Piece 33: Expanding the Antebellum Narrative

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.

A few months ago, I found myself in the uncomfortable, surreal position of defending my stance against teaching Huck Finn – even as an option – to 21st century high school students. 

I want to be clear here: I have never read the book, and I doubt I ever will.I don’t think the book should be burned or banned. I don’t think Twain’s work is all trash.

Rather, I think it’s past time to trouble the antebellum narrative we’ve spoon fed to America’s high schoolers for several generations now. We need to question what’s considered classic and canon.

So I said so.

And then there was an argument – a question of what I’d suggest in Huck Finn‘s place, a comment that “my students know they can talk to me” – all the usual suspects.

Although I am not the most widely read English teacher, I am confident that we don’t have to work that hard to find stereotype-free content that offers a valid alternative to typical antebellum stories. Instead of continuing to tell schoolchildren and young adults that slavery was long ago and not that bad for all people who were enslaved, we can allow formerly enslaved persons’ work to speak for itself, and we can turn to present-day black creatives who are masterfully re-imagining what was, is, and could be in the future.

For Americans of a certain age, the only antebellum narrative that we know centers characters like Scarlett and Rhett and focuses on their love story, while black characters are relegated to background tropes – existing only to prop up and help develop the white leads. Even the few antebellum stories that don’t star Scarlett and Rhett are still chock full of white saviors and magical n*groes. If art reflects life or vice versa, it stands to reason that when we change the narrative we consume, we might begin to stop expecting real-life black people to behave like the tropes with which we are so very familiar.

Take, for example, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which is a historic autobiography written by a woman who escaped from bondage. In her own words, she recounts the struggles she faced and trials she endured. Her prose is fluid and engaging. And her perspective is real rather than imagined.

As I was preparing for the fraught Huck Finn meeting, I asked for guidance from a historian friend, who pointed me to slave narratives that were recorded as part of the Works Progress Administration. The Library of Congress has a collection of these narratives that is accessible online. And locals can find a stash of narratives from people who lived in our area, thanks to East Texas History. Additionally, a number of local colleges and museums contain a wealth of primary sources with historic perspectives we never had access to as young students.

Can you imagine the connection students might feel to history if it were intentionally made concrete and brought near to them rather than remaining an abstract, olden time amoeba?

Just last year, Janelle Monae shined in Antebellum, a horrific imagining of antebellum life set in present-day America. The premise is that a group of white people has built an escapist business for a certain white clientele who wants to experience the glory of the old South. Black men and women are kidnapped, chloroformed, and secreted to an off-the-grid plantation to be forced into servitude for the entertainment of paying white guests.Their cell phones are taken from them to prevent their being tracked, and those who attempt to escape are dragged back to disappear into the “burning shed,” a crematorium that ensures their families will never know what happened to them. The story is dark and deeply disturbing. But as it is told from the point of view of a kidnapped and enslaved woman, it represents an alternative to the narrative we normally see.

As you think through the stories you’ve been told about antebellum life – that some masters were kind, that slaves were better off before the Civil War, that most white people couldn’t afford slaves – I hope that you’ll pause to reflect on the following questions: 

  • Before now, were stereotypical-vernacular-laden enslaved black people your only mental image of black life before and during the Civil War? What effect might that singular image have had on your expectations of black people in your everyday life?
  • Have you ever questioned the prevalence of antebellum black characters in close proximity to white characters only as spiritual guide, humble servant, or obstinate intransigent? 
  • How many books, movies, and shows have you seen that feature black characters in antebellum narratives, telling their own stories, with their own voices?
  • How might your view of American history change if you heard a perspective that’s been largely left out of history books?

I hope you’ll lean into these questions and allow yourself to be curious about the discomfort you feel, should it arise, and change – as necessary – the story you are telling yourself: about the existence of white supremacy, and about the impact that a white-centered view of history has had on American society. Keep showing up to this space, and I will too. We can and will build a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.

