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 keep the anti-racism work going.

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

I was wrong.

Photo by Markus Winkler from Pexels

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

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

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

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

Photo by marco allasio from Pexels

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

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

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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

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

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

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

Piece 19: Unity

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

Last week, I asked some tough questions of you and of myself, about the way media portrayals of LGBTQ individuals have colored our perception of how we expect them to exist in the world. I asked what one-dimensional depictions of LGBTQ people we have belived to be true. I asked when we’ve turned a blind eye to struggles you’ve assumed are a logical consequence of “lifestyle choice” instead of calling out injustice when we see it, and understanding that such injustices are undivorceable from lopsided portrayals of LGBTQ people that are amplified by the media. For me, it’s taken listening to podcasts, reading articles, and having beloved friends and family members in my life to truly wake me up to the depth of injustice people experience based on their sexual preference or because they don’t identify inextricably with the genitals they were born with. And it’s taken time and relationship to come to a place of listening instead of talking when it comes to such injustice.

I have much to learn.

Source: Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

This week, I want to turn our attention to a memorable scene from A Different World. In season 6, episode 3, Lena and Dorian are low-key courting each other amid a backdrop of Greek step performances. Charmaine and Gina come across Lena’s book of poetry while Lena is at work, and without her knowledge plan a step routine using her poetry. In keeping with Lena’s super-woke, hella deep character and the lovely habit A Different World had of teaching its audience about the meaning behind various black traditions, the resulting step routine is catchy, meaningful, and uplifting:

911 Emergency

Reconnect the Community

Our struggle 

cannot be waged

Without African-American unity

No more tears 

to be shed

No more marches to be led

No more pity

To be wrought

Naught more mercy to be sought

Boot dance

Unity in the community

It’s time to be a reality

The last time I recommended an episode of A Different World, it was because of Kim Reese’s dark-skinned character being affirmed as beautiful after having been made to feel like a racist caricature as a child who was dressed like a princess, not Aunt Jemima. This time, I recommend this particular episode of A Different World because of its light and airy feel, its warm message of unification, and its magical way of teaching history alongside an apt reflection of 90’s black American culture. This week’s recommended resource is Interior Desecration.

As you watch these engaging characters’ stories unfold, I hope you’ll consider these few questions:

  • What has it meant to you to see characters that look like you on TV? What memories do you have of such TV shows that are positively linked with your own childhood?
  • How much of the TV and movie content you took in growing up centered around people who didn’t look like you? How did such shows cause you to grow, change, or be challenged? Might your growth have traveled a different trajectory if you’d taken in more diverse media at a young age?
  • When is the first time you consciously remember meeting someone from a different racial background than you and registering the difference? What impact did it have on you?

Meet me back here again next week, folks, and we will keep working to unlock the peace that resides deep within all of us, one piece at a time.

City Council Special Session

meeting room

When I came home from work today, I quickly prepared the remarks below to share at a special (virtual) meeting of the City Council this evening. I share my words here so that should I be quoted or referenced, the entirety of my message will be here, published on my own platform, in its entirety. I have removed the names of specific people I referenced since I didn’t seek their permission before sharing here.

My name is Querida Duncalfe, and I live in Longview, Tx. I moved here twenty years ago to attend LeTourneau University, met my college sweetheart, married him, and together we have made Longview our home. It is for this reason – that Longview is our home – that I speak to you today.

Photo by Emre Can from Pexels

I’m incredibly grateful for the efforts of innumerable individuals who have answered this call for justice in our city. Even though they have been verbally harassed, threatened, and outright ignored by county commissioners, they have persisted. They understand, as do I, that Longview is home to a rich, diverse group of people who love this city and each other. This warm, inviting city that has become become my home, has no ideological place for a 35 foot tall statue dedicated to so-called “confederate heroes.” 

I hear the argument that this is not a city council issue and it should be left to the county. As a citizen who recently reached out to my elected representatives and has yet to receive any response aside from deflection and “it’s not my job,” I want to share what may be a helpful analogy. To be clear, I generally dislike using analogies; in my mind, the only thing like racism is racism – there is no adequate comparison. Therefore, I won’t attempt to make an analogy about racism, the Confederacy, the Civil War, or even monuments and statues in other places.  Instead, I will attempt to speak to your elected position in our city.

