At the time of this writing I am only 28 years old. Although I consider myself relatively wise, I know that I am still quite young and have a lot more wisdom to attain. However, one thing that I do know, call it as a result of being wise or just my own personal experience, is that people do not like being taken advantage of. I have never shook hands with someone who liked to be called out of their name and I have never stood next to anyone who relished in stereotypes, generalizations or the like against themselves or anyone else who thinks, looks, or lives like them. And maybe I am wrong, maybe there is someone who does not mind any of these things and actually relishes in them. Perhaps you are that person, and if you are I would like to meet you so that I can run you over with a tractor to see if you have any feeling at all in your body.
There is method in my madness, I swear! The reason that I feel confident in making this claim, that no one likes to be picked on, or talked about or even taken advantage of is because it is simply not human nature to brush things off as if they do not affect us, because in brushing it off, it means at some level we were affected. And although we strive to be like Christ in every area of our lives, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that one of the hardest areas in following Christ is taking up our cross and following him even if in that following we will get talked about and laughed at. He never said where we had to follow him but somehow his death reminds us that to follow means that we too must die.
Sometimes I wonder how Christ did it; you know the verbal and ultimately physical attacks by people. Scripture tells us that people called him all sorts of names and mocked everything he said, and yet he took it. After his arrest, when he sat before those who would eventually try and crucify him, he took every single lie and accusation that they said about him and remained absolutely quiet. Before Pilate made the final decision to have him crucified, and he allowed the Roman guards to beat him senseless, people still jeered him and mocked him, and he took it. Even as he lay on the cross, giving every ounce of energy he had to keep himself alive, people taunted him, and his response: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And the thing about it was that he was God and he was sinless, and so not one single accusation that they made against him was true, and yet he endured. Is it any wonder why Paul could confidently write that Jesus being in the form of God did not equate equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself?
Paul tells us about what Christ did because he wants us to demonstrate the same attitude of humility that Christ did. In the few years of experience that I do have, I can honestly say that I have not found this easy. I have lost count of the times that I have come home from school in tears because someone called me a name that was not on my birth certificate, or because someone judged me incorrectly. I cannot even name the numerous occasions when someone did not like me on account of my skin tone, my physical features, or my beliefs-to do so would take all day and night.
One of the names that I continually fought against was being called “white.” And if anyone knows me at all, I do not look white at all. Just by looking at my skin color and my hair texture, it is more than obvious that I am not white in any way, shape or form. It is not that I have something against people who are, it is just that I have a problem being called something that I am not.
I cannot quite pinpoint the exact moment in my life when people started to attach this name to me. The moment gets lost somewhere between 5th and 7th grade, but it is there and I can distinctly recall that I never liked it. Throughout the years as I grew older, anytime someone labeled me as such I became angry to the very core of my being. Maybe people that call me such feel as if I do not have the genuine character of a “normal” black person or maybe they feel that I have not earned, if you will, the right to be called what I am. But I must ask what is a black person, or more correctly an African American beyond skin tone and a very distinct history? What does the identity of “black person” consist of and what criteria must be met in order for one to be privileged or even cursed enough to be called “black?”
I wonder if it has anything to do with life experiences, how one is raised and even where one is raised. Many times the stereotypes that go along with being black are very negative such as living in poverty, growing up in a single-parented household, living in the ghetto, a missing or aloof father figure and there are many more. I know that these are horrible stereotypes to even consider but if you honestly look at it, this is what many people think of when they think of a black person, and such thinking is most prevalent in the black community.
However, if these are the criteria that must exist in a person’s life in order to be called a black person, I meet them at every point. I know what it is to grow up in the ghetto and everything that comes with it. For a greater part of my childhood, our family lived on 37th and Lisbon, one of the roughest neighborhoods in Milwaukee. During the eight years that we spent there, it was not uncommon for us to hear gunshots as we were sleeping and on several occasions they actually penetrated our home. I remember telling you about the time that our home got shot up while we were sleeping one night so that we had to go to New York because it was so bad. On another occasion, however, my mother was nearly hit with a stray bullet as she sat in our living watching television. For all of those years that we lived there, I always knew a drug house to be on either side of us and most likely where all the bullets we saw were coming from!
I know what it is to come from a single parent home, to be born out of wedlock, and to be poor. When I was younger, my mother was on welfare and as a result we received food stamps and were a part of the free- reduced lunch program at school. Up until I was about 14 years old, we never had a decent car but a hoopty, which always proved to be worthless and guaranteed that we would get stuck stranded somewhere, having to catch the bus the rest of the way to reach our destination.
