Piece 40: One Day, When the Glory Comes

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 year, my husband and I took our sons on a road trip to Selma, Alabama. I had hoped to possibly extend the trip to Plateau to try and visit the home of Cudjo Lewis, or to pop down to Gulf Shores for a couple of lazy days on the beach. But we only had a few days of overlapping vacation days between the four of us, and – as we’d later find out – the world would close while we wrapped up our short holiday anway. So it was just as well that we didn’t make more plans, as we’d surely have had to cancel them.

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Blessedly, our trip did not end before we were able to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Our family got to hear John Lewis speak several years ago when a local political group brought him to our city for a speaking engagement. And since that time, I’d been enraptured by this hero’s social justice work. Being able to literally walk where he walked on Bloody Sunday in 1965, was an unforgettably meaningful moment.

When the movie Selma came out, my husband and I went to see it together. I am unsure what I expected from the drama based on tragic historical events, but I don’t think my expectations included the weeping that issued from my body while we watched a dramatized, slow-motion beating of nonviolent protesters at the hands of police officers and state troopers play out on the screen. Clergypeople, housewives, and college students were all among the crowd of people who assembled in support of Black Americans’ determination to exercise their right to register and vote.

I’ve never been able to watch the movie Selma since seeing it in the theatre. And while I recommend it as one of this week’s suggested resources, I also understand that it may be too graphic for some viewers to watch. Therefore, I also recommend the documentary

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After Selma, which includes the perspective of residents who still live in Selma, interspersed with a broader national context. 

There’s so much more to say here, about decades of brute force visited upon Black bodies to ensure that we don’t experience full access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in this country; about Bombingham and dynamite hill; about four Black schoolgirls killed in a Birmingham church bombing, whose killers were not tried and sentenced until 2001.

But perhaps more important than adding tragic facts to tragic facts is to pause and reflect on new knowledge we’ve taken in. As you watch Selma and/or After Selma, I hope you’ll sit with the following questions:

  • How much of your faith and commitment to agitating for social justice is hampered by the belief that all our present troubles – including, unjust, tragic, untimely deaths – pale in comparison to the glory of the afterlife?
  •  In your mind and heart, where is the dividing line between accepting physical suffering as a consequence of living in a fallen world, and extending a helping hand of love and solidarity to people in need?

As theologian James Cone states in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “Without concrete signs of divine presence in the lives of the poor, the gospel becomes simply an opiate; rather than liberating the powerless from humiliation and suffering, the gospel becomes a drug that helps them adjust to this world by looking for “pie in the sky.”

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Too often the message that Black Americans, especially Black Christians, have received implicitly and explicitly from white pulpits in this so-called Christian nation, is that Black people should look to the afterlife for their liberation and accept their unjust lot in life on Earth.

I do believe, as a person of faith, that one day, glory will come and will indeed be ours. But I do not believe we have to wait until we die to live without fearing our lives or our children’s lives will be abruptly cut short by a dominant culture that doesn’t value our personhood.

I hope you’ll keep showing up here to this space, so we can keep working to construct peace in each of our lives, one piece at a time.

Piece 35: Black Church

Peace by Piece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • What are your earliest memories of being loved, held, and seen? What sounds, smells, or textures are inextricable from those first moments of feeling truly accepted as you are?
  • If you are a person of faith, how still or vibrant was the church of your earliest years as a believer? When you feel far from God, what anchor from these early faith days holds you fast?
  • When you think of the terror that has been inflicted on the black church in this country time and again, how do you imagine you might feel if the black church was that first place of faith for you? Would you feel safe to worship in the space where you truly felt at home?
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I hope that learning about the black church blesses you as it has me. And I hope you find yourself embracing the tension that arises when we realize how segregated our churches are, why that is, and what the way forward may look like for us all. I hope, as always, that you will meet me back here again next week, so we can keep constructing a more peaceful world, one piece at a time.

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

Piece 33: Expanding the Antebellum Narrative

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.

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 31: Wakanda Forever

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 the darkness of the opening scenes gives way to a sunny and gorgeous Wakanda day, the Black Panther, T’Challa, honors us with his royal presence. We take in the clear-blue water, the vibrant greens and reds and yellows in scenery and clothing. We glimpse – perhaps for the first time – a masterfully created afrofuturistic setting rich in beauty, history, not least of all, blackness. The beauty of Wakanda warms and invigorates us, like we have just awakened from the deep sleep of an necessary but accidental nap.

