Black Faith in a Time of White Supremacy.


When the mothers of the church got to casting out demons, they’d set their massive weathered bibles in our tiny laps and tell us, “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the Word.” And we wouldn’t. We’d clutch those King Jameses in our trembling hands and we’d wait out the after-service exorcisms.

We were children of parents who spoke in other tongues, danced themselves to ecstasy, prayed themselves apoplectic. The adults addressed the devil directly sometimes, told him he couldn’t steal their joy, demanded back the years he had stolen, the relationships he’d severed, the health he’d destroyed.

They told us we were waging a war unseen. We’d best be prayed up and gird ourselves against principalities and powers, spiritual wickedness in high places, miscellaneous, but terrifying minions from hell.

We believed them.


I talked to a friend from that childhood church a few years ago, one whose parents, like mine, were on leadership staff there. That one of mutual friends had died suddenly, young and wed and parenting, still zealous about his own faith, was the reason we’d gotten in touch at all. We were trying to make sense of it.

I was thinking of how late we would stay after service as kids, waiting for our parents in the semi-darkened sanctuary, security volunteers posted, yawning, at the entrance and exit doors, all but the most fervent among them, longing to head on home.

“Do you ever think about how we were raised, how different it was?”

I was asking as if gazing back at something we’d survived. I was asking as a woman who considers herself logical and rational now, but who also still hopes for heaven and shivers at the thought of hell.

I wondered if he remembered the bibles in our laps, the prayer warriors and their wrinkled hands, all those conversations about demons conspiring to lure us away from our Lord.

He was calm when he answered. “All I know is that without being raised that way, I’d be dead or crazy now.”

My grip on the phone loosened. He didn’t say any more. But the weight of a dozen secret, sidestepped disasters walled themselves high behind his words. I couldn’t push back, even if part of me wanted to.

I believed him.


We welcomed the white folks in. And over the years, they came. Some poor and some polished, they came. We broke bread with them. We prayed for them. Aware of what we guessed might be their discomfort with our traditions, our language, our liturgy, we sometimes went out of our way to assuage their unease. We laughed alongside them. Thought nothing of it.

They rarely stayed.


I needed time away from church because it began to feel too much like a house of superstition than a respite reserved for communal worship. I did not want the strength of my faith to be predicated on the material blessings I stood to gain by believing. I just wanted to believe. Even when babies were killed by those closest to them. Even if those professing to share the same faith as mine committed unspeakable acts of violence. Even if I never earned more than I did at my poorest. I didn’t want to think that by tithing or praying I was somehow more insulated from harm than my neighbor, that my church attendance or my own unfocused stabs at righteousness would protect me from worst of life’s fates.

John the Baptist was beheaded. Four girls burned. As have countless crosses. Myles Munroe and his wife died unexpectedly in a plane crash, on their way to work for their ministry. Our Christian friends and relatives contract diseases from which they die as often as they are healed. We are not all spared. And what good is our belief if it can be shaken when God doesn’t step in to prevent the calamities we don’t think we deserve? What good is our faith if we base it on the dollar value of the bills we place in an offering bucket or on uttering a certain combination of words during prayer? What makes any of us think we will never have to stare down unimaginable despair, simply because we’re devout?

I needed a God who felt all the more real when the world was at its worst. And to test that He was the one I had vowed all these years to serve, I thought I had to get away from all the other Christians who sought to define Him for me. I had to interrogate what I questioned, what I doubted, what rang false, even after a series of itinerant preachers echoed it during revival.

There comes a time when faith can no longer be absorbed secondhand. Wheat — what you alone are certain you believe — and tare — what you’ve been taught but have never bothered to question — must finally part ways. And the voice that exits your body in prayer must be clearly recognizable as your own. It cannot mimic your mother’s or be tinged with the sweetness of Grandma’s clichés.

This is your life. You alone will answer for it. And the only voice you’ll be able to access then will be your own.

I wandered a while on a long stretch of road, the light on its path possibly dim at turns. It took entire years. I left markers along the dirt, not entirely sure I wouldn’t find myself returning to them.


