I’ve always loved you. I hope you understand that. Since I was a little girl, you were one of my most favorite people in the world. Your smile brought me great delight and your house, at least for an eight year old, was full of treasure waiting to be discovered. I remember playing in the backyard and on your patio some afternoons you looked after us while mom worked. Not too frequently though, you lived at least 25 minutes away. But you were close enough so that when we needed you, you were there.
One of the things that I have always loved about Christmas was coming to your house for dinner – most likely because your deep red carpets made it seem like Christmas was an all-year affair. And that brought me joy.
But Christmas was also the one time of year that I was guaranteed to see family. It was essentially our family reunion – cousins, aunties, and uncles from all over would come around your table to eat your collard greens and sweet potato pie. I hope you know, I still haven’t mastered your pie recipe, though trust, I will keep trying.
More than pie and red carpets, I lavished in the fellowship of my family. The family that your sprawling dining room table brought together. And I gobbled up the stories that were passed around that table just as fast as I did your pie. Learning about our history helped me weave disparate stories of our family together into one coherent whole. I needed to understand more.
When I started writing, I promised you that I would sit down and write our family’s story. I needed to understand more about the house that the government tore down so that they could build a freeway. And I needed to know more about our beginnings, our heritage. You were thrilled and excited to share your life with me. Though we never did made any concrete plans, I always assumed there would be time.
As I grew older and wiser, our connection changed. Oh, the factors are many – some of those factors revolving around whether or not you approved of my life decisions. School. Marriage. Career. No matter the circumstance, if you were not completely behind it, you showed a strong level of disapproval – something I have never even seen in my own parents.
Still, I reached out. But at some point, you stopped calling on your own volition. You congratulated my husband and I on the birth of our children. And you seemed to be pleased that I found a full time job after I graduated from seminary. Other than that, you seemed distant. Gone were the conversations we used to have where we would blab on and on about everything.
And then, gradually, you started to lose yourself to Alzheimer’s. Mom and her siblings stepped in to take care of you the best that they knew how to do so. There were some snafus along the way, but we traversed them all and got you to a safe place where all of your needs would be provided for. I know you never wanted to go into a nursing home or degenerate to the point that you would need care like this, but trust me, this is the best. We are trying to do our best.
They buried your husband this year. Did you feel a piece of you leave your body as they lowered him into the ground? It frustrates me that they didn’t even let you know that he was gone. You were his wife for over 40 years, you had the right to know. You had the right to grieve even if the capacity to do it escaped you. They took away your agency. And so it ends like this. I am sorry. We did not know ourselves. You deserve more than this.
Mister’s mortality makes me wrestle with your own. I just can’t bear that thought. Surely you are immortal and have some secret beans hidden in your stash of belongings at the nursing home. Please take those now so that you can go back in time at least 20 years. It would give us more time to catch up to the thought of ever losing you.
There are so many things I want to ask you. But the time for that is no more.
You once told me that your father was a part of the sanitation worker’s strike in Memphis – the day before Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Besides that fact, I know little about our family’s contribution to the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps, this is because we are so private – we share very little with each other, even the minutest of details are top secret.
But maybe, we just weren’t that involved. After all, you moved up to the Midwest in the early 50s. My mother herself was born in Indiana in 1951 and spent the majority of her life in Milwaukee. Maybe you felt those fights were distant memory once you left the Jim Crow south.
Or maybe the demands of a young family kept you from engaging in the fight for justice for our people. I’d like to believe the latter, because as I am sure you know, racism has long existed in the North. It’s more passive aggressive in nature and doesn’t come off so in your face, but it is alive and well here just as much as it was in Tennessee. In Minnesota, they call it Nice. By they, I mean white people. But we blacks know better than that.
I never really heard you talk about the struggle peculiar to black folks. But to be honest, I did not hear anyone in our family do so either. Or maybe I just wasn’t listening. But I was definitely attuned to religion. From a young age, both you and Grandpa Hatch took me to church. With him, I attended Greater New Birth and got in trouble for trying to catch the Holy Ghost. With you, it was an Assembly of God Church close to your home in the suburbs. Grandpa’s church was distinctly black – the music, the shouting, the hats – my God the hats. I came home with headaches every Sunday that I attended. But I loved it.
