to write and riot: one year later

Jordan Edwards is dead.

When I lift my fingers to type, they drum down on the keys with the weight of this–the names of the people Racism has stolen from my communities. They are not just headlines that will pass away; they are not just bodies behind bars. Yet I live in a country where non-White features designate people as Other and thus less valued–no matter how many exceptional people of color “make it out.” There is no “out.” We are all inextricably, unavoidably, in this, and the ripples of one boy’s death collide with each of our realities–even those too numbed to notice.

This is for those who hear me and stay.

I was recently startled into the realization that this blog is one-year old. God charged me during the Urbana ’16 conference to channel all the thoughts I wrestle with into something that could not only stretch my growth, but also potentially challenge and lift up others. This blog was born. I didn’t so much leap with faith as really tip over into a new realm where suddenly my words were pulled out of my head and heart and positioned on display for the world to see (whatever sliver of the world manages to find this blog).

Starting this blog was an exercise in anxiety. I’ve always shied away from public writing, even as I envied others who seem to share with such ease. I also didn’t believe I had anything groundbreaking to offer–not anything other social justice-oriented individuals had already shared (and far more eloquently). Yet God tugged at my feet, so I took a step forward into the unknown.

Rusty from a few years of wildly inconsistent writing habits that would provoke slow, somber head shakes from my former professors, I quarreled with a blank screen and an overload of ambition. I blundered (and still stumble) over the basic stepping stones: to whom to write (audience), what to write about (topic), and how to write about it (tone). Cognizant that I was writing about issues framed as controversial (cite: avoidable) in the Church, each typed word became fraught with tension.

The reality that I am a woman of color in her early 20s loomed over my fingers as they flexed, preparing for the Great White Portal to racial discourse. I sat before my computer (feeling) unequipped, inexperienced, and lonely in my racking desire to confront the racial pain burdening my heart and to help my communities somehow. Then the questions stampeded in, no pause to exhale:

What if I’m too angry?

What if I burn bridges?

What if I have nothing to say? 

What if everyone hates me?

What if I’m wrong? 

Dread wrapped in a tight, thick knot in my throat, I begged God to give me an out. Clearly I wasn’t shaped for this type of work.

A little over a year later, this blog remains (obviously). So what happened? A few realizations unfolded over time:

  • I don’t have to fix racism. It’s not on me to do this–I’m no Savior. I can speak to what I observe, what burdens me, what others have taught me, but I’m never engaging in this work of repentance and reconciliation alone, leading to…
  • I’m joining a conversation. I am one voice, carrying my stories and thoughts and struggles, and my voice matters, but I must recognize that I am entering into a space where I am engaging with past, present, and future threads. There are others I must listen to and learn from, other voices to reflect upon and voices to interact with as we untwist the problems of race and identity and community.
  • I’m human–own it. I am not perfect. Neither am I the ultimate authority on all things related to racial discourse. I can honestly admit that I’m stubborn and struggle with acknowledging my mistakes–I prefer to rationalize them as logical or excusable. I also have a ridiculous capacity for being judgmental, and that creates blinders that prevent me from seeing all sides and angles. I’ve been learning through this writing process how to take responsibility for my sin areas and make space for God to teach me differently. My writing will always reflect my imperfection and gaps in knowledge, but I am committed to deepening my comprehension, adjusting my vision, and growing outwards.
  • The pain is worth it. I’ve cried during and after writing a blog post. Some of them have excavated deep wounds I didn’t realize I still have; some shoved suffering into my face, leaving me adrift and unable to process it all. Some made me feel every single gram of my inadequacy, and I wanted to give up. But then I would get a message from someone who read a post, that it helped them in some way, and it was like God’s prodding to keep going. Words arose, quiet, steady: Keep going daughter. Face the storm. I am with you. So I went on.

I labor over this work–and it’s hard. I am constantly amazed by those of you who have been invested in this labor for years. I agonize over words, pray over them, gnaw my lip and wonder if I should soften the language or shift topics. God rarely responds yes. And even then, I don’t always obey, bending instead to the pressure to be polite rather than truthful.

I don’t (as of now) face incarceration or mortal danger for typed letters, but as the PEN World Voices Festival warned me yesterday, not everyone has that luxury. So I treasure the freedom that allows words of challenge to unfurl out of my being and press against the world in some needed way. I don’t feign the posture of a great Liberator or Artist as I write, but because there is an unfathomable well of pain to speak to, I have a purpose in trying.

