Piece 42: Bad Blood

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.

In June of 2020, when COVID-19 infection numbers in this country were climbing at a frightening rate, especially in communities packed with people of color, Senator Steve Huffman asked the Ohio Commission on Minority Health if “African Americans or the colored population do not wash their hands as well as other groups?” This man’s woefully misguided, microaggressive, unquestionably racist question represents an insidious brand of ignorance: the idea that Black people get sick and die because we simply don’t take care of ourselves.

Not only is this idea untrue, but it is also an idea that overlooks the completely understandable mistrust that many African Americans have of medical professionals.

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Take for example, Tuskegee. In 1932, doctors began experimenting on 600 Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama. By using the local colloquialism “bad blood,” doctors convinced these farmers that they were receiving treatment for an ambiguous ailment when in reality they were observing the long-term effects of untreated syphilis in the bodies of the men who had contracted it, all the while telling the men they were receiving free medical care. This “experiment” continued for forty years, being brought to a stop only when an Associated Press article exposed the experiment.

Tuskegee is, of course, only the tip of the iceberg for Black Americans’ collective mistrust of medical professionals. For instance, HeLa cells have been instrumental in treating disease for decades due to their immortality. Although the African-American woman from whom these cells were extracted lives on in them, she herself never consented to the use of her cells for medical experimentation. In fact, Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells did not render their owner herself immortal. Instead, Lacks died at the age of 31, never knowing her cells were extracted and had lived longer than any others before.

Neither did Lacks’ family know or consent to such usage of her cells. They weren’t made aware of their family member’s significant contribution to medical advances until twenty years after her death.  

If we reach back even further into our history books, we will find that our first president’s dentures were not made of wood, as we may have heard in school. Instead, George Washington’s dentures were constructed from a variety of materials, including real human teeth from purchased enslaved people.

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Health struggles for Black Americans persist in the present day as well: Black maternal mortality is at a crisis point. Frequently, Black women are believed not to be suffering from pain or not to be in treatment, despite what patients themselves describe to doctors when they ask for help. Such disbelief on the part of medical professionals can be easily traced back to James Marion Sims. Lauded as the father of modern gynecology, Sims, along with far too many of his contemporaries, believed that Black people were a subhuman species who did not feel pain or anxiety. Therefore even though anesthesia was introduced in 1846, Sims didn’t use it when he performed surgeries on the enslaved women he used to build up his own medical “expertise.” 

It’s no wonder then, that even rich and famous Black women are not exempt from the spectre of life-threatening postpartum complications. Serena Williams shared her harrowing experience with a pulmonary embolism following the birth of her daughter several years ago.

As recently as December 2020, Dr. Susan Moore documented the unethical lack of treatment she received for COVID, before she died from the disease for which she had been belatedly hospitalized and poorly treated. Moore had been sent home more than once even though she exhibited severe COVID symptoms, and even as she lay in what would be her deathbed, some of the medical professionals entrusted with her care denied her pain medicine and ultimately failed to treat her symptoms adequately.

Although I have not been able to stomach all the grotesque, vivid details of medical experimentation on Black bodies outlined by the brilliant medical ethicist Harriet A. Washington in Medical Apartheid, her work makes clear that the American system of chattel slavery went to great lengths to justify its maltreatment of Black bodies. Doing so meant enlisting medical professionals to uphold and perpetuate myths about Black bodies’ ability to withstand pain and therefore brutal work conditions and inhumane treatment.

In the end, it’s this knowledge that Senator Huffman clearly lacks, as do those who think like him. Black Americans do not find themselves suffering poorer health outcomes than other racial groups because we don’t take care of ourselves. Rather, Black Americans find themselves suffering poorer health outcomes because of an entire system and government that have intentionally propped themselves up by dehumanizing Black people. This was true in 1619. This is true in 2021. 

The bad blood between medical science and Black Americans is deeply rooted in the white supremacy that has shaped this country and its subjugation of Black bodies.

