Piece 5: Strange Fruit

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 keep the anti-racism work going.

Last week, I left you with several questions about how black people are represented in media that you consume. When I sat with the question about interracial couples and how often they are depicted as dynamic characters, without their differing cultures as a major plot point, I came up with almost nothing. Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series technically meets the requirement, as does The Mindy Project, but other than that, I’ve got nothing.

breakfast or nah?

In all the many shows and movies I watch on a regular basis, interracial couples rarely appear, let alone as major characters primarily focused on something other than their differing cultures.

On the question of brand representation, I remember an odd conversation I had with a friend years ago, when Cheerios released a commercial featuring an interracial couple and their child. When I saw the commercial, all I saw was a commercial that was maybe a bit refreshing in its casting. But the friend whom I talked to about it mentioned backlash on her Facebook wall – and presumably, from some online publications – from people outraged by “political correctness” and a perceived attack on their own values.

I know, it seems preposterous. And it is. But in a country where this type of representation is so rare, we should almost expect such a reaction until a majority-white consumer base is accustomed to seeing ads that are not designed to appeal only to them – something marginalized Americans are accustomed to from their earliest experiences watching TV and reading books.

This week, we’ll shift our focus from representation to strange fruit.

During the past few weeks, several men across the country – predominantly black men – have been discovered hanging from trees, dead from apparent suicide. Our country’s history of inciting terror in black communities by lynching black men in the dead of night, by popularizing postcards that glorify these hateful murders, by carrying out riots in Arkansas and Oklahoma and Texas, should be enough to poke holes in any authority’s theory that no foul play is at hand in these men’s recent deaths. And yet, suicide is exactly what these authorities preliminarily suggested, pulling back in order to reevaluate only after having pressure exerted on them by public outcry. 

I am recommending two podcast episodes this week:

Code Switch’s “Claude Neal: A Strange and Bitter Crop” time hops to tell the story of Neal’s tragic murder while following poet L. Lamar Wilson as he uncovers Neal’s story and runs the path along which his mutilated body was dragged before being hung in front of the courthouse.

Isadore Duncan

My second episode recommendation is “Unfinished: Deep South.” This brand new podcast will unveil the story of Isadore Duncan, a financially successful WWI veteran who was brutally murdered, and whose family later fled their home with none of the financial wealth their patriarch had labored to earn because all pertinent records were destroyed when Duncan was murdered.

Here are some questions to sit with this week:

  • In what ways have you pushed back against the idea of black autonomy and equality in your own life?
  • Have you tried to silence or minimize the opinions of black people when they have disagreed with your own?
  • Will you devote the time this week to researching your own city’s history of racial violence? What will you do with that information when you find it?
  • What action have you taken to tear down the vestiges of racial terror in your own community?
  • In what ways might you have unwittingly ignored or encouraged violence against black Americans asserting and exercising their own rights to protest, vote, and otherwise carry out their civil rights?

This isn’t quick or easy work that we are doing. But it is necessary to build a better country for ourselves and for future generations. Keep at it, and come back again next week so we can keep working toward peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 4: Representation

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 keep the anti-racism work going.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay 

Last week, I left you with several questions. One of them was whether you would set aside any part of your identity in order to be part of a movement for justice. As a mother, a Christian, a black woman, I have had to claw and scratch and fight for every aspect of my identity. I’ve been called white. I’ve had my faith questioned because I disagreed with someone else’s theology or interpretation of Scripture. I’ve miscarried a child. I’ve lived the pain that so many people feel when they finally discover the truth of their identity, only to have people whom they may love and trust, question them so much that they begin to question themselves.

I won’t set aside any part of my selfhood. No matter how much other people might want me to erase or minimize part of myself, I’ll show up as fully myself in all facets, no matter the task.

Aunt Jemima probably got more Google searches in this past week than any other time in the brand’s history, since the company that owns the name and its iconic image announced they’d be removing Aunt Jemima’s name and face. And although I did not know anything substantive about the brand’s history until last week, I did remember when the namesake’s head covering was removed years ago, I did find it easy to connect Aunt Jemima’s image to the mammy trope, and I did think of Kimberly Reese.

