Category Archives: Race

James Baldwin talks about race as “a frame of reference”

The most common question I get asked is, “How do you not see race?”  Mystified, irritated, doubtful, persons look at me and wonder how does it happen.  Or they think, “What world are you living in?  Not the real one.  Don’t you see what is happening?”

I am treated like a madwoman.  They shake their heads or wave me off.  “She doesn’t know what she is talking about.”  They confuse racelessness with colorblindness or post- racialism.  No, I’m talking about life before race. I am pre- racial: “For it was you who formed me in my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139.13, NRSV).  I am not choosing one side over the other; I am aracial, neither accepting or desiring the racial nomenclature.

But, I don’t think these people hear me.  Like a cure for cancer or discovering the fountain of youth, solving the race problem is talked about as if a miracle or mythical.  Like parting seas, parting ways with race only seems possible with Divine intervention or some superb detective work.  To be sure, God has stepped in.  But, it also requires a change in the way that we talk about race.   We have to work out our salvation (Philippians 2.12).

And therein lies part of how it happens.  Talking about race as the problem and not our selves is a good place to start.  Because many of us talk about race as if we are afraid of what it will do to us.  We speak well of race though it does not return the favor.  Why?  It is only our tongues that are far- reaching.  We are who we say we are.

This is an agreement, a social contract.  Because race is not an absolute.  We give it meaning and make it meaningful.  We tell generation after generation we have a deal.

Aime Cesaire is right: “It is equally necessary to decolonize our minds, our inner life, at the same time that we decolonize society.”  Because there is a Pharaoh in our heads too.  Race is a mind game.

James Baldwin realized this.  In an interview with Margaret Mead captured in the book A Rap on Race, after Mead talks of an instance when race completely slipped her mind, Baldwin says,

“But, of course.  That’s what I mean when I say… when I hear ‘Ignore race.’  Well, it took me a long time to do that, and perhaps, I would never have been able to do it if I hadn’t left America.  I know I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t left America.  It was a great revelation for me when I found myself finally in France among all kinds of very different people– I mean, at least different from my point of view and different from anybody I had met in America.  And I realized one day that somebody asked about a friend of mine who, in fact, when I thought about it, is probably North African, but I really did not remember whether he was black or white.  It simply had never occurred to me.  The question had never been in my mind.  Never in my mind.

I really had a terrible time.  I suddenly felt as though I were lost.  My whole frame of reference all the years I was growing up had been black and white.  You know, you always knew who was white and who was black.  But suddenly I didn’t have it; suddenly the frame of reference had gone.  And in a funny way– and I don’t know how to make sense of this– as far as I could tell, as far as I can tell till this hour, once that has happened to you, it never comes back.

Mead: I had to make it come back.

Baldwin: Well, I came home.”

Circling back

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Do you see the world through race- colored glasses?   Are you totally dependent on race to survive in the world around you?  Can’t leave  home without race?  Don’t know how you could understand the world without its prejudices and stereotypes?  If this is how you feel, then I understand.

I’ve been there and I have the Afro pick, the Kiswahili textbooks, the incense and the resistance poetry for beginners to prove it.  I used to be black, black and proud, black and angry, black and beautiful, black and conscious, a pre- cursor to being “woke.”  It was a cultural immersion or maybe a self- guided cultural exchange program, a total rejection of my Americanness and an intellectual pilgrimage back to Africa.  Blame it on my undergraduate history courses and the required readings for a concentration in African and Afro- American studies.  Before reading the slave narratives, the abolitionists’ witness and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, I had a Black History month education of the African experience in America.

I feel like I should be embarrassed to admit this but I’m not.  Growing up, we didn’t have many books in our home.  There was no local library.  Now with hundreds of books of my own, I cannot imagine my life without one.  Books make a house a home and I owe countless writers credit for guiding me to a place within myself that I could call the same.

After singing the spirituals and the blues, reading Olaudah Equiano’s startling testimony, the incidents in the life of Harriet Jacobs and the harrowing escape of Frederick Douglass and gaining the insights of  Booker T. Washington, Anna Julia Cooper, Charles Chestnut, W.E.B Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Alain Locke, Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, Zora Neal Hurston, Nella Larsen, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Richard Wright, Robert Hayden, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks and of course, James Baldwin, I experienced a kind of conversion.  I had new eyes and ears.  There was a clarity and perspective that made me antsy.  I couldn’t get out of America and so I wanted America out of my head.  It started with my hair.

