No Crystal Stair – a sermon in honour of Black History Month

Let us join together in the spirit of meditation or prayer…

Giver of Life
Source of all Love
We’ve all known times
when we were less than we wanted to be.
Give us the strength to grow into our best selves.
Open us to your touch
In words, in silence, in music
Sometimes our faith and actions are at odds.
Help us forgive ourselves
And begin again in love
Sometimes we are desolate
Come to us in the hand of one who cares
When we feel alone
Help us to melt the boundaries of fear and separateness
Give us eyes to see.
Eyes to see our own pain
In another’s face
Our own transformation
In another’s joy
When we are empty
Fill us again to overflowing
And may we bring our own thoughts and prayers
to rest in the blessed silence,
rising again in the song…


Mother to Son

by Langston Hughes from Collected Poems

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

“No Crystal Stair” – A Sermon for Black History Month

First of all, I would like to thank the Hamilton African Methodist Episcopal Group “God’s Children,” for blessing us with their Music Ministry this morning. I would also like to thank Beverly Horton for going to some effort to share resources with me for this sermon. There was a time when it only would have required one cup of tea with our own Cynthia Taylor, who had one of the best collections in Canada of Undergound Railroad and Black History resources, and for past sermons on related subjects, I had the pleasure and luxury of that cup of tea. Since Cynthia has been gone, her wisdom and knowledge has been carried far and wide, and I thank Beverly for collecting it again for me. I dedicate this service to Cynthia, who would have loved to be here, and to her passion for Canada’s Black History and its Multi-Cultural future.

Atop a hill not far from my house stands a very simple old board house. I encountered it one day when I was out for a long walk and noticed a simple sign beside a driveway that wound out of sight. Curious, I followed the road up the hill, and came face to face with what I realized was an amazing piece of Canadian Black History – the Enerals Griffin House. Enerals Griffin was born into slavery in the American south, but the story goes, had been promised his freedom. When his “master” died before the bond of freedom could be written, Enerals, who could read and write, wrote his own letter, took a horse and headed north toward Canada. He was stopped at least once in Ohio, where it was suspected that the horse wasn’t his, and, when it was discovered that he could read and write, also suspected of writing his own letter.

When asked to write his name to provide a sample of his penmanship, Griffin cleverly disguised his handwriting and was let go. He made his way to this area, where in 1834, (30 years before slaves were granted their freedom by the Emancipation Proclamation!) town records show that he paid 125 pounds for the house on the hill. His descendants lived there until 1988, when it was bought by the Dundas Valley Conservation authority, restored and turned into an historical stop on the Black History Tour in the south – southern Ontario that is.

As I read part of this incredible story and peeped in the window at the displays on one side, an 1800s fireplace and little living room on the other, shivers went down my spine. I climbed down and walked around to the back of the house that looks out over the Dundas Valley. An old stand of original peonies still blossoms in the spring, and you can see the bones of rail fences and fields that were tilled and planted long ago. Beyond is one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen – and I was there at sunset. I sat down and watched the colours change over an incredibly beautiful expanse of rolling hills and trees, and thought to myself “What must this man, born into slavery, have felt when he sat in this exact place, and looked out over his own land, that he planted and tilled by the sweat of his brow – for the first time – for the benefit of his own family? What must it have felt like to own property, instead of being property?

I think that just for one instant, I felt a small sense of how and why someone would risk everything – even their own life – for freedom. I got a first-hand account of one Black History story of this area – which is a history of incredible courage and determination. Our Black History story is very different than the one celebrated south of the border. This is where people began the life they had risked everything to find. Canada was often seen as “The Promised Land” on the other side of the River Jorden. And while it was not a land of milk and honey; those who made it here still faced racism and discrimination – as one fugitive slave said “Although I have been poor here, I would rather be wholly poor and free than to have all I could wish and still be a slave.”

So I believe that a Canadian honouring of Black History Month must at its heart be stories of triumph. Against that backdrop we tell of the struggles, always remembering and celebrating how they were overcome as well as the important work that remains.
But slavery is a part of the story, so let us begin there. The painful human history of slavery is a complex one. It existed in the African tribal communities from whence North American slaves came, and in our existing Aboriginal communities, where vanquished enemies were often either killed or enslaved. It has existed all over the world, including in the early Greek and Roman societies that gave rise to our Western ideas of democracy, equality and citizenship. (It bears remembering that in the place that gave birth to our democracy, it only included free men – not slaves or women!)

While it took a particular organized form with societal sanction in the southern United States, it has been around since the beginning of time (it is mentioned in the Bible and many far more ancient texts) and speaks to the worst in human nature – our willingness, all of our willingness – to see the other as less than ourselves.

It is not true (as is commonly believed) that Canada had no slavery. As a British and French colony (one who had imposed virtual apartheid (and some would say genocide) on its original inhabitants, the First Nations, Inuit and Metis people) slaves were brought to Canada in the early 1600s. Slavery was originally legal under both early French and British colonization.

