Piece 21: Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil

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.

Whew. Y’all. It has been a week: elections and grand jurors, and Supreme Court appointment and violent death and of course ‘rona is still in these streets.

It’s no wonder I’ve been tired.

Each time a new name comes across my news feed because a black person has been killed by people who have been hired to “protect and serve,” my body and heart return to an all too familiar weariness reserved for this unique blend of personal and corporate grief. The grief passed down through generations and shared across the diaspora. The grief that fervently hopes blackness won’t be blamed for the death of us all. 

Photo by Colin Lloyd from Pexels

There is a heaviness too. How, after all, can one keep track of all the names of people across the country whose lives have been senselessly and violently cut short? Whether they are armed or not armed, waking or sleeping, sitting in a car during a traffic stop or fleeing from fear, the result too often is that a life is snuffed out. Not lost, as is so often the idiom, because we know these lives didn’t forget their way home but will eventually arrive. Rather, these lives are stolen, robbed from their mothers and cousins and friends and spouses – all of their loved ones left to wonder about the life that might have been had it been allowed to continue.

I have noticed that some people refer to these shooting victims by their first names. Casually, as if they were on a first name basis with them while they lived – even though in truth they were not. At first, when I would hear well-meaning strangers speak of these people by their first names, or see them write on social media about them this way, I felt bothered but stayed silent because I couldn’t figure out why my breath held, my pulse quickened. 

But then it hit me.

As much as the purpose in using victims’ first names is likely an attempt to humanize them, to make them feel familiar and real, there’s a thin line I think between humanizing these now-martyrs and forgetting just how personal the loss is for their loved ones. It’s right and appropriate for each of us to feel connected to these people and their families. And it’s equally important to force ourselves to sit still in our grief long enough to remember their loved ones’ grief is so much deeper.

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When I see my child wear a red hoodie, I see Trayvon Martin’s face. But I don’t hear his voice calling me Cupcake, because I am not his mother.

When I see Mike Brown’s high school graduation photo, I remember lie-ins with protesters laying down on the ground in public, some with signs saying “hands up, don’t shoot.” But I don’t picture him walking to school past a graveyard every day, because I wasn’t one of his classmates.

When I hear Philando Castille’s name, I remember the Facebook live video of his bloodstained shirt as the life drained out of him as he fell to the side of the driver’s seat he was still buckled into. But I don’t remember how he paid for lunch when my parents didn’t have money to send to school with me, because I wasn’t one of the kids who came through the line in the cafeteria where he worked.

Photo by Life Matters from Pexels

I am not saying at all that I have an answer for what the perfect balance is between grieving corporately, righteously agitating for justice, and allowing space for families to grieve their loved ones’ passing. I am saying simply that we have to try not to lose sight of individual people in the midst of our indignation on their behalf.

We know Breonna Taylor’s name but not her favorite color or whether she smelled like cotton candy as a newborn.

We must remember this.

While there are certainly many published books written by bereaved families, the only one I have read for myself to date is Lesley McSpadden’s Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil. She details her own life, her mothering of Mike Brown, their families’ struggles and their triumphs, their love, and their loss. Her words challenged me to see her as a complete person, with a whole lived history with her son, not merely a face in the movement for justice.

As you read and think and reflect this week, I hope you will consider these questions:

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels
  • How often have you prayed for the families of victims of violent crimes? Have you sought out information from the victims’ families? 
  • Have you watched and shared violent video footage of their loved one’s death? If so, have you also prayed for them – not just for justice, but for healing, for peace?
  • How can you balance humanizing victims with leaving space for the wholeness of their lived experiences?

I’ll be working at this alongside each of you who undertakes it. I’ve got no answers on this one, but I never want to forget the question. Together, let us never forget that each name that becomes a hashtag and rallying cry was first a human life. Come back next week, and we’ll keep asking and answering hard questions, so that we can find peace, one piece at a time.

Return, Remember

remember

I began the year not with a resolution but with a word: remember. A focus of mine this year has been to return to that which I know I am and have been at my core. To build up confidence and courage from the person I have always been because she is who I was created to be. 

Lately, maybe due to the change of the seasons or the middle of our fall semester, I’ve found myself frustrated more often than usual. I am beginning to think, though, that the root of some of my frustrations is related to my one word for the new year: some people that I share my daily space and life with don’t seem interested in remembering who they are.

In my mind, remembering is individual and collective. We all have been created by the same God, with a divine purpose and plan, and with intention and completeness inextricable from our bodies and souls. To have a relationship with God is to acknowledge that remembrance, and to live a life by faith is to doggedly remain tethered to that same remembrance that drew us into that Created-Creator relationship. 

Case in point: a friend recently shared a podcast episode with me. She found that this episode’s examination of Christians’ responsibility with regard to civic engagement was resonant. For her, the episode represented a refreshing take on what it means to align civically with Christian values rather than aligning civically with a political party that is believed to espouse Christian values.

