watch your tone as you mourn the body

After my second time watching Black Panther, my friend and I (both black women in our 20s) could not stop texting each other, overwhelmed by the urgency to unpack the film in all its layers. While we dived into a number of topics (the brilliance of all the kickass black women being one of them), we kept circling around this: We could not forget Erik Killmonger, or N’Jadaka as he refers to himself later in the movie. This character’s presence weighed on both of us, though for different reasons:

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“So understandably weary,” my friend texted back, and we paused together. Images of black leaders old and recent materialized in the silence, and I realized that my first response wasn’t entirely correct. Yes, I resonate with T’Challa, his desire to see good in others, his patience and measured approach…but I hold the rage of Killmonger in a way I would not have several years ago.

I use the word rage intentionally. Rage is not a word used often in American circles, especially those which are predominately white and Christian. Instead it’s reserved for descriptions of the wrath of God or maybe an episode of particularly bad weather. And what is rage? The Webster dictionary frames it as “a fit of violent anger” or “angry fury.” But that clinical definition carries inherent judgement. It is incomplete. It tells me nothing about the circumstances that deserve rage as a response or whether rage can exist in diverse forms apart from uncontrollable violence.

Meeting N’Jadaka

I grew up relatively shielded from the kind of racial oppression that ignites riots and fuels the rage of the Killmongers of the world. In my fairly well-off suburb, I could count my black friends on one hand, residing in that strange limbo where you never blend into the white majority, but the lines are blurred enough that you could be considered exceptional (aka not one of “Those Black People”). I only saw glimpses of the black anger simmering beneath American soil during visits to Civil Rights museums, the documentaries my mom and aunt made us watch, the occasional news headline…until college.

In college I met my N’Jadakas. In the dorms, on the couches within our multicultural student hub, I interacted with black students fully conscious of how much racism had screwed up their lives and those of others–and they were angry about it. Not only that, but they demanded an overturning of the status quo that allowed Whiteness to be the norm at our school. They demanded those in power to listen.

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Whispers from the white students told me that these were the “militants.” Many were my friends, but their loudness, their upfrontness made me uncomfortable. When they went on about white supremacy, I squirmed inwardly, wishing their words were softer, more diplomatic. When they ranted in the student center hallways about how we only learned about the history and theology of old white men (the fact that I even used the word rant then is telling), my eyes darted every way, wary of being heard by other white students–or worse, offending them.

There are names for my reaction. The worse would be “Uncle Tom” or “Oreo.” Probably closer to the truth would be “colonized.”

In black circles, a colonized mindset implies that your way of thinking and moving through the world is dominated and shaped by the same harmful ideologies and practices used to oppress your people. Because the foundation of this mindset is the historical trauma of racism and the fear of upsetting the majority group (white people), it is a shade of internalized racism.  In my case, this incarceration of my mind and heart informed my dismissal of the depth of racial pain my black sisters and brothers were experiencing. Instead, I prioritized the comfort and stability of white people around me over their alienation–and my own.

This kind of posture leaves little room for intimacy with black rage and the suffering underlying it. It was only when I finally chose to shut up and actually sit with the stories my black friends were telling me that I realized how much I had sinned against them by telling them to lower their volume.

I had always been taught not to let the sun go down on my anger, not to sin in my anger, and I still believe in that value of that. Nevertheless, it was black women and men who showed me that there is not a dichotomy of anger and faith. They taught me what it meant to grieve over being black in America…and that I was allowed to be angry about it. Experiencing fury over the injustices black people face and loving my neighbors (black AND white) is not mutually exclusive. In fact, part of God’s character as an entity of justice is embodied in the rage of those positioned as inferior in their society.

Seeing the Body

Isaiah give us a narrative of a persecuted people far from home. The minor prophets of the Old Testament rail against those who deny justice to the poor, the immigrant, the widowed. The Bible is deeply conscious of people who have been wronged and demonstrates God’s compassion towards them–and his response to those who inflict harm upon his beloved ones or ignore them. Jesus defined his ministry by drawing near those of lesser status in his time (women, paralytics, the poor) and acknowledging their pain even as he called those same people to salvation.