My meandering days were numbered when I had a child. It was clear to me as she ripped her way out and the nurse rested her in my arms: this girl was not the work of her father and I alone. She had not gotten here by sheer force of my bodily effort. She was not a result of mere biological function and, because of this, part of her would always be unknowable to me. I’d need help then, to reach that part of her. I’d need a mediator whose presence among us was also not the mere work of mortal hands.

The church friends I made as a child are still, by and large, still fervent about church and faith. Even the ones I wouldn’t have guessed would be. Most of them are parents. They are raising their children the way we were raised. They are doing this because it works. If they, having ventured away from our sacred, if cloistered, community, and having seen and survived the darkest days they’d known, and having found themselves right back in the house of God , alive and there to tell, then so would their children. Most of them.

This is reason enough to return. This, and days like this one, when the words to explain how this happened, where and when it happened, could not possibly come without divine intervention.



Before the massacre at “Mother” Emanuel in Charleston, SC, I had been inching ever closer to God. He came at church on Sunday, when the pastor told us, “You have to cope before you can conquer,” and later asked us to turn to our neighbors and declare, “I am raising my faith to the level of my fight.” He came though a long conversation with a friend that night. We prayed for one another. No. More accurately, he prayed for me and I stammered a few well-intentioned words in return. But he told me that God did not feel the same way about my faith as I did. He didn’t see it as feeble, flagging, inadequate. He didn’t consider it something I was “struggling with.” I am not a case study in what it means to falter. My faith has been sufficient, even when it’s seemed small, even when I’ve had a hard time voicing it. It’s been sufficient because I wouldn’t let it go. It’s a seed and, as such, it retains its ability to grow.

When we doubt, the friends who believe alongside us are often the light that keep us drawing nigh, lest we float away. We hold onto them when horror rushes in. We remind them, “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the Word.” In that moment, they are the Word in motion. And if we must die, for welcoming the troubled white supremacist 21-year-old whose boyish face looks as innocent as the brain behind it is wicked, if we must die for praying alongside him, if we must continue waging a war as unfathomable as it is unseen, there is no one better to be with in the end, than the people who kept us feeling closest to God when we felt farthest away.

There is no greater lesson to be gained for believers than to keep believing, right next to those with whom and for whom you would not mind dying. We are what we need most, now and ever.


Yesterday, I sang a worship song. I haven’t done that, unprompted, in a while and I’ve never recorded myself singing one. I am glad to have that moment now, when freedom feels like such an improbable farce.

I echoed the words of a popular tune, one that the congregation had crooned in church on Sunday. I sang that I’d withhold nothing. I meant it and cried as I often do when I sing a prayerful song and every fetter falls and I feel — however fleetingly — free.

I sang it twice.

Hours later, nine other people who likely knew and sang that song and whose hearts promised the same, lay dead just feet from their church’s altar.

Here, Lord, is my desperation.

Here, Lord, lay my anger.

Here is the love I hope won’t not kill me.

Here, my longing for retribution.

Here, the depth of my unforgiveness.

Here, my hopes for their souls’ safe passage.

Here, my desire to see them again, in a life beyond this often terrifying one.

Here, every doubt I have about what was and what is, and what’s still to come.

I deny You nothing.

Under the Awnings of Powerful White Men: Thoughts on Amma Asante’s ‘Belle.’

Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay in 'Belle.'
Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay in ‘Belle.’

“I show up on TV because I have the cover of a powerful white man.” – Melissa Harris-Perry, The New School, Black Female Voices series, November 9, 2013

True favor isn’t often courted. It is bestowed by condition or order of birth; it stems from long observation, from arbitrary affinity. It is built from the bestower’s personal ordination or, just as likely, from sheer auspice.

If you have to curry it, the favor will be fleeting. If you must work hard to retain it, you will find yourself in a position most precarious: the circle within which you mingle has an imperceptible crack, and you will be all too aware that you are one quip from slipping through it.

