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.

Piece 23: When I Think of Home

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 asked how many movies and shows you have seen – besides A Wrinkle in Time – that center a black girl finding her identity? For me, one such movie is The Wiz, the classic all-black version of The Wizard of Oz. When the final scene of the musical begins, our remixed yet still familiar protagonist has just been given the key to going back home to Kansas by Lena Horne or Uzo Aduba, depending on which version you watch. And she ruminates on the meaning of home as she prepares to click her heels and return to the place she took for granted a short time ago. She looks out into the distance and begins to sing, “when I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing…”

Photo by PICHA Stock from Pexels

In addition to being a heartwarming family story, The Wiz is layered with social commentary. The scarecrow croons, for instance, that you can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game: a clear reminder that no matter what black people try to get ahead in their lives, that the deck is always stacked against them. Just a little later, we hear tin man mournfully wonder what he would do if he could suddenly feel. Each time I hear this song, I can’t help but echo its sentiment, musing to myself that if I could express my feeling freely, I’d hardly know what to do with myself because such freedom would be so utterly new. 

And of course we can’t forget the lion, who receives the heartfelt advice from Dorothy to “be a lion.” She encourages him to be who he truly is: standing strong and tall, the bravest of them all, admonishing him to keep on trying. 

Once old Evilene perishes after having water poured on her, all of her winged warriors dance and sing in jubilation. With their fearsome ruler finally gone, they rejoice as they feel this brand new day. They knew, after all, that they’d one day be free somehow. So we, the audience, resonate with this notion: that we, too, will be free someday.

There’s a plethora of thinkpieces and analyses of The Wiz, which, despite some white people having never heard of it until NBC staged a live production a few years ago, has existed on stage and screen since 1974. The story was so commonly known in the black community I grew up in, that I could confidently sing along with most of the soundtrack even before my sixth grade self was cast in my elementary school’s production as Auntie Em. Since many writers have researched deeply and coherently compiled their musings, I won’t copy their work and add my own voice to the fray. Instead, I’ll share with you why The Wiz is so important to me.

The 1978 film adaptation of The Wiz is star-studded, featuring a hefty sampling of black Hollywood’s finest: Nipsy Russell, Michael Jackson, and Diana Ross, to name a few. It’s beautiful, and imaginative, and dazzling in its adaptation of the classic tale. The Wiz doesn’t so much change its source material as it does breathe new life into it, bathing it in an urban landscape steeped in black culture, amid black icons, to a soundtrack of black music.

Photo by nappy from Pexels

Instead of Dorothy looking wistfully over the rainbow and wishing to fly with the birds, the opening number of The Wiz finds Auntie Em reminding Dorothy that she is loved and wanted, that she belongs with her family. The sense of connection and belonging are omnipresent in The Wiz, as Dorothy isn’t so much on a journey to find that leaving home will help her find herself, as she is misguidedly seeking to return to the home where she and her mother lived before her mother died, only to find that her mother wasn’t her only family – and that the familial love she thought she was missing, has been waiting for her patiently all along.

It reminds me in no small way of a phrase our priest uses frequently, referring to the congregation as “beloved.” My first name is a Spanish word that roughly translates to “beloved.” And any time I come across the word in Scripture, I close my eyes and feel a special nudge, a comfort that comes from knowing I am beloved by my Creator. A similar sense of belonging, of home, of connectedness, of belovedness, is the very yellow brick road Dorothy and her friends ease on down throughout The Wiz. 

This remixed version of L. Frank Baum’s age-old tale resonates so deeply with me because it is so black, because it is so resonant, because it is so inviting, because it is so familiar, and – of course – because it reminds me of home. 

The Wiz, its soundtrack, and its stars are woven throughout memories of my childhood. Truly, when I myself think of home, The Wiz is an integral part of that picture.

Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels

I wonder, what do you think of when you think of home? Do you picture big, boisterous family dinners? Do you imagine the ease of finally letting down your guard because your family knows and loves you best? Do you exhale as you fall into familiar patterns of making sure the cook doesn’t have to clean? Is the game on TV? Are the uncles playing a loud game of dominoes on the patio? Has your nephew absconded with all the children’s Easter candy while everyone else was outside playing and he was left unattended?

The love and warmth I feel when I think of home are so thick they are almost tangible. As you think of home and what it means to you, I hope you’ll consider the following questions:

  • What kind of home are you seeking to create for yourself? Your family?
  • If guests visited a family gathering, would they feel included in your family’s habits and traditions?
  • Are your family’s gatherings inclusive? In theory only or in truth?
  • What can you add to the soundtrack of your home to ensure your family always feels wanted, welcomed, and knows they belong?

