Piece 17: Between the World and Me

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.

Two weeks ago, in piece 16, I shared a few podcasts I listen to that keep me aware of points of view different from my own. I asked when you sense yourself feeling resistant to new ideas and perspectives, where that resistance comes from. Such an introspective state of mind and active focus on your physiological reactions to new-to-you ideas is necessary for this week’s suggested resources, which begin with a thorough examination of the case for reparations to be paid to black Americans.

To me, Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of those rare writers who is able to weave literature from nonfiction prose. I find his writing style to be so keen that at times I am astonished that words can arrange themselves in the way he manipulates them. He takes current and historical events that at a glance seem mundane because of the analytical takes I’ve read on those same events before, and he makes them shimmer with the newness of his own unique insight. My introduction to Coates’s writing was a lengthy, weighty Atlantic article entitled “The Case for Reparations.” Because I am a slow, deliberate reader, it took me several reading sessions to make my way through Coates’s meaty treatise. The lens through which he clarifies how black Americans arrived at the here and now from the there and then, is sharp & crisp in its focus. For those reasons, “The Case for Reparations” is the first resource I am suggesting this week. I hope that even if you find the title off-putting and do not agree with the article’s thesis that you will read it anyway. It is at once poetry and prose, historic lens and current events examination, objective portrait and intimate biography. Let it teach you, hurt you, change your mind.

Coates’s memoir Between the World and Me captures the emotional struggle black Americans endure when they have the talk with their children – especially their sons. In this book, Coates writes a letter to his teenage son, who at the book’s outset is heartbroken and confused over the outcome of the trial following Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson. Although Between the World and Me is a slim volume, the emotional weight of its honest portrayal of black American life; the tenderness with which Coates approaches these difficult subjects on behalf of his beloved adolescent son; the bleak, necessary acceptance of black Americans’ disparate, disproportionate mistreatment across time and geography, kept me from taking it all in at once. Instead, I bought the book, began it, and then put it down and walked away – feeling eerily like a stranger had soulfully penned the thoughts in my head, some of which I’d never even admitted to myself. Coates makes connections in this book that resonate with rumblings of turmoil and confusion I’ve at times felt within but been for varying reasons unable to give voice. Thus, Between the World and Me is the second resource I am recommending this week.

Between the World and Me borrows its title from a poem of the same name, written by Richard Wright. Like Coates’s writing in “Reparations” and in his book, Wright’s acuity is disarming and at times devastating. If you’re able to read this poem without tearing up a time or two, maybe take another pass at reading it; you might be missing something between the lines. Richard Wright’s poem “Between the World and Me” is my third resource recommendation this week. Read it slowly and deliberately, with an open heart and a focused eye. Rather than getting and staying lost in the juxtaposition of abstract and concrete images and symbolism, yield to the larger truth represented in Wright’s words: a collective black American history of lynching, dispossession, and utter shock at continually being dehumanized for the sole crime of possessing black skin.

As you read one or all of these resources in the coming week, I hope you will sit with these questions: 

  • What are your feelings and thoughts regarding reparations? Have you studied the topic and how the American government has historically addressed this topic?  If your emotional response is defensiveness or self-preservation because you don’t want the government dipping into your pocket to right wrongs you haven’t committed, have you questioned why you feel that way?
  • Is it possible to truly move forward in a positive direction as a country, if we haven’t collectively done the work of examining our past, warts and all?
  • In your own life, are you able to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships without reparative, restorative work when disagreements arise and hurts are inflicted? 

Come back next week, y’all. We’ll keep working to examine our past in light of our present and our present in light of our past, actively seeking to create peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 16: Hope and Hard Pills

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.

Music is a balm for me. When I am tired or distracted, the right tune can energize me and improve my mood. When I need the emotional release that accompanies a good, long cry, the right playlist will take me to that emotional space almost immediately. And, too, when I feel lost, forgotten, and unable to remember who I am, music can anchor and center me. Force me to sit still and quiet the voices without to listen to the still, quite voice within.

