I saw a spider once. I was 14, absently pushing the lawnmower forward across my front yard, and then I froze. A web hung only inches from my face, suspended between the spiked branches of a fir tree. And there it was–the spider. The size of a glass bead, it watched me with a dozen black eyes that dared me to step closer.
Pincers whirling as they wrapped the mummified remains of a now-silent mosquito, the spider showed no awkwardness as its legs flit along its geometric net. The strands caught the dim afternoon light and became silver, and in that moment I forgot ever learning that only giants-the big and strong-deserve mention. Here was a tiny spider holding court on a kingdom of thread, and its every movement resonated as a defiance of gravity.
It probably felt the drops before I did. They began in whispers, falling through the fog that thickened the air, making every breath more labored than before. A drop fell here and there, dampening my jeans in spotted patterns.
It lay in wait for several seconds. Then the rain pounced, bulleting my skin, water dragging my hair down in tangled wet ropes. I fought to keep my head up as the rain roared, the threat of thunder bristling within now glowering clouds. No light remained, and still I stood there, hovering over the spider.
Legs only flickers in the gloom, the spider darted in circles, spinning defenses into every line that tied the web to the tree. But there was no way to evade the drops, no way to diminish their weight, and with another roar the wind soon joined them. The web swung and shook as the wind hammered it, and through the slit of my eyes still open, I saw the spider center itself in the web and go still. The clouds sagged further and unloaded their wet wreckage upon us, muffling a teenager’s prayers for a spider’s survival.
I don’t remember what happened next. Maybe I returned to the warmth of my house and wrung out my wet clothes. Maybe I stayed longer. But I remember the spell of watching the spider, palms slick and grasped together as I waited in the dark to see if it would hold on.
A childhood of Animal Planet documentaries taught me that the world is treacherous. A sudden surge of rain can rip a creature’s home apart, ending lives in an instant. But pain, tragedy, can also be an insidious slow crawl. It starts with whispered hints of wetness, innocuous, soft, cleansing. Then it builds and builds, saturating the earth until it’s drowning and choking the air until finally all you see are walls of water crashing around you. And sometimes…it’s both at once. Sometimes it depends on who is the spider and who is the one watching.
That is how oppression works. It’s not one incident, one blatant display of violence. It’s in the murmurings about “those people,” the slipping away of black people from neighborhoods they once lived in for decades, the slow encroachment of hotels and chain restaurants on indigenous land. It’s in the measured accumulation of choices that prioritize the interests and livelihoods of the chosen groups over the less favored.
This is the hardest part for the privileged to grasp: the rain that parches their thirst and feeds their fields can be the threat of drowning for a spider.
Certain storms pass (hey we don’t have segregated bathrooms anymore!), but the additional danger rain presents is that it can oh so easily wipe away all the evidence of what happened before, giving us license to pretend that we don’t walk upon soiled ground.
We could pretend for years that we have progressed differently than we have, and that we have become all-enlightened in that span.
We have progressed. We have progressed from Mamies to the black nannys I see pushing strollers of white toddlers through Washington Square Park. We have progressed from plantations to prisons where black bodies outnumber white by a nearly 5 to 1 ratio. We have progressed from ni***rs to thugs as names to frame our undesirables. We have progressed from auction block sketches to our body parts partitioned and sold in the form of butt lifters and lip plumpers and tanning lotions. We have progressed from lynchings to black boys left bleeding out on streets because they still looked too threatening to be given the benefit of the doubt.
Rain is recycled, moving from pools and reservoirs to the well of mouths and then back to earth and returned to cloud. In a similar way, oppression (simply put: the unjust and often exploitative systematic treatment of a group of people for the benefit of another group) is recycled. It takes new forms, finds new ways to seep into the next generation, and it feels utterly normal…except to the ones who feel the wetness as a threat rather than a giver of life.
But here is where the analogy ends: unlike rain, the repetition of oppressive forces like racism is not natural. It is deeply unnatural as it is a distortion of the intimate community God designed us for. As a friend put it to me: It is “incompatible with the Gospel” many of consider our core truth, yet it is diffused into our everyday life because our world is imperfect. With each new history I learn, I realize how long and wearying this constant threat towards your personhood must be for the people who have lived to see the same patterns emerge in the next generation.