I hope the home from which you hail keeps you firmly rooted and secure, that it steadily beckons you back, welcoming you with open arms. And I hope the home you are building is inclusive, freeing, affirming, and steady. Come back next week, and we’ll keep working to add peace to our lives and our homes, one piece at a time.

Piece 22: A Wrinkle in Time

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 asked you how you could balance humanizing the victims of police violence while leaving space for the wholeness of their lived experiences. This isn’t an easy or even necessarily a natural thing for me to do. But one thing that helps me is not to call these people whom I never knew in life by their familiar first names. If I refer to them in writing or in conversations, I use their first and last names, as if they are people I don’t know. Because even though stories like theirs are all too familiar, and even though I feel a kinship with them in that my skin color and presumptions about it could be weaponized against me at any given moment, I do not in reality know them no matter how personally I may feel devastated by the manner of their death.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

When I took my babies to see A Wrinkle in Time in theaters, I carried several emotions with me: nostalgia for a favorite childhood book I had enjoyed and shared with my boys, recently rejuvenated curiosity since my older child had gotten me interested in reading the graphic novel adaptation, and excited anticipation at the prospect of Ava DuVernay’s black-protagonist- focused adaptation.

I was very excited. 

While some audience members – L’Engle purists, no doubt – were scrutinizing the movie’s liberal interpretation of the book, its altered plot points, and its outsized Oprah role, I was puzzling in my mind – trying to remember the last time I saw a young black or biracial girl on the screen who was insecure about her hair and reassured of its beauty by her crush. I was marveling at the multiracial representation of Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit. I was crying at the beauty of this depiction of a girl so connected to her father that she was determined that he was able to be found and set out to bring him home. I was swept away by the costumes, the cast, and the dazzling beauty that DuVernay and Oprah bring to everything they touch with their gifted hands. I was validated and seen and grateful.

My children didn’t have the same reaction I did. They are 21st century biracial boys who do not share their mother’s experience of being a young black girl insecure about her identity and sorely lacking big-screen representations of people who look like her. Nevertheless, our whole family enjoyed the movie. And we left the theater determined to purchase the movie, which in time, we did.

Considering the election week we’ve had in this country, I somewhat wish time would wrinkle. If it were possible to pass through a real-life wrinkle, suspended in/hurtling through time and space, I might just want time to stop long enough to experience the worlds to which that wrinkle would take me. Away from the mess that 2020 has dished out: mysterious seeds, murder hornets, a tiger king, a global pandemic, and now, a mere few days away from Friday the 13th, an election hullabaloo.

I want to pause and breathe and watch a lovely movie about an awkward teenage girl who misses her dad. I want to sit in a theater with my family and eat popcorn from the refillable bucket we buy each year. I want to sneak my children the dollar store snacks and drinks I usually purchase on our way to the movies. I want to lose track of time just long enough to watch a 90-minute reimagined stroll down memory lane – into an allegorical world of wonder.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

This week, I invite you to do just that: watch the 2018 A Wrinkle in Time. Try to picture yourself as a child, seeing someone who looks like you, in a sparkling, colorful, big-screen adaptation of a book beloved by young and old alike. Try to feel the excitement and anticipation of knowing that behind the movie is a black female director who received an almost unheard-of budget to bring this movie to the screen – where her cinematic vision became the first movie directed by a black woman to gross $100 million at the box office. Particularly if you saw the movie before and found yourself let down that it didn’t strictly follow the book or fit with prior film iterations of the story, try to imagine how it feels to see yourself in this beloved tale for the very first time.

As you watch and pay attention to how your body and mind react to the film, I hope you will consider these questions:

  • How many other movies and shows have you seen that center a black girl finding her identity? Strong relationship with her father? Embracing her beauty and uniqueness? Adapted from popular books?
  • When you bristle at modern, inclusive versions of old stories, why are you bothered that a present-day adaptation doesn’t stick to a traditional interpretation? Is it because even if characters’ skin color is never explicitly stated in the text, that whiteness is the norm in your mind’s eye as you read? 
  • If as an adult, you are affected by not being represented by characters who look like you on a movie screen, how much more important and meaningful do you think it is for children of color, who have so seldom seen themselves represented, to have the opportunity to do so?

Time won’t wrinkle for us, or even pause briefly. And since we must keep putting one foot in front of the other as time marches on, then we’d may as well keep working toward a more unified, harmonious, and peaceful way of living amongst each other – one piece at a time.