I stumbled across the Hope and Hard Pills podcast for the first time last summer. Having followed Andre Henry on social media for a short while, I noticed with interest when he promoted his podcast on his Facebook page. One particular episode – with Candice Benbow, another Christian thinker whose voice and insight I value – is my first recommended resource this week. Henry and Benbow speak frankly about loss, grief, and the complicated relationship we sometimes have with our church families (and they with us). The faith community they speak of building is the very thing I didn’t know I needed during my early twenties, when I was just trying desperately to accept the doctrine that had been presented to me as absolute truth during my college years. What a vastly different, spacious, inclusive theology would have done to transform and open my young heart, I’ll never be able to go back and know for sure. What I appreciate particularly is how much the church experiences Henry speaks to mirror my own. There’s a satisfying, deep sense of catharsis when strangers so aptly analyze experiences that left me frozen and almost unable to cope in real time. The healing that comes with such catharsis is thorough and – at the moment, anyway – ongoing.

The Red Couch with Propaganda and Alma is a podcast that provides unique perspectives from a black spoken word/rap artist and his Mexican wife, who is a professional academic. The couple speaks earnestly about their life experiences, their interracial and cross-cultural challenges, and raising their two daughters in the context of their blended family. Whether I glean new levels of meaning in world politics from Prop’s “Hood Politics” segment or collecting gems from Dr. Alma’s multicultural, data-informed insights, I learn something new from this pair every time I listen. The Red Couch with Prop & Alma is the second resource I suggest this week. 

The third resource I suggest is the always incisive “Combing the Roots with Ally Henny.” Every episode Henny publishes touches on a truth that resonates with me. For context: our backgrounds are similar. We are both black women in our thirties, with roots in the black American church, who married white men and ultimately became Episcopalians. With these commonalities, it’s no surprise that Henny’s experiences and perspective feel so similar to my own. Time after time, Henny combines her wit, candor, and vulnerability with commentary regarding the political climate and the state of the church, to boldly illuminate a new aspect of truth I need to hear. Her style is systematic and unflinching, two descriptors that seem to be missing from too many public conversations around justice and race today. 

As you listen to the voices of these activists, artists, and Christian thinkers this week, I hope you will consider these questions:

  • When you sense yourself feeling resistant to new ideas and perspectives, where does that resistance come from? Were you taught or conditioned to feel this resistance, or is it a natural response you have always felt?
  • How has broadening the scope of voices you listen to impacted your life? Has this led to deeper, more meaningful relational experiences with your friends and family?
  • How are you doing with recognizing and checking your biases? [confession: I’m a definite work in progress on this one]

Keep doing the heard work, all y’all. We will create peace for ourselves, our communities, our world, one piece at a time.

Piece 15: Anthem

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.

In piece 14, I asked what actions you are taking to make the world a better place for our children than it has been for us. I asked if you were holding your breath and hoping, or if you are actively seeking ways to make change happen. In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to become involved in several local efforts to get involved in making necessary, overdue changes in the community where I have lived for 20 years – the entirety of my adult life. I hope that you have exhaled. I hope that you are looking to join work already in progress. And I hope that you are looking for ways you can use your unique gifts and skills to uplift your community as well.

Photo by Edward Eyer from Pexels

This week, I’ve put together a playlist of anthems to invite you on an emotional journey. For me, to be black and American has often meant wrestling inwardly. To push forward, toward goals that I think I can reach which, once attained, may put me in a position that makes people who are not black and/or women feel threatened and therefore lead them to push me backward; or to stick to what I know will keep people around me comfortable, even though it means shrinking myself and leaving lifelong questions unanswered? To put on an affect of dialect or style of dress or carriage of my body that fits a stereotypical, accepted picture of what it means to be black; or to show up in the fullness of who I am and weather having my identity called into question? To accept others’ assertion that what they perceive of my personal identity is insufficient and therefore I have no claim to stake in a black cultural identity; or to embrace the unique genes and experiences that comprise who I am and therefore expand a popular but incredibly narrow concept of what it means to be black.