Yours was a different kind of church, but I loved it too. There was a distinct children’s program at yours so we didn’t have to sit in the sanctuary with the adults the entire length of service. It was in that children’s program where I found out about salvation in Jesus Christ – and I believed it. I confessed faith in that belief on Easter Sunday of 1992 mostly because I misunderstood the preacher. But never mind that, you were proud of me and I was proud of me, too. 24 years later, I have sorted out that confusion and am still going strong in my faith.
As I grew in my commitment to Christ, I started to express interest in pursuing the ministry as a career. You supported me in this. I quickly learned that pursuing that call took precedence over everything else, even my blackness. No, you never said that. But it was something about the way that I was told to give up my own identity and adopt Christ’s that made me feel that being black was not as important as being saved.
I irritated both my mother and my father with my reductionist approach to the faith experience. My father, more so because he was a part of the Nation of Islam and didn’t so much buy into so-called ‘white man’s religion.’ And I irritated my mother because Christianity was seemingly the only lens that I could see out of. ‘Not everything is about Christianity,’ I remember her saying as I took a story she told me and concluded that the reason that the main protagonist in that story had such a difficult time was because they were a Christian and was being persecuted for their faith. In my eyes, their discrimination had nothing to do with being black.
A part of me believes that you kept the stories about how racism deeply impacted your life in order to protect us. Afterall, you grew up in the 30s and 40s – there was nothing glorious about that era and most folks with any kind of sense would most likely try to forget about all of the horrors associated with living in that time period. The lynch mobs. Who wants to tell those stories and relive the trauma every time they recall the images of burning flesh?
Perhaps silence and respectability is our salvation. At least, that is what many of us have believed for some time now. We have psyched ourselves into believing that if we were good and upright and saved that we would be spared the wrath of whiteness. That if we educated ourselves, got good jobs, owned our homes, worked until our last breath, that we would not be a stain on the nation’s consciousness. So that’s what we did. We gave respectability all of our believing that even if we lost our dignity, we would at least keep our lives.
But you and I both know that our efforts would be futile. Our oppression was never built on the lack of respectability in the first place; it was constructed on the commodification of our dark, ebony bodies. We were stolen away from our ancestral home and brought to a stolen land for profit, not because we failed to live up to some societal ideal of what it was to be human. So though we labored and gave it our all, we were still cut down like trees.
Did you see us marching as we filled the streets after they killed our brothers, daughters, and sons? Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Keisha Jenkins, Tanisha Anderson, Walter Scott, Jamar Clark, Maya Young, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Korryn Gaines – all strong and free, yet their blackness succumbed them to the fate of others gone on before. Did you see us protest their murders? Did you see us shut down the roads that took our homes and diminished whatever wealth we had? Did you hear us chant and scream, cry and pray, trusting God that another reality beyond this constant trauma was at our fingertips?
It’s all new for us millennials. We didn’t grow up seeing the perpetual execution of our kin like this. Social media is to blame, at least in part. Within seconds, the scenes of the latest fill our homes. I watched Philando die. Footage of the last moments of Oscar Grant and Eric Garner are still too accessible. These images haunt our imagination and push us to our breaking point where in fear, we turn on each other.
Old millennials like me remember Rodney King. Aside from him, I don’t remember ever seeing mass brutality against our own for simply being black. At least, seemingly justified brutality. The War on Drugs made it permissible for police to profile and attack us. The law said we were wrong so we believed and internalized it. And then, instead of rallying around each other for support, we distanced ourselves from those who were all too easily caught up in that life lest we become a target. Too many of us were. You remember – the times our house was shot up. The family refused to visit us. We almost perished. But by the grace of God, we are still standing here!
After spending 8 years living in a war zone, we moved up and out – like the Jeffersons. And for the first time in my life, I felt a sense of hope that we could really escape this. Though living on 66th and Villard was no Whitefish Bay, it was definitely felt easier to navigate. Mom felt safe enough to let me go to catch the bus nearly 30 minutes away from our home to go to work and balked a lot less to the idea of me taking the bus at 6.30 a.m. to go to school. That would have never happened on 37th and Lisbon.
