Shooting en Sanctum

20 07 2015

EmanuelAME

I am convinced that death haunts spaces of retreat (click to see more of my piece at Mudroom).

Unfortunately too many people know that respite is a fleeting thing. Bullet holes serve as reminders of this.

In 2012 a hole was torn into my heart. And again in 2014. And again and again. The racial violence permeating national news was too much to handle; so my heart bled, wounded, hardly consolable and never fully given enough time to heal before the next black death. This summer, for my sake and everyone around me, I needed to take a break. I thought it best to do the two things that would move my heart towards healing: writing and retreating – together.

So I did. But day two into this healing adventure, I discovered anew that hearts with holes cannot not bleed, as death forced its way back in front me reiterating its permanent and painful presence. The horrific massacre at Emanuel AME reminds me that suffering will never stop speaking. She will advocate for her voice to be heard – and so I must listen and join in her wailing and telling, lamenting and speaking, supporting her and thus being thrust into the world of ecclesial, political, communal, familial and personal accountability.

Our hearts reminds us that its bleeding is that which keeps the church feeling, in tune with suffering – living. A bleeding heart is a heart attuned to life’s beauty and ills. No one wants it. It hurts too much, but it opens the church’s eyes to pain and the aching realities of its fractured body, its spilt blood.

The deaths of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, and Ethel Lance sparked a necessary interruption in the church’s compliance and silence practices and will prayerfully be part of the legacy of racism’s defeat, especially within the church.

Their deaths are our interruption. We should never take them lightly; in fact, we must let them interrupt us daily. Let us continue to hear them speak. I’d love your thoughts and opinions of death’s haunting nature at the Mudroom blog.





How “12 Years a Slave” Demonstrates True Life: Thoughts on this Conceptually Rich Film

20 12 2013

I am still in process of reading the book to compare points of accuracy versus artistic expression, but I want to offer a few unpolished thoughts about the spirit behind Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.”

 

In my mind “12 Years a Slave” is about three things:

1)     The tension and myth of white male protection and permission,

2)     The tension and myth of black male protection over the black female; and  

3)     The necessity of the black church.

And of course mixed messily in between all this is the invisibly visible black female voice.

 

 

I truly believe that if “Django” incited rage and righteous anger, revenge (fantasy) even, then “12 Years a Slave” incites despair – long, putrid, pungent, soul-shattering despair.

 

The narrative is beyond sad. It melancholic. The scenes are hard to watch. They do in fact breed anger, but this anger we can do nothing with. In “Django” we can celebrate that anger wins out and that (some of) the white people who caused heartache are destroyed. But in “12 Years a Slave” victory cannot be celebrated, because one man’s triumph reminds the viewer that freedom of one does not free all. It reminds the reader that freedom is an exception to the rule, and further that freedom must be handed to you. “Django” like “12 Years a Slave” still relies on white help in order for freedom to be a reality for (certain) black people. And freedom is a rare thing for many who were born into and died a slave. Freedom is elusive, a taunting myth. Solomon Northrup ultimately receives it, but in this reception, he becomes the “exceptional Negro.”

 

The Tension and Myth of White Male Protection and Permission

In this wonderful dialogue (from 22:55 onwards) Melissa Harris-Perry argues that at the end of “12 Years a Slave” the only semblance of justice that Solomon Northup has belongs to the American court system. He still has to seek his voice within the framework of American democracy (but unfortunately his case is not heard and no “justice” comes to the men who have wronged him). He has to work within a legal framework that admittedly chooses not to work for, read protect, him. He still must work through, within and against a system built for and by white men.

 

Even Northrup’s misperception (which, in the same dialogue, bell hooks calls a “naïve” one) is that his good master will protect him from the bad overseers. He thinks the good white men, or the ones who treat him as decent as one can treat a slave, the ones who think of black bodies naturally functioning as property (and thus they must keep their property in good shape), will protect him from the ones whose hate is not so subtle.

 

He thinks that the master who tried to buy him, and Eliza and her children, is good – for at least he tried and when Solomon was lynched for days at a time on this master’s plantation, he heroically comes in on a horse to cut him down.

 

Northrup thinks the hired hand who treated his whipping wounds and struck up a conversation with him would actually deliver a letter on his behalf because he gave him his word (in exchange for his money). He thought he was a good one.

 

He even thinks that the men (including the judge – which is an interesting concept to imagine, the judge liberating him/Christ as judge) who come and rescue him at the end are good. But What Northrup fails to realize that his freedom must first pass through white flesh, white help, white permission, white protection. Through another hired hand (from Canada, not America, who happens to be played by Brad Pitt whose own family aesthetics are interesting in itself) Northrup is granted his freedom. He obtains the right white permission to exist as a man, as a free black person.  

 

His freedom only is because (certain) white men allow it.