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Get on Up creatively chronicles the life and times of the Godfather of Soul. From his childhood with poverty-stricken parents who related to each other in a thoroughly dysfunctional way, to his aged adulthood as a volatile, temperamental small-business owner, James Brown led an extraordinary, often fraught life. In choosing this role, Boseman gifted us an iconic image of an iconic cultural figure. He blessed us with his talent for transforming before our eyes to embody the spirit of James Brown in a way only he could. By employing his immense talent, Boseman bequeathed to us all his embodiment of Brown’s legacy.

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In Marshall, Boseman breathes life into the story of Thurgood Marshall’s early career as an attorney. We watch as Boseman’s Marshall approaches and recruits reluctant co-counsel to speak for Marshall in a courtroom so steeped in racism and white supremacy that Marshall himself is allowed to be present at the defendant’s table but never to speak aloud. We witness Marshall’s calm, unshakeable cockiness as he remains steadfast in his resolve to exonerate his defendant in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. We even get the added joy of a cameo in the form of Trayvon Martin’s parents at the movie’s end, as Marshall meets his next defendants – parents of a teenage son who’s been accused of murdering a police officer.

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom—Boseman’s final role—situated him firmly in a black experience so familiar: that of the frustrated, perpetually hamstrung black American man. Boseman’s Levee wants desperately to display his phenomenal talent on a grand scale worthy of its breadth. But he’s stuck under Ma Rainey’s stubborn insistence and hemmed in by her established presence in the music industry. He can’t lash out at the producers he’s trying to groom to support him, he can’t lash out at the elusive and unpredictable Ma herself, and so he turns his frustration on his bandmates. He lights into them, eager to elicit a violent reaction so that he can finally find release for all his pent up rage. 

When I survey the scattering of roles Boseman accepted in his final years – years wherein only he and a tight circle of loved ones knew anything of his health struggles – I see a portrait of a man who worked with diligence and purpose to leave a legacy for us all. He chose to vary his portrayal of the black experience, he chose to dig deep and lean hard into his craft, he chose to be the superhero we all needed.

I’m deeply grateful for the artistic choices Chadwick Boseman made, that broke box office record expectations for a black-led movie, that made star-struck young children want to attend historically black colleges and universities, that provided hope, relief, and joy for an audience full of people like me who are so grossly underrepresented in such beautiful, thorough artistic endeavors. What a gift and a blessing that he used his time on Earth to leave to all of us his enduring legacy of black excellence.

I hope you’ll take a couple of hours to stream one of Boseman’s displays of thespian brilliance this week. And when you do, I hope you’ll reflect:

  • Are there celebrities whom you follow, feel a kinship with, or admire? How many of them are black?
  • Do you remember the first time you felt truly represented on a TV or movie screen? How old were you? How did you feel? How do you think black schoolchildren felt to have themselves reflected in a Marvel superhero?

Come on back next week, y’all. There’s still much work to be done. So let’s keep working to construct peace in our homes, families, and communities, one piece at a time.

Long live the king.

Piece 29: The Square Root of [Im]possible

Peace by Piece

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

There comes a moment in Netflix’s Jingle Jangle when Journey, our cute, curious, precocious young heroine, sings a soliloquy of sorts. Journey is doggedly determined not to be discouraged by her curmudgeonly grandfather Jeronicus. Instead, she insists that he can reawaken his inner inventive genius, and that she, who has inherited his creative acumen, can forge a mutually nurturing relationship with him where previously there has been none. Journey trusts that she can help Grandpa J, as she calls him, rebuild this life and reputation as a fabulous toymaker. 

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Evening has just fallen, and Journey is looking dreamily out the front window of her Grandpa J’s storefont and home. Journey seems to ruminate on the challenge facing her: that she’s sought out her grandfather in order to deepen the connection she feels to him through their shared sense of wonder and curiosity. But despite Journey’s infectious sense of awe and wonder, and even despite her ability to see what Jeronicus himself no longer can, her beloved Grandpa J remains unmoved, having been emotionally distant and self-isolated for so long since grieving the death of his young wife, that he no longer dares to try to create what he once could.

Journey, nevertheless, persists.

She sings to herself and to us of all the possibilities she can see that no one else can. Of the dreams she holds onto for herself. Of the glory that lies in her own ability to believe she can rise above the obstacles in front of her by tapping into her own uniqueness and strength. 

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As a person with a name that’s difficult for some people to pronounce, I’ve had to insist on more than one occasion that a person who is new to my life make the effort to learn my name’s pronunciation rather than shortening it to suit their own preference not to try. So I can’t help but love Jeronicus Jangle’s name: a delightfully melodious mouthful of alliterative syllables. Jeronicus protests quietly throughout the movie at others’ shortening his name to “J” or “Jerry.” I noticed and appreciated that Jeronicus was named intentionally by his creator, all the more so since the movie is an instant classic that will soon expand its reach, as it is being adapted for the stage as well.

