Piece 14: Where Does it Hurt?

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.

Last week, I asked if you have diversified the sources of information from which you draw, beyond sources I have specifically recommended here. While I am writing this series primarily with materials I’ve read, watched, and listened to over the past three or four years, I’ve found that when I conduct my brief research each week, I find fresh voices to follow. I’ve begun to follow several women of color on social media whose words and work are agitating the too-long accepted status quo, pushing their audiences to think and feel more deeply, and pulling them into a dialogue and a cultural awareness that will ultimately liberate marginalized people groups from the unhealthy, unrealistic expectations the dominant culture has placed on them for centuries. This week, my focus will turn toward several people of color who are actively involved in justice work. I hope you’ll join me in following them.

A year or two ago, a friend recommended the podcast “On Being” to me. I was not at that time a regular podcast listener, so I wasn’t optimistic that any could keep my attention, particularly since one of the specific episodes my friend recommended contained names of people I’d never heard of before. Even though the host was award-winning journalist Krista Tippet, I’d never heard of her. And even though the interviewed subject of the episode was active in SNCC during the Civil Rights Movement, including marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge herself, I had somehow never heard of her either. This week’s first suggested resource is Ruby Sales’ interview on “On Being with Krista Tippett.” I’m so glad I took her my friend’s suggestion and listened to this episode, though, because Sales’ message has stayed with me. Near the end of the interview, Sales opens up about a pivotal moment that taught her how to help young people – particularly young activists – to heal. While getting her hair done one day, Sales asked this question of her stylist’s daughter, who was clearly in pain: Where does it hurt?

As I have plugged into a few local efforts, a key motivation for me has been young people. So many young adults and teens are paying attention and participating in current movements and uprisings in this country. And each time I feel a surge of pride at their activism, I feel immediately after a sense of heaviness that this is the cultural climate they have inherited. The problems we have not fixed, the segregated water fountains our parents stared down, the civil struggles our grandparents watched unfold with baited breath: all of these comprise this generation’s inheritance. We haven’t fixed this for them, so they are forced to try and fix it for themselves. The burden we ourselves never wanted our children to bear is waiting in their future to yoke them, and bearing this burden doesn’t at all promise to be an ultimately liberating endeavor. 

Each time I see a young person step into a position of leadership in social justice, I hear the words of Ruby Sales, recalling the young activists she’s worked with who have wondered aloud how black adults could have thrown children into a den of people who don’t love them. I picture Elizabeth Echols and Ruby Bridges marching resolutely into freshly “integrated” schools while hateful mobs bore signs that advertised their desire to keep black students out of their schools, while spit and rocks where hurled at black students, while National Guards made a show of protecting and escorting students even though in some cases they blatantly allowed deplorable, trauma-inducing actions to be visited upon these children.

And even in my pride and admiration at Naomi Wadler and Vanessa Nakate, as well as their contemporaries and fellow activists, I cannot forget the pain in the question Sales has heard in her work: how could we send our children into a world that doesn’t love them?

Naomi Wadler became an internet sensation overnight in the wake of the Parkland shooting on Valentines Day & Ash Wednesday a few years ago. The student-led movement that followed, with Emma González and some of her classmates at its forefront, culminated in a nationwide student walkout and rally in Washington, D.C. The speech Wadler gave at March for Our Lives was soul-stirring and incredibly insightful. At the time of her speech, Wadler was only 11 years -old. Her Twitter page – which showcases her unique, incisive voice and work – is this week’s second suggested resource.

Vanessa Nakate’s activism is rooted in climate change-related work. In her own words, this young woman became interested in the impact of climate change when she was getting ready to graduate from high school and began to research problems facing Uganda. Having never been taught about climate change in school, Nakate quickly realized the wide-reaching impact of climate change on her home: food insecurity due to droughts, deadly floods, desperate families marrying off their distraught teenage daughters to old men because they have no hope of being able to feed and care for them. 