I am a year-ten teacher, it is my job to teach the students entrusted to my care. It is also my duty to do my best to meet the needs they present to me. When students and parents bring concerns to me that I cannot personally address, it would be completely unacceptable for me to tell them that their problem isn’t my job. I am duty bound to pass along their concerns and needs to administrators who can help or intervene – and this is true regardless of my perception of the relative magnitude of the problems they present. In this city and county, are our elected officials not duty-bound to hear and address our concerns rather than dismiss them?

I hear, too, that the statue represents history. It’s vital to note too that the statue doesn’t represent all of Texas history. There are more appropriate, joyful, meaningful historic events that can be captured and memorialized in its place.

Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels

I hope and pray that as citizens who have not felt they had a voice before, continue to come forward, that you will listen to our calls for action. Remove the monument. It does not represent the onelongview I call home. It has no place here.

Thank you for your time.

Who are we?

Who were we in the past?

Who are we now?

Who do we want to be in the future?

Longview native Matthew McConaughey recently stated that based on where we live and where we grow up, we may have “allergies” to certain aspects of our nation’s history. In other words, we may be unaware of prejudices we have that blind us to other people’s perspectives.

This seems to be the case here in Longview. While one part of our local community respects heroic Confederate soldiers who died in service to a romanticized Lost Cause, “lest we forget,” as the statue’s inscription states, a different part of the same community despises the society that seceded from America to protect a way of life that included enslaving their ancestors.

Primary view of object titled '[Bodie Park]'.

The confederate monument that currently stands on the courthouse lawn was erected in 1910 and stood in Bodie Park, at the corner of Fredonia and Tyler.  In 1932, the statue was moved from Bodie Park to its current place just outside this building. An honest look at the political and social unrest prevalent in this country during that time period will reveal the motivation for both erecting this monument and for moving it to stand in a place of prominence on our courthouse lawn. 

What message do we want to send to visitors and citizens who come here? Is our message that a portion of our courthouse grounds is dedicated to confederate “heroes,” as the monument’s inscription states? Is our message that confederate soldiers are more important than veterans of other wars, as the unequal sizes of both monuments on the courthouse lawn suggest? Is our message that if you want to come vote, renew your car registration, or get a marriage license, that you must first observe this monument to history apparently honored by our community? Is our message that we have allergies so severe that we can’t properly contextualize this aspect of our country’s history?

If we are indeed one Longview, as Mayor Mack says, then we need to change that message. We need to look at our community: talented artists, beautiful outdoor spaces, cultural events that represent our community’s diverse population, family-friendly activities to keep our children actively engaged, and savvy entrepreneurs opening small businesses that are thriving even amid our country’s trying economic times. 

We can choose to keep this statue in place to protect a status quo that harms, intimidates, and traumatizes a broad swath of our community, or we can choose to craft a new vision of our city, where old and young, ethnically and religiously diverse, dedicated, hardworking, and talented people work together build something new: an accurate, current, unified message about who we are.

We are one Longview – Strongview, Texas – we have within us everything we need to bring positive change to our community.

Who were we in the past?

Who are we now?

Who do we want to be in the future?

Piece 6: Lift Every Voice

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

At the end of piece five, I left you with a list of questions to guide you in some self-reflection. One reason I was able to come up with the questions quickly is that I’ve been on the receiving end of several of them. I’ve been shushed by a white friend in a restaurant for wanting to send back food that had hair in it. I’ve been confronted by the principal of the campus I worked on and told I was brittle and standoffish for not smiling in the hallways, for not always responding “hello” when greeted [even though in all likelihood the loud, crowded hallways prevented me from hearing his greeting to begin with]. I’ve had my campus principal called by a workshop host because in my frustration, I asked questions, and then, when it seemed I was asking too many so I shifted my focus to note-taking, the workshop presenter found my smile odd – apparently – when she came to ask how I was doing. 

