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.

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

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 39: The Other Side of Freedom

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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.

On April 3, 1968, on the night before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told a Memphis audience that his eyes had seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. With what would prove to be a prophetic voice, King declared, “He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

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When I think about the mountain of which King spoke, I think, too, of Mount Calvary. When God allowed King to go up to the mountain, did he there see Christ carrying the cross on which He would be crucified? Did King see a great cloud of witnesses, the church fathers of whom Scripture speaks? Did King glimpse the paradise Christ promised to the repentant thief crucified beside Him? Did King glimpse the beloved community of which he so often spoke: an idyllic land of true freedom and justice for us all?

When I think about the mountain of which King spoke, I think, too, of Amanda Gorman. She so eloquently captured the nation’s attention as she spoke of, “The hill we climb/If only we dare/It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit/it’s the past we step into/and how we repair it.” Must every American ascend a mountain, a hill, in order to take in an unobstructed view of our collective past? Why have we dared not ascend this hill? Truly, how can we claim to take pride in a nation whose history we haven’t taken the time to examine and reckon with? Can a flat, one-dimensional perspective of who we are, a perspective which overlooks the parts of our culture  that are in desperate need of repair, yield the unity that so many of us claim to desire?

When I think of the mountain of which King spoke, I think, too, of what happens once God’s people have stepped into the water to walk through to the other side, out of bondage and into freedom – not knowing that what awaits them is wilderness. What happens after God’s people have heard and obeyed His call to follow Him out of bondage and into the liberation He has prepared for them? When present-tense uncertainty begins to crowd out the hope of future-tense stability and safety, making the familiarity of past-tense bondage look incredibly alluring by comparison?

Photo by Joshua Abner from Pexels

In his memoir, The Other Side of Freedom, activist DeRay McKesson speaks of how to handle such tension as he outlines the difference between faith and hope. “Faith,” says McKesson, “is rooted in certainty; hope is rooted in possibility…The work of faith is to actively surrender to forces unseen, to acknowledge that what is desired will come about, but by means that you may never know, and this is difficult…Hope is the belief that our tomorrows can be better than our todays.” 

Did King see in the Promised Land he spoke of the world DeRay McKesson speaks of – a world we have never seen before, “of equity, justice, and joy…something altogether new?” 

Will we be able not only to glimpse but also to inherit the Promised Land once we have completed the active work it will take to ascend the hill we climb?

Was Christ’s crucifixion on Mount Calvary intended not only to fulfill prophecy by demonstrating sacrificial love, not only to display brutal suffering we too may witness or experience this side of heaven, but also to show us that love puts in work?

Freedom won’t come to us while we watch blameless people of color be killed time and again by brutality, by systemic oppression, by generational trauma. Rather, freedom will come to us once we’ve demonstrated our own willingness to love actively in order to bring liberation to all humankind. 

When King ascended the mountaintop on the night before his murder, and saw the glory of the coming of the Lord, did he see an active love that liberated all people not from the bondage of spiritual sin, but from the bondage of humankind’s mistreatment and hatred of each other?

  • If we truly believe that a violent crucifixion was required by the God who made us in order to reconcile His creation unto Himself; if we hold as sacred that the only way to God is through the murder of a willing and holy sacrifice of one’s own body, then how does that belief color our expectations of people who are tortured, brutalized, and killed around us? 
  • Do we expect that violent injustice at the hands of humanity’s selfishness and corruption is the price for living a corporeal life that is worthy of spiritual reward? 
  • Is our inner dialogue one that dismisses the traumatic wounds that emerge from watching family members, friends, and fellow people of color killed time and again, because we believe that each death – no matter how tragic – represents a soul that now sees the other side of freedom, an individual who has ascended the mountaintop?
  • What are we going to do to show active, liberating love to our neighbors? What will we have to give up in order to ascend the mountain and see the glory of the coming of the Lord ourselves?
Photo by Gantas Vaičiulėnas from Pexels

Friends of King’s who accompanied him that evening have stated that he was teary eyed, that he seemed to be speaking with finality. They posit that King knew the time of his death was coming near. And perhaps he did.