Most African Canadians who can trace their roots to enslavement in this country are descended from slaves brought north by United Empire Loyalists (those living in the thirteen American colonies who were loyal to the crown) fleeing the American Revolution in the late 1700s. It’s true that we did outlaw it earlier than some. Nova Scotia outlawed slavery in 1787 and Upper Canada (now Ontario) in 1793 (interestingly, the same year that the first Fugitive Slave Law was enacted in the U.S. Congress – allowing the pursuit and recovery of slaves in adjoining free states – thereby making Canada the only truly safe haven for escaped slaves.) Some historians believe that the outlawing of slavery in the colonies (including us) was a factor in the outlawing of slavery in Britain in 1807 and the rise of the abolition movement in England.

But in Canada today, far more African Canadians trace their roots to legal immigration into this country (from Africa and Europe as well as from the Caribbean and the U.S. where they may still find a connection to slavery in their history) and to the former slaves who traveled the Underground Railroad of freedom that led to Canada. And the area near where we live, on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario, is particularly rich in railroad folklore; Harriet Tubman’s church (and the final stop on her famous and extremely successful railroad) is just down the road in St. Catharines, as are dozens of historical sites like the Griffin House.

One of Cynthia Taylor’s many varied interests was organizing local tours of the “Railroad” which I am sure many of you know, had nothing to do with trains and everything to do with courageous women and men seeking freedom, and the people who helped then, quite a few Unitarians among them. (perhaps our most famous “conductor” was the family and house of Henry David Thoreau of Walden Pond fame, whose house in Concord Massachusetts was a well-traveled station on the railroad.
He wrote his famous piece called “Civil Disobedience” on the act of going to jail for his refusal to pay taxes that would support the evil of slavery. His writing inspired Gandhi, who in turn was an inspiration to Martin Luther King Jr. )

There are many, many stories of unbelievable bravery relating to the road to freedom. I remember reading the story of Harriet Tubman as a child in a book of stories my mom gave me about courageous girls and women. Perhaps because my sense of direction is so terrible, her story impressed me the most! She made the trip by foot from Maryland to Pennsylvania (and ultimately St. Catharines) 19 times, rescuing 300 people in the process. Called the “Black Moses” for leading her people away from slavery, at a time when people’s annual income was measured in the hundreds, there was a $40,000 price on her head – a number that people estimate would be somewhere between 5 and 10 million dollars today!

What kind of courage, strength and intelligence do you need to have, having already found freedom for yourself – to go back to a place where your capture would bring someone a lifetime of wealth and ease – and to it again and again and again? This story ends in our back yard! I hope that each one of you follows the trail that Cynthia Taylor helped lay out and take your kids or yourself for a ride on the Underground Railroad. Teach them about the cleverness of people who were denied an education, couldn’t read or write, and yet used ingenious code songs as maps to Canada and freedom.

We heard “Wade in the Water” this morning; if you look at another hymn in our Hymnbook # 152, you’ll find a complex set of directions and timelines for crossing over into Canada. The Drinking Gourd is the Big Dipper, whose handle points to the North Star – north to Canada. (Thanks to Beverly Horton for this explanation)

“When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd;
For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.”

“When the sun comes back” means winter and spring when the altitude of the sun at noon is higher each day. Quail are migratory birds wintering in the south… The verse tells slaves to leave in the winter and walk towards the drinking gourd. Most escapees had to cross the Ohio River which is too wide and too swift to swim. The Railroad struggled with the problem of how to get escapees across, and with experience, came to believe the best crossing time was winter. Then the river was frozen, and escapees could walk across the ice. Since it took most escapees a year to travel from the south to the Ohio, the Railroad urged slaves to start their trip in winter in order to be at the Ohio the next winter.

“The river bank makes a very good road,
The dead trees show you the way.
Left foot, peg foot, traveling on
Follow the drinking gourd.”

This verse taught slaves to follow the bank of the Tombigbee River north looking for dead trees that were marked with drawings of a left foot and a peg foot. The markings distinguished the Tombigbee from other north-south rivers that flowed into it.

“The river ends between two hills
Follow the drinking gourd.
There’s another river on the other side
Follow the drinking gourd.”

These words told the slaves that when they reached the headwaters of the Tombigbee, they were to continue north over the hills until they met another river. Then they were to travel north along the new river which is the Tennessee River. A number of southern escape routes converged on the Tennessee.

“When the great big river meets the little river
Follow the drinking gourd.
For the old man is awaiting to carry you to freedom if you
Follow the drinking gourd.”

This verse told the slaves the Tennessee joined another river. They were to cross that river (which is the Ohio River) and on the north bank, meet a guide from the Underground Railroad.

These are amazing stories, worthy of the telling. So, in some ways, Black History in Canada focuses on the journey that began with freedom. And yet it must also include both the struggles and accomplishments of African Canadians since that time – whether newly arrived or long descended from those courageous early citizens who found their way to safe haven. Because freedom from slavery is not freedom from prejudice, racism or oppression. As difficult as the journey to physical freedom was for many, the journey to freedom from these even more cruel masters was harder still.

Do you remember the statement during the early days of feminism that women had to be twice as good to get half as far? (The answer, as I recall was “Fortunately, that’s not a problem!”) How much truer was this for people of colour – and is still true in many ways and in many places?