Writing, talking about racism is a tangle of pain and hope. The pain rises and throbs as you point to the realities of discrimination, unjust economic systems, and the hidden heart issues that bleed out into our actions. I move through a labyrinth of thought and feeling, a pack of understandings sloped on my back because I realize that confronting racism involves the indictment of that which has been hidden away, held taut beneath the surface and ready to snap. It requires examining what it means to be White and where White comes from. It mandates wrestling what it means to be Black and diasporic. It provokes the questioning of how to locate yourself within a color binary never designed for you if you are Asian, Arab, Indigenous.

This is tense, uncompromising work. It will not make you feel good–in fact, it will disturb and offend you. Confronting ugliness repulses us–and it should. I do not ask God to remove this tension from my gut; it unsettles me into a state of action so I will not be complacent when the needs are so great. They are great, and they are relentless.

With the presence of so much unfettered ignorance and a vacuum of empathy, how can I possibly soothe the heartbreak that racism causes in my country? I can’t. Sometimes all I can do is loosen my tears and not forget the ones abused by it. And I do this: I write. I lift my small torch to shed light on the margins so those willing to draw near them can mourn with me and step through the night into what could await us beyond it. This is a shade of riot, that we repel the forces that would keep us static and demand the ushering of Heaven to Earth, opening our hands to receive it and hold on tight.

Our hearts hurt because we sense that racial division and injustice is not God’s intention for us. His movement, always and forever, is to bind us together with words, with the Word, into one family with no dividing wall.

Words matter, and they have power. Writing can be an act of activism, rebellion even, against that which mars human dignity and distorts the beauty of our relationships with one another. Words have founded revolutions, fractured families and repaired them, and so I handle them with care and submit them to God. I look for the ways in which He is using them already to weave our disparate stories together, and I ask to join Him in that industry.

Yet there can be little communion when one member’s hands are burned, nerves exhausted. To resurrect our fellowship with one another, we must look frankly upon the wrongs done to our peoples and examine them, repent of them. Lament brings us through this cycle of sorrow, weighing the gravity of the past and present and leading us to the One who reconciles all. We end in a small echo of the final paradise: in praise, in community.

So I end this with where I started: a declaration of riot. I feel feeble sometimes, too passive and hesitant to shake walls and topple towers. I walk into rooms with an apology on my tongue rather than a confrontation. But you, my readers, my friends, and my God, you have dared me to surrender fear and point to the world I yearn for and the change I am now willing to labor towards. So I leave you with this and hope to encourage you as you take hold of the calling God has given you and till the soil for a world better than what you were born into:

The Cross of Christ is the ultimate symbol of riot. Jesus’ sacrificial death momentarily shoved the world into a state of chaos as the sacred temple Veil was ripped, the ground itself rocked with tremors, and blood streamed from a beaten body and pooled at the feet of the terrified ones watching. All the cries of the abused, the violated, the oppressed, the lost, the unheard thundered above his bowed head. The darkness of a people estranged from God and enslaved to sin was broken by slashes of lightning that mimicked the aching stretch of his arms upon the wooden beam.

Hell emptied itself and Heaven touched Earth for the first time in centuries as the way to God’s throne was cleared at last, mediated by a soon resurrected Christ. He had thrown everything into violent, visceral upheaval, and we are still experiencing the vibrations.

The riot of the Cross challenges all that is disordered in our society and invites our participation in a holy commotion that will write a new draft above our stained histories. This draft is the Kingdom of Christ being ushered in now, though not yet in its final published form. In this draft, we are charged to disturb the status quo, remake the hierarchies of power,  demand justice for the marginalized, innovate new words to love and live with each other.

God writes the new draft of a Kingdom manifesto on a scroll of grace, unfurling to coil around each person with a binding embrace. This grace acknowledges our grievous wrongs and our depraved brokenness, both individual and systemic, but rather than charting an arc towards death, it writes us into new roles: redeemed rioters on Gospel terms. With renewed minds, we grow into our roles, stumble, and keep marching so that someday we will see the fullness of a radically altered world.

graceriot 2016

Riot on.

letter to my own

Dear Black and Latinx family,

I write this for you because I rarely do. This reality sunk in a few months ago during lunch with a former supervisor. We were discussing Tal Nehisi-Coates’ Between the World and Me, pointing out how striking and vital it was that he so unapolegetically directs his thoughts to black people. In contrast, I realized that much of what I write has another audience waiting beyond the curtain. My subconscious has been molded by expectation and pressure to write for this audience, to teach and challenge, to elucidate and defend, to appease. Yes, appease because I fear being barred from the parties of discourse where I am viewed as exceptional–not one of “Those People.” The unfettered desire races around the mind room where I hide it: I want to belong there–fully.