In Amma Asante’s gorgeous film, Belle, Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay is a favored niece of William Murray, Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Dido was also biracial, her father a navy admiral who left her in Murray’s care, following her enslaved mother’s death in the 1760s.

The film explores this central conceit — that it is favor which saves Dido from a life of enslavement, favor that elevates her above conditions of servitude within the Murray manse. Belle makes a point of asserting that the only reason Dido is left with the Murrays is because of her father’s blood. Much is made of her legal right to residence in the household. But we know what tenuous claims (if any) white blood afforded blacks during the 18th century. If biracial children were to be free at all, it was solely at their white parent’s behest.

Favor, then, was as much a requisite for freedom as moral, legal or genetic imperative.

When Belle arrives at the house as a girl, her first exchange with Murray establishes that he finds her “clever.” They are looking at paintings of their family in the halls of his vast estate (paintings which will be a recurring theme, as the film is based on a real rendering of Dido and her white cousin, Elizabeth, with whom she was raised). In fact, Dido’s cleverness is noted by all the white men she meets.

Tom Wilkinson plays Dido's great-uncle, William Murray, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.
Tom Wilkinson plays Dido’s great-uncle, William Murray, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

In the Austen tradition after which Belle seems patterned,  a woman’s cleverness is a commodity. It aids within a larger social system meant to undermine and underestimate women. In tales like these, men are always a bit surprised when women are clever. We can tell the good fathers and brothers and suitors from the despicable ones when they do not scoff at or feel threatened by a woman’s quick wit, talent or intellect.

Dido has three such good men near her. First her father, who’s only seen briefly, plucking her from the slums and insisting she is loved. He is so effusive in favoring her, it’s tempting for viewers to doubt him. Instead, his adoring tone sets up what will come for Dido: a charmed life in which her uncle and an eventual abolitionist suitor, John Davinier, both protect and praise her with the same fervor.

Sam Reid plays one of Belle's suitors, John Davinier.
Sam Reid plays one of Belle’s suitors, John Davinier.

I loved Belle. I loved its delicate treatment of race. We aren’t often offered portraits of 18th century life for blacks who aren’t enslaved. We aren’t often offered an onscreen reprieve from the brutality marking the era.

But this gentility is also troublesome. Dido is sheltered enough that she is unaware of the slave ship insurance case her uncle in the process of deciding until Mr. Davinier tells her. She has to plead with him to do so.

Unlike her uncle, Mr. Davinier expects Dido to be more “in touch with her blackness,” more vocal about it and less concerned with the frivolities of upper class life. (That expectation is compounded by his initial resentment that Dido’s station of birth is higher than his own.)

Meeting Mr. Davinier does, in fact, lead to a racial awakening. We know that Dido has never felt fully integrated into the Murray household; she’s required to dine alone and only invited to certain functions. She is fully aware that it’s because she’s biracial, but she also expects a change in station. She is surprised when she is not permitted to court as openly as her white cousin does. She is surprised whenever inequity presents itself at home.

One gets the sense that, if Mr. Davinier had not arrived to provide Dido with broader racial context, she simply would not have had it. (Here, it’s worth noting that — at least for part of the film — there is one other black woman present: a free black maid named Mabel, whose only lines in the film are offering to help Dido comb her hair and protecting Dido from being caught sneaking out. If the two women had been permitted more screen time or a single private conversation, we likely would have had the film’s only Bechdel Test-passing scenes, and Dido’s context for race would not have been confined to such narrow white gazes.)

Bethan Mary-James is Mabel.
Bethan Mary-James is Mabel.

Aside from Victorian fantasy, Belle is also part cautionary tale. It warns us against a race-blind approach to transracial adoption. There is no sheltering black children from the atrocities they may face beyond the gates of an all-white household. And it’s foolhardy for both parent and child not to anticipate how large race will loom in a black child’s life — even when that child is favored.

Late in the film, William Murray asks Dido just exactly what it is she wants. He is resigned and weary, convinced he’s given her everything he possibly could. He’s right. He has. But providing her a personal insulation from racism hasn’t been enough.

