Piece 31: Wakanda Forever

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

 As the darkness of the opening scenes gives way to a sunny and gorgeous Wakanda day, the Black Panther, T’Challa, honors us with his royal presence. We take in the clear-blue water, the vibrant greens and reds and yellows in scenery and clothing. We glimpse – perhaps for the first time – a masterfully created afrofuturistic setting rich in beauty, history, not least of all, blackness. The beauty of Wakanda warms and invigorates us, like we have just awakened from the deep sleep of an necessary but accidental nap.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

Get on Up creatively chronicles the life and times of the Godfather of Soul. From his childhood with poverty-stricken parents who related to each other in a thoroughly dysfunctional way, to his aged adulthood as a volatile, temperamental small-business owner, James Brown led an extraordinary, often fraught life. In choosing this role, Boseman gifted us an iconic image of an iconic cultural figure. He blessed us with his talent for transforming before our eyes to embody the spirit of James Brown in a way only he could. By employing his immense talent, Boseman bequeathed to us all his embodiment of Brown’s legacy.

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In Marshall, Boseman breathes life into the story of Thurgood Marshall’s early career as an attorney. We watch as Boseman’s Marshall approaches and recruits reluctant co-counsel to speak for Marshall in a courtroom so steeped in racism and white supremacy that Marshall himself is allowed to be present at the defendant’s table but never to speak aloud. We witness Marshall’s calm, unshakeable cockiness as he remains steadfast in his resolve to exonerate his defendant in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. We even get the added joy of a cameo in the form of Trayvon Martin’s parents at the movie’s end, as Marshall meets his next defendants – parents of a teenage son who’s been accused of murdering a police officer.

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom—Boseman’s final role—situated him firmly in a black experience so familiar: that of the frustrated, perpetually hamstrung black American man. Boseman’s Levee wants desperately to display his phenomenal talent on a grand scale worthy of its breadth. But he’s stuck under Ma Rainey’s stubborn insistence and hemmed in by her established presence in the music industry. He can’t lash out at the producers he’s trying to groom to support him, he can’t lash out at the elusive and unpredictable Ma herself, and so he turns his frustration on his bandmates. He lights into them, eager to elicit a violent reaction so that he can finally find release for all his pent up rage. 

When I survey the scattering of roles Boseman accepted in his final years – years wherein only he and a tight circle of loved ones knew anything of his health struggles – I see a portrait of a man who worked with diligence and purpose to leave a legacy for us all. He chose to vary his portrayal of the black experience, he chose to dig deep and lean hard into his craft, he chose to be the superhero we all needed.

I’m deeply grateful for the artistic choices Chadwick Boseman made, that broke box office record expectations for a black-led movie, that made star-struck young children want to attend historically black colleges and universities, that provided hope, relief, and joy for an audience full of people like me who are so grossly underrepresented in such beautiful, thorough artistic endeavors. What a gift and a blessing that he used his time on Earth to leave to all of us his enduring legacy of black excellence.

I hope you’ll take a couple of hours to stream one of Boseman’s displays of thespian brilliance this week. And when you do, I hope you’ll reflect:

  • Are there celebrities whom you follow, feel a kinship with, or admire? How many of them are black?
  • Do you remember the first time you felt truly represented on a TV or movie screen? How old were you? How did you feel? How do you think black schoolchildren felt to have themselves reflected in a Marvel superhero?

Come on back next week, y’all. There’s still much work to be done. So let’s keep working to construct peace in our homes, families, and communities, one piece at a time.

Long live the king.

Piece 30: Grown

Peace by Piece

TThis post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

There exists a shared understanding within American culture that girls immediately become women once they begin to look and act “grown.” This same shared agreement holds that girls who look and act grown should be treated as if they are.

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Especially if they are black.

Even though we are grown-ups who should know better, particularly in light of the knuckleheads we know good and well we used to be. Even though we have at least cursory knowledge that adolescent brains don’t develop in lock-step with adolescent bodies.

Our society seems to have deemed it necessary to punish teens for looking like adults by sentencing them – even if only in the court of public opinion – like adults.

I am therefore deeply grateful for the work of Tiffany D. Jackson. Her stunning YA novels Grown, Monday’s not Coming, and Allegedly tackle tough, grown-up issues through an adolescent lens.

In Monday’s not Coming, readers unravel the mystery of the title character’s sudden disappearance from her best friend Claudia’s life. We learn the truth as Claudia our narrator does, in fits and starts, twists and turns, that ultimately lead us to the various reasons why Claudia cannot find Monday.

In Allegedly, Mary takes center stage as a tragically misunderstood teen living in a group home after having been accused of an unthinkable crime. As Mary seeks to clear her name, hold on to the fraying edges of a  romantic relationship once she realizes she is pregnant, and make sense of her estranged relationship with her emotionally aloof mother, readers become enmeshed in this tangled tale.

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In Grown, Enchanted is a teen who feels otherized at her predominantly white school and shows a talent for singing. After she is spotted one night by a famous male singer, she is charmed into a life she could never have imagined, in which she is cut off from her family, neglected, and abused.

In each novel, Jackson dissects horrific, real-life situations our children undoubtedly see and hear in news stories. She brings a human eye to unimaginable real-life cases constructing these fictional teens, their environments, and their casts of supporting characters. Through Jackson’s work, we are offered the opportunity to think in three dimensions instead of one about whom we believe teenagers to be, what we think they are capable of doing, and how much we think they can understand.

Her work challenges us to push past culturally accepted perceptions of teens as irredeemable, impulse-driven wannabe adults, to embrace them as whole human beings who are still very much in the process of learning and growing.