I, however, couldn’t finish the episode.

The idea that there is a single way to engage civically or politically as a Christian is deeply upsetting to me. It feels like exchanging one type of legalistic indoctrination for another. That isn’t to say that such an idea isn’t valid or shouldn’t resonate with those for whom it lands differently.

But for me, this idea isn’t it.

Take, too, for example, the unfortunately oft-espoused idea that you can love someone but not like them. I cannot count the times I’ve heard people say this, and each time I hear it, my breath holds, my pulse quickens, my heart sinks just a little. What a hurtful, potentially relationship-destroying belief to hold. Can we really not separate people we love from their actions which we may not? Can we not understand that love is a degree of like and therefore the two are inseparable? Have we been so hoodwinked by the idea that love is a choice that we can’t see the truth: that love for each other is a return to the God who made us; that yielding to love means remembering who we are?

As for people who identify as Christians who are conflicted about whom to vote for, if they vote at all – is it really necessary that we confine our identity to a rigid idea that someone besides ourselves decided was the only way a Christian can possibly vote? Since when did a vote change a person’s faith? We are – no matter how we vote – the people God made us to be. And if our faith in Christ compels us to vote a certain way based on our convictions which are rooted in that faith, then that is how we should vote. But in my view, that has to come from within, not from without.

Ever the student of Brene Brown’s insightful call to get curious about the feeling when I’m triggered or angry or hurt, this is the conclusion I have reached: that my desire to remember who I am isn’t always shared by the people around me. This can lead me to take others’ words to mean what they say rather than meaning what they meant to convey by saying them. It is a frustrate for which I have no answers, but the knowledge of which beckons me deeper still into remembrance. 

Piece 20: Exceptional

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.

There is a prevalent lie that is seldom explicitly stated yet whose presence is often palpably perceived: that of black exceptionalism. It is a lie I first encountered on the playgrounds of my childhood, where I was occasionally – hurtfully – told that because I talked “proper,” I must be trying to be white. The lie followed me through tweendom and adolescence. The lie followed me to college where – not for the first time – I was jokingly called an Oreo. Over time, because of my age and that of my peers, the lie became so hushed that I could no longer perceive it and thought it had finally left me to live in peace.

I was wrong.

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The lie came screaming back into my present tense upon the recent realization that from the point of view of one colleague, that my presence in this job was desired in part to be a person with whom colleagues can “check in,” “run things by me,” and in general help all students to see how much we all are the same even when our skin color is different.

I find myself – again – in a place where I am forced to come to terms with the fact too often, when I show up in the fullness of who I am, people I think I can trust (within a specific context) want to ignore my race until it’s convenient for their own purposes; then, it’s all they want to see.

The pain and frustration that result from situations like these is tangible and unlike any other. If I hadn’t already done the hard, necessary work of discovering and embracing who I am, and unapologetically loving and affirming my blackness, I would be absolutely destroyed. Time and time again.

As part of my ongoing effort to combat this particular mindset – the idea that black people who are experienced, passionate, and articulate are exceptional only because they are black – this week, I want to share three stories: of black people who are not exceptional because of their blackness alone, but whose life circumstances, drive, and motivation make them exceptional. And while they all are black, their blackness alone does not make them exceptional. 

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I wrote in July about Bryan Stevenson’s wonderful work with the Equal Justice Initiative. Today, I share with you his beautifully written memoir Just Mercy. Even before it was adapted into an incredibly moving dramatic film, Just Mercy taught millions of readers how life-changing redemption is. How greatly our system of justice has missed the mark of respecting the dignity of those who are jailed, especially black men. How even after wrongfully imprisoned men are exonerated and returned to their families, they may never truly be whole. How our systemically skewed prison system often devours the lives of those it houses. To read, listen to, and/or watch Just Mercy is to witness its protagonist and author Bryan Stevenson living out his true calling with grace and gravitas. It is to be changed. Please hear me clearly when I say to you that Stevenson is a remarkable soul doing world-changing work. He is the definition of exceptional. And he is black. But he is not exceptional only because of his blackness.