As you watch the YouTube videos I’ve linked as source material this week and read through the excerpt from Medical Apartheid, I hope that you will consider these questions:

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  • When in your own mind have you compared disparate health statistics across ethnic groups and assumed fault lay strictly within the parameters of personal responsibility and choice?
  • How does a failure to interrogate such an assumption cause harm to the people of color in your life – your friends, neighbors, and family members?
  • What action can you take today to support the just work of closing race-shaped gaps in health outcomes and life expectancy?

As always, I hope you’ll continue to engage with me in this work, week by week, and ultimately that you will cultivate in yourself the habit of questioning your assumptions so that you can unlearn biases, especially those you didn’t know you had.

Let’s keep working together to build a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.

Piece 41: Respectability

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.

When one of my work wives collaborated with a few other friends on our hallway to make me a beautiful, Pinterest-worthy Black History Month door decoration last year, I learned about several Black women who made history, but whose names I’d never heard before. An incredibly personal part of the decoration was a collage of Black women whom my dear friend had hand-picked based on how much she knew about me. Shirley Chisolm, a long-time personal hero of mine, occupied a prominent position in the center of the collage. Lizzo, Angela Rye, and Michelle Obama, among others, adorned the periphery. Along with them was the then unknown to me Dr. Pauli Murray, the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal Priest. Learning of who she was gave my little Episcopalian heart such joy.

Earlier this year, I shared with a colleague that Rosa Parks had not been the first Black woman to protest by refusing to give up her seat on a bus, but that she was preceded by both Claudette Colvin and Pauli Murray. This colleague’s resulting curiosity and internet research yielded this illuminating article, which she shared with me. In “The Many Lives of Pauli Murray,” I learned about Murray’s heartbreaking struggle with her gender identity and the integral role that her legal research played in Brown vs. the Board of Education.

A few weeks ago, I got the unexpected joy of introducing one of my students, a senior, to Claudette Colvin. Having found an article about Colvin in a Scholastic magazine, I passed it to this particular student, who within a few moments of receiving it, said that it would be the most important thing she ever learned in school. When Claudette Colvin was only fifteen years old, she refused to give up her seat on a bus while riding home from school. Even though three of her schoolmates moved when ordered to do so, Colvin asserted to the officers that boarded the bus that she knew her constitutional rights. After Colvin had been bailed out of jail and the NAACP, of which she was a part, began considering Colvin as the face of a bus boycott, Colvin found out she was pregnant. The NAACP, leary of confusing people who supported their just cause by supporting a teenage mother, decided not to make Colvin the face of their movement. 

Furthermore, it would be Claudette Colvin, not Rosa Parks, who went on to become a plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, the federal case that determined Alabama’s bus segregation was unconstitutional. This decision forced Colvin to move to New York, since her participation in the case effectively nullified her ability to find employment in her hometown.

These days, riot-condemning folks like to weaponize Rosa Parks. They say and share on social media such tone-deaf faux maxims as “Rosa Parks didn’t burn the bus; she sat on it.” In their minds, it seems, Parks’ act of passive resistance was a simple case of being tired and not wanting to stand. In reality, it was a carefully planned and coordinated action, preceded and undergirded by Colvin, Murray, and others before her, and succeeded by more than a year of economic strife for the city bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, and beyond. 

Rosa Parks was at the time of her arrest secretary of the NAACP, and she had married a member of the NAACP when she was nineteen years old. There should be no doubt, therefore, in anyone’s mind that Rosa Parks’ action was a planned act of civil disobedience. It served as the instigator of the very “cancel culture” so many people who weaponize her visage and actions decry today.

Photo by Joe Ambrogio from Pexels 
  • What prior ideas do you have to let go of in order to accept the idea of Rosa Parks as an intentional, strategic activist?
  • What do you lose when you recontextualize her work this way?
  • Why do you think that the names of Pauli Murray, a gender queer woman, and Claudette Colvin, a teenage mother, are not taught to us alongside the name of Rosa Parks, even though all three were civilly disobedient in the same way?
  • In what ways might respectability politics have influenced your idea of which Black lives matter and which ones don’t?

