Racial Reconciliation is for the ENTIRE body of Christ so I’m Redefining What It Means

12 08 2015

I’m in a place of psychological shift. The way I think is being altered, and I’m happy for it. I hope that as I get older, I get wiser and I learn how to constructively question things I have believed in order to enter into new and truer forms of belief. I don’t want to believe blindly, but I want to build belief based on how I build and live my life.

For me, I believe in racial reconciliation in the church. It is something that entered my mind ten years ago and has never left. It is something that has entered my mission six years ago and has revealed itself as a true demonstration of church.

But I may be a rare being. I am a black woman highly aware of racial, gender, sexual and class dynamics. I spent a portion of my childhood, teens and early twenties in black churches (which I am sure holds its own degrees and rankings of how “black church” I am). But that has been my experience. Have I always fit into said black churches? I would argue that I never have. As a Nigerian, it is hard not to remain an outlier or to become the link back to Africa so many are desperate for they don’t realize they’re limiting what my connection with them could be because of it. So I have always been either outsider or a means to the inside, back to Africa. Neither way have I been particularly useful to or connected to the history of the black church in the United States.

But my story took an odd turn in my mid-twenties. I joined a white church in hopes to be part of the nearly impossible mission of the church to be reconciled to one another. And the area I am most interested in doing so is through race and ethnicity.

Ephesians 2:12-16 is a key text in reconciling work, but many miss its great power. It demonstrates the power of God to bend time – many overlook this and skip to Jew-Gentile relations (we’ll leave that conversation for another post). This movement is too quick if it overlooks what time is doing and meaning for the church.

Eph. 2 talks about the reconciling work that Christ has already done that we are living into in the present – though it has already been done. We are currently trying to live into the past and future in the present. We are thus trying to figure out how to live into the reality Christ has already set before us – we are trying to make what has been will be. Reconciliation is about transcending time, moving beyond the past while requiring it, living into the future all the while not knowing it that well. We need a more complex understanding of racial reconciliation – at the bare minimum to honor how time is working in our conceptualizing of it. But we stick with our simple strategies of what some (mainly white) people have guessed it should be. The emphasis on what time means to reconciliation should place our attention of what the “we” means as well.

We (majority and minority churches alike) often fail to understand how we’ve constrained racial reconciliation to moments of white solution-creating if we think (or buy into the notion, yes, even through rejecting it, that) racial reconciliation means minorities entering into white church spaces. It seems a bit offensive to reduce Christ’s redemptive work to the project of white churches assuaging its guilt of having no intention of not remaining white churches.

So this brings me to my question: If racial reconciliation is not neo-missions or neo-colonial in it being created by, conducted within and made for white churches, what is it? If all churches minority and majority became involved in constructing the articulation of its being (as it constitutes what being church even means), can racial reconciliation look different than what white churches have believed it to be which has forced many minority churches to avoid it? What if racial reconciliation is not based on a relationality of “white to everyone” else, but of “everyone else to everyone else” (Gentile to Gentile)?

Shouldn’t racial reconciliation then be steeped in the social, religious and political? If we follow a religious Lord whose purpose was to exist in a political world and overcome it and a social Lord whose purpose was to exist in a religious world and overcome it and a political Lord whose purpose was to exist in a social world and overcome it – how should we be?

Redefining Racial Reconciliation

Shouldn’t racial reconciliation, in its true form, in its only form declare, “Black Lives Matter”? Shouldn’t racial reconciliation in churches make living wage and economic equality its top agenda? Shouldn’t racial reconciliation in churches have at its forefront the issues of its women – as we are all one body? Shouldn’t racial reconciliation in churches take into account that political, social life and religious institutions can create balance or imbalance between races and ethnicities (in its denominationalism, polities, and practices) – and move to dismantle the oppressive mechanics of this? Racial reconciliation in church should influence voting, social causes, our relationship to wealth and security. Shouldn’t it challenge all of us to our cores? Shouldn’t it be a means of discipleship?

I am advocating that the notion of racial reconciliation be stripped from white churches as their project and be claimed by all churches as church mission and make up. Racial reconciliation should look more like the Civil Rights Movement (which the earliest black advocates and creators of the focus of Racial Reconciliation in churches were pushing for) rather than “Unity Day” at church. Racial reconciliation in church is precisely that force of good that lives primarily outside of liturgy and spills into the street, into the education system, into court rooms, into businesses and political offices. It engages any and everything that affects race – and friends, everything affects race. Thus, I want to submit my own definition of racial reconciliation.