Piece 32: Caste

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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 support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

In Isabel Wilkerson’s voluminous tome Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, she posits that the central underlying issue  fueling racial strife in this country is not due to race but due to caste. Throughout Caste, Wilkerson thoroughly explores the idea of caste, specifically the caste system in India. What she’s found through her years of research and scholarship, is that people who are part of the untouchable caste in India live incredibly similar lives to black people in America. Says Wilkerson, “caste is the bones of what we are dealing with. Race is the tool, it’s the signifier, it’s the cue it’s the signal of one’s place.”  

Woven in amongst Wilkerson’s accounts of conferences she’s attended and historic figures she’s examined is an idea I found incredibly interesting: As Wilkerson recounts an overview of the evolution of whiteness in present-day America from earlier labels attached to country of origin, she explains just how whiteness evolved in order to trap blackness in the untouchable caste. And just as untouchables in India have historically been trapped in their “place,” unable to rise out of their caste no matter how doggedly they pull up their bootstraps, neither can black people escape our own caste – even if we try earnestly to do so. There was a particular parallel that blew my mind: the religious origins of Indian caste as compared to biblical justifications for slavery.

Y’all. All the parallels are there.

Whether we assimilate completely to the dominant culture’s ideals, religion, even monetizing white-centric punditry into a career, or we focus our efforts on honing our talent to become excellent and give back to build up our community – we cannot escape this caste.

If we are a respected historian with a respectable on-air persona, we can still be arrested trying to get into our own house.

If we attend a neighborhood swim party in the summertime, we can be thrown on the ground and handcuffed while asking for our mother.

If we fall asleep while working on a college paper, we could have police called in to interrogate us.

If we are adolescent children who sometimes have poor attitudes, we may be pushed out of school all together, and into jails and prisons instead.

And we will be told in almost every case that protocol was followed and policy adhered to, and that as such, no prosecution or negative consequence will befall the perpetrator of our trauma.

Caste is a system that is set up to build society on a foundation of injustice. There is no way to work the system in our favor, because we are always black no matter what, and because the system was built on our backs in order to keep us on the bottom of the hierarchy.

I don’t pretend to understand the years of research that Wilkerson put into this book, but her thesis has stayed with me. Caste seems inextricable from the problem of racial division in America.

I hope that you pick up Wilkerson’s book to check it out for yourself, and when you do, I hope you’ll keep these questions in mind to guide your reflection on caste:

  • When have you allowed racial bias to drive you to fear a person you don’t know? A person you do know? When you see black people treated unjustly based on their skin color, do you speak up or step in on their behalf? Do you visibly, physically stand in solidarity with them?
  • How often have you thought or said that America’s problems are based on class and not race? How does this line of thinking help you to understand problems people face based on the color of their skin? Why have you felt the need to diminish race struggles in favor of class struggles?
  • Are the black people in your life able to confide in you and know that you will listen and try to understand their experience and perspective?

Keep persisting on this journey. It will bear the fruit of peace in time. Come back for the next post, so that we can keep working together to unlearn racial bias, for the betterment of our community and ourselves, one piece at a time.

Piece 31: Wakanda Forever

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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 support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

 As the darkness of the opening scenes gives way to a sunny and gorgeous Wakanda day, the Black Panther, T’Challa, honors us with his royal presence. We take in the clear-blue water, the vibrant greens and reds and yellows in scenery and clothing. We glimpse – perhaps for the first time – a masterfully created afrofuturistic setting rich in beauty, history, not least of all, blackness. The beauty of Wakanda warms and invigorates us, like we have just awakened from the deep sleep of an necessary but accidental nap.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

Get on Up creatively chronicles the life and times of the Godfather of Soul. From his childhood with poverty-stricken parents who related to each other in a thoroughly dysfunctional way, to his aged adulthood as a volatile, temperamental small-business owner, James Brown led an extraordinary, often fraught life. In choosing this role, Boseman gifted us an iconic image of an iconic cultural figure. He blessed us with his talent for transforming before our eyes to embody the spirit of James Brown in a way only he could. By employing his immense talent, Boseman bequeathed to us all his embodiment of Brown’s legacy.

