Theological Mammyism: A Glimpse Inside the Mind of a Tired Black Female Christian Scholar

19 07 2015

Another post I decided to bring back as it explains my voice and my experience


Theological mammyism[1]

Noun, verb, ontological stance


  1. An illness of benevolent oppression or practice. Feigned righteousness. Symptoms include a desire to do the right thing, to be involved in social justice in pre-prescribed ways, the majority’s power of choice in deciding to involve parts (of their choosing) of their life into the lives and realities of others when they find it most convenient and most opportune.
  2. An act of theft. Behaviors, acts, actions and processes by which majority persons’ theological points, positions or standpoints are expected to be made to feel cared for, attended to and affirmed by black persons as original or new – particularly points that originated from black persons that they may or may not acknowledge.
  3. An act of assumed subservience and service. The aura and attitude of those in a position of power expecting black people to present their black theological in a manner that is acceptable to and digestible for them. It may not exceed these persons of power’s comfort levels, but must maintain a quality of service to their egos and fantastic image of themselves as justice-oriented, not exercising power and privilege, or down with minority’s causes. Simply put where being a person in power, a person who is the majority is expected to be theologically catered to, unruffled, affirmed as thoughtful of others while it is primarily aimed to preserved a certain sense of righteous self.

I am mad, no I am angry. Because theological mammyism has not been called out by those in power amongst their own in real, tangible, uncomfortable, willing-to-be-disowned by family and friends ways. Jesus said kinships will not be the same. Why isn’t this taken seriously? Why are kinships of power and influence still intact, often untouched? Where is the kingdom in that?

Power provides itself a safety net, and it’s called their own. When power has the choice to involved itself in minority life but return to its haven of power, of its own people, it is still power, but now it is power thinking it is dressed in robes of righteousness. The risk is calculated.

Many of us don’t have the choice to throw caution to the wind when we step into another’s life. We are totally bare, totally exposed, waiting for those in power to do the same.

I am so tired of it.

It is everywhere. Especially in those who swear they do not exercise it.

I should not write when I am angry or tired, but oftentimes this state of being is when ideas flow out in their actuality and thoughts take on their truest form.

I am tired.

I am tired of colleagues and friends in power expect me to walk around with a satchel of cookies waiting for me to congratulate and applaud them when they do something good towards those deemed the other, good that should not be considered and is not extraordinary, good that should be done by Christians anyway.

I am tired of being a Girl Scout.

Theological mammyism is present in every person of power presenting the powerless’ ideas back to them as if they came up with it. It can be a theological version of “Columbusing.”

But it is something so much more insidious and sneakier and smaller yet powerful than that. It is making the powerless feel uncomfortable, as if they’ve gone too far when they express themselves in full truth, full anger, full rage. It is a mechanism of shutting another down. It likes black feminism/womanism/any expression of black female theological positioning when it is useful for a paper, but it is afraid of black feminism/womanism/any expression of black female theological positioning when it asks to be taken seriously in real life. It is theological power uninhibited that affirms and evangelizes the liberation theology that it can understand, but firmly rejects the facets of it that it cannot fathom because it is hitting a bit too close to them, to their “only sometimes” racist friends, to their bigoted parents and beloved ignorant grandparents who “know no better.”

Theological mammyism needs black persons to let people in power know that their family is excluded from reform – that they get a pass because of the generation they grew up in, the neighborhoods, they were raised in, the fact that they were poor and lived amongst blacks or Latinos so their off-handed comments are okay.

Theological mammyism doesn’t like the black theology that is angry and has a right to be so. It likes the thought-provoking ideas of it, just not its manifestation in real life, in real practice. That is too hard. Theological clashing with real life is too painful for those in power. Never mind many others live in states of perpetual pain.

Theological mammyism is the desire for those in power to be coddled by black persons, to be told that they are right, that they are in, that they “get it,” that they are “cool with us.” It is the ontology and practice of those who seek affirmation with no sign of reformation or no desire for repentance that will actually cost them position, friends, family. It is a position that costs them nothing while it costs the powerless everything. When did theological practice cost nothing or even little?

