The Moment I Realized I Am Black: Token Confession Entry 4

My first memory of being keenly aware of my black body, and that it meant something more than Jesus loving all the children of the world, “Red, brown, yellow, black and white. They are precious in his sight.” was while watching television.

In January 1987 the landmark PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize debuted. I watched it with my family. Across the thick glass screen of our television set—classic eighties version big wooden box with knobs for turning the channel and bunny ears attena—I had my first exposure to porn. Black trauma porn. There lying on the brown carpet of the family room I watched horrifying black and white images of black folks in the 50s and 60s getting beaten by white civilians and law enforcement, hosed down with fire hydrants, and attacked by police dogs during the Civil Rights Movement.  For the first time I can recall I saw moving images that chronicled part of the history of race in America. For the first time I saw images of Emmet Til’s mutilated body. For the first time I saw moving images of the Klan marching through the streets and burning crosses in a vacant field or someone’s yard. For the first time I saw moving images of black folks marching, singing, and being beaten for having the audacity to take a stand for their dignity as human beings. Sacrificing their bodies for a prize that should not be elusive. For the first time I saw images of white Americans enraged at the audacity of black folks peacefully protesting against the tyranny of white supremacy in all its social forms in the public square. For the first time I saw the steely resolve of Rosa Parks. For the first time I heard the power of Martin’s voice.

I don’t think I had a sense then for how traumatic it was to watch that documentary. To see those images. It’s only in the last few years of seeing videos of the last moments of Eric Garner, Tamar Rice, and Philando Castile, that I’ve gone back in my mind’s eye and dusted off the footage of moments from my youth as I try to make sense of it all, and endeavor to be a conduit towards conciliation. Reflection has led me to ask questions like, “when is the first time I was aware of my blackness?” Watching that documentary at school is what stood out despite, upon further thought, investigation and mining my memory, realizing I saw it at home in the safe company of my family first. So what was it about watching parts of it again at school that stood out? The awkward collective awakening we had as kids I suppose. It was as though nothing was the same again. To say that our innocence was taken from us as we watched these images from America’s second Civil War would be a slight over exaggeration. Accurately put it was our ignorance that was taken from us. We had been formally initiated into the reality that America to its core is a nation that was established on a racial hierarchy. I had been awakened to my place in it. And for the first time it started to make sense.

What started to make sense you ask?

Certainly I was aware that there wasn’t a lot of people who looked like me around unless I was surrounded by family. I had the feeling of being “the other” for as long as I could remember, but at times it went deeper than just being “the other”. Previously I couldn’t articulate it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. That is until I saw Eyes on the Prize. Then I knew exactly what it was. It all started to make sense. Mostly gone was the overt forms of racial violence. Racism in America had made adjustments in response to the Civil Rights movement. It had undergone a master class in subtlety. So subtle that often those who wielded it did so unwittingly. Subtle like the strangely disapproving looks I sometimes received from strangers. Keep in mind I was not more than ten years old and I already knew “the look”. Before I just thought it was odd. After seeing Eyes on the Prize I had context. Context for how some people saw me even as a young black boy. Context for despite a quelling of racial violence, the belief in inherent racial superiority, or more specifically to me, racial inferiority was still very much the air we breathed in America. White Supremacy and Black Inferiority had endured. Context for my presence in the incomplete reckoning of America’s original sin.

 

Respect the Troops: Stop Whitewashing Our US Military Veterans

I’ve read numerous posts or comments over the last few days that say. Not all quite as strongly but something similar to this one … “Nike spit in the face of every active duty military personnel, retired or disabled vet. Also on every grave marker in every Military Cemetery all over the world.”

You may have missed this in history class, but did you know that Black Americans have served in every American War?

History records the first American to die in the Revolutionary War was Crispus Attucks. He was part Black part Native which means he had absolutely nothing to gain in this war. Yet he is regarded by historians to be the first American ever to die for this country.

Black Americans who fought in the Civil War saw the end of slavery, only for white supremacy to live on and adapt consequently rendering the 14th and 15th Amendments ineffective.