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In Marshall, Boseman breathes life into the story of Thurgood Marshall’s early career as an attorney. We watch as Boseman’s Marshall approaches and recruits reluctant co-counsel to speak for Marshall in a courtroom so steeped in racism and white supremacy that Marshall himself is allowed to be present at the defendant’s table but never to speak aloud. We witness Marshall’s calm, unshakeable cockiness as he remains steadfast in his resolve to exonerate his defendant in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. We even get the added joy of a cameo in the form of Trayvon Martin’s parents at the movie’s end, as Marshall meets his next defendants – parents of a teenage son who’s been accused of murdering a police officer.

Photo by Luana Bento from Pexels

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom—Boseman’s final role—situated him firmly in a black experience so familiar: that of the frustrated, perpetually hamstrung black American man. Boseman’s Levee wants desperately to display his phenomenal talent on a grand scale worthy of its breadth. But he’s stuck under Ma Rainey’s stubborn insistence and hemmed in by her established presence in the music industry. He can’t lash out at the producers he’s trying to groom to support him, he can’t lash out at the elusive and unpredictable Ma herself, and so he turns his frustration on his bandmates. He lights into them, eager to elicit a violent reaction so that he can finally find release for all his pent up rage. 

When I survey the scattering of roles Boseman accepted in his final years – years wherein only he and a tight circle of loved ones knew anything of his health struggles – I see a portrait of a man who worked with diligence and purpose to leave a legacy for us all. He chose to vary his portrayal of the black experience, he chose to dig deep and lean hard into his craft, he chose to be the superhero we all needed.

I’m deeply grateful for the artistic choices Chadwick Boseman made, that broke box office record expectations for a black-led movie, that made star-struck young children want to attend historically black colleges and universities, that provided hope, relief, and joy for an audience full of people like me who are so grossly underrepresented in such beautiful, thorough artistic endeavors. What a gift and a blessing that he used his time on Earth to leave to all of us his enduring legacy of black excellence.

I hope you’ll take a couple of hours to stream one of Boseman’s displays of thespian brilliance this week. And when you do, I hope you’ll reflect:

  • Are there celebrities whom you follow, feel a kinship with, or admire? How many of them are black?
  • Do you remember the first time you felt truly represented on a TV or movie screen? How old were you? How did you feel? How do you think black schoolchildren felt to have themselves reflected in a Marvel superhero?

Come on back next week, y’all. There’s still much work to be done. So let’s keep working to construct peace in our homes, families, and communities, one piece at a time.

Long live the king.

Piece 30: Grown

Peace by Piece

TThis 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 exists a shared understanding within American culture that girls immediately become women once they begin to look and act “grown.” This same shared agreement holds that girls who look and act grown should be treated as if they are.

Photo by Dih Andréa from Pexels

Especially if they are black.

Even though we are grown-ups who should know better, particularly in light of the knuckleheads we know good and well we used to be. Even though we have at least cursory knowledge that adolescent brains don’t develop in lock-step with adolescent bodies.

Our society seems to have deemed it necessary to punish teens for looking like adults by sentencing them – even if only in the court of public opinion – like adults.

I am therefore deeply grateful for the work of Tiffany D. Jackson. Her stunning YA novels Grown, Monday’s not Coming, and Allegedly tackle tough, grown-up issues through an adolescent lens.

In Monday’s not Coming, readers unravel the mystery of the title character’s sudden disappearance from her best friend Claudia’s life. We learn the truth as Claudia our narrator does, in fits and starts, twists and turns, that ultimately lead us to the various reasons why Claudia cannot find Monday.

In Allegedly, Mary takes center stage as a tragically misunderstood teen living in a group home after having been accused of an unthinkable crime. As Mary seeks to clear her name, hold on to the fraying edges of a  romantic relationship once she realizes she is pregnant, and make sense of her estranged relationship with her emotionally aloof mother, readers become enmeshed in this tangled tale.

