Category Archives: Race and Culture

Skintight: Race suggests there is a scarcity of human being

“After all these generations and centuries, we still don’t know how to see and talk about ourselves and each other.”

| Thomas Chatterton Williams, Self- Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race

Is that all you’ve got?  Is that all you have for me?  Is there nothing more to say about me, save these physical characteristics?  Huh, America?  Because I am not a mere description, certainly more than who meets your eyes.

We talk about race as if our human being is a zero- sum game.  We compete for identity as if there is not enough humanity to go around, like somehow some of us are not fully human.  Winner take all.  And for all of the arguments for the realities of race, I simply don’t understand why we would believe about ourselves or anyone else that we are nothing more than colored people: beige, black, brown, red, yellow and white.  Is that all we’ve got?

By the way, why do some “Is” have it?  Don’t I get a vote?  I must have a say.  Does anyone see my hand raised—not for acknowledgement but in protest?  I object to these social colors, their palette and vision of humanity.

I just don’t see it and really cannot see myself in this picture.  Out of focus and perhaps hidden underneath the frame, hundreds of years later, America and black is the only name you have for me?  Skin identities, we have not even scratched the surface of our human being.

You’ve got me all wrong.  I am not a person of color but a child of God.  There is a difference. One is a society’s sick fantasy, twisted and the other a faith statement.

Still, we believe in race while confessing that “in (God) we live, move and have our being” (Acts 17.28).  We claim that God is sovereign and yet live like so- called white people rule the world, as if we are powerless to become who God has created us to be, behaving like some persons have more God- given authority than we.

It’s all a lie.  Not one bit of it is true.  It is a tall tale that goes way back to the beginning but not of time.  It started right here in America.  Race and its divisions are a story made up in America.

Race is not a source of human being.  I am not the offspring of race, the creation of a color.  I do not come from a place, a country or continent, called Black.  There is no place of the sort on the map.  Instead, it is a contrived, socially manipulated identity that changes with each generation, every political administration and from person to person.

So, I do not “fit the description of” some generic but obvious threat to the fictive purity of whiteness.  Black is not a stain as a color or otherwise but the blood on the hands of those who oppress is.  And you can’t wash that away.  No matter how you look at me, you will never be able to fully look the other way, America.

I am still here for this staring contest and I see you for who you are.  Because my eyes are not a reflection of you but a mirror.  I won’t blink.   I won’t let up.  I won’t shut up.  I won’t give up my way of seeing me.

Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” All or nothing, I am black or nothing at all.  And if I am not black, then most Americans want nothing to do with me.  Because what can they do with me?  I do not fit in and will not play this skin game, complete with brown paper bag tests.

I won’t pass for “white” but I will pass on this option and write to pass on another, that is racelessness.

Race is not all that we have to live by.  It is all that America’s got.

Resisting Race

Race is a rule of law.  The color line is well- defined as each generation digs in their heels. “We shall not be moved.”  We fold our arms and turn our backs.  We turn on each other and take turns hating the other.

I hate you.  You hate me.  We hate them.  One way of seeing things, one way of treating human beings, one circular argument, we are no closer to concluding that we belong to each other, that we are all sisters and brothers.  So, we step on their toes and our own feet.

We keep creating distance and making up the difference, legalizing our preferences, etching in stone which bodies are at home in the earth.  Then, we wonder why the rocks cry out.  Because this does not praise God.

In the book of Genesis, God breathed out and created us as living souls.  Yet, our words tend to suck the life out.  Reduced to racial categories, we become color- coded beings  recreated way lower than the angels.  But, Ralph Ellison writes in Invisible Man, “Why waste time creating a conscience for something that doesn’t exist?  For, you see, blood and skin do not think?”

Still, our skin and its social coloring determine our social interactions.  It is a matter of fact.  Like a wristband or a stamped ticket, the social coloring of our skin tells us where we belong, where we are allowed to be and what we can do in particular places and at any given time.  “Let me see your skin.”

“Sundown towns” were those segregated cities where African Americans were not allowed after dark.  They wouldn’t be caught dead there and if they were caught, they wound up dead there “at the hands of persons unknown.”  We have turned the darkness inward and determine who we will allow in our own lives, who we will set our eyes on and who we will close our eyes to.

But, I am here to tell you that sometimes what is legal is not lawful, at least not in the eyes of God and that it is time to resist the laws of race and its progeny.  Mostly, I speak to Christians who identify as “new creatures in Christ Jesus,” who claim him as kin yet cannot relate to believers of other cultures unless and until they assimilate to theirs, who eat the Lord’s Supper yet cannot find room at their table for their neighbor, who claim God as sovereign but don’t question white supremacy, who won’t cross the tracks but cross their hearts, who bow their heads in prayer and look the other way when they see injustice, who can find excuses for abuses of power but cannot put their finger on systemic failures (Second Corinthians 5.17).