Photo by Ralph Rabago from Pexels

I’ve been labeled intimidating because I am confident, introspective [read: quiet when thinking/regrouping], and opinionated. While this may seem harmless, when people feel intimidated, they tend to do whatever they can to knock down the people who intimidate them. In some ways, to me, “intimidating” is the new “uppity.”

But alas, this week, we’ll shift our focus away from the violence of stifling black people’s autonomy, toward a different kind of violence: the kind that invades a  sacred space.

Churches in this country are segregated not only by race but also by culture, ideology, theology, and politics. While white supremacist racism was the reason for the black church’s emergence separate from white churches in this country, it is not the only reason the black church has remained. Black churches are our haven. Here, we find catharsis, community, engagement, help, peace, family, acceptance, and connection. From the time we are pre-schoolers, we learn Easter speeches, watch our older cousins perform praise dances and mimes, pass out on our grandmothers’ laps during the sermon, and sneak more peppermints from our mothers’ purses than they realize. In black churches, we exhale – away from staring eyes that wonder aloud about our hair texture, cultural references, or blaccents. We are free to live and move and have our being without explaining how we exist the way we do in this world.

photo of James Weldon Johnson,
author of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,”
Courtesy: Library of Congress

And we sing.

At least once a year – in my experience – we sing the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” My church back home would switch out the congregational hymn at the beginning of each month. For every February I can remember, this anthem was that month’s congregational hymn. Today, even without a hymnal to guide me, I can sing most of the words by heart. The familiar tune carries in it a feeling of home for me, a sense of connectedness that is deeper than I have words to express.

Last week, an anonymous person who claims to be in discussion regarding racial tension in the NFL claimed that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” will be played before “The Star-Spangled Banner” for week one games in September.

This is a terrible idea for a plethora of reasons. If the NFL follows through with this supposed plan, I fear that the opening anthem sequence will lead black and white sports fans to sit, stand, kneel, seethe, and likely argue and eventually swing at each other as much as they physically can before the songs end. 

Permeating all the tension is a violent act visited upon a space black Americans hold as sacred. Out from the gloomy past of our people being forced to create their own churches, traditions, and culture, have emerged a richness we hold dear. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is not a call to conflate cross and country as we tearfully revere America’s founding fathers. Instead, the black national anthem is a holy call to remember our people’s oppression, faith, struggle, triumph, and resilience.

Simply put, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” belongs to those of us whose weary years and silent tears have been seen by God. It is a hymn of worship to God, not an anthem of allegiance to a flag.

The Star-Spangled Banner” is at best a patriotic call to take off one’s hat and fall silent while thinking of people who have died for freedoms all citizens can enjoy. At worst, Francis Scott Key’s anthem is a tone-deaf call to remember American whiteness fondly while overlooking the writer’s own view of black people as subservient, subhuman. So for the same national sports organization that blackballed Kaepernick for kneeling in memory of citizens victimized by police brutality, to now invite itself into a sacred space black Americans have made for ourselves, is at best naive and ill-fitting – and at worst, violent and blasphemous.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

This week’s suggested resources will hopefully help illuminate the meaning of the black national anthem to our community. First, I suggest a close reading of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I encourage you to read each verse and reflect on its meaning, depth, and the collective history it incorporates. Second, I suggest taking a look at Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” on Netflix. She began her show with the black national anthem, and the spectacular concert that followed carried an HBCU theme, which I think will help to further highlight the beautiful, affirming traditions and institutions black Americans have created for ourselves, after being banned from white American spaces that never intended to include us except as servants. Third, I hope you’ll take a careful look at the lyrics to all three verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The anthem, like our country, has a complex author with a complicated and at times conflicting history.

Some questions to consider as you read and watch this week:

Photo by Todd Trapani from Pexels
  • When you first heard of Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem, what was your reaction? Why?
  • When and where, in your opinion, are the right time and place to protest injustice?
  • Think of your family’s favorite song, tradition, or hymn. If your family member was publicly harangued by a group that later wanted to play that hymn publicly, but still had not repaired its broken relationship with your family member, how would your family feel?