In the white-hot, hard-knuckled moments, I intentionally write for this audience. In the chilled and tremoring, anxious moments, I unintentionally write for them. Only later does it hit me that I can hardly comprehend doing otherwise.

I have been taught and encouraged to write for White People. The sources are many, the voices subtle, but there it is. The responsibility of educating them into race, crossing color borders and building equitable communities burdens me, some of it helpful and good, much of it unbalanced and overwhelming. So much thought is consumed in anticipating their reactions and screening any idea that resembles a spark. Calm, measured, all the while I grit my teeth and worry. What if I burn bridges? What if I become one? The self-consciousness is deafening. In the ether, I sense only the strains of righteous rage and fathomless grief entombed in my stomach, the words I catch through a net of teeth before they can be uttered.

When the reality of all of this manifests itself in vivid high definition, I breathe out, wet, ragged, and I know then I am compensating for years of unacknowledged constraint. The knowing of it hurts, knowing that the message you have internalized from the world around you is that you must monitor your speech and behavior in ways that your white friends don’t have to. Whether it’s logical or not, right or not, I feel like I have to be careful about how often and how candidly I talk about race with white people because I don’t want to hurt their feelings. When I say “race,” I imagine thought bubbles blooming above their heads with “i’m not racist” or then “how do I prove i’m not racist,” and the pangs of sympathy prevent my progress into further conversation–even when it’s needed. My words are filtered to accommodate to their comfort.

It’s not only in talking about race where I run into walls. I’m conscious of my Otherness in too many spaces that I enter, fixated on how my opinions and ideas will be absorbed, how many people I see in the virtual and real-world landscape who look like me, how people talk about the communities I identify with. I think about whether I should step in to defend them from hasty or ignorant remarks; the words burn but don’t leave my lips.

I wrestle most with the questions of boundaries. What is the difference between honesty and antagonism, especially when it comes to sharing struggles as someone with marginalized identities? What is the difference between grace and accommodation when you are usually the person doing the accommodating? When am I allowed the privilege of vulnerability so I can simply tell you that I am wrapped up in this anxiety of what White People think of me, and I fear their rejection. When am I allowed to say that, for once, I want to wade in my penned pool of raw emotions and unlock the gates? Then I can be allowed to cry out that it’s hard being a Christian and a woman of color when too many books and conferences and sermons prescribe the gentling and swaddling of my anger when racism is bloody and wretched and real, and I want its strongholds wrecked apart wherever I see them, even if others can’t.

I am wearied by the knowledge that I am freed by Christ yet still restrained from fully participating in and inhabiting the world He redeems daily. The gaps present feel like canyons, yet I hesitate in asking for more, for something else that can belong to me.

There are few things created for us. Movies and television are branded for us when we become a desirable target audience–grouped as Black (just like we’re grouped as “the Black vote” and “the Latino vote.”). When Brown floods a screen, complaints about political correctness draw it back. We are always political, even by just loosening breath to say we matter.

There are few things allocated for us. Classes on race in universities are oriented to help white people understand it. Students of color endure the reiteration of what our world has denied them with little effort to support their presence in the room. Even conferences on racial division all too often contain a token minority speaker (2 if it’s especially progressive) directing their challenges to white people. The way we experience racial division and the efforts to address it are different, but where are the resources to guide us if we want to be part of the reconciling embrace? Where is our toolbox when the nails holding us together run out?

There are few things given to us. We are expected to work hard like other Americans, though no number is given to how many generations we must toil before we too have the accumulated wealth to make such demands. We must create our own Barbies with curly hair, our own movies to achieve complexity in our stories, our own TV channels because we don’t belong to the mainstream (the hyphen is too wide a divide), our own award ceremonies and scholarships because who else is willing to sacrifice more to dignify us?

