Piece 18: Moonlight

Peace by Piece

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

Last week, I shared a bit about what it can feel like when such a dense, thorny space exists between the world and oneself. About the tension black parents feel knowing how much we love and cherish our children, and how all-consuming our concern for their wellbeing can be – so much that volumes and tomes and essays and songs have been written to express our collective and individual grief, and our sorrow. 

I asked you about  your feelings and thoughts regarding reparations. I asked in part because until 2004, I did not realize that Japanese Americans were interned during World War II, and it was at least a decade after that before I realized a minimal amount had been paid to this group of citizens in the form of reparations. Because of the hot, contentious emotional aura that tends to surround conversations about this particular idea, I thought until relatively recently that the U.S. had set no historical precedent for issuing reparations to wronged people groups. That assumption was incorrect. While there may be little precedent of the U.S. Government issuing reparations, it isn’t unheard of. It’s happened before.

It can happen again.

This week, I want to reflect briefly on homophobia, LGBTQ stereotypes, and the role both have played in American entertainment. 

I think I was aware of Laverne Cox as an actress before I saw her on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.” I vaguely remembered seeing her on an episode of “The Mindy Project,” but I don’t think I really took notice of her. Recently, Cox returned to Netflix for a documentary about the portrayal of trans people in film: Disclosure. This documentary took me to school. Not only did I learn a great deal about films and shows I wasn’t familiar with from having seen them myself, but I also began to see with fresh eyes the movies and shows I was familiar with. How is it that the media I’ve taken in over the course of my life has managed to simultaneously villainize, fetishize, and dehumanize transgender human beings? If ever you’ve needed to see clear evidence that as a culture we must do better, Disclosure offers such evidence in abundance. This makes Disclosure my first suggested resource this week.

For my second suggested resource this week, let’s turn our attention from a truth-illuminating documentary to a scripted drama. “Pose” is a gift, y’all. Billy Porter and MJ Rodriguez lead a dazzling cast of characters in this drama set at the incarnation of New York’s ballroom scene in the 1980s & 90s. Watching this show, I’ve learned so much about how early-days HIV and AIDS patients of color were ignored and maltreated, glimpsed the heartbreak of young people ousted from their houses after coming out to their families, marvelled at the beauty of framily that can emerge from the ashes of transphobia. “Pose” allows its viewing public to pause at the mirror long enough to reflect on the culture we’ve built, the people groups we’ve cast aside, and the resilience that our hetero-worshiping culture couldn’t snuff out.

The last resource I suggest this week is Moonlight. A few years ago, shortly after the #oscarssowhite fiasco, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway presented the Oscar for best picture to LaLa Land, the film that – aside from not being a great love story – struck some viewers as a white-centered introduction to the jazz music genre, which has origins that are decidedly not white. The best picture announcement was made, the cast, directors, etc. took to the stage and began their thank you speeches, and then somebody lifted the needle off the record.

LaLa Land, the almost entirely white movie, did not actually win best picture; rather, that honor went to the almost if not entirely black cast of Moonlight

I cried. The imagery and poetry of the moment were stunning. 

But let me back up and talk about the movie itself and not the moment it won such an honor.

Moonlight chronicles the childhood of Chiron, our protagonist. Chiron grows up with an uncertain home life. Local drug dealer Juan becomes a mentor and gently ushers Chiron through his uncertainty about his identity and sexuality. One of my favorite scenes in the movie depicts Juan assuring Chiron that he doesn’t have to have answers about his sexuality at his young age. As the movie progresses, a story unfolds that is utterly unlike any other I’ve seen before or since: a deeply human, uniquely black, intensely relatable coming-of age tale of a young man discovering and trying to come to terms with his homosexual identity.

As you peruse this week’s suggested sources, I hope you’ll do so with an open mind while you consider these questions:

  • What one-dimensional depictions of LGBTQ individuals have you seen in the media and on some level believed to be true?
  • Where in your own mind and heart have you turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the struggles of LGBTQ people because you believe in some way their “lifestyle choices” have created their struggles, not our culture’s wrongheaded portrayal of them?
  • How can you begin inner work today to unlearn the biases you’ve held against LGBTQ people – biases that aren’t based in truth but in lopsided media narratives? 

I hope will join you on this journey to keep learning about our siblings who share a gender and/or sexual identity other than our own. It’s a long journey, but in my experiences, such journeys generally prove to be the ones that are truly worth taking. Let’s continue on this journey together, trekking the winding, arduous path to 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 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 11: Kalief Browder

Peace by Piece

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

A driving reason I think it is so important to reflect on the stories we are told about people who don’t look like us, is so that we understand the biases we may be susceptible to. If, for example, all we ever see of black people on TV is that they are either getting into trouble or being rescued from trouble by people who are not black, then we begin to expect the same of black people when we encounter them in real life. It’s for this reason that if we offer a handout or social invitation to an acquaintance of color, we may become deeply offended if they don’t accept. We were so obviously being magnanimous in offering them an experience they wouldn’t otherwise have access to – which we know, of course, because it’s all we have seen.

