Piece 36: Know My Name

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

This week’s piece will diverge from my normal focus on antiblack bias and racism to focus instead on the recent hate crime perpetrated against the Asian American & Pacific Islander community.

I won’t name the murderer, a young white man connected with the Southern Baptist Church, who claimed the reason for his terroristic rampage across several counties in Georgia, was a sex addiction that necessitated eliminating “temptation.”

Eight candles: one for each person who was killed Tuesday
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Instead, I want to focus on the tragedy this killer wrought upon the families of Soon Chung (Julie) Park – age 74, Suncha Kim – age 69, Yong Ae Yue – age 63, Paul Andre Michels – age 54, Hyun Jung Park Grant – age 51, Xiaojie (Emily) Tan – age 49, Daoyou Feng – age 44, Delaina Ashley Yaun – age 33 – innocent people who bore God’s likeness in their living human bodies. [Originally, I did not list every name here, because there were reportedly some families who did not want their slain loved ones’ names publicized. Now that all of the victims’ names are public, I have updated the post to include each name.]

Last month, I ticked several books off my to-read list, among them Chanel Miller’s Know My Name. Within the pages of Miller’s account of her sexual assault by Brock Turner, she unfolds to us the details of her harrowing experience, the subsequent trial and sentencing, and their aftermath.

Because she is a firstborn child with a June birthday, Miller’s Chinese name is Zhang Xiao Xia, which means “little summer.” Xia is also China’s first dynasty – Miller is the firstborn. Her American name, Chanel, is a play on the sound of Xia (sha). In Miller’s words, she begins this story with no name. When she was found half-naked behind a dumpster, she lacked identification and it was unclear to authorities whom she belonged to. For months after she was assaulted, Miller kept secret the attack she suffered. Only a handful of people knew her identity, even as news reports and updates danced across her family’s TV screen. Miller was Emily Doe until she was ready to reveal her true identity. 

If you’ve never read her victim impact statement, I recommend, as Miller’s then-therapist recommended to her before knowing her client was in fact Emily Doe, that you do.

This week, as unspeakable tragedy rocked Georgia and reverberated throughout the country, many of us found ourselves stunned and outraged at this latest in a recent string of merciless attacks against the AAPI community. As I watched and listened and read news reports and emotional responses, my mind kept flitting back to Chanel Miller. This self-described shy young woman, who kept her identity concealed in part because she was raised to protect her younger sister, whom she knew would be harmed by the revelation of Emily Doe’s true identity to the nation and to her family, was not only assaulted by a young white man but also seen as unimportant by American culture. As a woman who is also Asian, Miller found herself at the unique intersection of misogyny, racism, and fetishism. No doubt, Miller’s assailant, who had also hit on and forcibly kissed another young woman in their party earlier in the evening, believed he was entitled to do as he pleased with Miller’s body – regardless of a lack of verbal consent – because of our culture, which too often treats women’s bodies as men’s playgrounds, as well as because of her Asian ethnicity, which our culture too often treats as a voiceless, submissive, fully assimilated model minority. 

As we, who are not members of the AAPI community, continue to read, listen, learn, and support this community, it is of utmost importance that if we enter conversations with others, we do so knowing that a murderer can have more than one motive, can possess unconscious bias, and that we who deny either of the prior points are complicit in compounding our neighbors’ pain.

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

In January 2015, Miller was 22 and living in her hometown of Palo Alto, California. She went to a party, was sexually assaulted, and then saved from further harm by strangers who stopped her assailant when they saw what he was doing. Six years later, eight people went about their normal daily activities on a March day in Georgia, completely unaware that their lives would be violently cut short. 

Our task, if we are concerned with showing love and solidarity to our AAPI friends and neighbors, is to listen to them and sit with them as they grieve.

Here are some of the voices I am listening to and learning from in this moment. These activists and writers, along with Chanel Miller’s bold memoir, represent the beginning of my learning. These are this week’s suggested resources:

As you lean into discomfort and join our neighbors in their grief, I hope you will reflect:

  • What stereotypes have you believed about Asian Americans – that they are all smart, especially at math? That they are submissive, meek, and quiet? That they are all wealthy?
  • How have your assumptions about Asian Americans possibly harmed Asian people you have encountered in your life? 
  • Have you held grudges or reacted angrily toward someone who didn’t respond to you in the way you expected them to, based on your belief in a stereotype that was disconnected from this person as an individual?
  • How can you show up for your AAPI friends and neighbors in solidarity right now?

I hope you’ll lean in to the discomfort that you feel. And I hope that in your effort to show support for Asian Americans in your life, that you don’t burden them with your grief while they are muddling through their own. And I hope, as always, that you will join me here again soon, so we can keep building peace in our lives and communities, one piece at a time.