I hope you’ll read each of the resources linked here to deepen and expand your knowledge of the determination and strategy that have been required in order for Black Americans to make incremental strides toward justice and equity. I hope you will allow your defenses to fall as you think through the thoughts and feelings Murray and Colvin must have experienced, knowing that their lives were not deemed worthy enough to allow them to be prominently visible in the Civil Rights Movement. I hope you will look around at the single mothers and queer friends and neighbors in your life and extend them grace, empathy, and compassion from a newly realized space within.

And I hope, as always, that you’ll meet me back here again next week, so we can keep constructing thoroughly peaceful communities and lives, one piece at a time.

Piece 40: One Day, When the Glory Comes

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 year, my husband and I took our sons on a road trip to Selma, Alabama. I had hoped to possibly extend the trip to Plateau to try and visit the home of Cudjo Lewis, or to pop down to Gulf Shores for a couple of lazy days on the beach. But we only had a few days of overlapping vacation days between the four of us, and – as we’d later find out – the world would close while we wrapped up our short holiday anway. So it was just as well that we didn’t make more plans, as we’d surely have had to cancel them.

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Blessedly, our trip did not end before we were able to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Our family got to hear John Lewis speak several years ago when a local political group brought him to our city for a speaking engagement. And since that time, I’d been enraptured by this hero’s social justice work. Being able to literally walk where he walked on Bloody Sunday in 1965, was an unforgettably meaningful moment.

When the movie Selma came out, my husband and I went to see it together. I am unsure what I expected from the drama based on tragic historical events, but I don’t think my expectations included the weeping that issued from my body while we watched a dramatized, slow-motion beating of nonviolent protesters at the hands of police officers and state troopers play out on the screen. Clergypeople, housewives, and college students were all among the crowd of people who assembled in support of Black Americans’ determination to exercise their right to register and vote.

I’ve never been able to watch the movie Selma since seeing it in the theatre. And while I recommend it as one of this week’s suggested resources, I also understand that it may be too graphic for some viewers to watch. Therefore, I also recommend the documentary

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After Selma, which includes the perspective of residents who still live in Selma, interspersed with a broader national context. 

There’s so much more to say here, about decades of brute force visited upon Black bodies to ensure that we don’t experience full access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in this country; about Bombingham and dynamite hill; about four Black schoolgirls killed in a Birmingham church bombing, whose killers were not tried and sentenced until 2001.

But perhaps more important than adding tragic facts to tragic facts is to pause and reflect on new knowledge we’ve taken in. As you watch Selma and/or After Selma, I hope you’ll sit with the following questions:

  • How much of your faith and commitment to agitating for social justice is hampered by the belief that all our present troubles – including, unjust, tragic, untimely deaths – pale in comparison to the glory of the afterlife?
  •  In your mind and heart, where is the dividing line between accepting physical suffering as a consequence of living in a fallen world, and extending a helping hand of love and solidarity to people in need?

As theologian James Cone states in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “Without concrete signs of divine presence in the lives of the poor, the gospel becomes simply an opiate; rather than liberating the powerless from humiliation and suffering, the gospel becomes a drug that helps them adjust to this world by looking for “pie in the sky.”

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Too often the message that Black Americans, especially Black Christians, have received implicitly and explicitly from white pulpits in this so-called Christian nation, is that Black people should look to the afterlife for their liberation and accept their unjust lot in life on Earth.

I do believe, as a person of faith, that one day, glory will come and will indeed be ours. But I do not believe we have to wait until we die to live without fearing our lives or our children’s lives will be abruptly cut short by a dominant culture that doesn’t value our personhood.

I hope you’ll keep showing up here to this space, so we can keep working to construct peace in each of our lives, one piece at a time.

Piece 39: The Other Side of Freedom

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.

On April 3, 1968, on the night before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told a Memphis audience that his eyes had seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. With what would prove to be a prophetic voice, King declared, “He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

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When I think about the mountain of which King spoke, I think, too, of Mount Calvary. When God allowed King to go up to the mountain, did he there see Christ carrying the cross on which He would be crucified? Did King see a great cloud of witnesses, the church fathers of whom Scripture speaks? Did King glimpse the paradise Christ promised to the repentant thief crucified beside Him? Did King glimpse the beloved community of which he so often spoke: an idyllic land of true freedom and justice for us all?