Racial reconciliation is a movement of justice, love and community generated within but not limited to the Christian church seeking to really live into the redemptive work of Christ on social, political, economic, gendered, sexual and ethnic and racial levels (as racial includes notions of marginality). It aims to live into the new creation on earth that the work of Christ has already established, by attending to these areas that need catching up, in tangible ways towards equal and loving relationship with each other. Some could designate it as movement towards the reality of living into the Kingdom of God. In its most basic form, it is the work of beholding others in awe and majesty as the Lord does us.

Thus, to be clear: all churches should be engaging in racial reconciliation or reconciliation in general as it is discipleship. This means that some already are; but they are not the church bodies who claim it in their words. They claim it in their living. May white churches let go of their desire to have the power to name and may the entire body of Christ open its eyes to the parts of its body who have spent their lives learning how to master the art of life abundantly.

If we all don’t have a hand in what racial reconciliation means in the church, we are not the church.

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On Love and Hate: A Continuation of “Still Black, Still in the South, and Still a Woman”, A Review of “The Help” film

1 09 2011

The night I watched “The Help”, I wrote these intial thoughts, but definitely have more thoughts to flesh out.

In the movie portrayal of Katheryn Stockett’s “The Help”, one thing puzzled me that I did not have the tongue to articulate until now. The love/hate relationship with Africa.

The main antagonist, Hilly, a white upper-middle class staunch advocate for segregation, articulates in her being this troubling dynamic.

She advocates for missionary funds to be donated to “Africa”, but refuses to let her African-American maid, a descendant of Africa, use her toilet or loan money to her next African-American employee because she did not want to set a precedent of merely giving people what they could and should earn themselves (ironically contrary to her charity towards Africa).

This made me question, why create the opposing dynamics of demonstrating charity towards Africa and hostility towards African-Americans? This dual-mindset does not mesh. At least on the surface it does not. So I thought deeper.

Two factors that I have been mulling over in my mind can help me begin to think through and address this dilemma: 1) Mission-work/The church and 2) American values. Both missionary work/the church and American values play a factor with how the African and African-American are seen or not seen (in the case of Africa).

I’ll explore “Mission-work/The church” in this blog post.

Mission-work/The Church

The church seems to be the connecting factor between Africa and White Middle-Class
America. The church seems to be the connection between African-Americans and White Middle-Class America.

Hilly’s character is so important because she subtly and overtly gives commentary on the poor state of the White church in 1960s America. Hilly’s character gives us a glimpse inside the ecclesial reality (alongside the familial reality, which I argue is an ecclesial reality as well) that has shaped her view and understanding of darker bodies.

In other words, Hilly is not “just a racist”, but Hilly is primarily a Christian.

This is an important point that her character advertises throughout the entire film. Hilly is not inherently evil because her belief in Jim Crow, but she appears evil precisely (to borrow the emphatic word of Dr. Willie Jennings and Dr. J. Kameron Carter) because she is trying to be pure, to be a good Christian.

Her church, her ecclesial history, background and reality have shaped her social outlook as well, not only her spiritual life. Her faith has broken from the boundaries of being a personal journey that includes others, into a public demonstration that includes (i.e., excludes) others.

Hilly’s faith is being proclaimed in her toilet initiative. Hilly’s faith is being proclaimed in her mistreatment of her two housemaids. Her strange demeanor fluctuating with mean, sweet and sweetly-mean (or “condescendingly-helpful”) reflect the attitude of the white church towards the un-white.

This is most evident in her treatment with her maids and Aibileen, the maid who “is not hers” (oh, the language of possession). It is not seen but it is seen in her relationship with Africa.

Few people may have noticed, but Africa is absent totally from the film except when Hilly “speaks it into existence”. Africa created on the tongue of Hilly (perhaps alluding to a new understanding of “speaking in tongues” … perhaps 🙂 )

Outside of African-Americans, the only portrayal the viewer receives of Africans comes from the mind and mouth of a middle-class white woman hell-bent on saving it. But from what?