When I first watched Precious in the theater with a friend years ago, I wept openly during the closing credits. Like, I couldn’t help it, couldn’t make myself stop at will. To have witnessed this fictional story pieced together with so much of what’s real life for some black girls, cracked open a grief-shaped something inside of me. Precious was born into exceptional circumstances: poverty, dysfunction, abuse. Shouted at and beaten by her mother and sexually abused by her father, Precious gives birth to two sibling-children whom she loves deeply. At first, the only respite Precious possesses is to disassociate from abuse when it happens: imagining herself as a popular, successful, glamorous star rather than to face the abuse she’s repeatedly subjected to. By the end of the movie, Precious has allies in the form of her teacher and social worker, and she has also learned her now-deceased father gave her HIV. The fictional character of Precious is exceptional because she emerges from this cacophony of violence, torment, and unconscionable darkness, into the light of abiding love for her children and herself, and hope for the future she wants for them. Her story is not exceptional only because she is black. Her story is exceptional because her character radiates with brilliance that cannot be muted by omnipresent darkness.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

As for Issa Rae, I am so grateful that once upon a time she said that she was rooting for everybody black, not least of all because one day maybe that exclusive group will include me. I was unaware of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl when it was an ongoing series in real-time. By the time I was let in on that phenomenon, Issa Rae was well on her way to securing the television home for her current series Insecure. I recommend both series for mature audiences: for their honesty, humor, and the ever-relatable awkwardness of their protagonist, who is really just trying to fumble her way through to successful adulting. Issa Rae herself – the creative behind the shows – is worth watching just as much as her series. In recent months, she has begun developing a record label and has partnered with another company to open a coffee shop. Her Ivy league-educated, visionary, unapologetic way of showing up in the world, and love for the black community make her exceptional – not her blackness alone.

Identity is a sore spot for me. From the playground classmates who marveled and hypothesized at how I talked, to the workplace colleague who wants me to help others transcend race even though that is not the job I was hired to do. Because of others’ expectations, both in-group and out-group, I battled for years to accept that my own way of existing in this world is valid. I will not therefore comply with any attempt to place me in a box that isn’t the precise one I custom-built for my own identity. After all, if feminism at its heart is about taking up space, then so must blackness be. We must have the breadth, agency, and access to create and shape the spaces where we desire to be: bringing our blackness with us as part of the fullness of ourselves, without being restricted to having that blackness define us all by itself.

This week, as you decide what to watch or read from the above suggestions, I hope you’ll ruminate on this question: How has the lie of black exceptionalism – that phenomenal, accomplished, positive black people are outliers rather than the norm – hurt your relationships with black people in your life?

Last week’s post was about unity and culture and nostalgia, and the surprising places from which we sometimes glean our lessons. This week was not that. Conciliatory work isn’t easy, y’all. True reconciliation doesn’t begin and end with having coffee in the company of a black friend or two. It’s deeper than that.  As activist and author DeRay Mckesson says, “When we talk about truth and reconciliation, we are reminded that truth has to come before reconciliation.” Keep showing up here to see and share the truth. And I will too. We will find peace when we continue to seek it, one piece at a time.

Piece 19: Unity

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 some tough questions of you and of myself, about the way media portrayals of LGBTQ individuals have colored our perception of how we expect them to exist in the world. I asked what one-dimensional depictions of LGBTQ people we have belived to be true. I asked when we’ve turned a blind eye to struggles you’ve assumed are a logical consequence of “lifestyle choice” instead of calling out injustice when we see it, and understanding that such injustices are undivorceable from lopsided portrayals of LGBTQ people that are amplified by the media. For me, it’s taken listening to podcasts, reading articles, and having beloved friends and family members in my life to truly wake me up to the depth of injustice people experience based on their sexual preference or because they don’t identify inextricably with the genitals they were born with. And it’s taken time and relationship to come to a place of listening instead of talking when it comes to such injustice.

I have much to learn.

Source: Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

This week, I want to turn our attention to a memorable scene from A Different World. In season 6, episode 3, Lena and Dorian are low-key courting each other amid a backdrop of Greek step performances. Charmaine and Gina come across Lena’s book of poetry while Lena is at work, and without her knowledge plan a step routine using her poetry. In keeping with Lena’s super-woke, hella deep character and the lovely habit A Different World had of teaching its audience about the meaning behind various black traditions, the resulting step routine is catchy, meaningful, and uplifting:

911 Emergency

Reconnect the Community

Our struggle 

cannot be waged

Without African-American unity

No more tears 

to be shed

No more marches to be led

No more pity

To be wrought

Naught more mercy to be sought

Boot dance

Unity in the community

It’s time to be a reality

The last time I recommended an episode of A Different World, it was because of Kim Reese’s dark-skinned character being affirmed as beautiful after having been made to feel like a racist caricature as a child who was dressed like a princess, not Aunt Jemima. This time, I recommend this particular episode of A Different World because of its light and airy feel, its warm message of unification, and its magical way of teaching history alongside an apt reflection of 90’s black American culture. This week’s recommended resource is Interior Desecration.

As you watch these engaging characters’ stories unfold, I hope you’ll consider these few questions:

  • What has it meant to you to see characters that look like you on TV? What memories do you have of such TV shows that are positively linked with your own childhood?
  • How much of the TV and movie content you took in growing up centered around people who didn’t look like you? How did such shows cause you to grow, change, or be challenged? Might your growth have traveled a different trajectory if you’d taken in more diverse media at a young age?
  • When is the first time you consciously remember meeting someone from a different racial background than you and registering the difference? What impact did it have on you?

