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 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 18: Moonlight

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 shared a bit about what it can feel like when such a dense, thorny space exists between the world and oneself. About the tension black parents feel knowing how much we love and cherish our children, and how all-consuming our concern for their wellbeing can be – so much that volumes and tomes and essays and songs have been written to express our collective and individual grief, and our sorrow. 

I asked you about  your feelings and thoughts regarding reparations. I asked in part because until 2004, I did not realize that Japanese Americans were interned during World War II, and it was at least a decade after that before I realized a minimal amount had been paid to this group of citizens in the form of reparations. Because of the hot, contentious emotional aura that tends to surround conversations about this particular idea, I thought until relatively recently that the U.S. had set no historical precedent for issuing reparations to wronged people groups. That assumption was incorrect. While there may be little precedent of the U.S. Government issuing reparations, it isn’t unheard of. It’s happened before.

It can happen again.

This week, I want to reflect briefly on homophobia, LGBTQ stereotypes, and the role both have played in American entertainment. 

I think I was aware of Laverne Cox as an actress before I saw her on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.” I vaguely remembered seeing her on an episode of “The Mindy Project,” but I don’t think I really took notice of her. Recently, Cox returned to Netflix for a documentary about the portrayal of trans people in film: Disclosure. This documentary took me to school. Not only did I learn a great deal about films and shows I wasn’t familiar with from having seen them myself, but I also began to see with fresh eyes the movies and shows I was familiar with. How is it that the media I’ve taken in over the course of my life has managed to simultaneously villainize, fetishize, and dehumanize transgender human beings? If ever you’ve needed to see clear evidence that as a culture we must do better, Disclosure offers such evidence in abundance. This makes Disclosure my first suggested resource this week.

For my second suggested resource this week, let’s turn our attention from a truth-illuminating documentary to a scripted drama. “Pose” is a gift, y’all. Billy Porter and MJ Rodriguez lead a dazzling cast of characters in this drama set at the incarnation of New York’s ballroom scene in the 1980s & 90s. Watching this show, I’ve learned so much about how early-days HIV and AIDS patients of color were ignored and maltreated, glimpsed the heartbreak of young people ousted from their houses after coming out to their families, marvelled at the beauty of framily that can emerge from the ashes of transphobia. “Pose” allows its viewing public to pause at the mirror long enough to reflect on the culture we’ve built, the people groups we’ve cast aside, and the resilience that our hetero-worshiping culture couldn’t snuff out.

The last resource I suggest this week is Moonlight. A few years ago, shortly after the #oscarssowhite fiasco, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway presented the Oscar for best picture to LaLa Land, the film that – aside from not being a great love story – struck some viewers as a white-centered introduction to the jazz music genre, which has origins that are decidedly not white. The best picture announcement was made, the cast, directors, etc. took to the stage and began their thank you speeches, and then somebody lifted the needle off the record.

LaLa Land, the almost entirely white movie, did not actually win best picture; rather, that honor went to the almost if not entirely black cast of Moonlight

I cried. The imagery and poetry of the moment were stunning. 

But let me back up and talk about the movie itself and not the moment it won such an honor.

Moonlight chronicles the childhood of Chiron, our protagonist. Chiron grows up with an uncertain home life. Local drug dealer Juan becomes a mentor and gently ushers Chiron through his uncertainty about his identity and sexuality. One of my favorite scenes in the movie depicts Juan assuring Chiron that he doesn’t have to have answers about his sexuality at his young age. As the movie progresses, a story unfolds that is utterly unlike any other I’ve seen before or since: a deeply human, uniquely black, intensely relatable coming-of age tale of a young man discovering and trying to come to terms with his homosexual identity.

As you peruse this week’s suggested sources, I hope you’ll do so with an open mind while you consider these questions:

  • What one-dimensional depictions of LGBTQ individuals have you seen in the media and on some level believed to be true?
  • Where in your own mind and heart have you turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the struggles of LGBTQ people because you believe in some way their “lifestyle choices” have created their struggles, not our culture’s wrongheaded portrayal of them?
  • How can you begin inner work today to unlearn the biases you’ve held against LGBTQ people – biases that aren’t based in truth but in lopsided media narratives? 

I hope will join you on this journey to keep learning about our siblings who share a gender and/or sexual identity other than our own. It’s a long journey, but in my experiences, such journeys generally prove to be the ones that are truly worth taking. Let’s continue on this journey together, trekking the winding, arduous path to peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 3: Black and…

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.