Putting her newfound knowledge into action, Nakate joined Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for the Future and organized Uganda’s first walkouts to raise awareness of climate change and pressure governing officials to take action to help people whose lives are so adversely impacted by climate change. Nakate’s passion, vision, and persistence are inspiring. To see her love for her people and country, and how this love has motivated her to fight for global change, is astounding. This week’s last suggested resource is Vanessa Nakate’s Twitter page as well as the two organizations she has founded: Rise Up Movement and 1 Million Activist Stories

This week, I want to leave you with questions that will facilitate future-centered introspection. 

  • What actions are you taking to make the world a better place for our children than it was for us? Are you holding your breath and hoping for change or actively seeking ways you can get involved in making change happen?
  • Do the children and young adults in your life find an audience with you when they wish to express their griefs, woes, ideas, and hopes regarding the distressing events we often see in the news? Are you listening to the young voices around you?
  • Where in your community can you step up and support young people doing important work? What needs do they have that you can provide? How can you come alongside them and join their work?

Our babies, the babies they may have one day, and the babies of those babies – all deserve a future brighter than our present. Let’s keep showing up for our fellow human beings – including the future ones – by working diligently toward peace, by pursuing it one piece at a 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 keep the anti-racism work going.

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.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

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 keep the anti-racism work going.

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 9: Get in the Way

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.

Last week, I wrote about the danger white women’s tears have historically posed to nonwhite people, particularly the lethal effect Carolyn Bryant Dunham’s tears had on young Emmett Till. Honestly, the personal experiences I have had with white tears are few. But even though I have infrequently been in the room when white tears are shed, I have been termed intimidating, told to smile [one of my least favorite things], not asked back to a job, called brittle and standoffish by an employer, time after time coerced into changing my behavior or my demeanor to suit white comfort.

The evening I began writing this post, Congressman John Lewis passed away. My heart is still hurting, and my vision during the last few days has frequently been blurred from tears: of gratitude, of sorrow, of hope, of overwhelm.

The passing of  John Lewis  hit me hard; so many greats who organized and nonviolently resisted on behalf of themselves, their children, and future unborn generations like mine, are no longer with us. Not only did I cry from gratitude, but I also cried because I know we the living have to pick up and continue where they left off. It’s up to us to pick up the torch Lewis and his contemporaries carried on our behalf.

This week’s three resources are all about John Lewis, a personal hero of mine whose life’s work was justice, equity, and liberation.

The March trilogy is an award-winning chronicle of John Lewis’s activism. The time-jumping tale navigates between Obama’s inauguration, where a young child meets Lewis and asks him to share about his life, to Lewis’s childhood preaching to chickens, to his adolescence and young adulthood participating in Freedom Rides, sandwich counter sit-ins, marches, and speeches. It’s beautifully illustrated, and my boys and I read it before we heard Lewis speak several years ago. I recommend it for school-agers on up. While some of the content is thematically difficult, very little of it is graphic.

In the week leading up to Lewis’s local appearance, I felt giddy with anticipation at hearing him speak. When I picked up tickets to the event, I got to speak with a local reporter about the honor and privilege of simply being able to be in the room with him. The day of the event, the auditorium where Lewis would lecture buzzed with anticipation. The phenomenal Wiley College choir sang a few songs, a local person introduced Lewis, and then there he was – a little shorter than I expected, and more powerful and moving a speaker than I could have imagined. I recorded his entire speech on my phone, soaking up his wisdom and experience, and excitedly glancing at my boys periodically to see if they were grasping the significance of the moment.

I remain deeply grateful for this experience I got to have and share with my family.

Get in the Way is an hour-long PBS documentary. Through interviews, archival footage, and contemporary news clips, we see the evolution of Lewis’s advocacy. Not only was he beaten on the Edmund Pettus bridge in 1965, but just a few years ago, he led a sit-in on the floor of the House in support of gun reform to help keep school-children alive and safe. More recently, we see footage of his marching and dancing in a Pride parade, speaking in favor of an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation. This year, my family crossed that bridge in Selma, Alabama while we were on our Spring Break trip. I paused and breathed in, beckoning my husband to snap a picture of this bucket list moment for me. I felt so connected to the pivotal moment in American history, when a march for voting rights turned into Bloody Sunday, but ultimately served in conjunction with other historic nonviolent resistance to speed along the passage of federal Civil Rights legislation.

