Another New Year has arrived. If you haven’t done it already, it’s time to make those New Year’s resolutions. Never mind the fact that you may not keep them past March. Making them – and even breaking them – is an important exercise. It encourages us to spend some time reflecting on the lives that we would like to live, the persons whom we would like to be, and the values and practices that we hold most dear. It helps us to embody, in word and deed, God’s ongoing creative activity in our lives. Even our failures are important. They remind us that our transformation is not entirely under our control; we must lean into God’s grace and strength for real change to take place.
This year, the celebration of the New Year and the impending observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday are inextricably intertwined in my mind. Perhaps it is because I am still haunted by my last visit to my hometown of Atlanta. It’s been 15 years since I left Hotlanta and each time I return, I am reminded why the city has become one of America’s black cultural capitals. There is so much to do, see, and experience of the Black diaspora in the city – galleries and museums, cultural centers, civic groups and organizations, historical sites, and soul food and Caribbean restaurants. Even the walk through the airport was enjoyable; the walkway to baggage claim in Hartsfield International currently has an installation of sculptures by Zimbabwean artists. A trip home is always a striking reminder of just how far African Americans have come in the 45 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But during my ride through the city, I noticed something else, a reminder that the struggle is far from over, even for those who have ostensibly “arrived.” While traveling down a major thoroughfare on the south (code word for “black”) side of town, I realized that I was in the largest collection of beauty supply stores, car accessory shops, and chicken wing shacks that I had ever seen. I had no idea that it was possible for one street to sustain that many beauty supply stores, a large one on every block. And there were rims galore. For rent, no less! And the chicken – the air was permeated with the smells of grease and sauce (okay, I’m exaggerating, but there really were a lot of them).
While Atlanta’s chicken wings have a special place in my heart and I have many memories of scouring beauty supply shops for the perfect product, the whole scene was mildly depressing. I could almost hear a voice emanating from the shops: “Come to us. There is a hole inside of you that we can fix. You are not enough. Come to us, my daughters, and we will give you hair to cover your insecurities. Come to us, my sons, and we will cover your alienation with rims that you cannot afford. And if that doesn’t fill the emptiness, come to us, my children, and we will fill your stomachs. Come to us and we will make you enough.”
I have often heard African Americans say that integration destroyed the fabric of the black community in America. But what has been known as “integration” – the end of legalized segregation and the granting of access to education, housing, and employment – was never meant to be the final destination of the Civil Rights Movement. It was simply a road marker, and an important one, on the journey to beloved community, a society where reconciliation, redemption, love, and justice would be realized. Dr. King envisioned the beloved community as an America where we would adhere to the two greatest commandments: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, our mind, our soul, and our strength; and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (cf. Matthew 22:34-40).
But as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, many African Americans still have a lot of difficulty loving ourselves. Centuries of racism has inculcated within us a sense of self-loathing. Most often it’s an unconscious impulse. That is, most of us don’t go around thinking, “I don’t like being black.” Rather, we have a deep, abiding sense that “I am not enough.” We try to make up for not being enough by doing more, getting more, and consuming more. We take on superhuman personas, trying to live into the ideologies of the StrongBlackMan or StrongBlackWoman. Or we spend a disproportionate amount of our income on visible signs of “enoughness” – hair, nails, clothes, purses, shoes, rims, cars, TVs, bluetooth headsets, cell phones, etc. Or we eat…and we eat…and we eat. Sometimes we do all of the above. And the struggle continues.
So as you make your resolutions for 2010, consider the inner revolution that still needs to take place for the liberation of the African American mind. Make resolutions that will help to free you and your family from the vestiges of internalized racism. Sometimes societal change demands marches and legislation. But oftentimes, it needs the decision and determination of individuals to be differently.
And just in case you need help, here are a few ideas:
First, take charge of your health. In 2007, 35.6% of African Americans were obese, according to CDC data. For too long, our knee-jerk reaction to such statistics has been to say that the weight charts do not take into account African American “bone structure.” That’s all well and good, but somebody needs to send that memo to our cardiovascular and endocrine systems, because they seem to think that our bodies can’t handle that weight. We have the highest rates of hypertension and Type II diabetes of all ethnic groups, with some rates rivaling those of people in the poorest countries in the world. Who needs Jim Crow and lynch mobs when we are committing slow suicide with overeating and underactivity? Not to mention epidemic rates of HIV/AIDS and homicide. Let this be the year that you develop and sustain healthy diet, exercise, and sexual habits.
Second, regain (and retrain) your righteous mind. A 2004 Nielsen study shows that, on average, African Americans watch 40% more television than all other ethnic groups, a whopping 11 hours per day! It’s bad enough that we spend that much time being physically and mentally inactive. It’s even worse when you consider the values and images that are being transmitted by television shows, videos, and commercials. No wonder we continue to believe that we are not enough! In contrast, only 37% of Arican Americans read literature. A few years ago, I read a study that showed that by the age of 5, children in white, middle-class homes have an average of 100 books; their black counterparts had only 60, even though the parents had similar levels of income and education. I don’t want to underplay the impact of racism and poverty on racial differences in academic and occupational achievement. But let’s be honest – we aren’t helping the cause by willfully neglecting our intellectual development. Make this the year to increase your reading and decrease your television consumption.
Third, get active for justice. Commit, in at least one tangible way, to striving for justice and equal opportunity for all of God’s children. You might volunteer at a food bank or homeless shelter, mentor a child, organize a clothing or book drive in your community, attend vigils against the death penalthy, clean up a neighborhood park, or raise funds for a local nonprofit. Just do something.
Maybe if we make a collective attempt to fill the emptiness with health, knowledge, and service, we won’t be so inclined to fill it with weaves, wheels, and wings. And then we will know what the Great Spirit has been trying to tell us – we are enough.