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 32: Caste

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

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

Y’all. All the parallels are there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piece 8: The Blood of Emmett Till

Peace by Piece

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

Last week, I asked you how you would fulfill your role within the larger movement for justice in this country. For me, in addition to working through anxiety and fear to write this series on my own corner of the internet, I will continue drawing attention to advocacy groups and marginalized voices. I’ve also been fortunate to join with like-minded community groups recently – one to start a Be the Bridge group and the other to erect a historical marker commemorating a troubling aspect of our community’s history.

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When I was a kid, having a summer birthday was rough. There was no opportunity to hand out invitations at school. And even if my parents had my friends’ parents’ phone numbers, there was a huge chance my friends were out of town and therefore unable to come celebrate with me. As a July baby, one thing I did to try and feel a sense of specialness when my birthday came around, was to flip to the back of Seventeen Magazine for horoscopes and celebrity birthdays. I would then try to manufacture emotional connections to the actors who shared my birth month, so I could feel cooler by birthday association.

Then a few years ago, I realized that I had an iconic birthday buddy: the slain Emmett Till, whose murder catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up knowing some things about Till’s story. I knew that as a teen visiting his family in the South one summer, he supposedly whistled at a white woman in a grocery store; that when the woman’s husband found out, he got a group of men together to forcibly take Till from his family’s home and kill him; that killing him wasn’t enough; that the men weighed his body down and then threw it into a river; that Till’s body was so mutilated that his own mother could not at first identify him as her child; that Till’s mother decided to have an open-casket funeral so that people could see what had been done to her son; that Jet magazine ran a spread featuring Till’s story and funeral.

Over all this, I knew of course that black people – even children – could not truly be free around white people without being punished.

What I did not know when I was growing up, was that Emmett Till and I shared a birthday. I did not know the woman who accused him of whistling at her – the accusation that led to his murder – later recanted the story of what happened in the store that day. I did not know that two men were tried and acquitted of Till’s murder, that they later confessed to their heinous crime in Look magazine for a fee of $4,000 because they knew they would not be tried again due to double jeopardy. I did not know that in time, a marker in Till’s memory would be erected, only to be tossed into a river and shot at, ultimately replaced at least three times.

I learned most of these facts a few summers ago, when I listened to this week’s suggested resource: The Blood of Emmett Till. In this book, Timothy B. Tyson details eyewitness accounts, interviews, and public records to piece together the truth of Emmett Till’s murder. The depth and breadth of Till’s case definitively illustrate how fatal white supremacy can be for black boys in America. The mere suggestion that a black teen whistled at a white woman was enough for Till to be pulled from the bed where he slept next to his cousin and brutally beaten and killed. 

Luvvie Ajayi Jones touches on this insidious phenomenon in this week’s second suggested resource: “About the Weary Weaponizing of White Women’s Tears.” Jones’ blog post sets forth the idea that white tears can be a matter of life and death for black Americans. While Jones’ blog post draws on personal anecdotes, data does indeed bear out her thesis. The third resource I will suggest this week contains such data: Pushout, a book – and soon-to-be-released documentary – which closely examines how black girls are treated in schools. Dr. Monique Morris traces over-representation of black girls in the juvenile justice system, lack of consideration of students’ home circumstances, and the prevalence of vilifying black girls for behaviors for which girls of other ethnicities are not punished. 

All three of this week’s suggestions shine a bright light on disparities in the way our culture treats black and white people. In many ways, the dominant white American culture seemingly must always be protected and upheld,even at the expense of black autonomy and sometimes, like in the case of Emmett Till, at the expense of black life itself. I do not suggest taking on all three resources this week. Choose what you are able to devote time to, and what interests you most. For me, with Till being my birthday buddy, I’m always interested in facts about his life and death. For teachers who are looking for ways to do better for students of color in their classroom, Pushout may be a more logical choice. If time is short, you may only have time to read Luvvie’s blog post. Whichever resource(s) you choose to engage with this week, I hope you’ll consider these questions as you read:

  • When have I witnessed white tears used as a weapon against people of color?
  • In my personal relationships, how have I coerced people of color to change their conduct to suit my own ideals of propriety?
  • When my white friends complain about people of color in their lives, do I question their perception and bias, or do I accept them as tacit truth because my friends’ perception confirms my own bias?
  • Do I have different behavioral expectations of black children than white children?
  • Are my reactions to children’s behavior different – based on their race – even if their behavior is the same?

This week’s work is emotionally heavy. But I hope that as you exhale and peruse these resources to select one, that you will remember this work is necessary. Be kind with yourself even as you confront hard truths, and I’ll see you here again next week. We’ll keep doing this hard emotional work to actively pursue peace, one piece at a time.