Why Black People Tend to Dance: An Apology for Cam Newton

 

12240038_10208400423587504_2136578022119085585_nMuch of the criticism not just of this angry mother, but of those less offended by his behavior, but wishing he conducted himself differently, has centered around the opinion that Cam’s behavior, amongst other things, was lacking in class. I hear this criticism of him and other athletes, typically black athletes (not because they are black and the critic dislikes black people, but because usually black athletes are the ones celebrating by dancing and other demonstrative behavior) all the time. They would prefer, he would just hug and high five his teammates quickly, in an understated fashion, and then unassumingly jog off the field to the sidelines.

Allow me to offer this critique of the “it lacked class” criticism. This criticism often highlights the cultural differences between black and white Americans. I can hear the retort now, “Yet again! Why do you have to make it about race?” Well if you bear with me I will explain to you why it is about race but not in a “anyone who criticizes Cam is a racist” explanation. This explanation doesn’t require or ask white people to apologize for the past or recognize their “privilege”. It simply asks that people who are criticizing him for a touchdown dance, whether they be white and hearing this reasoning for the first time or black and have forgotten to consider without hearing it as an attack.

It’s not about race in a way that makes her and others racist and hate black people. It’s about race in that so many white people either don’t and in some cases refuse to understand, and some black people have forgotten, that dancing and being loud is a part of our culture as Black Americans. Culture is simply what we make of the world, both in a literal sense of making (building and creating) things, and in how we make sense of the world around us. And for black Americans dancing and celebrating is an integral part of our culture. Dancing is how we sought to make sense of the world around us. What did our ancestors make of slavery? Singing, shouting, and dancing. You need look no further than predominantly black churches the world round to see all three of those things remain embedded in our culture. We wouldn’t have survived the horrors of slavery and injustice without dancing. It’s in our blood to dance, when we’re suffering and when we celebrate, to the point that now we the sons and daughters of those people who cultivated that kind of life do it sometimes instinctively without thinking about it, or remembering why we have an urge to respond that way. Dancing and singing and shouting kept many of our ancestors from losing hope that things could get better. And praise God things have gotten better. And still we don’t or at least try not to forget where we come from, even as we try to accommodate the majority culture, thus we keep on dancing.

The late Ralph Wiley, an author, journalist and writer who was a Sports Illustrated staff writer for nine years, described this culture and reasoning better than I in his book Why Black People Tend to Shout (all this discussion about Cam inspired me to go dig the book up).

First of all, black people are too happy just being able to shout not to take advantage of the luxury. When you have to read that bits were put in some of your ancestors’ mouths, you tend to shout. When a sweet grandmotherly sort has to tell you how black people once were chained in iron make in the canebrake, to keep them from eating the cane while they harvested it, and that these masks were like little ovens that cooked the skin off their faces–when you hear that grandmotherly voice and realize she once was a girl who might have been your girl, and someone caused this pain on her lips and nobody did anything about it but keep living–this gives you a tendency to shout,

Black American culture is a byproduct of the great grandchildren of the tribal African culture. A culture that danced to celebrate life, danced boys into manhood, danced the betrothed into matrimony, and danced the fallen into the afterlife.
So now when someone like Cam gets criticized and told “show a little class”, it’s like being told to assimilate. When someone like Cam is told they find his dancing in that moment offensive (all the while half naked cheerleaders are shaking what they mama gave em) it’s like being told, “we find your culture offensive”. And we find it slightly ironic that so much of our shouting singing and dancing, in the form of folk, blues, rhythm and blues, hip hop and rap music, has been copied had a white face slapped on it and sold to the masses for a profit, but it’s somehow offensive when we do it.

When someone like Cam is told to “grow up” in response to him pointing after a first down, it’s like being told to forget where you came from, or to get over it. If you’ve heard a word of what I’ve just said then you’ll know, maybe for the first time, that dancing is how we got over.

