BL&D Interview - Bishop John Selders
INTERVIEW Aundrea Murray & Onyeka Obiocha
EDITING & PHOTOGRAPHY Quenton Narcisse
(Editor’s Note: This interview took place before the Charleston, S.C. tragedy on June 17, 2015 where nine black people were slaughtered in their church by shooter Dylann Roof while at Bible study.)
Dr. Bishop Selders understands that this isn’t the time for divisive tactics and petulance. Unity in the African American community and a fiery rebellion against the very system that subsidized the existence of millions is a necessity. And it's what makes Selders tick. Since his arrival in Connecticut years ago, he's dedicated himself to the teachings of race, internalized oppression and anti-racism while also focusing on academia and advocating for prevalent issues such as HIV/AIDS awareness and women's health. He's an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. He's also the Associate Chaplain at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, and the long standing Executive Director of Zezzo House, an 18-unit collaborative housing unit in the heart of Hartford. The Black Lives Matter campaign is just one of many endeavors that has cemented Selders as one of the most salient voices in the state of Connecticut.
But as he states, he's tired. And he's quick to inform us during our session that he can't spearhead this campaign alone for much longer. Nor does he particularly want to - he's needs the younger generation to take lead, or as he eloquently puts it, to "turn up". When he talks, it's animated, fervent yet smooth and slippery. His twang is striking coupled with a tone that resonates with immediacy. It's quite clear that Selders' advocacy towards these issues are embedded in his backbone. But he's firm when he acknowledges that change won't come until you start caring as much as he does.
First, let's talk a little bit about Ferguson.
My life changed on August 9th. Ferguson was deeply, deeply, DEEPLY personal for me. There is no way to cut that any other way. I got a text from one of my bloods and my brothers that said, “You watching TV? Turn on CNN - something is happening at home.” I don’t turn on CNN and I go to Twitter. I go to Twitter because I’m going to find my information first there. And sure enough, it’s jumping off - something happening big on Canfield Street.
Canfield Street in Ferguson - I’ve driven down that street billions of times. That’s the neighborhood. I came literally from the hospital I was born in to the community next door just west of Ferguson called Kinlock. Kinlock is the oldest African American chartered town in the state of Missouri. It happened in 1865, 1866 - right after the Emancipation Proclamation and end of the Civil War. This community established itself as an African American haven, city [and] township for Black people in the state of Missouri. Now to go back a bit more, Missouri in fact became a state out of what was then called the Missouri Compromise. Y’all know a little bit of history? Y’all know about the Missouri Compromise? Maine comes into the union as a free state; Missouri comes into the union as a slave state. Fast forward a few years later, the Dred Scott decision happened in 1857. Roger Taney says, “In effect, niggas and white folk ain’t got to bother with. We have no law that we have to abide for for Black people.”
I paraphrased that. Some people are uncomfortable with the word ‘nigga’ - I’m not. I’m good. I’ve dealt with my inner nigga. I’m okay with that. There’s white folk that when you call ‘em a racist, they foam at the mouth and turn pink and can’t handle it. But I call you ‘my nigga’ - BAM! You know what that means you see the love [and] expression of regard in their eyes. Somebody else say it and they say it wrong, in my generation, they say, “Ya momma!”. You know, it was on. [Laughs] Well, it could be on in this generation now depending on how you come with it. You come correct, and it’s all the vibe.
It’s all about the energy.
Yeah, it’s about what people feel from you. The vibe. The Dred Scott decision happened and was announced in St. Louis. So it was not unusual - it was bizarre in fact - but it was very explainable that something like Ferguson jumped off in Ferguson like that because of what hovers over the region. It is the land of the Dred Scott decision where Black people had been disrespected and had lived generationally under such terms. It’s your generation that has said, ‘We done had enough’. And they hit the streets.
