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The Lived Experience of Blackness

As a priest, I have had the honor of baptizing people. Most of these baptisms were celebrated with infants. The water was poured over their heads and the words were said “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Sometimes, however, I have had the privilege of baptizing a baby with immersion. I always have much anxiety when doing this, praying to God I do not drop the child who is wiggling all over. This immersion at baptism can have profound influence on a person. I have seen Protestant groups baptizing in a pool of water where the adult is submerged in the water. This immersion is total and complete like the person is going to begin a whole new life. They are totally filled with the Spirit.

I like the idea of immersion even beyond the act of baptism. A person who is immersed in something is totally committed to that thing, whatever that thing might be. Learning a new language, for instance, can be like that. As a Redemptorist, I have seen many of my confreres go off to Mexico and learn Spanish. When they do this, they are not just learning the language, but the culture as well. Many times, it is just on a limited basis, for after they have learned much of the language they come back home. Redemptorists also have foreign missionaries who have gone off to another country. In our Denver Province we have sent guys off to Brazil, Thailand and Nigeria. These men are immersed in the culture, learn the language, and many stay for decades ministering to the people there. These missionaries can really take on the language and culture of the people with whom they live. They have firsthand knowledge of what these people have experienced in life. As a Redemptorist priest, I was asked to come to St. Louis to minister to the people at the “Rock” Church. I have tried to immerse myself in the culture. I have read many books and have learned to listen to the many experiences of the people with whom I minister and live. It has been a humbling experience at times. I have learned that I do not have all the answers in my ministry.

Here in America, we have a school system set up to help us learn. As I see it, we have five levels we go through to learn so many things. These five levels are:

1. Grammar school

2. High school

3. College

4. Graduate school

5. PhD, becoming a doctor

People move from one level to the next as they learn so much more about a given subject. A person who becomes a physician has many years of study, particularly about the body. Some doctors specialize in a specific area of study. A person who becomes a lawyer spends much time on the many facets of the law. Again, this person may specialize in a particular area, and use this knowledge to help people in court.

I use these examples because it is easy to see that if a person has a health issue they are going to go to a doctor. If they have a legal issue they are going to go to a lawyer. You are not going to seek out a person with a grammar school or high school education to help you with a health issue or a legal issue. You are going to seek out an expert, a person who has a degree and gone through so much time learning about this area of health or law. An expert has become so immersed in their area of expertise you can trust them. The expert could be one who is a doctor or a lawyer, or like my Redemptorist friends who have gone off to another country. Presumably they are going to have a much better education in this foreign country than I. They have lived and breathed with the people. We call this the lived experience.

Now here in America, we have the experience of many cultures living together. Some of the people who have come to America have come on their own volition. But others came here against their will. When the people from Africa came here, they did not come on their own. They were enslaved for 250 years and forced to work the plantations of southern whites. These plantation owners made a fortune off the sweat of these black slaves. In 1865 Abraham Lincoln set the slaves free, but since then, black people in America have not experienced the kind of freedom that white people have experienced. I have heard many white people express frustration about the “Black” cry for freedom, saying that slavery ended 150 years ago, and that black people should just get over it and move on. Adding that the experience of racism is just isolated events and not systemic.

This is where I now go back to the idea of immersion. Unless you immerse yourself in the culture of a people you cannot really know what is going on in their lives. Most white suburbanites are like the child; that is, in grammar school regarding racism. Their idea of racism, and what it is like to be an African American, is very limited. They have not even gotten to the high school level yet and they talk as if they have a PhD in Black America. I came to St. Louis, to St. Alphonsus “Rock” Church, as a grammar school child. I had no clue what it was like to be Black in America, but over the past five years I have immersed myself in the culture. I have learned to listen to the experts, the Black people with whom I live and work. But you know, no matter how long I am in this field of work, I am still going to be at a high school or, at best, college level, when it comes to understanding what it is to be Black in America and the experiences Black people have had. I can never be at a Black person’s level. They have a PhD in what it is like to be black. Those levels of expertise can only come from people with black skin. They are the only ones who can tell us what it is really like, and we must learn to listen to them.

When I was at school in New Orleans, at Xavier University’s Institute for Black Catholic Studies, one of my professors, a Black man, was telling the class about his experience in life as a Black man. I happened to blurt out “It sounds like when you leave your house in the morning you have a bull’s eye on your back.” I was serious in my question. The professor calmly said, “Yes, that is pretty much how I feel.” That sounds rather extreme, but he is the expert. In his living experience this is how he feels on a given day. Who am I, as a white man, to question or minimize what he has to say. It is very real for him as it is for millions of other blacks in our country.

Some years ago, LeBron James, the basketball player, had just won an NBA championship. He had a home in the L.A. area at the time. One day his house was vandalized, and some racial slur was put on the lawn. I remember him saying after this “No matter how famous I am, no matter how much money I make, I am still a black man in America.” Again, this is LeBron’s experience in America. It is his lived experience. Who am I to question it? Who am I to say it is just an isolated incident? I believe there is racism in America, systemic racism in America. It is not my fault. It is probably not your fault. But it is my fault, and maybe yours, if it continues the way it is.

I have listened to some whites here in America, even from my own family, that say “Black people have just as much of a chance at success as white people in America.” In my experience, this is just not true. I hope you can believe me when I say this. Some white people say that black people are lazy and just want to live off the government. Well, this has not been my experience living in the black community. Remember, I am not just living in the suburbs and commuting to work. In a sense, I am more of an expert than most white people. I have gone to school and have learned so much. I live here with black people, and I can honestly say I have not met one black person who would rather be living off the government than having an honest job.

I have heard some white people say they do not want black people living in their neighborhood because it will only cause problems. This has not been my experience living with black people. I live in a depressed area, but it is more because white people have made laws that black people cannot get around. There have been many blacks who want to escape poverty but have experienced redlining. This means they have not been able to get a loan because of the color of their skin. How does a person get out of poverty when the system is set up in such a way that they cannot improve their lives.

Public schools in inner city communities are always a problem. These public schools in the city depend upon the tax dollars from the people who live there. Well, the property value of their home is so low that the tax dollars are not enough to pay for the city schools and, consequently, they don’t have the proper books or cannot pay their teachers a decent wage. The property values are so low because the wealthier people have moved to the suburbs. It is an unending cycle. Another generation of kids will not get a good education which means they will not get good jobs which means they will not be able to provide for the education of their children, and the cycle goes on.

The main reason I took the time to write this article is because I am sick and tired of many white suburbanites spouting off about black people as if they have all the answers. I challenge any white person to come and live with me at the Rock Church in St. Louis and get a good education in the black experience of life. It isn’t until a person lives in the shoes of another that the reality of the other person’s experience comes to life. The people with whom I live and work, have made me a better person. They are the PhD’s of blackness. They are the experts. Most white people have not gotten past the eighth grade in their blackness education, and they should not be shouting they are an expert. I am hoping, in reading this article, that you are questioning the America we all believe in. I feel called as a Redemptorist and as a man of God, not to sit on the fence about these issues. I feel I have something to say, but more importantly, Black America has something to say. I hope you can seek out black people in your life and, before you make any judgements about them, listen to what they have to say about their LIVED EXPERIENCE as a black person in America.

Fr Stephen J. Benden, C.Ss.R.



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