The viewer does not know what Africa is being saved from. Except itself. And maybe, albeit with great subtlety, that is what Hilly wants society to understand since this is how she has been taught Africa. Maybe that is how Hilly “knows” Africa and wants everyone else to know Africa. Since no one truly knows Africa, Hilly and co. have to create an Africa worth knowing, an Africa that is poor, destitute, dirty, in need of money and white help. Hilly creates in her tongue and actions, an Africa that needs saving. And she has no problem with herself and her society being the savior. She has no problem saving from a distance.

Hilly’s faith has everything to do with maintenance, maintaining her social and moral status among her peers. She maintains the status quo all-the-while helping the poor. She maintains the warm, fuzzy feeling of helping save a life. From a distance.

Oddly enough, Hilly serves a god of distance and discrimination, not disturbance and
disruption (of the social norms).

Hilly loves the idea of Africa her faith has helped create. Hilly loves the idea of helping African-Americans by employing them as long as they remain in her place (i.e., as long as they do not threaten her place as a Southern Christian socialite).

But Hilly also hates. She faithfully hates disturbing what church tradition has taught her social consciousness. She hates it when African-Americans step out of their place. She hates her authority and expertise in naming the other being questioned, or even worse, proved wrong. Hilly loves and at the same time, hates, Africa.

More thoughts to come on American values!





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.





The Glorious Gospels (The Advent Addition)

13 12 2010

Luke 1:26-45

I’m a member of a small predominantly white Presbyterian church in North Durham where people of African-descent make up approximately one-third of the congregation. I’ll be forthcoming with you, I am in this church, a church unlike any church I have ever been in, because I am interested in seeing something major happen: I want to see racial reconciliation wrestled with and I want it to overpower us leaving us limping but re-named, disabled to do what we used to do, but able to move gingerly and with more care. With younger graduate and college students becoming more and more regular the percentage of African-Americans may very well decrease sharply which can be disheartening, but this potential is not as disheartening as another statistic within my church.

As an American African young woman, I’ve already been limping throughout this difficult ecclesial shifting process. I’ve lost a number of things, all for the sake of walking with the Lord more faithfully. And it hurts severely every single step of the way; and some sort of ecclesial hip-replacement is not an option. I journey on though, because I do not believe I am called to join a young, vibrant African-American church where worship music and preaching style are what I am most accustomed to, or go to a Nigerian church where I could appreciate a few cultural nuances, but I feel called to a church opposite myself. And I believe with my whole heart that right now I am supposed to be a part of it. But many times I literally feel that I can’t be this church, not because if my race, my ethnicity or my gender, but because of my age.

Cultural differences aside as they are an entirely separate conversation, age-difference is unfortunately and currently too big to overcome. The age of Ageism is alive and well in my church and in the church in general today. I see it all over the place– young all black and all white non-denominational churches are springing up as old white and black mainline churches are dying or barely surviving. Young adults go elsewhere to worship; they create the space for worship that consults their age and time because there is no room for their being amongst the heavy older traditions in many mainline churches. Even young mainline churches are a falsity—they seem to be more like a non-denominational body dressed up in mainline clothing, exercising the appearance of tradition but operating differently.

There is an apparent divide that both young and old church see, but neither know how to nor want to suture back together, because frankly, both groups, young and old, don’t need each other. They have their space for and way of worship and the other group has theirs. Everyone is happy, fine, thriving in their own way; there is no need to continue naming a “problem” that many see as the other’s fault anyway. If the other would just do it their way then all would be well. There is no need for correction or inclusion; division rules the day!

And I do not understand why. I see a problem, a huge problem– the body of Christ, the church, has missed something vastly commented on throughout scripture; we have completely missed how scripture guides and addresses age-discrepancy. We have mastered ignoring the potential for solution. It is problematic not only that both groups do not care for the other enough to sit down and realize church together, but also that they must create pseudo-churches to live church guilt-free “having it their way” projecting their desires onto how the church is supposed to function.

Something is amiss, and a joyous moment of connect between two Jewish women carrying children shows us this in a gentle way.  

Elizabeth and Mary, relatives old and young are both pregnant, Elizabeth two-thirds of the way further along than Mary is too old to have a child. Mary, a young teenager engaged to be married is too unmarried to have a child. Both women are excited because they have the honor of visits from Gabriel to relay a message that the children they carry will do great things: one will point to the other who is making a way for the world to be saved.