Black Americans who fought in WWI returned home to a separate but not equal society based on skin color, and the threat of lynching if they forgot their place.
Many of the Black Americans who fought in WWII stayed in Europe and took up residence because of the overt racism and often violent resistance to the growing Civil Rights Movement that was happening back home. They had it better in places like France than they did in the US.

Many of the Black Americans who fought in the Civil War and both World Wars were became targets of racial violence, because of their service to the nations military and how their service was a threat to white supremacist ideology.

Black Americans who fought in the Korean War returned home to be discriminated against in their access to the GI Bill. They watched their white brothers be given a chance to start a life via the GI Bill, while they were denied because of the color of their skin. And even if they were approved for access to the GI Bill their options of where they could buy a home, go to school, start a business were severely limited due to continued resistance to social integration and equality.

Black Americans who fought in the Vietnam War returned home to a virutal war on black neighborhoods via the War on Crime and War on Drugs.

Today many Black Americans whose military duties took them to Iraq and Afghanistan return home to fear for the lives of their children in encounters with police, and to listen to people like you talk as if their service doesn’t even exist and never happened. They continue to serve this country in the midst of a resurgence of White Nationalism. They serve this country and make sacrifices for the freedoms of US citizens including those who look at them, not as a veteran deserving of gratitude and honor, but just another N****r. They protected the freedoms of the white men who marched through Charlottesville last year with tiki torches proclaiming, “You will not replace us”.

You don’t have to think much of Colin Kaepernick or any of the NFL players who kneel in protest of the persistence of racism in US policing and the criminal justice system.

You can be so upset with Nike for making him the face of their new ad campaign and never buy another pair of their shoes again.

But please… stop talking as though no one who ever fought, served and sacrificed in our nation’s military was black. Their contributions to our nation is not Black History. It’s American history. A history that is often forgotten, ignored, or over looked.

Black Americans defended and continue to defend the very institutions and people that treat them not as veterans deserving respect and honor, but rather as a menace to society deserving of suspicion for doing average everyday things while black.

Token Confessions Entry 3 – Visiting a Place Where You Are “the Only One”

Imagine visiting a place where you are “the only one”. Being “the only one” is not out of the ordinary for you, because it is largely your daily experience. This is your daily experience and so reading certain non-verbal and social cues has become second nature. You have become very adept at reading a room when you are “the only one” because you’ve been doing it since before you could remember. Your intuition in these settings has been finely tuned over years of occupying spaces as “the only one”. You know when your presence is wanted or unwanted, noticed or unnoticed, familiar or a mystery, welcome or suspicious. This time is different though. It’s different because you can tell through the series of non-verbal cues, the hesitation of what to say, how to engage you, that for most in the majority you are “the first one”. The first one they are seeing, meeting, greeting, and engaging in the flesh.
 
Prior to you all of their interactions with people “like you” were limited to crossing paths. Some even admit to this. Perhaps a sporting event, a concert, or some other activity that involves going to “the city” where all kinds of people live and intersect. In the absence of proximity there has not been the opportunity to form relationship with someone “like you”. Therefore what most of those here from the majority know about people “like you” is limited to television, movies, music, history text books, and what they’ve been told by family and the community they’re from about people “like you”. You are familiar with what those sources often display and portray. You know the limitations and narrowness of those sources all too well. Those sources can often be a source of contention with your soul, your being, and the community of those “like you”. They are too often the bane of your existence, because they put people “like you” in a box. The box is too often toxic.
 
You are the first “them” or “they” that they are meeting in a space where you and them are also the same. You have both come for the same reason. So though you are “the only one”, you are also one of many. You knew this going in and you had hoped that what you had in common with everyone else would overshadow what singularly set you apart as “the only one”.
 