 

Given this reality, his freedom is a myth, a choice for the white men in his society to grant or not. Northrup as a black man has no control over his life. And he also learns while in slavery, that unlike his perceived situation at home, that he has no ability to offer any protection to the black woman as well.

 

The Tension and Myth of Black Male Protection

Black female autonomy seems nearly non-existent in this film. Outside of Northrup’s wife, black women are portrayed as slaves who never escape. So where does autonomy rest for the black women? In their choice to be, to exist, to (choose to) live in their own way, not solely as chattel, not solely as slaves.

 

The opening scene where Northrup is fingering a fellow female slave is disturbing. But even in its disruption (of how the viewer is used to a film opening), we know something important is happening. What it is, we are not sure, but I hope to offer my best reading and frankly, guess, of what is happening in it.

 

The woman Northrup engages in this sexual manner craves sexual contact. And by his participation, it seems that he craves the same (and to be clear, there is a distinction between participation and refusal language that is important. Another classmate read that moment as him being sexually used, and if a black woman were in his position, it could be read as sexual assault. So I think it important to think of his role as a participating one rather than one that was not resistant). Northrup gives this unnamed young slave sexual contact that she initiates, that they both want, and then she turns around and cries when she/he/they is/are done.

 

Perhaps she is disturbed by their (necessary) sexual interaction. He is disturbed as well. No words are exchanged. They don’t need to be. They are in the frightening throws of slavery. Her crying signals this in a few ways. But her crying is also a disruption, a disturbing revelation of what her life will not be. The actuality that she is slave by her body alone is concretized. Her crying is disturbing because it contains words, her tears are her words. They speak to the reality that her body is something that is owned now – and perhaps this silent sexual moment was the last moment where her sexual choice was her own – and it was with a complete stranger. And she weeps as this is a sad reality.

 

Black women’s tears litter “12 Years a Slave.”

 

Northrup’s first encounter with a mourning black woman is in their holding cell (prison: the modern day slave ship?). He experiences Eliza, a young mother who is separated from her children and sold into slavery with him. Separated from her children, she enters into a perpetual state of grief, sadness and longing, mourning that Northrup can only identify with so much.

 

Although suffering through his own grief of not being with his family, Northrup screams at Eliza to pull it together. He has an angry exchange with her about hiding grief as a survival tool. But black women teach Northrup a lesson about life and living: it is not about survival. It is Eliza and later Patsy, who remind and show Northrup that how they are “living” as slaves, is the epitome of despair, that to live, one has to feel, one has to own their interiority, which for them was spelt out in grief. These women are not afraid to admit where they are. They are in deep despair. They see the maltreatment of themselves, or the lack of treating them as human beings, as the definition of despair. They remind Solomon that if he can’t tap into that, he is not living, but surviving – merely existing. They give him an ontological lesson in being a black human being, for be a black human being in slavery is to acknowledge what their human condition is. It is one of despair. To be a black human being who is forced to be a slave requires feeling human emotion. They in a sense, remind him to be human and not livestock. They have to remind him that to be human requires being and not simply doing. They show him that slaves survive but wronged black people, despair for despair keeps them human in a system that aims to dehumanize them. They ask him to choose the lesser of two evils: to live as a black person in despair rather than function quietly and obediently as a slave. For to enter into ontological slave territory is to believe the myth that one can be re-shaped, re-formed, re-named, by this new Adam, who of course named everything but humans. To be a black person was to sit in the throws of despair and as humans, feel it intensely. Eliza and Patsy remind Northrup to live and do so in the present. And his present was a despairing one (which brings up some connections to JanMohamed’s The Death Bound Subject)

 

This lesson of “life” or “death” is also concretized in the initial ship scene with Solomon and the two other slave men, one advocating for rebellion, mutiny and freedom, the other for putting your head down and succumbing to the reality that they are slaves (but only in order to survive). The former dies in an act of resistance, of protecting a black woman from white sexual contact. He refutes and he dies. This scene alone is the microcosm of the lesson of life. The cautious and survival-advocating slave lives. He is freed as his master finds him and takes him back. He biologically continues life but as a full-fledged slave. His social life is death even though his physical life still keeps him. The former dies and as they are throwing him over board the cautious slave says that it is better that way. This man’s refusal for himself and others to be treated as a slave allowed him to die and thus live. He was no longer bound by the social structures that rendered him inhuman. His death became a choice to live whereas the slave who lives lives only as chattel, lives as object, as inhuman. He knows not real life.

 

Near the end of the film, Solomon has about 5 second scene where he stares straight into the camera in deep hurt and pain. It is in this moment that I believe he is allowing himself to enter into despair and thus feel human in his context. He embraces the tension that Eliza and Patsy taught him – rest in moments of despair. Don’t leave them too quickly, for they teach you what life feels like, even if it is one of pain. Nevertheless, he wrestles with what they teach him about black life, and struggles about what they teach him about his black male power.