I hope that this week, you will spend time taking in and reflecting on King’s mountaintop speech, and that you will read or listen to DeRay McKesson’s and Amanda Gorman’s work as well. Whatever our religious or personal beliefs, it seems clear that hope is active and that the goal of freedom requires the work of love. Let’s keep working together to show love to one another and thereby build a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.

Piece 21: Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil

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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.

Whew. Y’all. It has been a week: elections and grand jurors, and Supreme Court appointment and violent death and of course ‘rona is still in these streets.

It’s no wonder I’ve been tired.

Each time a new name comes across my news feed because a black person has been killed by people who have been hired to “protect and serve,” my body and heart return to an all too familiar weariness reserved for this unique blend of personal and corporate grief. The grief passed down through generations and shared across the diaspora. The grief that fervently hopes blackness won’t be blamed for the death of us all. 

Photo by Colin Lloyd from Pexels

There is a heaviness too. How, after all, can one keep track of all the names of people across the country whose lives have been senselessly and violently cut short? Whether they are armed or not armed, waking or sleeping, sitting in a car during a traffic stop or fleeing from fear, the result too often is that a life is snuffed out. Not lost, as is so often the idiom, because we know these lives didn’t forget their way home but will eventually arrive. Rather, these lives are stolen, robbed from their mothers and cousins and friends and spouses – all of their loved ones left to wonder about the life that might have been had it been allowed to continue.

I have noticed that some people refer to these shooting victims by their first names. Casually, as if they were on a first name basis with them while they lived – even though in truth they were not. At first, when I would hear well-meaning strangers speak of these people by their first names, or see them write on social media about them this way, I felt bothered but stayed silent because I couldn’t figure out why my breath held, my pulse quickened. 

But then it hit me.

As much as the purpose in using victims’ first names is likely an attempt to humanize them, to make them feel familiar and real, there’s a thin line I think between humanizing these now-martyrs and forgetting just how personal the loss is for their loved ones. It’s right and appropriate for each of us to feel connected to these people and their families. And it’s equally important to force ourselves to sit still in our grief long enough to remember their loved ones’ grief is so much deeper.

Photo by ksh2000 from Pexels

When I see my child wear a red hoodie, I see Trayvon Martin’s face. But I don’t hear his voice calling me Cupcake, because I am not his mother.

When I see Mike Brown’s high school graduation photo, I remember lie-ins with protesters laying down on the ground in public, some with signs saying “hands up, don’t shoot.” But I don’t picture him walking to school past a graveyard every day, because I wasn’t one of his classmates.

When I hear Philando Castille’s name, I remember the Facebook live video of his bloodstained shirt as the life drained out of him as he fell to the side of the driver’s seat he was still buckled into. But I don’t remember how he paid for lunch when my parents didn’t have money to send to school with me, because I wasn’t one of the kids who came through the line in the cafeteria where he worked.

Photo by Life Matters from Pexels

I am not saying at all that I have an answer for what the perfect balance is between grieving corporately, righteously agitating for justice, and allowing space for families to grieve their loved ones’ passing. I am saying simply that we have to try not to lose sight of individual people in the midst of our indignation on their behalf.

We know Breonna Taylor’s name but not her favorite color or whether she smelled like cotton candy as a newborn.

We must remember this.

While there are certainly many published books written by bereaved families, the only one I have read for myself to date is Lesley McSpadden’s Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil. She details her own life, her mothering of Mike Brown, their families’ struggles and their triumphs, their love, and their loss. Her words challenged me to see her as a complete person, with a whole lived history with her son, not merely a face in the movement for justice.

As you read and think and reflect this week, I hope you will consider these questions:

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels
  • How often have you prayed for the families of victims of violent crimes? Have you sought out information from the victims’ families? 
  • Have you watched and shared violent video footage of their loved one’s death? If so, have you also prayed for them – not just for justice, but for healing, for peace?
  • How can you balance humanizing victims with leaving space for the wholeness of their lived experiences?

I’ll be working at this alongside each of you who undertakes it. I’ve got no answers on this one, but I never want to forget the question. Together, let us never forget that each name that becomes a hashtag and rallying cry was first a human life. Come back next week, and we’ll keep asking and answering hard questions, so that we can find peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 13: When They See Us

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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.

