I Want A Different World for My Nephew So I Wrote him a Letter

15 07 2015

My nephew is now four and a half. It baffles me sometimes; love this strong has never lasted four and half years before. I love him like he is my own and was inspired to write him a letter in the spirit of the legendary James Baldwin because of the violence and death surrounding black girls and boys, men and women.

Red Letter Christians were gracious enough to publish my letter in two parts. It describes the pain of the present and the possibilities of a different Christianity that RLC believes in and that I pray will be the faith of my nephew’s future.

You can read Part I and Part II here.

Thank you for the support and please continue to work with me for a future and faith that looks different than what it is now.

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.  

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.

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?


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.

Deconstructing the Masks of Racial Reconciliation

7 10 2010

Disclaimer: I am no expert on racial reconciliation, nor do I claim to be one; I write solely from my observations and experiences, but I write with the intention to identify the obvious and unspoken, the uncomfortable results of the racial reconciliation movement that we who have decided that church cannot be church without reconciling, repentant, loving, inclusive action and being have a duty to name and hopefully address honestly, not simply with reprimanding in mind, but repentant and faithful living. (and yes, that was a run-on sentence!)

Racial reconciliation should transcend the boundaries of actions that are close to but don’t purport the notion of community through sacrifice: sacrificing all that is familiar for the unfamiliar, sacrificing personal preference in order to embrace the preference of another, and especially sacrificing pre-meditated understandings of peoples and places and believing the people of those places who tell you differently. Racial reconciliation is not racial welcoming, racial tolerance, nor racial observation. It is more personal than we think. It affects more people than we think. It affects the body of Christ entirely, not just a congregation here or there. It runs deep into Jesus’ body, not as a fad, but as the life-giving connection between His blood and our worship, His veins and our stylistic preferences, His arteries and our cultures.

What it is not is un-sacrificial. It is not a runner-up to what Jesus meant when He sat, ate with and was joined by sinners. It is not achieved in the welcoming level, tolerance level, or observatory level.  

Racial welcoming comes close to what people think to be racial reconciliation, but lacks the effort and commitment to adopt a theology of discomfort from both parties covenanting to be with one another. It welcomes as long as it is not transformed into something unrecognizable, for unrecognizability resists the “predominantly” label so many churches are accustomed to having and being.

Racial tolerance is even further from the target than racial welcoming as it signals one group at the center of the Christian universe, whether they’re African, African-American, Asian, Latino, White etc and allows other to be, to a certain extent, only in light of their being. One group sets the standards and others are “appreciated” in light of how much they are not like the standard, for diversity must be celebrated, right? Celebrated but not integrated, racial tolerance gives permission for Christians outside of their majority to exist within the confines of what the majority deems Christian existence.

Racial observation rests even further on the outskirts of racial tolerance for it is simply a ministry of on-looking. It witnesses difference from afar, and witnesses from afar alone. Nothing is done to see if racial difference and cultural distinction can mean more, it is simply observed and in that observation a false sense of education is exercised, pejorative reading of the Christian church is made precisely in that inactive “education,” and the division between groups remains glaring and distinct.  

These three models of racial reconciliation I believe are more often than not, falsely practiced in place of true and Holy Spirit led racial reconciliation. They provide the foils against which true racial reconciliation can be recognized, but are utilized often because they are disguised as “we’re getting there” and “this is a messy vocation that takes time” language. These three types of models mirror the three categories of personality types present within many churches who find themselves a part of the racial reconciliation conversation. They enter into a conversation without calculating what it would cost them and thus mete out what they are willing to sacrifice, giving rigidly, contemplating giving, or convincing themselves that their interest is gift enough.

The Racially Welcoming Christian (RWC) exhibits 1 Corinthians 11 behavior (vv. 17-33). They are most than happy to sit at the table with everyone, but do not change their eating habits. They feast the same, not cognizant that even their being at the table (implying communion) has to be received differently. They commune not only for themselves with Christ, but with and for others in Christ. They love that difference exists in their midst. They embrace their brother or sister as important, imperative to their understanding God’s kingdom, valuable to and in the body of Christ. What they fail to do is change as a result of another person’s permanent place in their life. Their church body may change, but their personal theology doesn’t change much at all. They listen to the theological background of another, but do not add it to theirs since addition of another’s means subtraction of their own theological beliefs. They operate the same, but appreciate and recognize the difference in everyone. They are touched, but only changed on the surface. Nothing changes in their life, except information about other people. The information does not penetrate deeper than their intellectual capacity; it may touch their heart, but it rarely reconfigures it.  

The Racially Tolerating Christian (RTC) models the Galatians 3 confusion assuming that people are entering their world and thus need to adhere to their way of existing. The Gentile is welcomed in, but the confusion surrounds what the Gentile is entering into. It is a Jewish existence for sure, but what they misunderstand is this notion of being the “original church body” in the first place. Both groups are Gentilic, entering into a completely new existence. Chosenness rests in Jesus’ body that both, the majority and minority church body, are equally invited into. Both are bringing aspects of themselves into community together that looks messy, feels incomplete, and hurts a lot of the time, but leaves without a shadow of a doubt absolutely no room for selfish ambition to parade around as if it is God’s will. It takes both groups out of their traditions of comfort and asks them to be together uniquely and collectively. It leaves no room for human effort, but encourages desire and participation; the Holy Spirit does the rest. It requires faith in Jesus Christ, faith that His words, and body and practices did something to old ways of doing and thinking and constructed something completely new, un-like what we would deem comfortable or perfect and yet is perfect.

The Racially Observant Christian (ROC) parallels the rich, young ruler in Luke 18 (vv. 18-23). They have resources, they have culture, and they have influence and power and do not find it necessary to lose them in order to be with other people. They face Jesus and honestly think that they have done their Christian duty but cannot handle a re-drawing of the boundaries of their commitment and love. They fear that the loss of their resources will affect how others view their culture and influence although that is precisely the story of others’ lives. Their understanding of faith is contingent upon comfort. They believe themselves to be educated on the crux of a life that follows after Christ and models His ways, but are unaware of the depth of this pledge. So they choose to remain afar and give up absolutely nothing. But no doubt, continue “keeping” the commandments.

These responses and ways of being in the racial reconciliation conversation are produced from a desire to do something righteous and right, but after the cost is counted, kill and hinder true racial reconciliation’s attempt to spring forth. The messages sent forth in their failure to break out of the selfish grips of church tradition, racial and cultural purity and generational war deter us from truly seeing the form of racial reconciliation. It is an ugly one at that, a hunched over, injured, and imperfect figure that Christ calls us to. It may not have the stage for P&W (Praise & Worship), the hymnal, the fiery preacher, the contemplative chants, the whatever. Or it may have all of those together mashed together as the same thing; those interested in being reconciled must understand that racial reconciliation happens when people of those different cultures are reconciled, brought together, asked to and taught to live together.

What the racial reconciliation conversation should continue to emphasize is the “person” aspect of Christian life. The church preferences belong to the people, they come from the people. The people who swear up and down that God loves to hear Christian Contemporary Music, and guitar solos, and see young adults in small groups and mission trips are people!

Once the people recognize that it’s more than sitting beside, allowing people to sit beside and thinking about but in the end choosing not to sit beside another, but rather that it’s sitting with that person entailing changing perspectives, open dialogue, holy disagreements, and holier shifts in what one’s “particular” culture is, then racial reconciliation can truly be the strange, weird, ugly, and holy love movement Christ’s body has affectionately called “community.”

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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