As you peruse these brief synopses and decide which titles to read, I hope you’ll keep these reflective questions in mind:

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  • When in your life have you treated a black child as “grown” without questioning exactly how old they were?
  • How have your assumptions about the ages of black children you don’t know colored your interactions with them? Made you feel threatened when no apparent threat was present? 
  • How many times have you perceived as disproportionately insubordinate or obstinate behavior from a black teen that you would not perceive in the same way from a nonblack teen?
  • What anxiety and shortness of breath upon seeing a black teen walk near you have you felt and then excused away as having nothing to do with race in order to assuage your guilt?

Keep working at it, y’all. Pursuing peace is a process rather than a singular destination at which we can arrive whenever we choose. Come back next time, for another piece to help us build a more peaceful world.

Mary, Did You Know?

Epiphany descends upon the Christmas season while lights still twinkle, and the joy and wonder of the incarnation reside spaciously in our hearts. The arrival of the maji affirms Christ’s holy identity, confirming that this baby is the One we’ve been waiting for.

Jesus is born into a world that is already hunting for Him. Christ’s lineage and sex placed Him squarely in King Herrod’s scope. His parents lived the first years of His life in hiding, away from their Nazareth home, in hopes of safeguarding their beloved Son’s life.

In all the teaching I’ve heard about Jesus, our Savior’s cultural identity as a marginalized person – can anything good, after all, come from Nazareth – has been used as a footnote to underscore His holiness while simultaneously setting aside as a microscopic footnote the pain and frustration of this central aspect of His human experience. Furthermore, church teaching tends to skim right past the untold number of innocent children murdered as Christ Himself was highly anticipated and hotly pursued. Insodoing, the church at large has managed to construct a white savior who is glorious in His excruciating agony on the cross without explicitly highlighting our Savior’s state-sanctioned lynching, which followed a lifetime of being pursued by both church and state because of the plain fact that He stated unflinchingly the truth of who He was.

One might say Jesus was killed for living out the truth that His life mattered.

I set myself up here as no spiritual or theological teacher, no seminary degree holder, no learned divinity student. Rather, I offer my perspective as an alternative to the lies of white supremacy, white saviorism, and “holy” hope for the sweet hereafter in place of present-day justice and truth, that the church has been complicit in underscoring time and again.

Truly, is it any wonder that we may find ourselves unable to connect the cross and the lynching tree, when the gross brutality of lynching has been almost entirely left out of the Savior narrative espoused in too many of our pulpits?

I want to draw your attention to the plight of our Holy Mother, a plight similar to that shared by black and brown mothers all over this country. For so many of us, from the moment we are aware of that missed period, even before pregnancy is confirmed, we hold within us the polar opposite emotions of joy and terror. The miraculous life we may be growing within us – all the blessing and anticipation we hold with open hands – will enter this world one step behind white babies because of skin color:

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When our sons are young school-agers walking with their daddies and struggling to get their little legs to keep pace, they will be pushed by a white stranger who is then defended by yet another. 

When our sons are preteens, they cannot play at a park without risk of being murdered by police officers who will not be jailed for their crime. 

When our sons are teens, they cannot walk to a store for tea and Skittles without being accosted and killed by a man who has been told by authorities to cease his pursuit. 

When our sons are grown men and we have preceded them in death, they will call out to us as police officers hold off crowds of onlookers who record their lynching on their phones, horrified that a uniformed protector of peace and enforcer of justice is cutting off their ability to breathe by putting his knee on our son’s neck

All of this not because our children are criminals, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, but because they exist in black skin, without apology, without shame. Their existence is enough.

Did Mary know all of this? Did she hold all these truths in her heart as she hunkered down in a barn to give birth to our Lord? Did she weep tears of anxiety when she smelled His newborn baby head smell, trying and failing to stave off imaginings of the trouble He would have in his life?

The obvious answer is she did, and yet – too rarely do we turn our eyes to her example of nurturing our Lord throughout His fraught human life, too little attention do we pay to the human side of our Savior’s life.

And thusly do we continue to miss the true meaning of doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly, and thereby welcoming the new thing God is doing.

The Call is coming from Inside Our House

Source

Wednesday, January 6, is a day that will live in infamy. Scores of American citizens, having consumed misinformation, lies, and vitriol-laden rhetoric from a number of sources, armed themselves, pushed past police barricades, and stormed the capitol building at the very day and time our Congress was scheduled to certify President-Elect Biden’s November 2020 win.

I want to be clear here, and state definitively that I am utterly uninterested in blaming any group or political party for what this group of individuals hath wrought. 

Every individual who participated in this insurrection owes restitution and reparation to every American citizen who was forced to watch in horror as they laid siege to our seat of government. 

Every individual who participated in this insurrection owes our nation’s children an explanation for their atrocious behavior, particularly if they believe themselves undeserving of a time-out courtesy of our nation’s justice and prison system. 

People shelter in the House gallery as protesters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Source

Every individual who participated in this insurrection owes our country’s rising leadership a deep debt of earnest service, having planned and executed an attack that has resulted in worldwide shame and loss of credibility.

Too, I am utterly uninterested in comparisons of Wednesday’s events to any other type of protest except those which attempted to lay siege to a seat of government in order to invalidate a lawful election and intimidate lawmakers into halting progress toward installing the next national leader.

A quick scan of similar events that have arisen throughout our nation’s history will reveal that the only comparable event was the exact inciting spark of the American Civil War. Secessionists didn’t acknowledge Lincoln as their president. They formed their own government, chose their own president, and waged war on their own (now, former) country in order to protect their cherished ideals and values, all of which hinged on the “ holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery–the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits–a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”

This is not fake. This is not staged. 

