Piece 28: Soul

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.

Like many American parents of a certain age, we are Disney Plus subscribers. So when Disney announced that this year’s Pixar offering, Soul, would drop on this platform Christmas Day, we penciled it in as a film we would take in as a family during our holiday break.

I felt all at once excited and expectant to see this newest Pixar creation (all four of us have been fans of their films); nervous to see how  Pixar’s creative team displayed their  first black protagonist; and cautious due to having seen several thinkpieces floating around regarding criticism that big movie companies don’t tend to let black animated characters remain human for the length of their feature films. Having viewed the teaser-trailer for Soul before I first saw the aforementioned criticism, I was pretty sure the black character would not remain  human the entire time.

With all this in mind and heart, I snuggled up with my husband and our younger son to watch Soul last night.

**Spoilers ahead**

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

The basic gist of the movie is that Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), the highly anticipated first black lead for Pixar, is a middle school music teacher who dreams of being a legit jazz musician. He wants to follow in the footsteps of his late father rather than accept the permanent teaching position he has been offered at the movie’s start. Joe therefore jumps at the chance to audition for a jazz quartet. In his excitement once he lands the gig, he falls into a manhole and wakes up as a human-body-less, blue teardrop-soul heading up a stairway toward a glorious light to which he isn’t ready to surrender. So, Joe jumps off the stairway, lands in a celestial cloud land of pre-born souls, and spends the next ninety-odd minutes learning afterlife and pre-life rules, mentoring and being mentored by a pre-born soul named 22, and ultimately deciding to volunteer ending his human life so that 22 can live for the first time.

Soul was not what I’d hoped. The core of my issues with the movie can be captured in three main points: 

  • 22 is voiced by a white woman. Some defenders of the movie have argued that even though Tina Fey provides 22’s voice, the character itself is genderless, sexless, raceless. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to criticize 22’s voice. However, the fact that 22 uses a middle-aged white woman’s voice to irritate people is a throwaway joke executed early in the movie. But the fact remains that within this plot, we are supposed to be aware of who 22 sounds like, even though 22 is not human – let alone a white woman.
  • During one of the film’s climactic moments, Joe (in the body of a cat) chases 22 (who is in Joe’s human body) and calls out, “You stole my body!” Let’s pause here. The movie has made an explicit point of attaching “middle-aged white woman” to the character of 22. Pixar has received months of hype and anticipation, maybe even a few accolades for its first black lead character in Joe Gardner. The viewer needn’t reach for the racial dynamics of the movie; they are laid bare for us. What this means is that when I find myself unable to separate voice and race from the character, I am simply paying attention to the story in front of me – not looking for problems where they don’t exist. Therefore, I cannot help but cringe at a line yelled by a black character and voiced by a black actor, at an admittedly genderless character voiced by a white woman, that is literally about the theft of the black character’s body. So much of the emotional weight I bear as a black American is married to this country’s fraught history of stolen land, stolen bodies, and shattered promises of a better life. Truly, we need only to turn to the internet to find a current example of a white woman trying to take from a black person something that does not belong to her. To leave this line in Soul is therefore either a disastrous, tone deaf oversight that indicates there were not nearly enough creators of color on the film’s decision-making teams, or it’s an insidious intentional slight the audience is meant to overlook or not care about.
  • After securing his own return to Earth – fulfilling his own mission – and beginning to live out his dream of being a professional jazz musician, Joe is not content. His mind is on 22, whom he will ultimately decide to trade his human life for, once he has returned to the heavens to check on her emotional state. We witness Joe rescue 22 from her lost soul state, hand over the Earth pass she flung at him in the last act, and then when 22 is still hesitant, escort her on her path to human life. So it ends up not being enough for Joe to actually fulfill his lifelong dream. Instead, he has to rescue the white-woman voiced preborn soul who tried to abscond with his human body. Only then, once he has looked imminent death in the face once more, is he able to find peace. In other words, Soul enmeshes its first black protagonist in a story that employs the oft-overused, never-needed, chain-rattling ghosts of the white savior and magical n*gro tropes.
Photo by Uriel Mont from Pexels

I have here shredded the very soul of Soul, I know. And such an intense critique can be easily dismissed as hyper-vigilance or a too-tight focus on expecting films to be flawless or politically correct in their representations of black characters. 