When I began watching Jingle Jangle a few days before Thanksgiving this year, I was aware only that it was a Christmas movie with black people in it. But shortly after the movie began its first musical number, I began to discover countless more reasons to love it. Jingle Jangle is grand, vibrant, soulful, and universally relatable – and at its center resides a deeply connected, if briefly estranged, black family. It possesses a fresh, imaginative plot; gorgeous, thoughtful costuming and styling; an upbeat soundtrack reminiscent of groovy, nostalgic R&B tunes; and not least of all stars a beautiful young black girl who loves inventions, employs math as her superpower to troubleshoot inventions, fiercely loves her family, and becomes the glue that reunites a father who had been estranged from his daughter.

For me, Jingle Jangle proves what’s possible when talented, experienced black creatives are granted the time, budget, and resources they need to bring their imaginings to life: we get the representation we long to see.

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When you watch Jingle Jangle, I hope you will move a step beyond passively taking in all the joy and beauty it offers to ask yourself when you last saw such lovingly crafted black characters on screen, how many heartwarming holiday movies uplift a wholesome image of a black family, and what it means for girls to see themselves represented as talented and determined and curious and bold.

I hope you’ll enjoy the movie, just as I did, and that you’ll keep coming back to this space so we can continue exploring all the possibilities that arise when we work to unlearn racial bias and cultivate peace in our communities, one piece at a time.

Piece 28: Soul

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.

Like many American parents of a certain age, we are Disney Plus subscribers. So when Disney announced that this year’s Pixar offering, Soul, would drop on this platform Christmas Day, we penciled it in as a film we would take in as a family during our holiday break.

I felt all at once excited and expectant to see this newest Pixar creation (all four of us have been fans of their films); nervous to see how  Pixar’s creative team displayed their  first black protagonist; and cautious due to having seen several thinkpieces floating around regarding criticism that big movie companies don’t tend to let black animated characters remain human for the length of their feature films. Having viewed the teaser-trailer for Soul before I first saw the aforementioned criticism, I was pretty sure the black character would not remain  human the entire time.

With all this in mind and heart, I snuggled up with my husband and our younger son to watch Soul last night.

**Spoilers ahead**

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The basic gist of the movie is that Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), the highly anticipated first black lead for Pixar, is a middle school music teacher who dreams of being a legit jazz musician. He wants to follow in the footsteps of his late father rather than accept the permanent teaching position he has been offered at the movie’s start. Joe therefore jumps at the chance to audition for a jazz quartet. In his excitement once he lands the gig, he falls into a manhole and wakes up as a human-body-less, blue teardrop-soul heading up a stairway toward a glorious light to which he isn’t ready to surrender. So, Joe jumps off the stairway, lands in a celestial cloud land of pre-born souls, and spends the next ninety-odd minutes learning afterlife and pre-life rules, mentoring and being mentored by a pre-born soul named 22, and ultimately deciding to volunteer ending his human life so that 22 can live for the first time.

Soul was not what I’d hoped. The core of my issues with the movie can be captured in three main points: 

  • 22 is voiced by a white woman. Some defenders of the movie have argued that even though Tina Fey provides 22’s voice, the character itself is genderless, sexless, raceless. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to criticize 22’s voice. However, the fact that 22 uses a middle-aged white woman’s voice to irritate people is a throwaway joke executed early in the movie. But the fact remains that within this plot, we are supposed to be aware of who 22 sounds like, even though 22 is not human – let alone a white woman.
  • During one of the film’s climactic moments, Joe (in the body of a cat) chases 22 (who is in Joe’s human body) and calls out, “You stole my body!” Let’s pause here. The movie has made an explicit point of attaching “middle-aged white woman” to the character of 22. Pixar has received months of hype and anticipation, maybe even a few accolades for its first black lead character in Joe Gardner. The viewer needn’t reach for the racial dynamics of the movie; they are laid bare for us. What this means is that when I find myself unable to separate voice and race from the character, I am simply paying attention to the story in front of me – not looking for problems where they don’t exist. Therefore, I cannot help but cringe at a line yelled by a black character and voiced by a black actor, at an admittedly genderless character voiced by a white woman, that is literally about the theft of the black character’s body. So much of the emotional weight I bear as a black American is married to this country’s fraught history of stolen land, stolen bodies, and shattered promises of a better life. Truly, we need only to turn to the internet to find a current example of a white woman trying to take from a black person something that does not belong to her. To leave this line in Soul is therefore either a disastrous, tone deaf oversight that indicates there were not nearly enough creators of color on the film’s decision-making teams, or it’s an insidious intentional slight the audience is meant to overlook or not care about.
  • After securing his own return to Earth – fulfilling his own mission – and beginning to live out his dream of being a professional jazz musician, Joe is not content. His mind is on 22, whom he will ultimately decide to trade his human life for, once he has returned to the heavens to check on her emotional state. We witness Joe rescue 22 from her lost soul state, hand over the Earth pass she flung at him in the last act, and then when 22 is still hesitant, escort her on her path to human life. So it ends up not being enough for Joe to actually fulfill his lifelong dream. Instead, he has to rescue the white-woman voiced preborn soul who tried to abscond with his human body. Only then, once he has looked imminent death in the face once more, is he able to find peace. In other words, Soul enmeshes its first black protagonist in a story that employs the oft-overused, never-needed, chain-rattling ghosts of the white savior and magical n*gro tropes.
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I have here shredded the very soul of Soul, I know. And such an intense critique can be easily dismissed as hyper-vigilance or a too-tight focus on expecting films to be flawless or politically correct in their representations of black characters. 