I hope you’ll sit with these texts and these questions this week. Get quiet and determine what these songs and traditions mean to you, how important they are in your life. I’ll see you here again next week so we can keep working toward peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 5: Strange Fruit

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

Last week, I left you with several questions about how black people are represented in media that you consume. When I sat with the question about interracial couples and how often they are depicted as dynamic characters, without their differing cultures as a major plot point, I came up with almost nothing. Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series technically meets the requirement, as does The Mindy Project, but other than that, I’ve got nothing.

breakfast or nah?

In all the many shows and movies I watch on a regular basis, interracial couples rarely appear, let alone as major characters primarily focused on something other than their differing cultures.

On the question of brand representation, I remember an odd conversation I had with a friend years ago, when Cheerios released a commercial featuring an interracial couple and their child. When I saw the commercial, all I saw was a commercial that was maybe a bit refreshing in its casting. But the friend whom I talked to about it mentioned backlash on her Facebook wall – and presumably, from some online publications – from people outraged by “political correctness” and a perceived attack on their own values.

I know, it seems preposterous. And it is. But in a country where this type of representation is so rare, we should almost expect such a reaction until a majority-white consumer base is accustomed to seeing ads that are not designed to appeal only to them – something marginalized Americans are accustomed to from their earliest experiences watching TV and reading books.

This week, we’ll shift our focus from representation to strange fruit.

During the past few weeks, several men across the country – predominantly black men – have been discovered hanging from trees, dead from apparent suicide. Our country’s history of inciting terror in black communities by lynching black men in the dead of night, by popularizing postcards that glorify these hateful murders, by carrying out riots in Arkansas and Oklahoma and Texas, should be enough to poke holes in any authority’s theory that no foul play is at hand in these men’s recent deaths. And yet, suicide is exactly what these authorities preliminarily suggested, pulling back in order to reevaluate only after having pressure exerted on them by public outcry. 

I am recommending two podcast episodes this week:

Code Switch’s “Claude Neal: A Strange and Bitter Crop” time hops to tell the story of Neal’s tragic murder while following poet L. Lamar Wilson as he uncovers Neal’s story and runs the path along which his mutilated body was dragged before being hung in front of the courthouse.

Isadore Duncan

My second episode recommendation is “Unfinished: Deep South.” This brand new podcast will unveil the story of Isadore Duncan, a financially successful WWI veteran who was brutally murdered, and whose family later fled their home with none of the financial wealth their patriarch had labored to earn because all pertinent records were destroyed when Duncan was murdered.

Here are some questions to sit with this week:

  • In what ways have you pushed back against the idea of black autonomy and equality in your own life?
  • Have you tried to silence or minimize the opinions of black people when they have disagreed with your own?
  • Will you devote the time this week to researching your own city’s history of racial violence? What will you do with that information when you find it?
  • What action have you taken to tear down the vestiges of racial terror in your own community?
  • In what ways might you have unwittingly ignored or encouraged violence against black Americans asserting and exercising their own rights to protest, vote, and otherwise carry out their civil rights?

This isn’t quick or easy work that we are doing. But it is necessary to build a better country for ourselves and for future generations. Keep at it, and come back again next week so we can keep working toward peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 4: Representation

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay 

Last week, I left you with several questions. One of them was whether you would set aside any part of your identity in order to be part of a movement for justice. As a mother, a Christian, a black woman, I have had to claw and scratch and fight for every aspect of my identity. I’ve been called white. I’ve had my faith questioned because I disagreed with someone else’s theology or interpretation of Scripture. I’ve miscarried a child. I’ve lived the pain that so many people feel when they finally discover the truth of their identity, only to have people whom they may love and trust, question them so much that they begin to question themselves.

I won’t set aside any part of my selfhood. No matter how much other people might want me to erase or minimize part of myself, I’ll show up as fully myself in all facets, no matter the task.