But they are both different ages and both bearers for future and important ministries. And they don’t ignore the other to brag that their child will be better than the other’s. No, they both rejoice that the other has a minister within them and they gloat not only over their own pregnancies but the life inside the other woman. They are giggly and excited because the other is also bringing something into this world that the world needs to be saved.

Mary doesn’t gloat that as the young mother-to-be she bears the “best baby” and that the older Elizabeth’s contribution isn’t important; Elizabeth doesn’t gloat that since she will be a mother first that her experience cancels out the voice of the younger Mary. Both babies are prophetic witnesses to the loving and saving power of God. One isn’t God but baptizes God. Both live sacrificial lives that ultimately lead to their grotesque demises. But both mothers, old and young rejoice with each other.

Luke 1:39-45 says it all.

The ministry of the eldest leaps with joy when the younger comes bearing a ministry too. What is most awesome is that the older gets the Holy Spirit in the presence of the younger mother. Her baby gives the greeting, paves the way for the ministry of the younger and she catches the Holy Spirit. She is overcome by a Spirit of joy and wisdom and power. The eldest does not receive the Spirit because of the younger per se, but because she is happy to be with the younger, to see the younger, to welcome the younger into her home and into her spirit, she feels within in her joy for the younger’s ministry. Their ministries connect in that moment bound by the wondrous power of the Holy Spirit; and it overtook Elizabeth (Mary has her own moment later, see Luke 1:46-55). The Holy Spirit repeats Gabrielle’s words through Elizabeth. The older blesses the younger, she doesn’t discourage. The younger is blessed because she accepted God’s will for the ministry that would be birthed through her.  The older encouraged the younger. The older was humbled by the presence of the younger because she had something special in her.
 
And Mary sings directly after this overwhelmed by her joy and the joy of her older relative Elizabeth. This moment doesn’t become a moment of comparing ministerial efficacy but a moment to praise God. John praises. Elizabeth praises. Mary praises. The Son of God, God in the flesh, is coming.

 

The ministry of the old doesn’t scold or judge the young, the ministry of the young doesn’t ignore or gloat in the face of the older claiming to carry something better. But both praise God. Both honor one another. Mary first greets Elizabeth, then Elizabeth overwhelmed with joy and God’s Spirit, blesses Mary. Ironically in giving this blessing, Elizabeth wears the prophetic cloak that her son will soon enough wear. Her role is just as important as her son’s role.
 
The women, the ministries complement one another. They don’t compete. They don’t call each other irrelevant or to blame the other for the state of the church, but they come together, love the other’s presence, and worship God together, still in their own voices, but together. At the end of the day, all the glory went to God, not the bodies who carried the ministries, but to the Creator of the bodies, the Creator of the church, to Jesus the Savior of the world. The Holy Spirit dwelled within them and they allowed Her to move them towards words of praise and song. Old and young disintegrated into praise and worship. And reconciliation reached its peak.
 
Prayer: Holy Spirit bring blessings to our lips for the other and a song to our heart for You. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.




White Rappers and Theology: Racial Reconciliation?

19 10 2010

Top 10 Rappers of the 21st Century

 

White Rappers

Or rather, white rapper.

BET (Black Entertainment Television) just released its list of the top 10 rappers of the 21st century. Excited to see if rappers like Andre 3000, Nas, and Jay-Z were on the list, I was disappointed when I did not them on the list to even be considered for the honor. The newcomer, Drake and even decent rappers like Jadakiss made the list, but the greats who had been rapping since the 1980s and 1990s and well into the 2000s did not.

I was confused.

What actually confused me most was not just the list, but the number one rapper of the 21st century: Eminem. I was shocked because, like so many other Caucasians, his being white gave him that spot.

Now before I get a bunch of hateful responses, let me qualify my reasoning. It is pretty obvious that Eminem is lyrically one of the best rappers today. He is clever, poignant, and even utters some of the violently honest lyrics we’d love to hurl at our bosses, enemies, significant others etc. He is definitely a voice for the people. Record sales can tell you that.

But what record sales can also tell you is that his support is mainly from the white community. In fact, all the rappers of the lists’ support are mainly from the white community. It’s been a trend for a while now: Caucasian people love and therefore are the main consumers of black rap and hip-hop music.

Eminem’s sales, though, are much more precisely because he is Caucasian. Who wouldn’t get excited to see “one of their own” making amazing strides in an industry where their race is hardly represented? That sounds pretty familiar for the black community.