And I guess a part of me equated my own personal liberation to the liberation of my people. Or at least, when I didn’t have to come face to face with the hopelessness I forgot about it. Instead, I turned my attention to the needs of the world. I took my first missions trip 2 years after we moved to the house on Villard and the next once I graduated from high school. I convinced myself that I was going to be a missionary, believing that if people just knew Jesus they wouldn’t have to live in poverty and despair. To me, the rest of the world needed rescuing from it’s crippling despair. I failed to recognize that the one in need of the most rescuing was me.
I did the missions thing for a while, or at least, I accumulated nearly 100k in debt so that I could pursue it. I just knew that the world was where God was calling me; the U.S. didn’t have any issues that needed to be solved in my little imagination. I remember a friend of mine from the Caribbean asking me why I did not exhibit the same commitment towards my own. I still shudder at my reply. Truth was, I was so blinded by the plight of my own people because my Western faith expression did not have a place for it. I continued to interpret every single life experience through the lens of Constantinian Christianity, a lens that did not validate or even try to explain the experience of people who had been systematically oppressed.
It did not take me long to come to my senses. Life has a way of putting you in your place, whether you like it or not. And as reality looked me dead in my face, I yielded to the Holy Spirit and began the process of coming to grips with who I really was – a dark skinned black woman living in one of the racist countries on earth.
At times, my identity as a black woman stood in stark contrast to the form of Christianity that I was taught to embrace. But the more I read the scriptures, I saw myself and my experience reflected in them in a way that I had not picked up on before. Gone were the over-spiritualization of passages that were calling out structural oppression and exploitation. I began to see this ancient text, the Bible, for what it really was: a testimony of God’s faithfulness to the exploited people of the world.
One of the most important things I have learned over the years is the notion of structural racism and oppression. I used to believe that racism solely functioned at an individual level and my imagination mostly pictured dudes in white robes burning crosses or some bigot shouting the N-word. These were obvious forms of racism that even in my naivety I could not deny. But the idea of structural oppression, or that racism was codified in a system of laws and practices in the United States, was new to me.
It took me a while to understand the depths of that. Honestly, I think my Western ideas of individualism and Christianity got in the way. Or perhaps, it was because even without the burning crosses and hoods, I still saw far too many racists walking around, hiding behind the veneer of Minnesota Nice progressivism. Their passive aggressive behavior made it impossible for me to abandon the idea that structural racism was our only foe – structural racism has and continues to be nurtured by individual attitudes, practices, and behaviors. The realtors who refuse to sell homes to black families are acting out of individual prejudices that then get formulated into de facto laws. And employers who refuse to hire blacks – regardless of education and experience – are acting on their own biases in spite of the mandated equity and inclusion workforce goals. The attitudes of the most bigoted and powerful among us get baked into laws that govern our bodies and dictate when and where we walk, live, worship, and play.
This racism thing seems to be only one piece of the puzzle. Another closely related if not intersecting piece – I think – is this notion of white fragility. There is just something about the black body, our mere existence, that threatens white people’s identity.
Perhaps it’s because they didn’t expect us to make it this long. We’ve survived the Atlantic, slavery and rape, the convict leasing system, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and in spite of what it seems, police brutality cannot kill all of us! Maybe they didn’t think we would be this resilient, this stedfast in the face of the ever-morphing racist attacks against us. And maybe this ongoing existence is a residual reminder of what they did to us. As much as they strike us from their history books, forget our names and contributions, and sanitize our prophets, our presence is a constant reminder of their oppression against humanity. They were the criminals, the soul-less bearers of inextricable evil against image-bearers, forsaking their own identity for the sake of whiteness.
For many, whiteness only means that they are not discriminated against because of their race. That aside, they have given much in exchange for a fleeting, unsustainable dream. And they will go to great odds to defend this dream, a dream that in fact proves to be a nightmare for them to the extent that many in their community are suffering exponentially. The pastor in me wants to reach out, wants to solve their crisis. Be their black savior. But the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates cautions me:
“Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field of their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.”