Neither is true.

Rather, it’s entirely appropriate for paying audiences to request that filmmakers give us their best and not table scraps. We pay to be entertained – month after month, year after year, movie after movie. Disney and Pixar profit because we pay for their products. And last I checked, the Disney Plus automatic account debit is never taken out a second later than it should be. So if Pixar is going to wait twenty-five years to give paying audiences a black protagonist, we can damned well insist they give us a thoughtful, human story – just as they have with all the white protagonists before.

Take Up, for example – a movie whose opening scenes still conjure tears. As the movie was made, it’s a beautiful, timeless story that teaches us about the depths of human connection and how you’re never too old to become a deeper, more caring version of yourself. But take a moment to mentally recast the film’s two lead characters – a lovably grumpy old man and a precocious young scout – as black. In so doing, you’ve lost nothing of the story’s beauty; instead, you’ve deepened it. You’ve added in layers of pain, separation, and even stigma – and you’ve maintained a beautifully redemptive story arc. We still soar into the heavens on the strength of a houseful of balloons. We still cry when Carl loses first the child he and Ellie had so hoped for, and later his lifelong partner and love herself. We maintain our memory of the grumpy neighbor on our block whom Carl reminded us of. We keep our wincing stare at Russell’s stubborn insistence on being a kid who gets to do what other kids get to do, even as he embraces independence and grows up. We still get to laugh at our own dogs every time they chase a squirrel in our backyard and we are reminded of Doug.

In truth, when we re-imagine a story we’ve already been given to make it a black story, we get more meaning, not less.

I hope that as you take in films and shows with your families as 2020 comes to a much-needed end and 2021 welcomes us, that you will pay close, critical attention to the stories we are being served. And to the disbelief we are being asked to suspend in exchange for assuaging the egoes of people we pay to entertain us.

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And as you watch, critique, and reflect, please sit with just one question: What does this particular character representation mean to people whom the character is meant to represent?

Keep watching and thinking, discussing and learning. And meet me back here next time. We will keep working together to construct peace in each of our lives, one piece at a time.

Piece 27: I Go To Prepare A Place For You

Peace by Piece

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

At the end of the movie Harriet, the images on the screen receive an overlay of several consecutive strings of text. These snippets tell the audience how Harriet Tubman spent her final years, which family members eventually joined her and lived out their days in freedom, and how many souls she rescued from bondage by leading them through the Underground Railroad to freedom.

We learn in the final moments of the movie that Harriet Tubman’s final words were, “I go to prepare a place for you.” In appropriately dramatic slow motion, as Tubman’s final words linger on the screen, Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman turns and looks into the distance one final time, before entering the home where she will presumably reside until her death.

When I think about the life Tubman lived – dedicating herself wholly to liberating of her people from the brutalities of bondage, I am awestruck. 

In her childhood, Araminta Harriett Ross seemed a child like any other: a little too inquisitive at times, and prone to neglecting or half-doing work she didn’t think had value. 

But work she did – until one day she was struck by a weight thrown across the room to try and prevent another enslaved person from running away. This weight hit Tubman in the head, knocking her unconscious and causing an injury that resulted in her living with seizures and pain the rest of her life. It was these seizures that brought Tubman prophetic visions and dreams that would eventually lead her and others to freedom. 