Kimberly Reese

I love 90’s sitcom “A Different World” so much that I have whole episodes memorized. I own a t-shirt that declares I’m an alum of its fictional HBCU. Its characters, theme song, and storylines aired in syndication so often during after school hours when I was a child, that they are interwoven with my memories of growing up. So when Facebook blew up last week with news articles and opinions about Aunt Jemima’s announcement, I thought immediately about an episode of “A Different World” in which Kim Reese has a painful breakdown and tells her mentor Mr. Gaines about a childhood memory she associates with Aunt Jemima.

The episode, entitled “Mammy Dearest,” depicts the core cast of characters putting together a black history program that traces black roles in entertainment over time. Due to Kim’s dark complexion, insecurity, and the aforementioned painful childhood experience, Kim wants the Aunt Jemima-adjacent mammy caricature excluded from the show. In true 90’s sitcom fashion, all identity issues are illuminated and resolved within the show’s half-hour span. But the episode also touches on colorism, guilt that can result from ancestors who made decisions we cannot be proud of, and disagreements black people sometimes have among each other about how our collective history should be addressed. For these reasons, along with the current relevance of the episode, “Mammy Dearest” is the first resource I am suggesting that you watch this week.

Rae & Nanjiani

My second suggested resource this week is dramedy “The Lovebirds.” When theaters nationwide closed because of COVID-19, Netflix swooped in and purchased this gem so we all could still enjoy it. This lovely romantic comedy stars the wonderful Issa Rae, of “Insecure” and “Awkward Black Girl” and “I’m rooting for everybody black” fame, and the hilarious Kumail Nanjiani, whom you may know from “Stuber” and “The Big Sick.” Because I love all things Issa Rae, and because my husband and I are an interracial couple, I knew from the first trailer that I wanted to watch this movie. So when it came out, we had a date night at home. We laughed heartily as well as exchanging sad face looks when the main characters hit relational snags.

As soon as the credits rolled, I began to wonder when was the last time I saw a movie like this: funny and honest and heartwarming. And starring an interracial couple whose different cultures are acknowledged but aren’t central to the plot. Essentially, I wondered the last time I saw a regular movie about regular people having regular problems (albeit in exceptional circumstances since they are inadvertently involved in a murder at the movie’s start). And I couldn’t think of the last time I saw an interracial couple on-screen, where their interracial couple status wasn’t The Main Thing. This makes “The Lovebirds” my second recommendation this week.

Hair Love

And finally, I want you to watch “Hair Love.” This beautiful, Oscar-Winning short from  Matthew A. Cherry took my breath away the first time I watched it several months ago. In this short film, we see a young black father struggling to do his daughter’s hair. Everything about this seven minute feature is brilliant: gorgeous hand-drawn style animation, a young dad with tattoos and locs, a beautiful young gap-toothed daughter insisting her dad keep trying, and a final scene that will undoubtedly have you reaching for tissue. 

As you watch this week’s recommended shows, I hope you’ll consider the following:

  • What positive and negative portrayals of black Americans have you seen in movies, TV shows, and other media such as product branding?
  • When was the last time you saw a movie starring an interracial couple, where race and culture were part of the plot but not its entirety? 
  • When brand names and images are changed in order to be more considerate of a diverse customer base, what feelings does this elicit inside you?
  • What do you think is the importance of intentional, positive, affirming portrayals of black individuals and families?
  • How might your own concept of self and family be different if you never saw positive portrayals of individuals and families that looked like you?

I hope you enjoy this episode, movie, and short film this week as you continue opening your mind to new ideas of what it means to be black in this country. And I hope you will bring an open mind back here next week, and we will keep working toward peace, one piece at a time. 

Charleston: A Watchman Meditation

Charleston Nine

I originally wrote this piece four years ago and published it on my former blog here. Since today is the anniversary of this tragedy, I brushed it off and polished it a bit to share again today.

