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…

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.

A Lament for #KellyGissandaner

Photo credit: Ann Borden, Emory Photo Video

At 12:21am on Wednesday, September 30, the state of Georgia put Kelly Gissandaner to death via lethal injection. It was the third time that Gissandaner’s execution had been scheduled, the others having been delayed. Like many others, I’d hoped for a clemency decision by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles. When that failed, I prayed for a last-minute intervention by Governor Nathan Deal. Neither happened.

State execution by any means is fundamentally incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When it comes to issues of divine retribution, justice, and forgiveness, many Christians are incredibly egocentric. When we aggrieve others, we lean on texts such as Romans 3:23: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We even get extrabiblical: “God knows my heart.” But when it comes to the sins of others, especially those sins that we cannot imagine ourselves committing, suddenly God’s forgiveness and mercy has limits. It becomes a purely eschatological reality. But God’s forgiveness is not just about us and the people we love. God’s gift of life is not restricted to the innocent, to unborn babies. What does it cost us to care for the lives of those who are like us, those who are innocent? As Jesus teaches us, even sinners can do that (Luke 6:32-36).

The Gospel calls us to extraordinary –indeed, seemingly impossible– grace toward sinners like Kelly. I admit, it would be comforting to believe that the folks who hurt me will get their “eye for an eye” comeuppance. But Jesus turns that law upon its head:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”  They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:3-11 NIV).

Francesco_Hayez_-_Christ_and_the_Woman_Taken_in_Adultery_-_Walters_371825Last night, the state of Georgia stoned a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery, a woman who had conspired with her lover to kill her husband. There is no doubt that she had done wickedness. There is also no doubt that, at some point during her 17 years in prison, she heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” Those who encountered her in prison provide many testimonies of her obedience to that voice and her impact upon their lives.

Three times the people of Georgia were given a chance to examine ourselves and put down our stones. May God have mercy upon us for our disobedience.

Starting Well: Self-Care Amidst the Academic Frenzy

Passion-Planner-1024x689Start semester well. I wrote the three words in the box labeled, “This week’s focus,” in my new Passion Planner. It had been two decades since I had used a paper planner. I was an early adopter of electronic organizers. Before smartphones and WiFi-enabled PDAs, I kept track of my appointments and tasks using my Sony organizer with its flip-up telephone modem. It was a lot easier than writing “Statistics class” in a planner 24 times in one semester. It’s worked for me through two master’s degrees, a doctorate, and my stints as assistant professor in three institutions.

Lately, though, I’ve felt pulled in so many different directions by varying projects, people, and responsibilities (is this post-tenure life?) that I needed something different. I needed some way to help me to keep track of the big picture, to keep focus on my priorities, and to keep me from being over-committed…well, to keep me from being ridiculously over-committed.

If there’s anything that I’ve learned with 20 years of experience in higher education, it’s that the beginning of the semester is a perfect time for losing sight of one’s priorities, especially those that have to do with our well-being and professional development. There is no gradual transition from the slower pace of summer. Fall term starts at full tilt, a two-week frenzy of faculty and committee meetings, workshops, orientation events for new students, convocation, and social gatherings. In this midst of this, there’s the scramble to finalize syllabi, set up course websites, and to prep the first classes. There’s the anxiety of new students who worry about what’s ahead and the anxiety of graduating students who…worry about what’s ahead. And for some unfathomable reason, there is no sabbatical from the planning committees that are ramping up for the fall conference season.

It’s enough to drive any sane person crazy (although it begs the question whether a supposedly smart person who chooses this as a lifestyle is sane). At a minimum, it’s enough to overwhelm typical routines of spiritual disciplines, self-care, and personal development. The struggle to make an early meeting pushes aside the morning devotional; an orientation event overrides writing time; sheer fatigue cancels the afternoon workout. If it were just one week, it might be okay. But for many of us, it’s at least two, which makes recovery harder.

This year, as our classes began, I set my intention for the week: “Start semester well.” Starting well was not about being the perfect professor, the one who finalized and printed her syllabi, set up the Blackboard sites, and prepped her first lectures last week. It was not about being two weeks ahead (or more) of the students in terms of course readings and activities. Starting well was about not losing sight of the big picture. And because I’d just done my first “passion roadmap,” I had a very good idea of what that big picture was: love God; serve God’s people; remaining cancer free; be a good wife and mother; be financially ready for retirement; and be a badass scholar-teacher (well duh…there is a reason I’ve chosen this insanity, after all).

When I drew my passion roadmap, I was surprised at just how few of my lifetime goals were reflected in my daily activities. Being a great scholar-teacher was actually the lowest of my priorities but it probably took up most of my daily energies. I rarely scheduled explicit time toward my other goals. That was about to change.

Starting the semester well meant that in addition to the classes, meetings, and office hours, my schedule would also include time for meditation, chapel, writing, and spending time with my family. It meant that the frenzy of the first two days of the week would be followed by a midweek day of restoration, which included getting a massage and cooking a healthy meal that would get my family through the week’s end. It meant my personal to-do list included exercising at least three times and going to the farmer’s market. It meant showing up for classes without having a perfect plan for the semester (and being upfront with the students about it). It meant letting go.black-woman-meditating-e1325516643421

It was probably the healthiest first week that I’ve had. And it was the very sort of discipleship that I want to exemplify for my students. Because soon, if they don’t already, they will know the pressures of being pulled in multiple directions by ministry. And they will need to know how to start well.