The sad thing is, no person in power is exempt from it. Everyone in power is implicated within it. Especially, especially, especially those who think, even for a moment, that this post is not for or about them.

The test for a theological mammyist is whether they will run to or run away from a conversation such as this. Only time will tell.

More later when I gather my heart and head and of course, hear your thoughts.

[1] Term coined by Tomi Oredein. It is constantly evolving and being made richer by conversation with colleagues, but remains an original idea still in formation.

(There is No Longer) Male and Female: PCOS and the Theological Aesthetics of Femininity, Part I

2 11 2013

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus
Galatians 3:28

I know that this scripture is considered out of context, but I am okay with that – just bear with me as I do some reflecting.

I am a prime candidate for make-up. I have black marks and what my father told me, in his fatherly duty to reassure his thirteen-year-old daughter that she was not becoming or was not at her root, a man. Lying to me – calling them “heat bumps” – so that I could survive the space that was middle school and petrifying to an overweight, African, and frankly, marked and scar-faced young girl going through puberty was the best thing to do.

I am a prime candidate for make-up because I have hair growing on my face. I have hair elsewhere whose growth I cannot control, but the aesthetic space that any girl can make her own personal canvas is her face. And when puberty happens and her body begins to tell her who she is for the rest of her life; that is scary. But what is scariest is that the time when she begins to find out how her face will look for the remainder of life contains a mustache and a beard. It contains hair that only men should have.

But she’s a woman. She is female. She is anatomically female, not a bit of this and that, but she is one thing.

But her body is confusing this message.

If it is s set in stone, then why is she dealing with what her male peers are?

Why is her chin scarring? Why does she have a faint trace of a mustache? Why does the hair on top of her barely grow and shed in chunks? Why? It is because she has this annoying hormonal imbalance called PCOS (more on this in a future blog post).

I wrote a post a few years ago about why I don’t give in to make-up. To make a long story short, I am not interested in the work and function of make-up. I think the idea of the face as a canvas is a fascinating one, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t understand make-up as a corrective (or “enhancer” as some like to name it). I want people to see my scars, because when they see my scars, they see me in my entirety – blemishes and all. They also can Jesus more clearly (but more on this later).

I have more thoughts on this that will make themselves known in due time, but right now I am in a place of confession and I confess the obvious – I know my face is a strange, unexplainable, and even masculine thing to experience (And I’ll call it what it is – if it is not readily identifiable as female, it becomes a thing). I cannot help it. And I also choose not to hide it. Because it is part of me and part of my story. It contains secrets to my understanding what kind of woman I hope and claim to be.

But further, I am seeing and hoping to hear more about how it is helping me understand the God I serve and worship.

PCOS is, like a said, annoying, but it can teach me so much about what it means to be a woman and a creature of God. Please journey with me as I reflect.

Weight, Don’t Tell Me! Jesus Died for Fat People Too?!

7 04 2012

*** I’ve been putting off a post like this for years, but I guess it’s time for the conversations to start flowing! ***

Sometimes what the Bible says seems crystal clear at first until that thing called contradiction forces its way in forcing you to question not God’s clarity, but your understanding.

Today was one of those days for me. Walking across campus to get my lunch, I passed by a swing-like seating area directly parallel to the dining hall. Filled with people enjoying the good weather and each other’s company I ran into a slight biblical dilemma.

Scripture says that Jesus considered the child among the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He even says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18, NRSV) And this is my dilemma.

I know the text is speaking to purity of heart and ability to see Jesus as one who can be trusted, who you can give all of your love to, the one who cannot fail you. You come to Jesus exactly as you are and completely release yourself to Him. I get that. Total trust. Check.

What I do not get are the finer details of these pre-pubescent spiritual teachers. They are mean, or rather, they are honest which in turn becomes identified as mean (by sensitive adults like myself! Haha!).