 

Northrup learns the painful reality that unlike his wife, he cannot protect these black women he encounters. As Eliza’s grief consumes her and ultimately gets her in trouble, she is removed from the plantation not to be seen again. And in the mixture of her grief and his deep powerlessness, Solomon cannot protect her. She is dragged away to an unknown fate – after weeping, after despairing too much – during the weekly church service. As she approaches her unknown fate, Eliza screams Solomon’s name, but he is powerless to do anything lest he risk losing his life.

 

Northrup unfortunately cannot offer much to another young female slave at his next plantation. Patsy is at the mercy of her white master and his jealous wife. But she seeks solace through Northrup, even in a dark form. When she offers him a deal: a gift in exchange for her request for him to murder her, Northrup obstinately refuses. He thinks her proposition a disgusting one as he is transfixed on surviving so that he might one day be free. But what he fails to recognize is that survival takes on a masculine form in this film. The tension is between survival (discussed on the ship by black males) and despair (learned in slavery through black female words, weeping and singing). But survival participates in the work of enslaving and dehumanizing him.  

 

Northrup easily enters into survival mode (at each plantation seemingly getting dumber) because he has something to survive for. He has a future that he built in the past waiting on him – he has his family. Patsy only knows plantation life, thus her future is sutured to continuous physical and verbal abuse, rape, and mental denigration. Patsy has nothing to survive for. She has nothing to live for. She does not have free papers (not necessarily freedom) like Solomon has. All she has the plantation and “life” as a slave. To her, freedom is death. Solomon fails to see this connection.

 

When Patsy goes into town to get soap to clean her body and her master flies into a jealous rage, Northrup is made to whip Patsy. Instead of taking the punishment on his own flesh, he allows the white sadomasochistic master and wife duo to watch her physical suffering being inflicted on her black flesh. Patsy even yells “I’d rather you do it Platt.” She would rather be beat by a black man, than by her white sexually abusive master. This is the black female’s plight – she’d rathr be hurt by her own than by the other.

 

Unfortunately, after Platt gives a few lesser whippings, he is forced to inflict harsher ones. But he stops. And it is his stopping the whipping, that opens to door for greater torment. When he stops the white master comes in and whips her anyway (while the white mistress watches). In this moment, Patsy, the black woman, demonstrates the ongoing, deep plight of the black woman – she is victim of the black male, the white male and the white female (the onlooker). Unfortunately in that moment, we see the slave who is worst off. Solomon cannot protect her; no, he can only contribute to her plight. He can only make her plight worse.

 

Even in the house, Patsy is non-protectable flesh (shout out to feminism!). She’s constantly physically abused by the white mistress, but Solomon can do is stop doing (playing the fiddle) and stand by watching open-mouthed. When she is whipped after his initial attempts, he stands by unable to help, outside of cursing judgment upon the master. When he is freed, he cannot do anything but embrace her and then embrace his own freedom. Every man for himself. Every male for himself. Every male, quick, back to survival mode!

 

Northrup’s character is complex. He enters into ebbs and flows of despair and survival, ultimately seeing (or perhaps failing to see) that despair does greater “survival” work in the end. He allows himself to feel, he allows himself to bury feeling and thus being and solely function as a doing. Then he allows himself to feel and be again. But ultimately gains his freedom and switches back to survival mode. He cannot free Patsy. There is no point in trying. Although Eliza and Patsy teach him how to keep his humanity, how to feel, how to live in despair and feel one’s own cries, as well as the cries of others – the original notion of survival wins. He has to escape. He neglects the new form survival takes in despair where the community becomes important to him, where other slaves, functioning as best as they can as black people should matter.

 

Ultimately we see Northrup’s inability to hold on to despair, to being human, even in his freedom. He imitates a certain type of maleness in solely seeing about himself (which he cannot be blamed for). The reality is survival can only take one form for him; his approximating a white man, through his freedom does not leave space for notions like despair, and thus holding the pain of the entire community, for that would make him responsible for the Patsy’s and the Eliza’s – and he has no capacity or power to hold them, and thus free them. He has no capacity to survive on a deeper level than what he had known earlier.

 

Northrup can do nothing for these women, and it is obviously a place of torture for him. At the end of the movie, when Northrup is reunited with his family, he does something curious, he tries to embrace this notion of despair he was taught to unapologetically live in: he apologizes to his wife. In this moment it can be inferred that Northrup is not apologizing for not being home for 12 years, he is not apologizing for his absence to his family, but he is apologizing for being an absent presence and proactive protective force to black women. He is apologizing to all of the black women he encountered in slavery that he could not protect. He apologizes for not knowing how and not being able to ultimately embrace despair into a new reality of black being (together). He apologizes for not being able to feel himself, feel the community, and thus free the community. He apologizes that he can ultimately, only, and somewhat protect himself (through white help).

