Reinterpreting a language of failure and gloom


He knows, he knows. A block from his church, St. Katherine's Episcopal at Division and Presstman streets, a horrendous mountain of junk sits on a sidewalk, old shredded mattresses and big plastic bags ripped open by God knows what, and the whole thing sits there day after depressing day.

He knows. The drug traffic of West Baltimore tears at this neighborhood's veins, and he knows. The crime causes innocent people to stay behind locked doors on balmy evenings. The gloom hangs ominous as a thundercloud.

He knows, and he wishes to get past it: the poverty, and the generations of black people under the thumb -- not the thumb of white America, but of their own self-perception, their vision in the mirror as a race of victims.

The Rev. Peter Bramble, 47, sits in his airless little rectory office, clerical collar wide open, desk awash in papers. A native of Montserrat in the British West Indies, he came here to study at the Yale Divinity School. And now he talks about this idea he's turned into a book, called "The Overcome," which he wishes to turn into a movement.

"The people in my church," he starts to say, and then stops and runs a hand over his whole face. The issue is sensitive, and the language must be precise.

"They're sensible people," he says of his parishioners, "but their language is the language of failure. Their lives are successes in many ways, but. . . ." The voice trails off again. "But they keep singing 'We Shall Overcome.' We never can. Not if we think the overcoming is some time in the future."

In his head, The Overcome has arrived. History has given black people their defining moment -- the death of Martin Luther King Jr., who liberated them though many failed to recognize it. And that moment, he says, must be seen as the very turning point in black American history.

"Oh," Father Bramble says now. "Oh, they don't like to hear this. I tell them we have passed over. They say, 'Passed over! We haven't passed over anything.' This is what they tell me. But I don't care, because I know that we have."

The key phrase is 'passed-over.' It is only a word, but on such a word Father Bramble found a notion for a movement, with its own rituals and its own liturgy, which he's been introducing slowly over the last four years.

"The Jews," he says now. "Look at their Passover. They knew. They changed a verb to a noun in Passover. You see, those guys were very smart. They did it while they were still coming out of their oppression, and they said, 'We have this moment. This Passover.' "

For the Jews, he says, it was a defining moment that began to change a mind set. It allowed them to put their history of oppression behind them. The same thing happened to America, he says.

"On July 4, 1776, not one thing had changed, other than the ink drying on a piece of paper. But it gave America a state of mind."

Why, Father Bramble asked himself, can blacks not do the same for themselves? The numbers provoke dismay: A quarter-century after King's death, after civil rights legislation, there is still a vast black underclass seemingly locked into position.

"And you know what we have become?" Father Bramble says. "Overt whiners. Yes, we see ourselves as victims stymied by others. I get hell for saying this, but we've got to get past seeing whites as the enemy. We've become our own enemy."

He knows about the trash piled a block away, knows about the people who come to the church door to beg for money each day, knows about the atmosphere of fear.

"But understand something," he says. "This is the neighborhood that produced Thurgood Marshall. And Parren Mitchell and Clarence Mitchell. And Kweisi Mfume. They didn't believe in a culture of victimization. They said, whatever the system is, we can overcome it.

"What I'm talking about is an in terpretive handle to change a way of thinking. After Moses, the Jews found Israel. After George Washington, we had America. After Martin Luther King, blacks must find our own nation of institutions, and stop seeing ourselves as losers."

He knows some will argue with him. Some will say he's blaming the victims. But he sits in his little rectory office now, and there is trash piled on a street corner a block away, and a generation stuck in gear, and he knows it ought to be better than this.

He knows, he knows.

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