Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Radical Hospitality: How Kitchen-Table Lessons in Welcome and Respect Helped Sustain the Black Freedom Movement

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Radical Hospitality: How Kitchen-Table Lessons in Welcome and Respect Helped Sustain the Black Freedom Movement

Article excerpt

HOSPITALITY HAS BEEN a central model for activism in my life. Starting before my children were born, I have been what some people would call an activist--working in political campaigns; organizing alternative schools; training, mobilizing, and reconciling in the black freedom movement, the women's movement, and the peace and justice movement. I've worked with some magnificent people, deeply committed to spiritually engaged, compassionate social change. People like Bob Moses, Anne Braden, Prathia Hall, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Clarence Jordan, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Marion King, Grace Lee Boggs, Julia Esquivel, Ndugu T'Ofori-Atta, and Staughton and Alice Lynd. I've learned a great deal from these marvelous women and men, and many others like them.

But as I think about my own movement work and its deepest inspirations, I am continually drawn back to the model of my family--especially my mother, Ella Lee ("Mama Freeney"), and great-grandmother, Moriah ("Mama Rye"). Mama Rye, born in Africa, was a slave in Virginia and died in 1930 at the age of 107. Both Mama Freeney and Mama Rye cultivated a profound mystic spirituality and deep hospitality that they passed to their descendants.

In the years when I was growing up, people visited back and forth at each other's homes more regularly than folks do now. Our house was an especially popular destination for neighbors and relatives. We had a large family, and my older brothers and sisters had lots of friends. Also, my mother and father made the house welcoming. Sometimes it seemed "too" welcoming--all kinds of people came through, not just relatives and neighborhood friends, but peddlers, professional gamblers, petty thieves, prostitutes, and people we would probably refer to today as homeless. Mom set out beautiful china dishes and slices of her homemade pound cake for all of them--especially for the most transient-looking people it seemed sometimes. It was as if she knew they needed the extra attention and acknowledgement, and she genuinely enjoyed their conversation and wisdom.

An itinerant bookseller would come to visit Mom now and then. The two of them would sit down in the dining room with Mom's best dishes and talk for hours about the events of the world and the world of books. The man was not always very clean and sometimes, especially in the winter when heat was on full blast in our house, we could smell the mustiness of his old, ragged clothes and the heavy, acrid sweat of his body. He talked funny too, and we children were occasionally tempted to laugh--as much from discomfort as anything else. But if we let out the tiniest snicker, Mom would cut her eyes at us and we immediately changed our minds--and the expressions on our faces.

Hospitality was a foundation of my family's spirituality, as it had been for so many Southern blacks. The efforts my parents made to be neighborly and to reserve judgment against those who society viewed as outcasts served as important examples for their children and grandchildren as we grew into adulthood. One of my first projects as a young activist in the Southern freedom movement was developing an interracial social service project and community center called Mennonite House in Atlanta during the early 1960s. In addition to our work of placing volunteers with various movement organizations, training young movement activists, and coordinating early efforts at interracial dialogue and reconciliation, Mennonite House became an important place of retreat for many who were struggling and sacrificing so much to transform the South and the nation. Because of my mother's example, I understood very clearly how important it was to have spaces of refuge in the midst of struggle--spaces of joy and laughter, good food and kind words. This kind of compassionate care is a transformative force in itself. As Cape Breton novelist Alistair MacLeod writes, "We are all better when we're loved."

One important way we expressed love, in family life and in the movement, was a certain formality of relations, rooted in Southern and African traditions. …

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