storm progression 

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.

 

the sisyphus prayer

“A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.”  Albert Camus

Last night I committed an act of resistance: I allowed myself to feel.

When the hashtags announcing the death of another person of color cease as a trend and become a weekly inevitability, numbness feels like less of a choice and more of a mode of survival. I keep scrolling through my Facebook dash. I avert my eyes from the TV screen. I quiet the clamor of the world with headphones and absorb myself in little happenings that don’t cause my heart to crack.

Then the guilt creeps in. There are others marching, calling government offices, writing, speaking, weeping. This knowledge clings to the edges of my consciousness, much as I resist it at work, at home. The questions persist: Is my silence just another tether for injustice to continue, unchallenged? Should I be doing something? What does it mean that my eyes are dry? 

You’d think that as a social worker, I would understand how trauma works. You’d think I’d be able to point out the symptoms of heartache, the comfort found in desensitizing yourself to it, the body’s reflexes in warding off pain once it threatens to engulf you. Yet it wasn’t until last night when I read the story of Jayson Negron, a 15-year-old boy recently shot and killed by a police officer in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that I realized just how much the constant exposure to racial violence shapes my daily walk in the world.

Under the label of racial violence, I file the black and Latinx persons wrongfully incarcerated, the black sisters and brothers murdered because their bodies are threatening. I catalogue the black kids sent home for having wild hair and tackled for acting out and “being bad.” I index the times a black woman has been exoticized and silenced and dismissed for being too angry. I codify the times a black man has softened the serrations of his anger to navigate the workplace and move up and out. I trace the long line of comments on social media that blame people of color for causing more division and being racist against white people. I find the gaps between files where we are missing; we are too few in the police force, the Senate seats, the boss chairs.

I archive slavery and Jim Crow and urban poverty as well as imperialism and Operation Wetback and xenophobic-ridden ICE raids. Being multi-ethnic means you face oppression on multiple sides.

The sheer amount of data pointing to the existence of racism in my country filters through every outlet connected to my day-to-day life. Maybe once I would have missed it, but now that I am waking to it, I see the shades of it everywhere. It’s a second loss of innocence that many people of color experience at a much earlier age, this realization that the society you were born into was not structured for your flourishing. Hard work and individual effort aside, a black person can do all the “right” things and still end up dead on the street for simply being black. That is the privilege we lack.

I don’t even sense my mind hammering in walls for itself when I’m bombarded by the evidence of this marginalization. I waver between feeling too much and feeling nothing, yet I still blame myself for not fighting back enough. I resist calling myself a victim because I feel like I haven’t lost much–I’m a lighter-skinned, educated woman from an upper-middle class background. Then another police killing happens, and I’m back to figuring out why my gut is twisting inside me.

There is a psychological and spiritual cost in being exposed to examples of racism around you. I use the passive verb “being” intentionally because I do not always choose to hear about these stories–they are often thrown at me and then I have to fly or fight. Even if I don’t experience the situations personally, the racial subtext reinforces the danger, the vulnerability my blackness carries. And because the roots of this positionality are entrenched in histories white people can choose to gloss over or dilute, there is the very great possibility that if I voice my frustration and grief, I will encounter silence rather than open arms.

The Church does not speak to this type of collective trauma enough, and that neglect produces spiritual communities unequipped to comfort and ally with Christians of color as they wrestle with racial suffering. It’s telling that I’m conditioned to react in at least one of three ways when dealing with my own pain in the area of race:

  • Ignore it until it explodes.
  • Talk to other black people. Rant/cry with them.
  • Cry alone and pray.

The last two responses are not bad–in fact, sometimes I just need to commune in a space with other black people and let myself unravel. I also need the spaces where it’s just me and God wrestling through the unexplainables. I have found so much peace in dropping my guard and releasing my pain to Christ because I know He can handle my rage and my questions.

Yet my wounds still ache anew when I see responses from white churches in America and they are cold–or worse, a kindly sort of acquiescence. The temptation to contain my grief, wall it away, sharpens. If racism engineers such tepid responses, how can the institutions that perpetuate it ever crumble when the people whose ancestors built them don’t know or don’t care?

I could also try not to care–I might even find happiness through it. Why exert so much effort to build bridges when it feels like they’re going nowhere? Every life lost feels like censure.

This is where the Gospel flares into life: in the frail smallness of my life against the vast backdrop of racial pain, Jesus is indomitable. Through Him, I have inherited the spirit of a conqueror rather than a slave to history. And He is redeeming all things and wants me to participate in his work. Scripture reminds me that it is injustice, racism that faces a Long Defeat–not me.

I have nothing to prove, no one to please but Him. He frees me from the self-consciousness that shames my tears, and He meets me in midst of racial trauma. My heart learns to be pliant rather than hard, and leaning on Him, crumpling there in His arms with more questions than answers, I re-learn to feel.

So I curled into my pillow last night, and I wept. I cried for Jayson–and for the other black boys and girls lost this year. I thought of my brother, a black boy who just entered college, and I allowed my fear for him to spill out, pooling into the thick summer night. He’s in danger God. Protect him. Please protect him, I pleaded. I don’t want anything to happen to him. I ranted to God about how helpless I feel sometimes, how much I wish all white people could just understand, how guilty I feel inside the walls of academia when there is so much suffering outside them.