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”  – so says Uncle Jack to his niece Scout in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. In Lee’s novel, Uncle Jack’s words to Scout echo the words of the prophet Isaiah, in chapter 62, verse 6: – “O Jerusalem, I have posted watchmen on your walls; they will pray day and night, continually. Take no rest, all you who pray to the LORD.” But in church this morning, our reading of Psalm 127 pointed out that, “unless the Lord watches over the city, in vain the watchman keeps his vigil.” And as I sat in my pew, mulling over these words and connecting these recurrences of “watchman” to each other – because I’m never not an English teacher – a truth came into focus.

Several months ago, Andrew and a couple friends from church arranged a concert of their music. They played shortly after the Charleston church shooting, during a time when I was still personally deeply wounded, reeling from the horror of such a violent, racially motivated hate crime. During that concert, I noticed for the first time that black church  and white church are different: not just in worship style or length of service, but in the very theological concept of who God is and the reason we meet from week to week. Where white church seems primarily concerned with worship of God for who God is, black church – by contrast – is also concerned with reaching out to God for help not just with daily life but with the deep, ugly struggles we’d sometimes prefer to ignore. In my upbringing in the black church, I always saw a place for catharsis alongside worship. In white church, I’ve missed that.

The priest said today that, “In God’s world, there are no unseen people.” His insight connected very strongly with the Gospel reading from Mark, when the poor widow who gives two small coins is recognized by Christ for giving everything she had from her poverty. When I reflect on my upbringing in black church, I see the collective conscious Uncle Jack told Scout was a myth. And I see, too the call to individual conscience and watchmanship, the invocation of the Lord’s eyes to watch over our collective city, to see our invisible struggle. 

There are no invisible people in God’s kingdom.

And here is why I think white church doesn’t speak to the whole of my spiritual experience: I don’t see there a place for corporate lament, an acknowledgement of our society’s unseen, a call to stand in solidarity with those whose voices the church has historically refused to hear: the LGBTQ individual, the ethnic and socioeconomic minority, the outspoken and assertive woman. These groups are invisible to white church not because they can’t be seen but because there’s no desire to hear them in a way that acknowledges that they too are fearfully and wonderfully made, just as they are. And who can worship freely where one feels oneself is unseen, unacknowledged, unheard?

In one way, I agree with Uncle Jack’s assertion to Scout that every man’s conscience is his watchman. He’s right: we must each be accountable for our own actions, bear responsibility for our own decisions, pay attention to our surroundings enough to see and act accordingly in our day to day lives. But in another way, I think Uncle Jack missed the mark here.

If we are people of faith, then unless the Lord watches over us, our labor as watchmen is in vain. We must look to God to guide our conscience – collective or individual – so that our eyes may open to those in need right in front of our faces, and so that we may be led by God’s grace, to act for, with, and alongside the otherwise invisible. It isn’t enough to take the Gospel to the ends of the Earth if we haven’t also taken that same Gospel message to the invisible people around us who are looking to see if our God is also theirs: a God who watches over their city as well as our own. A God who sees and hears them. A God whose love doesn’t confine itself to a single interpretation of a single Bible verse in the name of tradition, but whose love reaches beyond tradition, scriptural misinterpretation, and historical erasure, and offers unconditional, all-encompassing, unashamed love to each heartbroken individual, each unheard people group, each silently weeping minority who’s been told time and again to conform and submit, each individual who has been silenced.

Whether we are people of faith or not, there is work to be done.

If we profess faith, we need to look to God to guide our conscience – collective or individual – so that our eyes may open to those in need right in front of our faces, and so that we may be led by God’s grace, to act for, with, and alongside the otherwise invisible.

If we are not people of faith, there still is work to be done: we must look within our hearts and minds to suss out our motivations. We cannot neglect to watch over the city of humankind because our own personal lives are idyllic. We cannot ignore the plight of our neighbor and focus only on ourselves.

There is indeed a collective conscious, with each individual obligated to do their part for the betterment of us all.

