So, Steve Martin and I have very little in common.
This likely comes as no surprise to you; however, I do have a special place in my heart his role in the 1979 movie The Jerk. The movie overall is an atrocity, not worth the 94 minutes that it will inevitably rob you of, but something about it has resonated with me over the last year. The movie chronicles a bona fide idiot as he leaves the black family he was adopted into and travels to St. Louis to find himself. Pale as a ghost, his character opens with the line “I was born a poor black child…” The line is juxtaposed with a shot of him nestled in with a large black family and pokes at the reality of his own self-deceit and racial identity confusion. I can relate. So I am writing, maybe in part as catharsis, to share how I found myself and my identity as a Black women in 2015. So without further ado…
“I was born a poor white child…”
If you are familiar with my story, and I will not choose here to rehash the details that are written in other places, you know that my white, largely military and conservative, family in rural Southern Oregon did not necessarily set me up well to develop my Black identity. I always joke that if I were to write a memoir about those early years that it would be called Grandma Tried. But really… She did try, but the reality of racist family roots on all sides doesn’t set a white woman up well to raise her biracial granddaughter to be a picture of #blackgirlmagic. Through buying me black dolls and toys, and telling me I was beautiful, she tried. Lets just say however, that no amount of parental love and intentionality can block the racial confusion that I experienced and have responded to for the majority my life. I won’t even try to act like I am some beaming picture of self-actualized Blackness, because again, 20 years of racial confusion doesn’t lend itself to simple and painless identity (re)formation. What I will say however is that the year 2015 changed my life.
It is not uncommon to hear a Black person say that the last 18 months since the killing of unarmed Michael Brown Jr. has changed them and that the rise of #blacklivesmatter has been profoundly impactful, but for me, these months have stripped me down to my most raw places of pain, joy, and self actualization in a way that I could not have anticipated. So I am going to invite you to go through this last year with me, to reflect, to learn with me, and to see yourself in my stories and reflections whether you are simply curious, played a role in my journey, or have experienced similar transformation.
The dead of a particularly gray winter was an apropos backdrop to initiate what would become a year of painful and eventually joyful actualization. In the same way that winter, long and drawn out, creates space for growth by laying all things barren to prepare for the abundance of spring, so too winter left me in a place of desolation and discontent that laid a framework for a redemptive movement in my life. The killing of Michael Brown and the consequent and unsurprising lack of indictment for Darren Wilson unexpectedly pushed me into political and social activism. The work resulted in the loss of many friends, family, and ministry supporters. I was criticized, questioned, mocked, or maybe even worse, ignored, as I attempted to navigate the confusion that I was experiencing mourning the loss of a man I had never known and the series of brothers whose lives were taken after his.
It was the first time that my family ignored my existence over a holiday and actively voiced their discontent with my participation in #blacklivesmatter. Honestly, I didn’t think that would be so hard. We weren’t that close to begin with, but there is a certain comfort in not being alone over holidays even if it is with people who you constantly fight with or disagree. The human existence is not intended to be experienced alone, and it was in January that I realized that my Blackness had cost me something: my family. I felt misunderstood and quite sad, but, I am a person who isolates experience from emotion like it is my day job, so I attempted to repress the emotional toll that that loss was taking, and lets be real, emotional repression always comes out somehow- for me I inadvertently repressed by burying my head in work.
The loss of my family connections revealed the isolation I was experiencing in moving to a small predominately and unapologetically white city 6 months before for work. I didn’t realize the level in which I felt deceived, angry, and isolated for the sake of my job. And right, as Christians we get super twisty around calling and will justify all sorts of avoidable pain and isolation in the name of the gospel. I certainly felt called to move but the lack of support for me as a Black woman from my organization who claims a value for the well being of Black staff and students, manifested in bitter conversations filled with racial niceties that did very little to address the confusion and isolation I was experiencing. There was not a single person I felt like I could turn to engage my own emotions. I attempted a counselor and friends, but I felt more isolated as I sought to explain why what I was feeling was legitimate. My value organizationally was in my work and activism; however, as a low-identity, bi-racial person, my own association with Black folks in the organization did more to make me feel isolated and on the outside than even the loss of my family. I was drawn back to a reality that I have known all too well. I am too black to be white, and too white to be black. I came that early winter into a certain degree of sad racial acquiescence: I was going to be confused and miserable for quite sometime.