I stopped censoring myself in that moment, stopped pretending the pain wasn’t there, and my guards dropped away, leaving me more vulnerable but also more human than I had allowed myself to be. My defense mechanisms may help me keep it together, but they also resign me to a life dependent on my own capacity to process pain. I am called instead to submit all I am to God, whose capacity is limitless.

In the everyday, it means I am in constant contact with Him through prayer, through silence. It means I am wrestling with the pain and letting that process inform how I engage with people. Sometimes it’s too raw and I need to retreat, but I will not build more walls to defend myself. Trusting God to be my shield is uncomfortably counter-intuitive but also desperately needed. There is a way of being that exists apart from the roles of silent sufferer and hyper-vigilant martyr that black people are pressured to play.

I am sick of being strong. Black women are encouraged, praised to be strong. I seek instead the kind of equity that gives me access to vulnerability so I become more human, less of an object conditioned to resist battering. I want to taste more of the freedom rooted in God’s incredible love for me and inhabit that space where I am no longer resisting injustice alone–and I am not alone.

This is my daily rebellious exercise: When I feel the weight of my world like a rock, I pray its movement forward, inch by inch. My fingers may ache, my back grow sore, but I know this weight will not crush me. This is no futile strain. There are hands far stronger keeping me in place as I look past the rock to where the mountain peak waits.

This is endurance–not that I am strong, but rather that I am allowed weakness.

 

*Learn about Sisyphus here

 

 

a million things I haven’t done

My life has never settled into the rhythms of all I wanted. A year ago, anticipation thrumming under my skin, I thought I would be in a very different place by this point. Half-pieced visions of finished poems, a set stage for speaking out, a romantic relationship in bloom beckoned me to hope for things I yearned for and to reach out for what God could have in store for me.

When the last day of the year arrives, sometimes you can’t help the shame and disappointment that trickles in when you realize all that has been unfulfilled. I know I am tempted to sort out my life into the should’ves, could’ves, and the little good eeked out that offers marginal comfort. I could easily view this year with the same lens. Where is that book I said I would write? Those people I was supposed to reach out to? That guy who was supposed to show up? Wasn’t I supposed to be braver, bolder now?

That strain of thinking represents remnants of an old life, before the Gospel took hold of me, before Jesus. It re-emerges in the vulnerable moments when I still wonder if I am enough, but as this year has reminded me, it no longer has to dominate my vision. It is easier to feel like God has denied me what I desire; it is also easier to blame myself for how paltry my movements forward feel, but God does not view my year with those eyes.

He does not view my days as a waste to be winced over and eagerly left behind. Neither does he pin an evaluation of them on my estimation of my goodness. How grateful I am for that!  I live no longer as a summary of milestones like marriage or job promotions or great good acts I should do, but instead as a beneficiary of Jesus’ actions at the Cross. The performance anxiety ebbs in the face of my Savior, who sustains me with what has eternal resonance: His love.

This does not absolve me of the responsibility to continue taking steps of obedience to serve the communities I am part of, to love all the peoples God created and cherishes. We have witnessed great losses this year, not just of iconic celebrities, but of black women and men bleeding out from police brutality, Syrian families caught in the crossfire of war, LGBTQ individuals gunned down. We saw the devastating loss of trust between racial communities in the U.S. as this past election ripped away the curtain of pretense and revealed how deeply the wounds of racism affect each of us. These stand as the stark realities of 2016, and I am still accountable to my neighbors.

But there is a verse I keep coming back to–the other 3:16, this time in Philippians:

Only let us live up to what we have already attained

The verse follows Paul’s declaration to press on to take hold of what Jesus has for him, to strain toward what is ahead and run the great race. Through these words, the Past becomes a coach spurring us into further action instead of a colossal relic halting our progress. We get a glimpse of God’s eternal gaze and realize that we have journeyed farther than we knew and must keep going, even as we trip and hurtle forward.

We take into the future all the little realizations, the invisible turning points, the conversations that shifted the gears of our thinking, the tears we wept over every death we witnessed, the steely words of our mothers and fathers who warned us not to stop caring, not to stop fighting, even if all we can do in the moment is exult in our next breath.

That is living in its unfettered dynamism, and every single moment of it matters. Nothing is wasted, even our trembling in the face of giants.

Our lives cannot be a cosmic To-Do List where we needle ourselves for not doing enough or loving enough. That thinking helps no one, and it is too feckless and feeble to confront injustice or even face our own demons. We enter each day trundled in a grace outside ourselves, captive only to Jesus, author and perfecter of our faith. Our expectations may waver, our entitlements sour, but He does not change. Our actions on Earth are framed in that grace He extends, and we act on behalf of others because He demonstrates to us each day what love looks like. That is the hope of the Gospel that extends past Christmas morning, past New Year’s Day, and vibrates in every new year to come. It’s the grandiosity of God, not our ambitions, that we must abide in. We move with conviction, not guilt.

Now, we show up and follow Him. That is all He asks, and He will not shame us when we stumble, nor mock us for the yearnings yet to be realized–for ourselves and for our world.

There is much still wrong with the world to be reconciled, and our arms are able to reach that much farther than those before us reached. Not only that, but when I look at my life with the words of Philippians 3:16 mantled on my shoulders, I do not see failure; I see promise. So let us live up to what we have already attained. 

There’s a million things I haven’t done

and I may never do them all

but they are not a weight

compressing me small

I wait on my God

eyes forward

He calls