Piece 42: Bad Blood

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.

In June of 2020, when COVID-19 infection numbers in this country were climbing at a frightening rate, especially in communities packed with people of color, Senator Steve Huffman asked the Ohio Commission on Minority Health if “African Americans or the colored population do not wash their hands as well as other groups?” This man’s woefully misguided, microaggressive, unquestionably racist question represents an insidious brand of ignorance: the idea that Black people get sick and die because we simply don’t take care of ourselves.

Not only is this idea untrue, but it is also an idea that overlooks the completely understandable mistrust that many African Americans have of medical professionals.

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Take for example, Tuskegee. In 1932, doctors began experimenting on 600 Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama. By using the local colloquialism “bad blood,” doctors convinced these farmers that they were receiving treatment for an ambiguous ailment when in reality they were observing the long-term effects of untreated syphilis in the bodies of the men who had contracted it, all the while telling the men they were receiving free medical care. This “experiment” continued for forty years, being brought to a stop only when an Associated Press article exposed the experiment.

Tuskegee is, of course, only the tip of the iceberg for Black Americans’ collective mistrust of medical professionals. For instance, HeLa cells have been instrumental in treating disease for decades due to their immortality. Although the African-American woman from whom these cells were extracted lives on in them, she herself never consented to the use of her cells for medical experimentation. In fact, Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells did not render their owner herself immortal. Instead, Lacks died at the age of 31, never knowing her cells were extracted and had lived longer than any others before.

Neither did Lacks’ family know or consent to such usage of her cells. They weren’t made aware of their family member’s significant contribution to medical advances until twenty years after her death.  

If we reach back even further into our history books, we will find that our first president’s dentures were not made of wood, as we may have heard in school. Instead, George Washington’s dentures were constructed from a variety of materials, including real human teeth from purchased enslaved people.

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Health struggles for Black Americans persist in the present day as well: Black maternal mortality is at a crisis point. Frequently, Black women are believed not to be suffering from pain or not to be in treatment, despite what patients themselves describe to doctors when they ask for help. Such disbelief on the part of medical professionals can be easily traced back to James Marion Sims. Lauded as the father of modern gynecology, Sims, along with far too many of his contemporaries, believed that Black people were a subhuman species who did not feel pain or anxiety. Therefore even though anesthesia was introduced in 1846, Sims didn’t use it when he performed surgeries on the enslaved women he used to build up his own medical “expertise.” 

It’s no wonder then, that even rich and famous Black women are not exempt from the spectre of life-threatening postpartum complications. Serena Williams shared her harrowing experience with a pulmonary embolism following the birth of her daughter several years ago.

As recently as December 2020, Dr. Susan Moore documented the unethical lack of treatment she received for COVID, before she died from the disease for which she had been belatedly hospitalized and poorly treated. Moore had been sent home more than once even though she exhibited severe COVID symptoms, and even as she lay in what would be her deathbed, some of the medical professionals entrusted with her care denied her pain medicine and ultimately failed to treat her symptoms adequately.

Although I have not been able to stomach all the grotesque, vivid details of medical experimentation on Black bodies outlined by the brilliant medical ethicist Harriet A. Washington in Medical Apartheid, her work makes clear that the American system of chattel slavery went to great lengths to justify its maltreatment of Black bodies. Doing so meant enlisting medical professionals to uphold and perpetuate myths about Black bodies’ ability to withstand pain and therefore brutal work conditions and inhumane treatment.

In the end, it’s this knowledge that Senator Huffman clearly lacks, as do those who think like him. Black Americans do not find themselves suffering poorer health outcomes than other racial groups because we don’t take care of ourselves. Rather, Black Americans find themselves suffering poorer health outcomes because of an entire system and government that have intentionally propped themselves up by dehumanizing Black people. This was true in 1619. This is true in 2021. 

The bad blood between medical science and Black Americans is deeply rooted in the white supremacy that has shaped this country and its subjugation of Black bodies.