Any of you who know me, know that I am not easily prone to anger, but the 3rd and 4th month of the year could most accurately be described as a dormant volcano- not particularly dangerous, but with a lot of activity happening beneath the surface that if left to its own process, could blow and cause all sorts of destruction. It was in March that I started to ask serious questions about my employment. As I mentioned, I was sad and isolated and a severe lack of organizational pastoral care combined with an abundance of silence around #blacklivesmatter, jettisoned me into a critical period of asking a Kanye style question: Does my organization, Black leadership included, care about Black people?
In March there was a conference for “multi-ethnic staff.” The conference, centered on racial reconciliation, was undergirded by the very real pain of the Black staff community (one that I hardly associated with to begin with) and our trying to make sense of and survive the trauma of the previous 8 months. We had been on the front lines of our campuses doing organizing work while attempting to navigate race conversations with students, functioning in the required and everyday components of our jobs and managing the trauma of realizing that in the United States our lives do not matter. This was a task that our non-black counterparts were largely able to side step. Honestly I thought that if there were not a very public and clear apology for the organizational apathy, that many of us would walk out of the first session. I was mad and I was ready. Demonstration had become a regular part of my year, and I felt in that moment, maybe most clearly in a Christian setting like I was an angry Black woman ready to shut some things down. I was mad about the isolation, I was mad about the indifference, I was mad about the lip service paid to deeds done in the past whether organizationally or individually, and I was mad that I was mad.
It was in that emotion, for the first time in my life, that I had most felt like I could relate to the Black community…and that was pretty devastating. I didn’t enter into higher identity blackness through music, food, dancing, story, or joy- I entered in through pain.
It was at that point of anger than my commitment to stop pandering to whiteness was birthed. I quit dealing with the non-sense of people thrusting their hands into my hair, I allowed respectability politics in my speech to dissolve, I started using the word “militant,” and I quit centering my conversations about race on white peoples feelings. It totally sucked. People hate not being pandered to, and I realized the deeply seeded fear of Black peoples anger in a new way. I finally began to understand the indignation of my friends from college in my ethnic studies program. I am more and more grateful to my friends who were always considered too angry or militant- I realize now, that they were just responding appropriately to the dehumanization of their community’s bodies. So, specific shout out to my queer people of color friends who taught me, even years after the fact, that anger isn’t evil…it is a response to evil. You have impacted my pedagogy and practical theology profoundly.
And honestly, I love that I became angry. It was my onramp to seeing and caring about my Blackness in a new way. I no longer felt isolated in my emotions, but instead knew that, even though I never felt Black enough, that there was this whole group of people who knew what I was feeling. I didn’t know any of them because my city is a blizzard with only 1.4% Black people in a city of 150,000 and I had limited time to embark on that treasure hunt for Black people, but it was in the spring that I took the high dive into black twitter, blogging, news sources, and authors. Y’all, it is a far cry from rural, White Oregon to the joys and pains of politicized blackness and a celebration of people that I (though a part of) was taught to fear. I returned to a pursuit of academia and particularly focused on the black experience. I read books about Black theology and Christianity and started hanging out with my Black students more intentionally on campus. Doing life with 18 year olds with a context for their own Blackness was intimidating as shit. I was a staff worker trying to lead them, but found every day, in my insecurities about not understanding terms, being ill-engaged with music or Black TV and movies, and ignorant to Black celebrities, that I had much to unlearn and even more to learn from them about being Black. I am so grateful for the clumsy times spent with my students who dealt with my ignorance and without knowing it, helped me believe in the God-created goodness of my Black identity. Their experiences made me long to go deeper into my racial identity journey.