As a film, Harriet is equal parts history, hero origin story, and fiction. For instance, there are two characters who feature prominently and don’t appear to be based on any real-life figures in Tubman’s life. One of them, a burly black character who helps to “hunt” Harriet down, is a particularly troublesome fictional character to insert. Why insert this black man as a villain when bondage itself should have been villain enough? Then, too, is the accuracy of Tubman’s slight stature, her mysterious way of staying safe as she traveled into and out of slaveholding territory numerous times, and the brief amount of screen time given to Tubman’s indispensable military service. And there’s an unmistakable largeness about Tubman’s character that very much paints her as a supernatural heroine: her visions, her steadfastness, her death threats to “cargo” that expressed a desire to turn and run mid-escape – which would have endangered the entirety of the given operation.

Harriet offers a beautiful mirrored-glass window into the soul of black folk. We look out and see her beauty and purposeful carriage, and we walk quickly to invite her essence into our hearts. But through the mirrored glass she cannot see us: the innumerable inheritors of the Promised Land in which she always believed but yet did not see. I feel deeply that through Tubman’s life story, we are allowed to glimpse the glorious legacy of black American resilience. Her faith, her deliberate consistency, her absolute dedication to a freedom-conveying vocation, embody the foundation of black American spiritual life: we are pressed but not crushed, and our spirits remain tethered to a love for and desire liberation brought to our kin.

For this reason, I hope you will watch Harriet this week. I hope you will marvel at the divine purpose evident in Tubman’s life, and let resonate within you deep gratitude at the spiritual inheritance she left for us all.

During this time of year, my Episcopalian heart feels a sense of longing. In Advent, I turn my heart and mind to the coming of the incarnate Christ. It is not therefore lost on me this week that when Tubman uttered on her deathbed, “I go to prepare a place for you,” that she was borrowing from the Christ in whom she believed and trusted. Tubman knew then, as we do now, that our present labors are not in vain but rather serve a purpose and a people whom we may not see but who will nonetheless reap the benefit of our present work.

As you watch the film and reflect on the inner longings of your heart, whatever they may be, I hope you will consider the following questions:

  • What do you long for, in the deepest place in your heart? Is it peace in your home, community, or the earth as a whole?
  • Where does your work connect with that deepest heart longing? If you are unable to connect to that sense of longing in your daily income-producing work, how can you incorporate pursuit of your heart-work into your off-work hours? 
  • When you consider who your heroes are in life today as well as in history books, what anchors them? What sense of purpose motivated them? 
  • Are any of the people you consider heroes people who don’t look like you? Why do you think that is? How can you expand your ideas of people and actions that are heroic to be inclusive? How might you benefit from doing so?

Like many of you, I am ready to see the tail end of this year on its way out the door. I hope that 2021 brings us times of health and peace. Let’s keep doing what we can to construct the peace we want to see in our lives by meeting back here to keep reading, watching, listening and acting – one piece at a time.

Piece 25: 13th

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.

Two weeks ago, our country was taking baby steps in the direction of accepting Joe Biden as president-elect. Emotions and temperatures were flaring as caravans of Trump-paraphernalia-laden vehicles paraded up and down some of the busiest streets in our city. And my husband was having lunch at home while our younger son sat across the table from him attending his virtual Reading class. As Hubs ate and half-listened to the teacher, he heard words that have no place coming out of a teacher’s mouth in a fifth grade classroom: removing statues is taking away our history.

Allow me to provide some context I have since been granted: The lesson that day was about bias and how to evaluate news sources. There was relevant class conversation about historical figures, and a student asked how we can know today what people looked like many years ago. Statues are, of course, one way to know how people looked long ago.

To further elaborate, as I did when I spoke on the phone with the school’s principal that afternoon, I have only ever heard the phraseology about removing statues equating to taking away history from people who want to keep Confederate monuments where they are and are vehemently opposed to moving or destroying them. Thus, my husband, the white father of two biracial black boys and keenly aware of the insidious prevalence of the lost cause myth, immediately perked up his ears so as to track what else this teacher might say to her class that was indicative of a political viewpoint completely opposite to our own. He listened in not because her political viewpoint here is opposite from ours, but because as a student in her classroom, my child should have any knowledge of her political viewpoint at all.

During the course of the aforementioned principal conversation – held after she’d had a chance to visit with the teacher and review video of the lesson, I pressed past the question of context to the question of meaning. What had this teacher meant by what she said? The principal seemed to echo the teacher’s flimsy apology, reiterating that everyone makes mistakes. This, in fact, is why I provided the context of that phrase being used to defend keeping Confederate statues where they stand, which the principal responded to as if the information I provided was new to her. 