As you watch the YouTube videos I’ve linked as source material this week and read through the excerpt from Medical Apartheid, I hope that you will consider these questions:

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  • When in your own mind have you compared disparate health statistics across ethnic groups and assumed fault lay strictly within the parameters of personal responsibility and choice?
  • How does a failure to interrogate such an assumption cause harm to the people of color in your life – your friends, neighbors, and family members?
  • What action can you take today to support the just work of closing race-shaped gaps in health outcomes and life expectancy?

As always, I hope you’ll continue to engage with me in this work, week by week, and ultimately that you will cultivate in yourself the habit of questioning your assumptions so that you can unlearn biases, especially those you didn’t know you had.

Let’s keep working together to build a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.

Piece 41: Respectability

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.

When one of my work wives collaborated with a few other friends on our hallway to make me a beautiful, Pinterest-worthy Black History Month door decoration last year, I learned about several Black women who made history, but whose names I’d never heard before. An incredibly personal part of the decoration was a collage of Black women whom my dear friend had hand-picked based on how much she knew about me. Shirley Chisolm, a long-time personal hero of mine, occupied a prominent position in the center of the collage. Lizzo, Angela Rye, and Michelle Obama, among others, adorned the periphery. Along with them was the then unknown to me Dr. Pauli Murray, the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal Priest. Learning of who she was gave my little Episcopalian heart such joy.

Earlier this year, I shared with a colleague that Rosa Parks had not been the first Black woman to protest by refusing to give up her seat on a bus, but that she was preceded by both Claudette Colvin and Pauli Murray. This colleague’s resulting curiosity and internet research yielded this illuminating article, which she shared with me. In “The Many Lives of Pauli Murray,” I learned about Murray’s heartbreaking struggle with her gender identity and the integral role that her legal research played in Brown vs. the Board of Education.

A few weeks ago, I got the unexpected joy of introducing one of my students, a senior, to Claudette Colvin. Having found an article about Colvin in a Scholastic magazine, I passed it to this particular student, who within a few moments of receiving it, said that it would be the most important thing she ever learned in school. When Claudette Colvin was only fifteen years old, she refused to give up her seat on a bus while riding home from school. Even though three of her schoolmates moved when ordered to do so, Colvin asserted to the officers that boarded the bus that she knew her constitutional rights. After Colvin had been bailed out of jail and the NAACP, of which she was a part, began considering Colvin as the face of a bus boycott, Colvin found out she was pregnant. The NAACP, leary of confusing people who supported their just cause by supporting a teenage mother, decided not to make Colvin the face of their movement. 

Furthermore, it would be Claudette Colvin, not Rosa Parks, who went on to become a plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, the federal case that determined Alabama’s bus segregation was unconstitutional. This decision forced Colvin to move to New York, since her participation in the case effectively nullified her ability to find employment in her hometown.

These days, riot-condemning folks like to weaponize Rosa Parks. They say and share on social media such tone-deaf faux maxims as “Rosa Parks didn’t burn the bus; she sat on it.” In their minds, it seems, Parks’ act of passive resistance was a simple case of being tired and not wanting to stand. In reality, it was a carefully planned and coordinated action, preceded and undergirded by Colvin, Murray, and others before her, and succeeded by more than a year of economic strife for the city bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, and beyond. 

Rosa Parks was at the time of her arrest secretary of the NAACP, and she had married a member of the NAACP when she was nineteen years old. There should be no doubt, therefore, in anyone’s mind that Rosa Parks’ action was a planned act of civil disobedience. It served as the instigator of the very “cancel culture” so many people who weaponize her visage and actions decry today.

Photo by Joe Ambrogio from Pexels 
  • What prior ideas do you have to let go of in order to accept the idea of Rosa Parks as an intentional, strategic activist?
  • What do you lose when you recontextualize her work this way?
  • Why do you think that the names of Pauli Murray, a gender queer woman, and Claudette Colvin, a teenage mother, are not taught to us alongside the name of Rosa Parks, even though all three were civilly disobedient in the same way?
  • In what ways might respectability politics have influenced your idea of which Black lives matter and which ones don’t?

