Constants for the Wanderer, Current Events, Faith, Nonfiction, Parenting, Prayer, Race

Black Faith in a Time of White Supremacy.

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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.

5.

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.

6.

7.

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.

8.

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.

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Nonfiction, Pop Culture, Race

Let’s Talk More About Intercontinental Blackness.

Note: If this post seems dated, it is. I wrote it a couple weeks ago, but not for this space. I pitched it to another publication that ultimately opted to pass on it. It also isn’t written in a voice entirely consistent with my other work here, but that, too, is because I intended to publish it elsewhere. If it helps, some of the content in Smith and Adichie’s discussion has become quite relevant in the past two days, with the news of first-generation American of Ghanaian descent Kwasi Enin who was accepted to all eight Ivy League colleges. USA Today’s report on Enin’s accomplishment goes out of its way to include this quote from a college admissions expert: “He’s not a typical African American kid.” At any rate, I hope you’ll read and engage it. 

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Begin with the common ground. It will, at first, seem hard to find, hidden as it is by a thick underbrush of assumption — African immigrants in the U.S. are haughty; African Americans don’t respect themselves — and tangled as it is in the foliage of frustration — Africans come to America and distance themselves; black Americans distance themselves by not bothering to distinguish between African countries’ histories. Yes, the common ground will seem miniscule at first; we are all so invested in our distinct cultural identities, all so protective when discussion about them is broached. But if we are ever going to have candid conversations about our intercontinental experiences of blackness, we’ll need to begin at the borders we share.

Authors Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had this in mind on March 19 when they shared a stage at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Their conversation primarily centered on Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, which grapples with the differences in the ways American-born blacks and African immigrants perceive (and internalize) race and racism in America. Since its release last year, Americanah has gradually made more public the long-simmering tensions between many black Americans and people of color born and raised abroad.

This public discourse is long overdue. Never before have black intercultural experiences been so multifarious in America. Between 2000 and 2010, the African foreign-born population doubled in size, growing from 881,300 to 1.6 million. And the recent raised profile of black British actors in America has deepened our need for nuance. This was readily apparent at this year’s NAACP Image Awards when host Anthony Anderson spent much of his opening monologue making superficial differences between black American and black British actors a running joke. He couldn’t seem to let go of accents and “difficult-to-pronounce” names such as Idris Elba (who is of Sierra Leonean and Ghanaian descent), Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo (both of Nigerian descent) and Lupita Nyong’o (of Kenyan descent).

The show could have used its opening to build a transcontinental admiration society, encouraging us to look into some of the actors’ pre-Hollywood work or to note how many languages and accents they’ve had to learn to work in the U.S. film industry. But Anderson went for the shallowest observations, at a time when our need for nuance and depth couldn’t be more imperative. A few viewers balked at Anderson’s divisive jokes on Twitter, stating, “I really wish Anthony Anderson would quit the African vs. African American nonsense. It’s ignorant and unnecessary,” and “Black Twitter needs to handle whoever wrote Anthony Anderson’s opening monologue.” But Anderson’s lazy either/or quips are representative of larger incurious ideas about what black looks and sounds like in America and abroad — ideas that should be publicly challenged at every turn.

Challenging cultural assumptions seemed the order of the day, as Zadie Smith interviewed Adichie at the Schomburg — especially as Smith, herself of Jamaican and British descent, shared her perceptions of Nigerians and, at times, asked Adichie to confirm or debunk them. “Every Nigerian in London says they’re a prince, and we have no evidence otherwise,” Smith quipped. “There are maybe two princes in the whole damn country,” Adichie replied. They shared how the American use of “brother” and “sister” as racialized terms of endearment is foreign to them. “No black person in England would call me sister in a million years,” Smith noted, while Adichie said Nigerians do use “sister,” but it isn’t racialized.

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This kind of “We do this. Do you?” tone permeated the discussion — and some topics elicited responses that seemed aware of how close every word might draw them toward a conversational landmine. Both writers’ faces seemed to brighten when they unearthed a shared experience or custom. And where their ideas and perceptions diverged, they listened intently, set on reaching an understanding. To be sure, they both had very specific ideas about African Americans and about America’s approach to engaging racial discourse. “In America, there is a willful denial of history,” Adichie observed. Both agreed that whites in the U.S. find it difficult to understand the role of race, and Adichie further mused, “I keep thinking: how can white people not get it, if they know the history of America?”

It was a bit disorienting, as an African American woman, watching these black women born and raised abroad discuss the function and dysfunction of race in U.S. It always is. Race plays such a central (and fraught and psychological and emotional role) in my experience as an American that it’s fairly surreal listening to women of color discuss it with the distance of cultural anthropologists. That insularity can be a barrier to African Americans’ candor with black immigrants.

But there was no denying Zadie Smith’s and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s deep reverence for the black experience in this country. Smith, having seen a documentary with graphic depictions of public lynching, long before visiting the U.S., admitted to Adichie, “The first time I came to America, I couldn’t believe the streets weren’t burning.” Adichie also acknowledged, “The ethnic group I most admire in America is African Americans.” It was as important for me to hear their affirmation of my racial history and experience here as it was for me to listen to their own experiences of blackness in the U.K. and Nigeria.

In truth, there is more at stake in African immigrants’ and African Americans’ conversations with one another than in our interactions with whites in the U.S. Often, whites in America view the experience of blackness as a flat plain, regardless of complexion or nationality; here, stereotypes are primarily assigned by skin color, not country of birth or rearing. In the context of white supremacy, blackness is associated with primativism, regardless of where the black experience is lived. Even when this isn’t overtly expressed and even when, as in Smith’s and Adichie’s cases, black immigrants are considered “good black” because they aren’t African American, they still are not insulated from racism here.

This is where we find our largest plot of common ground. In America, racism visits us all. The currents our ancestors have crossed, even when traveling toward destinations that couldn’t be more far-flung from one another suggest that we stand a strong chance of forging crosscultural bonds. But doing so will mean tossing away the chaff of a loaded question’s intimations before answering it. , Adichie did this at the Schomberg when an audience member asked her to speak directly to her impressions of African-African American relations in the U.S. She ventured gingerly, “We’re trying to forge the bonds between Africans and African Americans, not crack them,” and stuck with a short answer. Keeping our tenuous bonds from cracking will also mean treading lightly along those borders we do share; the most innocuous misstep can derail our bridge-building efforts. It will mean holding some hearsay in reserve; not every rumor about another culture bears repeating. And we must refrain, no matter how tempting, from taking new acquaintances to task for past slights we’ve borne at the hands of their countrymen.

When we begin to pull up the overgrowth of our cultural misconceptions, we find that there is nothing flat about this plain. It is mountainous and nourishing and fertile. We come bearing our different kernels of truth, and it is only when we openly share them that our common ground can widen and our intercultural understanding can grow.

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