Race, Systemic Violence, and Retrospective Justice: An African American Quaker Scholar-Activist Challenges Conventional Narratives

By Harold D. Weaver Jr. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (number 465), 2020. 34 pages. $7.50/pamphlet; $7/eBook.

The title of Harold Weaver’s Pendle Hill pamphlet speaks for itself. Friends might be familiar with Weaver from his work on the BlackQuaker Project and the anthology Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights. In this pamphlet, an updated version of a 2008 lecture and pamphlet from Beacon Hill Friends House, Facing Unbearable Truths, Weaver embraces continuing revelation and encourages his readers to do the same. He helps ground his readers in definitions that can move our shared language and understandings forward. He defines race and racism, structural violence and anti-violence, and retrospective justice. He makes clear that our choice of words has a significant impact as we seek to be agents of change. 

The heart of the pamphlet is Weaver’s laying out a plan for Friends to reflect and act upon in the three threads in the pamphlet’s title. He encourages readers “to use antiviolence to confront systemic violence; to acknowledge the impact of institutional and systemic racism . . . [and] to consider a comprehensive retrospective justice program.” Weaver’s proposed plan of action for accomplishing these goals comprises three foci. The first is a comprehensive education (or re-education) to support Friends’ understanding of and grappling with the nature of slavery and its legacies. He recommends the BlackQuaker Project and Quakers of Color International Archive as foundational resources for this education. 

The second focus he suggests is a three-part program for retrospective justice to respond to past and current injustices. He believes such a program should include “(a) an acknowledgement of an offense, told formally and publicly; (b) a commitment to truth-telling . . . ; (c) the making of some form of amends in the present to give material substance to expressions of regret and responsibility.” Weaver cites the report Slavery and Justice, written by the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, as an example of this work being done well. 

Finally, he supports the need for a “new, revitalized justice testimony in the Religious Society of Friends.” His plans are clear, research-based, and aligned with the work that I have known Friends to be investing in, particularly in the past year. I believe his outline of next steps will be a great resource for Quaker communities in the years to come.

Among the greatest gifts of this pamphlet are other resources to which Weaver directs his readers. He references the BlackQuaker Project throughout the pamphlet, and shares specifically the “Selected Forms of Direct and Structural Violence against African Americans” that BlackQuaker Project adapted from Jean Zaru’s typology of structural violence (the types of violence include Direct Violence, Economic Structural Violence, Political Structural Violence, Cultural Structural Violence, Religious Structural Violence, Environmental Structural Violence, Health Structural Violence, and Educational Structural Violence). He points readers to the New York Times’ 1619 Project and Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020) as suggestions for readers who could use more context about the significance of race and racism in the United States, particularly for African Americans. 

I also appreciated some of the queries that Weaver invites readers to reflect upon: 

• What does “justice” mean to Friends? How does our meeting respond to the need for justice? 

• What can the Society of Friends do to make amends for its complicity in chattel slavery and work toward a more just society in the future? 

• Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? (excerpted from Britain Yearly Meeting’s Advices and Queries)

This pamphlet makes me think of lines attributed to Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” We are responsible as Friends for using our commitment to truth and continuing revelation to continue to know better and do better. This pamphlet should help us on that journey.

Lauren Brownlee is a member of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting, where she serves on the Peace and Social Concerns Committee. She also supports the Growing Diverse Leadership Committee of Baltimore Yearly Meeting.

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