When we hear someone say “I miss the old days when guys just played the game the right way without all the theatrics”, we hear you want things to be the way they were before the color barrier, or more accurately put the unwritten “gentlemen’s agreement” policy, in sports being broken and required a subdued and suppressed black man to break it. Jackie Robinson is an American hero and is the most courageous man that ever competed in modern sports, but he was chosen over the likes of Josh Gibson and Satchel Page because Branch Rickey believed Jackie he could subdue his need to dance and shout. Muhammad Ali is considered the greatest athlete ever by most Black Americans because he dared to dance shout and rap inspiring Black Americans who had despite their assimilating efforts been kept separate and unequal to start dancing again.

When someone like Cam is told “act like you’ve been here before” we know he is doing it because we have been there.

Removing the Flag Is Good But Does Little to Create Real Community

“Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community” Georges Erasmus

 

I first heard the above quote during a presentation done by Mark Charles at Q Conference in Boston this past April. Mark was making the case that Americans will continue to have racial tension as long as we all continue to operate from a different a memory and different pasts. It’s really sad to think that it required 9 people being murdered by a racist white supremacist for us to finally reach a point where are beginning to take the steps necessary to have a common memory of our history as Americans, black, white, and everything in between.

 

While I fully support the removal of the Confederate/Rebel Flag from the grounds of state capitals, I fear this will cause us to prematurely think our work is done. Those flags will be removed from our public places, but our real problem is not that flag although the debate surrounding it is indicative of our true problem. One symbol stirs feelings of pride from a shared heritage for one group of people stirs feelings of trauma from a shared suffrage for another.

 

We do not have a common memory and we do not share in the same past. For White Americans their collective memory and past is one of conquest, colonization, freedom, and “God’s blessing”. For ethnic minorities, particularly Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, collective memory and past is one filled with trauma from the struggle to be recognized as human and treated with dignity and equality. Our collective memory is filled with dehumanization, enslavement, mass genocide, demonization and marginalization. For white peoples in this country it has truly been a dream. For black and brown peoples in this country that dream has almost always been a nightmare over the 400 plus years since the early colonies. “Manifest Destiny” destined those deemed savages and beasts to destruction and to the margins of our country.

 

 

As difficult as it might be, white people need to start listening to the memories and the past of the ethnic minorities in America. It won’t be easy. It will be hard to believe for no other reason than so much of it is omitted from the majority of our history books. History has always been written by and representative of those who are one of the majority and elite. If we want real healing then the parallel narrative of the marginalized must be heard. It must be written. It must be taught. It will expose the blind-spots you didn’t know were there in our past as a nation. Black people, Hispanics, and Native-Americans need to remember that white people are hearing these stories, memories and past for the first time. They are being asked to look at parts of our history through our eyes, and if they really see it it will strike at their heart. Hearing about it for the first time will be traumatic for them and we need to extend them grace. We need to assure them of our sincerity in informing them is not to guilt or shame them, not to demand an apology, not to seek reparations. We need to show them the compassion we’ve so desperately needed to heal. In this way we can all heal together, and truly have community without losing ethnic and cultural identities.

 

The debate raging on social media over the Confederate/Rebel Flag and its possible removal caused one of my white friends to do some research into the history of the flag.  She described having a traumatic experience. She grew up in the south with that flag being flown everywhere, and was told the same as so many others of it being a symbol of their heritage as southerners. What she found was a gapping blind spot into the history of how that flag quickly became a symbol of white supremacy and hate as its re-designer William T Thompson intended. Her words to me over the phone illustrate what so many are experiencing, “I have been grieved to my heart since finding out the history around that flag.” If I had responded with a flippant “well duh, where have you been” attitude it wouldn’t have been helpful. No more or less helpful than when I’ve shared more stories and memories of what it’s like to be black in America and it is met with accusations of playing the race card, or attempts to explain it away.

 

The flag should be removed from the grounds of state capitals, and states who integrated it into their state flag need to get it out.  However, if that is all we do then we will fall desperately short of what is necessary for real community to happen that transcends race and ethnicity. We need to teach both narratives in our history books in our schools and places of higher learning. The history of our nation needs to be taught through the eyes of both the elite and the marginalized. I am not suggesting that we throw out one narrative and replace it with the other. Rather they should be part of one comprehensive telling of our history, of our past, and shape a shared memory, so we can move forward into the future not separate but together.

