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Rev. James Ellis, III Headshot

Looking Forward to the Past

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This letter is part of our "Letters to Our Ancestors" project. In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we've asked members of our community to share their own letters to our forefathers. With these letters, we hope to look back on the progress our community has made and give thanks to those who helped pave the way. You can see them all here.

In the landmark 1845 book documenting his passage through hell on earth, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, a firebrand orator and abolitionist wrote, "I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence." Frederick Douglass' wisdom and witness are timeless, so it's in that tradition with appreciation for your sacrifice that I pen this letter. Good and bad tidings I have for you from the future.

You will be shocked to know that we are full citizens now, no longer chattel or debased as three-fifths of a person. Also, we've had the right to vote for a number of years, and in a constantly growing country more multicultural and racially integrated than ever, our first African-American president has just been reelected to a second term. Galvanized by the struggle of so many through the years, police officers, lawyers, military service-persons, members of congress, educators, mechanics, and storeowners with our people's richly diverse hue of chocolate colored skin are can be found everywhere today, serving the public good and making us all proud. Given your example you might not be that surprised that we've been the nation's moral comptroller, inspiring, even demanding it to make good on the unalienable funds of freedom and justice that it promises.

Although often disproportionally impacted by unemployment, underemployment, and still discrimination, our economic base is bright in general terms. You can reside essentially wherever you please, so long as you can afford it. Also, opportunities abound for the pursuit of higher education and upward mobility. Benefiting from giants who blazed the road to success before them, African-American entrepreneurs, athletes, and entertainers have exploded into national and international renown. Oprah Winfrey comes to mind, a rags-to-riches billionaire, arguably one of the most powerful people, race and gender aside, in the world. Certainly there are higher heights to reach, a deeper sense of equality to attain, but there's no denying that from our imprisoned beginnings on American soil, violently imported as cargo from Africa and the Caribbean, we've progressed meaningfully in a relatively short period of time.

Now, on to the bad news. Liberty is beautiful and we are blessed to have it. Unquestionably, we deserve it, and always have, as beings created in God's image. Still, I am sad to report that we have become drunk on the wine in the land where we once served as griots, sages, and prophets too. Living by a higher, deeper moral code, at a sacred spiritual altitude, is not so much our focus these days yet to some degree we have no one to blame but ourselves, for whatever Babylonian manifestation we experience in culture first begins with its presence in our hearts. Never having known someone who it wouldn't attempt to destroy, evil is colorblind. I fear that we suffer from historical post-traumatic stress disorder, which has led to disturbing rates of illiteracy, violence, crime and incarceration, financial devastation, out-of-wedlock births, and divorce. Unfortunately, some of our churches are partly at fault, leading communities astray by pretentious "prosperity" preachers and confused, cowardly congregants who worship fluff and abhor substance.

The inherited gifts of creativity, discipline, education, courage, and respect for oneself and others have been swapped for rubber-band stacks of money flicked at our women by our men, as more evidence of entrenched dysfunction. We, the oppressed, have become consummate oppressors in our own right, selling our soul for the American Dream's chump change. Grandmaster Flash's declaration still rings true that, "You got to have a con in this land of milk and honey."

It's a challenge to walk by faith, not by sight. But you know that all too well. There is a balm in Gilead and his name is Jesus. But you know that too, a sobering reality that reminds me of Zora Neale Hurston's famous words: "All of my skinfolk ain't my kinfolk." Given the treacherously rocky road before us, hopefully we'll learn to advocate for all of humanity's continued emancipation like Paul did on Onesimus' behalf. 150 years later, we are better, but still battered and bruised, in desperate need of restoration yet wooed by addiction's denial.