Earlier this year, Melissa Harris-Perry found herself in trouble with transracial adoptive parents for hosting a segment that featured a photograph of Mitt Romney’s adopted black grandchild. A panelist quipped, “One of these things is not like the others” and Harris-Perry chuckled knowingly at the truth of it. Kieran Romney will be raised in an all-white household in conditions of great wealth, but he will not experience life like the rest of his family.

Perhaps it is easier to make that point in a 90-minute film than in a 5-minute TV segment. But here it is: the favor of powerful white men does not shield black children from the blight of racism, neither does “white blood” when it courses under black skin.

It’s a lesson every child of color living under the awnings of powerful white families must learn. Even within their crystalline castles, life for us won’t be no crystal stair.

When a (Comparatively) Carefree Blackgirl Wins An Oscar.


This is a story of an elegance carefully cultivated. This is no sudden ascendancy to delicate silks and bold brocades, no tale of a girl plucked from obscurity or hardship, conferred the brass ring of Tinseltown by princely powers-that-be. It is, instead, a story of privilege, of justice. It is what happens when a Kenyan senator entrusts his daughter’s post-secondary education to The Yale School of Drama, rather than insisting she study medicine or law or finance. And these — the highest accolades in the field — are what’s expected when such a daughter is daring enough to pursue a life in pictures, within a family of professors, physicians, and politicians.

This is not a reality as well known to American black girls with silver screen ambitions. We watch our stateside actresses languish in Hollywood for decades, delivering pounds of flesh just for bit parts: girlfriends in black films and girlfriends in white films and staid, put-upon wives in comedies, action films, biopics. And yes, even now, the occasional brave domestic, even now, the harrowingly tortured slave. We see them shed their apple-cheeked innocence all too quickly, becoming more vocal and more cynical about the dearth of complex and meaty work for them to do as they age.

Our ingenues rarely win Oscars. It is our seasoned comediennes, sassing their way through lines like, “Molly, you in danger, girl!” or throwing frying pans at their pregnant daughters, who take home the gold. It is the reality star who belts a gut-wrenching beggarly torch song to a man already walking away or the naked grieving mother sexing the guard who executed her husband, the round, battered, quick-witted maid who bakes her own excrement into pies. They are the ones who win. And we are proud of their achievements. We take everything we get, and we are glad for, if critical of, it.

We know how hard those actresses had to work to get it, know how many low-budget straight-to-DVD flicks they made to keep themselves visible, how many blond wigs and gold teeth and fishnets they had to don and exactly how much of their bodies they had to bare — just for the opportunity to be seen. We suffered through Whoopi encouraging her ex to appear in blackface. We accept not just the existence, but the five-year run of The Parkers. And we swallow the painful realization that though many a role easily procured by a Paltrow, a Portman, or a Witherspoon could be played, if not better, certainly just as well, by an actress of color, the film would not likely be attended by as large an audience.

Because this our sisters’ lot in all of the American workforce. We are offered little, we earn less, we hustle harder and stress more — all in response to the idea that our appearance and ideas and work are not as marketable as a white colleague’s would be. Why should Hollywood be different?


We are gathering our awe and placing it like so much frankincense and myrrh at the feet of Lupita in direct response to this resignation. This awards season she has become the boilerplate of every blackgirl dream deferred, and it is understandable. Her skin, a brown so rich and deep it seems to welcome the seeding of our hopes and the promise of harvest, is politicized (and romanticized) because such things are inevitable in any country where skin color can ignite or exempt citizens of resentment or responsibility. Nyong’o herself speaks to the significance of women who look like her ascending in high-visibility markets. She cites Alek Wek and any number of American black actresses as her own self-image inspirations. And she is similarly self-aware of what it means to be a literal projection of an audience’s desires, history, and needs.

But the story of Nyong’o’s near-instant entree to the A-list is uniquely her own. She stars in an elegant, brutal British film about American slavery, deeply connecting with part of the diasporic experience that is foreign to her family in ways it is not to the American black’s. And she graciously accepts a well-deserved Oscar for that portrayal without having to carry the full weight of the awards’ contentious racial history.