Caucasians aren’t supposed to be dominating rap and hip hop but Eminem clearly is. He is the best; and the best denotes prestige, power and control in that area of entertainment, sports, business or whatever.

The black community cannot get upset at the overwhelming Caucasian support because we do it too. We cheer on Omarosa on The Apprentice, the Williams sisters in tennis, Tiger Woods in golf (or at least some of us used to). We cheer on the black person in that unconventional vocation where they stick out like a sore thumb because we want to be (or at least our token representatives to be) the best at something that we are not supposed to be good at.

But what if being the best minority isn’t all what it’s cracked up to be. What if being the best also denotes communal ownership of that token, that representative. Something evil even, since possession of a title, reinforces superior ability over and against another.

What if minority tokenism violates something sacred, like the space to be individual and unique and not have to rely on a “chosen one” to defeat the forces of the majority?

What if?

Theology

I wonder about our competitive nature and need to have a representative in order to make a splash or be the best. It’s as if we can’t be happy if another group is doing better than “us.” This silent competition redraws the “us”/”them” binary. It recreates division where the unity is supposed to be in the craft. In a strange way it creates race dynamics. It hurts feelings when a white person is dominating a black enterprise. It turns heads. Despite whether he deserves the title or not (and I understand that both sides can be argued), Eminem is a white man at the top of an industry that is culturally a black one.

It begs the question of ownership. And worship.

What do we worship? What we own? What believe is ours? What we know belongs to us?

Honestly, when I pose this question I’m asking myself. I’m asking myself can hardship’s transformation into rap lyrics belong solely to black people. Do the streets just belong to one demographic? Is transfiguring one’s pain into a catalyst for success a black thing? Not necessarily.

Sure I have named potential sins: tokenism, domination, competition, but perhaps the biggest sin of all is this false right of ownership. Maybe Eminem is legitimate. Maybe he’s the best not because he raps about material things all the time but about the painfully true abjections in life. Maybe he’s the best because of white consumerism, but maybe he’s the best because lyrically he does something that a lot of us are afraid to do: he speaks the truth about himself and others. He doesn’t focus on “hating” but hates himself and others when they do wrong and loves himself and other when they are wronged. He loves enough to be angry.

Sitting on this list after a few days shows me that I have racialized rap. I rejected the list solely because Eminem is white. I have fallen prey to the same practices that spurned hate the mess that we’re still wading through today.

I have sinned because I rejected Eminem’s act of confession. I don’t know everything about him. He may be very disturbed or he may not be, but that doesn’t change the fact that his message is in the music and in his skin.

Petty lying doesn’t quite work for Eminem. He has to speak straight from the heart even if it’s too violent or disturbing for some of us. Maybe he’s alerting us to the fact that we lie to feel safe in a disturbing world. Maybe he’s at the top of the list because of the social commentary laced within his lyrics. Or maybe not.

All I know is that Jesus hated petty lying. He hated falsity for the sake of keeping something the same and untouched. No, he wanted the truth to be the norm. His words touched not only ears but hearts. Jesus made people angry and changed the social situation, or at least how people thought about it. And it worked.

Let’s be clear: I’m not calling Eminem, Jesus. He is a figure of sorts, not a salvific one, but a figure nonetheless.

What I am saying is that after harshly judging Eminem on this list, I believe he deserves to be on this list precisely because he is a different rapper with a slightly different message. Sure socially conscious rappers are out there and have been out there for a number of years. But in the 21st century Eminem is arguable doing a pretty good job of being a white male talking about the social issues that we don’t even want to talk about too in-depth (like domestic violence for example).

So I retract the hate behind the first part of this blog entry. I still do believe that whiteness has propelled his record sales. Like I said earlier, white people buy hip-hop and rap albums. His race definitely has played a role in his sales.

But, I can say that Eminem is deserving of being in the list of the top ten rappers of the 21st century. His message/lyrics alone say something. He is speaking out honestly and it’s not always about his women, cars, and house or people who want his women, cars, and house. He is speaking for some people who didn’t really have a voice until he came on the scene and started confessing for them, their issues to the world.  He speaks for a white lower-class and white middle class (even the white upper-class) concerning their social and cultural issues. He speaks through lyrical confession.

