Still Black, Still in the South, and Still a Woman

18 08 2011

* Warning: These are my initial  thoughts. Things can change after some sleep and time to process, but alas, I  am avoiding both to get down my thoughts now*

 

Being a Student

In  a class I took a few semesters ago, a student was recalling a point he made in his weekly writing assignment about the role of white women and the power they possess in the difficult journey of Harriet Jacobs.

Unfortunately, a few pompous students pounced on his point arguing that the dynamics he saw
did not exist in the narrative. But they did. Because I wrote about it too but never had the courage to speak up in that moment and stand beside him.

Watching “The Help” painfully reminded me of what was there in the narrative of the seemingly helpless white woman that no one truly saw that day.

 

Being a Woman

I don’t think I’ve EVER felt this emotionally or physically queasy after watching a movie, than I did after watching “The Help”. Based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” is a story about one young white woman’s quest to tell the stories of the black female maids in 1960s Mississippi, or as they are commonly referred to, the help.

Skipping the plot summary and all, I just want to put this out there. The movie’s point is pretty clear: black female voices need to be heard about the injustice and blatant racism they encounter. The subconscious point is also clear: no matter how many victories and feel good moments the movie invites us into, the larger narrative points to the reality that black women are still the help. They still reside in the social constructs and constrictions of being black in arguably the most racist state of the South.

I get this.

What I don’t get is what to do with these feelings.

Ironically enough, white women are painted as the faces of evil in this film. So, from the first moments of the film I found myself asking, “Should I hate white women?” What is even more ironic is that white women are also the heroes and protagonists of the film. So, I had to ask myself, “Should I hate some white women and love the others?” Or perhaps, I should love the white women who don’t belong and end up being the crucified of the bunch. The awkward, educated but socially conscious prophetess. The economic outsider, but innocent innovator.

What do I do with all these white women and the complex psyches they fight through? And what do I do with the warm fuzzy feelings that these white women help paint in a socially horrific movie?

Directly after the movie I found myself telling the brave souls who went to see it with me, “I found myself ready to let go and cry at the touching moments, but then my conscious slapped me awake to the larger reality that no matter how many sappy moments this movie possesses and professes, black people’s lives still suck.” Please forgive my bitter language.

But it’s true. Their life still sucks. Their life still sucks even after they get a portion of the book’s earnings, even when they get a signed copy of the book, and even when something is finally done for them for once. Their life still sucks. They’re still caught in the web of racism, and hate, even after they’ve worked their entire lives to dispel the false rumors that garnered hate in the first place.

Yes, the larger narrative still looms: these women are discerning the best way to live life in hell. And in my opinion, hell is still hell.

Being African

What I do greatly appreciate about this movie is how my perspective has been broadened and challenged. As one who grew up in the cross-hairs of the African perspective and African American church, I’m starting to see why the black church is so important to many of my peers. I thought I knew, but I’m starting to see how much more there is to learn.

As a black person I felt extremely uncomfortable throughout the entire movie. But I have a pass. I don’t come from slave descendants. My grand and great grandparents did not deal with what the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of my peers did.

The black church has concrete significance. It was a way to survive hell on earth. It was where God dwelled when Satan loomed in the law, and the people and the churches of the Jim Crow South.

The things I challenge within the black church today like tradition of dress and even some points of theology were not in question. They were clung to. They were life.

I see that now, and hope to continue to see it as I figure out what role the black church plays today.

Being Christian

I love how this movie did a great job portraying the evils of segregation within the principles of Christian people. How outrageous the whole thing is displays the genius of this movie. Yes, Christians believed that their prejudice and hate was genuinely the right thing to do for their well-being and the well-being of their families.

Being a Christian in “The Help”, in a sense, portrayed the nuclear family as the church that needed to be protected, kept holy, kept clean from the influences and “diseases” of “others.” The community became constricted, the Bible a handbook of supremacy and domination, and the church monolithic. And white-washed.

How the white church saw the black church was never really engaged, which I would have loved to see portrayed. I imagine that it would fit comfortably within the narrative: expressing a complicated love and even more subtle disgust and hate.

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I don’t want to learn about the Confederacy

2 08 2010

Normally I’m not this bold but we were early for a wedding. So the passenger in my car took the picture after I did a very illegal U-turn to get a much desired picture of this strange sign.

I call it strange because I don’t know what to do with it.

As a person with dark skin it should automatically offend me.

And it started to.