If she hears any naysaying speculation, any claims that she “only” got the Oscar for playing a slave or that the win isn’t one the black community can fully claim because she “isn’t ‘black’ enough,” the criticism will not dampen the moment, will not force her to interrogate her joy to the degree that it would for an American black actress.

She is not saddled with centuries of diminishing returns. Accordingly, Lupita is a carefree black girl par excellence — and we have yet to see what the career of a black actress this successful with just one feature-length role under her belt, and this comparatively unburdened by Hollywood’s racist legacy, looks like. (Consider other recent black American actress nominees with one role their belts — Quevenzhane Wallis and Gabourey Sidibe — and how their reception in Hollywood and media compares to Lupita Nyong’o’s. Neither swanned through her awards season unscathed by racist, appearance-policing coverage — and Sidibe is still the subject of think pieces that actually use their headlines to implore that the public treat her with more respect.)

It is this lack of similar encumbrance — perhaps above all else — that excites me so about Nyong’o. We have yet to see what happens when a privileged black woman begins her acting career with Ivy League theatre pedigree, unchallenged fashion icon status, and an Oscar for her very first role.

It would be easiest to succumb to the skepticism I’ve been keeping at bay. I know America; it’s my homeland. It is not Nyong’o’s. I’d imagine — and I could well be wrong — that she is coming into Hollywood with the un-self-conscious approach to race that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah heroine Ifemelu (and indeed, Adichie herself) have brought with them to this country.  Adichie was famously quoted last year as saying that American blackness did not initially occur to or appeal to her:

In Nigeria I didn’t think of myself as black. I didn’t need to. And I still don’t when I’m in Nigeria. Race doesn’t occur to me. Many other things occur to me. But in the United States, yes…. Also, race is something that one has to learn. I had to learn what it meant to be black…. If you’re coming from Nigeria, you have no idea what’s going on. When I came to the United States, I hadn’t stayed very long, but I already knew that to be “black” was not a good thing in America, and so I didn’t want to be “black.”

While I don’t get the impression that Nyong’o, having spent the last two years of her life immersing herself in study and portrayal of the American slave experience, would hold the same perception of American blackness as Adichie initially did, it is safe to say she can still hold herself aloft from it. For her, blackness, in a context of white American oppression, is a role. It is not intrinsic to her identity. She will play plenty of other roles, but she will not feel “relegated” to stereotypical portrayals in quite the way that American black actresses do.

I already know what Hollywood will try to make her. I know the gradations of blackness they will implore her to learn. But I do not know how she will resist. I do not know what she herself will teach. But she is entering the field with just enough privilege and confidence to inspire my hope that she will do just that: instruct rather than simply accept — and learn from black actresses (rather than white directors) how best to navigate this space.

Watch with me. And just you wait.

To Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Re: The Burning of Sharmeka Moffitt.

Revision: Like many who’ve attempted swift and supportive responses to the news of Sharmeka Moffitt’s burning, I took her at her word and wrote with the assumption that she’d been attacked. Frankly, the police investigators’ conclusion that the alleged attack was likely fabricated does little to change many of the views expressed in this essay: black lives are undervalued. And the fact that racism is still so overt and prevalent in Louisiana and surrounding Southern states made such a fabrication quite plausible. We may find that Moffitt suffers from mental illness (it would difficult to believe she’d immolate herself under any other circumstances), and we may never know what motivated her actions. Perhaps those motives are no longer our business. I hope she receives the treatment she may need, but more, I hope that her experience isn’t held up as rule that disproves the existence of racial animus, rather than the rare exception where it was not a factor or cause.

Immediately after the awful barbarism which disgraced the State of Georgia in April of last year, during which time more than a dozen colored people were put to death with unspeakable barbarity, I published a full report showing that Sam Hose, who was burned to death during that time, never committed a criminal assault, and that he killed his employer in self-defense.