In piece 12, I shared a bit about voter suppression, what it looked like in post-Reconstruction America, and what it looks like in our country today. I will echo a question here that I asked at the end of last week’s post: have you done anything to hold your elected officials accountable for their actions? I have written letters and emails, spoken once during public comments at a commissioners’ meeting and once at a city council meeting – knees knocking and voice shaking but speaking nonetheless. And I’m not done speaking up to advocate for what I think is best for this community, which at the moment is not having a confederate heroes monument looming over the Gregg County Courthouse. 

This week, my focus will shift from voter suppression to wrongful imprisonment. 

There is a scene at the end of episode two of “When They See Us” when one of the characters practices his trumpet in the middle of the street as the camera pulls backward slowly. The tune the young man plays is not recognizable to me, but its mournful tones resonate as deeply as the sorrow in his eyes. 

There is another moment, too, after the boys have been arrested, when they are being interrogated. At one point, one of the boys is asked about to describe his role in raping the young woman who was attacked while jogging through Central Park. The boy’s response is that he “did it to her.” The scene is so deeply uncomfortable because it is transparently clear that the boy is so inexperienced and naive that he is truly perplexed by the specifics of sexual intercourse, let alone the mechanics of a vicious sexual assault.

For these reasons among many others, not the least of which is that a now-prominent politician took out a full page ad in the New York Times calling for the death penalty to be reinstated to execute these then-children, the first resource I am recommending to you this week is the limited-run dramatic series “When They See Us.” I don’t know that I’ve ever before seen such a poignant examination of just how short-lived black childhood truly is in this country. Even today, well into their adult lives, there are people who stubbornly refuse to believe that the now-exonerated individuals who were jailed as a result of this case, had nothing to do with the crime that took place that night in 1989. “When They See Us” does not pretend to be a documentary that presents facts in an unbiased way. Rather, it calls its audience to pause, think, and empathize with the real men after whom these characters are modeled. We are invited to see these wrongfully convicted adult men as the innocent children they once were, and to mourn with them the childhood they lost that can never be returned to them. I recommend watching this series slowly, no more than an episode at a sitting, as it is emotionally heavy. I also recommend staying tuned for the interview between Oprah and the cast, the Exonerated Five, and the visionary director Ava DuVernay. I will be honest and tell you that I wept watching this series and the interview. Even if you are not moved to tears by this tragic story, I hope that you are moved to learn more about this case and others like it, to pay attention to disparate sentencing for similar crimes among different ethnic groups in this country, and that you check yourself for biases you may have when you read news headlines or encounter black strangers in real life.

The second resource I suggest this week is a short TedxTalk from writer Clint Smith. “How to Raise a Black Son in America” succinctly captures the terror of raising a black son in America. He references “the talk” that black parents give their children, the protective, firm admonition to always keep your hands where police can see them. He contextualizes the statement that black lives matter, explaining why it’s necessary to say such a thing and how it isn’t a term meant to exclude anyone but to affirm the dignity of black people’s lives. Smith is a perennial fave of mine. I’ve enjoyed his poetry, his history-based commentary on Pod Save the People, and the occasional Instagram pics he shares of his growing family. This particular TedxTalk, though, was my introduction to his work. It’s as resonant today as it was when I came across it a few years ago – maybe even moreso. I hope that as you watch his brief talk, you’ll fully listen to both the literary and historical context he provides and the personal experience he shares. 

Since this week’s piece is a quarter of the way through the series, my reflection questions will be more cumulative than resource-specific:

  • How do you feel your thinking has changed since you began to read this series?
  • Have you diversified the sources of information from which you draw, beyond the resources I specifically recommend in this blog series?
  • Are you consciously, actively striving to check your biases when you notice them in your everyday life?
  • What action have you taken to advance efforts toward justice, peace, and equity?

As you take in these resources this week, I hope you’ll take deep breaths as well. Breathe through the emotions each piece brings to the surface, allowing yourself to feel deeply the humanity of the children arrested in 1989, of young Clint Smith as he played with friends one night in a hotel parking lot. Come back again next week, and we will keep working together to unlearn racial bias and cultivate peace in our lives and homes and communities, one piece at a time.

City Council Special Session

meeting room

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

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

Photo by Emre Can from Pexels

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

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

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

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

Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels

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

Thank you for your time.