I hope you’ll read each of the resources linked here to deepen and expand your knowledge of the determination and strategy that have been required in order for Black Americans to make incremental strides toward justice and equity. I hope you will allow your defenses to fall as you think through the thoughts and feelings Murray and Colvin must have experienced, knowing that their lives were not deemed worthy enough to allow them to be prominently visible in the Civil Rights Movement. I hope you will look around at the single mothers and queer friends and neighbors in your life and extend them grace, empathy, and compassion from a newly realized space within.

And I hope, as always, that you’ll meet me back here again next week, so we can keep constructing thoroughly peaceful communities and lives, one piece at a time.

Piece 40: One Day, When the Glory Comes

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

Last year, my husband and I took our sons on a road trip to Selma, Alabama. I had hoped to possibly extend the trip to Plateau to try and visit the home of Cudjo Lewis, or to pop down to Gulf Shores for a couple of lazy days on the beach. But we only had a few days of overlapping vacation days between the four of us, and – as we’d later find out – the world would close while we wrapped up our short holiday anway. So it was just as well that we didn’t make more plans, as we’d surely have had to cancel them.

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Blessedly, our trip did not end before we were able to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Our family got to hear John Lewis speak several years ago when a local political group brought him to our city for a speaking engagement. And since that time, I’d been enraptured by this hero’s social justice work. Being able to literally walk where he walked on Bloody Sunday in 1965, was an unforgettably meaningful moment.

When the movie Selma came out, my husband and I went to see it together. I am unsure what I expected from the drama based on tragic historical events, but I don’t think my expectations included the weeping that issued from my body while we watched a dramatized, slow-motion beating of nonviolent protesters at the hands of police officers and state troopers play out on the screen. Clergypeople, housewives, and college students were all among the crowd of people who assembled in support of Black Americans’ determination to exercise their right to register and vote.

I’ve never been able to watch the movie Selma since seeing it in the theatre. And while I recommend it as one of this week’s suggested resources, I also understand that it may be too graphic for some viewers to watch. Therefore, I also recommend the documentary

Photo by Nikko Tan from Pexels

After Selma, which includes the perspective of residents who still live in Selma, interspersed with a broader national context. 

There’s so much more to say here, about decades of brute force visited upon Black bodies to ensure that we don’t experience full access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in this country; about Bombingham and dynamite hill; about four Black schoolgirls killed in a Birmingham church bombing, whose killers were not tried and sentenced until 2001.

But perhaps more important than adding tragic facts to tragic facts is to pause and reflect on new knowledge we’ve taken in. As you watch Selma and/or After Selma, I hope you’ll sit with the following questions:

  • How much of your faith and commitment to agitating for social justice is hampered by the belief that all our present troubles – including, unjust, tragic, untimely deaths – pale in comparison to the glory of the afterlife?
  •  In your mind and heart, where is the dividing line between accepting physical suffering as a consequence of living in a fallen world, and extending a helping hand of love and solidarity to people in need?

As theologian James Cone states in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “Without concrete signs of divine presence in the lives of the poor, the gospel becomes simply an opiate; rather than liberating the powerless from humiliation and suffering, the gospel becomes a drug that helps them adjust to this world by looking for “pie in the sky.”

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Too often the message that Black Americans, especially Black Christians, have received implicitly and explicitly from white pulpits in this so-called Christian nation, is that Black people should look to the afterlife for their liberation and accept their unjust lot in life on Earth.

I do believe, as a person of faith, that one day, glory will come and will indeed be ours. But I do not believe we have to wait until we die to live without fearing our lives or our children’s lives will be abruptly cut short by a dominant culture that doesn’t value our personhood.

I hope you’ll keep showing up here to this space, so we can keep working to construct peace in each of our lives, one piece at a time.

Piece 38: We Don’t Say Their Names Enough

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.

When one of my favorite podcasts, Code Switch, introduced me to Storme DeLarverie via The Nod last summer, I was astounded that I’d never heard her name before. A self-appointed protector of the LGBTQ community in her New York neighborhood, she was present before, during, and after the Stonewall Uprising. And yet, as posited in this episode, we don’t say her name enough.