I grew up with this scarcity I did not fully understand. I didn’t understand why I reveled in seeing Susie Carmichael and Lando Calrissian or the Jamaican sprinters each Summer Olympics. I read Kindred and poetry by Maya Angelou and Tia Lola Comes to Stay, and through that my peoples had stories that filled in the lines and extended beyond. At one point in elementary school, I could count my friends of color with one hand, but Sister, Sister offered another reality I could settle into, one where Black was normal and beautiful and fun.

Coates’ work, Julia Alvarez’ work, Lemonade even, reminded me of the necessity of art, work, ideas, and space crafted for Black and Latinx communities. They should not stand as the only opportunities for people of color (especially black and brown women) to recieve encouragement and comfort through vessels constructed for their use. We need more.

I write many blog posts, poems, essays for White People, and I’m making peace with those works and their purpose. They have a place in the movement towards mutual understanding and reconciliation, especially within the Church. But that cannot be the axis of my artistic livelihood, nor the threshold I reach for.

I want to write for YOU, to lift you up and remind you of how precious you are. I don’t have the same struggles as all of you, but I respect your shouting and shade. I honor your tears when no one will. I give space on the shelf of my consciousness for your beauty and resilience and vulnerability.

Forgive me for relegating you to the leftovers of my thought and action. I get tired and stretched, and when I see more racism and estrangement, all I want to do is end it, and writing to White People sometimes feels like the only way. But there you are, hurting, fighting, learning, loving, and pushing for the miraculous. You are marvelous in that way. Thank you for your fortitude. Thank you for welcoming me when I feel like I don’t belong.Thank you for your bravery in writing the books and making the movies and composing the music that have re-conditioned me to love the differences the world has designated “minority.”

This is for you, with much more to come.

Love,

Joanna

the house in flames 

I watched a tree murdered once. Sixteen years old, cowering behind a rocky outcrop, I stood frozen as two teenage boys, stretched tall and wiry, thrust themselves at a spindly shoot of a tree. They shoved their bodies at the trunk, and it swung through the air like a broken pendulum, its limbs flailing, waving for help. Eyes wide, I trembled from the weight of expectation, the overriding thought that I should do something. 

Cracking open, the base split from the tree’s body, and wood splintered and burst into the air. The ground quaked as the body slammed to the ground, leaves thrashing. The boys sauntered away; the forest fell silent. The sound of my locked-up scream whined in my head in an endless loop. Stepping closer to the fallen tree, I brushed my fingers against the grooved bark; shame halted the movement.

That day cemented my understanding that I was not a warrior. My grandmother the Dominican activist fought for unnumbered causes. She has marched and protested and written treatises and demonstrated before crowds–and was jailed for it more than once. My aunt and mother in their own ways assert themselves and trace those matriarchal footprints. But I struggled to question even the most petty of subjects: I couldn’t even advocate for my own paycheck when I received the wrong amount. As for the more dire concerns of the world…I gave them over to the Brave Ones willing and equipped to confront them.

But for those of us fearful of taking action, what is the threshold of threat where we will finally choose take a stand?

My threshold was not breached. It eroded, weathered away by previously buried histories absorbed in Sociology courses, racist comments on forum boards, the littered evidence of multigenerational poverty in the South Bronx, my first visit to a native reservation. And then, shooting by shooting, it was held together only by a vein of trepidation. I could no longer sit passively when the reality of injustice became all too blatant, all too real. Not everyone has the luxury of learning this so late.

When you are exposed to the suffering of others, remaining blind and tucked in the world you once knew becomes a violent act in itself. You must respond or you risk waiting for faces to haunt you each night with should’ves and could’ves looming like the specters of dead oaks. You cannot fix all the problems you see, but the unwillingness to discover your role in movements confronting oppression is a blade that cuts into those vulnerable to those entrenched forms of injustice. They fight and wait for their cause to engender enough attention so their environment alters; removing yourself from assisting the battle ensures more of their losses. There is no safe distance from the fray–only distance.

Sometimes we only act under the perception that the situation affects us directly. Our news coverage and school textbooks are adept in creating “black issues” and “gay issues,” allowing us a free pass to avoid engagement with “issues” that do not pertain to our daily life. We catalogue situations of suffering in abstracted, individualistic terms and expect the relevant communities to get their act together and deal with them. Unless they are stealing our jobs or killing people who look like us, we can relegate the event to the backburner.