Confession is healing. I wonder if Eminem is bridge-building. I wonder if his presence is saying “Hey black world, white people exist and hurt too. And here’s how we react to it or want to do better about how we react towards it.” And I wonder if black people can and will respond to that knowing, or just become jealous or upset (like I was at first).

Or will we continue to fight to reclaim the top spot, always imagining rap and hip-hop as a game to be won and conquered instead of an expressive social movement with hopes of invoking healing for many.

Eminem is making some issues of his race, class and culture known. I wonder if black people will listen and listen well and engage this whole community thing where we love each other not because of race but because of our journeys in life. Maybe Eminem is (drum roll please) doing racial reconciliation is a subtle way by taking step one and honestly informing others about himself and many like him so that responses can be made.  

He could be or I could be giving him way more credit than necessary, but I know for sure that I’ll be paying more attention to his lyrics and hopefully his life and the lives of many others.





Jesus Did Miracles, Why Can’t Dr. Miracle?

13 09 2010

The Commercials

Take a look at this commercial: http://www.youtube.com/user/drmiracles#p/a/u/1/-AyHvYWpINM

Now this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7V4G_87iOE

And now this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oblcI5uqck

What do you see?

The Message

In twenty seconds or less, each of these advertisements narrate something profoundly common and yet distinctly disturbing: kinkiness, nappyness, unkemptness in black hair is unacceptable. In twenty-seconds or less, a frightening pattern of a white aesthetic is pitched and fed to a black woman by, get this, a black man, or rather a black-man-arm. A black arm (and deep voice) miraculous emerges from a mirror (or from behind a plant) with the solution, the miraculous product that will perform the magic of straightening out her hair which in turn will straighten out her life. It is a miracle that will eliminate the hair problem and pronounce beauty on the former victim now turned victor. What’s worse is that this white aesthetic is additionally affirmed by black men and black women alike. Both parties agree that the black woman’s hair needs to be and look a certain way for it to be acceptable and beautiful; and both agree that this product from Dr. Miracle will get this poor, lost woman to her aesthetic destination.

What these commercials don’t narrate is the well-known and unknown message being sold: straight hair is a miracle and Dr. Miracle the said miracle-worker. Dr. Miracle’s products pronounce a continuation and perpetuation of performance by black women, egged on by this mysterious man; this is the aesthetic norm that many black women are captive to, a norm that relegates her hair, her look, her natural aesthetic encouraging her to buy into a different aesthetic.

Even if this is the first time you’re seeing these commercials, I can tell you where to find a steady stream of them. If you’ve ever watched the Black Entertainment Television (BET) network long enough, it’s inevitable that you’ll run into one of these Dr. Miracle Hair and Skin Care commercials. Curious about the origin behind this product I went to the website and could not find a picture or any information about the founder, president or CEO…nothing.

I had to do some Google-digging and came across some interesting stuff. According to the New York Times, Dr. Miracle was founded by Brian K. Marks; this is what he looks like.

He’s white.

The Structure of Mediation

This complicates the aesthetic picture just a bit, or perhaps allows the Dr. Miracle narrative to fit into the natural mold of the white-male mediated beauty aesthetic. Beauty is mediated by the figure behind the product. The Caucasian male determines what beauty is through shaping the aesthetics of Caucasian women and deeming that the norm. This norm is inherited by the African-American male. He may prefer lighter skin, smaller hips, longer and straighter hair on his female companion. What choice does the African-American woman have but to cater, to adjust, to deviate from her norm in a rash attempt to look pleasant, beautiful, a bit more white?

Without hesitation, even with a sense of severe urgency, she takes the product from the black arm and black voice with no face. In that exchange is a contract co-signing her ugliness. In that exchange she confirms that her body is an emergency that needs some serious help. She accepts the solution from a faceless figure seeming to have all the answers. What she does not account for is the body of the arm. The arm and voice may be black, but the body of this “Doctor” is a white male’s body. And this body purports this extension of white aesthetic. What she doesn’t see is that her being is a market; she ingests the message that there is plenty on and about her body that “needs” to be fixed, changed, shaped, re-sculpted. What she doesn’t realize is that her “look” is being handed down to her from a Caucasian puppeteer (perhaps a subtle re-emergence of black face) capitalizing off of her insecurity and pressure to appear beautifully white.