For some they are completely unfazed by you being “the only one” or perhaps even “the first one”. For some the fact that you are there for the same reason as them supersedes you being one of “them”. They interact engage and inquire of you the same as they do with everyone else. However, for many… for most in fact… they struggle awkwardly with the most basic of things. How to greet you. How to talk to you. What to say. Your presence as “the only one” overshadows that you are the same because amongst other things you are there for the same reason. You are a mystery that evokes an awkwardness that is not easily veiled. It’s not that they don’t like the “they” or “them” they’ve only ever watched on tv, heard on the radio or read about in history textbooks.
 
It’s as simple as they have never met one of “them” or “they” tclose enough to shake hands, and have a conversation further than ordering food from MacDonalds or paying for gas inside, because in that one city, that one time, where everyone had to prepay, because well it’s not as safe where a lot of “them” live. The fact that you aren’t from one of those places where a lot of “them” live comes as a surprise to the point that you have to keep reiterating that you aren’t from “there”. They’ve been hardwired to assume that everyone like you is from that one city, so you have to keep correcting them and reminding them that you are from somewhere else. Somewhere where you aren’t necessarily “the only one”, but you are in the minority. What makes it even more noticeable is that you have come to this place with two others who are not “one of them”, but are from where you’re from. In fact the three of you have all come together, even though you’re “the only one”. Yet invariably people you meet together, who aren’t use to seeing people “like you”, assume that you must be from that one city that has a lot of “them”, and not from the same place as the other two people you came with. Lastly there are those, just a few but enough to make an impression, that aren’t making the effort (reciprocate) to get to know you, because they already know everything they need to know about people “like you”. They have always been fine with being separate from people “like you”.
 
Your weekend at this place is mostly exhausting and draining. You imagine yourself potentially choosing to be there and how your existence in that space will just been a extension of that weekend visit. If you should choose to do life there, even for a time, you imagine you would perpetually feel exhausted and drained simply for being “the only one” and for many there you would be “the first one”. You are a month from being eighteen. Choosing here would be choosing the first place to be independent you, away from your parents and the support system you’ve had growing up. In that moment you become keenly aware that you are not ready to be, you do not want to be “the only one” here.

[At least that’s what I decided. Are you still imagining what it would’ve been like to be in my shoes? If so how did it make you feel? What would you have done? Thanks for considering and contemplating one of my memories of an experience I had as the “token black guy”.]

What Does the Flag Symbolize?: Thoughts on the NFL National Anthem Controversy and Policy

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting leave and getting away with murder.”

That is the explanation that Colin Kapernick gave to reporters after the third preseason game for the San Francisco 49ers in late August 2016. Fast forward twenty one months later after two full NFL seasons embroiled in a national anthem controversy, the owners have unanimously approved a NFL National Anthem Policy. I’ve read the statement that was given in accordance with the introduction of this new policy. I do appreciate that they acknowledged how unfortunate it was that “on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousand of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case.” That being said that false perception was held and often driven by a number of NFL owners themselves.

At the end of the day the NFL owners ultimately care about the bottom line. I do not believe they really get it, and honestly I’m not convinced they really care. After the mid season closed door meetings with some of the players who had become the leaders of this movement within the NFL they concluded that they would support the foundations and charities the players were involved in within their respective communities. That solution falls short of actually addressing the actual concerns of the wider movement the players are lending their voices to within the United States of America as a whole demanding better policing in communities of color and accountability for officers who are wrongfully kill unarmed citizens. They do not care about there being a universal standard of policing and police protocol. They do not care about police officers whose recklessness and clear disregard for their training in deescalation tactics lead to unnecessary and unjust deaths. These are issues that can’t be resolved by getting behind the local Boys & Girls Club.

But ultimately this isn’t simply about the NFL not getting it or not caring. It’s about a large swath of America not getting it, or simply not caring. They do not care about the inequitable policing of black and brown bodies that can get Tamir Rice shot and killed in two seconds flat, but still armed white mass shooters can be taken into custody without incident hours after they’ve gone on a shooting rampage. They have been drip fed the lie of black inferiority, of inherent black savagery all their lives. These lies date back to the foundations of this country when Columbus discovered a resource far more valuable than the gold he was in search of. He found brown bodies, and with the authority bestowed on him by the crown and the church he sought to own them and make them work for him. If they did not comply they were killed. Thus as far as they are concerned the high profile incidences involving people of color who have been killed by police officers in recent years are just another black or brown body in a heap of millions that has been collecting for five hundred years that should have just done what their master told them to do.