Our own Ray Lewis, Olympic and Commonwealth Games Medalist (they were called the British Empire Games then, and first held right here in Hamilton in 1930) who ran on cinders alongside the trains upon which he worked as a porter, like many black women and men of accomplishment, lived daily with the strange bedfellows of honour and disrespect – honour for his athletic prowess and the medals he earned for Canada, and the daily indignities of racism, hatred and inequity that he encountered in his working life. Life was “no crystal stair” for Ray Lewis, – but he made of it a remarkable climb.

In 2001, like our beloved Lincoln Alexander before him (the first black man elected Member of Parliament) Ray was awarded our country’s highest honour, the Order of Canada, and he had this to say about it “Every time I recall receiving the Order of Canada, I think of what it took to get to that podium in Ottawa. Relentless drive. A willingness to sacrifice my own comfort for the good of my athletic endeavours. The ability to look into the face of hatred and not hate myself or those who would hold me back from achieving my goals.

These are the qualities that young people, no matter who they are or where they live, must hold in order to succeed, in whatever endeavour they choose to pursue. My life was not all that uncommon, given the times in which I grew up. I did what I could to do well, living in the shadow of racism and running hard to achieve those things that were too often simply handed to other people.”

The racism of Canada today is perhaps more subtle than that faced by Ray and others in the 30s, 40s or 50s, but it is still there nevertheless. As the man I questioned in Birmingham, Alabama said to me when I asked if things were so much better now, the way the Birmingham Tourist bureau would have you believe “You don’t have to lynch a man to keep him down.”

One lesson we need to remember in celebrating Black History Month is that our work is not over. Our world is rent with divisions of tribe, peoples, countries, religions and ethnic hatred. The same sad sins of our fathers live in our hearts and lives, and each of us has a personal responsibility to make our soul a place where something different can grow. Some sense of our basic humanity that can look into the eyes of any man, woman or child and see the face of God reflected there – or even just the reflection of our own eyes. A sense of the ways in which we have been complicit in creating or benefitting from a world that is vastly inequitable.

These are the deep lessons in Black History Month for Canadians of all shades of the rainbow. One is that of honouring diversity. There is no one Black history story in Canada, but many different stories. Some are of new Canadians who hail from the Caribbean, Africa, Europe or the United States; some go back many generations in Canada. People who make up Canada’s African Canadian community trace their roots to immigration and exploration as well as adversity, and each one adds a unique richness to this beautiful mosiac called Canada.

The story that bigotry and prejudice would have us believe is that you can tell who people are by looking at them, that you can put them in groups and then not have to face them as individual human beings. The lesson of the Canadian Black history experience is to look into each other’s eyes, and to listen to each person’s story. Perhaps you will hear there the echoes of your own struggle against different but still daunting odds, your own triumph over hardship, your own journey through uncharted and fearful territory.
Another lesson is that people are so much more than they seem. Every week, we light one last candle for the unspoken joys or concerns along us. And I know, with all my minister’s heart, that the stories you don’t share are the ones that have really meant something in your life. So often we see only what we want to see or share only what we want others to see. John Holland, whose name bears the community awards given in honour of Black History in our community (of which Cynthia Taylor was a recipient and will again be honoured posthumously this year) was an inspiring preacher and community leader at Stewart Memorial Church here in Hamilton. Yet for 35 years, he supported his family and his ministry by working as a porter on the Canadian National Railroad, where he once said, he was “treated like the invisible man.”

What incredible reserves of inner strength, dignity and faith did it take for him to face racism every day of his working life, and then come to church and inspire his people with hope and optimism? The real spiritual lesson of Black History month is the resilience, beauty and unquenchable power of the human spirit. Just imagine the force of such a soul, the spiritual work of every day, shaking off the messages the world wants to give you about your worth, and holding fast to what you know inside is true and right and good. How did they do it?

How did Nelson Mandela do it on Robbin Island? How did Victor Frankl do it in Auschewitz? How did Harriet Tubman do it on 19 different terrifying journeys from Maryland to Philadelphia and then St. Catharines, saving 300 souls along the way? Now, ask yourself, is my burden heavier than theirs? Ask yourself – what do I need to do to be free? What does the world need me to do with the gifts I have been given to use them so that everyone may be free, that all people may become the souls they are meant to be? Draw strength from their stories and begin today.

Finally the last lesson of Black History Month is one of joy – the joy we spoke about in our shared reading today by Daniel Berrigan. “When the Spirit struck us free we could scarcely believe it for very joy…a lightning bolt had loosed us. We tread the long furrow half-drunk with joy staggering – the golden sheaves in our arms.”

It is cause for singing and rejoicing, for joining hands and dancing together till the sun comes up over Eneral Griffin’s house. That we should be given whether by God or nature, by the love of our parents or the struggles of our own soul – such a precious human spirit, so resolute in hardship, so stubborn in defeat, so able to return hatred with love and turn despair to inspiration – and so equally poured out among us all. Truly I say to you – this is a miracle, the greatest gift to our soul, one worthy of celebration this day, this month devoted to Black History and always.
So may it be and Amen.