Piece 16: Hope and Hard Pills

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.

Music is a balm for me. When I am tired or distracted, the right tune can energize me and improve my mood. When I need the emotional release that accompanies a good, long cry, the right playlist will take me to that emotional space almost immediately. And, too, when I feel lost, forgotten, and unable to remember who I am, music can anchor and center me. Force me to sit still and quiet the voices without to listen to the still, quite voice within.

I stumbled across the Hope and Hard Pills podcast for the first time last summer. Having followed Andre Henry on social media for a short while, I noticed with interest when he promoted his podcast on his Facebook page. One particular episode – with Candice Benbow, another Christian thinker whose voice and insight I value – is my first recommended resource this week. Henry and Benbow speak frankly about loss, grief, and the complicated relationship we sometimes have with our church families (and they with us). The faith community they speak of building is the very thing I didn’t know I needed during my early twenties, when I was just trying desperately to accept the doctrine that had been presented to me as absolute truth during my college years. What a vastly different, spacious, inclusive theology would have done to transform and open my young heart, I’ll never be able to go back and know for sure. What I appreciate particularly is how much the church experiences Henry speaks to mirror my own. There’s a satisfying, deep sense of catharsis when strangers so aptly analyze experiences that left me frozen and almost unable to cope in real time. The healing that comes with such catharsis is thorough and – at the moment, anyway – ongoing.

The Red Couch with Propaganda and Alma is a podcast that provides unique perspectives from a black spoken word/rap artist and his Mexican wife, who is a professional academic. The couple speaks earnestly about their life experiences, their interracial and cross-cultural challenges, and raising their two daughters in the context of their blended family. Whether I glean new levels of meaning in world politics from Prop’s “Hood Politics” segment or collecting gems from Dr. Alma’s multicultural, data-informed insights, I learn something new from this pair every time I listen. The Red Couch with Prop & Alma is the second resource I suggest this week. 

The third resource I suggest is the always incisive “Combing the Roots with Ally Henny.” Every episode Henny publishes touches on a truth that resonates with me. For context: our backgrounds are similar. We are both black women in our thirties, with roots in the black American church, who married white men and ultimately became Episcopalians. With these commonalities, it’s no surprise that Henny’s experiences and perspective feel so similar to my own. Time after time, Henny combines her wit, candor, and vulnerability with commentary regarding the political climate and the state of the church, to boldly illuminate a new aspect of truth I need to hear. Her style is systematic and unflinching, two descriptors that seem to be missing from too many public conversations around justice and race today. 

As you listen to the voices of these activists, artists, and Christian thinkers this week, I hope you will consider these questions:

  • When you sense yourself feeling resistant to new ideas and perspectives, where does that resistance come from? Were you taught or conditioned to feel this resistance, or is it a natural response you have always felt?
  • How has broadening the scope of voices you listen to impacted your life? Has this led to deeper, more meaningful relational experiences with your friends and family?
  • How are you doing with recognizing and checking your biases? [confession: I’m a definite work in progress on this one]

Keep doing the heard work, all y’all. We will create peace for ourselves, our communities, our world, one piece at a time.

Piece 15: Anthem

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.

In piece 14, I asked what actions you are taking to make the world a better place for our children than it has been for us. I asked if you were holding your breath and hoping, or if you are actively seeking ways to make change happen. In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to become involved in several local efforts to get involved in making necessary, overdue changes in the community where I have lived for 20 years – the entirety of my adult life. I hope that you have exhaled. I hope that you are looking to join work already in progress. And I hope that you are looking for ways you can use your unique gifts and skills to uplift your community as well.

Photo by Edward Eyer from Pexels

This week, I’ve put together a playlist of anthems to invite you on an emotional journey. For me, to be black and American has often meant wrestling inwardly. To push forward, toward goals that I think I can reach which, once attained, may put me in a position that makes people who are not black and/or women feel threatened and therefore lead them to push me backward; or to stick to what I know will keep people around me comfortable, even though it means shrinking myself and leaving lifelong questions unanswered? To put on an affect of dialect or style of dress or carriage of my body that fits a stereotypical, accepted picture of what it means to be black; or to show up in the fullness of who I am and weather having my identity called into question? To accept others’ assertion that what they perceive of my personal identity is insufficient and therefore I have no claim to stake in a black cultural identity; or to embrace the unique genes and experiences that comprise who I am and therefore expand a popular but incredibly narrow concept of what it means to be black.

For me, the anthems in this playlist represent specific moments in time. They’ve lifted me when I was low. They’ve reached out to offer commiseration when I’ve felt alone. They’ve met me where I was when I felt I wasn’t equipped for a task. They have assured me that I am enough just as I am. I hope these songs will help you to empathize with the push and pull that I and many [if not all] black Americans live with daily: to strive or to sit; to reach for more or to accept what is; to risk our safety as we try to succeed, or to hope we may go unnoticed if we stay small and try to live in peace.