Neither is true.

Rather, it’s entirely appropriate for paying audiences to request that filmmakers give us their best and not table scraps. We pay to be entertained – month after month, year after year, movie after movie. Disney and Pixar profit because we pay for their products. And last I checked, the Disney Plus automatic account debit is never taken out a second later than it should be. So if Pixar is going to wait twenty-five years to give paying audiences a black protagonist, we can damned well insist they give us a thoughtful, human story – just as they have with all the white protagonists before.

Take Up, for example – a movie whose opening scenes still conjure tears. As the movie was made, it’s a beautiful, timeless story that teaches us about the depths of human connection and how you’re never too old to become a deeper, more caring version of yourself. But take a moment to mentally recast the film’s two lead characters – a lovably grumpy old man and a precocious young scout – as black. In so doing, you’ve lost nothing of the story’s beauty; instead, you’ve deepened it. You’ve added in layers of pain, separation, and even stigma – and you’ve maintained a beautifully redemptive story arc. We still soar into the heavens on the strength of a houseful of balloons. We still cry when Carl loses first the child he and Ellie had so hoped for, and later his lifelong partner and love herself. We maintain our memory of the grumpy neighbor on our block whom Carl reminded us of. We keep our wincing stare at Russell’s stubborn insistence on being a kid who gets to do what other kids get to do, even as he embraces independence and grows up. We still get to laugh at our own dogs every time they chase a squirrel in our backyard and we are reminded of Doug.

In truth, when we re-imagine a story we’ve already been given to make it a black story, we get more meaning, not less.

I hope that as you take in films and shows with your families as 2020 comes to a much-needed end and 2021 welcomes us, that you will pay close, critical attention to the stories we are being served. And to the disbelief we are being asked to suspend in exchange for assuaging the egoes of people we pay to entertain us.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

And as you watch, critique, and reflect, please sit with just one question: What does this particular character representation mean to people whom the character is meant to represent?

Keep watching and thinking, discussing and learning. And meet me back here next time. We will keep working together to construct peace in each of our lives, one piece at a time.

Piece 27: I Go To Prepare A Place For You

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.

At the end of the movie Harriet, the images on the screen receive an overlay of several consecutive strings of text. These snippets tell the audience how Harriet Tubman spent her final years, which family members eventually joined her and lived out their days in freedom, and how many souls she rescued from bondage by leading them through the Underground Railroad to freedom.

We learn in the final moments of the movie that Harriet Tubman’s final words were, “I go to prepare a place for you.” In appropriately dramatic slow motion, as Tubman’s final words linger on the screen, Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman turns and looks into the distance one final time, before entering the home where she will presumably reside until her death.

When I think about the life Tubman lived – dedicating herself wholly to liberating of her people from the brutalities of bondage, I am awestruck. 

In her childhood, Araminta Harriett Ross seemed a child like any other: a little too inquisitive at times, and prone to neglecting or half-doing work she didn’t think had value. 

But work she did – until one day she was struck by a weight thrown across the room to try and prevent another enslaved person from running away. This weight hit Tubman in the head, knocking her unconscious and causing an injury that resulted in her living with seizures and pain the rest of her life. It was these seizures that brought Tubman prophetic visions and dreams that would eventually lead her and others to freedom. 

As a film, Harriet is equal parts history, hero origin story, and fiction. For instance, there are two characters who feature prominently and don’t appear to be based on any real-life figures in Tubman’s life. One of them, a burly black character who helps to “hunt” Harriet down, is a particularly troublesome fictional character to insert. Why insert this black man as a villain when bondage itself should have been villain enough? Then, too, is the accuracy of Tubman’s slight stature, her mysterious way of staying safe as she traveled into and out of slaveholding territory numerous times, and the brief amount of screen time given to Tubman’s indispensable military service. And there’s an unmistakable largeness about Tubman’s character that very much paints her as a supernatural heroine: her visions, her steadfastness, her death threats to “cargo” that expressed a desire to turn and run mid-escape – which would have endangered the entirety of the given operation.