But maybe this is not the criteria that must be met in order for me to be worthy enough to be called black, or maybe it simply is not enough. Maybe I have to be violent, and be ready to fight whatever cause that threatens my space or my ideals at the drop of a hat. Then would I qualify? Maybe I need to have more of an attitude, and more of an edge to me. Then would I qualify? Or maybe it is all in the speech, maybe I need to integrate more Ebonics and profanity into my language. Then would I be worthy enough?
Maybe it has more to do with culture. But if this is the case, then I must ask how my culture is so distinct from every other black person that somehow I seem to get labeled otherwise. The matter must go further than the fact that I can barely stand the smell of hot sauce and I know that it has little to do with the fact that I cannot shout like many African Americans who have a deep history rooted in the church. Being black or African American must be more than greens, fried chicken, and sweet potato pie and it must mean more than who we are entertained by.
But maybe this is the case, maybe the things that I mentioned are the criteria that we use to distinguish an authentic black person from one who is not, and I use we because it is my fellow black “brothas” and “sistas” that label me. Yet if these are our criteria, I will be the first one to say that our thinking is shallow and distorted. If these are the things that make a man or woman black, then there is no wonder to why we have not seemed to move much further along in society than the civil rights movement. Though we are no longer in physical chains and although we have more freedoms allotted to us than we have ever had before, we might as well be back on the plantation because many of us go about as if we were. It is evident in our thinking and in our judgments, and the funny thing about it is that those judgments were created by people who wanted to keep us down, yet we have internalized them for ourselves and used them against each other.
Many people probably want to shoot me right now, but only so because I am preaching the truth. Though there are still institutions and persons in our American society that have prejudices and stereotypes against African Americans, the truth of the matter is that they really do not need to because we do a good job making sure that we stay in our place. Just think about how often we criticize a black man when he makes it big doing something that is neither shady nor related to entertainment in some way. We call that man smug, we call him white and even more so if he marries a white woman. God forbid! Think how many times we judge our black women when they do something outside of the status quo, and decide to go to college, make a living, and essentially make a better life for her and her family. We may not say anything but our actions portray that we think she is a sell-out. Think of the statistic that the successful black woman falls victim to: that she will marry very late if she marries at all. Why is this true or even a topic of discussion? I think it has a lot to do with what I have just described, even though I also believe that it is a lie from the pit of hell designed to keep our women, and generally our people, in their place.
So where is it that I fit in all of this hoopla, this mess? Is it because I do not have an attitude, do not engage in fighting, or speak clearly that I cannot be black? Is it the way I dress, the way I walk, or the way that I behave that I cannot be black? Is it because I refuse to just allow life to happen to me and take it for what it is that my black badge of honor has to be taken away and replaced with a “white badge?” Once again, it is worth repeating that if this is the criterion it is nothing to brag about but an indicator of a sin-sick society where the enemy of our lives has led us to believe that in order to have a heritage and in order to have a name, we have to behave a certain way and live a certain way. Is it for naught that the Word of God calls him a roaring lion, who goes about seeking to steal, kill and destroy everything and everyone in his path.
The enemy knows our weak spots; he knows the scars that we already bear upon our souls and how to inflict us even more. He knows how to accuse us and tell us that we are not, when we are. His accusations may vary from person to person, but they are accusations nonetheless. For some those accusations may be concerning external factors such as weight, looks, clothes or style. But for others, those accusations may not be so noticeable and have more so to do with family origin, nationality, or faith. Even though these accusations do not mirror the way that God feels about us, Satan continues to use anything to knock us down and out in order to discourage us, and for me, one of those areas of sensitivity has centered on my identity.
Thankfully, I do not serve him. Thankfully even though he is armed with weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein could not even wrap his mind around, my God reigns supreme and wills it not so. Thankfully, when Christ rose from the grave on that third day, and triumphed over death, hell and the grave, he also triumphed over every human institution created to keep humanity in hell on earth. For his triumph he can change this, he can change the name and stereotype that has been attached to our heritage. He longs to bring us up higher and draw us closer than we have ever known but we have to be willing to take down our defenses as well as the things that we so desperately try to hold on to and let him in. He wants us to be defined by who he is and not by what we have become or what we think that we need to attain.
Maybe this is why Paul asks us to have the same attitude that was found in Christ Jesus. In spite of our background, our heritage, our accomplishments, our badges, the only thing that we can boast in is the cross of Christ. By aligning ourselves to the cross and conforming to the same humility, we find our true selves. Though we all think different, look different, and even see different, we are not so different that at any one time we have the right to exhort that difference over anyone else, for it is at the cross that we find equality. At the cross, we recognize that all have fallen short, not just the black people, or the white people, or the Asian people, or the Latino people, or the African people; we all messed up, we all need forgiveness, we all need Jesus!
