Piece 20: Exceptional

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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.

Photo by Markus Winkler from Pexels

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. 

Photo by marco allasio from Pexels

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.

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?

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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.

Piece 13: When They See Us

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 12, I shared a bit about voter suppression, what it looked like in post-Reconstruction America, and what it looks like in our country today. I will echo a question here that I asked at the end of last week’s post: have you done anything to hold your elected officials accountable for their actions? I have written letters and emails, spoken once during public comments at a commissioners’ meeting and once at a city council meeting – knees knocking and voice shaking but speaking nonetheless. And I’m not done speaking up to advocate for what I think is best for this community, which at the moment is not having a confederate heroes monument looming over the Gregg County Courthouse. 

This week, my focus will shift from voter suppression to wrongful imprisonment. 

There is a scene at the end of episode two of “When They See Us” when one of the characters practices his trumpet in the middle of the street as the camera pulls backward slowly. The tune the young man plays is not recognizable to me, but its mournful tones resonate as deeply as the sorrow in his eyes. 

There is another moment, too, after the boys have been arrested, when they are being interrogated. At one point, one of the boys is asked about to describe his role in raping the young woman who was attacked while jogging through Central Park. The boy’s response is that he “did it to her.” The scene is so deeply uncomfortable because it is transparently clear that the boy is so inexperienced and naive that he is truly perplexed by the specifics of sexual intercourse, let alone the mechanics of a vicious sexual assault.

For these reasons among many others, not the least of which is that a now-prominent politician took out a full page ad in the New York Times calling for the death penalty to be reinstated to execute these then-children, the first resource I am recommending to you this week is the limited-run dramatic series “When They See Us.” I don’t know that I’ve ever before seen such a poignant examination of just how short-lived black childhood truly is in this country. Even today, well into their adult lives, there are people who stubbornly refuse to believe that the now-exonerated individuals who were jailed as a result of this case, had nothing to do with the crime that took place that night in 1989. “When They See Us” does not pretend to be a documentary that presents facts in an unbiased way. Rather, it calls its audience to pause, think, and empathize with the real men after whom these characters are modeled. We are invited to see these wrongfully convicted adult men as the innocent children they once were, and to mourn with them the childhood they lost that can never be returned to them. I recommend watching this series slowly, no more than an episode at a sitting, as it is emotionally heavy. I also recommend staying tuned for the interview between Oprah and the cast, the Exonerated Five, and the visionary director Ava DuVernay. I will be honest and tell you that I wept watching this series and the interview. Even if you are not moved to tears by this tragic story, I hope that you are moved to learn more about this case and others like it, to pay attention to disparate sentencing for similar crimes among different ethnic groups in this country, and that you check yourself for biases you may have when you read news headlines or encounter black strangers in real life.

The second resource I suggest this week is a short TedxTalk from writer Clint Smith. “How to Raise a Black Son in America” succinctly captures the terror of raising a black son in America. He references “the talk” that black parents give their children, the protective, firm admonition to always keep your hands where police can see them. He contextualizes the statement that black lives matter, explaining why it’s necessary to say such a thing and how it isn’t a term meant to exclude anyone but to affirm the dignity of black people’s lives. Smith is a perennial fave of mine. I’ve enjoyed his poetry, his history-based commentary on Pod Save the People, and the occasional Instagram pics he shares of his growing family. This particular TedxTalk, though, was my introduction to his work. It’s as resonant today as it was when I came across it a few years ago – maybe even moreso. I hope that as you watch his brief talk, you’ll fully listen to both the literary and historical context he provides and the personal experience he shares. 

Since this week’s piece is a quarter of the way through the series, my reflection questions will be more cumulative than resource-specific:

  • How do you feel your thinking has changed since you began to read this series?
  • Have you diversified the sources of information from which you draw, beyond the resources I specifically recommend in this blog series?
  • Are you consciously, actively striving to check your biases when you notice them in your everyday life?
  • What action have you taken to advance efforts toward justice, peace, and equity?

As you take in these resources this week, I hope you’ll take deep breaths as well. Breathe through the emotions each piece brings to the surface, allowing yourself to feel deeply the humanity of the children arrested in 1989, of young Clint Smith as he played with friends one night in a hotel parking lot. Come back again next week, and we will keep working together to unlearn racial bias and cultivate peace in our lives and homes and communities, one piece at a time.

Piece 12: About This Right to Vote

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 about when you may have pushed back against the voices of people of color in your life when they’ve told you they’ve experienced injustice. I did a version of this very thing myself just a few weeks ago, when a trans friend mentioned JK Rowling’s controversial, bigoted views, and I speculated aloud that Rowling’s particular brand of feminism probably didn’t include the experiences of black women. While my speculating may have been understandable, it served only to push myself to the center of a conversation that wasn’t about me. I was just as wrong in that moment as the white woman in the workplace who listens to her black colleague’s account of being treated differently, only to assert that the reason for that different treatment must be because she is a woman and not because she is black.