 

The Necessity of the Black Church  

 

*I confess, this section is rushed and needs deeper thought so there may be further edits!*

 

For me, “12 Years a Slave” proves the necessity of the black church. It is not only a space of survival, but it a place of being human. Like Patsy and Eliza encouraged Northrup to do, it was a place for black slaves to feel and be human. They had space for their emotion, for their interiority, for interior and psychic life. Worship gathering gave them space to make noise together, to feel in that noise, and to, in swift and religious moments, affirm each other’s humanity.

 

Their gathering had something to do with belief in God, but it more to do with black people having a space to communally function and to rename each other (through weeping, through song – the language of black women in this film) as God’s human creation.

 

Music is quite important in “12 Years a Slave.” All the songs sung in the fields and the songs sung in black worship gathering (funerals) are started from the throats of black women, for they get it. They understand that tears and song are their voice. And they share this, quite generously, with men.

 

Solomon has a conversion moment into an ebb of despair at the death of a fellow slave. Song is struck up. Emotions are felt. And Solomon is captured by it, raptured even. He sings with vigor. He closes his eyes. He lets the words matter to him. He lets the event and process of singing sorrow minister to him.

 

This is why the black church is important. It is a place of mattering and ministry. Its humanizing ministry must not be obliterated in the name of reconciliation. It must be allowed to be a leader to all churches, white churches especially. White people must see that this black church is the real church, for in this space, perhaps they too can learn what it means to be, and to be, what Dr. Jennings invokes in the mere existence of a black church, a miracle.  

 

It is true for the slaves: Jesus really is the way, truth and the life. But what “12 Years a Slave” does is show us the complexity of what this “life” even means. It muddies it and challenges every single Christian to dare to use Christian-ese or general language and concepts in its presence. It dares Christianity to be something else other than a religion of despair, of feeling, of truth.  





“On Hoods and Hoodies: A Theological Reflection on Clerical Hoods, KKK Hoods and the Hoodie”

3 04 2012

Trayvon Martin

 Over the past month I have heard numerous stories/versions of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old young man who was murdered walking back to the home of his father’s girlfriend unarmed. His death was shocking, sudden and a great source of outrage and anger to the African-American and American community at large.

Over one month later, his death is still sending shockwaves of cries for justice against his murderer, George Zimmerman, who after claiming shooting Martin to death out of self-defense that night in February, has been free ever since.

I, too, was shocked and angered. The conditions of Martin’s death and the details surrounding it are cloudy and sinister. Police reports failing to document the entire truth, differing neighboring witness accounts (from women and a young boy) and controversial statements being made about Zimmerman’s and Martin’s moral credibility further complicate how to receive this tragedy.

I have read something about Martin almost every day since I first heard the tragic news, but what I have been waiting for I do not think I have received yet: an in depth look at what clothing means and what messages they convey in the church. From a Christian standpoint, clothing is important as it conveys a particular message of sanctity or damnation. Clothing can do the work of distinguishing the holy person from the average person or even the blessed person from the cursed person. Clothing speaks a language all its own.

I wonder if the language of clothing can this be applied in this case as well. I hope to explore this a bit more and ask questions not only about the social implications of clothing, but also the theological implications as well as I believe that a deep, rich theological account of the symbolism present in this story could open up conversation about aesthetics in general. And hopefully this conversation can permeate the church with as much force as the tragic death of Trayvon Martin has.

A few days ago I heard Geraldo Rivera’s interview about the socio-aesthetic implications of the hoodie on young men, and read his subsequent apology, but I have not heard a theological reading of what this charged moment intertwining justice, death, and social implications was “wearing”: the hoodie. I myself do not have the time to offer an account that does this vast topic justice, but I wish to offer some reflections concerning the heavy meaning held within the (frame)work that the hoodie is (living within and) doing on both its wearer and its viewer in relation to their sanctity or guiltiness.

But before I think out loud through this post, I want to offer the disclaimer that I hope these reflections are not simply an exercise in “intellectual bandwagonning.” My purpose is not to exploit Trayvon’s death in order to further my thoughts or name. I do not want to “jump in on this” in order to give my two cents, sound important and never think about this again. I want to think further about this – what clothes do to and for people politically, socially and religiously. Please think with me as the only thing I have to offer comes from my perspective; but we all know that the world is so much bigger than myself!

Talking to one of my good colleagues/peers, Nathan Walton, about the strangeness of the hood/y/ie, last week, I could not help but wonder about the connection that what we wear on our bodies determines not only our reception in society, our jobs, schools and places of worship, but that what we wear has a strong affiliation with our longevity; what we wear, in a sense, can determine how long we can “live.” Our clothing becomes our timetable based on other’s perceptions of our self/being.

