Piece 35: Black Church

Peace by Piece

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

Much of the spiritual tension and growth I have navigated as an adult has been wrapped up in reconciling my joyous, liberating black church upbringing with my being dunked into fundamental evangelicalism as a young adult. The rough transition from one faith tradition to another felt very like being excited to be baptized only to find the water too cold and the preacher unaware that you can’t breathe underwater so he holds you down so long you begin to panic. So when you finally emerge for air, you feel gratitude and joy – but it takes you awhile to recover so you can revel in the exuberance of the moment because you are quite literally focused on breathing.

Photo by nappy from Pexels

The black churches that taught me to memorize John 3:16, that baptized me and drew me out of my introverted shell in Sunday school, that put me in the choir and let me lead a song – is a place of uninhibited expression of oneself. A place where service would always go long, so Nonnie was ready and willing to let me nap on her lap and was sure to keep a few peppermints in her purse to help me stave off lunch hunger. A place where Youth Sunday once a month would highlight our dance group(s), mime troupe, drill team, and choirs. A place where each Sunday’s altar call might see the same handful of folks coming down front for prayer – where each time they would be welcomed and prayed for, whether they verbalized their needs or not.

It was a precious and very specific place where I was seen and loved, where a song might move me to tears or a sermon bring me to my feet, where I might rub a friend’s back and fan her when unspoken emotions overcame her. Even now that I have attended the same Episcopal church for 18 years, I believe I could walk into any given black church and feel instantly welcomed and at home, knowing the order of service by heart, and embracing a space that welcomes my heart and my humanity. A place to release the stress built up from the burdens we carry from day to day – not because we “lean not on our own understanding,” but because we can sing, dance, shout, weep our woes aloud, and know that our spiritual siblings will understand our struggles implicitly, and support us in the fullness of our lived experience. A place of solace and catharsis. Of shared joy and pain. 

It’s a feeling that for me has been unmatched by any other church I’ve been in.

So I am so thankful that PBS and Henry Louis Gates presented a mini-docuseries that provided a survey of black American church history. I watched with rapt attention, took copious notes, and sat glued to my spot for four hours to try and absorb our history. To try and understand the beautiful, mysterious, deeply affecting figure that is the black church. How have my people maneuvered through being forced from our continent, so that we could be beaten and broken in forced bondage, and created and sustained an institution that sees us, knows, us, loves us, and provides omnipresent hope for our bodies and our souls?

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

I’m astounded by the beauty of the tradition we have built.

One of the most lovely and moving characteristics of the black church is her music. The organist plays softly while congregants mill about, greet each other, and find their seats. Deacons intersperse their opening prayers with call and response hymns. Choirs process, sing, and then remain at the ready to back up the preacher as he draws his sermon to a close. Song ushers in the altar call, beckoning those who will to come to Jesus while they have time. Music is the constant undercurrent throughout service – pausing briefly for the beginning of the sermon. 

Songs assure us that our living is not in vain, remind us that Jesus is more precious than silver and gold, and extend to us the blessed assurance that since the world didn’t give us the joy we have, the world can’t take it away.

I hope that you will watch this two-part series from the brilliant mind of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. And I hope you will sit for an hour with this playlist I’ve curated to draw me back to one of my first loves: the black church. Each and every track holds with it a precious memory of the unique, glorious place where I first became cognizant of my love for Jesus.

As you watch and listen, I hope you will reflect on these questions: 

  • What are your earliest memories of being loved, held, and seen? What sounds, smells, or textures are inextricable from those first moments of feeling truly accepted as you are?
  • If you are a person of faith, how still or vibrant was the church of your earliest years as a believer? When you feel far from God, what anchor from these early faith days holds you fast?
  • When you think of the terror that has been inflicted on the black church in this country time and again, how do you imagine you might feel if the black church was that first place of faith for you? Would you feel safe to worship in the space where you truly felt at home?
Photo by Michael Morse from Pexels

I hope that learning about the black church blesses you as it has me. And I hope you find yourself embracing the tension that arises when we realize how segregated our churches are, why that is, and what the way forward may look like for us all. I hope, as always, that you will meet me back here again next week, so we can keep constructing a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.

Or, as my pastor back home would say, “The doors of the church are open. Won’t you come?”

Piece 24: Go Tell it On The Mountain

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 reflection on one of my all-time favorite musicals: The Wiz. I recounted the connection I feel between one of this musical’s most iconic songs and the sense of connectedness I feel to my own family and home. Then I asked about how inclusive your family gatherings are, how welcomed you work to ensure your family feels. For me, last year was our first time to host our family for Thanksgiving at our house. It was wonderful, relaxed, and restorative. The kids had crafts I’d picked up for them, there were movies to be watched if that was desired, the adults enjoyed great food and conversation, and we got a whole family pic in front of our porch before following up with a cousin pic of the kids tossing autumn leaves in the air. 