Aunt Jemima probably got more Google searches in this past week than any other time in the brand’s history, since the company that owns the name and its iconic image announced they’d be removing Aunt Jemima’s name and face. And although I did not know anything substantive about the brand’s history until last week, I did remember when the namesake’s head covering was removed years ago, I did find it easy to connect Aunt Jemima’s image to the mammy trope, and I did think of Kimberly Reese.

Kimberly Reese

I love 90’s sitcom “A Different World” so much that I have whole episodes memorized. I own a t-shirt that declares I’m an alum of its fictional HBCU. Its characters, theme song, and storylines aired in syndication so often during after school hours when I was a child, that they are interwoven with my memories of growing up. So when Facebook blew up last week with news articles and opinions about Aunt Jemima’s announcement, I thought immediately about an episode of “A Different World” in which Kim Reese has a painful breakdown and tells her mentor Mr. Gaines about a childhood memory she associates with Aunt Jemima.

The episode, entitled “Mammy Dearest,” depicts the core cast of characters putting together a black history program that traces black roles in entertainment over time. Due to Kim’s dark complexion, insecurity, and the aforementioned painful childhood experience, Kim wants the Aunt Jemima-adjacent mammy caricature excluded from the show. In true 90’s sitcom fashion, all identity issues are illuminated and resolved within the show’s half-hour span. But the episode also touches on colorism, guilt that can result from ancestors who made decisions we cannot be proud of, and disagreements black people sometimes have among each other about how our collective history should be addressed. For these reasons, along with the current relevance of the episode, “Mammy Dearest” is the first resource I am suggesting that you watch this week.

Rae & Nanjiani

My second suggested resource this week is dramedy “The Lovebirds.” When theaters nationwide closed because of COVID-19, Netflix swooped in and purchased this gem so we all could still enjoy it. This lovely romantic comedy stars the wonderful Issa Rae, of “Insecure” and “Awkward Black Girl” and “I’m rooting for everybody black” fame, and the hilarious Kumail Nanjiani, whom you may know from “Stuber” and “The Big Sick.” Because I love all things Issa Rae, and because my husband and I are an interracial couple, I knew from the first trailer that I wanted to watch this movie. So when it came out, we had a date night at home. We laughed heartily as well as exchanging sad face looks when the main characters hit relational snags.

As soon as the credits rolled, I began to wonder when was the last time I saw a movie like this: funny and honest and heartwarming. And starring an interracial couple whose different cultures are acknowledged but aren’t central to the plot. Essentially, I wondered the last time I saw a regular movie about regular people having regular problems (albeit in exceptional circumstances since they are inadvertently involved in a murder at the movie’s start). And I couldn’t think of the last time I saw an interracial couple on-screen, where their interracial couple status wasn’t The Main Thing. This makes “The Lovebirds” my second recommendation this week.

Hair Love

And finally, I want you to watch “Hair Love.” This beautiful, Oscar-Winning short from  Matthew A. Cherry took my breath away the first time I watched it several months ago. In this short film, we see a young black father struggling to do his daughter’s hair. Everything about this seven minute feature is brilliant: gorgeous hand-drawn style animation, a young dad with tattoos and locs, a beautiful young gap-toothed daughter insisting her dad keep trying, and a final scene that will undoubtedly have you reaching for tissue. 

As you watch this week’s recommended shows, I hope you’ll consider the following:

  • What positive and negative portrayals of black Americans have you seen in movies, TV shows, and other media such as product branding?
  • When was the last time you saw a movie starring an interracial couple, where race and culture were part of the plot but not its entirety? 
  • When brand names and images are changed in order to be more considerate of a diverse customer base, what feelings does this elicit inside you?
  • What do you think is the importance of intentional, positive, affirming portrayals of black individuals and families?
  • How might your own concept of self and family be different if you never saw positive portrayals of individuals and families that looked like you?

I hope you enjoy this episode, movie, and short film this week as you continue opening your mind to new ideas of what it means to be black in this country. And I hope you will bring an open mind back here next week, and we will keep working toward peace, one piece at a time. 

Charleston: A Watchman Meditation

Charleston Nine

I originally wrote this piece four years ago and published it on my former blog here. Since today is the anniversary of this tragedy, I brushed it off and polished it a bit to share again today.