For me, the anthems in this playlist represent specific moments in time. They’ve lifted me when I was low. They’ve reached out to offer commiseration when I’ve felt alone. They’ve met me where I was when I felt I wasn’t equipped for a task. They have assured me that I am enough just as I am. I hope these songs will help you to empathize with the push and pull that I and many [if not all] black Americans live with daily: to strive or to sit; to reach for more or to accept what is; to risk our safety as we try to succeed, or to hope we may go unnoticed if we stay small and try to live in peace.

Sam Cooke’s infectious, timeless “A Change is Gonna Come” leads this week’s playlist. Shortly after Cooke wrote and recorded the song in an unprecedented short amount of time when compared to his prior work, the singer was shot and killed under mysterious circumstances. His haunting anthem, though, has outlived him, resonating with audiences a short two years later as Bloody Sunday transpired on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and decades later as systemically unjust policies and practices continue to disproportionately harm communities of color. The injustices about which Cooke felt he could no longer be silent are among us still, dwelling alongside us, insisting at times that we ignore the reality of their being. And Cooke’s work has survived to keep helping us to see clearly the change that is still needed and has not yet come.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

When Common and John Legend accepted the Oscar for “Glory,” I cried. When I had first heard the song in the context of the movie Selma, I had cried then as well. In truth, I own an unopened copy of Selma, which I was only able to watch one time – in the theater with my husband at my side, holding me while I wept at the sight of actors reenacting that Bloody Sunday massacre that was intended only to be a peaceful march for voting rights. What “Glory” stirs in me is that inner yearning for the already-not-yet that I believe comprises the kingdom of God: the yearning for something we already have experienced by virtue of our Creator, while at the same time the elusive thing itself remains nebulous while we live our lives in these mortal bodies here on Earth. 

The playlist begins with Sam Cooke and Moana, progresses to Andra Day and Chance the Rapper, and ends with the soothing balm of Mahalia Jackson, Common, and John Legend. There are love songs, gospel songs, rap songs, cussing songs – all of which for me work together to express emotions intertwined with feelings that are inextricable from my experience of being black and American.

I hope you listen. 

And as you listen, I hope you will consider the following questions:

  • If you can, imagine yourself in the position of constantly feeling at odds with yourself/your expectations/your family, culture, or society’s expectations of you. If such a state of being was your constant and you could never truly rest from it, how would you cope?
  • Where or to whom do you turn for comfort and solace? Have you ever witnessed someone else trying to twist that object of comfort and solace into something wicked and unworthy, in order to satiate their desire to maintain a sense of superiority over you?
  • How have you navigated the inner turmoil that results from competing expectations of self and others, in your own life?

Keep reading and thinking and pushing yourselves to be braver, more compassionate human beings. We will all be better for it. And come back here to join me next week, so we can keep working for peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 14: Where Does it Hurt?

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 asked if you have diversified the sources of information from which you draw, beyond sources I have specifically recommended here. While I am writing this series primarily with materials I’ve read, watched, and listened to over the past three or four years, I’ve found that when I conduct my brief research each week, I find fresh voices to follow. I’ve begun to follow several women of color on social media whose words and work are agitating the too-long accepted status quo, pushing their audiences to think and feel more deeply, and pulling them into a dialogue and a cultural awareness that will ultimately liberate marginalized people groups from the unhealthy, unrealistic expectations the dominant culture has placed on them for centuries. This week, my focus will turn toward several people of color who are actively involved in justice work. I hope you’ll join me in following them.

