On #RachelDolezal: The Beauty and Pain of Blackness

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“Can you drink this cup?”

This is the question that Jesus asked His disciples, James and John, when they requested seats of prominence in His coming kingdom (Matthew 20.20-23, NASB). After walking with Him for three years, they believed Him to be the Son of God as they saw His power unfurled when He raised the dead, healed the sick, cast out demons and held crowds captive with oratorical skills that Obama wished he possessed. While they did not completely understand the events that were unfolding before them as the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion drew near, they knew that something in the spiritual world was shifting. And they wanted to identify themselves with that power in every possible way.

Can you drink this cup,” Jesus asked as the disciples greedily make their request? Could they drink the cup of suffering that came a long with the cup of glory, power, and majesty? Could they allow themselves to be subjected to the oppressive, imperialistic cross – a cross that was no doubt responsible for the premature death of men in their community who posed a threat to the empire? Could they wrap their minds around the idea of having loved ones – mothers, sisters, brothers, and friends – grieve over their breathless bodies? Or were they only attracted to the glory of resurrection, the power and beauty that was associated with victory and triumph?

The Gospel writers show us that it was most certainly the latter. Even though James and John answered Jesus’ question in the affirmative – “We are able to drink” – the reality is that when the moment of reckoning came, they deserted Jesus so that they would not be found guilty by association. Jesus faced the agony of the cross completely alone. He alone was mocked, spit upon and beaten nearly beyond the point of recognition, clearly a warning to others lest they be so brazen with such eternal truth. He alone bore the complete and excruciating pain of the cross. An examination of the ordeal states that:

The procedure of crucifixion may be summarized as follows. The patibulum was put on the ground and the victim laid upon it. Nails, about 7 inches long and with a diameter of 1 cm were driven in the wrists. The points would go into the vicinity of the median nerve, causing shocks of pain to radiate through the arms. It was possible to place the nails between the bones so that no fractures (or broken bones) occurred. Studies have shown that nails were probably driven through the small bones of the wrist, since nails in the palms of the hand would not support the weight of a body…When the cross was erected upright, there was tremendous strain put on the wrists, arms and shoulders, resulting in a dislocation of the shoulder and elbow joints. The arms, being held up and outward, held the rib cage in a fixed end inspiratory position which made it extremely difficult to exhale, and impossible to take a full breath. The victim would only be able to take very shallow breaths.”

Jesus alone crippled under the force of that imperialistic cross! And certainly He alone is worthy of all of the glory that was wrought through such extreme suffering; no one else can take credit for the newness of life that was brought about through this rugged cross. And certainly no one else can appropriate His suffering for their own gain!

While the suffering of Jesus, I believe, is unique and incomparable to anything else in human history, there are many things that come close. In the last century alone, there have been numerous accounts of human suffering and genocide that have been the result of empires across the globe seeking power, control, and resources, similarly to the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day. However, in spite of the fear that these imperialistic regimes invoke, there has always been a remnant among the subjugated who fight hard for their liberation and refuse to be silent.

And of course, African Americans are one of those people. Ever since we were forcibly removed from our land hundreds of years ago, we have fought tooth and nail for our freedom. We’ve revolted, we’ve protested, we’ve educated ourselves, we’ve lobbied political leaders, we’ve marched, we’ve resisted, we’ve testified, we’ve prophesied, and most recently, we’ve turned the nation’s consciousness back toward the suffering that has continued to endure in plain sight all of these years.

In spite of the suffering, we are very beautiful people. Our style, our swag, our way of being including what we give to the world through song, culture, food, spirituality, and more is something that we proudly celebrate. Unfortunately, however, there are many in our American culture who want to identify with the beauty inherent to blackness and are not the least bit interested in identifying with the suffering, the agony, that comes with living in this skin. There are those who want to appropriate our success, all the while undermining the struggle it took to secure that success.

This appropriation takes place in many ways, including with Hip Hop (Iggy Azelea and Macklemore), hair (Marc Jacobs and his invention of mini-buns bantu-knots), dance (Taylor Swift and Miley Cirus) and so much more (check out this 4 minute video by 16 year old Amandla Stenberg for more here). The latest act of appropriation was committed by Rachel Dolezal. Dolezal, a civil rights activist, professor of Africana studies, and president of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, was recently outed as a white woman – she has been pretending to be black for years.

While I can never know the intent behind Dolezal’s actions, actions that have granted her access to intimate black spaces, given her some degree of fame, and caused her to be sought out as an expert on all things black, I can speak to the negative impact of those actions. As a black woman living in America in 2015, I feel so deeply cheapened by her decision to mask herself in the beauty and power that comes with being black, without intimately understanding the suffering that is so intertwined with this wretched body (although she definitely faked that, too). I feel insulted, as if the persistent suffering of family, friends, neighbors, and ancestors, is nothing more than a badge of self-glorification, something that can be taken on and off by those who feign black beauty but despise blackness – the highest form of white supremacy, no doubt! It is said that imitation is the highest form of flattery. But imitation, when it comes to the experience of the oppressed and marginalized, is nothing more than a slap in the face, a dagger in an already broken soul.

The question that I pose to Dolezal, Azelea, and others who desire the glory that comes with blackness is the same one that Jesus asked his disciples right before he underwent the greatest suffering known to humankind: “Can you drink this cup?” Can you drink the cup of suffering, the cup of police brutality, the cup of marginalization, the cup of unemployment, the cup of unjust laws that are designed to destroy you, the cup of 1000 daily deaths? Undoubtedly, it is this cup that has produced the culture, the identity that is so desperately craved by the music world, fashion icons, and a certain NAACP president in Washington. And I get it, we are a beautiful people. But here is the thing: if you can’t deal with one, you certainly cannot have the other!

3 thoughts on “On #RachelDolezal: The Beauty and Pain of Blackness

  1. I am challenged as an African American who is NOT an “African American” to continue to let my self be uncomfortable with the fact that I am comfortable with the inexperience of the plight of “blacks.” As a public school teacher, I continue to learn this too and your piece here is giving another challenge to challenge why I have not challenged those who will not drink the cup…. Thanks Ebony.

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