Walking to and coming back from getting lunch, I heard a young girl whisper to the five or so kids around her, “Wow, look at how fat she is!” and “There is that girl again, so fat!”

I get it. I am fat. And no matter how nice people want to be, they can’t say, “No, you’re not fat!” because it is untrue. And I am an advocate of truth. I will say that I am working on getting to a healthier weight, but until then, I guess I will have to continue to hear kids whisper (or quietly exclaim) the truth.

And I will be honest, this truth hurt! I wanted to call her ugly or tell her how rude she was but this would not work out for three reasons: 1) She could not have been more than 6 years old and many times what comes off of a six-year-old tongue is not filtered too carefully; 2) My response would have been inappropriate and juvenile itself (plus there were adults around watching the kids, i.e. saying anything to a stranger-child would have caused suspicion and trouble); and 3) She was right!

I am fat. But what she failed to consider was why I am fat. Sure there is the technical aspect of eating too much in general, consuming too many sweets (my biggest weakness), not exercising enough (apparently walking to class will not cut it), etc. But then there are other aspects that she would not be able to process and consider.

In that moment, the child sees that I am fat but she does not consider why I am fat. She saw the “that-I-am” instead of the “why-I-am”.

The funny thing is that this girl was not entirely wrong. Her “that-I-am” observation skills were true. She saw the facts and she stated them.

But there was no way she could see everything.

She acted as a child would: she did not know it all, only some of it. But she was humble, completely honest, truthful, and engrossed in the aesthetic reality of my appearance.

It is interesting that this is what Jesus wants from humanity. He wants us to see Him and state the facts. He is kind. He is gentle. And there is something about Him that is extremely trustworthy, so we go to Him and believe what He says and follow His commands and know that somehow they are for our good. We become engrossed in pure faith.

There is nothing wrong with this, but it does show our shortcoming, our humanness. The best we can do is engage in blind faith, because we cannot see everything. We see only what our human vision tells us. The best we can do is humbly say, Lord, this is what I think I see and what I think I see is literally all I have to go by. This invites vulnerability, but also room for much error.

This is the downside of childlikeness, immaturity. The young girl saw the “that-I-am” and never thought to engage the “why-I-am.” Like this young girl the Pharisees see the “that-I-am” of many persons including the lame man (Mark 2), the bleeding woman (Matthew 9), and the man born blind (John 9) but fail to see the “why-I-am.” But the Pharisees prove even one step worse; they proceed to ignore the people around them. At least this girl allowed my condition to shock her!

The Pharisees know of these peoples’ conditions but can do nothing for them; therefore, over time, they do not see them. The “that-I-am’s” of these people do not phase them anymore. It has been filed away in the realm of forgetfulness along with these persons societal value, worth and importance. Like the young girl, the Pharisees let the “that-I-am’s” of people become their only definition and thus worth. But unlike, the young girl, in that moment the Pharisees have no reason to care about them anymore.

They are their condition, and this affects their spiritual and social participation.

This is terrible and sad and speaks to something very sinful in our human nature. People are forgotten or not cared for because they do not exist within a narrow norm. They are either forgotten or secretly despised.

I do not want this to be my fate. I do not want my appearance to be (secretly) disgusting to you. (I would have to devote an entire blog post alone to the secret and many times not so secret aesthetic musings we hold about each other within the body of Christ!)

I think it is unspoken in some churches and over-spoken in others (wrapped up in the language of “healthy spirit, healthy body” etc.) that the place of the overweight believer is a problem (and unfortunately I think it has less to do with their health and longevity as it does appearance and how a church “looks” not only spiritually, but also aesthetically).

Fat does not fit. It does not fit into the style of clothes that “this church wears.” It does not fit into the beauty and youth and energy a church is trying to convey. It does not fit into proper church clothes (i.e., it doesn’t look good in certain patterns of dress deemed appropriate). One’s “that-I-am” reality does not fit into a crucial aspect of the church, appearance. It does not fit into the constructed image of a pure, true Christian.