But then I paused. And thought.  Then I wasn’t so sure if I was offended.

But I was confused, not only because this sign was present in Brodnax, VA, in my home state, where I know African-Americans live, but because I’m Nigerian.

And in all honesty, a Nigerian DOES NOT have the same history as a African-American in America. Our histories are quite different. But sometimes as a second generation immigrant (or 1.5 generation immigrant as a friend so cleverly pointed out), I don’t think I have the right to be a certain kind of offended.

I have the right to be angry on behalf of my brothers and sisters whose history tells a dark tale of greed, hate and Christian intentions, but I myself have no right to fully feel the pain that they feel.

Because I literally can’t. I can ask my grandmother what town she was from and what our people did, and are good at. I can go home to the continent of Africa and know that this is where I came from.

Many of my brothers and sisters can’t do that, let alone have to deal with the fact that missing identity, forced lack of memory and the legacy that is African Americanism, is a painful one and one not asked for.

Sure I’m grafted into “being” African-American based on my accent and look, but that only lasts a moment. People hear my name and know that I am different. Even if I wanted to be African-American in solidarity with my brothers and sisters, I can’t.

And I shouldn’t try to. I wouldn’t be me if I did.

So back to this billboard. Am I offended? I think so. But I’m not selfishly offended. In other words I’m not offended because it’s the black thing to do. Its presence may hurt others, therefore it offends me.

And I’m sorry for the Confederate soldiers who lost their lives for the livelihood of slavery. They lost their lives for a terrible cause.

I’m sorry that they have passed but I’m not sure I would celebrate the cause of their death.

Perhaps this isn’t patriotic, but perhaps it is.

Death is easy for no one. But that doesn’t mean that every death is a good one.

This flag, this billboard, this African death at the mercy of white Southern pride is a prime example for me. One dying on behalf of the “right” to continue remembrance of the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual death of tens, hundreds, thousands, and millions of people is not something to celebrate. It is something to mourn over, slowly and painstakingly.

So no thanks “Sons of Confederate Veterans”. I don’t want to learn more about the flag. If it’s a painful reminder of hate to others, then I’m not sure I’m interested in taking time to learn about those who adamantly defended it. Let alone loan them my honor.

This issue is exactly the tension different cultures trying to exist in one country face. One can’t be proud without offending another. Self-pride is nearly impossible. Because one is lifted up at the downfall of another.

So I guess the solution is humility.

What that looks like all around is for each us to pray about and decide in community, especially in a community that isn’t carbon copy “me’s” but a community of people who don’t look like, sound different from, talk different from, and believe different things are important than us.

Jesus looked for those He wasn’t supposed to be with and named them and their hearts ideal candidates for the Kingdom of God. I have a feeling God’s kingdom won’t care about the North or the South, black or white. I think God’s Kingdom will care about peace, and love, and stuff that self-pride won’t permit.

The real question is are we willing to look to others for the truth about ourselves? Are we willing to forfeit “who’s right” for “what’s right” in God’s sight?

God willing, we are willing. But that requires honesty.

And less billboards.





Class

24 06 2010

I was a third year at The University [of Virginia], or who most colleges would deem, a junior.  Super-excited about this class that would unlock a door to my ancestors’ religious landscape; I soaked in every word my professor spoke.

He knew so much.

And I marveled.

Because he was a white man.

His white skinned had graced my continent and my country more times than my dark skin had. 

His Western-white accent had had many more conversations with my people than I had.  Even though I knew more of them than he did, he had spoken and lived amongst many more.

“Yoruba Religion” the course was boldly named.  This course would teach me everything about me, everything about my ancestor’s religion before Christianity, everything. I was excited, but mostly about learning when my ancestors finally “got it right” and became Christians.

We learned about many orisha, or gods in Yoruba tradition. We learned about “Esu”, the mediating god. We learned about “Shango”, the god of war who could possess someone with extreme strength. We learned about “Osun”, the goddess of water. It all fascinated me. My parents never taught me this and it was refreshing to learn a little bit about the history of religion for my people.

We learned about the minor deities. We learned about the diviners, the priests. We even learned some detail about what we being posessed, claimed, changed, affected. We learned about everything and everyone except for the One I was waiting for.

So I waited and waited for Him, for Jesus. We learned that “Oludumare” or “Olorun” was God. I kind of knew that from home. My professor spoke of “Oduduwa” who helped established the first Yoruba kingdom and from whom Yoruba people descended. So I assumed, that he was the One I was waiting for.