The disrespect that that boy’s body stayed out there in the August sun for over four and a half hours. Police dogs came up [and] peed and sniffed all along his body. His momma and daddy couldn’t come along and go visit him. The EMT’s were not called. The nurse that called [about the shooting] and lived in the complex came out and said, ‘Let me go see if he’s still alive’ [and] she was not allowed to. Y’all people saw that. Twitter blew up ‘cause something like that. That kind of disrespect was viewed there. These are my nieces and nephews. I got a brother in-law and a sister in-law that live in Ferguson. I got nieces and nephews that go to the school where Mike Brown had just graduated from. Ferguson was deeply personal. My life changed.
So was that your initial impetus for The Hartford 17?
Yeah, of course. Immediately, my momma called [and said], “Y’all coming? You gotta help the people”. So, yes. You wanna talk about what’s connected to it, I’m connected to the root personally to what happened in St. Louis and Ferguson.
At what point was it that you got that connection? At what point was it that you said, “There’s something I have to do about this and I’m going to something about all of this”?
Well, you’re sitting in Zezzo House. It’s an 18-unit collaborative housing project. And I’m the Executive Director. I’ve been running it from the very beginning. We’re now 14-plus years into this work. My heart has been the neighborhood and the community. My ministry over the past fifteen years in Connecticut and Hartford has been around community stuff. This is just a continuation of what I think is justice for people in the margins who have been alienated and isolated. So you wanna know what my connection is? I got to go back to my grandmama and my granddaddy, the preacher, the musician, the justice advocates and the workers in the community. I have the family business if you will. I peddle religion and justice. [Laughs] That’s my gig, so this is just an extension of my work.
In what way has my life changed because of what happened in Ferguson? I became much more akin to the fact that all the work I’ve been doing, it ain’t enough. And here in Connecticut - here in Hartford in particular - what have we done around black and brown communities [and] around advocacy? The same dearth of leadership that exists in Ferguson exists here in Hartford. While we have the NAACP and all the resident groups and committees, your generation don’t give a high flying flip about none of that. Right? It’s what momma and ‘nem do when they go down to the Juneteenth thing where you gotta pay $200 tickets for the thing. The 'thiiiing'. I think it’s ridiculous, but whatever, that ain't my gig. But it ain’t for the community. It’s for an elite group. The black Governor’s Ball.
But anyway, I have some opinions about that stuff but I also understand culturally that this is a different place. New England is a different place. When you talk about community, that means a different thing. The culture in New England is alienation, isolation and aloneness. It’s about what I do over here with me and my few. It’s about the nepotism that’s connected to that, so we have king and queen makers in the African American community that if you’re not connected to them, you don’t have the access that’s relative to white folk, power and that type of thing. Okay, I get that.
But that’s not where I centered my work or where our commitment has been. Our commitment has been far more around what I think is the value and in the margins. I’ve been out there when you talk about racism and race issue work. I’ve been out there when you talk about gay issues and solidarity and same-gender loving folk. I’ve been out there when you talk about the marginalizing people in prisons involving the system as it were. I’ve been out there when you talk about HIV. I’ve been out there when you talk about abortion issues and women’s health issues and community health issues. Those are margin pieces of work, and very often you don’t find mainstream African American clergy or religious folk cutting that thing. I’ve been out there with the hippity-hop generation. You see how I said that? Hippity-hop!
How do you reach out to the other side?
What other side?
The non “hippity-hop” community?
Well, I’m from it. I’m 50-plus. I’m 52 years old. So I have some of the sensibilities. Y’all wear them pants too low, that’s too much behind showing; why I gotta see your underwear? Of course I want you to pull up your underwear. At the same time, just because you represent how ever you represent doesn’t mean that we are not family, we aren’t committed to one another and you show up like you will. I might say ‘turn that hat around’ or ‘pull them britches up’, but you know your daddy and ‘em gonna say that. Your grandmama - she gon’ say that. But I was raised to say that we all are family. Pookie and Ray Ray - I know Pookie steals, so give your purse to Big Mama, and we all gon’ lock it up in her room. And you can’t block Pookie from coming to the family reunion. That’s where I’m at. Everyone has a place at the table. All of us need to be in relationship with [one another]. I’ve tried my entire career and my entire ministry here in Connecticut and Hartford specifically to do that.