It was permed, processed, straightened out.  I cut my hair close to the scalp and learned that it curled.  Now nineteen years old, I don’t remember ever seeing my natural hair.  It had been corrected before I knew there was a problem.  Standing in front of the mirror, I liked what I saw and wondered who had a problem with my tresses.

All this time, I thought that something was wrong with my hair.

Those race- colored glasses were sliding down my nose and to my surprise, I was starting to look over them.  I had no desire to push them back into place again.  I began to see race for what it was and more importantly, for what it was not.  I realized that there was nothing wrong with my eyes either, that I could see just fine without them.  And rather than question myself, I began to question race.

Yesterday, I was reminded of the beginning of my raceless journey after reading Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others where she writes in parenthesis, “What would we be or do or become as a society if there were no ranking or theory of blackness?”  It is a necessary question for those who claim to be engaged in the work of justice and reconciliation.  Do we even know how to answer it?  Or have we become so dependent on race that we dare not look at ourselves apart from it?

I’ve been there and if that is where you are, I am circling back to get you.  Race does not have a better view of our humanity and there is nothing wrong with your eyes.

Clarence

A video recorded by his wife has been viewed more than five million times. It is not of Clarence playing in the yard with their children or him walking their dog. Instead, it is a video of Clarence being falsely identified, nearly handcuffed and arrested by a police officer.

He fits the description of a suspect… in Louisiana. But, he doesn’t live in Louisiana. This is not Louisiana.  This is Texas.  Where are we?

Where is this going? Why does Clarence have to follow where this officer leads? Why does Clarence have to trust his lead, his hunch and not his gut?

I’m sick, nauseated, afraid. I’ve seen this video before. I’ve seen this play out before. It doesn’t end well.

I want to watch his back. Walter Scott shot in the back while running away after a traffic stop. But, his death does not stop traffic. We follow the directions of the crossing guard and walk past him.

“Just relax.” But, I can’t because Eric Garner can’t breathe.  My body is tense and I press my eyes closer to the screen.

I want to be there. I want to make a citizen’s arrest of this police officer. You are in his personal space and trespassing. “Get your hands off of him.”

The police officer has a warrant for his arrest. Who’s arrest?

“Reg.”

“Quentin.”

“You know your name?”

“Tell me your name?”

Clarence refuses. His life is not a game. This is not a guessing game. There are not multiple choices. He has only one choice—make it out of this conversation alive.

Voices raised. Who has authority over his body? This is his body. Don’t touch his body. Shaky hands with a trigger finger.

Clarence doesn’t want to go anywhere with the officer. He fears he would be a dead man walking. “Calm down. This doesn’t have to be a show down.”

Bystanders say, “Just show him your ID and it will be over.” Amadou Diallo tried that. Reaching for his wallet, he was shot nineteen times. They thought he was suspected of rape. Dressed in plain clothes, they bloodied his.

The survey says, “Just go to his patrol car like he asked you.” But Sandra Bland did that and she didn’t make it home alive. Cop car turned hearse. Freddy Gray will tell you it’s a bumpy ride.

Know your rights. Clarence’s two rights still made him wrong. The law is not on his side. The law is in his yard trying to take him away from his family. Because the officer could not see him—as a man, as a husband, as a father– and not a suspect who fits the description of people that interestingly all look alike.  If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, right?

Besides, you don’t need ID to see that Clarence is a fellow human being, right?

The supervisor with no supervision will write up the report. And you will read it and take his side… again.

Sandra

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Another day, another offense, to list them would elicit a lament.  Another video surfaces and we want to push it back down.  We turn up the television or the music to drown out the sound of her voice.  But, our silence is deafening.

The truth we try to deny, we want so desperately to hide is in our hands.  We have the evidence.  It’s on our phone.  She recorded her exchange with the police officer on her phone.  Taser in her face and the officer’s voice is raised.

She’s calling us.

Answering to the truth is a calling.  When will we answer?  Because someone has to answer for this.  Like Cain, her blood is calling us from the ground. “Lord, can you hear her now?”

She was telling the truth.  Too much force leaves me with too little faith in the systems that we create.  It is uniform hate.  We all fall in line and fall farther behind in the journey to arrive in one piece, one single unit, a family.

Sandra Bland videotaped her arrest.  She’s dead now.  No witnesses, we don’t see anything.  Her body is the only witness.

She’s buried now.  But she can’t let it go, won’t let it rest.  She knows how traffic stops often end for those socially colored black.  Don’t reach for your wallet.  Don’t turn your back.  Don’t trust the report.  Back from the dead, she wants persons to know what really happened to her.