We Can No Longer Be Apathetic Towards Racism

I find it ironic and not at all surprising that many media outlets are pointing to drug reform (which isn’t a bad idea) in the wake of yet another mass shooting murderer who was on some sort of prescription drugs (as well as possibly some illegal ones) in a subtle attempt to make drugs some sort of scapegoat by pointing away from the indoctrinated hate that filled his heart and mind. Ironic and not surprising that when Trayvon Martin’s toxicology report turned up marijuana it wasn’t to weave a narrative of the need for drug reform, it was to prove he was a bad apple and a danger to civilized law abiding citizens. Ironic and not surprising that in less than 24 hours of his death pictures of Mike Brown playing cards, holding a wad of cash, gun on the table, and smoking marijuana wasn’t to weave a narrative of the need for drug reform. It was to prove he was bad apple and a danger to civilized law abiding citizens. Oh yeah, and it wasn’t even him in the picture it was someone else. When given the same circumstances or worse with white criminals of the most hate filled crimes (see Aurora and Newton) we find a way to somehow paint a picture of them being the victims of mental illness and poor FDA regulations.

You can accuse me of playing the race card. You can tell me you’re tired of all the talk about race its about people (to which I’d tell you to tell Dylann Roof that. Tell his friends who thought all his racial slurs and comments were merely jokes and hyperbole). You can tell me I’m just creating more division (which makes no logical sense because you don’t cause division by pointing to it, you just make people who are comfortable with it uncomfortable). You can tell me that now is the time to mourn for the 9 slain in Charleston, SC. I tell you this is part of the mourning. I mourn that our society and culture continues to weave a racist lite propaganda demonizing black people in the most subtle of ways and then is shocked and surprised when someone actually buys it and walks into a church and before unleashing Hell on earth tells nine people, among them a state Senator four reverends, a barber, a grandmother, “I have to do it. You rape our women and are taking over OUR country. You have to go.”

We, you and me (that’s right me too) are complicit in keeping racism alive and well as long as we continue to bury our heads in the sand about the evil and decay of even our subtle forms of racism in this country simply because it makes us uncomfortable. We are not uncomfortable enough and our mourning achieves little if we refuse to act.

A Culture of Fear Acquitted: A Rational Explanation Of Why Zimmerman’s Acquittal Is Bothersome

In the last 24 hours I’ve had two people, one in person and the other via facebook, ask me to explain my perspective on the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman case. As one of them put it, “You are using a rational approach to expressing the same thing I have seen expressed much less rationally but still do not understand.” I imagine there are others of you who are struggling to understand why people—in particular, black-Americans—are at the least disheartened and at the most enraged that George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder as well as the lesser charge of manslaughter.

First let me clarify that I totally understand why George Zimmerman was acquitted. In a case with no other witnesses aside from Zimmerman it is extremely difficult to provide substantial evidence that he was lying, omitting facts or details, or otherwise twisting the truth. The justice system worked the way it is supposed to. Zimmerman was innocent until proven guilty and the prosecution had very little to work with. I am not God nor do I presume to be. The problem I have is: in a way, someone or something else was acquitted right along with Zimmerman. In the minds of myself and many others racial profiling aimed at black men was excused as well.

It was bad enough that black men have had to be concerned about being profiled and pulled over by police or profiled by security in malls and stores. Now the outcome of this trial has now a green light for civilians to profile pursue and detain black men they deem suspicious. We know better than to get mouthy or defend ourselves against police officers and security personnel, even though we’ve done nothing wrong. The outcome of this trial means that in at least 25 states with Stand Your Ground Laws, we can no longer defend ourselves against civilians who would find us—as we say—“under the suspicion of being black” and attempt to question or even detain us. That is where we feel the justice system failed us. That is where we feel the sting of inequality.

There are some making genuine attempts to look at this case objectively who would balk at my assessment because it is rooted in my and others personal experiences of being profiled. Many would suspect us of playing the race card and allowing our paranoia of racism and prejudice to shape our interpretation of these events and experiences. Many don’t understand why we assume that the interaction between Zimmerman and Martin was racially motivated occurrence. However, it’s not just black people who are greatly concerned about what the verdict of this trial means for racial profiling. There is a growing generation of white-Americans who have skin in the game.

