1. Apologies for a long post.
2. Please understand that I know and love many people who are fundamentalist Christians and wonderful, positive people. When I describe Yancey’s negative upbringing in a fundamentalist church, his experience was the cliched light years away from theirs.
Philip Yancey was born in 1949 in Atlanta, GA. I say that for context.
The quote is from his recently published memoir Where the Light Fell, in which he recounts his disturbingly fundamentalist upbringing and eventual experience of grace.
This is what he experienced one year at church camp (page 145):
Then Ruckman grins and moves from behind the pulpit: “Have you ever noticed how Coloreds make good waiters? Watch them sometime. They swivel their hips around the chairs and hold those trays high without spilling a drop.” He does an exaggerated imitation, and the campers laugh. “Don’t you see, that’s the kind of job they’re good at. But have you ever met a Negro who’s the president of a company? Have you? Name one. Every race has its place, and they should accept it. We can get along fine as long as we stay separate and don’t mix.”
He was raised believing this. He was taught about the Curse of Ham being the cause of dark skin.
Even as a child he noticed that the “doctrine” of the curse of Ham didn’t make logical sense – at the very least it was Canaan who was cursed, not his father Ham, and that it was a drunk Noah who cursed him, not God (page 66). But he believed – because he had no reason not to believe except for the camp cook – that people with black skin were truly inferior in every way to people with white skin.
The KKK was a strong force where he lived.
There was some applause in his high school when it was announced that President Kennedy had been shot because Kennedy had been sending federal marshals to enforce racial integration in the South (page 167).
And this is why the Sunflower scenes make me queasy. I think they’re important as a cultural artifact, but they’re definitely not something to be celebrated as a triumph. We can view the uncut Fantasia as a reminder of how far we’ve come as a nation – but we still have so, so far to go as the news can remind us almost any day. I can watch it uncut, and at the same time I don’t know that I’ll be watching the restored version near so much as I’ll be watching the censored one.
Which may just be because it causes me less feeling of White Guilt.
Yancey’s story is one of metamorphosis, as the title suggests, and as I already indicated he did eventually discover grace instead of a harsh, vindictive, and vicious religious upbringing.
A few years after the camp incident, but before Kennedy’s assassination, when he was in high school and excelling in science and maths, he applied for and won a summer internship at the CDC. He was going to be working under a Dr. Cherry, a Ph.D. in biochemistry from an Ivy League school, and he was nervous going into the situation. He studied and studied a paper Dr. Cherry wrote that was “way over my head” in preparation (page 160).
When I show up for work the first day, I get a photo ID badge and am escorted to Dr. Cherry’s office. The security guard knocks on the door, hears “Come in,” and opens it. I nearly drop my pack of papers on the floor.
Dr. Cherry is a Black man.
In one second, something cracks inside me.