A Lament for Black Girls

Black girls
Don’t get the chance to be girls
To be protected, to be cherished, to be nurtured
To be the damsel in distress.

Black girls
Don’t get to grieve
To mourn their mama and grandmama dying in the same year
To lament being placed in foster care.

Black girls
Don’t get to have a bad day
To have an attitude
To get overwhelmed by the sheer weight of it all.

Black girls
Have to suck it up, hold it in
To pretend that everything’s okay
To make everyone else feel okay.

Black girls
Have to be stoic
To be compliant
To be strong
Because if we don’t…

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Riding the Reconciliation Roller-Coaster

During my first year as a parent, I often marveled at how quickly my newborn could cycle through emotions, and how easily I was carried along the same journey. One second he would be cooing contentedly; then out of nowhere he would start crying. At times he’d be inconsolable, prompting me to burst into tears along with him. And suddenly we’d be back to happiness, both of us smiling and giggling. The entire range of emotions sometimes happened within five minutes.

roller-coasterThe journey of racial reconciliation is a lot like that. In rapid succession, we celebrate signs of the hope of reconciliation and lament the continuing evidence of racism. We even do both at once. The emotional roller-coaster can be draining.

At this moment, I am feeling the fatigue. I am tired of the reconciliation roller-coaster. This past week has had some incredible highs. On Sunday, The Nett Church held its first preview service. I’m the discipleship pastor for this new worship community that is trying to become beloved community. It was refreshing and inspiring to be able to name that openly in the context of worship and to invite others to join us on the journey.

There’s also my ongoing racial reconciliation course. Each week I am energized by my students and their openness to engaging a difficult subject in a different way. I am grateful for their willingness to journey with a professor who is, as Dr. Gardner C. Taylor would put it, complicit in the brokenness against which she preaches. I am excited by their affirmations of the significance of the course and their grappling with how to extend their learning beyond the classroom.

If racial reconciliation were simply about focusing upon and healing past divisions, I could probably bask in the promise and possibility of these experiences. I wouldn’t have to also confront the fear and anger that comes from passing the full-size confederate flag that a neighbor (about 1/4 mile down the road) posted at the edge of their front lawn last week. Technically, it’s the old Georgia flag, which pisses me off even more because if they’re gonna make a statement, they should just do it. georgia-flag-former

Nor would I have to keep getting angry with white people – especially so-called liberals – telling me that I don’t know when I’m experiencing racism: the neighbors who told me it wasn’t about race last year when a white man aggressively tailed and photographed an African American woman visiting my home for the first time on the very same block where the flag now stands; the psychology colleagues who insisted that “You speak English very well” is not an example of a racial microaggression in last week’s continuing education workshop on diversity.

Sometimes I wish I could utter the prayer of Gethsemane: Lord, if it be thy will, take this desire for reconciliation from me. But having been seduced into God’s mission of reconciliation, I could not, even if I wanted to. So I keep pressing forward, training my gaze to focus on the visible signs of hope as I endure the pain of the struggle.

And when that fails, it’s time to get a massage.

I Am Not the Help

“Which one of you is going to help me write my book?” The woman shouted her question at us for the third time, clearly not getting that our lack of response signaled that she was being inappropriate. The five of us had just entered the pool at the luxurious spa. We were probably an odd sight: five African American women hanging out at a spa on a Monday. We were a group of scholars working together on interdisciplinary volume on Black women and mental health. The project’s editor suggested that we embody good health practices with a full-day writing retreat. Truthfully, we did more retreating than writing.

We started our day at the pool. Two older White women were lingering after their water aerobics class. “Come on in!” they said, “the water feels great!” Their invitation was followed promptly with the question, “Are y’all celebrating something?” The spa is a frequent destination for weddings and spa parties, so it was a fair question to ask. When we responded that we were there to work on our book, one woman answered, “Oh, you’re writers! Y’all can help me write my book!” It wasn’t a question inasmuch as it was a demand. She affirmed that she was serious by asking repeatedly over the next 20 minutes: “Which one of you is going to help me write my book?”

It would be easy to dismiss her demand as a failure of emotional intelligence. But for each of us, it echoed a common experience that we’ve had as Black women: White women’s assumption that we are “the help.” For most of our history in the U.S., women of African descent have labored primarily in service to white women. Until the Civil Rights Movement, it was the only option available to most of us. As late as 1970, the average Black woman had a tenth grade education, worked as a domestic, and lived at or below the poverty line.

scarletthillaryFast forward four decades and the average Black woman has a bachelor’s degree, works in a professional or management field, and makes at least $25,000. But that doesn’t mean we have left service work behind. In many areas of the south, white families still employ Black and Latina women as household domestics. And Black women make up a disproportionate number of the “new domestics”: custodial workers, nannies, and nursing home staff. In each of these jobs, Black women from the U.S., the Caribbean, and Africa take care of White children, White elders, White homes, and White businesses.

In the 21st century, many Whites are so accustomed to us as their servers that they have a hard time imagining us in any other role. In my experience, this happens especially with White women. Here is a common scenario:

White woman: “Excuse me, where is the [insert random item here]?

Me: “I have no idea.” [Employs dismissive tone.]

