Great Grief

A year ago this week, I was in my pjs, watching the golden girls- a ritual that ends most of my days. That summer I had been trying not to check my phone just before going to sleep, but I couldn't resist. I swiped at the screen opening twitter and the first thing my eyes focused on was a tweet from Chris Hayes announcing a shooting in a black church. 

I was devastated. 

After a year of proclaiming "black lives matter"

After writing out my thoughts and feelings on Trayvon and Jordan and Walter and Michael and Dajerria and too many others

it had all culminated in my own devastation

Here we are, one year later and in the same week as we reflect on this massacre, we endure the pain of another which took the lives of 49 mostly brown and black LGBT people, and traumatized many more. 

I cant tell you how tired I am of speaking of death. 

Back in January, I taught a mini class on The New Jim Crow. At the end of each class period, I carved out half an hour to interrogate how our theology requires us to respond to our lesson. While preparing for a particular class, I turned to 1 John 4:18 to add it to my notes for the class. I could quote the first half of the verse off the top of my head, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." However, as I reflected on this passage, I read the next seven words with new eyes, "for fear has to do with punishment." Fear & Punishment had been exactly what I was trying to name since I learned Trayvon Martin's name. 

Fear & Punishment- the connection I have desperately been trying to name in unpacking the insidious nature and real consequences of white supremacy. 

Fear & Punishment have too long been the dominate (Christian religious) rhetoric surrounding the LGBTQ community, and it is rare that I hear Christians even acknowledge the existence of Intersex or Asexual persons.  

Fear & Punishment have been America's standard operating procedure for interacting with marginalized communities. 

And the death toll rises.

And so does the grief and the trauma and the tears and the pain and the frustration and the exhaustion and the anger and the rage.

Every time there is a tragic hate crime, specifically attacking a marginalized community, I see lots of pithy words on colorful backgrounds in decorative text. I see avatars that have changed colors, or filters or images. I see a ton of beautiful connections and support between the members of the marginalized communities most impacted. I even see expressions of allyship from friends and family members. We have had so many massacres in this country, all the above have become in many ways necessary.

What I wish was also considered necessary was an interrogation of the fears that drive the desire for punishment. I wish our rhetoric around love had more teeth. I wish we could see the connection between homophobia, islamophobia, and white supremacy (which is just a collection of phobias held by whiteness) and death. I wish we had the courage to call these acts of terror monstrous,

and ask ourselves what we have in common with the monster. 

It is often said that we hate what we fear. What we rarely talk about is that hate has demands. Hate is not disarmed. Hate requires blood. 

This is a great grief that we bare today. It is almost unreal that we are navigating the grief of one massacre while reflecting on another. Except it becoming a too familiar feeling.   

I have found myself, this week, oscillating between grief and hope, anger and love, frustration and defiance. It is entirely possible that if I deleted this post and wrote another in an hour, you'd get a completely different Austin. Thankfully the Spirit of God, Spirit of Love is not limited to my little blog post of the day, is not threatened by my text on a website, is not bounded by own fears for the safety of the communities I love. This is perhaps my gift of the day- that God is God and I am not. God isnt relying on my hopefulness. God isnt in need of my happy footnote on a day of great sadness. 

And so I rely on Scripture instead of my own feeble words. "For whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because God first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother." 

May the Spirit of God that casts out fear permeate our hearts and lead to transformative action such that fear and punishment must succumb to love.

The Recipe

A Reflection on Black Womanhood

This week Beyonce dropped her newest visual album called Lemonade. It is beautiful, artistic, narrative, poetic... I could go on an on with descriptors. But the reason I have fallen in love is that Beyonce gave witness to our inner life. In the legacy of Zora and Toni, Beyonce gave us an opportunity to see ourselves in this modern moment just as we do in the works on our shelves. 