This is a horror movie plot playing out in real life, in our home. 

We cannot run up the stairs and hope that hiding in a closet and closing our eyes will cause the terrorists pursuing us to lose interest in snuffing out the life of our representative democracy. Because the call is coming from inside America’s house.

We cannot hide behind the cross of Christ and the promise of future spiritual unity and reconciliation, declaring thereby that we have transcended all the troubles of the world because Jesus saves. Because the call is coming from inside the church house.

We cannot deny that white supremacy played a role in the way rioters were treated or in the motivations they brought with them to their treasonous display, not even though we saw a scattering of people of color among them. They brought nooses and chanted a call to hang the sitting VP, all the while taking selfies with police officers who bore witness to their seditious occupation – not unlike Jim Crow-era postcards of smiling white families enjoying picnics at their local lynchings. Because the call is coming from inside American history’s house.

We cannot continue holding on for dear life to the tired notion that the rebel flag stands for heritage, not hate, clutching our pearls at valid claims to the contrary because many white people didn’t own slaves, because black people fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, because we really just love sweet tea and Jesus and don’t even see color except when it suits us. The individuals who stormed, pissed, shat, stole, and were then escorted out of our nation’s capitol building carried flags that showed their true beliefs, and even a quick look at primary sources from the Confederate states reveals exactly what their beliefs were then, and what beliefs present-day flagbearers cosign by extension: “citizens…shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.” The Confederate states’ version of the American dream including keeping my skinfolk in a perpetual state of subhumanity and forced servitude. Their flag carries slavery’s ghost, and white supremacy’s still-present incarnation. The call is coming from inside the Confederate-sympathizing rebels’ house.

No matter what groups’ beliefs we hold dear, no matter how we personally identify and align ourselves, this call for terror, insurrection, even a second civil war, is coming from inside our home. It’s up to us to face the terrorists, disarm them, hold them accountable for the death and destruction they’ve caused, and build the America “that never has been yet…Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme.” 

This is our house, y’all. The unhinged aggressor won’t go away because we earnestly wish they would. We are going to have to build the house we want to live in. 

And this is not it.

Piece 29: The Square Root of [Im]possible

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

There comes a moment in Netflix’s Jingle Jangle when Journey, our cute, curious, precocious young heroine, sings a soliloquy of sorts. Journey is doggedly determined not to be discouraged by her curmudgeonly grandfather Jeronicus. Instead, she insists that he can reawaken his inner inventive genius, and that she, who has inherited his creative acumen, can forge a mutually nurturing relationship with him where previously there has been none. Journey trusts that she can help Grandpa J, as she calls him, rebuild this life and reputation as a fabulous toymaker. 

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Evening has just fallen, and Journey is looking dreamily out the front window of her Grandpa J’s storefont and home. Journey seems to ruminate on the challenge facing her: that she’s sought out her grandfather in order to deepen the connection she feels to him through their shared sense of wonder and curiosity. But despite Journey’s infectious sense of awe and wonder, and even despite her ability to see what Jeronicus himself no longer can, her beloved Grandpa J remains unmoved, having been emotionally distant and self-isolated for so long since grieving the death of his young wife, that he no longer dares to try to create what he once could.

Journey, nevertheless, persists.

She sings to herself and to us of all the possibilities she can see that no one else can. Of the dreams she holds onto for herself. Of the glory that lies in her own ability to believe she can rise above the obstacles in front of her by tapping into her own uniqueness and strength. 

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As a person with a name that’s difficult for some people to pronounce, I’ve had to insist on more than one occasion that a person who is new to my life make the effort to learn my name’s pronunciation rather than shortening it to suit their own preference not to try. So I can’t help but love Jeronicus Jangle’s name: a delightfully melodious mouthful of alliterative syllables. Jeronicus protests quietly throughout the movie at others’ shortening his name to “J” or “Jerry.” I noticed and appreciated that Jeronicus was named intentionally by his creator, all the more so since the movie is an instant classic that will soon expand its reach, as it is being adapted for the stage as well.

When I began watching Jingle Jangle a few days before Thanksgiving this year, I was aware only that it was a Christmas movie with black people in it. But shortly after the movie began its first musical number, I began to discover countless more reasons to love it. Jingle Jangle is grand, vibrant, soulful, and universally relatable – and at its center resides a deeply connected, if briefly estranged, black family. It possesses a fresh, imaginative plot; gorgeous, thoughtful costuming and styling; an upbeat soundtrack reminiscent of groovy, nostalgic R&B tunes; and not least of all stars a beautiful young black girl who loves inventions, employs math as her superpower to troubleshoot inventions, fiercely loves her family, and becomes the glue that reunites a father who had been estranged from his daughter.

For me, Jingle Jangle proves what’s possible when talented, experienced black creatives are granted the time, budget, and resources they need to bring their imaginings to life: we get the representation we long to see.

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When you watch Jingle Jangle, I hope you will move a step beyond passively taking in all the joy and beauty it offers to ask yourself when you last saw such lovingly crafted black characters on screen, how many heartwarming holiday movies uplift a wholesome image of a black family, and what it means for girls to see themselves represented as talented and determined and curious and bold.

I hope you’ll enjoy the movie, just as I did, and that you’ll keep coming back to this space so we can continue exploring all the possibilities that arise when we work to unlearn racial bias and cultivate peace in our communities, one piece at a time.

Piece 28: Soul

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

Like many American parents of a certain age, we are Disney Plus subscribers. So when Disney announced that this year’s Pixar offering, Soul, would drop on this platform Christmas Day, we penciled it in as a film we would take in as a family during our holiday break.