I press this issue of weight in the church because Jesus does not. For at least two decades I have wondered whether Jesus would be happy to or appalled to die for fat bodies: bodies that show “no concern for their health,” “don’t care how they look,” etc. Would Jesus want to die for bodies that apparently speak of that person’s negative life traits and attributes, their failures? I often wondered, would Jesus be okay with resurrecting a body that many assume shows a disconnect with “proper” spiritual and physical values?

Honestly, I am still trying to get myself to stop wondering, but unfortunately I have not stopped yet. From the stories in Mark 2, Matthew 9 and John 9, I want to see and believe in the other side of what the Pharisees failed to see. The Pharisees try to trap Jesus in wrongdoing and wrong-saying, but what I want to see in these narratives is Jesus in right-doing. Jesus does not heal for Himself alone, (He certainly gets the glory which is crucial!) but He also heals so that the once-handicapped (or dead) person might believe in Him AND that others witnessing these events might believe in Him too.

Jesus never says anything about what these bodies look like. He never says, “Stand up, and go eat a salad!” or “Take heart, you need to take care of your body better!” or “Go! Join a gym!”

Mark 2 is especially touching. Jesus first says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (vs. 5) Jesus first saw the “why-I-am” in this situation. He never got hung up on the fact that this man did not look normal or healthy or whatever. He saw that this man’s heart and soul had something that plagued him far worse than his physical condition.

Jesus saw the “why-I-am” in this man and decided that he was not only worthy of being forgiven, but that he was also worth dying for. I would even say that Jesus saw the bigger “why-I-am.” He saw and experienced within His own life how sin was an evil, powerful force that could alter people’s beings and lives. Jesus knew this and thus decided that judging people based only on their “that-I-am” condition was futile. He attacked the root of the problem, and conquered it through His life-death work.

Jesus saw us as important enough to give up His life. I think this is what I want to know the church for. Growing up in church there were times that I wish I belonged “better” but I wish I had known that I was worthy enough. I wish I was not indoctrinated and poisoned by what the proper way of being a Christian was (spiritually, aesthetically, and ontologically).

I wish I knew that we are all worth dying for. We are all worth the same thing, Jesus’ death. I am definitely glad that I know now, and even if it will take me the rest of my life to truly know what this means, I am glad that I have latched onto the journey of finding out what this means.

Our looks, our appearance, our aesthetics have nothing to do with God’s grace. Jesus does not formulate truth by looking at humanity’s outward appearance, nor does Jesus assume that it is an individual act of recklessness that got us to the sinful state that we are in. Jesus looks at the totality of our lives and how sin has entered into everyone’s lives and says, “This is worth dying for.”

I am still working out my thoughts on the aesthetics of theology and ecclesial life, but there is something there, something troubling, that I hope to continue to discuss and expose until it can only cower under the light of Jesus’ truth.

The notion that if my body does not look like yours, there is something inherently wrong with it and me is a false one. This mentality and type of Christian practice is isolating and perpetuates sin, for no one looks the way they do (entirely) because of their own doing. There is always more to the story. There is always something in or on the soul that people literally cannot see. This mentality signals a childlikeness that we must move past.

We must trust in Jesus completely, yes, but we must also trust that what Jesus did, die for the entire world, means something greater that outward appearance. It means that no matter what we look like, Jesus saw it as valuable enough to die for. Jesus loved us that much. What I hope to ask until this evil is destroyed is, “Why don’t we try harder to get past our childish vision and live into God’s vision of love and acceptance?”



“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, 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.

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

1 09 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mission-work/The Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More thoughts to come on American values!

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

18 08 2011

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


Being a Student

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

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

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


Being a Woman

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

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

I get this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being African

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

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

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

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

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

Being Christian

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

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

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

The Wisdom of Proverbs (Proverbs 3:13-15)

19 12 2010

Proverbs 3:13-15

13Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
14for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
15She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.