Piece 3: Black and…

This article is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

The title song of the playlist I created last week was “Hell You Talmbout.” In this protest anthem, the singers alternate a chanted refrain of the title and shouted verses with the names of a small fraction of black people who have been killed as a result of living within this society. A society which in too many ways regards blackness itself as suspicious, as reason enough to shoot first and ask questions later.  Among the names of those victims mentioned in the song, I was unfamiliar with four: 16 year-old Kimani Gray, young mother Miriam Carey, veteran Tommy Yancy, and Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo. 

Amen

May light perpetual shine on each of their souls.

I asked at the end of that post why the recent murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery unsettled you in a way prior murders did not. My own answer to this question is that I am angrier and more heartbroken now, but this isn’t my first time feeling tired and angry. I asked, too, why you’re ready for this conversation now when you weren’t before. My answer is that I’ve been ready in small, interpersonal ways, but I’m ready to write this series now because my kids are old enough that my fear for their safety is incredibly real, and because I want newly aware, well-intentioned white people, to stop listening exclusively to their white friends who are just now talking about race.

Listen to, read, watch, and follow black activists and organizations who are already engaged in this work. They have been living this reality for a long, long time.

During our country’s current emotional upheaval and broad push for justice in the name of murdered citizens, for substantial police reform, and for urgently needed policy change, I’ve begun to notice the spectre of a decades-old argument. Specifically, when actors Nicholas Ashe and Justice Smith announced their relationship and joined a recent protest, some of the public comments responding to their announcement called for them to set aside their sexuality because now is the time to focus on blackness. 

It seems that in these commenters’ minds, Ashe and Smith are welcomed to be a part of this movement for black lives if – and only if – they set aside their relationship and identity as queer men so as not to “distract” from the protests or cause people to “lose focus” or “take attention away from the issue at hand.” In addition to the fact that this argument overlooks the queer, intersectional foundations of the movement, it also implies that these activists’ queerness otherizes them and somehow waters down their blackness and therefore the push for justice itself.

This is wrong. And it is also not new. 

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin, the openly gay activist who was instrumental in organizing 1963’s March on Washington – the march where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, the march that Al Sharpton has announced plans to replicate this August – was in many ways kept behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement because of his status as an openly gay man. Then, as now, folks thought that his sexuality would be a distraction if he featured more prominently in the movement. 

I confess that I’ve had to reflect on this recently. I consider myself an affirming Christian, yet there came a moment when I sat across from a friend who shared a personal truth, and I had to question my inner reaction. In my zeal to loudly affirm and learn from my LGBTQ friends, I hadn’t stopped to consider that there’s more than one valid way to exist within that spectrum. And my loud affirmation could easily be read as condemnation for folks who don’t live out their LGBTQ identity in the way I think they should.  That was wrong of me.

I have three books to suggest to you this week – all of which I have listened to as audiobooks in the past few years. Because each book contains heavy, emotional, deeply personal content, I’ll provide a synopsis of each. My suggestion is you choose the one you think you will allow you to be open and able to understand most easily.  

Gay Girl, Good God is phenomenal speaker Jackie Hill Perry’s frank account of her journey from self-identifying as a lesbian, to her struggle with addiction, to her encounter with God and conversion to Christianity, which ultimately led her to embracing a wholly different lifestyle than what she led before. (To be transparent, I struggled with the epilogue of this book and its language of “disordered sexuality.” Therefore, I did not finish it.)

In When They Call You A Terrorist, Patrisse Khan-Cullors details her early life, her involvement as a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement, her experience being harangued as a terrorist, and shares with readers the unconventional way she came to fall in love, marry, and have a child with her partner. 

Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness is a searing, heartbreaking account of her childhood as her parents’ first son. She chronicles her unique upbringing in a culture whose roots regarded transgender people as rare and worthy of reverence, and she recounts an experience many transgender youth face – resorting to extreme and dangerous measures to bankroll the medical treatment and procedures she desperately desired.

I have several reflection questions for you this week. They are designed not to elicit a certain right or wrong answer, but to prompt you to question your own biases:

Black and…
  • What qualifiers are you placing on black people whose lives you think are worthy of saving/protecting?
  • In your mind, do you expect that if black activists are members of the LGBTQ community as well, that they will set that part of their identity aside?
  • Is there any part of your own personal identity that you would set aside in order to be part of a movement to advocate for a people group you identify with?
  • Why should any black person who is working for positive change in this country feel that they must focus only on one part of their identity and not its whole?
  • Is a gay black person any less black than a straight one?
  • If one black life matters, don’t they all?