Here is a snippet of what a friend, who is white, posted as they tried to sort through their emotions, “Right now I’m teaching all four of my children to fight back, scream for help, bite, kick or whatever they need to do to resist an attacker. But one day, when they’re older, I need to tell two of them to do the opposite, and not defend themselves because it’s too dangerous. Two of my sons are black so I’ve been reading and listening for years to black parents—who’ve lived through profiling by police, store clerks and their neighbors—that I need to teach my twins as they mature NOT to resist or fight even if they’ve done nothing wrong because it’s too dangerous. They must completely submit lest someone decide to issue their own form of justice and end their lives because they look ‘suspicious’.”

Let me reiterate I am not God nor do I presume to be. I don’t know anymore than anyone else whether or not George Zimmerman’s account of what happened that night is completely true or a lie. Nor do I presume to know what the intentions of his heart were that day. In a lot of ways, this isn’t even about Zimmerman and Trayvon anymore. Our society has packaged sold and promoted an image of black men that is overwhelmingly negative and brews fear, mistrust and suspicion. I am sure of this because I have even found myself to be suspicious of black men for no other reason than they were black all in the name of being safe. It’s an awful feeling to realize that you would be suspicious of yourself if you saw you in a different part of town and dressed differently. Popular media such as music, movies, TV shows and especially the ten o’clock news anywhere near an urban area reinforces the message that black men are a menace to society. I had a sinking feeling about the verdict not because I was convinced that Zimmerman was guilty, but because I felt as though the justice system acquitted a culture that says I’m a menace and suspicious. I feel as though the justice system justified the people who stare and keep an eye on me when I’m out with my wife or out in public with students in my youth ministry (just about all of whom are white). And that is why many of us who are fathers, mothers, wives, sons and daughters, neighbors and co-workers of black men are concerned about what this verdict means. It justified the caricature of black men in pop culture that is one of the root causes of the suspicion people have about them.

Uh Oh Cheerios!!! Backlash No Surprise Here

I’m guessing that I’m not the only one who is just finding out about the stir that was caused by a Cheerios commercial on YouTube two weeks ago. It was actually my brother in law who lives in the south of England that asked my wife and I what we thought about it, and we had no idea what he was talking about. One quick Google search and we were up to date.

The commercial, a 31 second spot, depicts an interracial family. A cute little black-white mixed girl with Cheerios box in hand asks her white mother, who is sitting in the kitchen working on something, are cheerios good for your heart. The mom gives the answer we’d all expect about Cheerios being whole grain, low cholesterol, low blah blah blah, upon which the little girl promptly exits the kitchen. It then cuts to the black father who suddenly wakes up from his catnap on the couch to discover that the left side of his chest is covered in Cheerios.

The backlash in the comments section of YouTube apparently was so ugly that General Mills, requested that YouTube disable the comments section for their video. Of course there are plenty of videos of people sharing their disappointment with the commercial. White people and black people alike were upset, really upset. Most were upset that Cheerios would even present an interracial couple as being the normal American family at all. Some were accusing Cheerios as being racist not because the family was interracial but because the black father was depicted as being a lazy good for nothing sleeping on the couch, while the white mother was busy paying the bills and doing other responsible stuff. And of course there is backlash to the backlash. There are people who are surprised that there are people who still harbor such a racist worldview.

I’ve thought about sharing my perspective on this before, but honestly I just kind of put it off. I suppose this most recent event, even being two weeks behind the curve as I don’t watch much TV news these days, is a timely catalyst to share why none of it surprises. The fact that there are people who probably wouldn’t consider themselves racist (they are), but are nonetheless bothered, offended, or simply don’t like to see their race mixing with others, and yet are not part of a secret society on the basis of their hate for other races or supremacy of their own is no surprise to me at all.

I figured the best way to organize my thoughts is to address various different groups whom this may concern.