I felt all at once excited and expectant to see this newest Pixar creation (all four of us have been fans of their films); nervous to see how  Pixar’s creative team displayed their  first black protagonist; and cautious due to having seen several thinkpieces floating around regarding criticism that big movie companies don’t tend to let black animated characters remain human for the length of their feature films. Having viewed the teaser-trailer for Soul before I first saw the aforementioned criticism, I was pretty sure the black character would not remain  human the entire time.

With all this in mind and heart, I snuggled up with my husband and our younger son to watch Soul last night.

**Spoilers ahead**

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The basic gist of the movie is that Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), the highly anticipated first black lead for Pixar, is a middle school music teacher who dreams of being a legit jazz musician. He wants to follow in the footsteps of his late father rather than accept the permanent teaching position he has been offered at the movie’s start. Joe therefore jumps at the chance to audition for a jazz quartet. In his excitement once he lands the gig, he falls into a manhole and wakes up as a human-body-less, blue teardrop-soul heading up a stairway toward a glorious light to which he isn’t ready to surrender. So, Joe jumps off the stairway, lands in a celestial cloud land of pre-born souls, and spends the next ninety-odd minutes learning afterlife and pre-life rules, mentoring and being mentored by a pre-born soul named 22, and ultimately deciding to volunteer ending his human life so that 22 can live for the first time.

Soul was not what I’d hoped. The core of my issues with the movie can be captured in three main points: 

  • 22 is voiced by a white woman. Some defenders of the movie have argued that even though Tina Fey provides 22’s voice, the character itself is genderless, sexless, raceless. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to criticize 22’s voice. However, the fact that 22 uses a middle-aged white woman’s voice to irritate people is a throwaway joke executed early in the movie. But the fact remains that within this plot, we are supposed to be aware of who 22 sounds like, even though 22 is not human – let alone a white woman.
  • During one of the film’s climactic moments, Joe (in the body of a cat) chases 22 (who is in Joe’s human body) and calls out, “You stole my body!” Let’s pause here. The movie has made an explicit point of attaching “middle-aged white woman” to the character of 22. Pixar has received months of hype and anticipation, maybe even a few accolades for its first black lead character in Joe Gardner. The viewer needn’t reach for the racial dynamics of the movie; they are laid bare for us. What this means is that when I find myself unable to separate voice and race from the character, I am simply paying attention to the story in front of me – not looking for problems where they don’t exist. Therefore, I cannot help but cringe at a line yelled by a black character and voiced by a black actor, at an admittedly genderless character voiced by a white woman, that is literally about the theft of the black character’s body. So much of the emotional weight I bear as a black American is married to this country’s fraught history of stolen land, stolen bodies, and shattered promises of a better life. Truly, we need only to turn to the internet to find a current example of a white woman trying to take from a black person something that does not belong to her. To leave this line in Soul is therefore either a disastrous, tone deaf oversight that indicates there were not nearly enough creators of color on the film’s decision-making teams, or it’s an insidious intentional slight the audience is meant to overlook or not care about.
  • After securing his own return to Earth – fulfilling his own mission – and beginning to live out his dream of being a professional jazz musician, Joe is not content. His mind is on 22, whom he will ultimately decide to trade his human life for, once he has returned to the heavens to check on her emotional state. We witness Joe rescue 22 from her lost soul state, hand over the Earth pass she flung at him in the last act, and then when 22 is still hesitant, escort her on her path to human life. So it ends up not being enough for Joe to actually fulfill his lifelong dream. Instead, he has to rescue the white-woman voiced preborn soul who tried to abscond with his human body. Only then, once he has looked imminent death in the face once more, is he able to find peace. In other words, Soul enmeshes its first black protagonist in a story that employs the oft-overused, never-needed, chain-rattling ghosts of the white savior and magical n*gro tropes.
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I have here shredded the very soul of Soul, I know. And such an intense critique can be easily dismissed as hyper-vigilance or a too-tight focus on expecting films to be flawless or politically correct in their representations of black characters. 

Neither is true.

Rather, it’s entirely appropriate for paying audiences to request that filmmakers give us their best and not table scraps. We pay to be entertained – month after month, year after year, movie after movie. Disney and Pixar profit because we pay for their products. And last I checked, the Disney Plus automatic account debit is never taken out a second later than it should be. So if Pixar is going to wait twenty-five years to give paying audiences a black protagonist, we can damned well insist they give us a thoughtful, human story – just as they have with all the white protagonists before.

Take Up, for example – a movie whose opening scenes still conjure tears. As the movie was made, it’s a beautiful, timeless story that teaches us about the depths of human connection and how you’re never too old to become a deeper, more caring version of yourself. But take a moment to mentally recast the film’s two lead characters – a lovably grumpy old man and a precocious young scout – as black. In so doing, you’ve lost nothing of the story’s beauty; instead, you’ve deepened it. You’ve added in layers of pain, separation, and even stigma – and you’ve maintained a beautifully redemptive story arc. We still soar into the heavens on the strength of a houseful of balloons. We still cry when Carl loses first the child he and Ellie had so hoped for, and later his lifelong partner and love herself. We maintain our memory of the grumpy neighbor on our block whom Carl reminded us of. We keep our wincing stare at Russell’s stubborn insistence on being a kid who gets to do what other kids get to do, even as he embraces independence and grows up. We still get to laugh at our own dogs every time they chase a squirrel in our backyard and we are reminded of Doug.

In truth, when we re-imagine a story we’ve already been given to make it a black story, we get more meaning, not less.