It is not NFL owners who sat on the juries or grand juries who either choose to acquit or not indict Officer Yanez, Officer Wilson, Officer Pantaleo, George Zimmerman, or Officer Loehmann. It was our fellow citizens many of whom are likely NFL Fans, play fantasy football, or have a favorite local team. They are Vikings fans. They were Rams fans. They are Giants or Jets fans. They are Browns fans. Jurors decided and much of America approved.

Lost in all the anthem controversy of the past two years is the actual symbolic meaning of the stars and stripes. The American flag itself has been distorted to mean something else, something that was not originally intended. America has either forgotten or simply does not want to be beholden to the great ideals that America aspires to be and thus what the flag represents. When the colonists first marched into the battles of the Revolutionary War with the flag it was not in honor of the troops who were fighting against the crown of Great Britain whom they believed was a tyrant. They carried the flag to remind them what they were fighting for. The ideal they aspired towards as expressed in The Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It represents what we aspire to be but have never fully been. The pageantry that was developed around supporting troops during war time dating back the World War II has caused us to forget what the flag was meant to signify. It was quite a convenient revision for a nation that fought a war against fascism whilst rounding up Asian Americans into internment camps and sending black men who were legally discriminated against at home across the ocean to fight for the freedom of white foreigners

Truth be told America has had a very slow and contentious march towards fulfilling that ideal for all of it’s history into the present day. By 1776 it had been nearly 130 years since the courts in Virginia ruled that John Punch “being a negro… shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere”. That of course after the Dutchman and the Scotsman who had fled with John Punch got four additional years added to their servitude. In the sixty years after the Joe Punch Decision Virginia codified a series of court decisions that created a radicalized system of slavery with the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705. It effectively embedded white supremacy into law, and the other colonies quickly followed suit. Thus the Declaration of Independence was conceived under the clear auspices of white supremacy. White Supremacy in America has never fully been addressed and dismantled. Thus today we have glaring issues of racial inequality not least of which is the criminal justice system.

If there was ever a time for NFL owners to see the urgency and seriousness of what the players were kneeling for it was during the first weekend of preseason games in early August 2017. Out spoken white supremacists marched through Charlottesville Virginia and protested the removal of statues depicting rebels and traitors of America. Statues of men who believed it was their divine right to rule over men and women of color. Not on their knees, but with torches. Not with silence but with shouts that they will not be replaced. Not in their uniforms of white hoods masking their faces, but in their street clothes and their pale faces in the open. Not with a posture of submission but with gestures of assault and violent confrontation armed with anything that could be used as a weapon.Yet in the midst of weekly news stories of black people having the police called on them for doing everyday ordinary things, and bigots no longer holding their tongue, they’ve made it clear what matters most.. their bottom line of corporate sponsors and white fans who just want their football without the distractions and for the players to simply comply and give them a good game.

Token Confessions Entry 2: My Daughter Doesn’t Think She Looks Like A Princess

Many have a hard time accepting that White Supremacy exists in modern day America beyond the pockets of robe wearing hate groups, tiki torch carrying white nationalists, and other extremists who give the ideology of white supremacy agency. At it’s core the ideology of White Supremacy is not about hatred. It’s about who and what is inherently superior and therefore who and what is inherently inferior.

My seven year old daughter loves nothing more than wearing a pretty dress and being told she is beautiful. She’ll put it on underneath her bathrobe and come skipping up to me or her mother with that larger than life grin on her face, unveil the dress she has adorned herself in and ask the same question, “How do I look?”, hoping to be told she looks beautiful.