So if Christ is where I find my identity, why am I so concerned about what others say or even think about me? If this is who I am and this is what I take pride in, why am I so concerned about what people say, why do I get so angered when people deny me of what I am or where I am from? I feel like it has been used as a form of rejection, as an excuse to not get close to me, as an excuse to put little Ebony back in her place. I have seen it used as a method by others to keep me out of their lives, out of their circle and that is what burns me up. Every time someone says it, every time someone takes the identity that I cherish away from me I recall all of the instances in my life that people have said those very things in order to keep me out, because I did not conform to this image that they think that I should conform to.
This is one of the main reasons why I associated with many white people throughout middle and high school. It was not that I did not like the black people, because I longed so much to be like them and to be a part of them. It was just that they pushed me away and judged me so much that I did not feel welcome, much less comfortable in their circle. I can remember as far back as the sixth grade, the laughter, the pointing of fingers, the constant rejection by the little black girls, people who looked so much like me, whose realities I closely identified with but who refused to let me be a part of their world.
And the white kids, or at least the ones that I mostly connected with, did not seem to care at all about this distinction that the black kids did, even though our experiences, background and worldview were as different as night and day. For those persons, I feel deeply indebted to and grateful for because without them, my school experience would have been a very lonely one. It did not matter to them that I did not look like them or that in so many ways, I could not identify with them. They just loved me for who I was or at least that was how they made me feel.
When I came to North Central for college, I set myself up for failure because the pattern of behavior and coping mechanisms that I survived with in my youth, I came to learn, were not going to get me through college. I remember the first week of classes, how some of the persons of color who were sophomores, juniors, and seniors tried to connect with me and even though I showed myself friendly, I put them at a distance, expecting them to reject me like all of the others black students did in my past. I tried to attach myself to the white students, assuming they would be more trusting and accepting of me and not judge me on account of my color or my apparent lack thereof; I was very wrong!
There is a great disparity between the communities of white people that I knew so well in Wisconsin and the ones that I found in Minnesota at North Central. You see the ones that I knew in Milwaukee, were generally all from Milwaukee and had constant interaction with people of color if not in their homes or neighborhood, in the public school system and those at North Central came from a variety of different backgrounds, some from major cities, but most from little rural communities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, and South Dakota, where their interaction with persons that looked like me were minimal. Put all of those people in one place, disaster is inevitable! Not as much with violence but with generalizations. You see, they had this perception of what black people were supposed to be like, and once again I did not come close to meeting that perception. Instead of trying to get to know me for who I was, they pushed me away.
So here I was, trying to connect with people who really did not want to connect with me because they did not know what to do with this little black girl that society sometimes labeled white for the way that she talked, walked and behaved. Maybe it would not have hurt so much if they were not believers in the Lord, but they claimed to know the risen power of Christ; what was I supposed to make of that? Were they just not genuine, did they feel that their duty to love only went as far as their comfort zones or did they just not know? Had they never been confronted with someone as the likes of me and so did not know how to truly integrate the Lord’s command to love their neighbor as themselves?
I remember what came to be the last straw for me, what made me realize that in spite of all of my intentions to connect with these people, it just was not going to happen. It was at the end of my freshman year and a large group of us went on a picnic. Throughout the entire year, I had problems trying to connect to the groups of people that were always so easy for me to connect with in high school, and so in the event that I would grow bored, I decided to bring some reading material along with me. Maybe I set myself up for failure here; maybe I expected to be disappointed in this area so much that I lived out a self-fulfilled prophecy. Regardless, I ended up alone that night, sitting at one of the picnic tables, reading a book that turned out not to peak my interests as much as I thought it would, all the while wanting to find a place to run away and cry. For the first hour or so I honestly tried to connect with the people that were there but it seemed as if no one even noticed that I was present.
As I previously described to you, the end of my second grade year, my mother sent my sister and I to New York because of the gunfire problem that we were having around our home. I remember on one particular evening walking down the streets with my cousins and I believe that my sister was there too. That night I thought that I had died and had taken a form of a ghost because no one acknowledged my presence, no one uttered a word to me the entire evening. The experience that I had over a decade ago of loneliness and invisibility surfaced again that Friday night of 2002, as once again I felt as if I was dead to the world. I gave up trying to force persons to interact with me, and just shut down, validating my prediction that I would end up spending this night bored and alone.
I planned on going back to the dorms that night to sulk, cry, and basically have a pity party concerning how I was feeling. There was a prayer room on our floor that I liked to steal away to in times such as these and that was where I planned to abide that evening. Instead one person that whole night took account of my saddened demeanor and talked me through it for which I am grateful. I am not sure if the advice that she gave was the most helpful but the thing was the she offered to be there when no one else would.