I’ll miss that time together this year, as our gathering has necessarily shrunk in size due to COVID concerns. But I cherish the memories we made together and look forward with great anticipation to the next time we can safely gather.

In the same vein as home, for me, is church. Gospel music is an integral part of the black Baptist (not Southern Baptist) church tradition in which I was raised. In my experience, there’s music throughout the service. You’ll hear instrumental music being played as congregants mill about and find their seats before the service starts. You’ll hear call-and-response hymns during the devotional period between and even during prayers. You’ll even hear songs during the sermon – once the preacher begins to reach the summit of the message he’s ascended to deliver – up to and including at times, the pastor himself incorporating song into the sermon’s conclusion, with or without the help of the choir, as the moment requires. 

A meaningful, musical part of my teen churchgoing experience was dancing with the Angelettes. The first song I remember learning a praise dance to, was Kirk Franklin’s “Now, Behold the Lamb.” I was fourteen or fifteen years old, and a group of similarly-aged girls at my church had practiced Sis. Trice’s choreography so that the dozen or so of us could dance at church service one Sunday morning. We had each procured the required attire: white leotards and tights. And Sis. Trice had purchased or made us skirts. White gloves topped the ensemble, and when the appointed time arrived, we tamped down our stomachs’ butterflies to walk slowly, taking long, deliberate strides, toe-heel, somber-faced, to our starting dance positions in the sanctuary. 

Even now twenty-plus years later, I remember a few of the steps we performed: mimicking cradling a baby Jesus, gesturing while we looked heavenward, and the ending choreography, which found us going through the motions of “shouting” in church. We doubled over, arms wrapped around our stomachs and backs, hopping lightly as the music swelled, similar to the way we’d seen church ladies “get happy” our entire churchgoing lives. When a fellow dancer began to shout and cry, I felt a jolt run through me and even though I kept dancing, I began to cry myself. Once the dance concluded, I was unable to articulate to a curious churchgoer why I had cried. I only knew what I felt in my bones: I was moved, and my tears were a natural response to the movement I felt within me.

I remember, too, that when I was in the second grade, one of the people whom I loved learning about was Mahalia Jackson. Her face and voice calmed me, and I felt enveloped in a sense of comfort and ease whenever we got to read about her in class. I’ve carried that fascination with her aura into adulthood – from the CD of her music that I ordered from Columbia House while I was in college, to the fact that whenever our church sings “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” it never sounds quite right to me because it isn’t Jackson’s cadence and voice. And in those funereal moments when my mortality stares me in the face and I begin absently wondering what I’d want my own homegoing service to look like, Mahalia Jackson is there too – reminding the congregation that soon they, too, will be done with the trouble of the world. For me, Jackson’s voice is inextricable from a musical experience of who God is.

This week, I’ve put together a playlist of black gospel songs for you to listen to in perhaps a new way. Too often, in television and movies, black gospel choirs are used as a stylistic device. They appear for a moment – to make us laugh because their presence is jarring and their choir robes out of place; to make us feel a surge of giddiness because the guy and the girl finally get together at the end of the movie; to elicit in us a desire to forgive people in our own lives who have wronged us, just like the character on that show we like offered forgiveness to someone who wronged them.

And yet.

These media moments ring hollow for me. They fail to respect the sanctity of the black gospel tradition, the holiness created by a collective of voices crying out to God for help for hope and solace and freedom. They almost feel sacrilegious – these usages of black gospel choirs for non-gospel purposes. They reduce a beautiful communal experience to a punch line or an emotional footnote, never indicating that there is a rich faith tradition behind these heavenly choruses.

I don’t at all mean to indicate that people of faith should look to media representation for validation of their beliefs. What I do hope to point out is that black gospel choirs are an essential part of a beautiful faith tradition and should not therefore be treated as a punchline or a plot device.

I wonder. 

  • Have you ever experienced a surge of emotion upon hearing a black gospel choir sing? What has that emotion represented to you? 
  • Has it been a fleeting moment or a response to God beckoning you into relationship?
  • Have you ever questioned why we see black choirs used for these rhetorical purposes but not white worship groups, choirs, or praise bands? [granted, the Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah has been more than once co-opted by culture at large – usually, though, it seems to be a chorus of voices only and not faces and bodies of a choir singing]
  • Is it any wonder that black people are time and again expected to soothe other people’s feelings rather than existing as whole people who exist in three dimensions?

I hope that as you listen to this playlist, you’ll allow yourself not just to feel inspired and joyful, but that also that you will listen and respond to the invitation that the black gospel tradition represents: to hope when hope seems lost. To create joy when sources of it are constantly snatched from our view. To broaden your concept of what it means to have church and to grow in knowledge of who God is. To love and be held by a Creator who came to Earth in human form to ensure us beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are never alone.

I hope that you listen not only to be moved, but to be changed.

I hope you’ll come back next week, refreshed and ready to keep working toward peace in our world church, 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 support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

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.

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 support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

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 support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

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 6: Lift Every Voice

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.