Even though this work is hard and at times may feel brutal, it’s necessary and right that we undertake it together. Come back next week, and we will continue to work toward peace, one piece at a time. 

Piece 2: Hell you talmbout

This article is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

The question I left you with at the end of the last post was to consider who you are centering as you enter into this soul-searching work of unlearning, relearning, and hopefully gradually dismantling generations-old systems of injustice. So I will share with you who I am centering: my sons.

I have not had what many black parents refer to as “the talk” with my children. From the time they were young, I have of course warned them to keep their hands out of their pockets in the store. And we don’t generally shy away from discussing a kid-version of current events with them. They listen to news podcasts with us, and we answer questions if they ask us.

But.

Mother and Son, colored by Candace

I consider my sons to be my center for the purpose of this question, because I want to take an active role in helping people other than my circle of friends to open their eyes to the trickle-down manifestations of inequity in this country.  I want them to see me doing this work, to know it is for them, and to be conscious that the disparities built into this country’s systems to ensure they don’t have the same access to “the American dream” as their white friends, will slowly and surely be dismantled. I want them to know why the systems exist, and I want them to see their mother working to tear them down.

I also want my sons, and every other black child and adult in this country, to have the opportunity to live full lives, to ripe old ages. This – they, their present, and their future – are my center.

I first heard the song “Hell You Talmbout” several years ago, a short month after Sandra Bland was found hanged in her jail cell three days after police stopped her while she was driving. Sandra Bland’s death had shaken me deeply; she very much reminded me of a family member who is as close to me as a sister. So when Janelle Monae released this cover as a protest song the following month, I sat myself down at my dining room table while my children napped, and I wept. 

Then I played the song again and kept weeping. I repeated the song until I ran out of tears. And then I called my Mama.

The thing about trauma is that it lives in the body. Often, we want to hasten our feelings away. To push our shock and rage into our fingertips and get to work. We want to hurry our bodies through pain and sorrow that we naturally feel in response to trauma – even if we didn’t suffer that trauma ourselves – so that we can mark the issue as resolved and continue on our journey forward. 

But our bodies don’t work like that. Feelings don’t work like that. And restorative work – the work of deconstructing hundreds-year-old systems built to ensure that people who have one skin color thrive while everyone else has to fend for themselves – won’t work like that.

So while it is necessary and natural to support protesters, to write your elected officials, and to choose books and movies to share with your kids that help break current events down to their level, our bodies also need us to sit still. A favorite writer of mine says that feelings are for feeling. In other words, the only way out of our feelings is through them. No shortcuts or workarounds will make this inner soul-work faster or more productive; this is a long-term process. 

The resource I want to share this week is a playlist of songs that express lament, determination, and comfort. Although it is a YouTube playlist, I recommend listening instead of watching so as not to focus on the images rather than the words from each piece. Pop your earbuds in, close your eyes, and just listen and feel your feelings. Feel the pain of years of your own ignorance and complicity. Feel the grief of black mothers and fathers across the country who have had to bury their babies as a result of brutality. Feel the determination to fight to validate oneself even if no one else will. Feel the insistence on being seen. Feel the comfort and reaffirmation of your own humanity.

When you have done this and are ready to reflect, ask yourself how many names that were chanted in “Hell You Talmbout” were utterly unfamiliar to you. Why did the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery break your heart and unsettle your spirit, when the murders of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Rekia Boyd didn’t? Why are you ready for this conversation now but you weren’t then?

Bring your answers and a full, open heart back here next week. And we will keep working together toward peace, one piece at a time. 

Piece 1: The Bluest Eye

Peace by Piece

If you didn’t read my intro post, please go back and do so before moving forward with this one. It’s vital that you take the time to answer the basic question of why are you here. Truly, if you don’t have a clear sense of purpose, then attempts to understand someone else’s perspective will do nothing but cloud your own.