I hope that as you take in films and shows with your families as 2020 comes to a much-needed end and 2021 welcomes us, that you will pay close, critical attention to the stories we are being served. And to the disbelief we are being asked to suspend in exchange for assuaging the egoes of people we pay to entertain us.

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And as you watch, critique, and reflect, please sit with just one question: What does this particular character representation mean to people whom the character is meant to represent?

Keep watching and thinking, discussing and learning. And meet me back here next time. We will keep working together to construct peace in each of our lives, one piece at a time.

Piece 27: I Go To Prepare A Place For You

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

At the end of the movie Harriet, the images on the screen receive an overlay of several consecutive strings of text. These snippets tell the audience how Harriet Tubman spent her final years, which family members eventually joined her and lived out their days in freedom, and how many souls she rescued from bondage by leading them through the Underground Railroad to freedom.

We learn in the final moments of the movie that Harriet Tubman’s final words were, “I go to prepare a place for you.” In appropriately dramatic slow motion, as Tubman’s final words linger on the screen, Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman turns and looks into the distance one final time, before entering the home where she will presumably reside until her death.

When I think about the life Tubman lived – dedicating herself wholly to liberating of her people from the brutalities of bondage, I am awestruck. 

In her childhood, Araminta Harriett Ross seemed a child like any other: a little too inquisitive at times, and prone to neglecting or half-doing work she didn’t think had value. 

But work she did – until one day she was struck by a weight thrown across the room to try and prevent another enslaved person from running away. This weight hit Tubman in the head, knocking her unconscious and causing an injury that resulted in her living with seizures and pain the rest of her life. It was these seizures that brought Tubman prophetic visions and dreams that would eventually lead her and others to freedom. 

As a film, Harriet is equal parts history, hero origin story, and fiction. For instance, there are two characters who feature prominently and don’t appear to be based on any real-life figures in Tubman’s life. One of them, a burly black character who helps to “hunt” Harriet down, is a particularly troublesome fictional character to insert. Why insert this black man as a villain when bondage itself should have been villain enough? Then, too, is the accuracy of Tubman’s slight stature, her mysterious way of staying safe as she traveled into and out of slaveholding territory numerous times, and the brief amount of screen time given to Tubman’s indispensable military service. And there’s an unmistakable largeness about Tubman’s character that very much paints her as a supernatural heroine: her visions, her steadfastness, her death threats to “cargo” that expressed a desire to turn and run mid-escape – which would have endangered the entirety of the given operation.

Harriet offers a beautiful mirrored-glass window into the soul of black folk. We look out and see her beauty and purposeful carriage, and we walk quickly to invite her essence into our hearts. But through the mirrored glass she cannot see us: the innumerable inheritors of the Promised Land in which she always believed but yet did not see. I feel deeply that through Tubman’s life story, we are allowed to glimpse the glorious legacy of black American resilience. Her faith, her deliberate consistency, her absolute dedication to a freedom-conveying vocation, embody the foundation of black American spiritual life: we are pressed but not crushed, and our spirits remain tethered to a love for and desire liberation brought to our kin.

For this reason, I hope you will watch Harriet this week. I hope you will marvel at the divine purpose evident in Tubman’s life, and let resonate within you deep gratitude at the spiritual inheritance she left for us all.

During this time of year, my Episcopalian heart feels a sense of longing. In Advent, I turn my heart and mind to the coming of the incarnate Christ. It is not therefore lost on me this week that when Tubman uttered on her deathbed, “I go to prepare a place for you,” that she was borrowing from the Christ in whom she believed and trusted. Tubman knew then, as we do now, that our present labors are not in vain but rather serve a purpose and a people whom we may not see but who will nonetheless reap the benefit of our present work.

As you watch the film and reflect on the inner longings of your heart, whatever they may be, I hope you will consider the following questions:

  • What do you long for, in the deepest place in your heart? Is it peace in your home, community, or the earth as a whole?
  • Where does your work connect with that deepest heart longing? If you are unable to connect to that sense of longing in your daily income-producing work, how can you incorporate pursuit of your heart-work into your off-work hours? 
  • When you consider who your heroes are in life today as well as in history books, what anchors them? What sense of purpose motivated them? 
  • Are any of the people you consider heroes people who don’t look like you? Why do you think that is? How can you expand your ideas of people and actions that are heroic to be inclusive? How might you benefit from doing so?

Like many of you, I am ready to see the tail end of this year on its way out the door. I hope that 2021 brings us times of health and peace. Let’s keep doing what we can to construct the peace we want to see in our lives by meeting back here to keep reading, watching, listening and acting – one piece at a time.

Piece 26: Dreamgirls

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

And we will keep working together toward peace, one piece at a time. 

When the curtain opens on the musical Dreamgirls, we meet three hopeful, gushing young women. Deena, Lorell, and Effie are dressed alike in slightly homemade-looking dresses, and fluttering about a 1960s backstage area of an auditorium as they prepare to go on stage for a talent show. Within a few moments, they will take to the stage and absolutely dazzle their audience. Effie is a vocal powerhouse, and when she takes center stage, neither the singing group’s audience nor the movie’s audience can turn their eyes away. We dance and sing with them, allowing the infectious beat of “Move Right Out of My Life” to express its groove through our bodies’ response.

And we keep dancing with the Dreamettes as they luck into becoming background singers for an already established James Thunder Early. We continue twirling and singing with the trio as they fake their way to the top with Jimmy, watching as young, innocent Lorell at first resists and then gives in to Jimmy’s advances. We are swept up in a whirlwind of R&B music that pauses briefly, only to illuminate that the band’s struggles to maintain success are due to white artists stealing and re-recording their music.