When John Lewis first became involved in civil rights-related work, his parents told him not to get into trouble. Rather than obeying them exactly, he found “good trouble” instead. Good Trouble is the most recent film documenting Lewis’s extraordinary life. Released just this month, the movie details Lewis’s lifelong work to secure equality for all Americans. It provides a beautiful, timely examination of his struggle to redeem the soul of America.

As you reflect on what you learn about John Lewis’s life this week, I hope you’ll consider each of these questions:

  • What makes people worthy of the title “hero” in your eyes?
  • Are there people whom you consider personal heroes, who do not share your same cultural, ethnic, or racial background?
  • Where in your life might it be the right time to seize an opportunity to get into “good trouble” on behalf of people who may not be able to get into it for themselves?

Come back next week to continue the work of unlearning racial bias. I believe as we keep working together, we will find peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 8: The Blood of Emmett Till

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.

Last week, I asked you how you would fulfill your role within the larger movement for justice in this country. For me, in addition to working through anxiety and fear to write this series on my own corner of the internet, I will continue drawing attention to advocacy groups and marginalized voices. I’ve also been fortunate to join with like-minded community groups recently – one to start a Be the Bridge group and the other to erect a historical marker commemorating a troubling aspect of our community’s history.

Photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels

When I was a kid, having a summer birthday was rough. There was no opportunity to hand out invitations at school. And even if my parents had my friends’ parents’ phone numbers, there was a huge chance my friends were out of town and therefore unable to come celebrate with me. As a July baby, one thing I did to try and feel a sense of specialness when my birthday came around, was to flip to the back of Seventeen Magazine for horoscopes and celebrity birthdays. I would then try to manufacture emotional connections to the actors who shared my birth month, so I could feel cooler by birthday association.

Then a few years ago, I realized that I had an iconic birthday buddy: the slain Emmett Till, whose murder catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up knowing some things about Till’s story. I knew that as a teen visiting his family in the South one summer, he supposedly whistled at a white woman in a grocery store; that when the woman’s husband found out, he got a group of men together to forcibly take Till from his family’s home and kill him; that killing him wasn’t enough; that the men weighed his body down and then threw it into a river; that Till’s body was so mutilated that his own mother could not at first identify him as her child; that Till’s mother decided to have an open-casket funeral so that people could see what had been done to her son; that Jet magazine ran a spread featuring Till’s story and funeral.

Over all this, I knew of course that black people – even children – could not truly be free around white people without being punished.

What I did not know when I was growing up, was that Emmett Till and I shared a birthday. I did not know the woman who accused him of whistling at her – the accusation that led to his murder – later recanted the story of what happened in the store that day. I did not know that two men were tried and acquitted of Till’s murder, that they later confessed to their heinous crime in Look magazine for a fee of $4,000 because they knew they would not be tried again due to double jeopardy. I did not know that in time, a marker in Till’s memory would be erected, only to be tossed into a river and shot at, ultimately replaced at least three times.

I learned most of these facts a few summers ago, when I listened to this week’s suggested resource: The Blood of Emmett Till. In this book, Timothy B. Tyson details eyewitness accounts, interviews, and public records to piece together the truth of Emmett Till’s murder. The depth and breadth of Till’s case definitively illustrate how fatal white supremacy can be for black boys in America. The mere suggestion that a black teen whistled at a white woman was enough for Till to be pulled from the bed where he slept next to his cousin and brutally beaten and killed. 

Luvvie Ajayi Jones touches on this insidious phenomenon in this week’s second suggested resource: “About the Weary Weaponizing of White Women’s Tears.” Jones’ blog post sets forth the idea that white tears can be a matter of life and death for black Americans. While Jones’ blog post draws on personal anecdotes, data does indeed bear out her thesis. The third resource I will suggest this week contains such data: Pushout, a book – and soon-to-be-released documentary – which closely examines how black girls are treated in schools. Dr. Monique Morris traces over-representation of black girls in the juvenile justice system, lack of consideration of students’ home circumstances, and the prevalence of vilifying black girls for behaviors for which girls of other ethnicities are not punished. 