Piece 12: About This Right to Vote

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 about when you may have pushed back against the voices of people of color in your life when they’ve told you they’ve experienced injustice. I did a version of this very thing myself just a few weeks ago, when a trans friend mentioned JK Rowling’s controversial, bigoted views, and I speculated aloud that Rowling’s particular brand of feminism probably didn’t include the experiences of black women. While my speculating may have been understandable, it served only to push myself to the center of a conversation that wasn’t about me. I was just as wrong in that moment as the white woman in the workplace who listens to her black colleague’s account of being treated differently, only to assert that the reason for that different treatment must be because she is a woman and not because she is black.

Honestly, in both cases, discrimination isn’t necessarily spread equally across marginalized groups because we want it to be so that we, too, can feel included in the exclusion at hand. This week’s piece will focus on a different kind of exclusion: that of voters.

When I began this series, I did what teachers do: I made a plan. Although I have adjusted that plan by moving topics around to reflect current events or to include new resources as I have come across them, neither of those is the case for this week. I planned to write about voter suppression this week because it’s an election year – I had no idea at that time that USPS would be under attack, thereby threatening to slow down or prevent ballots from being received by mail during a pandemic that makes mail-in ballots a necessity for more people than in most election years. When I made this schedule, I didn’t know that the primaries in some states would have already been a virtual catastrophe: social distance ignored in some places while voting locations closed in others, even while people were still queued outside waiting to exercise their right to vote.

Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

In light of all this, it’s an especially important time to act to end voter suppression. Therefore, this week’s resource isn’t something to read, watch, or listen to. Rather, this week’s suggestion is to act. Sign the petition, request your ballot early, call your representatives, and buy a sheet or two of Forever stamps. Should you take these steps, you will undoubtedly be helping the Us Postal Service in its time of crisis.

However, this is not enough.

Across the nation – and especially in the south, including Texas – election years find polling locations closed and voters purged from rolls in areas overwhelmingly populated by ethnic minorities. What this means is that people who are American citizens, who are here legally, who have not lost their right to vote as a result of having committed crimes (which shouldn’t happen anyway), are unable to exercise their right to vote. The very right to vote that heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rep. John Lewis, Diane Nash, Rev. CT Vivian, and Annie Lee Cooper fought for us to have, is still being denied to people of color. The same right to vote exercised by many Black Americans during the too-brief era of Reconstruction, before Jim Crow and grandfather clauses and literacy tests, is still being denied to people because of the color of their skin – and presumably, because of how they will likely vote.

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Even if you do not consider yourself a patriot, even if you do not vote yourself for your own personal convictions, even if your state or community is not impacted by closed polling places and long lines and early closing times, I hope that you are bothered by the idea that people who have the right to vote and want to do so, can’t. I hope that bothered feeling moves you to act on their behalf. Donate to the causes working on behalf of voters across the nation. Share the petitions calling on our elected officials to properly serve their constituents. Text the numbers that automatically generate emails to your representatives.

And vote. Even if you can’t vote for every category because of your own conscience, please exercise your right to choose who represents you and works on your behalf, making decisions that impact your community. 

Several years ago, one of my students looked at me and earnestly asked me why people should vote if they really don’t feel that any of the people on the ballot represent them. I thought a minute and then answered him directly: If you don’t vote while you can, then you may not be able to vote when you want to. In many places – Texas included – voter rolls are purged of people who are inactive voters. It’s not right. I don’t believe it’s constitutional. But it happens. And voting at every opportunity is the surest way I know to ensure you continue having the ability to vote in the future.

As for me and my house, I am the only person who can vote. I have young children and an immigrant husband. My vote represents us all. Your vote represents more people than just you as well.

Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

When you reflect this week on what the 2020 election might look like, and for whom you may cast your ballot, I hope you’ll consider the following:

  • What can you do to help ensure that people in your community are registered to vote?
  • How often do you vote in local elections? Do you keep informed of the issues on the ballot and/or do research before going to the polls?
  • Here in Longview, we’ve had some tense county commissioner meetings regarding the community effort to remove the confederate monument from in front of the county courthouse – the very place where these meetings take place. Much of the recent attempts to sway the commissioners to move the monument have amounted to one basic tenet: holding our elected officials accountable to represent us. Have you held your elected officials accountable for their decision-making? Do you feel they are adequately representing you as part of their constituency? Is your voice being heard? What about the voices of marginalized people groups in your community – are they being heard?