The title song of the playlist I created last week was “Hell You Talmbout.” In this protest anthem, the singers alternate a chanted refrain of the title and shouted verses with the names of a small fraction of black people who have been killed as a result of living within this society. A society which in too many ways regards blackness itself as suspicious, as reason enough to shoot first and ask questions later.  Among the names of those victims mentioned in the song, I was unfamiliar with four: 16 year-old Kimani Gray, young mother Miriam Carey, veteran Tommy Yancy, and Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo. 

Amen

May light perpetual shine on each of their souls.

I asked at the end of that post why the recent murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery unsettled you in a way prior murders did not. My own answer to this question is that I am angrier and more heartbroken now, but this isn’t my first time feeling tired and angry. I asked, too, why you’re ready for this conversation now when you weren’t before. My answer is that I’ve been ready in small, interpersonal ways, but I’m ready to write this series now because my kids are old enough that my fear for their safety is incredibly real, and because I want newly aware, well-intentioned white people, to stop listening exclusively to their white friends who are just now talking about race.

Listen to, read, watch, and follow black activists and organizations who are already engaged in this work. They have been living this reality for a long, long time.

During our country’s current emotional upheaval and broad push for justice in the name of murdered citizens, for substantial police reform, and for urgently needed policy change, I’ve begun to notice the spectre of a decades-old argument. Specifically, when actors Nicholas Ashe and Justice Smith announced their relationship and joined a recent protest, some of the public comments responding to their announcement called for them to set aside their sexuality because now is the time to focus on blackness. 

It seems that in these commenters’ minds, Ashe and Smith are welcomed to be a part of this movement for black lives if – and only if – they set aside their relationship and identity as queer men so as not to “distract” from the protests or cause people to “lose focus” or “take attention away from the issue at hand.” In addition to the fact that this argument overlooks the queer, intersectional foundations of the movement, it also implies that these activists’ queerness otherizes them and somehow waters down their blackness and therefore the push for justice itself.

This is wrong. And it is also not new. 

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin, the openly gay activist who was instrumental in organizing 1963’s March on Washington – the march where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, the march that Al Sharpton has announced plans to replicate this August – was in many ways kept behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement because of his status as an openly gay man. Then, as now, folks thought that his sexuality would be a distraction if he featured more prominently in the movement. 

I confess that I’ve had to reflect on this recently. I consider myself an affirming Christian, yet there came a moment when I sat across from a friend who shared a personal truth, and I had to question my inner reaction. In my zeal to loudly affirm and learn from my LGBTQ friends, I hadn’t stopped to consider that there’s more than one valid way to exist within that spectrum. And my loud affirmation could easily be read as condemnation for folks who don’t live out their LGBTQ identity in the way I think they should.  That was wrong of me.

I have three books to suggest to you this week – all of which I have listened to as audiobooks in the past few years. Because each book contains heavy, emotional, deeply personal content, I’ll provide a synopsis of each. My suggestion is you choose the one you think you will allow you to be open and able to understand most easily.  

Gay Girl, Good God is phenomenal speaker Jackie Hill Perry’s frank account of her journey from self-identifying as a lesbian, to her struggle with addiction, to her encounter with God and conversion to Christianity, which ultimately led her to embracing a wholly different lifestyle than what she led before. (To be transparent, I struggled with the epilogue of this book and its language of “disordered sexuality.” Therefore, I did not finish it.)

In When They Call You A Terrorist, Patrisse Khan-Cullors details her early life, her involvement as a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement, her experience being harangued as a terrorist, and shares with readers the unconventional way she came to fall in love, marry, and have a child with her partner. 

Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness is a searing, heartbreaking account of her childhood as her parents’ first son. She chronicles her unique upbringing in a culture whose roots regarded transgender people as rare and worthy of reverence, and she recounts an experience many transgender youth face – resorting to extreme and dangerous measures to bankroll the medical treatment and procedures she desperately desired.

I have several reflection questions for you this week. They are designed not to elicit a certain right or wrong answer, but to prompt you to question your own biases:

Black and…
  • What qualifiers are you placing on black people whose lives you think are worthy of saving/protecting?
  • In your mind, do you expect that if black activists are members of the LGBTQ community as well, that they will set that part of their identity aside?
  • Is there any part of your own personal identity that you would set aside in order to be part of a movement to advocate for a people group you identify with?
  • Why should any black person who is working for positive change in this country feel that they must focus only on one part of their identity and not its whole?
  • Is a gay black person any less black than a straight one?
  • If one black life matters, don’t they all?

Even though this work is hard and at times may feel brutal, it’s necessary and right that we undertake it together. Come back next week, and we will continue to work toward peace, one piece at a time.