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In Grown, Enchanted is a teen who feels otherized at her predominantly white school and shows a talent for singing. After she is spotted one night by a famous male singer, she is charmed into a life she could never have imagined, in which she is cut off from her family, neglected, and abused.

In each novel, Jackson dissects horrific, real-life situations our children undoubtedly see and hear in news stories. She brings a human eye to unimaginable real-life cases constructing these fictional teens, their environments, and their casts of supporting characters. Through Jackson’s work, we are offered the opportunity to think in three dimensions instead of one about whom we believe teenagers to be, what we think they are capable of doing, and how much we think they can understand.

Her work challenges us to push past culturally accepted perceptions of teens as irredeemable, impulse-driven wannabe adults, to embrace them as whole human beings who are still very much in the process of learning and growing.

As you peruse these brief synopses and decide which titles to read, I hope you’ll keep these reflective questions in mind:

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  • When in your life have you treated a black child as “grown” without questioning exactly how old they were?
  • How have your assumptions about the ages of black children you don’t know colored your interactions with them? Made you feel threatened when no apparent threat was present? 
  • How many times have you perceived as disproportionately insubordinate or obstinate behavior from a black teen that you would not perceive in the same way from a nonblack teen?
  • What anxiety and shortness of breath upon seeing a black teen walk near you have you felt and then excused away as having nothing to do with race in order to assuage your guilt?

Keep working at it, y’all. Pursuing peace is a process rather than a singular destination at which we can arrive whenever we choose. Come back next time, for another piece to help us build a more peaceful world.

Mary, Did You Know?

Epiphany descends upon the Christmas season while lights still twinkle, and the joy and wonder of the incarnation reside spaciously in our hearts. The arrival of the maji affirms Christ’s holy identity, confirming that this baby is the One we’ve been waiting for.

Jesus is born into a world that is already hunting for Him. Christ’s lineage and sex placed Him squarely in King Herrod’s scope. His parents lived the first years of His life in hiding, away from their Nazareth home, in hopes of safeguarding their beloved Son’s life.

In all the teaching I’ve heard about Jesus, our Savior’s cultural identity as a marginalized person – can anything good, after all, come from Nazareth – has been used as a footnote to underscore His holiness while simultaneously setting aside as a microscopic footnote the pain and frustration of this central aspect of His human experience. Furthermore, church teaching tends to skim right past the untold number of innocent children murdered as Christ Himself was highly anticipated and hotly pursued. Insodoing, the church at large has managed to construct a white savior who is glorious in His excruciating agony on the cross without explicitly highlighting our Savior’s state-sanctioned lynching, which followed a lifetime of being pursued by both church and state because of the plain fact that He stated unflinchingly the truth of who He was.

One might say Jesus was killed for living out the truth that His life mattered.

I set myself up here as no spiritual or theological teacher, no seminary degree holder, no learned divinity student. Rather, I offer my perspective as an alternative to the lies of white supremacy, white saviorism, and “holy” hope for the sweet hereafter in place of present-day justice and truth, that the church has been complicit in underscoring time and again.

Truly, is it any wonder that we may find ourselves unable to connect the cross and the lynching tree, when the gross brutality of lynching has been almost entirely left out of the Savior narrative espoused in too many of our pulpits?

I want to draw your attention to the plight of our Holy Mother, a plight similar to that shared by black and brown mothers all over this country. For so many of us, from the moment we are aware of that missed period, even before pregnancy is confirmed, we hold within us the polar opposite emotions of joy and terror. The miraculous life we may be growing within us – all the blessing and anticipation we hold with open hands – will enter this world one step behind white babies because of skin color:

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When our sons are young school-agers walking with their daddies and struggling to get their little legs to keep pace, they will be pushed by a white stranger who is then defended by yet another. 

When our sons are preteens, they cannot play at a park without risk of being murdered by police officers who will not be jailed for their crime. 

When our sons are teens, they cannot walk to a store for tea and Skittles without being accosted and killed by a man who has been told by authorities to cease his pursuit. 