I assumed he was the Jesus figure. I wanted him to be the Jesus figure. Because Africa needs Jesus. Their gods need to be erased so that Jesus can be.

“So if Olorun is like God, who is Oduduwa like?” I asked my professor.

“Well, he’s Oduduwa. He’s not really equated to anyone.”

“Really?”

“Yes. He is his own legend.”

Hmmm.

And then it hit me. The colonizing affects of Christianity had taken hold of me and I hadn’t even realized it. I was so focused on converting these orisha into the right Christian parallel, that I minimized their significance on their own.

Why couldn’t I let Oduduwa be his own legend?

Do I follow him, no. But why must I colonize him?

Jesus is Jesus and “Oduduwa” is “Oduduwa”. Maybe I should leave “Oduduwa” to be part of the religious history of Yoruba people and leave it at that. Maybe a Christian urge to eliminate Yoruba religion is that colonizing Christianity I hate so much. Unfortunately, to many Jesus is a murderous force who came with guns, and weaponry, and  language of mastery and intent to colonize.

So maybe some Yoruba feel better believing in “Oduduwa” or other orisha. I can’t blame them. And I hope that one day they will see that Jesus isn’t clothed in the colonization that He was presented in. Maybe I will shed my ignorance and stop trying to equate Jesus to a Yoruba legend and this notion that He can forever replace history, culture and legend.

I don’t think Jesus came to erase history, but to correct it by shining a light of gentle love on those who are like and unlike Europe or the West.





A Panel of Hearts/My Mouth

3 06 2010

 

 

My heart is both full and strangely empty.

I just came from the panel of amazing leaders from all over the continent of Africa: from the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, and Sudan. (at the panel “For Such A Time As This” during the Center for Reconciliation’s Summer Institute)

And their hearts were just pure. And honest. And full. And mine was empty.

I knew not of their countries hardships. Sure I heard about some of it. Sure I see when my white friends post it on their Facebook statuses. But my heart doesn’t react. And usually has a hole. But now the hole has been plugged up and I’ve realized that my heart is full.

Of pain. Of agony. Of weariness on behalf of my brothers and sisters fighting to minister, let alone exist across the Atlantic. But what I received as pain they conveyed as a bridge to hopefulness.

Africa is not lost. Africa is not a place to pity. It is a place to invest hope in for surely everyone will receive a return.

Their hearts are honest and ours longing for something. Ours being the audience…those who got to watch, soak in love, soak in justice and repent in our silent tears we wiped away. At least I did in the silent tears I quickly wiped away before anyone could see them.

These quotes and points say it all.

– Africans tribalize denominations. They are ready to die for them when no one really knows what Methodist or Presbyterian is…one’s denomination is not their Christianity.

“In forgiveness is justice.”

“How do we give up the right to revenge? Forgiveness, that is giving up the right to revenge.”

“Forgiveness is the beginning, Then begins the process of healing.” Father Emmanuel Katangole

“Pain that is not transformed is transferred.” Violet

“I think people get it wrong when you want to do something instead of just being. It’s not about ‘what you can do’ but ‘how can I come and be with you?” Celestine

“To learn the country is to learn the language.” Michael

There it is.

Sit. Listen. Be with people. Love them. Bless them because of the sheer fact that you are blessed.

An African-American minister asked what could African-Americans do to help. They all suggested friendship and partnership, coming and just listening to each other. They suggested that Africa had some things to say that the West has never asked, including African-Americans. They suggested that African-Americans can be a bridge of sorts (in my mind, I jealously wondered why I as a first or second generation Nigerian couldn’t be that bridge…the answer to come later)

THEN, John Perkins said what I’d been wanting to know. Basically he asked if African-Americans have had any type of impact because he knows that black ministers like to hear their own voices and their people feed their egos but they don’t do anything truly productive.

My sentiments exactly. Except I wasn’t thinking that black people did it but that I did it. Often. And that I can say something catchy or smart and the comments and accolades I receive all feed my ego but do not feed one hungry child who may speak the language my ancestors spoke. But I stay well fed. Gluttonous.

And my gluttony is a reflection of a sick heart.

I’m working on my hard heart. But maybe I don’t have to. Maybe God will work on it through panels of leaders who have practical requests that our churches, ministries, personal wallets and bank accounts refuse to alleviate. Maybe my mouth can be used for something other than wise sayings. Maybe it can actually do some real work and ask genuinely, “How can I be with you?”








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