With relationship emerges impact: A black friend shares their story about being frisked by police. A Latino co-worker explains feeling positioned like a criminal. A Muslim neighbor receives dirty looks condemning her as an ally to terrorists. Engaging these stories is necessary, but what we fail to realize is that other’s states of marginalization are personal–they have always been personal. We are discouraged by our categorical distance from excavating the connections already founded. We can base our allyship on more than just the tally of our ethnic friends.

The xenophobia experienced by Arab/Middle Eastern peoples connects to my protection as an American justified by unwieldy U.S. interventions in the Middle East. The deaths of black men and women at the hands of fear-triggered police officers relates to a white person’s erasure of cultural identity, caused by the creation of Whiteness as a superior label (see: why cultural appropriation is a thing). The struggles of Latin American immigrants finding work in the U.S. ties to my daily life as a consumer shaped by global economic structures like NAFTA that have exploited their homelands. These are the stories of Us, complicated and taut with tension.

You don’t need to be an intellectual or a historian to know these communal histories; all they do is replace the ones handed to us as children. These communal histories have been lost under the veneer of noble Founding Fathers and frontier-eager pioneers and patriotic soldiers “taking back” land entitled to them (have we apologized to Hawaii or Mexico for that?)…but we can reclaim them. Trees have fallen in forests, their deaths unacknowledged except by those who knew them. We can choose to inhabit those perspectives of history and re-evaluate our national story. The knowledge is ready for access through the stories of our neighbors, the truth already encapsulated in our nation’s primary documents. Filling in the gaps with humility enables us to see the circuitry between our peoples and take responsibility for those within our national sphere and global nexus.

Knowing these stories prevents us from rushing into actions that will harm vulnerable communities as our ignorance will not rationalize their pain. In our current political climate, recognizing the implications of such histories would radically define our policies so the anxiety over the Other would not determine our path forward. If enough people are unwilling to listen, the dominant narrative will remain a glorious American mansion shrunken from the misguided acts of people of color, immigrant peoples, Muslim peoples. If no one challenges this story, our house remains divided.

We are finite of time and capacity, but we must allow God to convict us of what we were once unaware. Once convicted, we act and share what we know with others missing out on the knowledge that could rattle faulty foundations. With access to that knowledge, we allow our eyes to pry open and truly see the house in which we live–and how our neighbors, those we are commanded to love, are suffering within it. The house is wider and more broken than we ever imagined.

When I watched the tree’s murder, I thought the path of activism was the protest march. I thought petitions and shouting and demonstrations were the daring acts I was too hesitant to enter into, and because I didn’t do everything, I failed to help anybody. I grew frustrated with myself until I realized there are varied ways to enter the fray, some simultaneous, all demanding courage. We must only be faithful to that of which we are called each moment, whether podium, protest, or the page. This is not an excuse to exert the least amount of effort or pass the cup to others we perceive as better suited. We each have been given gifts to harness for the benefit of others and people to speak to, whether our own communities or people of different backgrounds–or both.

For myself, the path of the writer can be that of a warrior. With words, I pierce the ground to find my nation’s roots, even as headlines of more evil acts rally in hordes. I write because there is a spiritual battle in my country where truth is trampled in favor of self-preservation. Too many grasp at walls and guns as the first line of defense, not Christ. The enemy capitalizes on the anxieties of white people, whispering that Those People will lead to their destruction, will annihilate their way of life unless expunged. The enemy magnetizes the grief of people of color, finding ways to incite violence and further division out of legitimate hurt. The walls of this house shake under the weight.

In her introduction to The House on Mango Street, Chicana author Sandra Cisneros writes:

We do this [write] because the world we live in is a house on fire, and the people we love are burning in it

Through the scald of flames spreading, the air thick and choking, I write. Wood splinters above me, beams threatening to topple, and I know there are other rooms in this house and people trapped within them. Some already pound on the walls, seeking cracks in the walls and ceiling to draw in unsmoked breath; some find it. But the flames wreath the walls like a hideous crown, a sign of victory for the forces that seek to divide and conquer.

Sandra Cisneros’ words build the infernal house in my head, my consciousness illuminated by fires tended by years of silence. My fear is ever present, my desire to save myself from other’s opinions and rejection, but my love for those trapped transcends it. I write, praying that my words will thrash at the weak points in the structure so people will someday leave freely or hold up the roof long enough so others can escape and find deliverance for those left behind. I cling to the hope that those inside will unite and find a space wide enough for everyone to enter the open air.

My country is a house in flames, and I write so the people I love will not burn.