A little background about me and why I’ve decided to write this series: I was born, raised, and educated in predominantly black areas of Dallas. I have experienced continual waves of culture shock after moving to East Texas to attend college and subsequently settling here. I believe the combination of my upbringing juxtaposed with the environment in which I am bringing up my own kids, along with my career as a teacher and knack for writing, have positioned me in a unique place to offer insight into vastly differing perceptions of the country we live in. 

That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m doing this.

I want to introduce you to Pecola Breedlove. 

The Bluest Eye

I first met Pecola, The Bluest Eye’s haunting protagonist, when I was an identity-conflicted teenager. I related to her instantly – not because she was sexually assaulted or because she longed for the white standards of beauty that weighed her down. I didn’t share either of those experiences from my own personal life. Rather, I related to Pecola Breedlove because she struggles to withstand the cacophony of voices insistent on forcing their desires for her into her heart and mind. Pecola copes in the way she can: by accepting the soul-sucking idea that who she is, is ugly and inadequate. This beautiful fictional child crumbles under the weight of the exalted “beauty” of American whiteness, and suffers devastating ramifications once she resolves to accept the idea of her own ugliness.

This week’s suggested resource is literary giant Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye. Allow Pecola Breedlove to be your first teacher as you begin unlearning what you may have been taught both implicitly and explicitly. She will draw you in with her doe-eyed pre-adolescent innocence. She will capture your heart with her meek acceptance that she isn’t beautiful enough to merit being treated with kindness. And she will likely devastate you when you realize that although she is universally relatable, she is uniquely and definitely black, American, and female: tasked with deftly navigating a society that neither sees her nor wants her to exist as she is.

I will end on a reflective note for you to mull over until I post next week: Now that you have uncovered the tip of the systemic injustice iceberg and are fired up to dosomethingsaysomethingreadsomething, who are you centering as you learn? Are you centering yourself in order to satisfy your own need to feel you are helping move our society forward toward peace? Are you centering white faith leaders whom you follow and are now calling you to action? Are you centering your own white children because you don’t want to have tough conversations with them? 

I encourage you to reflect quietly on each question. Let each one wash over you, particularly if your first response is to wonder why I must specify “white” or to defend your answers.

Together, we can work toward peace, one piece at a time. 

peace by piece

The last few months and weeks have left many of us emotionally drained: after being quarantined or sheltering in place just in time for the weirdest ever end to a school year, our collective psyche has been bombarded by the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd.

For many black Americans who were already bone-weary from generations of systemic institutionalized racism in all its forms, social distancing has taken a back seat this week as this collective frustration has given way to protests. For many Americans who are not black, this has been a time of confusion and shock, as day after day they watch and listen as their black friends break their silence to share their own anxieties for themselves and their families.

Now there’s a large faction of individuals wondering how to process this new knowledge of history they were never taught, and ways they have benefited while their black friends have coped within a system built to keep them from succeeding.

Google is full of resources for people who feel helpless in the face of so much new-to them information. News articles and blog thinkpieces abound, featuring curated lists of books, podcasts, and movies to help people begin the work of becoming anti-racist agents for change in their homes, schools, churches, and communities. These lists – while exhaustive and comprehensive – have left some folks feeling overwhelmed.

Beginning today, I will publish a series of posts designed to help those who want to learn and change. Each post will highlight no more than three specific resources to listen to, read, or watch, to expand your knowledge of history and current events, and to spotlight perspectives you may have never before had reason to consider. 

I’ll also pose a reflective question in each post, for you to answer for no one other than yourself. The question’s purpose is to root yourself firmly in the necessary work of peacemaking, to keep your motivations in focus, and to focus your mind and energy primarily on the new information you may learn rather than on the unease it may cause you to feel.

If this sounds like something that may interest you, come back and visit this space to begin and extend your learning. Together, we can work toward peace, one piece at a time. 

First question for reflection: Why do you want to know more about America’s history of racial discrimination and exclusion, and be part of an effort to reconcile and find peace?

This article is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.