Eventually, the band’s struggles grow too large, and under the guidance of Curtis, their manager and Effie’s beau, the Dreamettes re-structure and emerge as a group all their own: the Dreamgirls, with Deena, who is soft-spoken and thinner than Effie, as lead singer. In Curtis’s professional opinion, Deena’s replacement of Effie as the face of the group is necessary for the group to be able to reach white kids and thereby expand the demographics of their audience. Curtis sees in the Dreamgirls what he never could see in Jimmy Early: the possibility of a racially integrated, incredibly lucrative revenue stream.

We the audience laugh and sing and cry and dance our way through the eventual dissolution of the group, the demise of Jimmy Early, the revelation of Curtis’s underhanded methods of ensuring his success, and the liberation of Deena from his stifling control. Finally, we cry with Magic, Effie’s daughter, as the movie ends with a briefly reunited quartet of Dreamgirls serenading us with the song that launched their success story at the beginning of their career. 

The title track of the musical Dreamgirls croons that “every man has his own special dream, and that dream’s just about to come true.” 

What is unfortunately true is that in many cases, as in the case of popular white singers of the 50s and 60s, dreams that black singers had for the success of their careers were cut short due to white artists’ covering their songs without giving black artists credit or royalties. In other words, while Dreamgirls is a fictionalized story based loosely on the real-life story of the Supremes, the musical nonetheless highlights an indelible truth: during the 60s, white recording artists frequently took credit for black art.

In fact, girl groups just like our fictional Dreamgirls, played an important role in integrating pop culture. They were able to reach across and unite previously divided audiences. 

There’s another truth revealed here, too. For black Americans, we are often told in explicit and implicit ways when our acknowledgement and celebration of our blackness is welcome, and when it is not. We are sought out and lauded for athletic prowess and for entertainment, but when we access a facet of our identity that leads us into activism and advocacy, we are smacked down by the dominant culture – told to shut up and dribble

I see this tension at play in the musical history that Dreamgirls brings to light. I suspect that white culture resisted black music and black artists for as long as it did because the culture itself knew that accepting black artists as valid would mean extending the same acceptance to black people as a whole. This, too, is why at times black celebrities are told to stick to what they know: it’s a defensive measure designed to uphold white supremacy and withhold acceptance of black agency.

Too often, the product black people create – be it music, cinema, clothing, poetry, or something else entirely – is embraced by our country’s dominant culture. But we – the three-dimensional human beings creating the product – are left out in the cold.

This, the cold shoulder of our country’s dominant culture, illuminates why black Americans sometimes seem ultra-sensitive regarding cultural appropriation and cancel culture. Black Americans have labored decades and centuries to create and sustain an identity that celebrates and nourishes us – persisting throughout repeated, sustained racist policies like Jim Crow laws and voter suppression. Yet if we excel at performing in a way the dominant culture views as entertaining or valuable, the dominant culture demands we suppress our celebration of our people’s identity. On the other hand, if white people celebrate an aspect of black cultural identity, or if they speak out on our behalf, we are often expected to be appreciative only and never hurt or critical. 

It’s enough to make a person want to holler, and throw up both their hands.

This week, I hope you will watch Dreamgirls and be drawn in by its special, glittery magic. I hope you’ll see the beauty and richness of our cultural identity woven into the story. I hope that you’ll take time afterward to briefly research the actors on the cast list. Several actors from the original Broadway musical’s cast appear in the film, which is a treasure for those of us who grew up knowing this story and its songs because they provided a meaningful portion of the soundtrack to our childhood. I hope that as you learn about the cast, you’ll dig a bit into the real life person whom Effie was modeled after. In real life, that “Effie” didn’t get to have a triumphant comeback.

I hope, too, that as you take in Dreamgirls in all its glory, that you’ll take a moment to reflect on the aspects of identity that are lost when people groups are ripped from their homes and countries of origin. Let rest in your mind the idea that cultural identity is so important to many black Americans because we understand the struggle inherent in constructing that identity. 

I earnestly, truly hope that you’ll gain a new or renewed appreciation for the identity black Americans have hewn out of a fraught history in this country: working, building, loving, and celebrating our way to a joyous and rich shared identity.

And I hope you’ll consider these questions:

  • What parts of your cultural identity do you feel a strong emotional attachment to? 
  • How would you feel if someone who doesn’t share your culture gleefully displayed a part of it for themselves while simultaneously discouraging your own expression of your culture? 
  • How about if they profited financially from this display of your culture without crediting your culture as its origin?
  • Is it necessary to physically put on a physical representation of another culture in order to celebrate it?

Join me back again here next week, and we’ll brush off the shimmery, dreamy stardust from Dreamgirls as we continue building peace in our homes and communities and selves, one piece at a time.

Piece 25: 13th

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

Two weeks ago, our country was taking baby steps in the direction of accepting Joe Biden as president-elect. Emotions and temperatures were flaring as caravans of Trump-paraphernalia-laden vehicles paraded up and down some of the busiest streets in our city. And my husband was having lunch at home while our younger son sat across the table from him attending his virtual Reading class. As Hubs ate and half-listened to the teacher, he heard words that have no place coming out of a teacher’s mouth in a fifth grade classroom: removing statues is taking away our history.

Allow me to provide some context I have since been granted: The lesson that day was about bias and how to evaluate news sources. There was relevant class conversation about historical figures, and a student asked how we can know today what people looked like many years ago. Statues are, of course, one way to know how people looked long ago.