It is time to resist race and the urge to cover up our complacency with the world as it is.  It is time to resist and reject the comforts of our social and economic categories, time to get up and stick out, to take on the identity of pilgrim passing through.  Because this land is not your land.  My country ’tis of…?  Christians are not citizens of this world but the next.

Let’s move on and move on the fact that race is all wrong about us.  It’s time to buck the system, to live in opposition to its rules, to live a counter- narrative that has no respect for color lines, no interest in stereotypes, no desire to play by rules that regulate bodies according to their physical features.

It is time to resist race and to break with the social arrangements of “color.”  But it is a law and this defiance is dangerous.  There are any number of persons, family, friends and strangers, who will be ready to put you in your place, to make a citizen’s arrest.  Still, you and I must go down fighting against these words of bondage.  Clear your throat and talk back.  Don’t sit down and take it.

Don’t stomach it but throw up your hands and these words.  Don’t take it in.  Don’t give in and don’t give up who you have always been in the words of God for what has only recently come on the tip of a human tongue.  No, no, resist the temptation to believe that this, beige, black, brown, red, yellow and white, is all there is to say about you.  Resist because there is so much more to be said.

True Justice

In June, I visited The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.  It is part of my work with the Louisville Institute for which I was awarded a pastoral study grant to examine the sociopolitical construct of race’s influence on the malformation of Christian community.  My project centers around the work and witness of Southern Baptist minister Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia.  I felt drawn to Montgomery, Alabama as part of my pilgrimage to healing communities of faith.

I attended the 75th anniversary of Koinonia Farm’s founding last year.  Walked the grounds and walked around in search of Jordan’s spirit with us.  He believed that his Christian witness compelled him to break the laws of segregation, commanded him to work with persons socially colored black and to pay them a fair wage for work in the 1940s.  His life was threatened.  His businesses boycotted.  His faith no doubt challenged.

He was even kicked out of his church.  His sin– loving his neighbor.

Jordan held up a mirror when churches were expected to be a reflection of the broader society.  Who else was doing this kind of work, challenging the stories we tell ourselves and daring to live into them?  “We hold these truths to be self- evident…”  Bryan Stevenson.  The grounds that now house The Legacy Museum was a “slave warehouse.”  The experience in the space for one present and available to experience this truth is indescribable.

This is not a tourist attraction but a space for truth- seekers.  It tells another side of the story: the human cost of building a “great nation.”  It did not come easy and there was much sacrifice.  The sad and unfortunate truth is that the sacrifice was paid heavily in African and African American lives.  The greed for power and wealth was worth their lives by the thousands.

Still, we talk about it as if it is “water under the bridge.”  But, it is blood in the ground.  Blood that is crying out much like Abel’s (Genesis 4.10).  Likewise, God is looking for answers: “What have you done?”

The answer that is stuck in between our teeth or manifested by the lump in our throats is what gets in the way.  Still, I am going my own way, the only way I know.  Up and away from this train crash, this culture clash.  I’ve seen this one before.  It is a rerun hundreds of years old.

I am seeking hallowed ground, sacred space that challenges the dominant narrative of division, that laments our losses and keeps a record of them.  Lynching in America is one that has been overlooked.  Bryan Stevenson, the visionary for the museum and memorial, wants to make sure that we cannot look away.  Thousands of people were lynched for one reason or another and no reason at all: “refusing to run as errand for a white woman,” “for organizing black voters in Choctaw County,” “for not allowing a white man to beat him in a fight,” “for performing the wedding of a black man and white woman.”

“A lynch mob of more than 1,000 men, women and children burned Zachariah Walker live in Coatesville, Pennsylvania in 1911.”

“Walter Johnson was lynched in Princeton, West Virginia in 1912 by a mob of 1,000 people.”

“Dozens of men, women and children were lynched in a massacre in East St. Louis, Illinois in 1917.”

Mary Turner was lynched, with her unborn child, at Folsom Bridge at the Brooks- Lowndes County Line in Georgia in 1918 for complaining about the recent lynching of her husband, Haynes Tuner.”

And there is more.  Connected to American slavery, later convict leasing and now the prison industrial capitalist venture, Bryan Stevenson ties it altogether.  He aims for equal justice under the law and makes a strong case that the American judicial system continues to miss the mark.

True justice, this is what he is after.   A more just fellowship, a kindred faith relationship is what I seek in North American churches.  We both have our work cut out for us.  We were made for it.

HBO has created a documentary on Stevenson’s work.  You can watch it for free right now.

Words we cannot send back

Today, Donald Trump sent another divisive message to his followers via his official Twitter account regarding Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.  For those who would make excuses or who are praying that his racist comments will just blow over, they won’t.  Telling people not socially colored white to “go back home” or to “go back to where they came from” is not a new directive and deserves a response.