The “doctor” character on the product packaging is a black man signaling this hierarchical mediation from white male to black male and ultimately down to the black female. The product  packaging is only a means to ensure safe delivery. Certain concepts of normalcy infiltrate the black female consciousness about her own body using her own kind.

Strangely enough her insecurities are solidified by other black women who have also conformed to the same norms and now deem her as ugly if her hair is not relaxed or straightened like their hair is. They have both bought into the product that advertises against their natural look and advocates another look. The solidarity is somewhat awkward and misplaced, with traces of self-rejection, self-importance, competition and unity under a contradictory cause. The black women in these commercials do not affirm beauty outside of straightened hair, but the solidarity rests in the assimilation to straight hair. They both fall into a space of beauty that only whiteness can truly inhabit so they powder it on their face, and rub it in their hair in a desperate attempt to be as white as possible until the next time they need it. They fight off everything black about them until they need the product one more time. They change what they can. In solidarity tied to rejection, labeling as ugly (or reverting to their natural hair texture), and desiring to be sexually acceptable to the black male, these black women nervously (and even confidently) adopt self-hate and subtly spew it on one another.  

The black woman is introduced into the aesthetic that a Caucasian man has set, pressured to look unlike her natural self and perform into a white female aesthetic endorsed by the black male, and peer-pressured into maintenance of this aesthetic from similarly conforming black females.  

It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Oh yeah, Jesus

This entire Dr. Miracle campaign is showing us that we’ve moved dangerously far away from what Jesus wanted us to value. The black woman falls into their downward spiral where she doesn’t know that she’s accepting a message that her transformation into a white aesthetic is a miracle that only a white man disguised as, then through a black man can work. She falls into a religious trap that prompts her to worship in order to receive her miracle. Thus the white man becomes her miracle worker, a savior of sorts, a god.

Jesus wouldn’t approve of this savior guy. As Dr. Amy Laura Hall would say, “that job’s been taken.”

I’m no expert, but I don’t recall Jesus performing any miracles on hair, or nails, or make-up. He never invited a prostitute to the table to eat and fellowship with Him in order to extend an ambiguous hand to her and in His best Barry White voice, explain how this product will work wonders on her hair.

Jesus certainly performed bodily miracles like healing (my favorite parable is in John 9), but the purpose extended a bit deeper than looking or even feeling good. He gave people back their lives and introduced them to a new life centered on believing in Him. He never wanted the focus to be the miracle itself, but the provider of the miracle. He wanted the people He encountered and loved to focus on Him.

He did not advocate focusing on one’s “problems” or “shortcomings” in order to fix them for three weeks at a time or one $800 sew-in at a time. Jesus never miracled a relaxer or a hair weave.

Jesus advocated love outside of the normal understanding of aesthetic. He lived a new aesthetic where things like love and charity, mercy and grace were the trends people were in awe about and in need of. He painted pictures that had no picture except through human action and genuineness.

Dr. Miracle does miracles, and Jesus does miracles. I guess the difference between them is that Jesus jumped over the hoops instead of jumping through them (or perhaps Jesus destroyed the hoops that have been re-constructed by the greedy platform of the black hair market). Plus He didn’t have money to gain. Plus He loved us so much, black women and white women, black men and white men alike that He only cared what our souls looked like and not our hair.





The White Tennis Aesthetic

10 09 2010

                        

 As an avid tennis fan, I’ve learned that everything in life relates to tennis.

As a fan of theology inherited from such greats as Dr. Willie Jennings and Dr. J. Kameron Carter, I’ve learned that there are tons of things that speak theology that we simply have to train our ears to hear.

Everything relates to tennis, everything relates to theology.

Even tennis outfits.

At first my reaction to Venus William’s dress was one of embarrassment (see left-hand picture above). I asked aloud: what is she wearing? What is she trying to prove?

But as the matched wore on and the majority of the comments issued were that her dress  made her miss that volley or affected that backhand, I noticed something. The commentators were being unfair and in her outfit alone, making excuses to criticize and take cheap shots at her game (she won the match by the way). Outside of the matches where she wore two similar outfits which received passing comments of its shortness came courtesy of the Huffington Post, it’s flair from Lifestyle, its unconventionality from CBS News, all culminating with the slide show of Venus’ most controversial and interesting outfits from Bleacher report – all attempts to draw negative attention to her outfit, which somehow either directly “paralleled her talent” or “spoke of her flimsy judgment”.  

