Piece 35: Black Church

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.

Much of the spiritual tension and growth I have navigated as an adult has been wrapped up in reconciling my joyous, liberating black church upbringing with my being dunked into fundamental evangelicalism as a young adult. The rough transition from one faith tradition to another felt very like being excited to be baptized only to find the water too cold and the preacher unaware that you can’t breathe underwater so he holds you down so long you begin to panic. So when you finally emerge for air, you feel gratitude and joy – but it takes you awhile to recover so you can revel in the exuberance of the moment because you are quite literally focused on breathing.

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The black churches that taught me to memorize John 3:16, that baptized me and drew me out of my introverted shell in Sunday school, that put me in the choir and let me lead a song – is a place of uninhibited expression of oneself. A place where service would always go long, so Nonnie was ready and willing to let me nap on her lap and was sure to keep a few peppermints in her purse to help me stave off lunch hunger. A place where Youth Sunday once a month would highlight our dance group(s), mime troupe, drill team, and choirs. A place where each Sunday’s altar call might see the same handful of folks coming down front for prayer – where each time they would be welcomed and prayed for, whether they verbalized their needs or not.

It was a precious and very specific place where I was seen and loved, where a song might move me to tears or a sermon bring me to my feet, where I might rub a friend’s back and fan her when unspoken emotions overcame her. Even now that I have attended the same Episcopal church for 18 years, I believe I could walk into any given black church and feel instantly welcomed and at home, knowing the order of service by heart, and embracing a space that welcomes my heart and my humanity. A place to release the stress built up from the burdens we carry from day to day – not because we “lean not on our own understanding,” but because we can sing, dance, shout, weep our woes aloud, and know that our spiritual siblings will understand our struggles implicitly, and support us in the fullness of our lived experience. A place of solace and catharsis. Of shared joy and pain. 

It’s a feeling that for me has been unmatched by any other church I’ve been in.

So I am so thankful that PBS and Henry Louis Gates presented a mini-docuseries that provided a survey of black American church history. I watched with rapt attention, took copious notes, and sat glued to my spot for four hours to try and absorb our history. To try and understand the beautiful, mysterious, deeply affecting figure that is the black church. How have my people maneuvered through being forced from our continent, so that we could be beaten and broken in forced bondage, and created and sustained an institution that sees us, knows, us, loves us, and provides omnipresent hope for our bodies and our souls?

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I’m astounded by the beauty of the tradition we have built.

One of the most lovely and moving characteristics of the black church is her music. The organist plays softly while congregants mill about, greet each other, and find their seats. Deacons intersperse their opening prayers with call and response hymns. Choirs process, sing, and then remain at the ready to back up the preacher as he draws his sermon to a close. Song ushers in the altar call, beckoning those who will to come to Jesus while they have time. Music is the constant undercurrent throughout service – pausing briefly for the beginning of the sermon. 

Songs assure us that our living is not in vain, remind us that Jesus is more precious than silver and gold, and extend to us the blessed assurance that since the world didn’t give us the joy we have, the world can’t take it away.

I hope that you will watch this two-part series from the brilliant mind of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. And I hope you will sit for an hour with this playlist I’ve curated to draw me back to one of my first loves: the black church. Each and every track holds with it a precious memory of the unique, glorious place where I first became cognizant of my love for Jesus.

As you watch and listen, I hope you will reflect on these questions: 

  • What are your earliest memories of being loved, held, and seen? What sounds, smells, or textures are inextricable from those first moments of feeling truly accepted as you are?
  • If you are a person of faith, how still or vibrant was the church of your earliest years as a believer? When you feel far from God, what anchor from these early faith days holds you fast?
  • When you think of the terror that has been inflicted on the black church in this country time and again, how do you imagine you might feel if the black church was that first place of faith for you? Would you feel safe to worship in the space where you truly felt at home?
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I hope that learning about the black church blesses you as it has me. And I hope you find yourself embracing the tension that arises when we realize how segregated our churches are, why that is, and what the way forward may look like for us all. I hope, as always, that you will meet me back here again next week, so we can keep constructing a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.

Or, as my pastor back home would say, “The doors of the church are open. Won’t you come?”

Piece 34: Black Love

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.