The principal – no doubt seeking to protect one of her teachers – went on to state repeatedly just how upset this teacher was because of any harm caused by her comment. When I asked why the teacher was upset even while she persisted in not providing the explanation I asked for, the principal’s response was that the teacher felt like I was “looking for something to hang her with.” Over the next few minutes of the conversation, once I made clear that such a turn of phrase was unacceptable and that should the teacher and I have a face-to-face conference, I expected not to hear such language from her, the principal owned that the phrase she had used was her own, not the teacher’s. And she apologized.

I have given you a lot of information, so let us quickly recap:

My child’s teacher made an inappropriate, thinly veiled political, and culturally insensitive comment in an elementary school reading class.

Overhearing this, my husband, who heard the comment, looped me in.

After emailing the teacher and remaining unsatisfied with the response, I was able to speak by phone to the principal about the racially loaded remark in question. During this conversation, as I repeatedly asked for transparency and clarification of the remark, what I got instead was reiteration of how upset the teacher was (see Luvvie’s post) and an apology from the principal herself for using – get this – a culturally insensitive turn of phrase in the conversation about the teacher’s culturally insensitive turn of phrase during my child’s class.

Are you still with me?

In the midst of this fraught election season with unprecedented political happenings, this teacher brought her politics into my fifth grader’s classroom. And when I called her on it, she was sad and apologetic for saying it but offered no clarifying, apolitical context or meaning for her words.

The problem here is a multifaceted one, but let’s focus on just one facet. Underlying this entire exchange between my child’s classroom, the teacher, the principal, and me, is a level of white discomfort that sees itself as being equal to or more important than the emotional well-being and innocence of my child, as well as the professionalism I have every right to expect from my child’s teacher. The relational dynamics at play here, and the expectation that I would be content with a spineless apology and a repeated assertion of how bad the teacher felt, are inextricable from the history of race relations in this country. 

Indeed, how have we arrived at the year 2020, and found ourselves confronted with a white woman who believes that when her employee’s feelings are hurt or her judgment questioned, it is in any way the analogous equivalent of a lynch mob seeking to hang a person from a tree?

This week’s suggested resource, therefore, is 13th, Ava DuVernay’s illuminating Netflix documentary that traces the evolution, not the abolition, of slavery in America.

13th unearths the cumulative impact of racial terror in America: enslavement, lynching, mass incarceration, redlining, housing covenants, and the present-day iterations and results of all of the above. 

Watch it, take notes, and allow your understanding to be broadened, so that you do not find yourself in a position of equating temporary emotional discomfort with the domestic terroristic act of lynching. Watch so that you can begin to understand why I as a black mother was utterly unmoved by a teacher’s feckless political statement and subsequent tepid apology; why I remain thoroughly unsatisfied that I never received an explanation of what exactly she meant; why the situation and how it played out have left me wishing away the time my child will have to spend with this teacher; why I feel so insecure about her beliefs and how they may insert themselves into the way she implements curriculum and delivers instruction to my child and his class; why the principal’s comment makes me worry about the water cooler talk my child may overhear if he indeed were on that campus attending school; why I am genuinely concerned about the faculty culture of the school he attends. 

Our words have meaning, y’all. It’s incumbent upon us to consider the words we choose to use. And to own our mistakes in as transparent a way as we can when we inevitably say the wrong thing.

To be transparent myself, I will share an anecdote: A few days ago, I was talking to a family member about doing what I said I’d do even though my teenage son wanted me to consider doing something else. But that isn’t what I said. Instead, I told this family member that I had “stuck to my guns.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I replayed them mentally and felt nauseated. Had I just used a violent, war-related phrase to refer to how I had made a decision and not backed down from it? One quick moment’s reflection showed me that this expression could be quickly and easily replaced with appropriate, precise language. I could easily have said that I stuck to my convictions or simply that I did what I said I would do, conveying the same meaning in a way that isn’t potentially problematic. 

As you watch 13th and reflect on your own words and perceptions, I hope you will consider the following questions: 

  • What idioms do you use without really considering the meaning of their words? 
  • Have you ever conflated being asked to stop and think about your word choice with being physically attacked?
  • When have you allowed people around you to use language that makes you uncomfortable without calling them out on it? Who benefits from such allowances? 
  • Have you slipped up and allowed your political views to seep into your workplace? How have others responded? If you are a leader in some capacity at your job, are the people around you truly able to express concern, offense, or harm caused by what you say, without fearing repercussion?

This is a heavy piece, I know. Not every aspect of unlearning racial bias work must be this deliberate and careful. But when such deliberation and care are required, we’d best take the time to do the work well. I’ll see you here again soon, so we can cultivate peace in our homes, families, and communities, one piece at a time.