Keep showing up each week to do the work, y’all. Even and maybe especially when we are worn down and want to give up and go home, it’s vital to keep moving forward toward the way of justice and equity. Peace – when we attain it – will not be a victory easily won; we will have fought for it, one piece at a time.

Piece 11: Kalief Browder

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 driving reason I think it is so important to reflect on the stories we are told about people who don’t look like us, is so that we understand the biases we may be susceptible to. If, for example, all we ever see of black people on TV is that they are either getting into trouble or being rescued from trouble by people who are not black, then we begin to expect the same of black people when we encounter them in real life. It’s for this reason that if we offer a handout or social invitation to an acquaintance of color, we may become deeply offended if they don’t accept. We were so obviously being magnanimous in offering them an experience they wouldn’t otherwise have access to – which we know, of course, because it’s all we have seen.

It’s super important to check the source of these biases so we can root them out of our minds thoroughly. 

Conversely, young Kalief Browder believed in the goodness of being American: the inherent dignity and legal rights he was owed. He believed that his blackness did not in any way negate his entitlement to equitable treatment under the law. And instead of our system of justice fulfilling his rightful expectations, it let him down with fatal results.

I first heard the name of Kalief Browder several years ago, in connection with Jay-Z. No doubt I heard about his story on a morning show or saw him in a picture with a celebrity who amplified his story in hope of helping him to get justice. A short time later, he was gone. 

Even though he had been released from prison after a three-year stay in one of the most notorious prisons in the country – Rikers Island – Browder succumbed to the lingering ghosts of the horrors he had experienced. 

But let’s begin at the beginning.

Kalief Browder was adopted as a baby, brought into a loving home where his mother had already fostered and adopted other children. By all appearances, he had a loving, open relationship with his siblings and mother but a rather fraught one with his father. After his parents divorced, Browder remained with his mother. And like some of his siblings before him, he turned to his surroundings for connection and guidance. In Browder’s case, his surroundings included gang activity that led him to make some wrong choices. As a result, he found himself on probation at the age of sixteen. So when he was stopped by police on suspicion of having stolen a backpack, and was subsequently arrested, he was unable to be bailed out by his family even after they scraped together enough money, because the arrest was a violation of his probation.

When you watch Time: The Kalief Browder Story, you will no doubt find yourself angry at the circumstances of his arrest – a secondhand witness whose story kept changing, a years-long stay on Rikers that included months of solitary and multiple suicide attempts, a judicial system that kept putting off his case, which forced him back into an environment where he was repeatedly beaten. I have no doubt, too, that you’ll want to scream at the guards, judges, and attorneys who time after time allowed his case to be delayed while he remained in custody on Rikers. And I suspect that you will agree with me that Kalief Browder didn’t take his own life any more than his mother died as a result of heart trouble; rather, our country’s inefficient judicial system killed this young man and by extension his mother as well.

So why, then, would I suggest that you watch such a horrific, disturbing story? How could any modicum of peace possibly be found in such heartache? 

Because it happened.

There’s no embellishment or spin that sensationalizes Browder’s story away from the truth of its happening. Every detail of it is factual. The system worked exactly the way it was designed to work. And the result of that system and those facts was that Browder died at a tragically young age, after suffering from physical and psychological abuse made even more harrowing by the fact he endured such abuses during his formative years, before his brain and body had even finished developing.

When I re-watched Browder’s story recently, it struck me that at the time of his arrest, he was the same age as many of the students I have taught. Sixteen: that awkward age when boys’ voices may still be changing such that they don’t hear how the bass in their voices carries across the room, making it impossible for them to whisper. That uncertain age when hormones fluctuate so frequently and everyone else seems to develop faster than they do, yielding sometimes awkward excitement about their facial hair. That wonderful age full of hope and expectation, of unspeakable joys and indescribable lows. I could have been his teacher, constantly pushing him to do his best and then one day wondering where he went, if he had transferred or moved, only to discover years down the road that he had been arrested and later died.

James Baldwin once said that he didn’t know if labor unions and their bosses really hate black people, but he knew black people weren’t in their unions. He said he didn’t know if the real estate lobbies have anything against black people, but he knew their lobbies keep black people in the ghetto. He didn’t know if the board of education had anything against black people, but he knew the textbooks they give our children to read and the schools that we have to go to. Baldwin said, “You want me to make an act of faith on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen,” echoing Langston Hughes’s assertion that America is the land that never has been yet.