Piece 33: Expanding the Antebellum Narrative

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

A few months ago, I found myself in the uncomfortable, surreal position of defending my stance against teaching Huck Finn – even as an option – to 21st century high school students. 

I want to be clear here: I have never read the book, and I doubt I ever will.I don’t think the book should be burned or banned. I don’t think Twain’s work is all trash.

Rather, I think it’s past time to trouble the antebellum narrative we’ve spoon fed to America’s high schoolers for several generations now. We need to question what’s considered classic and canon.

So I said so.

And then there was an argument – a question of what I’d suggest in Huck Finn‘s place, a comment that “my students know they can talk to me” – all the usual suspects.

Although I am not the most widely read English teacher, I am confident that we don’t have to work that hard to find stereotype-free content that offers a valid alternative to typical antebellum stories. Instead of continuing to tell schoolchildren and young adults that slavery was long ago and not that bad for all people who were enslaved, we can allow formerly enslaved persons’ work to speak for itself, and we can turn to present-day black creatives who are masterfully re-imagining what was, is, and could be in the future.

For Americans of a certain age, the only antebellum narrative that we know centers characters like Scarlett and Rhett and focuses on their love story, while black characters are relegated to background tropes – existing only to prop up and help develop the white leads. Even the few antebellum stories that don’t star Scarlett and Rhett are still chock full of white saviors and magical n*groes. If art reflects life or vice versa, it stands to reason that when we change the narrative we consume, we might begin to stop expecting real-life black people to behave like the tropes with which we are so very familiar.

Take, for example, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which is a historic autobiography written by a woman who escaped from bondage. In her own words, she recounts the struggles she faced and trials she endured. Her prose is fluid and engaging. And her perspective is real rather than imagined.

As I was preparing for the fraught Huck Finn meeting, I asked for guidance from a historian friend, who pointed me to slave narratives that were recorded as part of the Works Progress Administration. The Library of Congress has a collection of these narratives that is accessible online. And locals can find a stash of narratives from people who lived in our area, thanks to East Texas History. Additionally, a number of local colleges and museums contain a wealth of primary sources with historic perspectives we never had access to as young students.

Can you imagine the connection students might feel to history if it were intentionally made concrete and brought near to them rather than remaining an abstract, olden time amoeba?

Just last year, Janelle Monae shined in Antebellum, a horrific imagining of antebellum life set in present-day America. The premise is that a group of white people has built an escapist business for a certain white clientele who wants to experience the glory of the old South. Black men and women are kidnapped, chloroformed, and secreted to an off-the-grid plantation to be forced into servitude for the entertainment of paying white guests.Their cell phones are taken from them to prevent their being tracked, and those who attempt to escape are dragged back to disappear into the “burning shed,” a crematorium that ensures their families will never know what happened to them. The story is dark and deeply disturbing. But as it is told from the point of view of a kidnapped and enslaved woman, it represents an alternative to the narrative we normally see.

As you think through the stories you’ve been told about antebellum life – that some masters were kind, that slaves were better off before the Civil War, that most white people couldn’t afford slaves – I hope that you’ll pause to reflect on the following questions: 

  • Before now, were stereotypical-vernacular-laden enslaved black people your only mental image of black life before and during the Civil War? What effect might that singular image have had on your expectations of black people in your everyday life?
  • Have you ever questioned the prevalence of antebellum black characters in close proximity to white characters only as spiritual guide, humble servant, or obstinate intransigent? 
  • How many books, movies, and shows have you seen that feature black characters in antebellum narratives, telling their own stories, with their own voices?
  • How might your view of American history change if you heard a perspective that’s been largely left out of history books?

I hope you’ll lean into these questions and allow yourself to be curious about the discomfort you feel, should it arise, and change – as necessary – the story you are telling yourself: about the existence of white supremacy, and about the impact that a white-centered view of history has had on American society. Keep showing up to this space, and I will too. We can and will build a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.

Piece 32: Caste

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

In Isabel Wilkerson’s voluminous tome Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, she posits that the central underlying issue  fueling racial strife in this country is not due to race but due to caste. Throughout Caste, Wilkerson thoroughly explores the idea of caste, specifically the caste system in India. What she’s found through her years of research and scholarship, is that people who are part of the untouchable caste in India live incredibly similar lives to black people in America. Says Wilkerson, “caste is the bones of what we are dealing with. Race is the tool, it’s the signifier, it’s the cue it’s the signal of one’s place.”  