Harriet offers a beautiful mirrored-glass window into the soul of black folk. We look out and see her beauty and purposeful carriage, and we walk quickly to invite her essence into our hearts. But through the mirrored glass she cannot see us: the innumerable inheritors of the Promised Land in which she always believed but yet did not see. I feel deeply that through Tubman’s life story, we are allowed to glimpse the glorious legacy of black American resilience. Her faith, her deliberate consistency, her absolute dedication to a freedom-conveying vocation, embody the foundation of black American spiritual life: we are pressed but not crushed, and our spirits remain tethered to a love for and desire liberation brought to our kin.

For this reason, I hope you will watch Harriet this week. I hope you will marvel at the divine purpose evident in Tubman’s life, and let resonate within you deep gratitude at the spiritual inheritance she left for us all.

During this time of year, my Episcopalian heart feels a sense of longing. In Advent, I turn my heart and mind to the coming of the incarnate Christ. It is not therefore lost on me this week that when Tubman uttered on her deathbed, “I go to prepare a place for you,” that she was borrowing from the Christ in whom she believed and trusted. Tubman knew then, as we do now, that our present labors are not in vain but rather serve a purpose and a people whom we may not see but who will nonetheless reap the benefit of our present work.

As you watch the film and reflect on the inner longings of your heart, whatever they may be, I hope you will consider the following questions:

  • What do you long for, in the deepest place in your heart? Is it peace in your home, community, or the earth as a whole?
  • Where does your work connect with that deepest heart longing? If you are unable to connect to that sense of longing in your daily income-producing work, how can you incorporate pursuit of your heart-work into your off-work hours? 
  • When you consider who your heroes are in life today as well as in history books, what anchors them? What sense of purpose motivated them? 
  • Are any of the people you consider heroes people who don’t look like you? Why do you think that is? How can you expand your ideas of people and actions that are heroic to be inclusive? How might you benefit from doing so?

Like many of you, I am ready to see the tail end of this year on its way out the door. I hope that 2021 brings us times of health and peace. Let’s keep doing what we can to construct the peace we want to see in our lives by meeting back here to keep reading, watching, listening and acting – one piece at a time.

Piece 26: Dreamgirls

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.

And we will keep working together toward peace, one piece at a time. 

When the curtain opens on the musical Dreamgirls, we meet three hopeful, gushing young women. Deena, Lorell, and Effie are dressed alike in slightly homemade-looking dresses, and fluttering about a 1960s backstage area of an auditorium as they prepare to go on stage for a talent show. Within a few moments, they will take to the stage and absolutely dazzle their audience. Effie is a vocal powerhouse, and when she takes center stage, neither the singing group’s audience nor the movie’s audience can turn their eyes away. We dance and sing with them, allowing the infectious beat of “Move Right Out of My Life” to express its groove through our bodies’ response.

And we keep dancing with the Dreamettes as they luck into becoming background singers for an already established James Thunder Early. We continue twirling and singing with the trio as they fake their way to the top with Jimmy, watching as young, innocent Lorell at first resists and then gives in to Jimmy’s advances. We are swept up in a whirlwind of R&B music that pauses briefly, only to illuminate that the band’s struggles to maintain success are due to white artists stealing and re-recording their music.

Eventually, the band’s struggles grow too large, and under the guidance of Curtis, their manager and Effie’s beau, the Dreamettes re-structure and emerge as a group all their own: the Dreamgirls, with Deena, who is soft-spoken and thinner than Effie, as lead singer. In Curtis’s professional opinion, Deena’s replacement of Effie as the face of the group is necessary for the group to be able to reach white kids and thereby expand the demographics of their audience. Curtis sees in the Dreamgirls what he never could see in Jimmy Early: the possibility of a racially integrated, incredibly lucrative revenue stream.

We the audience laugh and sing and cry and dance our way through the eventual dissolution of the group, the demise of Jimmy Early, the revelation of Curtis’s underhanded methods of ensuring his success, and the liberation of Deena from his stifling control. Finally, we cry with Magic, Effie’s daughter, as the movie ends with a briefly reunited quartet of Dreamgirls serenading us with the song that launched their success story at the beginning of their career. 

The title track of the musical Dreamgirls croons that “every man has his own special dream, and that dream’s just about to come true.” 