All three of this week’s suggestions shine a bright light on disparities in the way our culture treats black and white people. In many ways, the dominant white American culture seemingly must always be protected and upheld,even at the expense of black autonomy and sometimes, like in the case of Emmett Till, at the expense of black life itself. I do not suggest taking on all three resources this week. Choose what you are able to devote time to, and what interests you most. For me, with Till being my birthday buddy, I’m always interested in facts about his life and death. For teachers who are looking for ways to do better for students of color in their classroom, Pushout may be a more logical choice. If time is short, you may only have time to read Luvvie’s blog post. Whichever resource(s) you choose to engage with this week, I hope you’ll consider these questions as you read:

  • When have I witnessed white tears used as a weapon against people of color?
  • In my personal relationships, how have I coerced people of color to change their conduct to suit my own ideals of propriety?
  • When my white friends complain about people of color in their lives, do I question their perception and bias, or do I accept them as tacit truth because my friends’ perception confirms my own bias?
  • Do I have different behavioral expectations of black children than white children?
  • Are my reactions to children’s behavior different – based on their race – even if their behavior is the same?

This week’s work is emotionally heavy. But I hope that as you exhale and peruse these resources to select one, that you will remember this work is necessary. Be kind with yourself even as you confront hard truths, and I’ll see you here again next week. We’ll keep doing this hard emotional work to actively pursue peace, 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 keep the anti-racism work going.

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. 

Piece 5: Strange Fruit

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.

Last week, I left you with several questions about how black people are represented in media that you consume. When I sat with the question about interracial couples and how often they are depicted as dynamic characters, without their differing cultures as a major plot point, I came up with almost nothing. Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series technically meets the requirement, as does The Mindy Project, but other than that, I’ve got nothing.

breakfast or nah?

In all the many shows and movies I watch on a regular basis, interracial couples rarely appear, let alone as major characters primarily focused on something other than their differing cultures.

On the question of brand representation, I remember an odd conversation I had with a friend years ago, when Cheerios released a commercial featuring an interracial couple and their child. When I saw the commercial, all I saw was a commercial that was maybe a bit refreshing in its casting. But the friend whom I talked to about it mentioned backlash on her Facebook wall – and presumably, from some online publications – from people outraged by “political correctness” and a perceived attack on their own values.

I know, it seems preposterous. And it is. But in a country where this type of representation is so rare, we should almost expect such a reaction until a majority-white consumer base is accustomed to seeing ads that are not designed to appeal only to them – something marginalized Americans are accustomed to from their earliest experiences watching TV and reading books.

This week, we’ll shift our focus from representation to strange fruit.

During the past few weeks, several men across the country – predominantly black men – have been discovered hanging from trees, dead from apparent suicide. Our country’s history of inciting terror in black communities by lynching black men in the dead of night, by popularizing postcards that glorify these hateful murders, by carrying out riots in Arkansas and Oklahoma and Texas, should be enough to poke holes in any authority’s theory that no foul play is at hand in these men’s recent deaths. And yet, suicide is exactly what these authorities preliminarily suggested, pulling back in order to reevaluate only after having pressure exerted on them by public outcry. 

I am recommending two podcast episodes this week:

Code Switch’s “Claude Neal: A Strange and Bitter Crop” time hops to tell the story of Neal’s tragic murder while following poet L. Lamar Wilson as he uncovers Neal’s story and runs the path along which his mutilated body was dragged before being hung in front of the courthouse.

Isadore Duncan

My second episode recommendation is “Unfinished: Deep South.” This brand new podcast will unveil the story of Isadore Duncan, a financially successful WWI veteran who was brutally murdered, and whose family later fled their home with none of the financial wealth their patriarch had labored to earn because all pertinent records were destroyed when Duncan was murdered.