To further elaborate, as I did when I spoke on the phone with the school’s principal that afternoon, I have only ever heard the phraseology about removing statues equating to taking away history from people who want to keep Confederate monuments where they are and are vehemently opposed to moving or destroying them. Thus, my husband, the white father of two biracial black boys and keenly aware of the insidious prevalence of the lost cause myth, immediately perked up his ears so as to track what else this teacher might say to her class that was indicative of a political viewpoint completely opposite to our own. He listened in not because her political viewpoint here is opposite from ours, but because as a student in her classroom, my child should have any knowledge of her political viewpoint at all.

During the course of the aforementioned principal conversation – held after she’d had a chance to visit with the teacher and review video of the lesson, I pressed past the question of context to the question of meaning. What had this teacher meant by what she said? The principal seemed to echo the teacher’s flimsy apology, reiterating that everyone makes mistakes. This, in fact, is why I provided the context of that phrase being used to defend keeping Confederate statues where they stand, which the principal responded to as if the information I provided was new to her. 

The principal – no doubt seeking to protect one of her teachers – went on to state repeatedly just how upset this teacher was because of any harm caused by her comment. When I asked why the teacher was upset even while she persisted in not providing the explanation I asked for, the principal’s response was that the teacher felt like I was “looking for something to hang her with.” Over the next few minutes of the conversation, once I made clear that such a turn of phrase was unacceptable and that should the teacher and I have a face-to-face conference, I expected not to hear such language from her, the principal owned that the phrase she had used was her own, not the teacher’s. And she apologized.

I have given you a lot of information, so let us quickly recap:

My child’s teacher made an inappropriate, thinly veiled political, and culturally insensitive comment in an elementary school reading class.

Overhearing this, my husband, who heard the comment, looped me in.

After emailing the teacher and remaining unsatisfied with the response, I was able to speak by phone to the principal about the racially loaded remark in question. During this conversation, as I repeatedly asked for transparency and clarification of the remark, what I got instead was reiteration of how upset the teacher was (see Luvvie’s post) and an apology from the principal herself for using – get this – a culturally insensitive turn of phrase in the conversation about the teacher’s culturally insensitive turn of phrase during my child’s class.

Are you still with me?

In the midst of this fraught election season with unprecedented political happenings, this teacher brought her politics into my fifth grader’s classroom. And when I called her on it, she was sad and apologetic for saying it but offered no clarifying, apolitical context or meaning for her words.

The problem here is a multifaceted one, but let’s focus on just one facet. Underlying this entire exchange between my child’s classroom, the teacher, the principal, and me, is a level of white discomfort that sees itself as being equal to or more important than the emotional well-being and innocence of my child, as well as the professionalism I have every right to expect from my child’s teacher. The relational dynamics at play here, and the expectation that I would be content with a spineless apology and a repeated assertion of how bad the teacher felt, are inextricable from the history of race relations in this country. 

Indeed, how have we arrived at the year 2020, and found ourselves confronted with a white woman who believes that when her employee’s feelings are hurt or her judgment questioned, it is in any way the analogous equivalent of a lynch mob seeking to hang a person from a tree?

This week’s suggested resource, therefore, is 13th, Ava DuVernay’s illuminating Netflix documentary that traces the evolution, not the abolition, of slavery in America.

13th unearths the cumulative impact of racial terror in America: enslavement, lynching, mass incarceration, redlining, housing covenants, and the present-day iterations and results of all of the above. 

Watch it, take notes, and allow your understanding to be broadened, so that you do not find yourself in a position of equating temporary emotional discomfort with the domestic terroristic act of lynching. Watch so that you can begin to understand why I as a black mother was utterly unmoved by a teacher’s feckless political statement and subsequent tepid apology; why I remain thoroughly unsatisfied that I never received an explanation of what exactly she meant; why the situation and how it played out have left me wishing away the time my child will have to spend with this teacher; why I feel so insecure about her beliefs and how they may insert themselves into the way she implements curriculum and delivers instruction to my child and his class; why the principal’s comment makes me worry about the water cooler talk my child may overhear if he indeed were on that campus attending school; why I am genuinely concerned about the faculty culture of the school he attends. 

Our words have meaning, y’all. It’s incumbent upon us to consider the words we choose to use. And to own our mistakes in as transparent a way as we can when we inevitably say the wrong thing.

To be transparent myself, I will share an anecdote: A few days ago, I was talking to a family member about doing what I said I’d do even though my teenage son wanted me to consider doing something else. But that isn’t what I said. Instead, I told this family member that I had “stuck to my guns.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I replayed them mentally and felt nauseated. Had I just used a violent, war-related phrase to refer to how I had made a decision and not backed down from it? One quick moment’s reflection showed me that this expression could be quickly and easily replaced with appropriate, precise language. I could easily have said that I stuck to my convictions or simply that I did what I said I would do, conveying the same meaning in a way that isn’t potentially problematic. 

As you watch 13th and reflect on your own words and perceptions, I hope you will consider the following questions: 

  • What idioms do you use without really considering the meaning of their words? 
  • Have you ever conflated being asked to stop and think about your word choice with being physically attacked?
  • When have you allowed people around you to use language that makes you uncomfortable without calling them out on it? Who benefits from such allowances? 
  • Have you slipped up and allowed your political views to seep into your workplace? How have others responded? If you are a leader in some capacity at your job, are the people around you truly able to express concern, offense, or harm caused by what you say, without fearing repercussion?

This is a heavy piece, I know. Not every aspect of unlearning racial bias work must be this deliberate and careful. But when such deliberation and care are required, we’d best take the time to do the work well. I’ll see you here again soon, so we can cultivate peace in our homes, families, and communities, one piece at a time.