White woman: “Oh, I thought you worked here.”

Me: “No, I don’t.” [How in the hell do I look like I work here when we’re in Target and I am not wearing a red shirt and khakis? Not to mention I’m carrying my damn purse and putting stuff in my basket?]

I have been mistaken for the help in Target on more times than I can count. Grocery stores, too. And I’m never wearing anything that looks remotely like the store uniforms.

Ironically, the woman in the pool that day was a Christian. Phrases like “Praise God” and “Amen” littered her conversation. Her book, it turned out, was a memoir on spiritual warfare. I should have asked her if she would be writing about the powers and principalities of patriarchal racism.

Even more ironically, her demand seemed very similar to my experience at a Christian social justice festival just a few days earlier. I had given a short talk on Black women’s erasure from discussions of racial justice before opening the floor for dialogue. The first person to raise her hand was a White woman, who asked, “What can I as a White woman do to help?” I gave a few ideas, including the strong suggestion that White men and women stop expecting Black women to educate them and do their own work (unless they compensate us). After the session ended, the woman told me that she enjoyed the talk but that I hadn’t really answered her question. “I want to know what to do. No one ever tells me what to do.”

I wanted to scream at her, “Did you not hear a word I said about doing your own damn work? Stop expecting us to do the work for you! I am not your Mammy!” Instead, I referred her to a few books and politely took my leave.

By the time that I got to the pool, I had reached the end of politeness. So I stayed away from our interlocutor. Or at least I tried. It was a small pool. Fortunately, one of our members had the name of a writing coach handy. That seemed to deflect her demands.Black-woman11

To be honest, though, I grow weary of deflecting White women’s expectation that I be their help. It takes too much emotional and intellectual labor, especially when it involves people with whom I am not in relationship, such as my students and friends. I am not your superwoman. And I am definitely not your help.

White Friends: Here’s Your Bill for My Racial Labor

Dear White Friend,

Thank you for choosing me as your consultant for your recent questions and concerns about racism and/or racial reconciliation. I trust that your needs were met and you were satisfied with the level of grace, thoughtfulness, and honesty with which I responded to your inquiry. Below you will find the invoice for my services.

You may be surprised at this new billing structure. For many years, I have provided these services freely. Being a racial ambassador is part of my call to God’s ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-20), and I am grateful for the privilege of working with you. But the “worker deserves [her] wages” (Luke 10:7).

I am sure that you will find this new billing structure to be significantly reduced given my credentials, which include:

  • 40+ years of lived experience as an African Racial labor invoiceAmerican woman living in the southern United States, with a multigenerational legacy of slavery, sharecropping, and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • 13 years of formal, self-funded education in cultural and gender studies, theology, and psychology, resulting in 2 bachelor’s degrees, 2 master’s degrees, and a Ph.D.
  • 12 years as a scholar and teacher in these areas, with dozens of academic and lay publications, including my recent book, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.
  • 20 years of clinical and ministerial experience with people of color and economically disadvantaged populations.

The attached invoice does not bill for prior expenses. It is limited to expenses incurred directly as a result of our recent conversation, specifically the time for services rendered (time that could have been devoted to professional activities for which I am paid) as well as the considerable emotional distressed induced by our conversation.

Racism is not an academic subject that I study objectively or from a safe psychological distance. It is a systemic oppression that envelops my daily existence. When you come seeking answers to your questions, you are asking me to delve into thoughts, memories, and experiences that are bathed in emotion. Memory cannot be separated from emotion. So when you ask me to recall an event, you are also asking me to recall – even re-experience – the fear, anger, and sadness that accompanied it.

Further, each time I engage in conversation with you on these topics, I do so fully knowing that you may dismiss my experience. You may employ your white privilege to tell me that my interpretation is invalid, that you know more about my experience than I do, that your limited time thinking about race trumps my four decades of living with it.

Even if you do listen to and trust my experience, at the end of our dialogue, you get to walk away from it. I, in turn, slip further down the rabbit hole of painful racialized memory.

There are also the costs of continuing education. I work constantly to be informed about issues of race. This includes keeping up with the latest publications on race and gender, even those not in my discipline, so that I can serve as your personal reference librarian. That in itself is a costly endeavor. I am also required to keep informed about national issues such as Ferguson, Baltimore, Rachel Dolezal, and the Charleston shooting. That means that I am continually subjected to cultural trauma, which has significant impact upon my health and well-being.

Previously, I have simply absorbed these costs. I am unable to continue to do so. Thus, I am requiring beneficiaries of my expertise to compensate me for the financial, emotional, and physical costs associated with this labor.

It is impossible to estimate the actual monetary value of my services. Instead, I am billing you for the therapeutic services required to recover my equilibrium following our conversations. These include flotation therapy, massage therapy, and acupuncture. You may remit payment by calling FLO2S or Massage Associates of Atlanta to put a credit on my account.

For high-frequency clients, I strongly recommend that you put my services on retainer by purchasing a FLO2S monthly membership or a Massage Associates of Atlanta acupuncture series.

If you are unable to work with this billing structure, I would be happy to refer you to an alternative provider for future consultations.

Sincerely,

Chanequa Walker-Barnes

Attachment: Racial labor invoice