Since that time I have been engaged on a work not yet finished, which I interrupt now to tell the story of the mob in New Orleans, which, despising all law, roamed the streets day and night, searching for colored men and women, whom they beat, shot and killed at will. […] We do not believe that the American people who have encouraged such scenes by their indifference will read unmoved these accounts of brutality, injustice and oppression. We do not believe that the moral conscience of the nation — that which is highest and best among us — will always remain silent in face of such outrages, for God is not dead, and His Spirit is not entirely driven from men’s hearts.

— Ida B. Wells, Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and his Fight to the Death, 1900

Authorities say Sharmeka Moffitt, 20, called 911 from Civitan Park about 8 p.m. Sunday after she was allegedly attacked and burned by three men wearing white hoodies while she was on the walking trail in the southern end of the park.

The girl lives, burned. She is in critical condition, the flesh of her arms, her chest, one leg: wet and raw and unrecognizable. This is literal: the burn unit, the stench of singed skin and its tenderness.  But I imagine her consumed by a different fire: yours, an ancestral blaze, a blood memory she could hear whispering its recollections: they came for us on foot. They still come for us.

The girl is twenty. She was not old enough to vote in the last election. She has come of age in the era of Obama; they are selling her generation a fraudulent bill of goods, goading them into renouncing racism’s existence, forcing them to admit how much better they have it than you did. We are ever reminded of what we are now permitted to pursue. The you should be thanking us is still implied.

You and the girl are more than a century removed from one another. But in Louisiana, it is likely she has known the mob violence you risked yourself to expose. Segregation, for her, is not a construct flattened into outdated history texts. In her state and those surrounding, high schools are still struggling to house all their students’ races under one roof for senior proms; judges can still deny interracial couples marriage licenses; and Ole Miss is just electing its first black homecoming queen. In 2012.

I would hope she understands, as you did, that progress is amorphous. It is not a steady climb. And the success of one person of color does not ensure protection for all–even if that success comes in the package of a presidency.

I believe you were with her that Sunday night. You were on the path, as the three men approached, observing, as you so often must, the outcomes of your handiwork. You must have been telling her to hold her ground, to breathe and leave enough air in her lungs to call the police: You must make them see you; these days, their eyes, if not their hearts, are duty-bound.

If it was not you with her that night, it may have been one of the many whose stories you reported. It may’ve been Sam Hose himself–or the detective, Louis Le Vin, who thoroughly investigated his death, before saying, “I made my way home thoroughly convinced that a Negro’s life is a very cheap thing in Georgia.”

Much has changed, Ms. Wells-Barnett, but the value this country places on the Negro’s life has not. Blood still runs in streams along our streets, still stains the backseats of police cruisers, still splatters our suburban sidewalks. And the outrage, if it surges at all, is fleeting and underreported. It is easier to claim we are exaggerating, that these instances are the isolated exceptions to a post-racial rule, that this latest burning is an act of barbarism, the likes of which the country has seldom seen. We pretend that black women have always been safe walking paths, that crime scenes rife with obvious evidence need days and weeks of speculation before the heinous acts committed there can be labeled as hate crimes.

It is tempting to pretend. We long for a world where all that are left to fight are dusty institutions who still grapple with the idea of affirmative action or actors and comedians who doggedly insist on appropriating  blackface and racial slurs to enliven their flagging careers. Would that these were our biggest challenges!

Then we could say with certainty that your work was done.

But some of us still toss in the night, thrashing until our bedsheets become  our restraints. For us, it is impossible to feel free when our people are still being dragged and burned and shot unarmed. Our gains, however considerable, in politics, in media, at homecoming dances, do not serve to lessen the degree of Sharmeka Moffitt’s burns, do not act as a sufficient salve for our people’s suffering.

Like you, we cannot rest. We will not. We open our eyes. We publish the stories. We distribute them, even when they are met with squirming discomfort or outright denial. This is your legacy. This is the world you’ve left us: burning, but still alive.