Here are some questions to sit with this week:

  • In what ways have you pushed back against the idea of black autonomy and equality in your own life?
  • Have you tried to silence or minimize the opinions of black people when they have disagreed with your own?
  • Will you devote the time this week to researching your own city’s history of racial violence? What will you do with that information when you find it?
  • What action have you taken to tear down the vestiges of racial terror in your own community?
  • In what ways might you have unwittingly ignored or encouraged violence against black Americans asserting and exercising their own rights to protest, vote, and otherwise carry out their civil rights?

This isn’t quick or easy work that we are doing. But it is necessary to build a better country for ourselves and for future generations. Keep at it, and come back again next week so we can keep working toward peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 4: Representation

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.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay 

Last week, I left you with several questions. One of them was whether you would set aside any part of your identity in order to be part of a movement for justice. As a mother, a Christian, a black woman, I have had to claw and scratch and fight for every aspect of my identity. I’ve been called white. I’ve had my faith questioned because I disagreed with someone else’s theology or interpretation of Scripture. I’ve miscarried a child. I’ve lived the pain that so many people feel when they finally discover the truth of their identity, only to have people whom they may love and trust, question them so much that they begin to question themselves.

I won’t set aside any part of my selfhood. No matter how much other people might want me to erase or minimize part of myself, I’ll show up as fully myself in all facets, no matter the task.

Aunt Jemima probably got more Google searches in this past week than any other time in the brand’s history, since the company that owns the name and its iconic image announced they’d be removing Aunt Jemima’s name and face. And although I did not know anything substantive about the brand’s history until last week, I did remember when the namesake’s head covering was removed years ago, I did find it easy to connect Aunt Jemima’s image to the mammy trope, and I did think of Kimberly Reese.

Kimberly Reese

I love 90’s sitcom “A Different World” so much that I have whole episodes memorized. I own a t-shirt that declares I’m an alum of its fictional HBCU. Its characters, theme song, and storylines aired in syndication so often during after school hours when I was a child, that they are interwoven with my memories of growing up. So when Facebook blew up last week with news articles and opinions about Aunt Jemima’s announcement, I thought immediately about an episode of “A Different World” in which Kim Reese has a painful breakdown and tells her mentor Mr. Gaines about a childhood memory she associates with Aunt Jemima.

The episode, entitled “Mammy Dearest,” depicts the core cast of characters putting together a black history program that traces black roles in entertainment over time. Due to Kim’s dark complexion, insecurity, and the aforementioned painful childhood experience, Kim wants the Aunt Jemima-adjacent mammy caricature excluded from the show. In true 90’s sitcom fashion, all identity issues are illuminated and resolved within the show’s half-hour span. But the episode also touches on colorism, guilt that can result from ancestors who made decisions we cannot be proud of, and disagreements black people sometimes have among each other about how our collective history should be addressed. For these reasons, along with the current relevance of the episode, “Mammy Dearest” is the first resource I am suggesting that you watch this week.

Rae & Nanjiani

My second suggested resource this week is dramedy “The Lovebirds.” When theaters nationwide closed because of COVID-19, Netflix swooped in and purchased this gem so we all could still enjoy it. This lovely romantic comedy stars the wonderful Issa Rae, of “Insecure” and “Awkward Black Girl” and “I’m rooting for everybody black” fame, and the hilarious Kumail Nanjiani, whom you may know from “Stuber” and “The Big Sick.” Because I love all things Issa Rae, and because my husband and I are an interracial couple, I knew from the first trailer that I wanted to watch this movie. So when it came out, we had a date night at home. We laughed heartily as well as exchanging sad face looks when the main characters hit relational snags.

As soon as the credits rolled, I began to wonder when was the last time I saw a movie like this: funny and honest and heartwarming. And starring an interracial couple whose different cultures are acknowledged but aren’t central to the plot. Essentially, I wondered the last time I saw a regular movie about regular people having regular problems (albeit in exceptional circumstances since they are inadvertently involved in a murder at the movie’s start). And I couldn’t think of the last time I saw an interracial couple on-screen, where their interracial couple status wasn’t The Main Thing. This makes “The Lovebirds” my second recommendation this week.