When our sons are grown men and we have preceded them in death, they will call out to us as police officers hold off crowds of onlookers who record their lynching on their phones, horrified that a uniformed protector of peace and enforcer of justice is cutting off their ability to breathe by putting his knee on our son’s neck

All of this not because our children are criminals, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, but because they exist in black skin, without apology, without shame. Their existence is enough.

Did Mary know all of this? Did she hold all these truths in her heart as she hunkered down in a barn to give birth to our Lord? Did she weep tears of anxiety when she smelled His newborn baby head smell, trying and failing to stave off imaginings of the trouble He would have in his life?

The obvious answer is she did, and yet – too rarely do we turn our eyes to her example of nurturing our Lord throughout His fraught human life, too little attention do we pay to the human side of our Savior’s life.

And thusly do we continue to miss the true meaning of doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly, and thereby welcoming the new thing God is doing.

The Call is coming from Inside Our House

Source

Wednesday, January 6, is a day that will live in infamy. Scores of American citizens, having consumed misinformation, lies, and vitriol-laden rhetoric from a number of sources, armed themselves, pushed past police barricades, and stormed the capitol building at the very day and time our Congress was scheduled to certify President-Elect Biden’s November 2020 win.

I want to be clear here, and state definitively that I am utterly uninterested in blaming any group or political party for what this group of individuals hath wrought. 

Every individual who participated in this insurrection owes restitution and reparation to every American citizen who was forced to watch in horror as they laid siege to our seat of government. 

Every individual who participated in this insurrection owes our nation’s children an explanation for their atrocious behavior, particularly if they believe themselves undeserving of a time-out courtesy of our nation’s justice and prison system. 

People shelter in the House gallery as protesters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Source

Every individual who participated in this insurrection owes our country’s rising leadership a deep debt of earnest service, having planned and executed an attack that has resulted in worldwide shame and loss of credibility.

Too, I am utterly uninterested in comparisons of Wednesday’s events to any other type of protest except those which attempted to lay siege to a seat of government in order to invalidate a lawful election and intimidate lawmakers into halting progress toward installing the next national leader.

A quick scan of similar events that have arisen throughout our nation’s history will reveal that the only comparable event was the exact inciting spark of the American Civil War. Secessionists didn’t acknowledge Lincoln as their president. They formed their own government, chose their own president, and waged war on their own (now, former) country in order to protect their cherished ideals and values, all of which hinged on the “ holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery–the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits–a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”

This is not fake. This is not staged. 

This is a horror movie plot playing out in real life, in our home. 

We cannot run up the stairs and hope that hiding in a closet and closing our eyes will cause the terrorists pursuing us to lose interest in snuffing out the life of our representative democracy. Because the call is coming from inside America’s house.

We cannot hide behind the cross of Christ and the promise of future spiritual unity and reconciliation, declaring thereby that we have transcended all the troubles of the world because Jesus saves. Because the call is coming from inside the church house.

We cannot deny that white supremacy played a role in the way rioters were treated or in the motivations they brought with them to their treasonous display, not even though we saw a scattering of people of color among them. They brought nooses and chanted a call to hang the sitting VP, all the while taking selfies with police officers who bore witness to their seditious occupation – not unlike Jim Crow-era postcards of smiling white families enjoying picnics at their local lynchings. Because the call is coming from inside American history’s house.

We cannot continue holding on for dear life to the tired notion that the rebel flag stands for heritage, not hate, clutching our pearls at valid claims to the contrary because many white people didn’t own slaves, because black people fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, because we really just love sweet tea and Jesus and don’t even see color except when it suits us. The individuals who stormed, pissed, shat, stole, and were then escorted out of our nation’s capitol building carried flags that showed their true beliefs, and even a quick look at primary sources from the Confederate states reveals exactly what their beliefs were then, and what beliefs present-day flagbearers cosign by extension: “citizens…shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.” The Confederate states’ version of the American dream including keeping my skinfolk in a perpetual state of subhumanity and forced servitude. Their flag carries slavery’s ghost, and white supremacy’s still-present incarnation. The call is coming from inside the Confederate-sympathizing rebels’ house.