When I think about the mountain of which King spoke, I think, too, of Amanda Gorman. She so eloquently captured the nation’s attention as she spoke of, “The hill we climb/If only we dare/It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit/it’s the past we step into/and how we repair it.” Must every American ascend a mountain, a hill, in order to take in an unobstructed view of our collective past? Why have we dared not ascend this hill? Truly, how can we claim to take pride in a nation whose history we haven’t taken the time to examine and reckon with? Can a flat, one-dimensional perspective of who we are, a perspective which overlooks the parts of our culture  that are in desperate need of repair, yield the unity that so many of us claim to desire?

When I think of the mountain of which King spoke, I think, too, of what happens once God’s people have stepped into the water to walk through to the other side, out of bondage and into freedom – not knowing that what awaits them is wilderness. What happens after God’s people have heard and obeyed His call to follow Him out of bondage and into the liberation He has prepared for them? When present-tense uncertainty begins to crowd out the hope of future-tense stability and safety, making the familiarity of past-tense bondage look incredibly alluring by comparison?

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In his memoir, The Other Side of Freedom, activist DeRay McKesson speaks of how to handle such tension as he outlines the difference between faith and hope. “Faith,” says McKesson, “is rooted in certainty; hope is rooted in possibility…The work of faith is to actively surrender to forces unseen, to acknowledge that what is desired will come about, but by means that you may never know, and this is difficult…Hope is the belief that our tomorrows can be better than our todays.” 

Did King see in the Promised Land he spoke of the world DeRay McKesson speaks of – a world we have never seen before, “of equity, justice, and joy…something altogether new?” 

Will we be able not only to glimpse but also to inherit the Promised Land once we have completed the active work it will take to ascend the hill we climb?

Was Christ’s crucifixion on Mount Calvary intended not only to fulfill prophecy by demonstrating sacrificial love, not only to display brutal suffering we too may witness or experience this side of heaven, but also to show us that love puts in work?

Freedom won’t come to us while we watch blameless people of color be killed time and again by brutality, by systemic oppression, by generational trauma. Rather, freedom will come to us once we’ve demonstrated our own willingness to love actively in order to bring liberation to all humankind. 

When King ascended the mountaintop on the night before his murder, and saw the glory of the coming of the Lord, did he see an active love that liberated all people not from the bondage of spiritual sin, but from the bondage of humankind’s mistreatment and hatred of each other?

  • If we truly believe that a violent crucifixion was required by the God who made us in order to reconcile His creation unto Himself; if we hold as sacred that the only way to God is through the murder of a willing and holy sacrifice of one’s own body, then how does that belief color our expectations of people who are tortured, brutalized, and killed around us? 
  • Do we expect that violent injustice at the hands of humanity’s selfishness and corruption is the price for living a corporeal life that is worthy of spiritual reward? 
  • Is our inner dialogue one that dismisses the traumatic wounds that emerge from watching family members, friends, and fellow people of color killed time and again, because we believe that each death – no matter how tragic – represents a soul that now sees the other side of freedom, an individual who has ascended the mountaintop?
  • What are we going to do to show active, liberating love to our neighbors? What will we have to give up in order to ascend the mountain and see the glory of the coming of the Lord ourselves?
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Friends of King’s who accompanied him that evening have stated that he was teary eyed, that he seemed to be speaking with finality. They posit that King knew the time of his death was coming near. And perhaps he did.

I hope that this week, you will spend time taking in and reflecting on King’s mountaintop speech, and that you will read or listen to DeRay McKesson’s and Amanda Gorman’s work as well. Whatever our religious or personal beliefs, it seems clear that hope is active and that the goal of freedom requires the work of love. Let’s keep working together to show love to one another and thereby build a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.

Piece 38: We Don’t Say Their Names Enough

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.

When one of my favorite podcasts, Code Switch, introduced me to Storme DeLarverie via The Nod last summer, I was astounded that I’d never heard her name before. A self-appointed protector of the LGBTQ community in her New York neighborhood, she was present before, during, and after the Stonewall Uprising. And yet, as posited in this episode, we don’t say her name enough.