Most of this series is intended to be instructive: to plumb depths of a black cultural experience that are unable to be explored unless you yourself are black and also immersed in black culture. But I noticed a comment in an online group recently that much of our Black History Month celebrations is offered just to show nonblack people that we are human, just as they are. The statement was astute and frustratingly, incisively true. Our time and energy can be so invested in convincing the culture at large that we are worthy of life and liberty, that we neglect to promote and publicize our own pursuit of happiness

Since June, I have come to this digital space most weeks to share bits of black American history, a perspective on how race relations in our country came to be how they are, and offer a small mirror to reflect the emotions which emerge when white people examine new-to-them information about a people group they thought they already knew thoroughly. What I have perhaps neglected in this series – which is devoted to guiding would-be allies in reflection to help them unlearn racial bias they may not even realize they espouse – is the complete joy I feel in being black. The pride I feel in the resilience and hopefulness of my people. 

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Amidst the love I feel for my blackness, nothing is quite so magical as witnessing the strong, deep bonds of love between us: romantic, platonic, and familial. 

This week, in honor of black love and Valentine’s Day, I’ll be sharing a playlist of love songs by us and for us, in celebration of our resilience and determination and outright refusal to accept the pain we constantly endure without also consciously making space to seek out and nourish joy and connection with each other. This playlist is a salute to ’90s and early 2000s black music: the melodies that take us back to our middle school crushes; the themed music videos that feature our favorite ‘90s sitcom stars; the smooth, unfiltered voices that used to flow from the speakers of our parents’ cars; the Saturday afternoons we’d spend listening to the radio with our fingers poised over the “record” button on our cassette players so we could capture the newest tune and memorize all the words by the time we made it back to school Monday morning.

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In addition to this week’s black love songs playlist, I invite you to spend some time learning about Loving vs. Virginia. Several movies and documentaries about the Lovings are available to stream, and a host of books and articles have been published as well. Interracial couples like my husband and me could not marry and live in peace without the crooked road made straight by the Lovings’ 1967 Supreme Court case. Some legal scholars have also posited that the Loving precedent paved the way for marriage rights being extended to our LGBTQ siblings. 

Generations of consenting adults who are not same-race, opposite-sex couplings will continue to stand on the shoulders of the Lovings, whose quiet, steady persistence won for them the right to build their lives as husband and wife.

As you explore these resources, I hope you will marvel with me at the strength of black culture to withstand constant attacks from the dominant culture and its dogged determination to keep living and loving in freedom.  And I hope you’ll ask yourself – 

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  • Have you ever resisted a black friend or family member’s assertion of their truthful lived experience because it causes you to feel bad? 
  • In that discomfort, have you pressured them to put on a happy face or recount a happy experience so that you can balance out your own emotional response to their truth?
  • When you think of classic love songs, how many of them are by black artists? Why do you think that is – a lack of black representation in a certain genre or a lack of diversity in the music you grew up listening to?

I’ll meet you here again soon, so we can keep struggling, rejoicing, and learning together – to build a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.

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 31: Wakanda Forever

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.

 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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 27: I Go To Prepare A Place For You

Peace by Piece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piece 26: Dreamgirls

Peace by Piece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I hope you’ll consider these questions:

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

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

Piece 25: 13th

Peace by Piece

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

Two weeks ago, our country was taking baby steps in the direction of accepting Joe Biden as president-elect. Emotions and temperatures were flaring as caravans of Trump-paraphernalia-laden vehicles paraded up and down some of the busiest streets in our city. And my husband was having lunch at home while our younger son sat across the table from him attending his virtual Reading class. As Hubs ate and half-listened to the teacher, he heard words that have no place coming out of a teacher’s mouth in a fifth grade classroom: removing statues is taking away our history.

Allow me to provide some context I have since been granted: The lesson that day was about bias and how to evaluate news sources. There was relevant class conversation about historical figures, and a student asked how we can know today what people looked like many years ago. Statues are, of course, one way to know how people looked long ago.

To further elaborate, as I did when I spoke on the phone with the school’s principal that afternoon, I have only ever heard the phraseology about removing statues equating to taking away history from people who want to keep Confederate monuments where they are and are vehemently opposed to moving or destroying them. Thus, my husband, the white father of two biracial black boys and keenly aware of the insidious prevalence of the lost cause myth, immediately perked up his ears so as to track what else this teacher might say to her class that was indicative of a political viewpoint completely opposite to our own. He listened in not because her political viewpoint here is opposite from ours, but because as a student in her classroom, my child should have any knowledge of her political viewpoint at all.

During the course of the aforementioned principal conversation – held after she’d had a chance to visit with the teacher and review video of the lesson, I pressed past the question of context to the question of meaning. What had this teacher meant by what she said? The principal seemed to echo the teacher’s flimsy apology, reiterating that everyone makes mistakes. This, in fact, is why I provided the context of that phrase being used to defend keeping Confederate statues where they stand, which the principal responded to as if the information I provided was new to her. 

