Deaf White Ears | Sojourners

Deaf White Ears


Early morning April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride

I've been trying to remember the first time I heard those lyrics by U2. Under a Blood Red Sky was a pivotal album in my adolescence. The specific song, “Pride (In the Name of Love),” was particularly important. It awoke all manner of things in me that, to this day, I am still trying to untangle. Perhaps surprisingly, in 1984 social consciousness was not one of them.

It took many years for me to piece together all the allusions in the song (and in the album) and to wonder through the implications of why a quartet of post-punk Irish lads would be singing about Martin Luther King Jr. of all people. What little I knew of Dr. King was limited to the American civil rights movement. It never occurred to me that he would be an international figure for the advancement of the poor, the oppressed, and political nonviolence. Of course four Irish lads would be interested in Dr. King's legacy and what it might say to the violence of the 1980s in Ireland.

But I was deaf.

And I assumed none of it was for me. Dr. King was not for me. U2's social justice bent was not for me. It was for those who were oppressed and hurting. It was for other people.

Do you hear? Deaf as a post.

I experienced the civil rights movement and its heroes as something from the past, something from the history books. King's work was done. Even in rural Virginia, I was in a fully integrated school. Dr. Bracey, our principal, was African American. I went to school with Dr. John Kinney's children. My father and stepmother worked in public education. I lived with this illusion of a post-racial America. So, Dépêche Mode's "People are People" was a pop lyric closer to my consciousness.

So we're different colors
And we're different creeds
And different people have different needs
It's obvious you hate me
Though I've done nothing wrong
I've never even met you so what could I have done ...

... help me understand.

White fragility has been with us for a very long time. Whether that was Martin Gore's intent, that's certainly how I understood the song. And it is how I employed it.

Dr. Kinney would have told me otherwise had I listened.

Again, I was deaf. I did not have ears to hear.

I did not understand that Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to set a lot of people free. Yes, even me. And I did not understand that I was still in bondage. I could not hear it. I thought of racism only as a posture of the individual heart. And my heart, I believed, was fully integrated.

But some things started to give way. In the early 1990s I started working on racial reconciliation efforts in Richmond, Va., with Rev. Ben Campbell at Richmond Hill. Slowly, my ears were opening up to the racism that was so present in southern cities ... and in my heart. Somewhere in here, I also got to hear Dr. Kinney preach. That'll wake you up.

I moved to Chicago thinking that I would escape the dynamic of racism both personal and corporate only to find that Chicago is more segregated than Richmond. And five years ago I moved to Berkeley, Calif, with my family and, yes, segregation abounds in the Bay Area. So does white fragility.

Throughout the years, my ears have been opening. And the old songs sound new to me.

We're 30 years down the line and I hear this music very differently, and the bands (both who are still producing albums) sing these songs very differently. Specifically, “Pride” is no longer just an anthem of triumph and resilience. It's a lament, a cry from the wilderness. One more in the name of love? How many more do we need? How many black men need to die for the ears of the deaf white men to open to the sound of black voices? Will it take white Irish rock stars to open our ears. I don't so much care how it's done but that it's done. If it takes Bono then let it be Bono.

Truth be told, I would rather it were Mahalia Jackson.

I've been 'buked and I've been scorned ...
Tryin' to make this journey all alone
You may talk about me as sure as you please ...
Your talk will never drive me down to my knees
Jesus died to set me free ...
Nailed to that cross on Calvary

She sang! And then, as the story goes, she said, "Tell them about the dream, Martin." And he did. He told all of us. His voice was so loud that it carried all the way to Ireland. But I, I who grew up a decade later and to the South, had no ears to hear.

Deaf white ears, children. Deaf white ears. That's what we have.

Freedom is freedom for all or it's simply not freedom and Jesus still hangs on that cross today just as truly as he did all those years ago.

White guilt cannot set us free. Only the sounds of black voices can do that. In those voices you will hear the voice of Christ singing. Shouting. Preaching. Weeping. Dying. And rising again.

Do you hear?