I think the biggest identity crisis for white folks are our nation’s changing demographics. In less than 25 years, our country will have more people of color and American Indians than white people. Even now, there are more children of color being born than white children. Which is exciting because there is so much beauty in diversity! But the same thing that fills me with joy is a source of anxiety for white people because they fear loss of wealth and power amidst the changes.
The election in 2008 put a face to many of their fears as a black man from the southside of Chicago was elected to one of the highest seats of power in the world. Obama’s election sent shock waves down the spine of white people who saw his administration as a threat to their well-being. From the moment he secured his seat, they gave him nothing but trouble. I am sure you took notice as the tea partiers hoisted themselves into power, seeking to hold on to whatever they could grasp from a yesterday that was quickly fleeting. For all of their disdain towards organizing, they sure as hell did a fine job growing and organizing a base of people who worked to ensure that there would never be another Obama.
In 2010, they unseated many Democrats and moderate Republicans with their rhetoric. But as 2012 came to a close, it was clear that the Tea Partiers had become irrelevant. Though many of those elected held onto their seats, the Tea Party as an organized identity failed to thrive and died a quiet, unsuspecting death.
And in 2015, Trump resurrected pieces of it. The idea of taking the country back along with his entertaining presence, pushed him into the lime-light. Surely, someone of his station – with his toddler like tantrums and adolescent boyish antics – would be disqualified. God, we hoped and prayed that it would. But the media fanned the flames of his existence and his supporters thought those flames to be true fire. They, overwhelmingly white and anxious over the browning of America swallow his words whole, blind to the fact that his rhetoric is as void of nourishment as it is virulent.
I’m not suggesting that I am with her. At least completely. She’s shady but she’s stable. What I am saying is that he has re-awakened the consciousness of white folks who feel that they are losing ground in this country that they do not have legitimate rights to. They ‘earned it’ by conquest, genocide, and war and that is the only way they imagine they can hold on to it. This is essentially at the root of the push to build the Dakota Access Pipeline and the way that those in power respond to the water protectors’ agency. And the irony around the rhetoric about Mexicans crossing the border undocumented when the border actually crossed them through violence and war! How they fight against Islam and LGBTQ and women and everyone who is not a cisgendered heterosexual white man! Reminds me of the oft quoted saying, “If you have a problem with everyone, maybe you’re the problem.”
The reality is that they are losing ground. Fast. They know it and are grasping to hold on to it by any means necessary. And this is what shakes me to my very core. As a spiritually sensitive person who is well versed in the Word of God and history itself, I see a change coming. But I suspect that change will not be good for people who look anything like us.
None of this is new to you. You survived the Great Depression, you lived through Jim Crow, and you witnessed the Civil Rights Movement – you know what they do to us when they fear loss of power and resources. You have witnessed with your own eyes the frequency of which we become the sacrificial lamb for this country’s sin, called to atone for that which continues to oppress and marginalize us.
And yet, you are also well acquainted with hope in spite of the permanence of this beast. For you, that hope was rooted in your faith in Jesus Christ and the promise of the Second Coming where He would come and make all things new. It is this same faith that you passed down to me and that centers me when I would rather cower in fear of the future. In spite of what I see in this present hour, I know that this system of dehumanization and destruction will not last forever because God will pull the veil down on this whole thing. In that moment, we will discover that racism is nothing more than a cowardly wizard hiding behind a twisted version of reality. And God will defeat that wizard, liberating all those who have been oppressed by its grasp.
How I wish we had more time. How I long to hear your stories and learn from your experiences. Although that time has escaped us for now, I know that I will one day have the opportunity to sit and hear from you again.
In heaven. I hear God is preparing you a home. And if I could guess, that home will be covered in velvety red carpet with matching pillows to boot. The windows will have the same Christmas wreath that you have held for years. You will have your patio overlooking your expansive backyard. When I come for a visit, you will offer me a soda just as you always do and I will turn it down, just as I always do since I haven’t drunk that diabetes inducing beverage in years. But I’ll take a slice or two of your wonderful sweet potato pie. Keep it cold because that’s the way I like it.
We’ll sit down at your kitchen table eating our pie. I’ll pull out my paper and pen so I can write down the stories as you tell them. This time I will be ready. I wouldn’t miss it for anything in the world.
Some glad morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To that home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away