Resist and Redefine

img_1026Below is a list of slaves held by Elijah Ratliff (1787 – 1865) in 1861. Among them is my great great grandfather Graham. I hold on to this history because my grandmother told me stories about him.  He is real for me.  This is also the farthest back I can go in my black family tree. Although I can link my “Dyer” family name directly to white settlers on the Mayflower and slave owners in the Caribbean, I cannot connect my maternal African roots to anything so lofty…an epic journey, a fledgling nation, kings or other empires or a specific region or tribe. Instead, the most concrete proof of my black ancestors involves me living as the legacy of this country’s deepest shame.

It is easy for the liberal consciousness to wrap its head and resources around the fact that the people at Standing Rock, the Sacred Stones Camp, Red Warrior Camp and the Oceti Sakowin Camp, are protecting water. Water is life.  Yet we cannot forget or ignore that they are also fighting for the right to remain connected to their past as well as their living heritage moving forward. Since the beginning of the organized European nation on this continent, the greed inherent in capitalism has fed itself on the erasure of non-white people’s ethnic history. This is an ongoing battle between culture and commerce. It is the real face of the American experiment.  It is wholly repugnant.

When I look at this list of names as property connected to my own family, I am reminded how sacred and powerful ancestral memory is and how often it has been the target of the American commercial machine. Tracing family trees has become big business and can be a thrilling way to learn history through a personal lens for some.  But for people of color in today’s America, these tenuous connections to ancestors and traditions are even more important.  They give a tangible context to the dominant culture’s relentless effort to deny us the status of basic humanity. Ancestral memory is in part what ignites our desire to resist and redefine.  Maybe this is what scares some people about “identity”.  If the American Indian and native people are any example, the fuel of cultural identity remains more viscous, volatile, alive and more permanent after 500 years of attack than anything that can ever be shaken loose from the ground…and it is already on fire.

Names taken from the will of Elijah Ratliff, Anson County, North Carolina, 1861

1. Big Ellick
2. Wesley
3. Laury
4. Graham
5. Bukugan
6. Anthony
7. Julyan
8. Dina
9. Lucy
10. Caroline
11. Wallis
12. Bone
13. Sallie
14. Washington
15. Tom
16. Harry
17. Martha-Jane
18. Bill
19. Johanna
20. Rose
21. Warren
22. Betty
23. Anna
24. Isaac
25. Mary
26. Anderson
27. Stephen
28. Harriett
29. Zacy
30. Willy
31. Silva
32. Anderson
33. Lize
34. Elbert
35. Tommy
36. Sass
37. Little Ellick
38. Ann
39. Frank
40. Peter
41. Stephen
42. John
43. Nealy
44. Nance
45. Sam
46. Hannah
47. Buck
48. Lane
49. Lewis
50. Luke
51. Abram
52. Henry
53. Jim
54. Peter
55. Peg
56. Robin
57. Jesse
58. Perry
59. Katherine
60. Peter
61. Jesse
62. Carolina
63. Reubin
64. Jacob
65. Jon
66. Tilla
67. Big Frank
68. Mary
69. Peter
70. Richmond
71. Poll
72. Alph
73. Jam
74. Riley
75. Alice
76. Riley
77. Ellen
78. Mary
79. Mike
80. Tempy
81. Molinda
82. Patience
83. King
84. Sam
85. Ellen
86. Ben
87. Sis
88. Riley
89. Harriett
90. (child)
91. Charity
92. (child)
93. George
94. Allen
95. Sarah
96. Vina
97. (child)
98. Isaac
99. Mitchell
100. Margaritt
101. Charles
102. Lisa
103. (child)
104. Vina
105. Ephraim
106. Matt
107. Frank
108. Harriett
109. (child)
110. Lizzie
111. Jane
112. Cindie
113. (child)
114. Emaline
115. Anderson
116. May
117. Jefferson


Resilience.  This is a term that is new to me in the context of my current job.  I work for a non profit organization that is focused on equity.  All day long, I am surrounded by a brilliant and diverse team of analysts, coordinators, managers, associates, assistants and directors who are deeply engaged in asking questions of our government and our society that will lead to better outcomes for people who are poor and or disenfranchised.  My understanding, from a totally non policy-wonk standpoint is that “resilience” is the built in capacity for someone or a system to overcome or survive adversity.  When we talk of New Orleans after Katrina, we speak of resilience; or the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Japan or Indonesia…again the question of resilience.  This also goes from the macro to the micro level, when we look at human beings in poor neighborhoods or unhealthy situations…we ask the question of why some people not only survive, but manage to thrive while others become mired in patterns of un-success.