If you have a Black woman as a friend, you know that hair is paramount to Black identity. It is a source of beauty, pride, creativity, and a symbol of liberation and self-actualization. For me it became about the uniqueness of who God has made me to be. The problem was, that I knew literally nothing about my hair. Again, an excerpt from the book Grandma Tried, would probably be called “Tender Headed Bi-Raciality” chronicling all of the ways that we tried to deal with the Area 51 sized mystery that was what to do with my hair- we got about as far as hot oil treatments (for which my 4a/3c virgin hair is grateful for). I recall very distinctly the launching of hair care from my anger … which sounds ridiculous, but if felt like a practical step in my racial identity development especially for someone completely isolated from Black culture and community.
Youtube became my mentor and Shea Moisture products my vice. I discovered my own tender headedness, the necessity of silk head scarfs, the reality that a “simple style” that takes an experienced person 10 minutes would leave me in my room 4 hours later, with a half a style and a pile of shed hair covered in product on the bed or floor around me. I knew something had shifted in me when I found myself at 4am nearly crying from the pain of my thumbs and scalp. Additionally I felt the embarrassment about my failure to finish my first Senegalese twists in a timely manner and the accompanying sense of self-consciousness that it wouldn’t be good enough to pass.
That experience marked the return of my “not Black enough” ideology, but it was short lived as I began to discover through the Youtube and Pintrest rabbit holes, a lesson I had previous heard but not learned through the 1994 movie “Black is, Black Ain’t,” that my Blackness was and is just that- mine. My life experiences didn’t set me up to have a typical Black experience and so, given the complexity of the diaspora, I no longer felt bound to the standards of Blackness imposed on me by the media, my own suppositions of blackness, the people around me, or the isolation of my context. My hair journey taught me that I could be black however the hell I wanted to. That was a profoundly healing realization. Ironically, it was in that point of actualization that I realized the “however the hell I wanted” way of being Black, was to be high culture, to talk black, look black, think black, and associate with historically black intuitions, ideologies, and practices. I started looking up lessons on how to cook greens, sing gospel harmonies, integrated the term “finna” into my vocabulary, and started exploring the experiential side of Blackness, not just my academic understanding of Black feminist epistemologies. Up until that point in the year, I had been on my journey alone, but the next few months changed that in profound and healing ways. I keep hearing that African proverb in my head- “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” God gave me people to go far with.
Pity is a strong motivator. To see someone in distress and to respond to their pain with practical movement is a profoundly beautiful and healing act. Some people think of acting with pity as condescending or paternalistic, but I think when empathy isn’t an option, being moved by pity is a self-sacrificing act of inserting yourself into someone’s story for their good. To pity someone is to see them, to love them is to respond to that emotion. My racial identity journey was changed because some people saw me and had pity. There are a handful of people that I could thank for their investment and encouragement in my racial identity journey in the last year, but probably none more than my girl (and associate) Erna.
When I met Erna at a work gathering, I was utterly terrified, I had yet to meet someone who wasn’t content with half-assed attempts at ministry or racial justice, she was no nonsense. Her confidence on stage and skill in leading had me some level of intimidated, not to mention she had the distinct cool factor of being in a band, having a legit blog , and garnering the respect of people that I respected. I never intended to have a relationship with Erna, nor do I think she intended to have a relationship with me, but isolation and intentionality do a wonder in bringing people together.
After a series of ministry trainings that Erna led, I became no less afraid, but certainly more intrigued and filled with respect for the legacy that Erna had for working with, being educated on, and helping others engage, the Black community. We rarely had conversations as a staff team where the experience of Black folks both in and out of our organization was marginalized, instead they were at the forefront. To be colloquial, in these trainings and times together, “I was taught a little something about myself,” as a Black woman in ministry. For the first time in my organization I felt seen and at whatever level, understood. Christians have this track record of flattening race conversations and pulling them into theology without recognizing the real sociological implications of said theology- not Erna. As I learned from her, in many ways for the first time, what it meant to intersect critical race theory and theology (things I had only engaged separately) through praxis, I felt like there was a reason to engage the structural nonsense that I saw playing out in my organization. I am a deconstructionist at heart, I suppose critical race theory and sociological inquiry do that to a person, and Erna modeled how to make space for the way that I operate to fit and enrich my ministry context. If she had only done that for me, it would have been enough to know that the way God built me as a critical black woman was not only ok, but also necessary to engage racial redemption in the kingdom. But that wasn’t the end.