No matter what groups’ beliefs we hold dear, no matter how we personally identify and align ourselves, this call for terror, insurrection, even a second civil war, is coming from inside our home. It’s up to us to face the terrorists, disarm them, hold them accountable for the death and destruction they’ve caused, and build the America “that never has been yet…Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme.” 

This is our house, y’all. The unhinged aggressor won’t go away because we earnestly wish they would. We are going to have to build the house we want to live in. 

And this is not it.

Piece 29: The Square Root of [Im]possible

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 comes a moment in Netflix’s Jingle Jangle when Journey, our cute, curious, precocious young heroine, sings a soliloquy of sorts. Journey is doggedly determined not to be discouraged by her curmudgeonly grandfather Jeronicus. Instead, she insists that he can reawaken his inner inventive genius, and that she, who has inherited his creative acumen, can forge a mutually nurturing relationship with him where previously there has been none. Journey trusts that she can help Grandpa J, as she calls him, rebuild this life and reputation as a fabulous toymaker. 

Photo by Adam Borkowski from Pexels

Evening has just fallen, and Journey is looking dreamily out the front window of her Grandpa J’s storefont and home. Journey seems to ruminate on the challenge facing her: that she’s sought out her grandfather in order to deepen the connection she feels to him through their shared sense of wonder and curiosity. But despite Journey’s infectious sense of awe and wonder, and even despite her ability to see what Jeronicus himself no longer can, her beloved Grandpa J remains unmoved, having been emotionally distant and self-isolated for so long since grieving the death of his young wife, that he no longer dares to try to create what he once could.

Journey, nevertheless, persists.

She sings to herself and to us of all the possibilities she can see that no one else can. Of the dreams she holds onto for herself. Of the glory that lies in her own ability to believe she can rise above the obstacles in front of her by tapping into her own uniqueness and strength. 

Photo by Any Lane from Pexels

As a person with a name that’s difficult for some people to pronounce, I’ve had to insist on more than one occasion that a person who is new to my life make the effort to learn my name’s pronunciation rather than shortening it to suit their own preference not to try. So I can’t help but love Jeronicus Jangle’s name: a delightfully melodious mouthful of alliterative syllables. Jeronicus protests quietly throughout the movie at others’ shortening his name to “J” or “Jerry.” I noticed and appreciated that Jeronicus was named intentionally by his creator, all the more so since the movie is an instant classic that will soon expand its reach, as it is being adapted for the stage as well.

When I began watching Jingle Jangle a few days before Thanksgiving this year, I was aware only that it was a Christmas movie with black people in it. But shortly after the movie began its first musical number, I began to discover countless more reasons to love it. Jingle Jangle is grand, vibrant, soulful, and universally relatable – and at its center resides a deeply connected, if briefly estranged, black family. It possesses a fresh, imaginative plot; gorgeous, thoughtful costuming and styling; an upbeat soundtrack reminiscent of groovy, nostalgic R&B tunes; and not least of all stars a beautiful young black girl who loves inventions, employs math as her superpower to troubleshoot inventions, fiercely loves her family, and becomes the glue that reunites a father who had been estranged from his daughter.

For me, Jingle Jangle proves what’s possible when talented, experienced black creatives are granted the time, budget, and resources they need to bring their imaginings to life: we get the representation we long to see.

Photo by olia danilevich from Pexels

When you watch Jingle Jangle, I hope you will move a step beyond passively taking in all the joy and beauty it offers to ask yourself when you last saw such lovingly crafted black characters on screen, how many heartwarming holiday movies uplift a wholesome image of a black family, and what it means for girls to see themselves represented as talented and determined and curious and bold.

I hope you’ll enjoy the movie, just as I did, and that you’ll keep coming back to this space so we can continue exploring all the possibilities that arise when we work to unlearn racial bias and cultivate peace in our communities, one piece at a time.

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**

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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.