The principal – no doubt seeking to protect one of her teachers – went on to state repeatedly just how upset this teacher was because of any harm caused by her comment. When I asked why the teacher was upset even while she persisted in not providing the explanation I asked for, the principal’s response was that the teacher felt like I was “looking for something to hang her with.” Over the next few minutes of the conversation, once I made clear that such a turn of phrase was unacceptable and that should the teacher and I have a face-to-face conference, I expected not to hear such language from her, the principal owned that the phrase she had used was her own, not the teacher’s. And she apologized.

I have given you a lot of information, so let us quickly recap:

My child’s teacher made an inappropriate, thinly veiled political, and culturally insensitive comment in an elementary school reading class.

Overhearing this, my husband, who heard the comment, looped me in.

After emailing the teacher and remaining unsatisfied with the response, I was able to speak by phone to the principal about the racially loaded remark in question. During this conversation, as I repeatedly asked for transparency and clarification of the remark, what I got instead was reiteration of how upset the teacher was (see Luvvie’s post) and an apology from the principal herself for using – get this – a culturally insensitive turn of phrase in the conversation about the teacher’s culturally insensitive turn of phrase during my child’s class.

Are you still with me?

In the midst of this fraught election season with unprecedented political happenings, this teacher brought her politics into my fifth grader’s classroom. And when I called her on it, she was sad and apologetic for saying it but offered no clarifying, apolitical context or meaning for her words.

The problem here is a multifaceted one, but let’s focus on just one facet. Underlying this entire exchange between my child’s classroom, the teacher, the principal, and me, is a level of white discomfort that sees itself as being equal to or more important than the emotional well-being and innocence of my child, as well as the professionalism I have every right to expect from my child’s teacher. The relational dynamics at play here, and the expectation that I would be content with a spineless apology and a repeated assertion of how bad the teacher felt, are inextricable from the history of race relations in this country. 

Indeed, how have we arrived at the year 2020, and found ourselves confronted with a white woman who believes that when her employee’s feelings are hurt or her judgment questioned, it is in any way the analogous equivalent of a lynch mob seeking to hang a person from a tree?

This week’s suggested resource, therefore, is 13th, Ava DuVernay’s illuminating Netflix documentary that traces the evolution, not the abolition, of slavery in America.

13th unearths the cumulative impact of racial terror in America: enslavement, lynching, mass incarceration, redlining, housing covenants, and the present-day iterations and results of all of the above. 

Watch it, take notes, and allow your understanding to be broadened, so that you do not find yourself in a position of equating temporary emotional discomfort with the domestic terroristic act of lynching. Watch so that you can begin to understand why I as a black mother was utterly unmoved by a teacher’s feckless political statement and subsequent tepid apology; why I remain thoroughly unsatisfied that I never received an explanation of what exactly she meant; why the situation and how it played out have left me wishing away the time my child will have to spend with this teacher; why I feel so insecure about her beliefs and how they may insert themselves into the way she implements curriculum and delivers instruction to my child and his class; why the principal’s comment makes me worry about the water cooler talk my child may overhear if he indeed were on that campus attending school; why I am genuinely concerned about the faculty culture of the school he attends. 

Our words have meaning, y’all. It’s incumbent upon us to consider the words we choose to use. And to own our mistakes in as transparent a way as we can when we inevitably say the wrong thing.

To be transparent myself, I will share an anecdote: A few days ago, I was talking to a family member about doing what I said I’d do even though my teenage son wanted me to consider doing something else. But that isn’t what I said. Instead, I told this family member that I had “stuck to my guns.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I replayed them mentally and felt nauseated. Had I just used a violent, war-related phrase to refer to how I had made a decision and not backed down from it? One quick moment’s reflection showed me that this expression could be quickly and easily replaced with appropriate, precise language. I could easily have said that I stuck to my convictions or simply that I did what I said I would do, conveying the same meaning in a way that isn’t potentially problematic. 

As you watch 13th and reflect on your own words and perceptions, I hope you will consider the following questions: 

  • What idioms do you use without really considering the meaning of their words? 
  • Have you ever conflated being asked to stop and think about your word choice with being physically attacked?
  • When have you allowed people around you to use language that makes you uncomfortable without calling them out on it? Who benefits from such allowances? 
  • Have you slipped up and allowed your political views to seep into your workplace? How have others responded? If you are a leader in some capacity at your job, are the people around you truly able to express concern, offense, or harm caused by what you say, without fearing repercussion?

This is a heavy piece, I know. Not every aspect of unlearning racial bias work must be this deliberate and careful. But when such deliberation and care are required, we’d best take the time to do the work well. I’ll see you here again soon, so we can cultivate peace in our homes, families, and communities, one piece at a time.