Meet me back here again next week, folks, and we will keep working to unlock the peace that resides deep within all of us, one piece at a time.

Piece 18: Moonlight

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 shared a bit about what it can feel like when such a dense, thorny space exists between the world and oneself. About the tension black parents feel knowing how much we love and cherish our children, and how all-consuming our concern for their wellbeing can be – so much that volumes and tomes and essays and songs have been written to express our collective and individual grief, and our sorrow. 

I asked you about  your feelings and thoughts regarding reparations. I asked in part because until 2004, I did not realize that Japanese Americans were interned during World War II, and it was at least a decade after that before I realized a minimal amount had been paid to this group of citizens in the form of reparations. Because of the hot, contentious emotional aura that tends to surround conversations about this particular idea, I thought until relatively recently that the U.S. had set no historical precedent for issuing reparations to wronged people groups. That assumption was incorrect. While there may be little precedent of the U.S. Government issuing reparations, it isn’t unheard of. It’s happened before.

It can happen again.

This week, I want to reflect briefly on homophobia, LGBTQ stereotypes, and the role both have played in American entertainment. 

I think I was aware of Laverne Cox as an actress before I saw her on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.” I vaguely remembered seeing her on an episode of “The Mindy Project,” but I don’t think I really took notice of her. Recently, Cox returned to Netflix for a documentary about the portrayal of trans people in film: Disclosure. This documentary took me to school. Not only did I learn a great deal about films and shows I wasn’t familiar with from having seen them myself, but I also began to see with fresh eyes the movies and shows I was familiar with. How is it that the media I’ve taken in over the course of my life has managed to simultaneously villainize, fetishize, and dehumanize transgender human beings? If ever you’ve needed to see clear evidence that as a culture we must do better, Disclosure offers such evidence in abundance. This makes Disclosure my first suggested resource this week.

For my second suggested resource this week, let’s turn our attention from a truth-illuminating documentary to a scripted drama. “Pose” is a gift, y’all. Billy Porter and MJ Rodriguez lead a dazzling cast of characters in this drama set at the incarnation of New York’s ballroom scene in the 1980s & 90s. Watching this show, I’ve learned so much about how early-days HIV and AIDS patients of color were ignored and maltreated, glimpsed the heartbreak of young people ousted from their houses after coming out to their families, marvelled at the beauty of framily that can emerge from the ashes of transphobia. “Pose” allows its viewing public to pause at the mirror long enough to reflect on the culture we’ve built, the people groups we’ve cast aside, and the resilience that our hetero-worshiping culture couldn’t snuff out.

The last resource I suggest this week is Moonlight. A few years ago, shortly after the #oscarssowhite fiasco, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway presented the Oscar for best picture to LaLa Land, the film that – aside from not being a great love story – struck some viewers as a white-centered introduction to the jazz music genre, which has origins that are decidedly not white. The best picture announcement was made, the cast, directors, etc. took to the stage and began their thank you speeches, and then somebody lifted the needle off the record.

LaLa Land, the almost entirely white movie, did not actually win best picture; rather, that honor went to the almost if not entirely black cast of Moonlight

I cried. The imagery and poetry of the moment were stunning. 

But let me back up and talk about the movie itself and not the moment it won such an honor.

Moonlight chronicles the childhood of Chiron, our protagonist. Chiron grows up with an uncertain home life. Local drug dealer Juan becomes a mentor and gently ushers Chiron through his uncertainty about his identity and sexuality. One of my favorite scenes in the movie depicts Juan assuring Chiron that he doesn’t have to have answers about his sexuality at his young age. As the movie progresses, a story unfolds that is utterly unlike any other I’ve seen before or since: a deeply human, uniquely black, intensely relatable coming-of age tale of a young man discovering and trying to come to terms with his homosexual identity.

As you peruse this week’s suggested sources, I hope you’ll do so with an open mind while you consider these questions:

  • What one-dimensional depictions of LGBTQ individuals have you seen in the media and on some level believed to be true?
  • Where in your own mind and heart have you turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the struggles of LGBTQ people because you believe in some way their “lifestyle choices” have created their struggles, not our culture’s wrongheaded portrayal of them?
  • How can you begin inner work today to unlearn the biases you’ve held against LGBTQ people – biases that aren’t based in truth but in lopsided media narratives? 

I hope will join you on this journey to keep learning about our siblings who share a gender and/or sexual identity other than our own. It’s a long journey, but in my experiences, such journeys generally prove to be the ones that are truly worth taking. Let’s continue on this journey together, trekking the winding, arduous path to peace, one piece at a time.