I am Fr. John Segun Odeyemi. I am Nigerian by nationality. I am also a Roman Catholic priest. I have had the privilege of serving at SBTM Church across the street and by choice consider this faith family my home away from home, even though at this time, I have recently been asked by my superior to serve in another faith community. I have lived for 10 years in various parts of Pittsburgh, from the Penn Hills to Downtown, to the Meadowlands. So in many ways, Pittsburgh is also very much my home. While I have lived here in Pittsburgh, I have been blessed to associate with the Africans in the diaspora, with the African American communities and with white folks.
My first duty today is to apologize on behalf of Africans who all too often come to the United States and without a proper understanding of the history of the African Americans jump on a white supremacist bandwagon to disparage a history of injustice and racism. This sort of ignorance must be eradicated.
I found in my own journey that the idea of colonialism as experienced in my homeland of Nigeria is not the same as the African American experience of slavery and racism, an evil that has existed for over 400 years. For myself and others who may have cast aspersions on African American history in the past; accept my sincere apology.
Africans and African Americans have one thing in common; the unbreakable umbilical cord that ties us back to our ancestral roots and connects us to our forebears. We are sisters and brothers separated by distance, space and time, nevertheless children from the same mother; mother Africa. Like any family, children squabble and misunderstand each other but now is the time for us to renew our kinship and establish a common struggle against the evil that is racism. It is only in this instance that I borrow your own saying, “all your skin folks are your kin folk.”
In the wake of the events of the past few weeks, following the murder of George Floyd, every human person with blood flowing in their veins, saw the raw viscerality of a man’s death and rose up to denounce the injustice that brutally snatched George from his family and friends. . An injustice so very often directed at black people in this country. This injustice has lit the fires of prophetic moral outrage across the globe. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outsider agitator” idea.”
No one can deny the suffering and injustice meted out to blacks in the course of this nation’s history. Otherwise, how does one explain chattel slavery, branding, lynching, vagrancy laws made immediately after the abolition of slavery, which simply put freed slaves back into indentured servitude on the very plantations that stripped their dignity? What about Jim Crow and segregation laws? What about the 1954 and 56 laws of “equal but separate”? How did America arrive at the civil rights movement if everything was dandy, as some will want to claim? How has ‘redlining’ helped black folks with federal housing schemes? Did the GI Bills in the 60s help black veterans? All these helped to set up the drug problems, and criminality in “The New Jack City” of the various African American communities.
The prison system in this country constantly rips mothers from sons and fathers from daughters. The supremacist system immediately responded by militarizing the police force and making laws that imposed long prison terms for those charged with drug related offences. The rest of the history is well known to everyone; many African American families had no father figures. Black young men grew up without the guidance of a father and often times with mothers working three jobs to keep food on the table and roof over their heads.
Christianity is on trial and we must speak with conviction, systemic racism and white supremacy are against the divine moral and natural laws of God and the mandate to love our neighbors. But we must not stop at raising our voices of protest and lament. It is time to insist on legislation that is not only enacted but is a promise that must be kept this time. We have heard “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights…” We know where that has gone! This task is in the hands of Black leadership like the NAACP and governmental policy makers. They must resolve questions of equal educational and economic opportunities.
On our own part, we must look inward in self-examination. What can we do as people? We must protest lawfully and peacefully; as Dr. King once said “hate does not cure hate, love does.” And as I say, “Violence does not cure violence, peace does.” In support of the rallies, protests and marches, I propose going back to the wisdom of our ancestors. Our forebears, with far seeing eyes, hoisting us on their shoulders, always looking into the future. A future is possible only if we reclaim our identity. What is the African and by extension black identity around the world? It is an identity rooted in family, faith and community.
These are the components by which blacks all over the world have been able to weather the storms of life. As long as we have kept these three things in place, blacks thrived. However, we have allowed these strengths to be broken and everything has fallen apart.
We have to reclaim the family, the place of nurture, respect and education. The family is the first place where black children encounter the truths of their history and are taught to navigate the realities of the world they will live in. A family where father, mother, and children can grow with the support of relatives bound together by blood, love and trust. . Above all of this it is faith that has seen us through dark and bitter times.
Look at the Hill district, why do you think there were so many Churches built here? Why have they become empty spaces? Perhaps it is because the church has not heard the cries of a generation who have bought into the sour fruits of materialism and greed. Have we failed our ancestors by allowing the values of our oppressors to distract us from the sacred values that sustained our ancestors through the horrors of enslavement and colonialism?
An African American Professor at Southern Texas University, Dr. Thomas Freedman who passed on about two weeks ago said, “What we do we do well; what we don’t do well, we don’t do at all.” As we reflect and pray together this day, we stand at this Freedom Corner, standing on the shoulders of giants, our ancestors who have pointed us into the future. Let the world hear it loud and clear; It IS ENOUGH, IT IS OVER; THE OBJECTIFICATION AND SLAYING OF BLACK BODIES, WE SHALL TAKE IT NO MORE! We ask our ancestors from beyond the rivers, to strengthen our arms in the task ahead. So that those to whom we have, poured libation here today would not have died in vain.
We pray to Orisa Nla, Olodumare- the one and only almighty God and father of all creation to give us the strength to run the race and not grow weary or tired until we reclaim or identity; we, black bodies, kissed by the sun, people forged in the fiery furnace, a people who stand resolute and firm as one family, one community and on the shoulders of the ancestors.
A people who have always and will always Matter!
Rev. Fr. John Segun Odeyemi Ph.D
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.
Fr. John Odeyemi delivered this speech on Sunday June 28th, 2020 @ the Freedom Corner, Pennsylvania, USA.