Structurally - cause you say that a lot of programs are putting on programs that don’t necessarily come from the Hartford community - what do you think are things that can be done to help young people in Hartford?
I don’t know if it’s [that] those things don’t help. I just think they’re a part of what is. I think there’s a value. I don’t want to throw things, events [and] other stuff under the bus. I think culturally, there is an advantage for thinking well for ourselves and to put the gown on and show up at the muckity-muck spot and throw down in that kind of way. I just think that we also ought to expand places and spaces where those places occur. We gon’ do the downtown fufu gala - where’s the community around-the-way down low, let’s-get-it-on sweat it out - you know that’s from my generation [laughs]. You throw that on the turntable and that’s gonna get us up. I know that y’all got some other stuff.
Y’all got a lil Jay-Z, Beyonce, whoever it is that young people like and I can bop my head to it and get into it as well. I think we need far more opportunities like that. One of the things I was very concerned about when my family arrived here was there was a lack of black culture that was overtly expressed in black neighborhoods and communities. It was bizarre to find that there wasn’t those places and spaces where we connected in those kind of ways [and] where we connected cross-generalizationally [sic]. Only a few places that I found that there was a discussion of the dialogue. Church was one of them, of course. Some of these institutions, you know, [there’s] just a lot of old people. Lot of old people. Now, of course when we talk about mass incarceration through the prison pipeline, lots of our children and young men are in the joint or caught up in the system. So there is some attention [and] some analysis to tend to where it may be where the culture is lacking, but that’s my problem [with everything]. It’s the only form of expression.
Literally, I felt bad that Trinity college - which I’m an Associate Chaplin at now - they just celebrated their tenth anniversary of their International Hip-Hop Festival. Where [was] Hartford at? How come that ain’t blown up in our communities? For 10 years, we have the International Hip-Hop Festival, which should be the one thing that everyone oughta be at just because hip-hop has moved into the mainstream, and is leading in many ways the cultural revolution of our times, right? Where we at? And I’ma be very frank - I didn’t even know it existed for about four or five years of it and I lived right in the neighborhood. I was embarrassed not to know. There’s a few outlets that our people go. You try and put something on the internet, but you know, we’re not wired up in Hartford.
That’s a good point - there’s a lot of information available for events and cultural happenings, but it’s not accessible to people who need it adequately. How do you make it more accessible in your hands? Because you have such big hands in this community.
I don’t know about that, but thank you though. But I’m doing the work. We blow it up on all of social media but we’re out there on Unity Plaza. Knocking on doors. We did a disseminate for the action we did last week. We distributed hundreds and hundreds of flyers - just putting the word out. We posted up at Unity Plaza and had a pre-Black Lives Matter rally there. We were over on Albany Avenue posted up for several hours in the coming days to the rally downtown last week. I think we gotta get word of mouth. We think we gotta get serious if we really want it. That space? We gotta vie for it. And it’s kinda old roots, old school knock on the doors. What I said to the old folk, what we did the other day, we’re way too old for it to happen. In Ferguson, I’m running up behind people your age and I’m like, “Woo, I’m tired! Y’all wearing me out! Let me catch my breath!” Because they’re gone - they’re moving.
But here [in] Sleepy Connecticut, I’m leading a Black Lives Matter movement thing at fifty-something years old. Too old. I already know that I’ve got to train and expose younger people to these ideals. I gotta connect them to [and have them understand that] what we’re doing is not new. It is part of a tradition long lived of our people where we’ve gotten mobilized and sick and tired of being sick and tired, and we’re demanding of the state and we’re demanding of the government and demanding of the power. Power ain’t gonna give you power. They ain’t gonna concede it; you gotta demand for it.
Explain to me The Hartford 17 in your words. Because I hear a lot of things said in the media. What is Hartford 17, what are you guys striving to do and how are you trying to get that done?
The Hartford 17 derives from Moral Monday Connecticut. Moral Monday Connecticut is the vehicle by which we begun to do statewide organizing connected to the Moral Monday movement out of North Carolina. The Reverend Bill Barber and the NAACP took on that name and task of faithful and other justice folk gathering at the center of power in North Carolina, Raleigh and going into the state capital and singing and praying and making speeches publicly and getting arrested publicly in North Carolina. They’ve been doing that for a number of years now. We know Dr. Barber and the work that they’ve been doing and our effort here is to connect from that space to the Black Lives Matter movement and police overreach and violence in our community.