In a recent meeting to explore this word and its applications, understandings and questions, I was privileged to hear some incredible perspectives that related to everything from housing to health as well as our political structure and disaster relief.  This was a fabulous introduction for someone like me coming from a theological perspective, to the very specific way in which resilience is assessed in circles that deal with equity.

But what struck me about these very practical and tangible examples of resilience in a socio/economic related context, was how much this concept resonates with the spiritual and physical realm that is much less tangible and often regarded as totally impractical.

It is a proven fact that babies and children who are not touched do not thrive.  We must experience human touch to have a sense of safety in our world.  Without this, we have no boundaries and we are deprived of our most basic form of communication.  I would argue that above all the senses, our sense of touch is the most highly developed.  Within touch we are able to receive information about intention that can escape inflection in the sound of words, or expression in the faces we see, and so on.  I would imagine that this is one reason we have words in our language that come from this sense and apply directly to our emotions: feeling, holding, embracing, touching….But there is also touch that is not healthy and “bad” touch can do as much damage as no touch at all.  Children and people who are abused or deprived of agency in touch do not learn to trust the world around them or themselves.  It is a long road to recovery when someone has been taught that this basic interaction with the world around them is a constant threat.

I was recently reading the book The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to Do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life and in it Dr. Patricia Love gives extensive detail on how parents who have inappropriate emotional relationships with their children, can do as much damage as those who have inappropriate physical relationships with them.  This is a perfect example of the bridge between the physical and the emotional aspects of touch.  In the book it is very clear that if a child is deprived of the unconditional love of the parent child relationship…if they are given a conditional relationship or are asked to “parent” their parents, they do not thrive in a balanced manner.  Likewise, if they are given too much contact (the emotional incest element) and asked to fill the role of surrogate “spouse” in a family relationship, they are equally damaged.  These structures, based on how we learn to touch one another physically and emotionally are what I see as a basic part of how we navigate our world.

In theological circles, we deal with the concept of resilience every single day.  Among other reasons, people come to religion to be sustained in times of trial, or to be “born again” or to find parts that are missing in their lives.  In short, spirituality is one of the most basic sources of human cultural resilience.  The church is often the first resource for communities in distress, whether that be emotional or physical; whether there is a tornado or a mass murder.  Churches, synagogues  mosques and temples are full when communities face disaster.  The reason for this is simple: unconditional love.  This is what we seek in religion, just as we seek this in our family relationships.  Christians speak of the unconditional love of Jesus that sustains and rebuilds them.  There is an assumption and security in how this love will always be present.  Like a child of the best parent, a believing Christian (and I would imagine any other devoutly religious person, or person with a solid belief structure) knows they will always be loved.

In Jim Wallis’ book Rediscovering Values on Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street, he talks a great deal about how religion and faith in community should be the moral bedrock for creating resilience in our culture.  He wrote the book at the height of the economic downturn and highlights both scripture and economic data to support the moral and ethical argument against big impersonal business and the robber baron mentality that brought our financial system to a collapse.  He points to personal moral obligations driven by both faith and conscience as a beacon to lead individuals and on a larger scale, business and even government toward equitable practices.  His formula has validity and we are seeing it now play out as communities are rediscovering small business and farmer’s markets and ways to make what is essentially “small town America” the hub of our culture.

I would take this all one step further.  Equity, that is balance throughout our economic and social structures, cannot exist unless we create an environment that is based in what is essentially unconditional love.  The “market” is not real; it is only a reflection of our relationships with each other.  If we have a financial system that is based on “I’ve got mine, who cares about you”, that is how we are relating to one another.  The market cannot “self correct”…we must correct it by entering into properly balanced relationship with one another.  We as individuals must understand that all of our actions do not exist in a vacuum. This goes for finances, for government, for local business, for education, for parenting and for how we relate to one another.  Young people graduating from college are burdened with lifetime debt before they have had the joy of properly earning a wage and feeling like a contributing part of their communities.  This is a classic example of how we are in an emotionally incestuous relationship with our society, where the “parent” (greater society) is asking them (recent grads) to provide parental stability when they have only just learned to walk; how can they succeed?  How can we succeed?

We will need to examine our cultural relationships.  Our most successful models are families/relationships with balance between parent/provider and child; an environment of unconditional love where we learn to trust and thrive; and a language of touch/interaction where we communicate a clear intention for mutual success.  These are important  foundations of our humanness and we must respect them on on levels of our existence.


Jim Wallis’ books are available at Sojourners (

Patricia Love’s books are available at her website (