Woven in amongst Wilkerson’s accounts of conferences she’s attended and historic figures she’s examined is an idea I found incredibly interesting: As Wilkerson recounts an overview of the evolution of whiteness in present-day America from earlier labels attached to country of origin, she explains just how whiteness evolved in order to trap blackness in the untouchable caste. And just as untouchables in India have historically been trapped in their “place,” unable to rise out of their caste no matter how doggedly they pull up their bootstraps, neither can black people escape our own caste – even if we try earnestly to do so. There was a particular parallel that blew my mind: the religious origins of Indian caste as compared to biblical justifications for slavery.

Y’all. All the parallels are there.

Whether we assimilate completely to the dominant culture’s ideals, religion, even monetizing white-centric punditry into a career, or we focus our efforts on honing our talent to become excellent and give back to build up our community – we cannot escape this caste.

If we are a respected historian with a respectable on-air persona, we can still be arrested trying to get into our own house.

If we attend a neighborhood swim party in the summertime, we can be thrown on the ground and handcuffed while asking for our mother.

If we fall asleep while working on a college paper, we could have police called in to interrogate us.

If we are adolescent children who sometimes have poor attitudes, we may be pushed out of school all together, and into jails and prisons instead.

And we will be told in almost every case that protocol was followed and policy adhered to, and that as such, no prosecution or negative consequence will befall the perpetrator of our trauma.

Caste is a system that is set up to build society on a foundation of injustice. There is no way to work the system in our favor, because we are always black no matter what, and because the system was built on our backs in order to keep us on the bottom of the hierarchy.

I don’t pretend to understand the years of research that Wilkerson put into this book, but her thesis has stayed with me. Caste seems inextricable from the problem of racial division in America.

I hope that you pick up Wilkerson’s book to check it out for yourself, and when you do, I hope you’ll keep these questions in mind to guide your reflection on caste:

  • When have you allowed racial bias to drive you to fear a person you don’t know? A person you do know? When you see black people treated unjustly based on their skin color, do you speak up or step in on their behalf? Do you visibly, physically stand in solidarity with them?
  • How often have you thought or said that America’s problems are based on class and not race? How does this line of thinking help you to understand problems people face based on the color of their skin? Why have you felt the need to diminish race struggles in favor of class struggles?
  • Are the black people in your life able to confide in you and know that you will listen and try to understand their experience and perspective?

Keep persisting on this journey. It will bear the fruit of peace in time. Come back for the next post, so that we can keep working together to unlearn racial bias, for the betterment of our community and ourselves, one piece at a time.

Piece 30: Grown

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TThis 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 exists a shared understanding within American culture that girls immediately become women once they begin to look and act “grown.” This same shared agreement holds that girls who look and act grown should be treated as if they are.

Photo by Dih Andréa from Pexels

Especially if they are black.

Even though we are grown-ups who should know better, particularly in light of the knuckleheads we know good and well we used to be. Even though we have at least cursory knowledge that adolescent brains don’t develop in lock-step with adolescent bodies.

Our society seems to have deemed it necessary to punish teens for looking like adults by sentencing them – even if only in the court of public opinion – like adults.

I am therefore deeply grateful for the work of Tiffany D. Jackson. Her stunning YA novels Grown, Monday’s not Coming, and Allegedly tackle tough, grown-up issues through an adolescent lens.

In Monday’s not Coming, readers unravel the mystery of the title character’s sudden disappearance from her best friend Claudia’s life. We learn the truth as Claudia our narrator does, in fits and starts, twists and turns, that ultimately lead us to the various reasons why Claudia cannot find Monday.

In Allegedly, Mary takes center stage as a tragically misunderstood teen living in a group home after having been accused of an unthinkable crime. As Mary seeks to clear her name, hold on to the fraying edges of a  romantic relationship once she realizes she is pregnant, and make sense of her estranged relationship with her emotionally aloof mother, readers become enmeshed in this tangled tale.

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In Grown, Enchanted is a teen who feels otherized at her predominantly white school and shows a talent for singing. After she is spotted one night by a famous male singer, she is charmed into a life she could never have imagined, in which she is cut off from her family, neglected, and abused.

In each novel, Jackson dissects horrific, real-life situations our children undoubtedly see and hear in news stories. She brings a human eye to unimaginable real-life cases constructing these fictional teens, their environments, and their casts of supporting characters. Through Jackson’s work, we are offered the opportunity to think in three dimensions instead of one about whom we believe teenagers to be, what we think they are capable of doing, and how much we think they can understand.

Her work challenges us to push past culturally accepted perceptions of teens as irredeemable, impulse-driven wannabe adults, to embrace them as whole human beings who are still very much in the process of learning and growing.