The hood and the hoodie both speak a particular and peculiar message, but often this message is read on multiple levels, whether the wearer intends for it to be or not. Although this blog and subsequent research are not research-extensive by any means, just observatory and experiential, I want to offer my thoughts on the significance of the clerical hood, the head covering of the Klu Klux Klan, as well as the hooded sweatshirt or hoodie. Clothing serves a number of purposes, a few of which I hope to examine more closely. I think it best to dive right in.

In thinking about these three forms of head-covering I asked myself, “What do hoods do?” Thinking through the function and work of hoods, I argue that hoods do three particular things. Hoods serve as a form of protection, a means of covering or altering one’s visibility, and a means of representation (including a form of expression and/or fashion). All three of these functions help determine the validity or falsity of the person wearing it.

Clerical Hoods

It is best to examine how these actions work out in all three forms of the hood individually, so I being with the clerical hood. In his work, Historic Dress of the Clergy George S. Tyack the first form of head-covering came in 1243 when the monks of Canterbury were allowed to wear almuces (“a tippet and hood lined with fur”) while saying their offices (40). The color of the fur lining the almuce became an indication of one’s function: the inferior clergy and monks had hoods lined with dark colored fur, silver-grey (the more expensive) fur signaled the “higher dignitaries” (40). In the 14th century, almuces became more commonly worn by laymen as they “discarded its use” and it became “an ecclesiastical dress, which in its origin and nature was not specially connected with the Church” (41). The hood transitioned from a sign of clerical office to a normative form of dress, but it may not have been solely a fashion move. Tyack reminds the reader of the conditions of (technological advancement at) the time as “…nothing was done to warm the churches…” and “…wooden shutters were the sole protection in the clerestory windows against the wind, rain, or snow” (41).

In Church Vestments: Their Origin and Developments Herbert Norris furthers the function of fur found within the hood explaining that before long the fur became exteriorized displaying the luxury and status of the clergy (174). The exterior of the hood named a new emerging reality where fashion would soon play a part. He states, “No longer was the erstwhile outer cloth [of the almuce] of sober black, now that it was a lining to the fur; rich fabrics and gay colours were used instead” (174). In the 15th century the fur-lined hood draped around the neck became a more popular ornamental innovation and the hood disappeared entirely (175-176).

I give this abbreviated background to signal the multi-functionality of the hood, or almuce, in Christian religious institutions. Not only did the hood function as protection from the elemental conditions of the weather, but it also morphed into representational purposes outside of clerical function. But it also plays with the notion of social visibility and invisibility. It soon became a marker of class distinction through decorative means. It became a fashion statement at the same time as it became a class marker. In this way, it could serve the function of distinction in obvious and subtle ways. It showed one’s office but also one’s economic importance. Clerical clothing bought into categories of separation and segregation, it signaled the “haves” from the “have nots” and the distinguished from the insignificant.

I would like to venture one step further. I believe that the almuce (hood) created perception as well as determined perception of others. It served as commentary signaling that the church’s internalized mentality through social indicators linked directly with their clothing. Perhaps the church reflected societal practice and standards in marking distinction with, not clothing itself, but the message that clothing type and quality designated ones worth, one’s sanctity or a lack thereof. Keep this in mind, as I believe this is extremely important.

The Klu Klux Klan

In his work, The Fiery Cross, Wyn Craig Wade argues that the Klu Klux Klan’s emerged initially as a club around the time of the Reconstruction in America as a defensive response against, “the radical legislation calling for the ‘the social and political emasculation’ of Southern whites…” (31-33) The mysteriousness of its name would be culminated in its dress as the first members dressed in sheets and pillow cases parading around town much to the puzzlement of the local people in their town (33).

They wanted “…elaborate and menacing costumes…” with ambiguous symbols coating them. Lofty cone-shaped hats concealed their heads and they soon punched out eye-holes for vision. The height of these hats were exaggerated to compliment their mysteriously outrageous loosely-fitting white outfit (33-34). Initially a club of practical jokers, the Klan soon turned its energy towards “emancipated blacks as a new course of butts for their practical jokes.” (35) But as it spread with great popularity, soon the Black target was no longer the victim of jokes, but profiling and great psychological and physical victimization (36).

According to http://kkk.org/, the functionality of the hood for the “ghosts of the Confederate dead” as they were known (35), serves different purposes, mainly as a tactic of intimidation, anonymity and representation. Primarily a tool of intimidation and fear towards Blacks, the KKK (as they are called), often communally dress in long white hooded robes. It is the threat of anonymity that works particularly well here for the KKK as the person(s) being threatened, harassed or attacked will not be able to identify their assailant.