Older Women’s Takedown of Young Stars Does Not Challenge Status Quo, Either

Grace Jones has a new memoir coming out. Given her sass, it’s name is appropriate: I’ll Never Write My Memoirs. It’s already getting a lot of attention, which is remarkable that Jones has been fairly absent from public view over the past two decades. My most recent memory is her role as Strangé in Boomerang.

The main reason for the attention is that Jones dishes out some critique for younger female artists, such as Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and Rihanna. Of course, everyone’s only reporting the scintillating excerpts, most likely taken out of context, where she says that female stars noted for being countercultural trendsetters – including Madonna and Beyoncé – are actually playing to trends that she set long ago. Thus, they’re not being original at all. Nor are they challenging the status quo.

I think there is some truth in Jones’ statement. Being countercultural – at least in terms of clothing, hair, and rejection of respectability politics – has become the new fad, so it doesn’t take much courage to do it. And above all else, it sells. A lot. When Jones was doing it, she was actually risking commercial and financial success.Cover image Grace Jones' book, featuring a frontal upper-body photograph of the author wearing a black sleeveless top with a high collar while leaning against a stone wall. She is smiling, with gaze directed sideways.

But this idea that young female stars bring nothing new to the table and are simply mimicking older women is problematic. It is not a new argument. It has been replayed in so many contexts. Honestly, who cares whether Bey challenges the status quo? It’s not exactly what I’m listening for when I play “Drunk in Love” ad nauseum during my thirty minutes on the elliptical.

Folks are always fanning the flames of tension between older and younger generations of women who are in the same field. The older crowd looks at the younger and says, “We already did that! Admit that we’re your inspiration!” The younger crowd looks at the older and says, “We never even heard of you. We’re doing our own thing!” Neither one recognizes that the other is just caught in the throes of their own developmental crisis: younger folks trying to assert unique identities and older folks wanting to ensure they’re leaving a legacy. All of them – of us – failing to recognize that there is nothing new under the sun. The same creative spirit of the universe that touches Nicki touched Kim. And before them, it came through Grace, Eartha, Josephine, Bessie, and Moms. It touched legions of women before them. It will touch legions after them.

As far as I know, the universe has not decreed that only one woman can be special at a time. That seems to be what society would like us to believe, though. After all, it sells magazines, books, and concert tickets. It feeds the age-old stereotype of women as eager for attention and adoration, of women’s relationships as filled with envy. And it reinforces our beliefs that women – especially Black women – are incapable of creative expression without the assistance of others. Those stereotypes are the real status quo. And the generation wars between women don’t challenge that, either.

I Am Not the Woman You Used to Know

The following is a public service announcement. Ignore at your own risk.

I am not the same. I knew that I wouldn’t be. Somewhere under the shock, grief, and anger of my breast cancer diagnosis, there was curiosity. Who will I be when I emerge from this experience? Because I knew that I would emerge. And I knew that I would be different.

Many of my friends, colleagues, and students may be surprised at some of the changes. My family probably won’t. They already knew what stock I came from. The same genes are there. It’s just that the Greene family sweetness has taken a back seat to the Walker and Allen frankness. That Johnson sass has turned all the way up. Plus, I’m borrowing some of that “Don’t come for me ‘less I send for you” from those Barnes and Evans clans. Yeah, I’m finally living into the nickname that my grandfather gave me: Mess.Breast cancer journey

In the past 421 days, I have been through four surgeries and four rounds of chemotherapy. I have spent nine months with temporary implants the size and weight of baseballs in my chest (and no, there was never a moment where I wasn’t aware of them). I have had more needles stuck in me than I can count. I lay on a doctor’s table fully awake while he made a one-inch incision in my chest to remove my chemo port.

You better believe that I am not the same. I have looked a potentially fatal disease in the face and told it, “F*** you all the way back to the pit of hell that you came from, and when you get there, tell Satan that I said f*** him, too.” And while all that was happening, I celebrated the release of my first book and got tenure. I learned to use my voice on social media to make a clarion call for justice even while I was sequestered from the danger that simple illnesses could pose to my weakened immune system. And even though the battle is not over, I have changed immensely.

I am more confident, more outspoken, less tolerant of excuses and complaints, and less willing to spend time and energy on things that don’t matter. I have less of a filter and I curse in public. I might even be willing to dance in public without really giving a d@%^ if you think I move like a White girl. And I’m only filtering the curse words in this post because I want to make sure all my “good” Christian friends don’t get so caught up on those that they ignore the rest of what I’m saying here. But in real life, there is no backspace, no edit feature. So be forewarned.

I am even more determined to be an agent in God’s mission of justice and reconciliation, not just in the great big world out there, but in the spaces that I inhabit on a daily basis. If this is my “for such a time as this” moment, I am going to use every bit of it.

I am also more committed than ever to loving myself fiercely. I have ended my decades-old war against my body. I love every bit of my flab, every one of the 11 surgical scars that mark my torso. And no, I do not want to let my hair grow out to see if the texture has changed because I had learned to love that wiry hair with no discernible curl pattern. Even more than that, I love not letting my hair define how I feel about myself.

I am committed to enjoying as much time as possible with my husband and son. Ironically that means that we’ll probably never get furniture for our living room because we’d rather spend that money traveling. Plus, that leaves more room for train sets and dog races and folding tables for family dinners. We like all those things better than rooms with nice furniture that people never sit on.

This is me now. I am not the same. But, hopefully, I’m better.

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.