What is unfortunately true is that in many cases, as in the case of popular white singers of the 50s and 60s, dreams that black singers had for the success of their careers were cut short due to white artists’ covering their songs without giving black artists credit or royalties. In other words, while Dreamgirls is a fictionalized story based loosely on the real-life story of the Supremes, the musical nonetheless highlights an indelible truth: during the 60s, white recording artists frequently took credit for black art.

In fact, girl groups just like our fictional Dreamgirls, played an important role in integrating pop culture. They were able to reach across and unite previously divided audiences. 

There’s another truth revealed here, too. For black Americans, we are often told in explicit and implicit ways when our acknowledgement and celebration of our blackness is welcome, and when it is not. We are sought out and lauded for athletic prowess and for entertainment, but when we access a facet of our identity that leads us into activism and advocacy, we are smacked down by the dominant culture – told to shut up and dribble

I see this tension at play in the musical history that Dreamgirls brings to light. I suspect that white culture resisted black music and black artists for as long as it did because the culture itself knew that accepting black artists as valid would mean extending the same acceptance to black people as a whole. This, too, is why at times black celebrities are told to stick to what they know: it’s a defensive measure designed to uphold white supremacy and withhold acceptance of black agency.

Too often, the product black people create – be it music, cinema, clothing, poetry, or something else entirely – is embraced by our country’s dominant culture. But we – the three-dimensional human beings creating the product – are left out in the cold.

This, the cold shoulder of our country’s dominant culture, illuminates why black Americans sometimes seem ultra-sensitive regarding cultural appropriation and cancel culture. Black Americans have labored decades and centuries to create and sustain an identity that celebrates and nourishes us – persisting throughout repeated, sustained racist policies like Jim Crow laws and voter suppression. Yet if we excel at performing in a way the dominant culture views as entertaining or valuable, the dominant culture demands we suppress our celebration of our people’s identity. On the other hand, if white people celebrate an aspect of black cultural identity, or if they speak out on our behalf, we are often expected to be appreciative only and never hurt or critical. 

It’s enough to make a person want to holler, and throw up both their hands.

This week, I hope you will watch Dreamgirls and be drawn in by its special, glittery magic. I hope you’ll see the beauty and richness of our cultural identity woven into the story. I hope that you’ll take time afterward to briefly research the actors on the cast list. Several actors from the original Broadway musical’s cast appear in the film, which is a treasure for those of us who grew up knowing this story and its songs because they provided a meaningful portion of the soundtrack to our childhood. I hope that as you learn about the cast, you’ll dig a bit into the real life person whom Effie was modeled after. In real life, that “Effie” didn’t get to have a triumphant comeback.

I hope, too, that as you take in Dreamgirls in all its glory, that you’ll take a moment to reflect on the aspects of identity that are lost when people groups are ripped from their homes and countries of origin. Let rest in your mind the idea that cultural identity is so important to many black Americans because we understand the struggle inherent in constructing that identity. 

I earnestly, truly hope that you’ll gain a new or renewed appreciation for the identity black Americans have hewn out of a fraught history in this country: working, building, loving, and celebrating our way to a joyous and rich shared identity.

And I hope you’ll consider these questions:

  • What parts of your cultural identity do you feel a strong emotional attachment to? 
  • How would you feel if someone who doesn’t share your culture gleefully displayed a part of it for themselves while simultaneously discouraging your own expression of your culture? 
  • How about if they profited financially from this display of your culture without crediting your culture as its origin?
  • Is it necessary to physically put on a physical representation of another culture in order to celebrate it?

Join me back again here next week, and we’ll brush off the shimmery, dreamy stardust from Dreamgirls as we continue building peace in our homes and communities and selves, one piece at a time.

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.

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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.

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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.

Piece 21: Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

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

It’s no wonder I’ve been tired.

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

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

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

But then it hit me.

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

Photo by ksh2000 from Pexels

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

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

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

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

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

We must remember this.

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

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

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

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

Return, Remember

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

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

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

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

I, however, couldn’t finish the episode.

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

But for me, this idea isn’t it.

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

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

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

Piece 20: Exceptional

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

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

I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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

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

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

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