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”  – so says Uncle Jack to his niece Scout in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. In Lee’s novel, Uncle Jack’s words to Scout echo the words of the prophet Isaiah, in chapter 62, verse 6: – “O Jerusalem, I have posted watchmen on your walls; they will pray day and night, continually. Take no rest, all you who pray to the LORD.” But in church this morning, our reading of Psalm 127 pointed out that, “unless the Lord watches over the city, in vain the watchman keeps his vigil.” And as I sat in my pew, mulling over these words and connecting these recurrences of “watchman” to each other – because I’m never not an English teacher – a truth came into focus.

Several months ago, Andrew and a couple friends from church arranged a concert of their music. They played shortly after the Charleston church shooting, during a time when I was still personally deeply wounded, reeling from the horror of such a violent, racially motivated hate crime. During that concert, I noticed for the first time that black church  and white church are different: not just in worship style or length of service, but in the very theological concept of who God is and the reason we meet from week to week. Where white church seems primarily concerned with worship of God for who God is, black church – by contrast – is also concerned with reaching out to God for help not just with daily life but with the deep, ugly struggles we’d sometimes prefer to ignore. In my upbringing in the black church, I always saw a place for catharsis alongside worship. In white church, I’ve missed that.

The priest said today that, “In God’s world, there are no unseen people.” His insight connected very strongly with the Gospel reading from Mark, when the poor widow who gives two small coins is recognized by Christ for giving everything she had from her poverty. When I reflect on my upbringing in black church, I see the collective conscious Uncle Jack told Scout was a myth. And I see, too the call to individual conscience and watchmanship, the invocation of the Lord’s eyes to watch over our collective city, to see our invisible struggle. 

There are no invisible people in God’s kingdom.

And here is why I think white church doesn’t speak to the whole of my spiritual experience: I don’t see there a place for corporate lament, an acknowledgement of our society’s unseen, a call to stand in solidarity with those whose voices the church has historically refused to hear: the LGBTQ individual, the ethnic and socioeconomic minority, the outspoken and assertive woman. These groups are invisible to white church not because they can’t be seen but because there’s no desire to hear them in a way that acknowledges that they too are fearfully and wonderfully made, just as they are. And who can worship freely where one feels oneself is unseen, unacknowledged, unheard?

In one way, I agree with Uncle Jack’s assertion to Scout that every man’s conscience is his watchman. He’s right: we must each be accountable for our own actions, bear responsibility for our own decisions, pay attention to our surroundings enough to see and act accordingly in our day to day lives. But in another way, I think Uncle Jack missed the mark here.

If we are people of faith, then unless the Lord watches over us, our labor as watchmen is in vain. We must look to God to guide our conscience – collective or individual – so that our eyes may open to those in need right in front of our faces, and so that we may be led by God’s grace, to act for, with, and alongside the otherwise invisible. It isn’t enough to take the Gospel to the ends of the Earth if we haven’t also taken that same Gospel message to the invisible people around us who are looking to see if our God is also theirs: a God who watches over their city as well as our own. A God who sees and hears them. A God whose love doesn’t confine itself to a single interpretation of a single Bible verse in the name of tradition, but whose love reaches beyond tradition, scriptural misinterpretation, and historical erasure, and offers unconditional, all-encompassing, unashamed love to each heartbroken individual, each unheard people group, each silently weeping minority who’s been told time and again to conform and submit, each individual who has been silenced.

Whether we are people of faith or not, there is work to be done.

If we profess faith, we need to look to God to guide our conscience – collective or individual – so that our eyes may open to those in need right in front of our faces, and so that we may be led by God’s grace, to act for, with, and alongside the otherwise invisible.

If we are not people of faith, there still is work to be done: we must look within our hearts and minds to suss out our motivations. We cannot neglect to watch over the city of humankind because our own personal lives are idyllic. We cannot ignore the plight of our neighbor and focus only on ourselves.

There is indeed a collective conscious, with each individual obligated to do their part for the betterment of us all.