Erna didn’t just talk the talk of caring about Black people and didn’t stop at just teaching our staff team how to engage better. She lived it out by inviting me into her life and making space for me. I remember the most ridiculous series of texts I had received from her up to that point (I’m certain it has been topped since), that went a little something like this:
July 20, 2015
E: What are you doing next Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday?
E: Just say you are free
E: Cause Michael is coming out and you should come stay with me and we are gonna have a people of color party of food and healing for the soul
E: *gif of spongebob doing a flip over the word “fun” (pretty sure we became friends in part because I youth mentored her into GIF keyboard)*
E: I’m going to stalk you until you agree to come up here!!
E: You want to come
E: You are free
B: Yes I am.
E: You soul longs to hang out and meet your secret new best friend Michael
E: You’re free?
B: Yes ma’am. I am free.
See, I am not the most fun person in the whole world. I take most things very seriously and normal Brandi would say that “a party of food and healing for the soul” seems a little…fluffy or unnecessary to someone as serious as I. But she was persistent and I had nothing else to do…so…I went. Honestly those three days with Erna and Michael (who indeed became one of my best friends) were some of the best of my life. I can’t recall a time where I have eaten and laughed so much.My abs were sore from laughing and I recall almost throwing up several times from eating constantly and then laughing too hard afterward. It was one of the first times where I really felt like myself, and with strangers no less. They didn’t know me, but all of a sudden I felt understood, not just as a ministry person, but as a Black woman. That bonding experience has been one of the most incredible gifts of relationship that I have yet to experience- they started to become my family (a profound gift in the absence of my own). It was the first time where fully being myself and fully being a jaded Christian Black woman, was affirmed.
It wasn’t a serious time, but it had serious implications for my notions of self and the relationships that I would later build- I loved being a Black woman and had people who cared enough to ask me about it and simply be with me. It is so rare that people just want to be, who don’t need anything or want me to lead something (particularly around justice). Being with my new friends created space to enjoy the simplicity of being- both myself and together, for the first time in a long time if not ever. Just being me in all of my developing Blackness was enough.
It pains me to admit that I don’t have the highest self-esteem. I am sure this is a product of some deeply repressed series of events and experiences, but I always expect people to leave after they get what they want from me. I frequently use the sentence “ I am tricking this person into being my best friend,” to describe new relationships that I am trying to engage, with the underlying assumption that no one would want to be deep friends if I didn’t somehow pull the wool over their eyes. So, anytime someone stays or engages me with nothing expected in return, I am surprised and question motives like the best (or worst) of them. So when during a staff training Erna sent me a simple email inviting me to go to Ferguson with her and a few other ministry related people, my first thought was “…uh…why are you asking me to this?” but the opportunity seemed significant and as though God wanted to do something in or for me there. Shout out to my supervisors Joel and Andrea for making the trip possible, it changed my life and I don’t disregard the role you both played in getting me there.
So I went, and when in Ferguson I can say without exaggeration that I found myself as well as some of the most incredible people I have ever been graced to know. I reflect in part about the experience here, but hindsight does a wonder to pull back the layers of what God was doing. I am a word person, but that trip did something so significant in me that I cannot ascertain the correct words to depict poetically and beautifully enough, the transformation that happened there in my racial identity journey.