It begins with that acknowledgement of pain, physical, emotional, and systemic: We need to “see the body,” as Soong-Chah Rah explains in his book Prophetic Lament. All too often I observe White Americans skipping this crucial step, quick to judge people of color for being too “harsh” or attacking them by “bringing up race too much.”

“Why can’t we just discuss this calmly?” 

“Why do you need to protest when it only makes things worse?” 

“Okay I see what you mean, but what if the officer was just afraid? You’re being emotional, not logical.” 

I have heard all of these responses and more every time a racial “controversy” happens. And I need my white sisters and brothers to hear me when I say that not only are these responses uncompassionate, they are patronizing. 

You (white people) are not the experts of a black person’s experience with racism. It is not loving nor helpful of you to police the tone of people of color when they are working through and responding to those experiences. It stings when I hear you using Scripture to justify your distance from the issue of racism when black people talk about it with more than a level tone. In those moments, the burden is consistently placed on the black person to refashion their legitimate anger and grief into something white people find palatable enough to discuss. If our presentation does not meet certain conditions, it is likely that our words won’t be taken into consideration by you at all.

Do not say you love justice if you are not willing to to commune with those who have been sinned against, and do not assume they need to be polite or restrained to spare your feelings if you are White.

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NYC protest after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s murders in 2016

We (black people) march in the streets and are called hateful. We bend the knee on the sports field and are called selfish. We make movies about race and are called controversial. We give Ted Talks on race and are called divisive. These are not just generalizations. I have seen these responses pervade Christian spaces, reminding me that no matter how many racial reconciliation conferences we have or multicultural dinners, the complexity and tension of black pain must somehow still find expression on the terms of white people. 

I propose an addendum to Mr. Webster’s definition: Rage is a suffering heart’s response to violent neglect. I choose to center my understanding of rage on the pain of people experiencing oppression in that situation rather than on the anxieties of those surrounding them.

A Lament for D’Jadaka

Erik Killmonger, D’Jadaka rejects the idea of accommodating solely to white people’s sensitivities, and that is why he strikes a chord within so many black people. An inheritor of a broken American Dream, he is not apologetic in speaking to the desperation and suffering of people in his hood. He has never seen the institutions of his country benefit people like him, and so he demands them to be torn down and rebuilt. He sees the dead body and is tired of it being ignored.

The expression of his rage contains problems (I don’t think arming all black people and killing “all our oppressors and their children” is the answer when racism is so embedded into our social, political and psychological frameworks); however, that does not absolve us of the responsibility to approach the sources of his pain with integrity and with love. We can seek the Eriks of the world like Jesus did. We can wrestle with what they share with us and receive them without trying to speak over them as if we know what they’re talking about better than they do (T’Challa learned this lesson by the end).

The discourse of Christian lament in America is relegated to the meditative and solemn, meant for candle vigils, quiet tears, and special services. It pleads for unity without any of the effort to see the depth of our (America’s) wounds. And so is there a place in the Church for black rage? Not much of it right now, but there should be. 

The Two Days Between

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The Funeral of Stephon Clark

When I heard Stephon Clark was shot, there was no Wakanda to retreat to. The tears were ugly, the weariness unbearable. And for many black people experiencing that loss, there is not always a church willing to receive them as they are: grieving. I know I hesitate to open up about it because previous examples suggest that the rage I feel about Stephon’s murder will be offensive to many White Christians. If they grappled with the pain alongside me, it would invite a whole host of other issues to deal with, including the devastating notion that their worldview may in error and their Whiteness is part of a bigger problem. Who would willingly go through that kind of suffering with me?

Someone who loves you. Someone like Jesus.

Yesterday we acknowledged Good Friday, the day another man was murdered and laid out for public view. A man who willingly died not because we were good, but because while we were sick, he loved us.We sit now in the two days in-between. As a Christian, I know we are guaranteed the Resurrection, and yet we are given two days to mourn the body. We are given two days to diagnose what killed the body, and the Gospel invites us to mourn the conditions of the human heart (sin) and the poisons in our society that contributed to that person’s death–Jesus’ death.