In her collection of poetry, Directed By Desire, June Jordan ends her poem *Poem About My Rights with these words:

"I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own
and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this
but I can tell you that from now on my resistance
my simple and daily and nightly self-determination
may very well cost you your life”  

And this all I can think about as the scenes from Lemonade unfold. Wrong is not Beyonce's first, last or middle name. Her name is her own. And so is mine. Bey has entered a new phase of womanhood, and I. Am. Here. For. It. She takes the lemons of her life and transforms them, allowing us to pause so we can sip slowly, deeply from the cup of artistry that is this album. She is free. (And if you are asking, free from what? You havent spent enough time with black women.) Thankfully, she doesnt leave us to our own devises for figuring out how to make our own lemonade. She gives us the recipe.  

 

1 PINT OF WATER

 

Bey opens so transparently. "I tried to make a home out of you," she confesses. This is a dangerous practice. A practice that is taught to us with every breath we take. Its an expectation thats in the air. We are told to step into the one we love, set up designer furniture, give our all, and love till the distinction between you is erased. We are not told to make a home with someone but in someone, taking us to the edge of losing but also finding ourselves.

Turns out even Bey is not immune from the expectations that the world places on black women. She lays it out so clearly, "I tried to change. Closed my mouth more. Tried to be soft. Prettier. Less awake." If thats not a black woman's story I dont know what is. We are always told we are too loud. Too disrespectful. Too hard. We learn quickly that we are expected to bend to the will of others... with gratitude and a smile. We wish we could go back to sleep, to close our eyes, to go back to naïveté. But thats not how it works. And so Bey pushes forward cause she'd rather be crazy than walked all over.

When those are the only two options, Imma go ahead and be crazy- wild, risky, bold too. After living in denial for far too long, I can no longer make my home inside someone else, something else. Because the truth is, we are expected to create homes out of our workplaces, our churches, our seminaries and universities, our children and spouses. We are expected to conform, to submit, to remain asleep to oppression, to pretend that we aren't being used, taken for granted. 

As Bey explores the pain and anger of this reality, she gives us a whole heap of sugar to add to our souls. 

 

1/2 LB OF SUGAR

"Love God herself" is a line I missed the first time I watched this visual album. But this is the theological pin on which her narrative arc rests for me. Black women have to work hard to resist the white male God shoved down our throats.

In our churches we are told in the same breath that God is genderless but its inappropriate to refer to God as anything but He. We are told God is raceless (or race-full) and in the same breath told God is not black. What is a black girl to do when told her identity has nothing to do with God? Destroy that ish. Beyonce gives us the perfect illustration of owning completely that we are fully made in the image God. Black Femaleness Is An Image Of God. We are purposeful creations. To not love us is to not love God. To not love myself, to deny myself is to do violence to the God whose image I bear.

Even in this, Beyonce doesnt give us an angelic woman who transcends the cares of this world. Instead Beyonce dives deep into what it means to be human. She gives us a woman fully experiencing the breadth of an emotional life, fully experiencing the very emotions that God displays over and over again in the Scriptures. She shows us everything from anger and emptiness to hope and redemption. God doesnt expect me to be God. "God is God and I am not" she literally spells out for us.

We are human. And we get to be FULLY human, with all of our emotions. As black women our emotions are policed on a regular basis. "Perhaps if you said it this way..." "Well, maybe your tone made it hard to hear..." "Well perhaps you misunderstood..." "Oh, but you shouldn't feel that way..." "I think you might have an anger issue..." "There is nothing to be angry about..." "But aren't you glad to be working, writing, studying, giving, singing, preaching, teaching, performing all this emotional labor here?"  

We do not have to accept the policing of our thoughts or feelings according to someone else's limited standards of who we are. Im fully human, and I aint sorry.   