To the Cheerios brand and General Mills Company… Thank you! As an interracial family it is important to us that our daughter occasionally see some depictions in the media of families that look like her family. I notice when commercials and television shows depict interracial families cause it’s so rare. Especially depictions that aren’t wrapped up in the social commentary and implications of the difficulty of interracial marriage like the movies Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and it’s remake Guess Who I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say that there is probably more “positive” depictions of homosexual couples on TV than there are of interracial families on TV. The most popular interracial couple on TV right now is, Scandal, which of course is an adulterous relationship (go figure). I can’t even get a Valentines Day card featuring an interracial couple, and if I could at a place like Hallmark or Target you’d likely have people complaining then too.

To the Haters aka Racists or Closet Racists… Thanks for making yourself known. I’ve always said I prefer the racist that let’s you know they don’t like you or approve, than the one who smiles in your face whilst wishing curses upon your head. A special group of closet racists happen to be Christians who have been taught and raised to believe that God doesn’t take too kindly to interracial relationships and mingling of the races beyond being cordial polite in the public arena (i.e. school, work, and recreation). Every instance in scripture of a command being given to not intermarry was an issue of idolatry not race. In the Old Testament (Numbers 25.1-3), God was concerned with Israel being tempted to follow after the gods of the foreign nations. Likewise in the New Testament (2nd Corinthians 6.14-17) Paul was concerned with those in the body of Christ becoming yoked to those who were outside of the body of Christ. If you don’t believe or agree with me then you may want to take a closer look at Numbers 12.1-8 and see God’s response to Aaron and Miriam giving Moses a hard time about his interracial marriage.

To Those Who Are Genuinely Surprised By The Negativity… I was speaking to my wife about this and we both agree, that the thing we’re most surprised by is that there is so many people who are surprised that so many people didn’t like the commercial because of their strong belief that the races shouldn’t mix.

Some friends of ours were kind enough to keep Isla overnight so Emma and I could get away. It was a white couple and of course Isla is darker than most mixed race children. They shared with us that they went out in public with her and received some disapproving and nasty looks from others. Didn’t surprise us at all cause it happens to us all the time. We never warned them that this could happen, they picked up on it themselves.

When Emma and I started dating I never gave her a heads up what to expect as in terms of people glaring at us in this manner. She being from Scotland knew about America’s racial history, however, she didn’t realize how big of an issue it still is. Early on in our dating life if we got the ugly looks I never said anything, I never pointed it out to see if she saw it. All on her own she picked up on it and knew exactly what it was, and asked me if I had noticed it. And yes we can distinguish fairly accurately between the inquisitive glare and the disapproving glare. Talk to anyone who is in an interracial relationship or have children of another race and they can tell you all about it. Typically it’s not as bad in cities, but once you get out into rural America, it can be thick.

I’ll never forget being in Georgia for a wedding, and Emma and I stopped into Target. Two black girls gave us the ugliest gawk and mumbled disapproval just loud enough to make sure we heard. I nearly snapped around and said to them, “Be mad if you want to but it was girls just like you who as a teenager ignored me because I wasn’t ‘black’ enough, ‘hard’ enough, or just plain good enough to give the time of day, because I had the gall to be myself and not worry about all the tired nonsense and stereotypes that would allow me to ‘keep it real’.”

The reality is that there are still many people who are raised to dislike, stay clear, be weary of people, or not mix with people of other races. In particular more white and black people have been taught these things in regards to one another from birth. Less than days gone by but enough for it to still be prevalent.

To Those Who Lost Faith In Humanity… Not to sound dismissive or arrogant but one of the reasons why I reject faith in humanity is because I think it is dismissive of how troubling and deep the selfishness of the human heart is and if unchecked the evil schemes it can and has devised over the course of history. That’s not to dismiss the fact that we are also capable of wondrous beauty, creativity, compassion, kindness, love, and ingenuity human beings are capable of. But we can’t just dismiss every evil plot of mankind away with mental illness and poor nurturing. At what point do we recognize that some of this nonsense is just in our nature, and is never going to be fully solved through human progress?

Melissa Harris-Perry and Our Collective Need to Respond with Grace and Peace

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Romans 12.18 “If Possible, so far as it depends on you live peaceably with all.”