This is our story of redemption, and because the dawn of the Resurrection is guaranteed, we should be lavishing even more grace and patience upon those who suffer in the days between the Resurrection and the final coming of Christ. Since we don’t have a timeline charting the end of racism, the rage of marginalized peoples must matter to us. Their rage reminds all of us of the deeply-rooted evils still at work among us, that the world is still not as it should be. As truth-seekers we should demonstrate a compassionate curiosity to understand what fuels that rage rather than fixating on our discomfort with it. That is putting our neighbor before ourselves.

The fires of our neighbors’ rage illuminate the wrongs still to be righted, and it will not allow us the privilege of complacency when there are more bodies to mourn. As those seeking to love like Jesus, we are called to nothing less.

going global

These days, it’s easy to be a “citizen of the world.” Within a minute, I scan storm updates for the Caribbean on Twitter, get an email alert from one of my French advisees, and dig into a burrito from the joint next door as I sit in a dress made in El Salvador. Without breaking a sweat, I participate in a network of nations I may never physically step into. And if I’m feeling extra-cosmopolitan, I can add a filter to my Facebook profile picture to showcase my support for the most recent country facing disaster. I could even send money to them.

Sarcasm aside, this is not to say we are all laissez-faire in the way we approach global issues, but we should acknowledge we have a low bar to jump when it comes to being interconnected with the rest of the world. We simply are and always have been. And when disaster and controversy strikes, it often shakes us enough to start reevaluating our borders. Then we can decide whether to huddle within them or reach out to the people on the other side–or reform the borders altogether.

Borders perplex me because when you really think about it, they are so antithetical to how human identity and living works. We literally have these lines on a map that some powerful people decided would separate where I belong from all that is Foreign. In one sense I get it: as humans, we block information, people into categories to order our understanding of the world. On the other hand, I keep asking: When we live in a country created by and composed of people from the entire globe, what are America’s borders?

In a childhood bookmarked with Melting Pot coloring pages and Diversity Day fairs, I found myself confused by this question of borders when I asked my white classmates about their background, and they answered: “I’m just American.” I never answered with “American” first when asked the same question (which I was–constantly) because I had become conditioned to respond with my racial and ethnic identities first. People were not looking for or expecting me to say I was American first. I wasn’t white, and so it felt like my peers wanted to figure out the foreignness in me before placing me safely in the “American” category.

Even in elementary school, it was made clear to me that despite our professed love for diversity, Americans are selectively global. Not only that, we only seem to embrace our global identity when it either suits our economic interests or preserves our image as a beautifully inclusive and mixed nation.

The increasing use of rhetoric that champions the cause of “Made in America” and “America First” offers striking evidence of this posture. With each new Executive Order, our national gaze draws further inwards as we anxiously survey our borders, afraid that the threats out there have already infiltrated our land and must be purged.

Why? Because there is the American identity (“the” not “an”), the purest notion of what it means to be an American–and the people we fear don’t fit into it.

No one will say outright that “Being American means you’re white and have lived here for 7 generations,” but our history as a country reinforces this definition of American identity as the norm. Newly-instated policies are preceded by other attempts to reconfigure who deserves to count as American, some of the earliest being the Naturalization Act of 1790 (citizenship limited to white persons) and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (which lasted a decade and gave way to other stigmas).

Suggestions to accept more Norwegians over African immigrants provoke deja vu when you remember that white-passing Cuban elites were airlifted to America first during Fidel Castro’s regime while poor brown and black Cubans were over-represented among the “Marielitos” fleeing on homemade boats. (La Lucha for Cuba: Religion and Politics on the Streets of Miami by Miguel de LaToree sheds light on this dynamic). Our country has made it pretty clear in the past what immigrants are undesirable.

Our hyphenated labels also index what we value, separating the “regular” Americans from those who are conspicuous: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, etc. The Unhyphenated become the standard, and their legitimacy as citizens, residents is rarely questioned. Whiteness buys you this buffer: your lack of hyphen projects that you have deep roots in this country, worked hard to earn your place here, and followed the law like an upright model of the American Dream (unless you have a noticeable accent that isn’t posh or sexy–there you’re edging a little too close to being “ethnic”).

