Time to Unplug

Two weeks ago I discovered a writer’s haven – an internet café at a public library. It’s got tables, plenty of power outlets, restrooms, vending machines, and even a microwave. Walled off from the rest of the library by glass doors, it opens into a private courtyard, with benches, picnic tables, and yes, more power outlets! It’s been a great spot to work. Armed with a thermos full of coffee, a lunchbox, and a laptop, I can work there all day – without spending any money!


This morning, though, my haven keeps getting interrupted. Every few minutes, a young man dressed in a sports store uniform, pops in with his cell phone to his ear. A longtime lover of library silence, I’m impressed that he is respectful enough of the patrons in the main space to take his phone conversations elsewhere. I just wish that “elsewhere” was somewhere else. Doesn’t he see me working?!


Cell phone conversations are loud, even when people think they’re speaking quietly. So it didn’t take long for me to get a sense of what was going on. He was being called repeatedly by his job. More than three hours before his shift was supposed to start (like I said, cell phone conversations are loud), his co-workers were tracking him down, asking him when he was coming to the store. By the fifth call, he walked straight through the café to the courtyard. Even with the doors closed, I could hear him giving instructions to someone. By that point, my frustration with the noise had turned into sympathy for this man, who couldn’t enjoy his morning off without constant interruptions.


I couldn’t help but think of a few of my friends in ministry. I have been to a few ministry retreats and conferences this year where I’ve watched colleagues who could not get away from issues back home. Every few minutes, they got a call, text, or email from someone who ostensibly needed their help. And every few minutes, they were responding. It was nearly impossible to have conversations with them without them pausing to take a call or answer a text. “Hold on, I need to respond to this” was the frequent refrain. Their busyness took on a manic element as they rushed from task to task.


If it were just conversations with me that were being interrupted, I wouldn’t be bothered. But I knew that their addiction to busyness was all-encompassing. It impacted their health and their relationships. Is it ironic that it happened most, actually always, with African American men and women? Probably not. My guess is that it’s the StrongBlackWoman/StrongBlackMan thing rearing its head. Layer that with Christianity’s emphasis upon “bearing the cross” and you’ve got a full-scale case of ministry overload and eventual burnout.


A few months ago, my husband and I imposed a blackout period on electronic devices in our household, a two-hour evening time slot in which we would not utilize our cell phones or computers. Miraculously, it was doable. The world didn’t come to an end. Our lives did not turn upside down. Instead, we had two hours each evening when we read, talked, or played games rather than checking Facebook and playing Angry Birds. Over the past few weeks, though, there’s been a gradual erosion in our observance of the blackout. It probably began around the time of a deadline when I “just had” to work on something for a few hours. It’s a slippery slope. I better scramble back up before I fall too far. I encourage you to do the same. Make a commitment to “unplug” for part of your day – even if it’s only one hour. And for that hour, be present to the world in other ways. Spend time with your partner. Play with your kids. Read a book. Take a long, hot soak in the tub. And trust that God is in control of everything else.

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Resolutions for Revolution (or, What Black Folks Need to Do in 2010)

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.

Rethinking the StrongBlackMan

About 2 years into my (now seemingly endless) project on the StrongBlackWoman, I realized that she had a male counterpart: the StrongBlackMan. Because I don’t presume to be an expert on men’s issues, I figured I’d leave writing about the StrongBlackMan to folks who were much better equipped – folks like Mark Anthony Neal (who takes on the subject quite well in New Black Man) and Kevin Powell (who doesn’t use the term explicitly but is certainly evoking the concept in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?). But after passing the buck for a few years, I’ve decided to enter the fray, especially since, as far as I can tell, the fates of the StrongBlackWoman and StrongBlackMan are bound together. Be gentle – it’s my first time.

If I were in the classroom right now, I’d begin this story on the west coast of Africa, talking about how the circumstances of the European encounter with the African set the foundation for centuries of racist depictions of Black men. Then, crossing the Atlantic into the American slaveocracy, I’d narrate how these depictions were further codified into the Tom (the obsequious servant) and the Buck (the violent, aggressive brute). Next, I’d take a leap to the nineteenth century, when newly freed Blacks began crafting the archetype of the StrongBlackMan as an ideological response to these negative depictions, using as raw material the inherently flawed icons of the Self-Made Man and the cult of Black genius. But I’m not in the classroom so I won’t start there.

