Atlanta Archbishop and former U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops President Wilton Gregory opened his appearance Wednesday at the University of San Diego pondering what W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African-American Harvard University PhD and, later, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, may have been thinking about in 1899.
“As he looked ahead to the next century, I wonder what he would have been thinking of as a practical list of the goals for the improvement of the life condition of African-American people,” Gregory said. “At that pivotal moment, with the dawning of a new century, the NAACP would not be born for another decade. Still, though, the yearning he already felt for the advancement of peoples of color quite clearly was stirring deeply within his soul.”
Gregory, at USD to celebrate Black History Month and brought to campus by the Center for Christian Spirituality, spoke on “Our Diversity as Gift and Challenge.” His talk was tied to the Catholic Social Thought principle of a “Call to Family, Community and Participation.”
Gregory’s opening comment then connected to Du Bois’ thoughts about present day society.
“As an African-American Catholic bishop living in the 21st century, I’d suggest that in addition to the social, economic and political goals that might have found a place on Du Bois’ list in 1899, these goals should remain on our list today. There are weighted and more profound goals that face not only people of color, but all people within American society.”
He spoke on race, immigration, and history in society and how each person can use their own history, though limited, to move us all forward. Gregory said volatile topics facing all Americans — affirmative action, violence, economic and political power-sharing, interracial relationships, bilingual education, immigration laws, gender equality, sexual orientation — should be addressed.
“We cannot hide from these issues. They will not be solved by the loudness of arguments, but only by their wisdom,” he said.
At the top of Gregory’s list is a national appreciation of the benefit of cultural diversity. While noting the considerable progress made since 1899, Gregory stated it is “still not sufficient to fulfill the great legacy of Dr. Du Bois or countless other souls who have struggled in the past to improve America’s image of herself.”
Gregory on race: “Race remains one of the most awkward issues that we Americans can approach. We still stumble about, searching for tactful ways that we are not completely healed as a nation from the legacy of slavery and its aftermath. Few, if any, narratives in American life are not influenced or shaped by the issue of race. Rather than grow less complicated with time, the issue only seems to become more perplexing. Collectively, we find ours is not yet a story of unity and mutual respect as frequently as it is a cacophony of interests and claims of allegation and stereotype. It’s one of bigoted declaration and hostile retort. We have a long way to go before we truly reflect the E Pluribus Unum that our currency, which remains the envy of the world, proudly proclaims.”
On immigration: “The conversation that involves the issue of immigration is infected by the issue of race. The United States of America has some of the noblest expressions of social equality in all of human history, but unfortunately, it still hasn’t found the way to covert to the nobility of our ideals into the practical everyday living patterns of people. We’ve not been completely successful bringing the lofty goals of the nation into the universally lived experience of our people. We’re still struggling to become a nation that practices what it preaches.”
On history’s impact on society: “The best thing about and most confining about us is often our history. History can be viewed as a barrier or an advantage. Yet too many people choose to limit their tomorrows because they choose not to release their yesterdays. The issue of race will never be reconciled as long as people believe that yesterday has already completely determined both today and tomorrow.”
Gregory spoke passionately about understanding our own limits: “We ought to approach history with enough humility to admit that no one of us can grasp it all. We are finite people. The best we can do is a glimpse at one small part of history. Our personal experiences are all limited. They may be true and even accurate, but they’re limited. When we speak from our own experience, we need to be careful to recognize it is a limited reference point. Every sentence that begins ‘All you people,’ has already betrayed its own fallacy.”
History can influence racial harmony: “When we approach another person’s history, we stand on holy ground. The first stage of valuing cultural diversity must begin with the reverence that is due to the history of people. … We ought to explore history with an open mind. I strongly endorse cross-cultural educational opportunities. Racism survives as long as there is ignorance. It grows only in the soil of unfamiliarity. Cross-cultural opportunities are a necessity to conquer the unchecked growth of racism. The more we know about a people, the culture and society, the less possible it is for us to propose a single event as the horizon of an entire people.”
He urged “toning down” rhetoric, mentioning media, cyberspace and each other. “There are things of which people of different races differ, that’s not surprising. We all have different experiences. But if we are humble enough to admit that my personal experience is not the sum total of human wisdom, then we might also be willing to listen to another’s experience.”
Gregory closed with a few personal reflections, one of which captured the attention of USD senior and co-MEChA President, Maria Ruvalcaba. “The lecture really spoke to me, especially the Archbishop’s statement that ‘my dignity is not threatened by recognizing the dignity of another and my dignity is not enhanced by denigrating the dignity of another.’ His message inspired me and touched on several current issues and events, such as our work on immigration reform.”
Black Student Union Vice President, junior Tarez Lemmons (pictured, lower left), who delivered a spoken-word poem, “Dear God,” prior to Gregory’s talk, appreciated the message: “I admire how comfortably the Archbishop spoke about race. I liked how open he was about the whole subject. It really gave me the inspiration to continue engaging people in dialogue about issues that trace back to race and ethnicity.”
— Ryan T. Blystone