 

JUICE OF 8 LEMONS

Not apologizing for who you are and who you are becoming doesnt mean avoiding the pain and confusion of betrayal.  The bitter taste of America, of life is unavoidable for a black girl. Beyonce turns the lemons over and over and over. She creates the space for us to express the bitter taste of disrespect and dehumanization: Sometimes a trash article, open viciousness, mockery, trolls for days, hand written death threats. Sometimes a gun shot, a choke hold, a hashtag, a life gone. Bey doesnt shy away from exploring both ends of the sour spectrum black women often occupy- Hyper-visibility and Invisibility. The sheer exhaustion of both is hard to express, and yet we know it so well. Bey even gives us a glimpse of society's obsession with Becky. Becky's obsession with a feminism that serves only herself.

And if we weren't all in our feelings by this point, Beyonce chooses to take us to her beginning, the beginning of the hurt, the questions about love and being loved and giving love. When Beyonce can no longer stay in apathy and emptiness she goes back. Cutting open the lemons, Beyonce exposes the pulp, the seeds of her heartbreak. She goes back. Back to daughter staring at her mother. Back to daddies who place their arms around mothers neck while seeking his daughters kisses. Back to disappointment but also delightful laughter. Back to seeing ourselves and deciding who we will be. Back to Daddy's lessons and generational curses. Back to grandmother's alchemy. Back home. Back to the drought of love, and its abundance, its enoughness. Back to where we need just a little more to push forward. 

 

ZEST OF HALF LEMON 

Sisterhood and Freedom. Im not sure I yet have the words to fully describe how much the images of these black women together, barefoot in the woods, digging in gardens, creating in the kitchen, playing in one another's hair, climbing trees and dipped in water meant to me. All I can say is somehow all of those images reflect the way my soul loves my sisters. Around them all the elements that had been raging- gushing water, consuming fire are suddenly controlled. The raging waters in Hold Up have become stilled. The burning flames of 6 Inch are now tamed. Both are present- fire and water. Passion and peace now resist becoming rage or emptiness. Surrounded by sisters. Cutting, Shaping. Demanding.

Demanding freedom. For ourselves. For one another. For our people. No more surrendering myself to others, "Im painting white flags blue." I could talk about every line of Freedom, but I will just keep singing it to myself for now. 

 

POUR WATER FROM ONE JUG INTO THE OTHER SEVERAL TIMES

As Beyonce begins to close this narrative, she gives us an almost love song. She acknowledges her care, the sweetness and power of their love. But she is also giving herself time to rebuild trust. Part of that is exchanging someone else's broken wings for hers. Here's the thing. More than once I've believed that someone else's wings could carry me. I believed they were strong enough and healthy enough and perfect enough to carry all that I am. But their wings are always broken unable to take me where only my wings will fly. I must practice believing in my own strength to love, to work, to create, to achieve, to rest. 

 

STRAIN THROUGH A CLEAN NAPKIN

One of the things I love most about the arc of this album, is that Beyonce's final song isnt All Night; its Formation. Listen. She emerges transformed, evolved, more of her self. She strained out the denial and emptiness. After being unsettled, she is left with the good, the sweetness of knowing who she is. I am pretty sure Beyonce has found her home within herself- and all that being herself encompasses. In Formation she brings it all together- past, present and future, sexiness and love, confidence and playfulness, reality of the ongoing need for #blacklivesmatter and resistance to the status quo. 

Since Beyonce released Formation, white, mainstream outlets have been referring to her evolution as "Militant" but Bey is an entertainer and artist. She is not in anyone's home who decides to turn off the tv or internet. She is not militant. She is DEFIANT. But America is so used to demanding the compliance of black women, defiance is often confused for being militant. White people, nobody is out to get you. All we have ever wanted is freedom.

But when others dont understand who we are or how we are shaping the world, Beyonce has already told us how to respond, "I aint sorry. I aint sorry. I aint sorry. I aint thinkin bout you."

Im not either, Bey. Now, where is Serena so I can twerk with her and drink this chilled lemonade? 

 

 

*Poem About My Rights may be triggering for those who have experienced trauma. 

If you like this post, you may also like: Our Formation