What we decided to do [on] June 8th is do a simple non-violent peaceful act of civil disobedience. We went to downtown Hartford - the capital city of this state - a mixture of clergy from a number of different traditions. We had people arrested from Glastonbury, Bridgeport, from Meriden, from around the Greater Hartford area and we got out in the middle of the street and did not move. We were assisted out of the street by Hartford po-po. Straight up. And that’s how The Hartford 17 derived its work. We understand under the banner of Black Lives Matter, we had a Black Lives Matter Rally that turned into civil disobedience. And you don’t do that kind of act with that many people. We had po-po every each way. Hundreds of people downtown. If you were all down there, then you saw it. You felt the vibe, it felt like we had the people with us. I wish there were people that could have joined us, but they ain’t be trained. They don’t know the theory - they don’t know the ideology that went behind that. But, I dare say that we were not a pop up protest. We’ve been working for months. We did an action in February where we went to City Hall and did a die-in. 65-75 of us walked down Main Street for a couple of blocks into City Hall and did a die-in for four and a half minutes to signify the four and a half hours that Mike Brown laid in the street. We laid in the rotunda of City Hall here in Hartford. We did a die-in!
I didn’t know that.
February 23th. We got out of that, and got harassed by the police. A number of the police fell up in Price Church Cathedral to shake their fingers at us and chide us. And it was a bit of a tense moment because they targeted me and a couple of other leaders saying that we should’ve asked permission to protest. That’s where that quote comes from in the Hartford Courant saying, “I will never ask permission to protest.” To take my own civil right, my right to say no to a thing which means it says ‘yes’ to affirming me. Yeah, I won’t take that. That’s our very distinct form of democracy. To a thing, I say yes to it or no to it, and this is why. So The Hartford 17 derives from that very basis of our democracy.
You touch on an interesting point about Sleepy Connecticut because I know that a number of young people might look at what you’re doing and say, “That’s what’s happening over there in Ferguson, that’s what happening in the South. What does that have to do with me?” This morning alone, we got homicide No. 13 in Hartford [this year]. So why are your worrying about Black Lives Matter when we’re killing our own, as some may say?
Black Lives Matter, period. It doesn’t matter who’s killing who. If we understood, we would back up for a minute and say our particular may be different in some ways. So the dust up in Ferguson began around a white cop killing a black kid. But the fact of business is the deep deep economic depression that exists in Hartford. The way in which our communities are ghettoized - does that have something to do with why we have violence with each other? Abso-freaking-lutely. I contend that if Pookie had a job, he’d have less time to run around here gang-banging. I’m a preacher - I need an Amen right there, now.
But for real, though. Don’t tell me that we want peace in our streets. This is the thing: since I’ve been here - fifteen years I’ve lived in the city of Hartford and I’m a resident of Hartford - every year from winter into spring and into summer, there’s an uptick in violence. If I know that, our city fathers know that, our government officials and elected officials know that, and the police know that. If you really had a plan to curb the violence, you’d get ahead of it someway and you’d do strategy work ahead of it. Do not tell me that you gon’ show up now that it done jumped off and say, “We want peace in our streets!” without a plan. We didn’t have too many community meetings to get that stadium built. It got done: from the time it was announced. Nine months later, concrete is drying. They’re pouring and drying concrete! You can’t get no more clear to me than that. If there’s a will to change a thing here, it can get done. I believe there ain’t a will, yet.