At the end of piece five, I left you with a list of questions to guide you in some self-reflection. One reason I was able to come up with the questions quickly is that I’ve been on the receiving end of several of them. I’ve been shushed by a white friend in a restaurant for wanting to send back food that had hair in it. I’ve been confronted by the principal of the campus I worked on and told I was brittle and standoffish for not smiling in the hallways, for not always responding “hello” when greeted [even though in all likelihood the loud, crowded hallways prevented me from hearing his greeting to begin with]. I’ve had my campus principal called by a workshop host because in my frustration, I asked questions, and then, when it seemed I was asking too many so I shifted my focus to note-taking, the workshop presenter found my smile odd – apparently – when she came to ask how I was doing. 

Photo by Ralph Rabago from Pexels

I’ve been labeled intimidating because I am confident, introspective [read: quiet when thinking/regrouping], and opinionated. While this may seem harmless, when people feel intimidated, they tend to do whatever they can to knock down the people who intimidate them. In some ways, to me, “intimidating” is the new “uppity.”

But alas, this week, we’ll shift our focus away from the violence of stifling black people’s autonomy, toward a different kind of violence: the kind that invades a  sacred space.

Churches in this country are segregated not only by race but also by culture, ideology, theology, and politics. While white supremacist racism was the reason for the black church’s emergence separate from white churches in this country, it is not the only reason the black church has remained. Black churches are our haven. Here, we find catharsis, community, engagement, help, peace, family, acceptance, and connection. From the time we are pre-schoolers, we learn Easter speeches, watch our older cousins perform praise dances and mimes, pass out on our grandmothers’ laps during the sermon, and sneak more peppermints from our mothers’ purses than they realize. In black churches, we exhale – away from staring eyes that wonder aloud about our hair texture, cultural references, or blaccents. We are free to live and move and have our being without explaining how we exist the way we do in this world.

photo of James Weldon Johnson,
author of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,”
Courtesy: Library of Congress

And we sing.

At least once a year – in my experience – we sing the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” My church back home would switch out the congregational hymn at the beginning of each month. For every February I can remember, this anthem was that month’s congregational hymn. Today, even without a hymnal to guide me, I can sing most of the words by heart. The familiar tune carries in it a feeling of home for me, a sense of connectedness that is deeper than I have words to express.

Last week, an anonymous person who claims to be in discussion regarding racial tension in the NFL claimed that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” will be played before “The Star-Spangled Banner” for week one games in September.

This is a terrible idea for a plethora of reasons. If the NFL follows through with this supposed plan, I fear that the opening anthem sequence will lead black and white sports fans to sit, stand, kneel, seethe, and likely argue and eventually swing at each other as much as they physically can before the songs end. 

Permeating all the tension is a violent act visited upon a space black Americans hold as sacred. Out from the gloomy past of our people being forced to create their own churches, traditions, and culture, have emerged a richness we hold dear. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is not a call to conflate cross and country as we tearfully revere America’s founding fathers. Instead, the black national anthem is a holy call to remember our people’s oppression, faith, struggle, triumph, and resilience.

Simply put, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” belongs to those of us whose weary years and silent tears have been seen by God. It is a hymn of worship to God, not an anthem of allegiance to a flag.

The Star-Spangled Banner” is at best a patriotic call to take off one’s hat and fall silent while thinking of people who have died for freedoms all citizens can enjoy. At worst, Francis Scott Key’s anthem is a tone-deaf call to remember American whiteness fondly while overlooking the writer’s own view of black people as subservient, subhuman. So for the same national sports organization that blackballed Kaepernick for kneeling in memory of citizens victimized by police brutality, to now invite itself into a sacred space black Americans have made for ourselves, is at best naive and ill-fitting – and at worst, violent and blasphemous.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

This week’s suggested resources will hopefully help illuminate the meaning of the black national anthem to our community. First, I suggest a close reading of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I encourage you to read each verse and reflect on its meaning, depth, and the collective history it incorporates. Second, I suggest taking a look at Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” on Netflix. She began her show with the black national anthem, and the spectacular concert that followed carried an HBCU theme, which I think will help to further highlight the beautiful, affirming traditions and institutions black Americans have created for ourselves, after being banned from white American spaces that never intended to include us except as servants. Third, I hope you’ll take a careful look at the lyrics to all three verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The anthem, like our country, has a complex author with a complicated and at times conflicting history.

Some questions to consider as you read and watch this week:

Photo by Todd Trapani from Pexels
  • When you first heard of Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem, what was your reaction? Why?
  • When and where, in your opinion, are the right time and place to protest injustice?
  • Think of your family’s favorite song, tradition, or hymn. If your family member was publicly harangued by a group that later wanted to play that hymn publicly, but still had not repaired its broken relationship with your family member, how would your family feel?

I hope you’ll sit with these texts and these questions this week. Get quiet and determine what these songs and traditions mean to you, how important they are in your life. I’ll see you here again next week so we can keep working toward peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 2: Hell you talmbout

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 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 cousin 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.