Race, Reconciliation, and Phil Robertson
"Evangelicals are outraged at A&E's suspension of Phil Robertson, patriarch of the family in the hit show 'Duck Dynasty,'" wrote Jemar Tisby, president and co-founder of the Reformed African American Network, "But did anyone hear what Mr. Robertson said about Black people?"
As someone who wrote about the recent controversy I had indeed heard about Robertson's remarks -- and all but ignored them. I'm ashamed to admit that I elided over those comments in order to focus on the threat to religious liberty angle. That was wrong of me, and I appreciate my friend and brother reminding me of that fact so I can rectify that oversight.
For those who aren't aware, what Tisby is referring to is this quote from Robertson's interview with GQ magazine:
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field.... They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people'—not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
I've watched every season of Duck Dynasty. I'm a fan of the entire family, and especially of their patriarch, Phil Robertson. Robertson is funny, intelligent, and oddly charming. But one thing he is not is articulate. Although he's a man of relatively few words, Robertson has a tendency to ramble, as if he needs to keep talking while he's searching for the right words to make his point. From watching his TV series and listening to his sermons it becomes apparent that his ending sentence is usually the key to understanding what he's trying to say. Indeed, I believe that in those rambling discourses you can often start with his last sentence and read forward and his thought makes more sense. His quote on growing up in a pre-civil-rights-era Louisiana is a prime example:
No one was singing the blues. They were happy; they were godly.
Although the journalist doing the interview was interested in framing the question in the context of segregation-era Southern politics, Robertson appears to have been trying to steer it back to one of his primary themes: Happiness is a result of godliness.
The context makes it clear that Robertson is not addressing the situation of all African Americans in the pre-civil-rights South. He is relating his own experience, what he saw ("with my eyes"), in the narrow context of impoverished agricultural laborers. And what he claims to have seen is people who were happy because they were godly.
Even as an expression of personal experience, it is woefully naïve. White Americans, particular of Robertson's generation, tend to think that what they see from black Americans is how they really feel. As Tisby says,
It's possible that Phil Robertson knew Blacks who were genuinely happy. It's possible that in his community there truly were exceptionally positive relationships between Blacks and Whites. It's possible, but not likely. What's probably closer to reality is that he saw Black people who knew the rules. They knew what the could say and do around Whites who held the power. Even if those Whites were lower-income or "white trash" as Mr. Robertson describes it. There was still a cultural curtain separating the races.
That "cultural curtain" prevents Robertson from seeing the reality of the Jim Crow era, allowing him to look back in wistful fondness. Yet I think there is also a personal element that keeps the former "white trash" farmhand from seeing the segregation of his youth as it truly was.
Robertson makes it clear that he didn't come to Christ until the late 1970s. During the 1960s he was abusing drugs and alcohol, cheating on his wife, and hiding out in the woods to prevent being arrested by the authorities. His former fellow farmworkers might look on the 1960s as an era when African Americans were gaining access to long-overdue civil rights. But for Robertson, that decade was a time of self-destruction and familial strife. Since then Robertson has turned his life over to God and become, to use his catchphrase, "Happy, happy, happy." In his mind, godliness is equated with happiness.
That is why I believe that when Robertson looks back on his youth, what he sees is not African Americans suffering under the evil of segregation, but men and women who were godly, and thus obviously had what he has now: a happiness that transcends mortal woes. He seems to think that because they were godly, the exterior signs of happiness (singing, smiling, etc.) can be construed as a sign of their having inner peace, if not peace with the world. It's a noble, if naïve, idealization of his neighbors.
Does that noble intent excuse his insensitive remarks about the segregated South? Not at all. Robertson is a public figure and when he gives interviews in the media, he must take responsibility for how his words are perceived. While I believe he was attempting to pay tribute to the African-American Christians who preceded him in the faith, he has inadvertently offended many of his African American brothers and sisters.
I hope his family and friends will point out that in a moment of inadvertent carelessness that he has caused damage that needs to be healed. I believe Robertson when he says, "I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other."
But we must make amends for the harm we cause, even if it is not intentional. I believe he needs to do more to reconcile with those he's offended. And if Phil Robertson is the godly man many of his believe him to be, I think he'll do just that.