Sam Cooke’s infectious, timeless “A Change is Gonna Come” leads this week’s playlist. Shortly after Cooke wrote and recorded the song in an unprecedented short amount of time when compared to his prior work, the singer was shot and killed under mysterious circumstances. His haunting anthem, though, has outlived him, resonating with audiences a short two years later as Bloody Sunday transpired on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and decades later as systemically unjust policies and practices continue to disproportionately harm communities of color. The injustices about which Cooke felt he could no longer be silent are among us still, dwelling alongside us, insisting at times that we ignore the reality of their being. And Cooke’s work has survived to keep helping us to see clearly the change that is still needed and has not yet come.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

When Common and John Legend accepted the Oscar for “Glory,” I cried. When I had first heard the song in the context of the movie Selma, I had cried then as well. In truth, I own an unopened copy of Selma, which I was only able to watch one time – in the theater with my husband at my side, holding me while I wept at the sight of actors reenacting that Bloody Sunday massacre that was intended only to be a peaceful march for voting rights. What “Glory” stirs in me is that inner yearning for the already-not-yet that I believe comprises the kingdom of God: the yearning for something we already have experienced by virtue of our Creator, while at the same time the elusive thing itself remains nebulous while we live our lives in these mortal bodies here on Earth. 

The playlist begins with Sam Cooke and Moana, progresses to Andra Day and Chance the Rapper, and ends with the soothing balm of Mahalia Jackson, Common, and John Legend. There are love songs, gospel songs, rap songs, cussing songs – all of which for me work together to express emotions intertwined with feelings that are inextricable from my experience of being black and American.

I hope you listen. 

And as you listen, I hope you will consider the following questions:

  • If you can, imagine yourself in the position of constantly feeling at odds with yourself/your expectations/your family, culture, or society’s expectations of you. If such a state of being was your constant and you could never truly rest from it, how would you cope?
  • Where or to whom do you turn for comfort and solace? Have you ever witnessed someone else trying to twist that object of comfort and solace into something wicked and unworthy, in order to satiate their desire to maintain a sense of superiority over you?
  • How have you navigated the inner turmoil that results from competing expectations of self and others, in your own life?

Keep reading and thinking and pushing yourselves to be braver, more compassionate human beings. We will all be better for it. And come back here to join me next week, so we can keep working for peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 2: Hell you talmbout

This article 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.

The question I left you with at the end of the last post was to consider who you are centering as you enter into this soul-searching work of unlearning, relearning, and hopefully gradually dismantling generations-old systems of injustice. So I will share with you who I am centering: my sons.

I have not had what many black parents refer to as “the talk” with my children. From the time they were young, I have of course warned them to keep their hands out of their pockets in the store. And we don’t generally shy away from discussing a kid-version of current events with them. They listen to news podcasts with us, and we answer questions if they ask us.

But.

Mother and Son, colored by Candace

I consider my sons to be my center for the purpose of this question, because I want to take an active role in helping people other than my circle of friends to open their eyes to the trickle-down manifestations of inequity in this country.  I want them to see me doing this work, to know it is for them, and to be conscious that the disparities built into this country’s systems to ensure they don’t have the same access to “the American dream” as their white friends, will slowly and surely be dismantled. I want them to know why the systems exist, and I want them to see their mother working to tear them down.

I also want my sons, and every other black child and adult in this country, to have the opportunity to live full lives, to ripe old ages. This – they, their present, and their future – are my center.

I first heard the song “Hell You Talmbout” several years ago, a short month after Sandra Bland was found hanged in her jail cell three days after police stopped her while she was driving. Sandra Bland’s death had shaken me deeply; she very much reminded me of a family member who is as close to me as a sister. So when Janelle Monae released this cover as a protest song the following month, I sat myself down at my dining room table while my children napped, and I wept. 

Then I played the song again and kept weeping. I repeated the song until I ran out of tears. And then I called my Mama.

The thing about trauma is that it lives in the body. Often, we want to hasten our feelings away. To push our shock and rage into our fingertips and get to work. We want to hurry our bodies through pain and sorrow that we naturally feel in response to trauma – even if we didn’t suffer that trauma ourselves – so that we can mark the issue as resolved and continue on our journey forward. 

But our bodies don’t work like that. Feelings don’t work like that. And restorative work – the work of deconstructing hundreds-year-old systems built to ensure that people who have one skin color thrive while everyone else has to fend for themselves – won’t work like that.

So while it is necessary and natural to support protesters, to write your elected officials, and to choose books and movies to share with your kids that help break current events down to their level, our bodies also need us to sit still. A favorite writer of mine says that feelings are for feeling. In other words, the only way out of our feelings is through them. No shortcuts or workarounds will make this inner soul-work faster or more productive; this is a long-term process. 

The resource I want to share this week is a playlist of songs that express lament, determination, and comfort. Although it is a YouTube playlist, I recommend listening instead of watching so as not to focus on the images rather than the words from each piece. Pop your earbuds in, close your eyes, and just listen and feel your feelings. Feel the pain of years of your own ignorance and complicity. Feel the grief of black mothers and fathers across the country who have had to bury their babies as a result of brutality. Feel the determination to fight to validate oneself even if no one else will. Feel the insistence on being seen. Feel the comfort and reaffirmation of your own humanity.

When you have done this and are ready to reflect, ask yourself how many names that were chanted in “Hell You Talmbout” were utterly unfamiliar to you. Why did the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery break your heart and unsettle your spirit, when the murders of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Rekia Boyd didn’t? Why are you ready for this conversation now but you weren’t then?

Bring your answers and a full, open heart back here next week. And we will keep working together toward peace, one piece at a time.