Honestly, in both cases, discrimination isn’t necessarily spread equally across marginalized groups because we want it to be so that we, too, can feel included in the exclusion at hand. This week’s piece will focus on a different kind of exclusion: that of voters.

When I began this series, I did what teachers do: I made a plan. Although I have adjusted that plan by moving topics around to reflect current events or to include new resources as I have come across them, neither of those is the case for this week. I planned to write about voter suppression this week because it’s an election year – I had no idea at that time that USPS would be under attack, thereby threatening to slow down or prevent ballots from being received by mail during a pandemic that makes mail-in ballots a necessity for more people than in most election years. When I made this schedule, I didn’t know that the primaries in some states would have already been a virtual catastrophe: social distance ignored in some places while voting locations closed in others, even while people were still queued outside waiting to exercise their right to vote.

Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

In light of all this, it’s an especially important time to act to end voter suppression. Therefore, this week’s resource isn’t something to read, watch, or listen to. Rather, this week’s suggestion is to act. Sign the petition, request your ballot early, call your representatives, and buy a sheet or two of Forever stamps. Should you take these steps, you will undoubtedly be helping the Us Postal Service in its time of crisis.

However, this is not enough.

Across the nation – and especially in the south, including Texas – election years find polling locations closed and voters purged from rolls in areas overwhelmingly populated by ethnic minorities. What this means is that people who are American citizens, who are here legally, who have not lost their right to vote as a result of having committed crimes (which shouldn’t happen anyway), are unable to exercise their right to vote. The very right to vote that heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rep. John Lewis, Diane Nash, Rev. CT Vivian, and Annie Lee Cooper fought for us to have, is still being denied to people of color. The same right to vote exercised by many Black Americans during the too-brief era of Reconstruction, before Jim Crow and grandfather clauses and literacy tests, is still being denied to people because of the color of their skin – and presumably, because of how they will likely vote.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Even if you do not consider yourself a patriot, even if you do not vote yourself for your own personal convictions, even if your state or community is not impacted by closed polling places and long lines and early closing times, I hope that you are bothered by the idea that people who have the right to vote and want to do so, can’t. I hope that bothered feeling moves you to act on their behalf. Donate to the causes working on behalf of voters across the nation. Share the petitions calling on our elected officials to properly serve their constituents. Text the numbers that automatically generate emails to your representatives.

And vote. Even if you can’t vote for every category because of your own conscience, please exercise your right to choose who represents you and works on your behalf, making decisions that impact your community. 

Several years ago, one of my students looked at me and earnestly asked me why people should vote if they really don’t feel that any of the people on the ballot represent them. I thought a minute and then answered him directly: If you don’t vote while you can, then you may not be able to vote when you want to. In many places – Texas included – voter rolls are purged of people who are inactive voters. It’s not right. I don’t believe it’s constitutional. But it happens. And voting at every opportunity is the surest way I know to ensure you continue having the ability to vote in the future.

As for me and my house, I am the only person who can vote. I have young children and an immigrant husband. My vote represents us all. Your vote represents more people than just you as well.

Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

When you reflect this week on what the 2020 election might look like, and for whom you may cast your ballot, I hope you’ll consider the following:

  • What can you do to help ensure that people in your community are registered to vote?
  • How often do you vote in local elections? Do you keep informed of the issues on the ballot and/or do research before going to the polls?
  • Here in Longview, we’ve had some tense county commissioner meetings regarding the community effort to remove the confederate monument from in front of the county courthouse – the very place where these meetings take place. Much of the recent attempts to sway the commissioners to move the monument have amounted to one basic tenet: holding our elected officials accountable to represent us. Have you held your elected officials accountable for their decision-making? Do you feel they are adequately representing you as part of their constituency? Is your voice being heard? What about the voices of marginalized people groups in your community – are they being heard?

Keep showing up each week to do the work, y’all. Even and maybe especially when we are worn down and want to give up and go home, it’s vital to keep moving forward toward the way of justice and equity. Peace – when we attain it – will not be a victory easily won; we will have fought for it, one piece at a time.

Piece 11: Kalief Browder

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.

A driving reason I think it is so important to reflect on the stories we are told about people who don’t look like us, is so that we understand the biases we may be susceptible to. If, for example, all we ever see of black people on TV is that they are either getting into trouble or being rescued from trouble by people who are not black, then we begin to expect the same of black people when we encounter them in real life. It’s for this reason that if we offer a handout or social invitation to an acquaintance of color, we may become deeply offended if they don’t accept. We were so obviously being magnanimous in offering them an experience they wouldn’t otherwise have access to – which we know, of course, because it’s all we have seen.