But we don’t need a history or geography lesson to point out his failings or flawed argument.  While the media struggled to label his words racist, we don’t have to wait for them to use the adjective.  It was racist.  Because this is not really about one’s place of birth or even country of origin.  Not simply telling someone to leave the country but believing it is within your right to do so is the problem.

Where does this confidence come from?  It is colonial in origin.  It is proof of America’s continued possession by the spirit of conquest.  It is the belief that socially engineered white people have the power to determine the belonging or dis-belonging of another group not given the privileged label.  It is the assertion that said persons have the power to move bodies anywhere around the world as they so choose, for their pleasure and to maintain their comfort.  It is a historical habit, never changed or challenged.

Colonizers went to ancestral homes and relocated African bodies for labor and exploitation during the Trans- Atlantic Slave Trade and destroyed indigenous bodies, belonging to what is now the United States of America, that received them on their shores, is what needs to be named.  Neither group told European settlers to “go back” or to get back or to keep off their land.  The locals were hospitable; these strangers were hostile.

Still, in the crowd of thousands, persons chanted, “Send her back” at Trump’s recent North Carolina rally.  But send Congresswoman Omar back where exactly?  What address do they have on file?  They talk as if she is a package to be returned due their dissatisfaction.  She is not what they want in American society.

It is their choice to make, their right to refuse her though she, too, is an American citizen.  Is she is not American enough and where does she need to go to get more American?  Because there are levels, grades, rungs to this identity.  And Congresswoman Omar has apparently been outranked.

That rally was like a committee meeting and all Americans got to watch persons reject other Americans not socially colored white on live television.  The chant lasted seconds but long enough to echo back centuries.  We’ve heard this all before.  This is not a new request.  When formerly enslaved Africans were freed and stood as a visible reminder of the barbarity of their enslavers, they wanted to send them back to.

No longer reflecting the relationship of oppressor and oppressed, the mirror that African faces became was more than their enslavers could stand.  And today it is tempting to look away, to change the channel or the conversation.  But, it won’t change what Trump and thousands of his supporters said.  We can’t send those words back.

They are fully present; now we must account for them.

Asking for a generation

What could the Church in North America do if it put its hands together across cultures, if it desegregated its pews and pulpits, if it reflected the changing community outside its doors?  Who would we become and what witness could we offer the world if we chose our baptismal identity in Christ over and against racialized identities, if we adamantly rejected this superficial categorization of flesh?  What would we be saying if we lived within the counter- narrative of belonging in spite of class, gender and cultural lines, if we did not remake Jesus as a politician or political party leader?  Where could the Church in North America’s leadership go if it did not masculinize leadership, if we really believed that God was in control?

These are genuine questions because I don’t understand the color- coded scenarios of our relationships, these skin- incentivized experiences in North America and specifically its Church.  Segregation is illegal.  But churches break this law every Sunday at 11 a.m. and in some places three times on Sunday.

We sit in so- called white churches and black churches, segregated while identifying as the body of Christ.  We sit in so- called white churches and black churches, worshipping God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4.24).  We sit in so- called white churches and black churches, claiming to be siblings in Christ and all apart of God’s family.  Then why the continued separation?

Oh, I know.  It’s the worship style.  We like our music this way.  It is about control.  Because Christianity in America has a paternalistic bend with persons who feel the need to oversee the movement of other Christians.  “Don’t clap.  Don’t respond to the preaching.  That’s not what we do here.”

The question of why the Church in North America remains segregated is fully answered by Henry Mitchell in his work Black Church Beginnings, where he offers priceless intel.  The “Black Church” was started under the surveillance of so- called white people.  Their time for worship was managed, no longer than two hours.  Their messengers were predetermined and approved by European American spiritual overseers, as it were, to ensure that the narrative of their conditional belonging in America was not questioned or challenged.  Their churches were funded by these spiritual overseers, another means of control and manipulation.  Dependent upon their financial support, African American people in “leadership” did not stray from the scripted responses of race, which brought the plantation into the Church.

Things haven’t changed.  There remains the mindset that African American bodies need to be controlled, evident in the continued murder of unarmed African American people who are “living while black.”  There is a continued devaluation and judgement of their worship practices, style and length of their spiritual services.  There is also a financial dependency in some denominations for their survival that maintain the roles of American slavery.  In my opinion, the Church in North America has yet to be started.

The colonizers did not seek to bring God’s kingdom near with chattel slavery as its foundation.  Those persons called “founding fathers” gave birth to nothing new but reproduced the slavery of their homeland, though far worse.  And while there are those who would shake their heads in agreement with me, their mouths tells a different story.  They continue to accept the answers that race gives them while what I hear is largely questionable.