The website reports that participants may not want to have been so easily identified as, “The membership included businessmen and men of the cloth, police officers and high ranking officials. Fearing their reputations may be tarnished by open support for white supremacy and the KKK, these members could conceal their identities by wearing the KKK hoods during rallies and other activities.” This may have been the case due to the questioning of the legality of their actions.

The white hood with a conical shape specifically emerged around the 1920s. Around this time as well different colored robes (including the hoods) emerged noting special designation and ranking within the larger organization.

The history of the KKK hood is an interesting one. Unlike the initial function of clerical robes, the KKK hood maintains a different sort of protection, a social protection. Worn with no intention to offer protection from the weather, the hood’s main function is towards anonymity. This connects quite well to the notion of visibility. The genius of the KKK hooded robe was the fact that it allowed visibility and invisibility in the same breath. Wearing hoods, the identities of its members are not immediately known by its victim, but the Klan as a whole is quite visible (this seen most clearly in the brightness of their robe). The function of the hooded robe is to initiate fear in the communities the KKK found bothersome and/or threatening. And this fear occurred through the masked face of the assailant and the communal presence of a sea of white. This sea is quite important as it highlights a notion of representation. As a community, the KKK is invisibly visible. They are seen only in the way they want to be seen, as a unit, as a people with particular values and goals with which to achieve those values.

I would suggest that the KKK hood functions much like the clerical hood. It communicates a means of designation and separation. It represents a people and their core values. It serves as religious garb making their actions and work, “sacred.” Their dress alone invokes religious support as many were Christians (some leadership within their church). In other words I want to argue that since the KKK believes that what they were doing is validated as an act of purifying America, that this “religious action” is, in turn, “valid” – for example cross burning and clergy participation within the organization. The hood then designates purity value. Those wearing the hood are on the right side of the pious fight, and those on the other side, damned. Unlike the clerical hood, the KKK hood’s functionality weaves into itself. It is serving all three functions at the same time protecting itself (and America) from certain peoples, through masked identity it designates borders of visibility through invisibility, and it serves as a representational caucus.

The Hoodie

Lastly, this leads me to ask the function of the hoodie. What work does the hoodie do concerning Black American youth? What role did Trayvon’s hoodie play in his death? What is it about a hoodie on a Black body that automatically announces it as “suspicious”…“up to no good”…and “on drugs”? I want to suggest that the hoodie also functions in three manners like the clerical and KKK hood, but first I want to examine the implications of particular types of clothing on Black bodies.

In her work, Slaves to Fashion, Monica Miller argues that, “The history of black dandyism in the Atlantic diaspora is the story of how and why black people became arbiters of style and how they use clothing and dress to define their identity in different and changing political and cultural contexts.” (1) She defines dandyism is playing up a particular situation through clothing. Clothing serves as a means of changing or perhaps refashioning identity. She asks, “How has the representation of black people been transformed from images of dandified “luxury” slavery to that of self-fashioning black dandies whose likenesses are now ubiquitous on the stage and on the streets?” (1) In other words, are pieces of clothing carrying with it a message that the Black body has carried from slavery into the present? What is the hoodie doing for Trayvon Martin? Is it setting him back in a way? Rivera seemed to think so.

Taking a step back, my initial thought of the hoodie’s purpose is purely representational through fashion. It is an identity marker naming the wearer as one who is abreast on modern culture. In wearing it, they are making a fashion statement, not particularly tied to race, but tied to time period. The hoodie signifies youth culture; worn by rural, suburban and urban youth alike, it presents to society a statement that the wearer wears what they want, that they can fashion their own look amidst the continuous images of sophisticated fashion.

But I do not want to ignore Miller’s points. Maybe there’s something deeper here. How the Black body dresses itself may be dictated by an image of the past that the Black community may not be aware of today. Perhaps Black fashion is the result of a ghost, the haunting of Southern slave society. Perhaps it is a performative. Maybe it is both. Miller suggests that, “Stylin’ out, like any performative act, needs an actor and an audience; the audience can be anything from oneself in a mirror to fellow strollers on Harlem’s 125th Street to the international media. The messages sent out by the black well-dressed must be interpreted by their viewers; black dandyism takes on meaning as black style communicates moments of mobility and fixity, depending on who is looking.” (3)

Fashion requires an audience. Whether it is being “well-dressed” or following an urban image, the dress of the Black male is really important. It says something not only about communal perception but individual identity (3). I think that this is right. Like the clerical hood and the KKK hood, the hoodie is also doing some important sanctifying work. It is justifying a particular type of existence. It is validation of cultural expression. It says, “I represent my culture because I wear my culture.” Part of the sanctifying work that the hoodie does is performative, yes, but I argue that it performs a measure of redemption. The wearer is proud of their culture. They want to redeem the image the hoodie has produced so they wear it in order to make a fashion and cultural statement. The hoodie for the Black youth demonstrates a sort of pride – that you are proud to wear and even desire to represent your generation. It is a symbol of courage to represent a culture you were raised in. The hoodie is representational.