Piece 24: Go Tell it On The Mountain

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

Last week, I shared a reflection on one of my all-time favorite musicals: The Wiz. I recounted the connection I feel between one of this musical’s most iconic songs and the sense of connectedness I feel to my own family and home. Then I asked about how inclusive your family gatherings are, how welcomed you work to ensure your family feels. For me, last year was our first time to host our family for Thanksgiving at our house. It was wonderful, relaxed, and restorative. The kids had crafts I’d picked up for them, there were movies to be watched if that was desired, the adults enjoyed great food and conversation, and we got a whole family pic in front of our porch before following up with a cousin pic of the kids tossing autumn leaves in the air. 

I’ll miss that time together this year, as our gathering has necessarily shrunk in size due to COVID concerns. But I cherish the memories we made together and look forward with great anticipation to the next time we can safely gather.

In the same vein as home, for me, is church. Gospel music is an integral part of the black Baptist (not Southern Baptist) church tradition in which I was raised. In my experience, there’s music throughout the service. You’ll hear instrumental music being played as congregants mill about and find their seats before the service starts. You’ll hear call-and-response hymns during the devotional period between and even during prayers. You’ll even hear songs during the sermon – once the preacher begins to reach the summit of the message he’s ascended to deliver – up to and including at times, the pastor himself incorporating song into the sermon’s conclusion, with or without the help of the choir, as the moment requires. 

A meaningful, musical part of my teen churchgoing experience was dancing with the Angelettes. The first song I remember learning a praise dance to, was Kirk Franklin’s “Now, Behold the Lamb.” I was fourteen or fifteen years old, and a group of similarly-aged girls at my church had practiced Sis. Trice’s choreography so that the dozen or so of us could dance at church service one Sunday morning. We had each procured the required attire: white leotards and tights. And Sis. Trice had purchased or made us skirts. White gloves topped the ensemble, and when the appointed time arrived, we tamped down our stomachs’ butterflies to walk slowly, taking long, deliberate strides, toe-heel, somber-faced, to our starting dance positions in the sanctuary. 

Even now twenty-plus years later, I remember a few of the steps we performed: mimicking cradling a baby Jesus, gesturing while we looked heavenward, and the ending choreography, which found us going through the motions of “shouting” in church. We doubled over, arms wrapped around our stomachs and backs, hopping lightly as the music swelled, similar to the way we’d seen church ladies “get happy” our entire churchgoing lives. When a fellow dancer began to shout and cry, I felt a jolt run through me and even though I kept dancing, I began to cry myself. Once the dance concluded, I was unable to articulate to a curious churchgoer why I had cried. I only knew what I felt in my bones: I was moved, and my tears were a natural response to the movement I felt within me.

I remember, too, that when I was in the second grade, one of the people whom I loved learning about was Mahalia Jackson. Her face and voice calmed me, and I felt enveloped in a sense of comfort and ease whenever we got to read about her in class. I’ve carried that fascination with her aura into adulthood – from the CD of her music that I ordered from Columbia House while I was in college, to the fact that whenever our church sings “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” it never sounds quite right to me because it isn’t Jackson’s cadence and voice. And in those funereal moments when my mortality stares me in the face and I begin absently wondering what I’d want my own homegoing service to look like, Mahalia Jackson is there too – reminding the congregation that soon they, too, will be done with the trouble of the world. For me, Jackson’s voice is inextricable from a musical experience of who God is.

This week, I’ve put together a playlist of black gospel songs for you to listen to in perhaps a new way. Too often, in television and movies, black gospel choirs are used as a stylistic device. They appear for a moment – to make us laugh because their presence is jarring and their choir robes out of place; to make us feel a surge of giddiness because the guy and the girl finally get together at the end of the movie; to elicit in us a desire to forgive people in our own lives who have wronged us, just like the character on that show we like offered forgiveness to someone who wronged them.

And yet.

These media moments ring hollow for me. They fail to respect the sanctity of the black gospel tradition, the holiness created by a collective of voices crying out to God for help for hope and solace and freedom. They almost feel sacrilegious – these usages of black gospel choirs for non-gospel purposes. They reduce a beautiful communal experience to a punch line or an emotional footnote, never indicating that there is a rich faith tradition behind these heavenly choruses.

I don’t at all mean to indicate that people of faith should look to media representation for validation of their beliefs. What I do hope to point out is that black gospel choirs are an essential part of a beautiful faith tradition and should not therefore be treated as a punchline or a plot device.

I wonder. 

  • Have you ever experienced a surge of emotion upon hearing a black gospel choir sing? What has that emotion represented to you? 
  • Has it been a fleeting moment or a response to God beckoning you into relationship?
  • Have you ever questioned why we see black choirs used for these rhetorical purposes but not white worship groups, choirs, or praise bands? [granted, the Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah has been more than once co-opted by culture at large – usually, though, it seems to be a chorus of voices only and not faces and bodies of a choir singing]
  • Is it any wonder that black people are time and again expected to soothe other people’s feelings rather than existing as whole people who exist in three dimensions?

I hope that as you listen to this playlist, you’ll allow yourself not just to feel inspired and joyful, but that also that you will listen and respond to the invitation that the black gospel tradition represents: to hope when hope seems lost. To create joy when sources of it are constantly snatched from our view. To broaden your concept of what it means to have church and to grow in knowledge of who God is. To love and be held by a Creator who came to Earth in human form to ensure us beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are never alone.

I hope that you listen not only to be moved, but to be changed.

I hope you’ll come back next week, refreshed and ready to keep working toward peace in our world church, one piece at a time.