Neither do we say often enough the name of Fannie Lou Hamer. Even though she was a prominent figure during the Civil Rights Movement, I didn’t grow up learning about Hamer in the same way I did Dr. King, Malcolm X, or Rosa Parks. This may be because her life and activism weren’t interwoven with elaborate, beautiful biblical allusions and stunning rhetoric, she didn’t possess an inspiring account of teaching herself to read while she was in jail, and she didn’t carry out a single, decisive act of passive resistance to launch a boycott that would desegregate Montgomery buses.

Although my school textbooks overlooked her contributions, Hamer’s activism was nonetheless integral to the Civil Rights Movement’s aim to make voting accessible and safe to Black Americans.

In 1964, Hamer famously testified before the Democratic National Convention’s Credentials Committee. In her stirring testimony, Hamer relayed her experience of having been beaten in prison, of having been ordered off the plantation where her family lived and worked as sharecroppers because her husband’s employer learned she had registered to vote, and when he confronted her, she refused to withdraw her application. Hamer’s unshakeable commitment, consistent hard work, and contagious determination provided fuel to the fire of the Civil Rights Movement.

The name of Marie van Brittan Brown is as new to me as that of DeLarverie and Hamer. In the late 1960s, Brown noted a sharp jump in crime in her neighborhood and slow police response time. She therefore worked with her husband to conceive a device that would use a combination of four peepholes, a video camera, and a television monitor to allow people to interrogate visitors to their homes and, if need be, alert police via radio. When I close my eyes to try and picture what this contraption might have looked like in Brown’s Queens neighborhood, what I imagine looks very little like today’s doorbell cameras, and yet the two systems are definitely branches on the same home security system tree. Why, I wonder, didn’t Brown’s name didn’t show up on lists of Black inventors when I was in school? Although I got to learn the names of inventors like Garrett  Morgan, George Washington Carver, and Madam C. J. Walker, Brown’s name never floated across my radar. 

I ruminate too, on Rosie the Riveter. As a teen and young adult, I frequently glimpsed her iconic visage at certain times of year, proclaiming that she can do it and encouraging all of womankind to believe in their own abilities as well. Why, then, was I a whole 38 years old before I learned of the existence of Black Rosies? Far from being peripheral anomalies, Black Rosies were among the 600,000 Black women who entered paid service following Executive Order 8802, which FDR signed in order to steer A. Phillip Randolph away from carrying out the first March on Washington in support of Black workers’ rights. How, in all our culture’s popular representations of Rosies’ contributions to the war effort by taking over men’s jobs back home, have Black women escaped recognition?

As you listen to this week’s recommended resources – the podcast episode about Storme DeLarverie and the articles about Black women who’ve contributed so much to shape the world we live in – I hope you will reflect on these questions:

  • Why have names like DeLarverie, Brown, and Hamer, as well as the contributions of Black Rosies been left out of the narratives we’ve been served about Civil Rights leaders, gay rights activitsts, and Black inventors, especially those in STEM?
  • Why does our cultural collective consciousness marginalize leaders who themselves already exist in the margins of our society? Is it because if they don’t fit into our trite and tidy box of respectability and relatability, we don’t want to listen to the wisdom their voices offer? 
  • How many more historical figures might we be missing out on learning from because they’ve been sidelined by our history books?

We can do better. We can seek and learn and grow. We can relentlessly pursue knowledge, and amplify the lives, work, and voices of people who’ve earned their way out of anonymity and into the center of our collective cultural history rather than its margins. Perhaps the more we affirm and amplify the voices of people who’ve endeavored to pave the way before, the less we will have occasion to clutch our collective pearls when the people whom we’ve chosen time and again to ignore and then condemn, creatively display the trauma we’ve inflicted on them as a way of defining and liberating themselves.

If we don’t say their names enough, they will call themselves by their names while we look on in ignorance and confusion.

Let’s keep working, learning, and growing – through every hard, awkward, difficult conversation. Peace isn’t a passive state of mind that will settle over us like a heavy fog if only we sit still long enough. If we want peace, we will have to pursue it, one piece at a time.