As you peruse these brief synopses and decide which titles to read, I hope you’ll keep these reflective questions in mind:

Photo by Blac Bear from Pexels
  • When in your life have you treated a black child as “grown” without questioning exactly how old they were?
  • How have your assumptions about the ages of black children you don’t know colored your interactions with them? Made you feel threatened when no apparent threat was present? 
  • How many times have you perceived as disproportionately insubordinate or obstinate behavior from a black teen that you would not perceive in the same way from a nonblack teen?
  • What anxiety and shortness of breath upon seeing a black teen walk near you have you felt and then excused away as having nothing to do with race in order to assuage your guilt?

Keep working at it, y’all. Pursuing peace is a process rather than a singular destination at which we can arrive whenever we choose. Come back next time, for another piece to help us build a more peaceful world.

Piece 21: Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil

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

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

It’s no wonder I’ve been tired.

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

Photo by Colin Lloyd from Pexels

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

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

But then it hit me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must remember this.

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

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

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

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

Piece 20: Exceptional

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

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.

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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. 

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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.

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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 17: Between the World and Me

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

Two weeks ago, in piece 16, I shared a few podcasts I listen to that keep me aware of points of view different from my own. I asked when you sense yourself feeling resistant to new ideas and perspectives, where that resistance comes from. Such an introspective state of mind and active focus on your physiological reactions to new-to-you ideas is necessary for this week’s suggested resources, which begin with a thorough examination of the case for reparations to be paid to black Americans.

To me, Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of those rare writers who is able to weave literature from nonfiction prose. I find his writing style to be so keen that at times I am astonished that words can arrange themselves in the way he manipulates them. He takes current and historical events that at a glance seem mundane because of the analytical takes I’ve read on those same events before, and he makes them shimmer with the newness of his own unique insight. My introduction to Coates’s writing was a lengthy, weighty Atlantic article entitled “The Case for Reparations.” Because I am a slow, deliberate reader, it took me several reading sessions to make my way through Coates’s meaty treatise. The lens through which he clarifies how black Americans arrived at the here and now from the there and then, is sharp & crisp in its focus. For those reasons, “The Case for Reparations” is the first resource I am suggesting this week. I hope that even if you find the title off-putting and do not agree with the article’s thesis that you will read it anyway. It is at once poetry and prose, historic lens and current events examination, objective portrait and intimate biography. Let it teach you, hurt you, change your mind.

Coates’s memoir Between the World and Me captures the emotional struggle black Americans endure when they have the talk with their children – especially their sons. In this book, Coates writes a letter to his teenage son, who at the book’s outset is heartbroken and confused over the outcome of the trial following Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson. Although Between the World and Me is a slim volume, the emotional weight of its honest portrayal of black American life; the tenderness with which Coates approaches these difficult subjects on behalf of his beloved adolescent son; the bleak, necessary acceptance of black Americans’ disparate, disproportionate mistreatment across time and geography, kept me from taking it all in at once. Instead, I bought the book, began it, and then put it down and walked away – feeling eerily like a stranger had soulfully penned the thoughts in my head, some of which I’d never even admitted to myself. Coates makes connections in this book that resonate with rumblings of turmoil and confusion I’ve at times felt within but been for varying reasons unable to give voice. Thus, Between the World and Me is the second resource I am recommending this week.

Between the World and Me borrows its title from a poem of the same name, written by Richard Wright. Like Coates’s writing in “Reparations” and in his book, Wright’s acuity is disarming and at times devastating. If you’re able to read this poem without tearing up a time or two, maybe take another pass at reading it; you might be missing something between the lines. Richard Wright’s poem “Between the World and Me” is my third resource recommendation this week. Read it slowly and deliberately, with an open heart and a focused eye. Rather than getting and staying lost in the juxtaposition of abstract and concrete images and symbolism, yield to the larger truth represented in Wright’s words: a collective black American history of lynching, dispossession, and utter shock at continually being dehumanized for the sole crime of possessing black skin.

As you read one or all of these resources in the coming week, I hope you will sit with these questions: 

  • What are your feelings and thoughts regarding reparations? Have you studied the topic and how the American government has historically addressed this topic?  If your emotional response is defensiveness or self-preservation because you don’t want the government dipping into your pocket to right wrongs you haven’t committed, have you questioned why you feel that way?
  • Is it possible to truly move forward in a positive direction as a country, if we haven’t collectively done the work of examining our past, warts and all?
  • In your own life, are you able to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships without reparative, restorative work when disagreements arise and hurts are inflicted? 

Come back next week, y’all. We’ll keep working to examine our past in light of our present and our present in light of our past, actively seeking to create peace, one piece at a time.