Instead, I’ll start by echoing a caveat made by others: being a StrongBlackMan (no spaces) is not the same as being strong, being Black and being a man. The StrongBlackMan, like the StrongBlackWoman, refers to a specific way of being in the world – a particular set of psychosocial characteristics that are strongly rooted in racism and sexism. These are not people; they are costumes. Whereas the StrongBlackWoman is characterized by the triumvirate of emotional strength (specifically expressed as the capacity for silent suffering), caregiving, and independence, the StrongBlackMan revolves around the three core features of dominance, self-control, and pride. These three features are interconnected, but I’ll try to parse them out as much as possible.

As a core feature, dominance might be portrayed in terms of three sets of dichotomies: the StrongBlackMan wants to be seen as a master, not a slave; as a leader, and not a follower; as a producer, and not a hired hand. He is not to be owned, ruled, controlled, or influenced by any outside force. He must maintain the appearance of being powerful, tough, and right at all times and at all costs He is competitive, aggressive, and in charge of the resources that he has at his disposal, no matter how meager they may be.

The second core feature, self-control, has to do with the StrongBlackMan’s need to be in charge of his self – his emotional, moral, financial, and physical self. Within the constraints of racism and classism, he tries to embody the American masculine ideal of rugged individualism. He is a master of his own fate, allowing no outside person or institution to influence his choices, behaviors, feelings, beliefs, or values. He is an achiever, a doer, a producer, a performer. He is active, not passive; a giver and not a receiver. He can never allow anyone or anything to get the better of him, especially in matters of the heart. Above all else, he must never be punked.

The third core feature, pride, concerns the StrongBlackMan’s need to always be seen as responsible, self-confident, successful, and persevering. He takes pride in living up to the mantle of Black manhood and shuns anything that might make him appear weak, vulnerable, or unsure. He takes pride in his accomplishments, his family, and his racial heritage. In his dealings with persons of other races, he strives to be seen as a “credit to the race.” One of his greatest fears is embarrassment. He can never appear weak, vulnerable, or unsure.

The three core features of the StrongBlackMan – dominance, self-control, and pride – are bound by an underlying theme of defensiveness. Ultimately, the StrongBlackMan is not a real persona. It does not reflect the authentic nature – the true thoughts, feelings, personalities – of the men who wear its garb. Rather, it is a defense against a society that deems Black men to be unfit as anything other than entertainers, athletes, and criminals.

The StrongBlackMan is Black men’s best effort to stand up straight against the enormous weight pressing down upon them – racism, classism, heterosexism – and to say, “I am a man. I am not a boy, a clown, a body to be exploited for profit. I am not a problem to be solved, re-solved, or locked away. I am capable of greatness that you cannot begin to fathom. And I am part of the same species as you so take me off that endangered species list.”i-am-man-img

At least that’s my (very preliminary) analysis. I’d like to say that I get it, that I understand the plight of the StrongBlackMan. But of course, that’s not true. Black men and Black women both have issues, but as the saying goes, “Your blues ain’t quite like mine.” Yet the more that I learn about Black men and women – about me – the more I realize just how similar our struggles are.

As a Black woman, I know a little something about wearing a mask, especially one called “strong.” The problem with that mask is that if you wear it enough, you forget that it’s not really you. It becomes fused onto your being, twisting your appearance into some exaggerated form of what you were trying to be, just like Jim Carrey’s character in the 1990s film, The Mask. No one can get inside the real you, not even your loved ones. And worst yet, you can’t get out. Your joy, your pain, your love – it’s all tucked deep behind the mask, inaccessible even to you.

This is not to say that being strong is bad. It has its place. Dominance, pride, and self-control each have their place. But so, too, do vulnerability, intimacy, openness, receptivity, silliness, and tears. Being whole means having all these things in balance. StrongBlackMen and StrongBlackWomen are way off-balance. We are far from whole. And two half-lives do not make a life.

Five years into this project and I still have no clue what the resolution is. But I have come to the place where I understand that the healing of the StrongBlackWoman is dependent upon that of the StrongBlackMan. Perhaps the best way to start is for all of us StrongBlackWomen and StrongBlackMen to show one another our pain, without judgmenet, without criticism, and without trying to prove whose pain is worse. And then maybe…just maybe…we can really get this revolution going.