It’s super important to check the source of these biases so we can root them out of our minds thoroughly. 

Conversely, young Kalief Browder believed in the goodness of being American: the inherent dignity and legal rights he was owed. He believed that his blackness did not in any way negate his entitlement to equitable treatment under the law. And instead of our system of justice fulfilling his rightful expectations, it let him down with fatal results.

I first heard the name of Kalief Browder several years ago, in connection with Jay-Z. No doubt I heard about his story on a morning show or saw him in a picture with a celebrity who amplified his story in hope of helping him to get justice. A short time later, he was gone. 

Even though he had been released from prison after a three-year stay in one of the most notorious prisons in the country – Rikers Island – Browder succumbed to the lingering ghosts of the horrors he had experienced. 

But let’s begin at the beginning.

Kalief Browder was adopted as a baby, brought into a loving home where his mother had already fostered and adopted other children. By all appearances, he had a loving, open relationship with his siblings and mother but a rather fraught one with his father. After his parents divorced, Browder remained with his mother. And like some of his siblings before him, he turned to his surroundings for connection and guidance. In Browder’s case, his surroundings included gang activity that led him to make some wrong choices. As a result, he found himself on probation at the age of sixteen. So when he was stopped by police on suspicion of having stolen a backpack, and was subsequently arrested, he was unable to be bailed out by his family even after they scraped together enough money, because the arrest was a violation of his probation.

When you watch Time: The Kalief Browder Story, you will no doubt find yourself angry at the circumstances of his arrest – a secondhand witness whose story kept changing, a years-long stay on Rikers that included months of solitary and multiple suicide attempts, a judicial system that kept putting off his case, which forced him back into an environment where he was repeatedly beaten. I have no doubt, too, that you’ll want to scream at the guards, judges, and attorneys who time after time allowed his case to be delayed while he remained in custody on Rikers. And I suspect that you will agree with me that Kalief Browder didn’t take his own life any more than his mother died as a result of heart trouble; rather, our country’s inefficient judicial system killed this young man and by extension his mother as well.

So why, then, would I suggest that you watch such a horrific, disturbing story? How could any modicum of peace possibly be found in such heartache? 

Because it happened.

There’s no embellishment or spin that sensationalizes Browder’s story away from the truth of its happening. Every detail of it is factual. The system worked exactly the way it was designed to work. And the result of that system and those facts was that Browder died at a tragically young age, after suffering from physical and psychological abuse made even more harrowing by the fact he endured such abuses during his formative years, before his brain and body had even finished developing.

When I re-watched Browder’s story recently, it struck me that at the time of his arrest, he was the same age as many of the students I have taught. Sixteen: that awkward age when boys’ voices may still be changing such that they don’t hear how the bass in their voices carries across the room, making it impossible for them to whisper. That uncertain age when hormones fluctuate so frequently and everyone else seems to develop faster than they do, yielding sometimes awkward excitement about their facial hair. That wonderful age full of hope and expectation, of unspeakable joys and indescribable lows. I could have been his teacher, constantly pushing him to do his best and then one day wondering where he went, if he had transferred or moved, only to discover years down the road that he had been arrested and later died.

James Baldwin once said that he didn’t know if labor unions and their bosses really hate black people, but he knew black people weren’t in their unions. He said he didn’t know if the real estate lobbies have anything against black people, but he knew their lobbies keep black people in the ghetto. He didn’t know if the board of education had anything against black people, but he knew the textbooks they give our children to read and the schools that we have to go to. Baldwin said, “You want me to make an act of faith on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen,” echoing Langston Hughes’s assertion that America is the land that never has been yet.

Kalief Browder, beautiful, hopeful, full of potential, and brimming with the expectation that the system would eventually work in his favor, never got to see that America that never has been. He held fast to the act of faith Baldwin speaks of, believing that in America justice must exist. And the system failed him utterly. It killed him.

If we are interested in pursuing peace and reconciliation, we must acknowledge stories like Browder’s that block so many of our friends and neighbors from feeling that sense of carefree idealism that we may take for granted in ourselves. In other words, there is no real peace without real truth. There’s no reconciliation without a reckoning.

As you watch Time: The Kalief Browder Story this week, I hope you will consider the following:

  • When have you turned a blind eye to the agony of your neighbor in order to safeguard your own sense of peace?
  • Have you pushed back when people of color in your life have told you about their experiences of injustice, silencing the voices of their experience?
  • Where in your life and relationships can you find space to breathe peace into your friends of color by offering them a compassionate listening ear?

Keep showing up to this space each week, and in time, peace will be ours: one piece at a time.