Answer the Wind: Notes on the Democratic National Convention


In this country, some woods still howl; I’ve heard them. You need only venture South, to a city where the work of Ida B. Wells still looms large in the hearts of so many haunted families. Stand in the ruddy dirt of a clearing, let the fire ants seep between the straps of your sandals and nip your skin, wait for the trees to bear witness. Someone died there.

It’s a safe assumption that, as the white man who killed him kicked free the wood slab that had staved off the noose, the vision quickly dimming in that dying man’s eyes was not of a diverse and well-heeled audience, promising him that everything he wanted for his children would come to pass. It was not of Latino twins from Texas whose mother’s work as a domestic cleared their path to plush seats in Southern politics. It was not of a brother-governor openly voicing his displeasure with his white predecessor without the threat of violent consequence. And it was certainly not of a black president, his brilliant Chicago-bred wife, and their two elegant, well-educated girls who speak of fear, not through the life-or-death lens of racial animus, but only as it relates to the demise of their healthy home life.

No, what was far more likely flickering before the eyes of the man — swinging, gagging, slackening in the clearing where you can still hear his howls –was a cluster of sneering faces: eyes absent apology, their drunken drawls rising loudly in the whorls of their oil-torch embers: “There goes one less nigger with his hand out, one less mouth we’ve got to pay to support, one less mind that dares to dream beyond its station. We are one step closer to getting our country back. We own this.”

Depending on the decade of his death, he may have left this world without much expectation that this crime against him would someday be avenged or that there’d ever be a day when this kind of existence became abnormal for men who looked like him. He would’ve hoped, but not hard enough to envision so many faces similar to his own in positions of congressional power, not high enough to hear the voice of a remarkably accomplished woman extolling a black family’s hard work and high debt as virtues and vices capable of yielding them not just their own plot of land, but the highest office in the land.

As he hung there dying, here are the ideas that would’ve been easier for him to apprehend: a digital effigy of the first black first lady’s face superimposed on a topless slave’s body; the existence and froth-mouthed intensity of the Tea Party; the willful ignorance of Birthers; a presidential candidate so entitled and unwilling to relate to the people he hopes to govern that he and his staunchest supporters consider themselves benevolent when they offer to relieve us of our hardearned rights.

If ever you find yourself in those woods that howl, answer the wind. Tell all the voices of our restless ancestries that, though our generation remains far more similar to theirs than we’d hoped, we exist in a realm far beyond any they could imagine. Race still matters so much more than it should — and, on occasion, in ways that can still get you killed. But we are freer than we were, we understand that we are not free enough, and today, we have so many more means to defend our liberty on the countless occasions when it’s challenged. Assure them that when they see us rejoicing it is not because their sacrifices have been absorbed and gradually forgotten. There will always be those among us who volunteer to tote the barge of history and remind others of the vast indignities for which we have yet to atone. We rejoice because we have the wisdom to know that the power to affect real change — however fleeting or illusory or jeopardized — is still possible for people like us to wield. Tell them, come November, when we cast our unsuppressed votes, it is their hearts we’ll be holding in our hands.

Bunkers: A Meditation on Post-Obama Parenting.

The president’s daughters look like you.

Malia, the oldest, is remarkably tall for a thirteen-year-old. She’s reserved and is said to have her father’s measured, pensive temperament. Perhaps as a rite into adolescence, she has taken to wearing silk blouses with built-in neckties, like a miniature executive. The youngest, Sasha, has been called the firebrand. Her smiles are grander, freer. Candid photographs of her suggest that she’s not above giving her father last minute tips on his stump speeches and the occasional State of the Union address. They attend school in a city with one of the most embattled, economically depressed systems in the country.

But, as students at one of the capitol area’s most prestigious private institutions, they will never be touched by that affliction.

Should their father win a second term, they will be nearly-grown women when you are six. One will have selected a college–painstakingly and likely with attention to public opinion. The other will be visiting drought-stricken villages and delivering assembly speeches at foreign academies and orphanages where the children’s faces—but not their experiences—seem familiar to her.

Like their mother, both will be conducting this business in couture fashion.

