Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans and the Myth of Racial Justice
By Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye. (Quaker Press of Friends General Conference, 2009). 548 pages. $45/hardcover; $28/softcover.
By Friends General Conference Committee for Ministry on Racism, edited by Wren Almitra. 58 pages. $18/softcover.
Reading Fit for Freedom as a Friend, I found myself taken on a roller-coaster ride from the heights of admiration for my religious community to the depths of embarrassing chagrin. While gentle and persuasive in language, the Quaker authors (an African American member of Central Philadelphia Meeting, and a European American member of Framingham, Mass., Meeting)—are frank in pointing out Quaker weaknesses. They are not out to condemn Friends or to create guilt, but to help us look forthrightly at our past so we can deepen our efforts to overcome the racism that still is so pervasive, not only in the United States at large, but—we must admit after reading the book—among ourselves as well.
At the heights of my reading experience, I felt great pride at the stirring stories of hundreds of Quaker pioneers in the struggle for racial justice from the time of slavery to the present. These creative efforts included not only individuals, but also meetings, yearly meetings, and other Quaker organizations. In addition to well-known trailblazers like John Woolman and Lucretia Mott, the authors also tell the stories of dozens upon dozens of less well-known men and women who also worked—often sacrificially and at times heroically—to free slaves, campaign for civil rights, build racial understanding, and otherwise affirm our testimony for the dignity and equality of all people before God. As the authors state, the Quaker contribution has been "singular" and "profound."
However, in the depths, I winced again and again as the authors recounted the multitudinous ways in which Friends have fallen short of our testimonies. I myself experienced this shortfall as a young Quaker at suburban Philadelphia’s Abington Meeting. I remember listening as our beloved First-day school teacher, Thomas Knight, regaled us with gripping stories of how our ancestors freed enslaved people through the Underground Railroad, and wondering whether, in similar circumstances, I would have such courage. One day I was shocked to come upon a publicity pamphlet that described Abington Friends School as "a school for white children." One can readily imagine the negative message that the discriminatory policy of that time sent to the black community. (I met with most of the School Committee’s members and, to their credit, they changed the policy—in spite of a wealthy Quaker’s threat to withdraw his financial support.)
Because of my early experience, a chapter on integration in Quaker schools was perhaps the most wrenching part of the book for me. For more than 200 years, Quaker meetings and school committees across the country not only failed to invite African American students into our schools, but actively discriminated against applicants, using flimsy and clearly racist excuses such as, "Integration could lead to intermarriage." Quaker schools finally opened their doors, but the agonizingly slow process caused much distress among African American applicants who expected that Friends would be different.
I found the next chapter, "Toward Integration in the Society of Friends," even more disheartening, because change in Quaker Meetings has been even slower than in schools. By telling the stories of many African American Quakers who are nurtured by the silence of worship and quiet contemplation, the authors lay to rest the widely held view (still heard in some Quaker Meetings today) that African Americans have "a different worship style" and don’t feel "comfortable" in Quaker worship. Imagine the racial composition of our Quaker Meetings today if we had dumped that demeaning attitude and welcomed African Americans! Instead, we delayed their membership applications interminably, insisted that they occupy separate seating and otherwise treated them as second-class Quakers at best. We don’t practice such blatant discrimination today, but the reality implied in the book’s title is hard to deny. Friends work for freedom, peace, and social justice, but only rarely do we develop true friendships across racial lines.
As McDaniel and Julye comment almost too gently, "That so little progress has been made in integrating Friends meetings and that integration took so long to take effect in Friends schools raises questions about Friends willingness to accept African Americans as social equals." Their painful conclusion hits home: "Quakers have been unwilling to confront their own racism and/or they do not know how to respond to racial issues."
Confronted with such disturbing realities, white Friends might be tempted to descend into paralyzing guilt. The authors counteract this tendency by making positive suggestions throughout the book and devoting the last 36 pages to recommendations for how Friends can bear witness against racism. I found some of the proposals frustratingly vague, and sometimes wrote "How?" in the book’s margins. However, most were eye-opening and practical. For example, the authors urge us to consider the images on the walls of our meetinghouses and the literature on the racks and to ask ourselves to what extent they reflect the concerns and culture of African Americans. If the images are mostly European American, writes Vanessa Julye, then "I feel invisible." As a further support to positive action by Friends, Friends General Conference has published a study guide to help meetings, groups and individual Friends to "process more deeply the issues presented in the book."
I believe that Fit for Freedom, Not For Friendship will be looked upon as an indispensable resource for years to come for anyone who wants to gain an honest and comprehensive understanding of Friends’ relationship to the African American community and especially its quest for justice.
Neither its length (548 pages), its scholarly footnotes (nearly 2,000), nor its 12-page bibliography should deter anyone from reading this impressive, well-written, meticulously researched, and often moving book.