Kalief Browder, beautiful, hopeful, full of potential, and brimming with the expectation that the system would eventually work in his favor, never got to see that America that never has been. He held fast to the act of faith Baldwin speaks of, believing that in America justice must exist. And the system failed him utterly. It killed him.

If we are interested in pursuing peace and reconciliation, we must acknowledge stories like Browder’s that block so many of our friends and neighbors from feeling that sense of carefree idealism that we may take for granted in ourselves. In other words, there is no real peace without real truth. There’s no reconciliation without a reckoning.

As you watch Time: The Kalief Browder Story this week, I hope you will consider the following:

  • When have you turned a blind eye to the agony of your neighbor in order to safeguard your own sense of peace?
  • Have you pushed back when people of color in your life have told you about their experiences of injustice, silencing the voices of their experience?
  • Where in your life and relationships can you find space to breathe peace into your friends of color by offering them a compassionate listening ear?

Keep showing up to this space each week, and in time, peace will be ours: one piece at a time.

Piece 7: Do Justice

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.

Photo by Life Matters from Pexels

Writer James Baldwin once said, “Precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience you must find yourself at war with your society.” In answer to my question last week of when and where are the right time to protest injustice, I’d say the right time is as soon as you develop that conscience Baldwin speaks of, and feel moved to protest. If that conscience-developing moment comes when you are a young person who is tired of not receiving food service because of the color of your skin, then it’s the right time to sit in at a lunch counter. If that conscience-developing moment comes when you are a school-aged child who wants to attend integrated, well-funded schools, then it’s the right time to walk out of school with your classmates. If that conscience-developing moment comes when you are a celebrity who wants to use your platform to draw attention to worthy causes, then it’s the right time to start a foundation to help inform and empower the next generation of changemakers.

For the past month and a half, I have shared podcast suggestions, movies, TV episodes, and books. Today, I want to point you not toward sources of information to take in, but toward points of action.

Seek out and patronize black-owned businesses. Many businesses these days have online storefronts. Take Crayon Case and Honey Pot, for instance – these two businesses are founded and run by black women, and their high-quality products can be shipped right to your doorstep. I encourage you to look for businesses that provide goods or services you regularly use, so you can patronize them on a continual basis. Once you find a product you love, be sure to like and share the business’s social media pages with your emphatic review. By intentionally diversifying the businesses we patronize and freely sharing our positive impressions, we can draw attention to people in our communities who are sometimes overlooked, and we can contribute in a small but meaningful way to restorative work.

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi from Pexels

Donate to organizations that are actively involved in justice work. Through the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson has led a team of individuals dedicated to educating the public about dark, often overlooked aspects of American history, and advocating for incarcerated people, especially those whose families live in poverty. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund approaches race-related justice work through litigation and advocacy. The Southern Poverty Law Center is a hub for education and remembrance, in addition to carrying out the important work of tracking hate groups’ activities, to help people remain informed and safe.

Donate to victims’ families. The list of victims of police brutality is long and horrific, particularly when you consider that in most cases, the victims’ killers are never brought to justice. Although we cannot bring back any of these lives that were senselessly cut short, we can call, email, and write to legislators to advocate on their behalf. These cases need to be investigated and murderers brought to justice. And we can donate to victims’ families and protesters’ bailout funds, knowing that an immense amount of time, money, and expertise will be required to bring killers to justice and ultimately, to reform a historically jacked up legal system.

This week, I will ask you to consider these questions:

Photo by Alexas Fotos from Pexels
  • What actions have you taken in your own life to work toward healing racial rifts?  
  • Who have you begun to read and follow in order to broaden your understanding of marginalized people’s reality? 
  • How will you fulfill your role within the larger movement for justice in this country? 
  • What will you do to ensure that tomorrow is better for your black and brown neighbors than yesterday and today?

Once you decide which actions you can take and reflect on your purpose in this newly awakened racial justice space, come back next week so we can keep working toward peace, one piece at a time. 

Charleston: A Watchman Meditation

Charleston Nine

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

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

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

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

There are no invisible people in God’s kingdom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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