Hair Love

And finally, I want you to watch “Hair Love.” This beautiful, Oscar-Winning short from  Matthew A. Cherry took my breath away the first time I watched it several months ago. In this short film, we see a young black father struggling to do his daughter’s hair. Everything about this seven minute feature is brilliant: gorgeous hand-drawn style animation, a young dad with tattoos and locs, a beautiful young gap-toothed daughter insisting her dad keep trying, and a final scene that will undoubtedly have you reaching for tissue. 

As you watch this week’s recommended shows, I hope you’ll consider the following:

  • What positive and negative portrayals of black Americans have you seen in movies, TV shows, and other media such as product branding?
  • When was the last time you saw a movie starring an interracial couple, where race and culture were part of the plot but not its entirety? 
  • When brand names and images are changed in order to be more considerate of a diverse customer base, what feelings does this elicit inside you?
  • What do you think is the importance of intentional, positive, affirming portrayals of black individuals and families?
  • How might your own concept of self and family be different if you never saw positive portrayals of individuals and families that looked like you?

I hope you enjoy this episode, movie, and short film this week as you continue opening your mind to new ideas of what it means to be black in this country. And I hope you will bring an open mind back here next week, and we will keep working toward peace, one piece at a time. 

Piece 3: Black and…

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 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. 

Piece 1: The Bluest Eye

Peace by Piece

If you didn’t read my intro post, please go back and do so before moving forward with this one. It’s vital that you take the time to answer the basic question of why are you here. Truly, if you don’t have a clear sense of purpose, then attempts to understand someone else’s perspective will do nothing but cloud your own.

A little background about me and why I’ve decided to write this series: I was born, raised, and educated in predominantly black areas of Dallas. I have experienced continual waves of culture shock after moving to East Texas to attend college and subsequently settling here. I believe the combination of my upbringing juxtaposed with the environment in which I am bringing up my own kids, along with my career as a teacher and knack for writing, have positioned me in a unique place to offer insight into vastly differing perceptions of the country we live in. 

That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m doing this.

I want to introduce you to Pecola Breedlove. 

The Bluest Eye

I first met Pecola, The Bluest Eye’s haunting protagonist, when I was an identity-conflicted teenager. I related to her instantly – not because she was sexually assaulted or because she longed for the white standards of beauty that weighed her down. I didn’t share either of those experiences from my own personal life. Rather, I related to Pecola Breedlove because she struggles to withstand the cacophony of voices insistent on forcing their desires for her into her heart and mind. Pecola copes in the way she can: by accepting the soul-sucking idea that who she is, is ugly and inadequate. This beautiful fictional child crumbles under the weight of the exalted “beauty” of American whiteness, and suffers devastating ramifications once she resolves to accept the idea of her own ugliness.

This week’s suggested resource is literary giant Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye. Allow Pecola Breedlove to be your first teacher as you begin unlearning what you may have been taught both implicitly and explicitly. She will draw you in with her doe-eyed pre-adolescent innocence. She will capture your heart with her meek acceptance that she isn’t beautiful enough to merit being treated with kindness. And she will likely devastate you when you realize that although she is universally relatable, she is uniquely and definitely black, American, and female: tasked with deftly navigating a society that neither sees her nor wants her to exist as she is.

I will end on a reflective note for you to mull over until I post next week: Now that you have uncovered the tip of the systemic injustice iceberg and are fired up to dosomethingsaysomethingreadsomething, who are you centering as you learn? Are you centering yourself in order to satisfy your own need to feel you are helping move our society forward toward peace? Are you centering white faith leaders whom you follow and are now calling you to action? Are you centering your own white children because you don’t want to have tough conversations with them? 

I encourage you to reflect quietly on each question. Let each one wash over you, particularly if your first response is to wonder why I must specify “white” or to defend your answers.

Together, we can work toward peace, one piece at a time.