This feeling of loneliness that I had during the school year carried over into my summer experience. I ended up, through no fault of my own, getting placed in the same room assignment with those that I had over the school year. I remember the day that we had to move out of one room and move to another. I watched them as they helped each other move their things from one place to another as I stood alone, doing everything by myself. Although our summer break had just begun, this for me was a strong indicator that the next coming months were going to be absolute hell on earth.
I am grateful for the two jobs that I had over this time. Just before school let out, I started two different jobs that gave me about a total of 50 hours each week throughout the summer. Without these connections in my life, I know that my horrid experience would have been even worse, as that summer was one of the only times in my life where I seriously struggled with depression and loneliness. There were few people to call or lean on; even at the church that I attended at the time, I seemed to be on the fringes.
For the reason that I felt completely and utterly alone that summer, I prayed a lot. Praying a lot was not a bad thing though, as being in the presence of God is never a bad thing. My downfall was that I used God to cope with my loneliness instead of standing up and addressing it. Since I could not deal with or handle many relationships with other people, I used God to help me deal with the issues of rejection that I faced.
Memorial Day that year I spent alone for the most part. There was one person from college who said that they wanted to do something and hang out, but I think that he was just trying to be polite more than genuine. I also tried to make connections with several people at church that I was attending at that time but that idea flopped as well. After spending more than half of the day shut up in my room, one of the girls from my church invited me to watch fireworks with her and a few friends. That, too, never really panned out the way we anticipated and so after an hour or so, she took me home and I made myself back to my room.
The floor that I stayed on that summer had a prayer room that I frequented a lot. That night after returning home, I went in there to pray and call on God to intervene in my situation. I really needed some answers, I really needed his strength! As I prayed, I began to weep intensely. My heart hurt so badly. I just wanted God to relieve the pain, the pressure of what I was going through and I did not care how he did it. At times like these when I am in so much emotional distress, my nose starts to bleed profusely. And although I should have gotten up from where I was to clean myself up, I could not bear to leave that room and deal with whatever reality was on the other side of that door. And so I continued to lie there, crying and bleeding, looking up into heaven, hoping for a way out.
That was one of the points in my life that I actually considered suicide as a way of escape. I had no desire to do any real harm to myself but I wanted to do whatever it would take to make the pain of the loneliness and rejection that I felt stop. When the thoughts of suicide started to pass through my mind, I knew that it was imperative that I talk to somebody. And so, since no one was around, I took out the yellow pages and began to look for a crisis center; maybe I could just find someone to talk to me and help me feel a little bit better, but even those efforts failed. When I finally did get in contact with someone, they informed me that because I was only thinking about the act and had not done anything concerning those thoughts that they could do nothing for me. They could do nothing to help someone who was only contemplating suicide but if I had a gun in my hand, or was ready to slit my wrists, or had taken pills, then maybe they would have been ready to act. The irony of that is if I had already gone so far as to do that, would I really have called a crisis center to talk me out of it. It would have been all too late!
That was a horrible night and I am not quite sure how I got through it, but I am pretty sure that I cried myself to sleep. Although I was never at that exact point of desperation again, the remainder of my summer proved to be just as difficult and lonely. I worked as much as I possibly could. I got involved with the praise team at church and did absolutely anything to keep me busy and to keep my mind off of the feelings of loneliness that enveloped around me. Of course I had friends, but they were not that close to me. Even so, whenever any opportunity arose for me to be around them, even the ones that I did not feel liked me very much, I took advantage of it.
It was then that I realized the importance and the value of human relationships. As much as God was there for me in those moments when I felt at my lowest, I understand that he has created me as well as every other human being on the face of the earth to live in the context of authentic community. It is true that his power is sufficient for us in our weakness but when we are tired, or angry, or simply hurt, we cannot always tap into this power no matter how hard we try because we have our limits.
I am reminded of the passage in Exodus 17 when Moses and the Israelites fought a battle against the Amalekites. Throughout that battle, as long as Moses kept his arms raised, the Israelites fought triumphantly but every time he lowered them, they got whipped! I think that Moses finally got the hint and kept his arms raised as much as possible, but he grew tired. Even though this is what God told him to do, he reached the limits of his humanity and grew weak. Luckily for him, Aaron and Hur realized the significance that Moses’ uplifted arms had for the battle that they were fighting and came alongside of him to help him. As a result, the Israelites walked away from that battle as champions.
Every time I think of this passage I realize what implications it has for not only Moses’ life, but for every other person determined to survive, to make it, to win! People need each other, in spite of how much we may want to deny it. We were not made to live alone, to fight alone, to pray alone, or to die alone. How beautiful is this reality!
You can read the rest of this story in Dancing on Hot Coals. Be sure to get your copy in time for Christmas!