, a counseling clinic run by Rev. Gene Robinson, who may have come after Mark’s time. Gene, a very big and vital black man (Baptist), ran a counseling group for wannabe ministers which I was pressed to join.
Gene said he loved watching my white face turn colors. He hired me for a summertime transition secretary and later defended me in a Clinical Pastoral Care supervision discussion that I didn’t know about until later. Mark says nothing about his CPE, which is a required part of UU ministerial training, usually pretty intense.
The media has picked up an iconic use of actors like James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, and Djimon Hounsou to represent the moral element of stories. Powerful men with booming voices, they own the space. But Mark is not one of them. Rather I would group him with younger, frankly brainier black men like Obama, maybe some of the English black actors like Idris Alba, but he is no Spike Lee. So much for the use of movie casting to explain character and presentation.
Maybe it sounds a bit bonkers to say that a person who was a small part of one’s more crucial past turns out to be far more than the easy obvious. I suppose I should relate more to the tide of Black politics that has washed over Portland where I used to live. They are quite different from Mark, originally Southerners brought in by Kaiser during WWII to be ship-building labor, mostly rural and carrying a culture of their own. Good manners was none of it. There were gangs, noise and danger.
I was intrigued by how often Mark noted chain-smoking as a marker of class, which was discussed on the PBS evening news last night because of black fondness for menthol cigarettes and cigars now being outlawed as health destroying. Like mission-raised indigenous people, Mark carries the values of good manners, self-containment, and dignity while covertly struggling with the rage that comes from imposed indignity, misunderstanding, and injustice. These are the universal dilemmas of inequity, whether due to education, work, wealth, or gender. Especially sharp are the feelings of former slaves or the People of the Americas who were here when those troublesome Euros arrived.
Not all of my classmates were respected by me or even known, really. I was shocked by some of them. I sneer at others. I don’t think Mark was there when the library was set on fire. He didn’t “cat around” like some. But with this book he suddenly becomes real. I guess history can do that.