After processing her outfit, I came to a realization: I was being just as unfair as the commentators were for doing what many black people automatically turn to out of fear of judgment: secretly hope that her outfit was not received by Caucasians as misrepresenting the entire black race. I didn’t want people in the “classy” sport of tennis to have a bad perception of black people based on this one outfit.

I’ve repented since then.

I repented because I realized that her outfit had nothing to do with me, with us, with the black race, but it has everything to do with her and what we – commentators, true fans, enemies, and fans simply because she’s a black tennis player – place on her as prerequisites to be a black tennis player: a tight mold that only gives her the freedom and space to act and dress like a typical tennis player, a white (European) woman. I re-placed her into a mold she’s probably been trying to break out of, escape and deal with since she came stood out in the professional tennis scene in 1997.

I realized that her fashion was not about shame falling on an entire race, but it is about the fact that shameful fear can cause me to turn on someone who is advocating through her body and how she presents her body that different is okay. She doesn’t have to cater to a certain way of being and looking on a European surface; this exposes the expectations wrapped up in and bound to white women’s bodies that, I was afraid to point out, Venus (and Serena) cannot fit!  The mold is too small, too white, too one-dimensional.

I do have to give credit where credit is due. Some have begun to see that something about tennis fashion speaks to tennis culture. The only commentators who had something fairly concrete and positive to say about Venus Williams (Serena Williams) and tennis fashion came from two men. Commentators, Chris Muther (a white gentleman) and Bomani Jones (a black gentlemen) on ESPN commentary somehow got it! They, in an innovative and honest way, gave truthful (not judgmental) commentary about Venus’ other controversial outfit from the 2010 French Open. Muther said that she was willing to express herself, she was willing to be herself and “take a racquet to” the normal white way of dress.

Venus and Serena Williams are doing and saying something with their unique outfits and disregard for the backlash that we, especially theologians would do well to pay attention to. They are being themselves. They are showing people that molds are made to be broken, especially when they do not cater to your body and being.

As Dr. Jennings would say, they have entered into something only to break it open from the inside. They have a mission to destroy the norm and live out something radical and more holy, more honest, more honorable to themselves and to who God made them to be. Dr. Carter would include that their outfits and bodies push against the norms of whiteness and white performance in a game that they have been present in for a decade, but are only currently being noticed (through negative press).

Venus and Serena Williams are portraits of a God who is diverse and an artistic Creator. They are arguable the face of tennis because they are unique living into, not just with, their bodies, the color of their skin, the color of their flesh toned spanks, the fit of their tennis outfits, the curves of their arms and the texture of their hair. They are talked about so much because the tennis world has not quite figured out what to do with them. After winning numerous titles, comments must come from somewhere and unfortunately it’s centered around the way they dress their bodies.

They have infiltrated tennis with no warning and have changed the excitement around the game forever. And it was a violent infiltration, but an atypically violent one. Venus and Serena are not colonizers, they are settlers. They do not aim to force their aesthetic on others, but simply wish to have their own and it be respected and live in tennis harmony with the rest of their majority European surroundings.

Venus Williams, in commenting on her flesh-colored spanks under her 2010 French Open outfit said something so captivating that I’m still processing its exquisiteness. She said her outfit was expressive and that the flesh-color made it more beautiful.

The flesh color is beautiful. I think Jesus would agree. Refusing to submit to a certain aesthetic even in one’s undergarments is certainly making a statement about the appreciation of flesh and its skin tone.

Venus and Serena Williams (and even the style of play of Jamaican newcomer Dustin Brown who had the commentators at a loss for words with traces of condescension and disdain in the comments they did offer), I salute your mere presence and efforts to be you in the tennis world, no matter how controversial that is. Maybe we who are taken aback by unique fashion and clothing should be taken aback by our surprise. Maybe we should be surprised that we’ve been so calibrated to operate in a white tennis aesthetic that we cringe at any deviation from that norm.

Maybe we shouldn’t cringe at the black wave of candor and distinctiveness, but applaud it. Perhaps the idea of love and acceptance will take over and we’d worry less about who’s wearing what and come to grips with the notion that tennis culture is being pressured to step outside of a European standard and live atypically.

Tennis has been changed because of the Williams sisters; it looks like that trend will continue.








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