I don’t know nothing ‘bout that yet, but I’m doing what you young people call ‘turn up’. I’m turnt up. And at any moment, let it be on blast everywhere. Moral Monday might turn up. What Dr. King said, ‘There’s a creative tension that occurs when ordinary people show up in the streets’. We turn the heat up and then we check the temperature. Chief Rovella is correct - he did come to me and offer [and say], ‘Let’s sit down and talk.’ I’m not ready to talk. Cause we ain’t boiling yet. We ain’t got that temperature right yet. That ‘I’m not ready to business as usual’ when someone has a little dustup, you meet with preachers and a couple leaders and we come out of there [like], “These are the good guys, blah blah, wonk wonk wonk” and then it settles down. I'm not willing for it to settle down anymore. I want the heat. I want to bring the heat. And be on alert. Please, tell the people. And we want to turn up at any moment.
And to be completely honest, I want you all to start turning up. I don’t want to be leading this. I want to be in back with a sign and a megahorn saying, ‘Go on! Go on, children! Take it! Run with it! Act up! Do what you gotta do!’ Because what that does is apply a kind of creative tension. That brings it in a particular kind of way. Because they’re not responding to you killing you! We’re not killing Johnny and Peggy. We’re killing Jamal and Laquita. Do lives all matter? No! Hell no. You already know they don’t. That’s why we’re specifically saying black lives matter because it must matter to us. That’s a long answer to your simple question because it’s not a simple question.
"the deep, deep economic depression that exists in Hartford... The way in which our communities are ghettoized - does that have something to do with why we have violence with each other? Abso-freaking-lutely. I contend that if Pookie had a job, he’d have less time to run around here gang-banging."
You’re talking about a lot of leaders talking with clergies and a lot of religious leaders in the area, and you drive down the North end, it seems like every building is a church. What is that like to live in Hartford to have such a big, religious Christian following and the biggest institution is the church, yet all of this is happening? And how do you mobilize and get things going in the direction that you think is necessary?
I don’t really know to tell you the honest-to-God truth. I don’t know what they’re reaching. If their children being subjected to the kind of violence in the settings that they’re in [and] if that don’t move you, I don’t really know what quite will. But I can tell you this: my faith has really called me to task on this particular issue right now. It says to me that I’ve been called to serve the poor and disenfranchised. I’ve been called to help the folk in prison. I’ve been called to help feed the needy. That’s my work. I’ve been called to stand up for people who don’t have a voice or feel like they don’t have a voice. They got one, but they may feel like their voice doesn’t matter. It does matter, and that’s my call. And can I lead with my body embodied. I’m not scared of the police, and I’m not scared of being arrested for the righteous calls.
And I know what that means then. We get in the way. We inconvenience folk and subject ourselves to criticism and critique. But I dare tell you that I’ve been told by the advocates in the community [that] what we did the other day hasn’t been seen in Hartford in a very very very long time. I want to be apart of waking us up to these very big things. I think Brother Jarvis has it right when he said that we should be doing something. This pastor [and] this person of faith has been engaged in social justice work - check my record from the time I hit this place. So I’m not new to the game. This is just a consistent thread where I’ve been and where I’m already going. You gon’ find me as long as I live on this same roads and same avenues making these connections between what it is that our faith calls us to, and how that gets actualized not just in theory; not just in high places [and] not just my little space where, on Sunday morning, I have the attention of a group of people. That thing then gets embodied in the streets. So I’m right here on Homestead everyday trying to help folk get to their next.
Reverend Al Sharpton found his way into Hartford and not to the most open-minded crowd. Can you speak towards that and what was that like for you?
Well, let me say to you that I believe that Reverend Al Sharpton and others who have been called and dubbed by our community and the wider community - Black America - as ‘black leadership’; and you know that’s clergy-led - Reverend Sharpton and Reverend Jackson and others have a legitimate form of leadership. I think we have different ways to get at it. There’s different leaderships [because] there isn’t just one leader. There was only one Martin King and Martin was in a group of folk in the Civil Rights Movement. He was just the celebrity-type [that was] pushed to the leadership and pushed to the head. There’s always been other leaders in the movement, so my hats off to Reverend Sharpton and others who feel like they do what’s their call. I’m driving in my lane. So I experienced Reverend Sharpton. I know him and we’ve spoken at the House of Justice and hope to work together in a few spaces and places. This is my town, and others can believe that he has something to say that’s valuable. Amen - so be it. [But] where were they at [on] June 8th at 4 o’clock when we shut this town down?
