“They’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed.”
Langston Hughes, I, Too
Oppression is the sustained refusal of beauty. Practicing compassion and love in the face of oppression is about the courage to proclaim the beauty of your person without scorn for the beauty of those who oppress you. One of the ways to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you is to cultivate an open heart for all the world’s beauty. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, each stage of creation was repeatedly declared good and we are all made in God’s image.
When people refuse the beauty of people of color, women, LGBTQ people, disabled people or any other group, it creates what W. E. B. Du Bois called double-consciousness. Oppressed people are expected to see the world through other people’s eyes of whiteness, maleness, cisgenderness, heterosexuality and ableness and often experience amused contempt and pity for their own beauty. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness,” writes Du Bois, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others…There is confusion and doubt in my soul, for the beauty revealed to me was the soul-beauty which my larger audience despised and I could not articulate the message of another people.” (2-3)
How do we practice compassion and love in the face of the frustration and anger created by double-consciousness?
When some nations seek to criminalize same-gender loving people
When Jim Crow puts on new clothes through the mass incarceration of black youth
When debates in our churches make LGBTQ people feel they are a problem, rather than beloved in the eyes of God
When women are paid less than men
When the far-right in California seek to overturn protections for transgender youth
When 2,666 migrant deaths in the Arizona desert are U.S. policy
When Utah stops same-gender marriage in its tracks
Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes wrote hundreds of poems about his own people’s struggle against racism and has been called the poet laureate of African Americans and is perhaps the greatest popular poet since Walt Whitman. In the early years (1921 to 1930) of his career as a writer, he wrote two poems that can teach us the power of articulating the message of our beauty without scorn for the beauty of those who oppress us.
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people. (36)
I do not hate you,
For your faces are beautiful, too.
I do not hate you,
Your faces are whirling lights of loveliness and splendor, too.
Yet why do you torture me,
O, white strong ones,
Why do you torture me? (37)
Langston Hughes is able to recognize the beauty of his oppressors (“your faces are whirling lights of loveliness and splendor, too”), affirm the beauty of his people (“the night is beautiful, so the faces of my people.”), and challenge the harm that the irrational, privileged refusal of beauty brings (“white strong ones, why do you torture me?”).
When we can cultivate an open heart for all the intersecting rays of beauty streaming from the human race, we will have the foundation to love our neighbor adequately and build the beloved community that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed about:
As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him…In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself…I still believe that love is the most durable power in the world. (10)
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.
The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois
Thirty Days of Love
MLP is proud to officially partner with Standing on the Side of Love, an interfaith public advocacy campaign sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association that seeks to harness love’s power to stop oppression. The campaign begins with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday and runs from January 18 – February 16, 2014.
Week One: Living the Dream
Sunday, Jan. 19: Suggested worship service themes include honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and recommitting to racial justice work.