Piece 23: When I Think of Home

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 how many movies and shows you have seen – besides A Wrinkle in Time – that center a black girl finding her identity? For me, one such movie is The Wiz, the classic all-black version of The Wizard of Oz. When the final scene of the musical begins, our remixed yet still familiar protagonist has just been given the key to going back home to Kansas by Lena Horne or Uzo Aduba, depending on which version you watch. And she ruminates on the meaning of home as she prepares to click her heels and return to the place she took for granted a short time ago. She looks out into the distance and begins to sing, “when I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing…”

Photo by PICHA Stock from Pexels

In addition to being a heartwarming family story, The Wiz is layered with social commentary. The scarecrow croons, for instance, that you can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game: a clear reminder that no matter what black people try to get ahead in their lives, that the deck is always stacked against them. Just a little later, we hear tin man mournfully wonder what he would do if he could suddenly feel. Each time I hear this song, I can’t help but echo its sentiment, musing to myself that if I could express my feeling freely, I’d hardly know what to do with myself because such freedom would be so utterly new. 

And of course we can’t forget the lion, who receives the heartfelt advice from Dorothy to “be a lion.” She encourages him to be who he truly is: standing strong and tall, the bravest of them all, admonishing him to keep on trying. 

Once old Evilene perishes after having water poured on her, all of her winged warriors dance and sing in jubilation. With their fearsome ruler finally gone, they rejoice as they feel this brand new day. They knew, after all, that they’d one day be free somehow. So we, the audience, resonate with this notion: that we, too, will be free someday.

There’s a plethora of thinkpieces and analyses of The Wiz, which, despite some white people having never heard of it until NBC staged a live production a few years ago, has existed on stage and screen since 1974. The story was so commonly known in the black community I grew up in, that I could confidently sing along with most of the soundtrack even before my sixth grade self was cast in my elementary school’s production as Auntie Em. Since many writers have researched deeply and coherently compiled their musings, I won’t copy their work and add my own voice to the fray. Instead, I’ll share with you why The Wiz is so important to me.

The 1978 film adaptation of The Wiz is star-studded, featuring a hefty sampling of black Hollywood’s finest: Nipsy Russell, Michael Jackson, and Diana Ross, to name a few. It’s beautiful, and imaginative, and dazzling in its adaptation of the classic tale. The Wiz doesn’t so much change its source material as it does breathe new life into it, bathing it in an urban landscape steeped in black culture, amid black icons, to a soundtrack of black music.

Photo by nappy from Pexels

Instead of Dorothy looking wistfully over the rainbow and wishing to fly with the birds, the opening number of The Wiz finds Auntie Em reminding Dorothy that she is loved and wanted, that she belongs with her family. The sense of connection and belonging are omnipresent in The Wiz, as Dorothy isn’t so much on a journey to find that leaving home will help her find herself, as she is misguidedly seeking to return to the home where she and her mother lived before her mother died, only to find that her mother wasn’t her only family – and that the familial love she thought she was missing, has been waiting for her patiently all along.

It reminds me in no small way of a phrase our priest uses frequently, referring to the congregation as “beloved.” My first name is a Spanish word that roughly translates to “beloved.” And any time I come across the word in Scripture, I close my eyes and feel a special nudge, a comfort that comes from knowing I am beloved by my Creator. A similar sense of belonging, of home, of connectedness, of belovedness, is the very yellow brick road Dorothy and her friends ease on down throughout The Wiz. 

This remixed version of L. Frank Baum’s age-old tale resonates so deeply with me because it is so black, because it is so resonant, because it is so inviting, because it is so familiar, and – of course – because it reminds me of home. 

The Wiz, its soundtrack, and its stars are woven throughout memories of my childhood. Truly, when I myself think of home, The Wiz is an integral part of that picture.

Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels

I wonder, what do you think of when you think of home? Do you picture big, boisterous family dinners? Do you imagine the ease of finally letting down your guard because your family knows and loves you best? Do you exhale as you fall into familiar patterns of making sure the cook doesn’t have to clean? Is the game on TV? Are the uncles playing a loud game of dominoes on the patio? Has your nephew absconded with all the children’s Easter candy while everyone else was outside playing and he was left unattended?

The love and warmth I feel when I think of home are so thick they are almost tangible. As you think of home and what it means to you, I hope you’ll consider the following questions:

  • What kind of home are you seeking to create for yourself? Your family?
  • If guests visited a family gathering, would they feel included in your family’s habits and traditions?
  • Are your family’s gatherings inclusive? In theory only or in truth?
  • What can you add to the soundtrack of your home to ensure your family always feels wanted, welcomed, and knows they belong?