Just the other morning this routine unfolded. She first came to me in the den reading the mornings news. I paused for a moment to gaze into the eyes of my daughter and told her in my understated way, “You look beautiful”. She then proceeded to the office to present herself to her mother and ask the same question to which Emma said, “You look like a princess.” At this Isla replied…

“I can’t look like a princess mummy. Princesses don’t have brown skin like me. They have light skin like you mummy, and blonde hair like you.”

Emma was quick to not simply tell Isla that her brown skin doesn’t render her unworthy or unfit of being a princess, but to also go to google. She typed in “black princess” and scrolled through numerous images of princesses with brown skin and dark hair like Isla. One day Isla will truly be able to appreciate and understand how fortunate she is to have HER pale skinned Scottish mummy as HER mother. In the meanwhile she, freshly seven years old, has already received the message.

It is a message that no one told her. No one has had to articulate it to her. She knows little to nothing about racism nor the history of white supremacy in shaping her native land long before she was born. But she has received the message that white is right, and black is well… less than. Inferior.

My daughter’s response to being told she looks like a princess is an example of how white supremacy works in 2018.

No one told her that black is inferior.

No one told her that black isn’t beautiful.

No one told her that white skin or blonde hair is better than brown skin and thick black hair.

But simply by living in this culture and society she has received the message that whiteness is superior, and black is inferior. That white is the image of true beauty, beauty that she will never be able to attain.

No matter how extravagant the dress, it is on brown skin.

No matter how fabulous the hair is styled, it’s thick black and resting on a brown canvas.

And she has been seven years old for a month.

That is how white supremacy works in 2018.

It is so woven into the fabric of our society and culture. It was a core principle and driving factor fueling colonization and European Imperialism. Due to its central role in shaping the world for nearly six hundred years (see the Papal Bull Statement of 1452) it no longer requires personal agency to ensure its ideology, its tenets, its principles are passed on. It is a well oiled machine that has learned to adapt to new times and challenges.

In America we consistently make the mistake of thinking the Emancipation Proclamation abolished the idea of inherent white superiority. It only abolished slavery while leaving the ideology that birthed it intact. Unchecked and unquestioned it has enormous power to shape how we think without us being aware it has taken hold. Even with the recent increase in white nationalism white supremacy is most effective in and insidious in its subtle forms.

Nikolas Cruz Was the Bully: Why #Walkup is the Right Thing at the Wrong Time

The WalkUp idea started with Ryan Petty a father of one of Cruz’s victims. At a press conference he encouraged students to walk up to 14 students and 3 adults and say something nice, and get to know them, instead of walking out of school for seventeen minutes. During that Press conference he also implored state legislators to do three, things all of which echoed the sentiments of the WalkOut protestors. Enhance safety and security of schools. Second, keep guns out of the hands of those who pose a risk to themselves or others. Finally state leaders must improve mental health resources for at risk youth. These are the very things that many students wrote a letter to congressmen requesting during the seventeen minutes they walked out of their school in solidarity with their peers across the country.

Take the time to read up on the accounts of Nikolas Cruz. This isn’t a story of a bullied kid handing out unmitigated retribution on his tormentors and the silent bystanders. This was a kid described as having developmental issues, and impulse control issues. Students who had tried to strike up conversations reported that he only talked about guns knives and hunting. He was known for posting videos and pictures on social media of him killing animals. The behavioral issues that led to his expulsion included threatening other students and a teacher. Not a teacher who was disciplining him but trying to help him. There was such a concern about his mental state and the threat he posed that he wasn’t even allowed to bring a backpack to school.

He wasn’t a loner because he was weird or different. He was a loner because he was dangerous. Even the most accepting of us would think twice about engaging someone like that. So why are telling kids the best response to this latest school shooting is to #walkup? Even still, at his request, Nikolas and his brother moved in with a friend’s family back in November. Clearly this was a kid who was no stranger to the kindness and generosity of others. Another student interviewed after the shooting said they had been close friends until Nikolas started going after and threatening another of his friends. WalkUp has all the feels of being an anti-bully movement, which has tremendous merit when it’s not being used to redirect civil protest and become little more than victim blaming. Under these circumstances it neglects to see that Nikolas Cruz appears to be the bully long before he became a mass murderer.