Awareness of this standard grows when you examine its inverse: the Hyphenated.  In contrast to American residents deemed White, those classified with hyphenated identities are reflexively set at a distance. They aren’t in our murals of Americana, ploughing fields, building skyscrapers, and dancing under red, white, and blue. Their belonging is not secure, and our well-chronicled efforts to get rid of our undesirables prove it.

We prove it when we criminalize those of Latin American descent even as wring profit from them. We prove it when we reduce Asian immigrants to accents and stereotypes, casting them as foreigners when many have roots here for the same 7 generations as many White Americans. We prove it when we insinuate that Black Americans-some immigrants who moved here and others descended from peoples forcibly brought here-still need to prove themselves worthy and polite enough for their lives to be equally valued and defended. We prove it when we say nothing as our president diminishes the humanity of immigrants and signs order after order shoving out peoples who traveled here as long as decades ago to seek asylum, prosperity, and, ultimately, another home.

In America, we internalize suspicion towards people in the hyphen, people who are visibly non-White. Even if they play by our rules, their loyalty is constantly questioned, their every action representative of a whole population still being assessed as worthy. A Muslim woman wearing a hijab must prove what she isn’t (a terrorist) before proving what she is (an American). And even then, the security of that identity is never assured. If one person in her community missteps, the whole group suffers the fallout. White Americans get to be individuals; everyone else needs to maintain the goodwill towards their people group lest the tides change again.

The kindly image of the Melting Pot is replaced by the series of hurdles to jump over before you can even enter the pot. Then you will be allowed to keep your color, maybe a few trinkets of your culture (because in America we love to collect the exotic things of others), and then make the highly recommended and profitable choice to melt away into AMERICA. Whiteness determines how many ties to the countries outside of American borders you will be allowed to hold onto. Too much and the purity of the pot’s mixture gets diluted.

“But that’s not what America is!” you tell me, and after all, I live in New York City and see the evidence of a very different country teeming with people from all over the world with all their garb, practices, and languages. So if we have these proud beacons of multiculturalism right in the U.S.A., why this concern about policing each others’ American-ness?

Our anxiety remains because America is positioned as a White nation, not a global one.

We are caught in a disturbing paradox when we can declare we care for the poor in Africa, the trafficked in India, the homeless in the Caribbean and Mexico hit by storm after storm and remain conveniently silent when our national leaders tell us our neighbors from those “shithole” places are dangerous. Rather than wrestling with the multiplicity of our national identity, we build walls, deport even once-legal residents, and shun refugees. We are reactive instead of curious about how people come here and deeply ignorant of how America’s historic actions often contribute to migration because of the harm we have caused other nations (the book Harvest of Empire by Juan Gonzalez speaks to the stories connecting Latin America and the US).

This is how we counteract the narrative that America is a pure nation whose heritage must be enshrined in glass: we reject the call to prioritize American self-interests when “just American” is only a synonym for White. White Americans must examine the sense of entitlement that results in the racialized picking and choosing of who can come to our national table. True equity-building will require the humility of those who are racially and/or economically privileged to accept the invitation to the tables of marginalized peoples and collaborate with them.

When this happens, our political actions, even our conversations with friends, begin to rise above the charged rhetoric that splits our country into “conservatives” and “liberals.” We linger in the tension of tougher questions: how to exercise compassion and mercy towards people different from me, how to be faithful in stewarding our country’s resources, how to take ownership of wrongs committed against other nations.

And this question above all: what borders of the heart determine the ones of the soil? If my heart has already decided to shut certain people out, I will not permit them into my house. I will not call them American. I will not call them my sister or brother.

The borders our nation has laid out, however you feel about them, are eclipsed by the borderless love of Christ. This does not negate the need for national security nor the pressing interest for economic stability; instead, Christ’s love positions all other concerns in hierarchy under the commandment to love and delight in our neighbors without preexisting conditions. We begin here, and our vision of our diverse country clarifies and gains durability. We begin here, and our steps forward will dignify each other rather than divide us from each other.