But the hoodie can also be protective. Specifically in the case of Trayvon Martin, the hoodie was protective in two measures. For Martin, his hoodie may have served as a means to protect himself from the elements. (For Rivera, I guess the hoodie would be justified in this case!) That night, Zimmerman denotes that it was raining. The hoodie literally served as protection from the elements.

But the hoodie also served as a safety measure through concealment. Martin’s girlfriend said that Martin put his hoodie on after seeing that Zimmerman was following him. Unlike the KKK, Martin’s means of concealment was not to protect himself. In order to shake Zimmerman, Martin conceals his head and proceeds to walk faster, and then run.

But what did Zimmerman see? Just the hoodie? I am not so sure of this. I want to suggest that Zimmerman saw Martin as suspicious because of the combination of this hood and skin tone. He identified Martin as a Black man in his late teens. In his 911 call, he identifies Martin as Black twice and in his description of Martin’s clothing, wearing a gray hoodie. Martin’s skin color was the first indicator of suspicion, but his clothing signaled something tragic. Trayvon Martin was not seen per se, but a Black suspicious teen who “always gets away.” His being in a hoodie subsumed his blackness. He was not only a Black male. He was a Black male wearing a hoodie further naming him young and thus affiliated with crime. In that moment the hoodie that Martin was wearing represented “a people,” the ones who always got away. Martin died that night because of who he was and what he was wearing – Black and Black dress. That was enough to convict him as one of those who broke into Zimmerman’s neighborhood. Martin’s death was only partially caused by his hoodie as it put an accent on a bigger perception of Black existence and location. Martin was Black. Martin was wearing a hoodie. Therefore Martin was out of place. Martin did not belong in that neighborhood. Martin must have been up to no good. Martin was perceived as a trespasser. And perceived trespassers have no protection, even if they are actually the ones being trespassed against.

Theological Wonderings

Hoods and hoodies all function on three levels, but I want to argue that in the case of Trayvon Martin, the perceived hood’s “functionality” of protection, determining visibility and representation are precisely the factors that led to his death. Martin’s hoodie sparked within Zimmerman an urge to protect his neighborhood and himself from any more robberies, it magnified Martin’s “visibility” to Zimmerman, and it placed Martin within categorical existence of/representation of the criminal, the hoodlum, the thug. Martin’s clothing played a role in his death only because of Zimmerman’s social conditioning to see Martin and his clothing together as a threat of death: social death, the death of safety and order and physical/actual death. (See Abdul JanMohamed’s The Death-Bound-Subject) Martin’s clothing signals the real killer, Zimmerman’s social edifice of prejudice.

The scary thing is, even if Zimmerman is not in a church, the mindset is. And this mindset kills.

The whole Trayvon Martin case makes me wonder about the role clothing plays in determining one’s sanctity, where they are allowed to be, and whether they are allowed to live/exist – as they are all connected. Are Christian churches engaging in this, performing this aesthetic theology, without realizing it or perhaps without caring what implications it may have for the body of Christ?

Martin’s death begs the question, what makes a body holy or unholy, beyond clothing even? What practices do we operate within that name certain bodies, peoples and aesthetics pure or impure? Why do we live into, endorse and revive these practices? Is Christ enough in someone or does clothing name Christ’s presence? What does Christ have to wear, to look like to suit our needs? What does Christ have to look like for us to feel safe in church, at home, in our communities, in society at large?

What about bodies cause us to dislike, move away from, separate from, segregate from and hate the bodies of others, even others within “our own”?

Trayvon’s Martin’s death highlights a huge problem about how we dress, and receive the dress and thus efficacy and intentions of bodies. But I want to push further because I believe there is a deeper tragedy going on about bodies, and this tragedy is certainly played out well and subtly within the body of Christ, within the Christian church.

Bodies are separated, but they are separated because they are attached to particular and separate beings. The being affiliated with the body makes the body mean something good or bad. The way of being, the way of life, the struggle, the success, the way to maneuver anything we are faced with is tied directly to our bodies.

The tragic death of Trayvon Martin has brought out something interesting to me: in Black churches, wearing hoodies to church is deemed just and holy when affiliated with a movement, but not otherwise. The dress of Black youth seems to be tolerated until they “mature,” “come to their senses” and “learn to dress properly.” In White churches, it is popular to pray for the people involved in the “tragic” Martin case but not adjust how church life is done in order to get to know those who are profiled by and feel displaced among the majority, for “getting to know” others first means “getting rid of” parts of yourself which steer people away from your church – and this is hard, a little too hard. Welcome is sacrificial work and for some reason, the church is not willing to sacrifice anymore. Sacrifice and welcome first involve giving up personal preference to make church feel safe for the person you hope to welcome and prayerfully become church with you. But again, it is hard work.