I grieve for the obvious brokenness of Nikolas. Surely he was ill-equipped to navigate the loss of both his parents by the age of 18. I simply see no link to justify an anti-bullying be nice movement in response to this because that wasn’t the issue. Especially when so many adults have resorted to bullying tactics in response to the very students who have spoken out after surviving this incident. Students that knew how dangerous he was. Some of whom notified the proper authorities when he posted that he wants to be a “professional school shooter” and nothing was done. I fear WalkUp has become just another example of adults thinking they know best and not listening to young people, particularly those who were there.

Again Cruz found pleasure in torturing and killing animals, which is a clear indicator that his lack of empathy was the issue, not his peers. The same day students were protesting demanding legislative action in the same three areas Mr. Petty spoke of, the WOOFF Act was introduced on the Senate floor in response to a dog dying in an overhead bin of a plane. It was 48 hours after the incident. Next April will be twenty years since Columbine.

I’m all for people loving one another. The core sentiments and principles of “WalkUp” are things I have practiced and preached specifically to youth in seventeen years of student ministry. You don’t have to be a Christian to understand why loving one another is linked to the greatest commandment of loving God. However, extending the hand of friendship and gestures of gratitude will not change the fact that the mentally ill and unstable (an individual who is well short of responsible), can #walkup to a gun retailer and #walkout with a gun.

#Walkout Exposes Greatest Threat to the Safety of Students… Adults

Today across the country High School students will be walking out of school for seventeen minutes to honor and memorialize the seventeen people (14 students and 3 adults) killed in the Parkland, Florida school shooting massacre. It is their way of showing solidarity with those whose lives were taken exactly one month ago. It is also their way of protesting against the inaction of our nation’s politicians to enact stricter gun regulations.

As often is the case in our country’s history even the most peaceful and civil form of protest is met with fierce objection and opposition. Some school faculty and administration have threatened to take severe disciplinary action against students who participate in the “National School Walkout”. Some teachers have threatened to fail any student who walks out of their class.

Once again, as we have seen all too recently in other cases, many do not grasp one of the primary functions of peaceful protest or act of civil disobedience. One of the primary functions they serve is to expose the core character of those in power in authority. Those in power and authority are given an opportunity to demonstrate whether they will listen or silence, whether they will apprehend or guide, whether they are tyrants or servants.

Disheartening is a good way to describe the response of some adults in the lead up to this day. Disagreeing with the goals of the movement is one thing. Demonizing students who simply do not want to see another mass shooting in any school is vile and abhorrent behavior, but it is not out of the norm. Most days of the year a popular pass time amongst many adults is shaming teenagers for being self-centered, always on their phones and tablets, obsessed with curating their social media image, addicted to video games, and generally lazy and apathetic towards anything that truly matters. Now that they actually want to do something that shows solidarity with others their pawns actors and just plain spoiled uninformed brats.

If nothing else watching the way many adults have responded so toxically to the idea of students participating in a peaceful civil protest has served as a reminder of why I worked with teenagers for (ironically) 17 years.

I have lost count of how many times I was declared a saint for working with teenagers. Most of the time I found it sad in what it said they thought about teenagers. So many people couldn’t imagine spending so much time investing in students. There are a number of reasons I did it and did it for that long. So many adults think so little of them. I wanted them to know they are loved and accepted as they are while facilitating a community of their peers and other adults where they could flourish and grow. It is the same gift I was given by adults who cared for me and my peers when I was a teenager. It is the gift that so many of my peers were not given, and the absence and void it left still shows in many of them as adults.

Don’t let the divisiveness of the gun debate distract you from the point that students just want to feel safe. Right now they don’t feel safe. School shootings is one thing. The steady barrage of insults, shaming, dehumanizing and general apathy they receive from adults, even when the gun debate has simmered down, needs to stop. A gunman can taking their life is one thing. Adults decimating their soul is another.