Did you hear what she said?

She is here again like Jesus, who keeps showing up after the crucifixion.  We must answer for our inaction.  Sandra is back to continue the conversation we thought was litigated by the courts.  Judgement for the plaintiff?  No, money is betrayal of our value.  This calls for more.

I’m listening, Sandra.

Sending word

See the source imageLife is filled with false starts, abrupt stops, detours and wrong turns. We didn’t know it would take this long to come to ourselves, that there were so many copies to choose from, that being original is harder than it looks, that it is easier to repeat, to nod in agreement with the majority, that in going along to get along, we never find ourselves. We wake up one day and question aloud, “How did I get here?”

“Stop this ride; I want to get off.” I told Jesus to take the wheel so why do I feel like I want throw up? Hands in the air, we sing, “I surrender all.” But today, I worry about what I will have left.

When will things go right? When will all things come together to work for my good? When will this all make sense and come into focus? Because I can’t see what’s up ahead; I’m just tired of these raindrops falling on my head.

Tearstained faces, life is not a commissioned pretty picture and we don’t hold the paintbrush. We receive the brush strokes like everyone else—sickness and death, depression and debt, heartbreak and pain. In the course of our days, life can get ugly. And what we say in those moments can make or break us.

Henry David Thoreau said, “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate in us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; — not be represented on canvas or in marble only but be carved out of the breath of life itself.”

We are a collection of words. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Language is a form of life.” Whether we know it or not, we are a spoken word, words that both define us and diminish us, question and answer us, love and hate us, attack and defend us. We are who we say we are. This is why we must choose our words carefully.

Because words can make you or break you. Because one wrong word can cause you to lose your place. Because one word can set us back and set us up for failure. Because the world capitalizes on us forgetting ourselves, on losing ourselves around here somewhere. They squeeze out our voice so that we can’t get a word in edgewise. Oscar Wilde said, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

Because “life and death are in the power of our tongue.”[1] Because I learned a long time ago, good words are hard to come by. So, I carry my own. I call them journey words.

Some people collect rare stamps and coins, dolls and cars. I carry a deck of 3×5 cards that remind me of who I am, what I believe, what my work is and where I am going. When I cannot find the words or my way, they take me to where I belong. They are words of commission and calling. They are words of clarity and certainty. They are words of direction, pointing me back to the track I sometimes I get off of. Tripping on the tongue of others, they have picked me up on more than one occasion.

They are my conversation partners, my guides. They are words from the living and the dead. They are words past, present and future, words outside of me, that call me inwardly, words behind me that propel me forward, words that I desperately wanted to hear as a child, words that I listen out for as an adult.

They are words that sound like me, the woman I have heard of but have yet to meet.   They are words like:

“Voyager, there are no bridges; one builds as one walks” (Gloria Anzaldua).

And—

“I must see my understandings produce results in human experience. Productivity is my first value. I must make and mold and build life. As an artist, I must shape human relationships. To me, life itself is the greatest material. I would far rather build a man than form a book. My whole being is devoted to making my small area of existence a work of art. I am building a world” (Jean Toomer).

And—

“The time is always right to do what is right” (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.).

And—

“Give me a place to stand and I will move the world” (Archimedes).

And—

“Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul” (Mark Twain).

And—

“Treat people as if they are what they ought to be, and you help them become what they are capable of being” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).

And—

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.27-28, NRSV).

And—

“Do the work your soul must have” (Katie Geneva Cannon).

Zora Neale Hurston coaches me, struts alongside me saying, “I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.” Frederick Douglas is with her and chimes in, saying, “I prefer to be my true self, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false and incur my own abhorrence.” Thomas Merton nods in agreement, adding, “To be a saint means to be myself.” Less I be tempted to lose myself in the crowd, James Baldwin tugs on me, saying, “The effort not to know what one knows is the most corrupting effort one can make.”

Because it is easier to walk away, to take what is offered and leave ourselves on the table, on the cutting board, to erase the image emerging on the drawing board. Because we have reached our word limit and “if they say one more word…” This is why we need words like Abraham Joshua Heschel’s who declared, “Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible. … To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Because what you say will determine what you see. Because in the words of Mary Anne Evans, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” Jesus’s words are a journey in themselves. We cannot read them and not be moved. And if we carry them, they will carry us home to our true selves, our new selves in him.

____________________

End notes|

[1] Proverb 18.21