Neither do we say often enough the name of Fannie Lou Hamer. Even though she was a prominent figure during the Civil Rights Movement, I didn’t grow up learning about Hamer in the same way I did Dr. King, Malcolm X, or Rosa Parks. This may be because her life and activism weren’t interwoven with elaborate, beautiful biblical allusions and stunning rhetoric, she didn’t possess an inspiring account of teaching herself to read while she was in jail, and she didn’t carry out a single, decisive act of passive resistance to launch a boycott that would desegregate Montgomery buses.

Although my school textbooks overlooked her contributions, Hamer’s activism was nonetheless integral to the Civil Rights Movement’s aim to make voting accessible and safe to Black Americans.

In 1964, Hamer famously testified before the Democratic National Convention’s Credentials Committee. In her stirring testimony, Hamer relayed her experience of having been beaten in prison, of having been ordered off the plantation where her family lived and worked as sharecroppers because her husband’s employer learned she had registered to vote, and when he confronted her, she refused to withdraw her application. Hamer’s unshakeable commitment, consistent hard work, and contagious determination provided fuel to the fire of the Civil Rights Movement.

The name of Marie van Brittan Brown is as new to me as that of DeLarverie and Hamer. In the late 1960s, Brown noted a sharp jump in crime in her neighborhood and slow police response time. She therefore worked with her husband to conceive a device that would use a combination of four peepholes, a video camera, and a television monitor to allow people to interrogate visitors to their homes and, if need be, alert police via radio. When I close my eyes to try and picture what this contraption might have looked like in Brown’s Queens neighborhood, what I imagine looks very little like today’s doorbell cameras, and yet the two systems are definitely branches on the same home security system tree. Why, I wonder, didn’t Brown’s name didn’t show up on lists of Black inventors when I was in school? Although I got to learn the names of inventors like Garrett  Morgan, George Washington Carver, and Madam C. J. Walker, Brown’s name never floated across my radar. 

I ruminate too, on Rosie the Riveter. As a teen and young adult, I frequently glimpsed her iconic visage at certain times of year, proclaiming that she can do it and encouraging all of womankind to believe in their own abilities as well. Why, then, was I a whole 38 years old before I learned of the existence of Black Rosies? Far from being peripheral anomalies, Black Rosies were among the 600,000 Black women who entered paid service following Executive Order 8802, which FDR signed in order to steer A. Phillip Randolph away from carrying out the first March on Washington in support of Black workers’ rights. How, in all our culture’s popular representations of Rosies’ contributions to the war effort by taking over men’s jobs back home, have Black women escaped recognition?

As you listen to this week’s recommended resources – the podcast episode about Storme DeLarverie and the articles about Black women who’ve contributed so much to shape the world we live in – I hope you will reflect on these questions:

  • Why have names like DeLarverie, Brown, and Hamer, as well as the contributions of Black Rosies been left out of the narratives we’ve been served about Civil Rights leaders, gay rights activitsts, and Black inventors, especially those in STEM?
  • Why does our cultural collective consciousness marginalize leaders who themselves already exist in the margins of our society? Is it because if they don’t fit into our trite and tidy box of respectability and relatability, we don’t want to listen to the wisdom their voices offer? 
  • How many more historical figures might we be missing out on learning from because they’ve been sidelined by our history books?

We can do better. We can seek and learn and grow. We can relentlessly pursue knowledge, and amplify the lives, work, and voices of people who’ve earned their way out of anonymity and into the center of our collective cultural history rather than its margins. Perhaps the more we affirm and amplify the voices of people who’ve endeavored to pave the way before, the less we will have occasion to clutch our collective pearls when the people whom we’ve chosen time and again to ignore and then condemn, creatively display the trauma we’ve inflicted on them as a way of defining and liberating themselves.

If we don’t say their names enough, they will call themselves by their names while we look on in ignorance and confusion.

Let’s keep working, learning, and growing – through every hard, awkward, difficult conversation. Peace isn’t a passive state of mind that will settle over us like a heavy fog if only we sit still long enough. If we want peace, we will have to pursue it, one piece at a time.

Piece 37: Shut Up & Dribble

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.