Piece 3: Black and…

This article is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

The title song of the playlist I created last week was “Hell You Talmbout.” In this protest anthem, the singers alternate a chanted refrain of the title and shouted verses with the names of a small fraction of black people who have been killed as a result of living within this society. A society which in too many ways regards blackness itself as suspicious, as reason enough to shoot first and ask questions later.  Among the names of those victims mentioned in the song, I was unfamiliar with four: 16 year-old Kimani Gray, young mother Miriam Carey, veteran Tommy Yancy, and Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo. 

Amen

May light perpetual shine on each of their souls.

I asked at the end of that post why the recent murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery unsettled you in a way prior murders did not. My own answer to this question is that I am angrier and more heartbroken now, but this isn’t my first time feeling tired and angry. I asked, too, why you’re ready for this conversation now when you weren’t before. My answer is that I’ve been ready in small, interpersonal ways, but I’m ready to write this series now because my kids are old enough that my fear for their safety is incredibly real, and because I want newly aware, well-intentioned white people, to stop listening exclusively to their white friends who are just now talking about race.

Listen to, read, watch, and follow black activists and organizations who are already engaged in this work. They have been living this reality for a long, long time.

During our country’s current emotional upheaval and broad push for justice in the name of murdered citizens, for substantial police reform, and for urgently needed policy change, I’ve begun to notice the spectre of a decades-old argument. Specifically, when actors Nicholas Ashe and Justice Smith announced their relationship and joined a recent protest, some of the public comments responding to their announcement called for them to set aside their sexuality because now is the time to focus on blackness. 

It seems that in these commenters’ minds, Ashe and Smith are welcomed to be a part of this movement for black lives if – and only if – they set aside their relationship and identity as queer men so as not to “distract” from the protests or cause people to “lose focus” or “take attention away from the issue at hand.” In addition to the fact that this argument overlooks the queer, intersectional foundations of the movement, it also implies that these activists’ queerness otherizes them and somehow waters down their blackness and therefore the push for justice itself.

This is wrong. And it is also not new. 

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin, the openly gay activist who was instrumental in organizing 1963’s March on Washington – the march where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, the march that Al Sharpton has announced plans to replicate this August – was in many ways kept behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement because of his status as an openly gay man. Then, as now, folks thought that his sexuality would be a distraction if he featured more prominently in the movement. 

I confess that I’ve had to reflect on this recently. I consider myself an affirming Christian, yet there came a moment when I sat across from a friend who shared a personal truth, and I had to question my inner reaction. In my zeal to loudly affirm and learn from my LGBTQ friends, I hadn’t stopped to consider that there’s more than one valid way to exist within that spectrum. And my loud affirmation could easily be read as condemnation for folks who don’t live out their LGBTQ identity in the way I think they should.  That was wrong of me.

I have three books to suggest to you this week – all of which I have listened to as audiobooks in the past few years. Because each book contains heavy, emotional, deeply personal content, I’ll provide a synopsis of each. My suggestion is you choose the one you think you will allow you to be open and able to understand most easily.  

Gay Girl, Good God is phenomenal speaker Jackie Hill Perry’s frank account of her journey from self-identifying as a lesbian, to her struggle with addiction, to her encounter with God and conversion to Christianity, which ultimately led her to embracing a wholly different lifestyle than what she led before. (To be transparent, I struggled with the epilogue of this book and its language of “disordered sexuality.” Therefore, I did not finish it.)

In When They Call You A Terrorist, Patrisse Khan-Cullors details her early life, her involvement as a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement, her experience being harangued as a terrorist, and shares with readers the unconventional way she came to fall in love, marry, and have a child with her partner. 

Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness is a searing, heartbreaking account of her childhood as her parents’ first son. She chronicles her unique upbringing in a culture whose roots regarded transgender people as rare and worthy of reverence, and she recounts an experience many transgender youth face – resorting to extreme and dangerous measures to bankroll the medical treatment and procedures she desperately desired.

