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 keep the anti-racism work going.

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?

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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 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 10: 12 Years a Slave

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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 keep the anti-racism work going.

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

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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 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

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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 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 6: Lift Every Voice

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

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

Photo by Ralph Rabago from Pexels

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

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

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

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

And we sing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piece 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.