Many churches will argue that welcoming people unlike us is actually impossible. It is too hard to learn newer, more complicated music. Or it is too hard to sing softly or loudly. It is too hard to give up our “nuanced,” (read: cultural) way of worshipping so that others can feel fully present and have their “nuanced” ways of worshipping too. Separation just seems better (read: easier) for “all of us.”

Unfortunately, church has become about how we “do it” as opposed to how God is doing it. And the hoodie reveals this! Clothing is making a prophetic statement to the church to change its ways of existing and knowing and reading and receiving others’ existence. The hoodie screams do not call profane what God has called clean, for the wearer could be a child of God.

I am sure that you are wondering how I am able to directly link Zimmerman’s actions to the church as a whole. For me, it is about aesthetic (and thus righteous) profiling. It is obvious with Martin’s death that there is some “work” going on with clothing and who the clothing is covering. Honestly, the sad thing is that Trayvon would have looked suspicious to anyone, Hispanic, White or Black, because for some reason the body of Christ has let clothing like a hoodie, sagging jeans, and sneakers name a person dangerous. Anyone in that dress automatically becomes labeled: 1) a Black thug or 2) a young thug. Either way, they are a thug and thuggishness is affiliated with urban life and urbanness, blackness. Trayvon had both his skin color and his age working against him. He did not have to say a word; his clothing was the first voice to announce that he was both young and Black, and that that combination certainly could not be trusted. He had to be up to no good. What could have been to Martin, a fashion statement and preferential state of dress turned out to be the target sign on his back. He did not/did look a certain way, and thus he was immediately named “bad.”

This is a church problem because unfortunately profiling does not stop at the church door, because people do not stop at the church door. People carry ideas; ideas do not carry themselves. Ideas are weaved into our church life and practice and often the labels of holiness are attached to them – ideas exist distinctly in worship’s words and are dressed in spiritual language. Now, we have a great excuse to hate others – the Bible says so (or at least this is what the Bible is saying to them!)

Notions of holiness and order and proper behavior codify profiling, prejudice and hate. Societal practice is welcomed in the church more than the outsider is! The young person, the Black person, the whoever has to fit within certain categories of aesthetic existence in order to be deemed non-threatening – to holiness, to safety, to image, to reputation, to whatever.

This is harmful though. This thinking kills. If a younger person cannot express themselves stylistically through their clothing but instead experience limit, hate and disapproval in the church, how is the next Trayvon Martin not sitting in our youth group or after school program? It puzzles me how Martin’s case is able to be fully taken up as a rally for justice by churches who discourage the way he dressed. Are they not operating in the same work of profiling that made Martin a target in the first place?

For me, maybe the solution is for Black and White, for all churches, to pause for a second and think about what we are doing now, what we have “always done,” and what we plan to do after this case dies down. Because it will. And after the case dies down, problems of dress and people affiliated with dress will remain in church as a whole. We need to ask ourselves (and our teenagers and young adults): Will clothing matter to us in new ways? Will bodies under that clothing matter? Will bodies affiliated with particular forms for dress matter? If we cannot answer with great certainty a hearty “yes,” then I suggest putting the signs down and stopping the self-righteous prayer requests. If we do not change our reception of people and their dress, why do the rallies and cries for justice matter? What about the cries for justice within our own churches, communities and homes?

Dear church: This whole thing is as much about us as it is “Justice for Trayvon.”

I suggest that the body of Christ honor Martin, yes, but we must stop the rallies until some serious discussion is taken up on what clothing means for and to us. We need to start asking what their bodies and how they dress their bodies means for their spirituality, then our spirituality and why this is the case. We need to ask which bodies are present, and which are absent, and then ask why. So I will say it again – we need to put down the justice signs and take off the hoodies that we are only wearing because “everyone else is doing something” until we are actually ready to listen to, love, honor and respect those who wear hoodies. If the Trayvon Martin case is just about race, then his death is in vain. His death is about race yes, but it also about what we dress race in, and even the fact that we feel we have a right to dress race in “right/righteous clothing.” Martin’s death is about people being allowed to live, to exist and to be fully present.

I challenge the body of Christ to ask itself, “Would Trayvon be fully a part of this church? Would he be loved for who he is and how he dresses, respected because of his voice and spirit, listened to when he gives great ideas or asks great questions, and cherished because he is comfortable in who he is here?” If the answer is “maybe,” “no” or “I do not know,” then we need to ask God and ourselves “why not?” Then, we need to get to work.





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.








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