This is not to say that nothing has changed: I sit here typing as a black and Latina woman, educated with a Master’s degree, and I sit on buses with white neighbors and walk through the city most days after sundown. My sister is happily married to a white man who cherishes her; my brother is studying engineering. We are our ancestors’ great hope.
Yet this coexists with the reality that racism and its foundation in white supremacy very much persist in our country (and globally I might add). I may not fear sundown, but many with my skin color fear what will happen their children when hooded and playing after dark. I may have an advanced degree, but I have also been in schools in the South Bronx where too many black girls and boys sleep in a shelter or have a family member who is incarcerated. Interracial marriage is embraced far more easily now, but my darker-skinned sisters are still not approached as equally beautiful, equally desirable, and not defined solely in terms of their strength and stoicism and sass.
As a member of communities in my country that face these struggles, standing through a storm means I hold two truths in tandem and in tension:
- The first is that you stand on a home, the good things that have been crafted from the labors of those you came before you. They toiled for your benefit so you can live out their unrealized dreams, and opportunity is more available for you now than they could have ever imagined. There is hope wedded to that reality, that there is much for you to receive and then also so much more for you to give back so others can be lifted too.
- The second is that you stand under threat from the same forces of division and loss and death that your ancestors faced. It can be demoralizing and so, so tiring to feel unsafe within your skin and feel like you are crying out for an end to the injustice and few people around you are listening or are willing to stand by you. Whether you stay quiet or scream out, seeing the evidence that your people have been positioned as less valued in your country is a very real and daily hurt.
But there is this: there is also progression when you are in motion as the rain falls. Despair paralyzes our movement-and how tempting it can be-but when you have hope tethered to a truth outside of yourself, you will not crash to the ground. I believe I have found that hope in Jesus Christ, and the only reason I can challenge what is evil and wrong in this world is because he loves me and cares about all those things too–and definitely more than I am capable of.
Sometimes getting up each day with a prayer on your lips and your eyes open is an act of defiance. Sometimes watching the news, having a conversation with a friend, going to work the next day is an echo of resilience. Helplessness is an easy sinkhole when you are struck just how much pain is around you; I felt it many moments these past weeks as I watched the events in Charlottesville, in Texas unfold. It feels sometimes like I am doing the bare minimum by just waking up and mentioning these, but if the alternative is checking out entirely, then I choose to give what God enables me to give.
I want to end by affirming you, my sisters and brothers who are black, for weathering the storm–not because you are heroic or romantic or tragically noble, but because you are making choices each day to keep going.
I affirm you for choosing to get up each morning, even if you find yourself too heavy-hearted to walk out the door or too tired to watch the news again as you head to work.
I affirm you for teaching in schools where others might have have given up on the “bad kids” and fighting for those children.
I affirm you for building friendships outside of your race, for intentionally reaching out to build bridges even when it’s hard to share your stories or keep explaining how real racism is for you.
I affirm you for forgiving those who hurt you, even if they never understand why the impact of their actions looms larger than their individual selves.
I affirm you for creating hair products that embrace our God-given features and clothing that connects us to homelands we were taken from and homelands we migrated from.
I affirm you for studying our histories so you can shed light on what’s been hidden.
I affirm you for listening to your friends when they are depressed and angry–and for laughing with them and celebrating good times together.
I affirm you for challenging the powerful through your voices and essays and blog posts, for preaching resistance and lament and reconciliation to your communities when bitterness and separation would be so much more bearable.
I affirm you for hugging your kids and telling them they are precious.
I affirm you for cleaning our buildings and restaurants and parks and making at least a few spaces cleaner than what the world would abandon them to be.
I affirm you for staying on top of not only what’s in the world news, but also what’s happened down the street from you–for cherishing the local and making it matter.
I affirm you for celebrating the diversity of us, whether that be from the Caribbean or West and East Africa, or from distant parts of Europe and Asia, or a line of ancestors rooted in this very soil.
And I affirm you for resisting the rain and declaring: “This day it must end.” It may not stop with that charge, but neither will it dampen the ground where you take space and keep it dry.