Piece 22: A Wrinkle in Time

Peace by Piece

Last week, I asked you how you could balance humanizing the victims of police violence while leaving space for the wholeness of their lived experiences. This isn’t an easy or even necessarily a natural thing for me to do. But one thing that helps me is not to call these people whom I never knew in life by their familiar first names. If I refer to them in writing or in conversations, I use their first and last names, as if they are people I don’t know. Because even though stories like theirs are all too familiar, and even though I feel a kinship with them in that my skin color and presumptions about it could be weaponized against me at any given moment, I do not in reality know them no matter how personally I may feel devastated by the manner of their death.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

When I took my babies to see A Wrinkle in Time in theaters, I carried several emotions with me: nostalgia for a favorite childhood book I had enjoyed and shared with my boys, recently rejuvenated curiosity since my older child had gotten me interested in reading the graphic novel adaptation, and excited anticipation at the prospect of Ava DuVernay’s black-protagonist- focused adaptation.

I was very excited. 

While some audience members – L’Engle purists, no doubt – were scrutinizing the movie’s liberal interpretation of the book, its altered plot points, and its outsized Oprah role, I was puzzling in my mind – trying to remember the last time I saw a young black or biracial girl on the screen who was insecure about her hair and reassured of its beauty by her crush. I was marveling at the multiracial representation of Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit. I was crying at the beauty of this depiction of a girl so connected to her father that she was determined that he was able to be found and set out to bring him home. I was swept away by the costumes, the cast, and the dazzling beauty that DuVernay and Oprah bring to everything they touch with their gifted hands. I was validated and seen and grateful.

My children didn’t have the same reaction I did. They are 21st century biracial boys who do not share their mother’s experience of being a young black girl insecure about her identity and sorely lacking big-screen representations of people who look like her. Nevertheless, our whole family enjoyed the movie. And we left the theater determined to purchase the movie, which in time, we did.

Considering the election week we’ve had in this country, I somewhat wish time would wrinkle. If it were possible to pass through a real-life wrinkle, suspended in/hurtling through time and space, I might just want time to stop long enough to experience the worlds to which that wrinkle would take me. Away from the mess that 2020 has dished out: mysterious seeds, murder hornets, a tiger king, a global pandemic, and now, a mere few days away from Friday the 13th, an election hullabaloo.

I want to pause and breathe and watch a lovely movie about an awkward teenage girl who misses her dad. I want to sit in a theater with my family and eat popcorn from the refillable bucket we buy each year. I want to sneak my children the dollar store snacks and drinks I usually purchase on our way to the movies. I want to lose track of time just long enough to watch a 90-minute reimagined stroll down memory lane – into an allegorical world of wonder.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

This week, I invite you to do just that: watch the 2018 A Wrinkle in Time. Try to picture yourself as a child, seeing someone who looks like you, in a sparkling, colorful, big-screen adaptation of a book beloved by young and old alike. Try to feel the excitement and anticipation of knowing that behind the movie is a black female director who received an almost unheard-of budget to bring this movie to the screen – where her cinematic vision became the first movie directed by a black woman to gross $100 million at the box office. Particularly if you saw the movie before and found yourself let down that it didn’t strictly follow the book or fit with prior film iterations of the story, try to imagine how it feels to see yourself in this beloved tale for the very first time.

As you watch and pay attention to how your body and mind react to the film, I hope you will consider these questions:

  • How many other movies and shows have you seen that center a black girl finding her identity? Strong relationship with her father? Embracing her beauty and uniqueness? Adapted from popular books?
  • When you bristle at modern, inclusive versions of old stories, why are you bothered that a present-day adaptation doesn’t stick to a traditional interpretation? Is it because even if characters’ skin color is never explicitly stated in the text, that whiteness is the norm in your mind’s eye as you read? 
  • If as an adult, you are affected by not being represented by characters who look like you on a movie screen, how much more important and meaningful do you think it is for children of color, who have so seldom seen themselves represented, to have the opportunity to do so?

Time won’t wrinkle for us, or even pause briefly. And since we must keep putting one foot in front of the other as time marches on, then we’d may as well keep working toward a more unified, harmonious, and peaceful way of living amongst each other – one piece at a time.

Piece 20: Exceptional

Peace by Piece

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

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

I was wrong.

Photo by Markus Winkler from Pexels

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

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

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

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

Photo by marco allasio from Pexels

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

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

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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

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

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

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