When I was a first year teacher, I severely underestimated the gravity of allowing a football player to fail my class. This led to some close scrutiny of my (admittedly) sparse attempts to contact parents, followed by a visit from the coach, followed by a tense, awkward visit from the principal. At the time, I took much of the way the situation unfolded personally. And what I didn’t think was personal, I assumed was about football culture and sports being seen more important than academics. 

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Now, as I look back on that experience and hold it up next to more recent observations of sports culture, during a pandemic, and as a distant outsider rather than a fan in the stands, I can’t help wondering if there was a deeper, self-serving creature at play in athletics at large. Namely, does sports culture care at all about black athletes once they are no longer deemed useful to the multibillion dollar industry that is professional sports?

On its face, this question may seem cynical or like an overgeneralization, but let’s zoom in to see some historical and contemporary examples of this idea in action. Time and again, we’ve borne witness to black athletes asserting their desire to be seen and known as three-dimensional individuals with their own thoughts and feelings regarding tragedy that befalls people who share their ethnicity, only to be fired, publicly criticized, mocked, or abandoned.

I remember learning about Wilma Rudolph in elementary school: how she was physically disabled for part of her childhood, and the success she would go on to have as an Olympic runner. What I did not learn then, though, was that it was only due to her adamant insistence that the hometown celebration that followed her success in the 1960 Rome Olympics was Clarksville, Tennessee’s first fully integrated municipal celebration. 

Photo by football wife from Pexels

Until recently, I thought Paul Robeson was a singer and actor; I had no idea he was an athlete as well. As the only black player on Rutgers’ football team in the early 20th century, Robeson withstood physical blows from his own would-be teammates before he could even try out for the team, and would later find himself benched in order to avoid “controversy” on the school’s 150th anniversary. Robeson wrote a critical letter to the university following this instance of his being benched, and even though at least one future team would threaten not to play Rutgers if Robeson took the field, his coach never backed down again.

The iconic photo of John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists on the Olympic medal podium; the fact of Jesse Owens and his fellow black Olympians not being congratulated by FDR or invited to the White House in 1936 along with white Olympians; an announcer employed to call a high school girls’ basketball game employing a racial slur repeatedly and wishing the team failure because they had the temerity to kneel during the anthem – all of these amount to a deafening, collective cry from black American athletes’ own home and country to shut up and dribble, a collective f-ck your breath.

When I look into young athletes’ faces now, I see what I didn’t see as clearly as a first year teacher: hope, joy, enthusiasm at getting the opportunity to be part of thriving athletic programs. And then I pause and wonder: will this program build them up, affirm them, and carry them to successful, long, and healthy lives and careers? Will it push their bodies to their limits, proving to them that their bodies can withstand more pain and growth than they ever imagined before? Will they incur life-altering or life-ending injury? If they desire to express their own personal views regarding political and humanitarian issues, will the sport that nurtures them now still provide a culture of inclusion and support for them then?

Will the industry that profits from their hard work and dedication require them to stifle their humanity for its own comfort and financial bottom line?

I hope you will spend some time this week reading up on black athletes and activism, examining yourself for traces of bias, and listening to A Thousand Ways To Kneel And Kiss The Ground : Code Switch

Once you’ve spent some time reading, reflecting, and listening, I hope you will consider these questions: 

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  • When you have attended high school sporting events, have you felt a surge of joy at seeing young black students participating because you’ve assumed that excelling at sports is the only way they will be able to go to college and make a better life for themselves? 
  • Have you made this assumption without actually knowing anything about these individual students’ lives, families, or backgrounds?
  • When black athletes that you admire have become involved in political activism, have you found yourself dismissing their political stances because they interfere with your ability to enjoy watching them display their athletic prowess? 

Meet me back here next week, and we’ll continue constructing peace in our own hearts, one piece at a time.

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?

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

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?
Photo by Michael Morse from Pexels

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.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

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 – 

Photo by Askar Abayev from Pexels
  • 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.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

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

Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

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

Photo by Luana Bento from Pexels

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long live the king.

Piece 30: Grown

Peace by Piece

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

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

Photo by Dih Andréa from Pexels

Especially if they are black.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Matheus Henrin from Pexels

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:

Photo by Blac Bear from Pexels
  • 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.