Let me backtrack for a second. What attracts you to Twitter?
It’s where y’all are! It’s where y’all are - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram - this social media thing. Now, I won’t allow people my age [to say], ‘Well, I’m too old, blah blah’. My mother in-law [who is] 80 [years old] texts and is on Facebook. Ain’t no excuse.
That's what I'm saying. How do we get your generation to intertwine with our generation so that we're doing the same thing?
I hear you. I hear you. What has happened with us - we've been to Ferguson a number of times [and] those are my babies, those my chirren - those are my nieces and my nephews, and my sons and my daughters who are looking for us to say, 'You're doing it right' or 'Hold on, you might wanna check'. Right? They're not looking for me to call it for 'em. But they are looking to me to be related to them. And I am, so they call Uncle John. They call the Bishop, and the Bishop has something to say about it. They check in with us. We're talking on Facebook. We're talking on Twitter.
I have to say that what I've experienced in this community is the where in which we've been made to believe that we don't matter. You all did something because there just wasn't nothing available. You couldn't find you nowhere in what you're doing. It's the same [for me]. I can't find me nowhere. So I have to be the me I want to see. I gotta be it [and] you gotta be it. So [the answer to] your question [is] I gotta get on Facebook and Twitter. I got to blow it up. And I have a staff [that I ask], 'Did y'all put that on Twitter yet?' Someone got arrested [at the rally] and the police came out and said, "Would y'all please tell the people [to stop]" cause one of the 17 that got arrested has some medical issues in need that got blown up - they're were inundated with calls. Cause our people [were] using social media to make the case.
And what I have told old people - they [always say], "I didn't know about it! I would've been there! I'm not on Facebook!" And they say that with pride. And I say shame on you. You missed the world go by. You missed what's important to our young people. If you claim you want to be where young people are [and] claim you want to be down with the children, then be where they at. Don't expect that they come where you are. Now what I have found is, I have come to where the young people are [so] y'all come seek me out. You come to where I am. We do cross-fertilization. And then we say, 'We are related to each other and I want to be down with you.' And I want to be in the back. Obviously because I got some play [and] people look at me - I'll take the hit. I'll be out there in the front a little bit. Just as long enough for y'all to get ready. And when it's time, easily I'ma pass this baton off. I'm tired now. [Laughs] I'm doing a lot of things. I'm tired already right now. But I'm willing to go all the way. I'm in for the long haul. This issue that's a problem today, we're not going to fix it tomorrow. We can fix on it today.
What's one thing that you feel like you want our generation to know?
You got a voice [so] get at it. It's yours. And I know, we all demand this and po-po that and we ain't got this. I know, but what do you have? Now, I'm gonna get preachy on ya. Moses at the burning bush - God talking to Moses through a burning bush. I know it's jacked up but that's how the story go. The story goes God is talking to Moses through the burning bush and tells Moses, "Go down and tell the Pharaoh to let the people go." And Moses starts stuttering. The backstory is Moses was raised as a grandson of Pharaoh, so Moses had a little skin color access. That's a whole 'nother story, but he could go down there and talk to Pharaoh because he had a prior relationship with Pharaoh.
God told him through the burning bush, "What's that in your hand? Drop it." And the story goes that the stick turns to a snake. Moses picks up the snake turns back into a stick as a metaphor [for] this: what you got in your hands, use it. So that's my word to young people. You got some things in your hands. You got some information. Some of y'all went to school. Some of y'all got some skill sets. And for dog-on-sure, the skills it takes to sling on the corner, take some of those skills - those organizing skills - and do something for ya folk. It's my experience and most folk in the game [that] they want to take care of momma and them. They wanna take care of their babies. They don't wanna leave 'em out there alone. Some of that slinging goes to Pampers. So take some of that skill, and start working on it. And there are some of us that will come along side of you, and help you. I wanna help, but I'm not the only ones that wanna help. There are others that wanna help. They just don't know who to help cause you haven't put yourself in the way.
Check out the audio from the full interview below, which includes a conversation with Selders' son and a few workers at the Zezzo House.