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 support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

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 10: 12 Years a Slave

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.

As this series has taken shape, I have begun each week’s post by answering a question or two that I posted to you the prior week. So I’ll share with you what makes people worthy of the title “hero” in my eyes. To me, a hero is a person who is consistent, trustworthy, and visible in the lives of the people who love them. A hero is true to who they are and treats others with kindness whenever possible. A hero leads with ferocity and integrity. In all they do, a hero leads by example. Heroes are people like Solomon Northrup and Beyoncé.

Years ago, when the movie 12 Years a Slave hit theaters, I had no idea it was based on Solomon Northrup’s real life experiences. With only Oscar buzz and the movie’s title as my informers, I assumed 12 Years a Slave was another antebellum revenge fantasy. Following its release, the beautiful, talented, and undoubtedly deserving Lupita Nyong’o received an Oscar for her role in 12 Years a Slave. And even in my joy and excitement at witnessing Nyong’o make history with her win, I felt a deep underlying sadness at the nature of the role for which she had received this critical acclaim. The one thing that had kept me from seeing the movie was not what I suspected was a revenge fantasy, or even the particular type of weariness that arises from repeatedly seeing the same trodden-down narrative of black people play out on the screen; rather, I was held back from seeing the movie by the anecdotal knowledge that Nyong’o’s character had a brutal rape scene. As a personal practice, I don’t watch or read anything that includes that particular kind of violence. This isn’t a critique of actors or writers who portray such scenes; I am simply too visual a person to put those kinds of intimately sexually traumatic images into my mind.

So I avoided 12 Years a Slave even though I wanted badly to see this beautiful actress’s award-winning debut role, even though I was a fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor, even though it was a movie telling a decidedly black American story – which is typically exactly the type of movie I want to see. I kept 12 Years a Slave at arm’s length until I stumbled across the fact that it was based on a true story, and I became interested in that story. The first resource I recommend this week is Twelve Years a Slave – the book, not the movie. I remain resolved not to see it, especially after I listened to this memoir – which does not include the brutal rape scene depicted in the film. The character and the crimes perpetrated on her while she was in bondage are between the lines of Northrup’s prose, but graphic details of brutal, forced sex acts are blessedly absent. 12 Years a Slave employs the kind of language that 21st century Americans like myself almost have to cut with a fork and knife in order to digest it. His vocabulary and sentence structure are educated, expansive, and positively drenched in his inherent sense of dignity and a dogged determination to win back the freedom stolen from him; none of that language includes a detailed description of sexual assault. 

The second resource I recommend this week is Beyoncé’s Black is King. Where the popularity and overwhelmingly positive critical reception of the film adaptation of 12 Years a Slave illustrate a disturbing American fascination with glorifying black pain – even if doing so means manufacturing some of that pain, as the opening scenes of the film do – Black is King diverges. Black is King tells a story of love, hope, and a steadfast connection that transcends time, space, and even remains once our physical bodies die. Black is King skillfully weaves African artists, imagery, religion, scenery, and timeless beauty, to exalt black joy, black strength, black dignity. To study these two stories and the popular response to both is, I believe, to see with fresh eyes the expectation of the dominant culture in America. Black people are always expected to be submissive to their pain and struggles while observers who are not themselves on the margins with black Americans cry for a moment and then move on with their lives: never changing, never changed.

Truly, what Black is King aims for – and I believe achieves – is an unapologetic, unflinching display of black beauty. If our cultural response to such a stunning feat is to criticize Beyoncé’s wardrobe, to point out that the only white actor in the film is a butler, or to condemn as heresy the visual album’s audacity, then we show the black people in our lives just exactly how we expect them to view themselves and by extension, how we view them: as broken, as weary, as vessels through which to filter our own pain – and nothing more. [Bonus: Lupita Nyong’o makes a brief, glorious, affirming cameo in Black is King.]

As you decide which of these suggested resources you have the time and emotional breadth to absorb this week, I hope you will reflect on these questions:

  • Recall your favorite books and movies that feature black characters. What stories are being told about those characters – are they in pain, struggling, or being helped out of a struggle, particularly by characters who are not black?
  • How often are you taking in stories, books, and movies that showcase black people telling black stories? 
  • Where in your own mind and heart are you celebrating the prevalent cultural narrative that black Americans are situated rightly only when they are in pain, shepherding non-black people through their pain, or magnanimously forgiving others for pain inflicted on them?

Keep sticking with this hard, necessary work. It’s worth it to show the black people in your life that you are doing the work it takes to show up for them, alongside them, with them. Meet me back here next week, and we will keep working together toward peace, 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 support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.

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.