Americans’ selective globality renders us incapable of envisioning a country where cooking jollof rice and arroz con pollo and curry chicken and hot dogs are all deeply and equally American. Not ethnic, not niche–American.  As Moana’s father tells her in the movie: “Our people are not out there–they are right here.”

The world isn’t just out there in the places where people send aid and missionaries. It’s not limited to the places that resource our coffee and bananas and cell phone parts. The world is right here in America, spilling over our borders and reminding us that if we say we are “global citizens,” we must also choose to be accountable to the people our lives touch everyday and share this land with us. 

who are you voting for?

I’m voting for Black Lives Matter.

You won’t see that on a ballot, but faces come to mind when I get up before 6am to drive to the polls. Some of the faces I know; many I do not.

I’ve read articles about how Christians should vote–or NOT vote. I’m not discounting those, or the theology they invoke. But what I think is too often obscured in the steadily polarized debate is this simple truth, and it guides me today:

Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Philippians 2:1-4

The passage goes on to describe Christ’s humility as he made himself a servant, died on the Cross for the world, and was then exalted before all else. He had the choice to grasp the lofty stature he rightly deserved; he chose to lower himself instead. This passage echoes the heart of the greatest commandment: To love God and love our neighbor. To adhere to this, we actively consider not only who is our neighbor, but how do we prioritize their needs.

In contrast, the anxiety of the self has driven conversations around this election. People like Trump rise because of it, speaking to fears regarding the Other and the threats they pose, whether they be Muslims or immigrants or “inner city” black people. Concerns over homeland security and economic stability are warranted, but when they warp into a distrust of the dehumanized Other and distort the nuances of their experiences, the implications are dangerous. The logical culmination of this anxiety: political actions that will surely preserve our own livelihoods, our own prosperity and safety at the expense of the least of these.

Our directive should be to look to the shivering rather than grasping our blankets and wrapping them around our bodies. Who in our country is most vulnerable right now? Who should we be protecting first? 

The answer should not be yourself if you are a person with any privileged identities–race, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status or otherwise. Privilege does not equate wealth or even physical assets, but it does signify that you have power. You have sway in certain spaces.

For those of us with both privileged  identities and identities that set us on the margins, the most vulnerable can include our own communities. This acknowledgment, however, does not negate our need to consider the neighbors outside of those communities as well and stand by them. I’m a black and Latina woman, and my country’s policies and structures often attempt to rob me and mine of opportunity and dignity, but I am neither powerless nor voiceless. We should not shy away from this power but rather own it, use it, because we mirror our God who not only wields his own power well, but also endows us authority to act justly on Earth.

One insight gleaned from liberation theology is that we serve a God who is indeed political. God cares about the physical and economic circumstances of the people He created.He cares about black neighbors in Flint demanding clean water and white blue collar neighbors struggling to feed their families when factories close. He cares about Lakota neighbors lacking electricity and heat and Latino neighbors being treated as “aliens.” He cares when the ones designated with less power in our country are persecuted. He cares when they are mocked and their struggles dismissed. If we are His hands and feet, we must care for them too, stand in solidarity with our neighbors.

I joined a prayer march on Saturday with my indigenous brothers and sisters, and they reminded me through their stories that we have been appointed stewards. We steward the Earth and its resources, but we also steward our relationships with each other because we recognize that we belong to each other. Created for interdependence, we don’t get the option of apathy. If my neighbor cries out for justice and I fail to hear them, I am not stewarding my connection to them well.

So with my vote, I do my best to position people in power who will also listen to the marginalized communities in my country and advocate for them. I seek senators, representatives, a President, who will dignify them. No one person perfectly embodies this orientation, but I get as close as I can, not fixed solely on party lines but the parity of the ground on which I stand; I want it leveled so those in the valley are lifted up.

I vote for them–for my neighbors. I vote for Standing Rock. I vote for the poor–black and white (the majority of which comprise the population on welfare). I vote for Muslims. I vote for LGBTQ communities facing alienation and violence. I vote for immigrants. 

Then, at last, I vote for myself, my mother beside me, my abuela waiting outside the door. We are the women changing the world with ballot sheets and ballpoint pens.