In case you haven’t heard the comments made by Melissa Harris-Perry have created quite a stir amongst many. Not least some within the American Church. In case you haven’t heard it or seen the “Lean Forward” advertisement here is the quote that rose the ire of many…

“We have never invested as much in public education as we should have. We haven’t had a very collective notion of, these are our children. We have to break through our private idea that children belong to their parents, or children belong to their families, and recognize that children belong to whole communities. Once it’s everybody’s responsibility and not just the household’s, we start making better investments.”

Many have seen this as an attack on the nuclear family and the role of parents. Some have even said that it sounds very socialist. I don’t know a lot about the woman, but as a fellow Black American I can imagine that some of her comments about children belong to communities is harkening back to a part of Black American Culture that existed well into the 70s. The comedian Sinbad even told stories about this part of Black culture in one of his stand up routines; if you got in trouble at school which required a call home, then the ladies in the neighborhood and your grandmother (assuming she lived in the neighborhood), knew about it and gave you a piece of their mind/disciplined you, before you even reached home and had to face your own parents. It could be possible that Harris-Perry is harkening back to concept of “it takes a village/tribe” as a way of encouraging people to consider how they can invest in the youth in their community beyond their own (And not in the exclusively discipline fashion of the 70s).

As a member of the church and more specifically as a youth pastor this got me to thinking… No one ever freaked out when someone said, “It takes a village…”. In fact I’ve heard many in the church use the analogy in positive ways to encourage the role of community within the body of Christ. No one ever said in response to that, “it reeks of naturalism or early western pagan spirituality”. As a youth pastor I promote the idea that parents have the most potential influence in shaping their children, and while I have a role to play and something valuable to add, parents are (and always will be) the primary stewards of their kids. Personally I feel all the drama surrounding her comments just highlights something else that I’ve observed lately, which bothers me.

So many within the American church seem to be on the hunt accusing people of being socialists like its the 50s again in the midst of the “Red Scare”. It makes us look as though we are more concerned with protecting the American republic we’ve been born into (and gratefully so), democracy, capitalism and the “American Way” more than our concern for announcing the gospel message of God as King. A huge part of the Gospel is that all nations all kings all rulers, and all forms of government will be found wanting. All of them, including America no matter how much we rise or fall as a nation, will fall and be done away with when Christ returns (Revelation 17.14). His kingdom rule will fully and undeniably invade not just heaven but earth too resulting in the New Heavens and New Earth that so much of scripture points towards and eagerly awaits. Not that politics and government are insignificant, but when a sizable amount of our PR and announcements concerns our loathing and fear-mongering of liberals, socialists, or ultra-conservatives and politicians in general then the likelihood of the gospel falling on deaf ears increases. Announcing and living the gospel needs to be the foremost of our concern. The gospel calls those of us who claim to submit to the rule of the king the good news announces to do our best to live at peace with everyone (Romans 12.18), and to pray for those who are in positions of  power and influence (1st Timothy 2.1-6). Living at peace with and praying for those outside the body of Christ is a powerful witness.

Quick Reflection on 45 Year Anniversary of MLK Jr. Assassination

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On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee.  Much could be said of the 45 years of race relations between blacks and whites in the United States of America—some of it good, some of it not so good. Today I will say this: It is safe to say that without the vision selflessness and determination of Martin Luther King Jr. I would not be a youth pastor at a predominantly white church. 45 years later a black man can be a youth pastor to almost entirely white teenagers and families, in the south no less, due to the sacrifice of MLK. Because of King’s fearless pursuit of his dream my students don’t see me as their black youth pastor, they see me as their pastor. Because of King’s fearless pursuit of his dream parents, who like myself were born within ten year’s of his death, simultaneously understand the historical implications of their student having a youth pastor who is black and couldn’t care less.

You can say what you want about race relations between black and white Americans in this country, and how there is still work to be done for all men to see and treat men of another color as equal, but you can’t say that Martin Luther King Jr. pursued and died for his dream in vain.  45 years later if King is looking down from heaven he has plenty of reason to celebrate and be glad. 45 years later we can say of King’s dream, “mission accomplished!”