I hope the home from which you hail keeps you firmly rooted and secure, that it steadily beckons you back, welcoming you with open arms. And I hope the home you are building is inclusive, freeing, affirming, and steady. Come back next week, and we’ll keep working to add peace to our lives and our homes, one piece at a time.

Piece 22: A Wrinkle in Time

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 you how you could balance humanizing the victims of police violence while leaving space for the wholeness of their lived experiences. This isn’t an easy or even necessarily a natural thing for me to do. But one thing that helps me is not to call these people whom I never knew in life by their familiar first names. If I refer to them in writing or in conversations, I use their first and last names, as if they are people I don’t know. Because even though stories like theirs are all too familiar, and even though I feel a kinship with them in that my skin color and presumptions about it could be weaponized against me at any given moment, I do not in reality know them no matter how personally I may feel devastated by the manner of their death.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

When I took my babies to see A Wrinkle in Time in theaters, I carried several emotions with me: nostalgia for a favorite childhood book I had enjoyed and shared with my boys, recently rejuvenated curiosity since my older child had gotten me interested in reading the graphic novel adaptation, and excited anticipation at the prospect of Ava DuVernay’s black-protagonist- focused adaptation.

I was very excited. 

While some audience members – L’Engle purists, no doubt – were scrutinizing the movie’s liberal interpretation of the book, its altered plot points, and its outsized Oprah role, I was puzzling in my mind – trying to remember the last time I saw a young black or biracial girl on the screen who was insecure about her hair and reassured of its beauty by her crush. I was marveling at the multiracial representation of Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit. I was crying at the beauty of this depiction of a girl so connected to her father that she was determined that he was able to be found and set out to bring him home. I was swept away by the costumes, the cast, and the dazzling beauty that DuVernay and Oprah bring to everything they touch with their gifted hands. I was validated and seen and grateful.

My children didn’t have the same reaction I did. They are 21st century biracial boys who do not share their mother’s experience of being a young black girl insecure about her identity and sorely lacking big-screen representations of people who look like her. Nevertheless, our whole family enjoyed the movie. And we left the theater determined to purchase the movie, which in time, we did.

Considering the election week we’ve had in this country, I somewhat wish time would wrinkle. If it were possible to pass through a real-life wrinkle, suspended in/hurtling through time and space, I might just want time to stop long enough to experience the worlds to which that wrinkle would take me. Away from the mess that 2020 has dished out: mysterious seeds, murder hornets, a tiger king, a global pandemic, and now, a mere few days away from Friday the 13th, an election hullabaloo.

I want to pause and breathe and watch a lovely movie about an awkward teenage girl who misses her dad. I want to sit in a theater with my family and eat popcorn from the refillable bucket we buy each year. I want to sneak my children the dollar store snacks and drinks I usually purchase on our way to the movies. I want to lose track of time just long enough to watch a 90-minute reimagined stroll down memory lane – into an allegorical world of wonder.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

This week, I invite you to do just that: watch the 2018 A Wrinkle in Time. Try to picture yourself as a child, seeing someone who looks like you, in a sparkling, colorful, big-screen adaptation of a book beloved by young and old alike. Try to feel the excitement and anticipation of knowing that behind the movie is a black female director who received an almost unheard-of budget to bring this movie to the screen – where her cinematic vision became the first movie directed by a black woman to gross $100 million at the box office. Particularly if you saw the movie before and found yourself let down that it didn’t strictly follow the book or fit with prior film iterations of the story, try to imagine how it feels to see yourself in this beloved tale for the very first time.

As you watch and pay attention to how your body and mind react to the film, I hope you will consider these questions:

  • How many other movies and shows have you seen that center a black girl finding her identity? Strong relationship with her father? Embracing her beauty and uniqueness? Adapted from popular books?
  • When you bristle at modern, inclusive versions of old stories, why are you bothered that a present-day adaptation doesn’t stick to a traditional interpretation? Is it because even if characters’ skin color is never explicitly stated in the text, that whiteness is the norm in your mind’s eye as you read? 
  • If as an adult, you are affected by not being represented by characters who look like you on a movie screen, how much more important and meaningful do you think it is for children of color, who have so seldom seen themselves represented, to have the opportunity to do so?

Time won’t wrinkle for us, or even pause briefly. And since we must keep putting one foot in front of the other as time marches on, then we’d may as well keep working toward a more unified, harmonious, and peaceful way of living amongst each other – one piece at a time.