It’s super important to check the source of these biases so we can root them out of our minds thoroughly. 

Conversely, young Kalief Browder believed in the goodness of being American: the inherent dignity and legal rights he was owed. He believed that his blackness did not in any way negate his entitlement to equitable treatment under the law. And instead of our system of justice fulfilling his rightful expectations, it let him down with fatal results.

I first heard the name of Kalief Browder several years ago, in connection with Jay-Z. No doubt I heard about his story on a morning show or saw him in a picture with a celebrity who amplified his story in hope of helping him to get justice. A short time later, he was gone. 

Even though he had been released from prison after a three-year stay in one of the most notorious prisons in the country – Rikers Island – Browder succumbed to the lingering ghosts of the horrors he had experienced. 

But let’s begin at the beginning.

Kalief Browder was adopted as a baby, brought into a loving home where his mother had already fostered and adopted other children. By all appearances, he had a loving, open relationship with his siblings and mother but a rather fraught one with his father. After his parents divorced, Browder remained with his mother. And like some of his siblings before him, he turned to his surroundings for connection and guidance. In Browder’s case, his surroundings included gang activity that led him to make some wrong choices. As a result, he found himself on probation at the age of sixteen. So when he was stopped by police on suspicion of having stolen a backpack, and was subsequently arrested, he was unable to be bailed out by his family even after they scraped together enough money, because the arrest was a violation of his probation.

When you watch Time: The Kalief Browder Story, you will no doubt find yourself angry at the circumstances of his arrest – a secondhand witness whose story kept changing, a years-long stay on Rikers that included months of solitary and multiple suicide attempts, a judicial system that kept putting off his case, which forced him back into an environment where he was repeatedly beaten. I have no doubt, too, that you’ll want to scream at the guards, judges, and attorneys who time after time allowed his case to be delayed while he remained in custody on Rikers. And I suspect that you will agree with me that Kalief Browder didn’t take his own life any more than his mother died as a result of heart trouble; rather, our country’s inefficient judicial system killed this young man and by extension his mother as well.

So why, then, would I suggest that you watch such a horrific, disturbing story? How could any modicum of peace possibly be found in such heartache? 

Because it happened.

There’s no embellishment or spin that sensationalizes Browder’s story away from the truth of its happening. Every detail of it is factual. The system worked exactly the way it was designed to work. And the result of that system and those facts was that Browder died at a tragically young age, after suffering from physical and psychological abuse made even more harrowing by the fact he endured such abuses during his formative years, before his brain and body had even finished developing.

When I re-watched Browder’s story recently, it struck me that at the time of his arrest, he was the same age as many of the students I have taught. Sixteen: that awkward age when boys’ voices may still be changing such that they don’t hear how the bass in their voices carries across the room, making it impossible for them to whisper. That uncertain age when hormones fluctuate so frequently and everyone else seems to develop faster than they do, yielding sometimes awkward excitement about their facial hair. That wonderful age full of hope and expectation, of unspeakable joys and indescribable lows. I could have been his teacher, constantly pushing him to do his best and then one day wondering where he went, if he had transferred or moved, only to discover years down the road that he had been arrested and later died.

James Baldwin once said that he didn’t know if labor unions and their bosses really hate black people, but he knew black people weren’t in their unions. He said he didn’t know if the real estate lobbies have anything against black people, but he knew their lobbies keep black people in the ghetto. He didn’t know if the board of education had anything against black people, but he knew the textbooks they give our children to read and the schools that we have to go to. Baldwin said, “You want me to make an act of faith on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen,” echoing Langston Hughes’s assertion that America is the land that never has been yet.

Kalief Browder, beautiful, hopeful, full of potential, and brimming with the expectation that the system would eventually work in his favor, never got to see that America that never has been. He held fast to the act of faith Baldwin speaks of, believing that in America justice must exist. And the system failed him utterly. It killed him.

If we are interested in pursuing peace and reconciliation, we must acknowledge stories like Browder’s that block so many of our friends and neighbors from feeling that sense of carefree idealism that we may take for granted in ourselves. In other words, there is no real peace without real truth. There’s no reconciliation without a reckoning.

As you watch Time: The Kalief Browder Story this week, I hope you will consider the following:

  • When have you turned a blind eye to the agony of your neighbor in order to safeguard your own sense of peace?
  • Have you pushed back when people of color in your life have told you about their experiences of injustice, silencing the voices of their experience?
  • Where in your life and relationships can you find space to breathe peace into your friends of color by offering them a compassionate listening ear?

Keep showing up to this space each week, and in time, peace will be ours: one piece at a time.

Piece 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 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

Peace by Piece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piece 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 4: Representation

Peace by Piece

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

Image by John Hain from Pixabay 

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

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

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

Kimberly Reese

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

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

Rae & Nanjiani

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

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

Hair Love

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

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

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

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