Wisdom is supposed to do something to us. It’s supposed to change our demeanor. It’s supposed to invoke in us a sense of divine satisfaction where we submit to this feeling called happy. It has this power to determine our mood and how we think about life from that moment until the next moment. It lives in time and does something to how we receive life where we enjoy it and relish it and cherish it. It’s supposed to make us smile.

But that’s only if we find her.

Happy are those who find wisdom. It’s almost as if we’re happy because of the action of finding. It’s almost as if we take more satisfaction in achieving discovery. It’s almost as if the journey creates the path towards our joy when we finally reach this destination called wisdom. When we finally find her, other emotions may very well exist within us, but the dominant trait we bear is happy. The journey towards happiness witnesses to something great within us, the ability to search albeit not consistently, but nevertheless we search. The destination attests to our determination to discover something we do not already have. We look for it in hopes of one day having it. Just like with school where we work for years for the end-result degree, this journey towards wisdom may take years of work, some good and some bad, but in the end, work. We are constantly moving in a direction to have something that, in my opinion, we’ve already started getting all along the journey. Like the building of knowledge in school, our wisdom is built upon day to day repetition of journeying and searching.

We meet her on the way, we realize we’ve been alongside her when we fall and we shudder, partly in fear and partly with amazement when we realize that we had been journeying without her guidance for so long.

The same applies to understanding, revelation, realizing reality—wisdom unfurled.  

We go get her. We take the active steps of retrieval and end up successful because we resolved to make the journey in the first place. To me this is fabulous news, that we are rewarded for the effort, not the performance but for wanting her and going to get her. Because this requires discomfort and not having control, and not searching perfectly, and not saying all the spiritual things we think we should, and not having an organ or three-part harmony because our wailing and crying out in desperation isn’t supposed to harmonize or match up perfectly or play out smoothly. But we encounter real, raw life and errors and the daunting reality that our spiritual journeying is ugly and dirty and soiled and soaked in our human efforts, but honored by the pure Holy Spirit.

We are honored as we seek the honor of finding and getting wisdom and understanding.

Our work is honored. The income of wisdom (and understanding) is more than what money can bring or imply. The income is more than the things we work our entire lives to get so we can live in or with them, but the income is something that lives in and with us. It never leaves us. It never leaves us broke…although we had to be broken to earn her.

Wisdom’s return in our lives earns more for us than gold could ever earn. The knowledge, keenness, awareness, smart-mindedness etc. gives us more than what we think we need to survive. We need wisdom to survive, not gold, not silver, not a big church, not a four-bedroom house we don’t use properly, not more clothes than we can ever wear, not attention from men who we know will never love and respect the way God does…we need wisdom, not stuff or attention from certain people, for wisdom tells us what to do with stuff and people and feelings and touch circumstances and mourning and lament and joy and happiness. Wisdom has the wherewithal to keep us one step ahead of the best dreams we can conjure up for ourselves.

We have to give up the dreams of others that we’ve adopted for ourselves. Cliques cant do for us what God’s wisdom has done, continues to do and can do. Doing whatever we want can’t give us anything better than what God’s wisdom can. Hating people and parties and races and classes can’t give us anything that will help and heal us like wisdom can. Music can’t touch wisdom. Our perfect spouse, our perfect selves, our “I’m not imperfect” attitude that we’ve made into an idol can’t outdo wisdom. For wisdom and understanding doesn’t put up with that. She calls it out; she calls us out, out of wherever we are struggle into a struggle with purpose. We battle ourselves and God and the devil and wisdom teaches us when and how to fight and when and how to surrender.  

Wisdom is on another level than our desires. Our desires fall short, look bland, and appear miniscule in the face of wisdom. When we understand and realize that the wise thing to do trumps what “we feel is the best thing for us” then we’ve begun to allow wisdom to journey with us as the leader through this uncertain life. In this journey we will know for certain that our happiness didn’t come from us, but in our decision, in our will to trust wisdom and to follow God.

Prayer: Lord, we want Your wisdom. Kill whatever You must within, around, above, and chained to us so that we may submit to a Perfect Will ultimately working towards our happiness. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.

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