A year or two ago, a friend recommended the podcast “On Being” to me. I was not at that time a regular podcast listener, so I wasn’t optimistic that any could keep my attention, particularly since one of the specific episodes my friend recommended contained names of people I’d never heard of before. Even though the host was award-winning journalist Krista Tippet, I’d never heard of her. And even though the interviewed subject of the episode was active in SNCC during the Civil Rights Movement, including marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge herself, I had somehow never heard of her either. This week’s first suggested resource is Ruby Sales’ interview on “On Being with Krista Tippett.” I’m so glad I took her my friend’s suggestion and listened to this episode, though, because Sales’ message has stayed with me. Near the end of the interview, Sales opens up about a pivotal moment that taught her how to help young people – particularly young activists – to heal. While getting her hair done one day, Sales asked this question of her stylist’s daughter, who was clearly in pain: Where does it hurt?

As I have plugged into a few local efforts, a key motivation for me has been young people. So many young adults and teens are paying attention and participating in current movements and uprisings in this country. And each time I feel a surge of pride at their activism, I feel immediately after a sense of heaviness that this is the cultural climate they have inherited. The problems we have not fixed, the segregated water fountains our parents stared down, the civil struggles our grandparents watched unfold with baited breath: all of these comprise this generation’s inheritance. We haven’t fixed this for them, so they are forced to try and fix it for themselves. The burden we ourselves never wanted our children to bear is waiting in their future to yoke them, and bearing this burden doesn’t at all promise to be an ultimately liberating endeavor. 

Each time I see a young person step into a position of leadership in social justice, I hear the words of Ruby Sales, recalling the young activists she’s worked with who have wondered aloud how black adults could have thrown children into a den of people who don’t love them. I picture Elizabeth Echols and Ruby Bridges marching resolutely into freshly “integrated” schools while hateful mobs bore signs that advertised their desire to keep black students out of their schools, while spit and rocks where hurled at black students, while National Guards made a show of protecting and escorting students even though in some cases they blatantly allowed deplorable, trauma-inducing actions to be visited upon these children.

And even in my pride and admiration at Naomi Wadler and Vanessa Nakate, as well as their contemporaries and fellow activists, I cannot forget the pain in the question Sales has heard in her work: how could we send our children into a world that doesn’t love them?

Naomi Wadler became an internet sensation overnight in the wake of the Parkland shooting on Valentines Day & Ash Wednesday a few years ago. The student-led movement that followed, with Emma González and some of her classmates at its forefront, culminated in a nationwide student walkout and rally in Washington, D.C. The speech Wadler gave at March for Our Lives was soul-stirring and incredibly insightful. At the time of her speech, Wadler was only 11 years -old. Her Twitter page – which showcases her unique, incisive voice and work – is this week’s second suggested resource.

Vanessa Nakate’s activism is rooted in climate change-related work. In her own words, this young woman became interested in the impact of climate change when she was getting ready to graduate from high school and began to research problems facing Uganda. Having never been taught about climate change in school, Nakate quickly realized the wide-reaching impact of climate change on her home: food insecurity due to droughts, deadly floods, desperate families marrying off their distraught teenage daughters to old men because they have no hope of being able to feed and care for them. 

Putting her newfound knowledge into action, Nakate joined Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for the Future and organized Uganda’s first walkouts to raise awareness of climate change and pressure governing officials to take action to help people whose lives are so adversely impacted by climate change. Nakate’s passion, vision, and persistence are inspiring. To see her love for her people and country, and how this love has motivated her to fight for global change, is astounding. This week’s last suggested resource is Vanessa Nakate’s Twitter page as well as the two organizations she has founded: Rise Up Movement and 1 Million Activist Stories

This week, I want to leave you with questions that will facilitate future-centered introspection. 

  • What actions are you taking to make the world a better place for our children than it was for us? Are you holding your breath and hoping for change or actively seeking ways you can get involved in making change happen?
  • Do the children and young adults in your life find an audience with you when they wish to express their griefs, woes, ideas, and hopes regarding the distressing events we often see in the news? Are you listening to the young voices around you?
  • Where in your community can you step up and support young people doing important work? What needs do they have that you can provide? How can you come alongside them and join their work?

Our babies, the babies they may have one day, and the babies of those babies – all deserve a future brighter than our present. Let’s keep showing up for our fellow human beings – including the future ones – by working diligently toward peace, by pursuing it one piece at a time.