I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well. – Psalm 139.14, NASB
I know that my identity as a black woman is affirmed and validated by the image of God!
And I also know that as God began to fashion humanity in the beginning, and imbued upon our DNA His likeness, that He had me and so many others who look like me, in mind. From the beginning, He knew our stories. He was well acquainted with the roads that we would travel, the burdens we would be forced to carry as a result of greed, capitalism, and imperialism. Placing His indelible image upon our souls was a living testament to the world that we belonged and came from Him, affirming our value in a world that says we are not.
Unfortunately, there are many people who do not see God’s creative license and sheer genius operating in the same way. While such persons would not necessarily deny, at least I hope not, God’s image residing within black people, they sure do act as if this is what they believe. You see this most visibility in the present racial justice movement, Black Lives Matter. As blacks and other justice minded folk proclaim the value of blackness to the world, others – particularly the #AllLivesMatter crowd and their sympathizers – shriek at the notion that black people actually matter. It is much easier for folks like these to assert the value of all life without pointing out the particular ways that black lives are persistently devalued – indeed, something has to first be valuable before it can be seen as devalued. Therefore, the very notion that black lives matter and are valuable comes across as an affront to their own understanding of reality.
Lack of regard for black people, however, isn’t solely concentrated within the white community; less than favorable sentiments also exists within communities of color and in the black community itself. The louder image affirming black people assert our humanity and likeness to God, the more cognitive dissonance occurs for others who primarily view their self-worth through the lens of the white gaze. Respectability politics is key here! “If black lives matter, what about black on black crime?” “We need to get things straight in our own community before we can demand accountability from cops.” “Well, they need to pull their pants up and get a job.” “Try harder, work more efficiently and stop complaining.” “Make better choices.” “If I can do it, you can do it too.”
Translation: We can only be human when we get our stuff together. Until then, we have no right to assert our humanity or expect others to respect it.
The reality is that respectability is often just a ruse. While it may appear to be innocent, well-intentioned advice, it actually deflects the responsibility of racism away from whites and places the sole burden on blacks to resist, correct, and thrive in the midst of white supremacy. It is hard enough to hear this rhetoric from media and political pundits who spend every waking moment washing their hands of guilt by blaming black folks for our own problems; it is harder still to hear it coming from the lips of those from within our own community who cannot see that our liberation in the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, no matter how hard we try, will not come by appealing to whiteness.
I had the unfortunate pleasure of experiencing this first hand recently. In preparation for a small gathering in which I was invited to speak, I shared a bit of my speech online which was pro-black, emphasized the image of God on our person, and proclaimed our complete liberation in the New Jerusalem. I expected it to be controversial among whites who couldn’t see themselves in a narrative that explicitly affirmed black lives and even among folks who thought that my idea of liberation was too narrow. What I did not expect was to receive significant pushback from someone from within my own community who took issue with it because of how much I emphasized the image of God within black people.
“How dare you write that?” they asked. “And how could you connect this story to a prayer? Isn’t that reverse discrimination? Imagine how white people must feel? I am glad we do not worship the same God because what you did is heretical.”
More than shocked and I was definitely that, I was hurt by his words. I was hurt because he failed to recognize God’s image in me; failed to see it in himself as well. And in that denial, he not only minimized who God made me to be – an identity I fight to protect everyday – but he also discounted my relationship with my creator. In his mind, I could not be both black and Christian. As far as he was concerned, in order to be Christian, I had to deny my blackness and align my identity with whiteness as far as it was possible for me to do so.
I knew what was happening. I had all of the analysis and language to describe how internalized racism was functioning in this particular situation. I see this happening everyday when blacks, as well as other people of color, redefine our beauty, education, life experience, and self-worth in terms of what is valuable to whites. When one lives in a system that prioritizes whiteness above all else and when one’s livelihood is often tied to kowtowing down to that same system just to survive, it is nearly impossible to avoid internalizing feelings of inferiority! Yet, instead of taking comfort in this analysis, I went for a walk. I found the Mali Music station on Pandora and listened as I walked and meditated on the truth of God’s Word. Still disturbed, I turned to music again once I got home from work. This time my remedy of choice was Esperanza Spalding who crooned:
Hold your head as high as you can
High enough to see who you are, little man
Life sometimes is cold and cruel
Baby no one else will tell you so remember that
You are black gold, black gold
You are black gold
You are black gold. Those words brought relief to my soul like none other that day. They affirmed who I was, the black woman that God made me to be, and projected my value in a world that said I was not valuable. To be clear, this affirmation is not a statement of commodification but a clarification of inherent worth – black people are worthy of life and love!
As Spalding continued singing, I once again turned to God’s Word. I rehearsed in my memory God’s amazing truth about me while rejecting all of the lies thrown my way because I dared to imagine that I could be a part of God’s Kingdom, blackness and all.
That was a little more than a month ago. And while I found some semblance of peace that day, the reality is that the fight for validation as an image bearer remains a constant struggle. At times, it is anxiety inducing until I remember that I am not defined by others perceptions of me, or who they think I should be. Instead, I am defined by how my creator sees me. I am characterized by His image and likeness. I can take great pride in the ways in which He fashioned me. I recognize His intelligence in clothing my body in mahogany skin and crowning my head with ebony, kinky coily hair.
I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
I am black gold.