Sunday, December 20, 2015

Past Imperfect: From Azalea Trail Maid to Black Lives Matter

At the Women of Impact Luncheon last week, Dr. Emily Reimer-Barry delivered the Keynote Address.  With her permission, we have posted it here for you to enjoy.  We believe that her insights and reflections are the perfect way to end the fall semester and to begin thinking about the work that we will continue to do in the spring semester to make positive change in our own lives and at USD.  
The Hub would like to congratulate all of the Women of Impact award winners.  We are especially proud of Madison Ryan, Student Chair of the Changemaker Student Committee, who won the award for undergraduate students.  

The Hub has also issued a statement of support for the USD students who have raised such important and relevant issues for our campus community.  You can find the statement of support here.

We wish the entire campus community a very restful and peaceful holiday and we look forward to working with you during the spring semester.

Happy Holidays - Mike and JC

Hi everyone.

I’ve been asked to briefly speak about the Catholic Social Thought principle of Human Dignity. In a sense, this principle is the foundation of every other ethical principle and norm in Catholic Social Thought from condemnation of the death penalty and nuclear weapons to advocacy for immigration reform and access to clean water.

Basically, this principle means that every life is sacred. Period. Everyone deserves a chance to thrive. Around the world, women are making a difference in big and small ways in their communities. Today we celebrate women of impact—around the world and right here at USD. The principle of human dignity means you have inherent dignity that no one can take away from you. No matter what. Speaking theologically: God loves you just as you are. You do not have to do anything to earn God’s love. God delights in you.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we are perfect. And that’s okay.
It is okay. You are okay. Nobody is perfect.

As Steven Wright has said,
If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.


Often at the end of the semester we look back at how it has gone—what happened, what we learned, what we regret. Who am I? What kind of person am I becoming? Have you found yourself asking these questions, looking back at the semester’s highs and lows, wishing you had done this or that…

I’m going to go back twenty years.  I call this self-reflection by the tense of
Past Imperfect: From Azalea Trail Maid to Black Lives Matter

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future is contained in time past….
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
                                                            T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Let me tell you of my folly. I was not always a feminist. I was not always so concerned about racial justice. I was not always a theological ethicist.

I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, where the last slave ship brought cargo of enslaved Africans aboard the Clotilda in 1859. Twenty years ago, during my senior year of high school, I was an Azalea Trail Maid. Believe it or not, it was seen as quite an honor in my hometown. Basically, 100 female high school students were selected and we dressed up in antebellum dresses and made frequent “appearances” at civic functions and holiday parades. Our outfit included: antebellum hoop dress, lace hat, parasol, lace gauntlets, cummerbund, bow, pantaloons, and shoes dyed to match our dress color. We were instructed to always act “like a lady,” which meant, according to the pink book: “Do not, under any circumstances, complain that you are tired, uncomfortable, hot, cold, or anything to a visitor. Learn to smile under all conditions!”

This is a big thing in Mobile. But as I look at it now, it see how it is terribly problematic. And not just because we weren’t allowed to say we were hot on 95 degree days. While the Azalea Trail Maids had been integrated for many years before I joined their ranks in 1995, the whole idea of teenage ambassadors dressed as plantation owners from the antebellum south is its own kind of revisionist history. And we know it was a brutal history. As an Azalea Trail Maid I would stand outside old plantation homes for garden parties, fundraisers, flower festivals, and the like, without ever a mention of the dehumanizing violence that was forced upon slaves on those plantations 150 years prior.

Why did I participate in such a strange and deeply offensive tradition, rooted in unspoken nostalgia masked as civic pride?  Because I didn’t think to question this tradition. I was socialized to accept it as normal.

It took me a long time to begin to see my privileges and to recognize the invisible systems of oppression that operate “as normal” in our world.  My colleague Karen Teel writes about white privilege as a feeling of being “uncomfortable” in my white skin. This is not because I do not recognize that I am a child of God created with inherent dignity. I am. But it is rather because of the power and meanings human attach to whiteness—which make me complicit in an unjust system even before I do anything in that system. Some of you are beginning to recognize these structural injustices now—because the truth is that we live in a terribly unjust world. But we can change. Things can change. Consider the meaning of “past imperfect.”


  • Verb form that combines past tense and imperfective aspect (reference to a continuing or repeated event or state, e.g. used to walk).
  • “Imperfect” comes from the Latin imperfectus, “unfinished,” because the imperfect expresses an ongoing, uncompleted action

Ongoing, uncompleted action.       Like us.

My past has shaped me, but I am not defined by who I was. I was imperfect. I am imperfect. The past imperfect expresses an ongoing, uncompleted action. Aren’t we always “ongoing”?


Twenty years later, I stand in solidarity with student protesters. I profess that Black Lives Matter. That I can do my part to raise awareness of systemic injustices, to condemn hate speech, to do my part to create a world in which every person has what he or she needs to thrive. And we have much work to do together.

Every human life is sacred.


How will you live that out in your own questions, your own commitments, your own lifestyle? How does your past shape your present and empower you towards a future of hope and justice?

I’m going to close with a final reflection about the incarnation—what Christians celebrate at Christmas.

That God became human. What better way to celebrate human dignity than to remember how God chose to become one of us—to enter into the brokenness of the human condition, the messiness of ordinary family life, to teach us about how in our ongoing work for justice we cooperate in God’s plan to redeem the world. Jesuit scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reminds us that

Purity does not lie in a separation from the universe,
But in a deeper penetration of it.

So as we celebrate human dignity today, may each of us also be willing to look into our own lives and reflect on those areas of work in which we are “unfinished.” Each of us is a work in progress. But we will not be purified in solitary adventures of separation from the universe. No, we realize our humanity most when we stand in solidarity with those who protest injustices, when we deeply penetrate the reality of our broken world. When we meet Jesus in the stable, and the streets, and the soup kitchens, and the dorm study sessions.
Past, Present, Future.
Your story is still in progress. We don’t know how it will end up. And that’s okay.

Dr. Emily Reimer-Barry