Their second term will find them at the fore more often than this first. As they grow, their doings will become increasingly difficult to keep hidden from our collective gaze.

In this way, you will be fortunate. You will spend your formative years observing two prominent black girls become prominent black women, observing two prominent black parents govern our country. You have a fleeting vantage, one to which no generation before yours has been privy and, if the nation’s reception of this family is any indication, one that is unlikely to be granted to our immediate successors.

And here is where it becomes critical for me to adjust your lens.

Since, at six, you won’t fully grasp the import of what you’re witnessing, it will be left to me to interpret the times. And the times are, above all, perilous.

Concurrent with the ascendancy of the first black first family, the country has entered a regressive twilight. The hellhounds we thought we’d outrun–hooded menaces turning our loved ones from rib and rising lung to conjecture and corpse; the Great Blue Shield with its selective sight and hearing, with its billy clubs and snarling dogs, its hoses; the branding and the lash—have circled back, baring the fangs that the progress of polite society had been keeping muzzled.

No one’s holding back anymore. The lip service paid to past injustice is reduced to little more than a murmur. The governmental apologies for the African blood soaked into this country’s crop-bearing soil: for the thousands of charred, swinging bodies, for centuries of suppressing literacy, wage-earning, the vote, have all but ceased. And the so-called corrective measures that policymakers swore were being implemented to “level the playing field” are constantly circumvented.

Regardless of era, we’re used to broken promises, to freedoms dangled then yanked out of view. In fact, in more recent decades, this is the type of racism to which we’ve grown most accustomed, this covert, institutional variety that’s so easy to pretend away. We are all too acquainted with accusations of hypersensitivity, of an unwillingness to relinquish the phantom limbs of our past. We are told we are making things up. We are told that we should be grateful for our biracial president and his gorgeous Afrocentric wife—both of whom were educated in institutions that once would’ve barred them (“Just look how far you’ve come!”)—and for their daughters with their natural hairstyles, their crosscontinental jaunts and their Sidwell Friends pedigree.

As a result, my generation is used to swallowing the bulk of its protest. Before Obama, there was, after all, no refuting the gains of society’s gradual progress. Hate crimes were still occurring, but our culture had the good sense to at least pretend a unified moral outrage and a class-based or regional distance: surely, the perpetrators were deep Southern caricatures whose slurs were in no way representative of a whole.

Things felt safer then, with everyone feigning progressive attitudes, and easier, with no one believing those attitudes would be put to the most improbable litmus test of all: a black presidency.

Now, I feel like I’m raising you amid steaming rubble and broken mirrors. Every time some newly emboldened racist verbally attacks a little black girl, I resist the urge to build us a bunker and go underground until I’m able to build us a second skin thick enough to combat all this toxicity. This is not the world to which I’d grown cautiously less guarded and grudgingly accustomed. This is an unfamiliar place, where people are so unabashed in their hatred for women who look like us that they’re using the First Lady and her children as proxies for their vitriol.

You are twenty months old and I am already so exhausted. Outrage is costly. But so is apathy. Neither will equip you with what you need to thrive in a world where people feel this way about you.

What will help you is love.

At the library, there is a children’s room where a dish runs away with a spoon on its low walls and sunlight flooding in on a cushioned rocking chair. In one corner, there are buckets of toys. The last time we went, a father sat in the rocking chair, reading with his eldest daughter while the younger–just a few months older than you–played in the toy bucket corner. When you sauntered up to her, she shared her toy with you and you chatted her up in that indecipherable way you do almost everyone. Her father smiled politely as I sat with the two of you, and though I bristled, hoping he wasn’t regarding me with suspicion, I smiled without reservation at the abandon with which you cheered whenever she pushed a plastic shape into the right space in the sorter.

At the church we’ve been visiting, where we are two of six black attendees, you toddle indiscriminately into every set of arms that opens to you—and there are many. You let them lift you and feed you treats and hug you close, and there, in the sanctuary of their guilelessness, I get a weekly respite from cynicism.

Perhaps, dear child, these are our bunkers.