Black Bodies White Souls
Much has been written about the impact of Michael Brown's death and the protests that followed. As I watched the story unfold, I just felt overwhelmed and unable to write. I really didn't have much to say. My embers of anger didn't stand a chance against the rising waters of numbness. It is my MO to go numb when things get too emotional, too hot tempered, too violent. Sometimes this trait serves me well. My delayed reaction to the emotion in a room is often what makes me a great peacemaker- not because I am so special but because my emotions are often delayed in the moment. My grief, anger, and yes sometimes even the good emotions like joy come later. And so was the case this week. While article after article popped up explaining our hurt, giving voice to injustice, calling officials to action, teaching, prodding, crying, organizing- I was trying desperately to determine what I feel.
Many of you know that smaller stories unfolded even in the midst of the larger narrative. White Christians slow to respond (if at all) + the word "Christian" being used to define all Christians when in reality only referring to white ones + genuine calls for increased diversity and commitment to multi-ethnic churches... My TL was filled with branches stemming from the events in Ferguson. I've read some good stuff. I've read pieces that I'm jealous I didn't write and pieces I'm incredibly grateful folks put into words when I couldn't find any. But the one article that has stayed with me- clanging in my soul was an article posted by @feministajones, with a link to Playboys interview of MLK. There are a great many gems in this interview, and we all would do well to read it from beginning to end, but what I found most intriguing is MLK's response to the question about his mistakes as a civil rights leader. His reply: "Well, the most pervasive mistake I have made was in believing that because our cause was just, we could be sure that the white ministers of the South, once their Christian consciences were challenged, would rise to our aid. I felt that white ministers would take our cause to the white power structures. I ended up, of course, chastened and disillusioned."
At this moment in time, I cannot confess to the same shock, disappoint or hurt feelings that MLK describes. I've read too much, been at this too long to sincerely claim that I expected the white church to finally get it right in this present moment of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, John Crawford and Michael Brown. The white church doesn't have a great track record on racial justice, and what's worse, displays very little shame on the matter. (As a quick caveat I will say that I am grateful for the friends of all races, including white who sent messages, wrote posts, shared in the outrage and amplified the voices of black folks- I just wish there were many, many more of you). On the whole the story of Michael Brown and the assault on Ferguson didn't gather the same level of attention of ISIS or Driscoll. Many of the white Christians who changed their profile pictures to stand in solidarity with Christians on the other side of the world, were absolutely silent while black Christians right here in America were in turmoil.
I am quite used to there not being enough room in the soul of the white church to care about black bodies. There is not enough room in the service, not enough room in the prayers, not enough room in the leadership, not enough room in the values, not enough room in the mission statement, not enough room in political stances, not enough room for lived experiences of African Americans.
I am convinced that the soul of the white church has yet to be ashamed. It is not ashamed of slavery- it only dismisses it. It is not ashamed of Jim Crow- it only claims credit for ending it. It is not ashamed of incarceration rates- it only excuses it. It is not ashamed of ghettos- it pretends to have nothing to do with them. It is not ashamed of segregation- only silently benefits from it. There is no shame for who America has been. I believe that until there is collective shame for who white America has been to people of color, white America will not choose to be something else. If it is fine with who it is, it will continue to do what's always done.
Far from being offended by its own actions, instead white America- Christians included- remain offended by black bodies. This is what killed Trayvon and Renisha and Jordon and Eric and Michael. How dare black bodies resist the white will. How dare they fight back when a stranger chases. How dare they knock at 4am. How dare they not turn down the music when told. How dare they sell some cigarettes. How dare they walk in the middle of the street. How utterly offensive for black bodies to disobey whiteness.
Most children growing up in black households know this. It's why I was told never to put my hands in my pockets while shopping, even when I replace items back on the shelf. My parents knew a store owner by thinking I might be stealing could cost far more than prosecution- it might cost my life. It's why black boys are given explicit instructions on how to behave when pulled over by the police- right or wrong. Not because our parents are trying to instill some deep values but because they knew our lives would be at stake. And so our list of how not to be offensive grows- pull up those pants, don't wear a hoodie, keep your ID on you, cut your hair, be careful of the pictures you take with friends, smile a lot, turn the music down, be a good negro and maybe your life will be spared. But the list can't save us. It never could because the culprit is something we cannot change- our bodies.
And though I list here offenses that seem only secular- I assure you the white church is no less offended. Sometimes I wonder if they are most offended since God and whiteness are too often synonymous. We sense the offense of our bodies all the time. When Gospel songs are used in service and folks complain. When MLK weekend is the lowest attended weekend of the year. When teaching on race and folks walk out, or worse attack the teacher. When the thought of reading a black theologian never enters the psyche. When black folks have to make a case for discussing injustice. When our way of being is strange, stand-offish, exclusive, unwelcoming, toxic, or the result of groupthink. These moments remind us that our very existence as autonomous human beings is in itself offensive. And so when White folks strike a nerve, or embody a pet peeve- with one another the result is rarely violent. There is too much respect for self and others. But embody that action in the form of a black body and all bets are off. Death is always possible.
And that is the reality black folks have lived in since arrival on America's shores. Resistance to the white will could result in death. So I'm not giving white, Christian adults anymore easy answers. If you want to know what to do, my answer is this: risk death. Risk the death of your reputation. Risk the death of close ties to your family. Risk the death of your dream home and "safe" neighborhoods. Risk the death of a large congregation. Risk the death of your big donations. Risk the death of your worldview and perspective on American history. Risk the death of your comfort in majority, dominant spaces. Risk the death of your leadership role, of your speaking engagement, of your writing opportunity. Risk never being invited back to the conference. Risk the death of your social and professional circles. Risk what we risk just trying to live.
Choose a new church home and sit under the teaching of a black preacher for two years.
Choose a new neighborhood where your fate is intimately tied to the fate of people of color.
Go back to school and take a history class from a black professor where your academic success lies in his/her hands.
Choose to be mentored by a person of color every week. You do what they say, when they say it. No excuses.
Choose to go places where you see the stories behind the statistics, where someone can connect history to the present for you.
Send your kids to a black or brown school.
Need the wisdom of people of color to survive.
If you want to be committed to racial justice, you must do more than read a book at home alone. You must do more than add people of color to your social media lists. You must do more than attend an MLK service or a Ferguson vigil. These are good things. You will benefit from them. But buying our books and reading our blogs and sharing our posts were never intended to BE your journey. These things are to aid you in a much larger commitment to justice and reconciliation in the world.
Reclaim your soul. Risk death to your comfort. Place yourself under the authority of a person of color. Connect history to the present. Make some lifestyle changes. Root out the offense of the black body from your heart and mind.
Maybe... Maybe we won't have to post pictures of this week alongside some new ones in another 50 years.
I do not believe that racial justice will come only if the white church finally gets it right. History has proven otherwise. Nonetheless, this is an opportunity. A new generation could speak out. A new generation could make a difference. A new generation could turn over laws, vote what's best for black/brown communities, could dismantle systemic racial injustice. A new generation could reclaim the soul of the white church long mired in the mud of power and supremacy. This is your chance. You can join, or you can sit this one out. But as the community of Ferguson showed us- we will stand with or without you.