I have several reflection questions for you this week. They are designed not to elicit a certain right or wrong answer, but to prompt you to question your own biases:

Black and…
  • What qualifiers are you placing on black people whose lives you think are worthy of saving/protecting?
  • In your mind, do you expect that if black activists are members of the LGBTQ community as well, that they will set that part of their identity aside?
  • Is there any part of your own personal identity that you would set aside in order to be part of a movement to advocate for a people group you identify with?
  • Why should any black person who is working for positive change in this country feel that they must focus only on one part of their identity and not its whole?
  • Is a gay black person any less black than a straight one?
  • If one black life matters, don’t they all?

Even though this work is hard and at times may feel brutal, it’s necessary and right that we undertake it together. Come back next week, and we will continue to work toward peace, one piece at a time. 

Piece 2: Hell you talmbout

This article is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

The question I left you with at the end of the last post was to consider who you are centering as you enter into this soul-searching work of unlearning, relearning, and hopefully gradually dismantling generations-old systems of injustice. So I will share with you who I am centering: my sons.

I have not had what many black parents refer to as “the talk” with my children. From the time they were young, I have of course warned them to keep their hands out of their pockets in the store. And we don’t generally shy away from discussing a kid-version of current events with them. They listen to news podcasts with us, and we answer questions if they ask us.

But.

Mother and Son, colored by Candace

I consider my sons to be my center for the purpose of this question, because I want to take an active role in helping people other than my circle of friends to open their eyes to the trickle-down manifestations of inequity in this country.  I want them to see me doing this work, to know it is for them, and to be conscious that the disparities built into this country’s systems to ensure they don’t have the same access to “the American dream” as their white friends, will slowly and surely be dismantled. I want them to know why the systems exist, and I want them to see their mother working to tear them down.

I also want my sons, and every other black child and adult in this country, to have the opportunity to live full lives, to ripe old ages. This – they, their present, and their future – are my center.

I first heard the song “Hell You Talmbout” several years ago, a short month after Sandra Bland was found hanged in her jail cell three days after police stopped her while she was driving. Sandra Bland’s death had shaken me deeply; she very much reminded me of a family member who is as close to me as a sister. So when Janelle Monae released this cover as a protest song the following month, I sat myself down at my dining room table while my children napped, and I wept. 

Then I played the song again and kept weeping. I repeated the song until I ran out of tears. And then I called my Mama.

The thing about trauma is that it lives in the body. Often, we want to hasten our feelings away. To push our shock and rage into our fingertips and get to work. We want to hurry our bodies through pain and sorrow that we naturally feel in response to trauma – even if we didn’t suffer that trauma ourselves – so that we can mark the issue as resolved and continue on our journey forward. 

But our bodies don’t work like that. Feelings don’t work like that. And restorative work – the work of deconstructing hundreds-year-old systems built to ensure that people who have one skin color thrive while everyone else has to fend for themselves – won’t work like that.

So while it is necessary and natural to support protesters, to write your elected officials, and to choose books and movies to share with your kids that help break current events down to their level, our bodies also need us to sit still. A favorite writer of mine says that feelings are for feeling. In other words, the only way out of our feelings is through them. No shortcuts or workarounds will make this inner soul-work faster or more productive; this is a long-term process. 

The resource I want to share this week is a playlist of songs that express lament, determination, and comfort. Although it is a YouTube playlist, I recommend listening instead of watching so as not to focus on the images rather than the words from each piece. Pop your earbuds in, close your eyes, and just listen and feel your feelings. Feel the pain of years of your own ignorance and complicity. Feel the grief of black mothers and fathers across the country who have had to bury their babies as a result of brutality. Feel the determination to fight to validate oneself even if no one else will. Feel the insistence on being seen. Feel the comfort and reaffirmation of your own humanity.

When you have done this and are ready to reflect, ask yourself how many names that were chanted in “Hell You Talmbout” were utterly unfamiliar to you. Why did the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery break your heart and unsettle your spirit, when the murders of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Rekia Boyd didn’t? Why are you ready for this conversation now but you weren’t then?

Bring your answers and a full, open heart back here next week. And we will keep working together toward peace, one piece at a time.