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.

Advertisements

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.

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.