The gathering was put on by “Concerned Black Academics” as a reflection on the events of the previous year and #blacklivesmatter, and I was like a kid in a candy store. I am pretty sure that the first two days I was literally bouncing in my seat in a local church listening to the knowledge, wisdom and experience of people who thought like me. I didn’t know there were Black people, women in particular, who thought like me and experienced the world through the same lens that I did, so for the first 3 days I, along with my new friends (shoutout to Una, Amy, Diana, and Sean) experienced nothing short of the racial decolonizing of our minds. I felt for the first time deep down, a sense of pride to be a part of a community as resilient and gracious as the Black community in the United States. There is something about hearing the stories of people on the ground in the struggle being interpreted through the lens of academics and theology that calls one to repentance. I thought I knew stuff before I went to Ferguson…I left realizing that I hadn’t known a thing. I saw things there that I literally never thought that I would that restored my soul in an indescribable way:
- I saw Black woman in academia speaking to the realities of racial disparities in the church
- I saw the church, the Black church at that, partnering with queer people of color to fight for their mutual liberation
- I watched a White man preach to a Black church about white privilege and power in the church and on the streets
- I saw a worship team affirming the dignity of Black lives on stage with #blacklivesmatter shirts
- I saw the memorial to Michael Brown Jr. and watched clergy come and mourn his death a year later
- I heard people speak with hope in the midst of pain for racial justice
- I saw white people make space for Black voices
I wish I could describe more clearly what happened, but I honestly am not sure that I will ever be able to. All I know is that something mysterious happened there because of a 3-line email inviting me to “come and see.” How like Jesus to honor that sort of invitation.
Beyond the content and experiences, I got to simply be with other people who were committed to being in process about this stuff, and y’all, we were shook to our very cores by what was happening around us. Ferguson changed us and this has everything to do with my Blackness. I gained hope that others would come along on this journey with me, I gained friends to be with me, I gained theology that told me that my life matters, and I gained mentorship that has been profoundly impactful since.
Coming back from Ferguson sent me deeper into my commitment to my identity journey and created space for me to more deeply engage and deconstruct the realities of oppression in the places I work and occupy. Thankfully it wasn’t all serious. I had my hair braided professionally for the first time and started to watch Empire- embarrassingly the first Black television show I had ever seen. I learned about itchy scalps post braids, the joys of coconut oil, and the importance of reaching out to others who vocationally and functionally do what I do, to make Black friends. That was super awkward for me. To this day, I remain incredibly self-conscious about being “Black enough,” so reaching out to high identity Black folks to organize, complain, or just be friends with, has been one of the most humbling and amazing things that I have ever experienced. I have Black friends for the first time in my life. It’s awesome. Seriously. So awesome.
And then there were the serious moments. Decolonizing requires that we go to deeper places of vulnerability and ask honest questions, questions that make us look at history and the ways that we are not as cognizant of our development as we would like to think. Some of my more uncomfortable questions included:
- Why am I not typically romantically attracted to Black men?
- How do the ways that I see Jesus as White impact my worth, work, relationships, and activism?
- How do I have real conversations with my old friends about the racially problematic places in our relationship and the pain they have caused me?
- What does it mean that Black women are seen as less marriage worthy, especially if they are educated?
- Can I stay in my organization with my current theological and ideological critiques in tandem with its lack of responsiveness to the needs of its Black staff and students?
- Will I ever feel Black enough?
- Is it worth it to give my life to a city and campus that continually reinforces systemically that the way I am made is inferior?
It wasn’t and isn’t a walk in the park, but I would rather live honestly than have a distorted and rose-colored view of self that ignores the historical and social ramifications of my Black identity.
In this process of continued decolonization I went to CCDA and saw practitioners actually speaking about real things, I feel like part of 2015 was honestly God revealing the isolation that I was experiencing because of my ignorance to spaces like Ferguson protests and the CCDA. Being in those spaces gave me practical opportunities to live out the identity development that God and people had so committed themselves to on my behalf. I went to a Women of Color gathering and learned the definition of Blackgirlmagic as we were taught, built relationship and lamented together about the realities that come from of being who we are…but also the joys of how incredible it is to be a Woman of Color. CCDA gave me a space to practice being around other Black people and be ok. I had never felt enough or ok before, but putting myself out there created opportunities to again…more racial self-actualization
It was in these events and months that I also saw my speech become more…frankly, ‘hood. I wont say much about that except that as my speech has become more and more black, I am becoming less afraid of not being articulate or respectable, and more concerned with bringing all of myself into the places where I give my life.
Honestly, I feel unsure of what happened to me in the last month. What I do know though, is that through spending time with people I deeply love and who love and really know me I feel more affirmed than I ever have. I went to Urbana 15 and experienced the joy of Black culture from the stage and celebrated with my brothers and sisters what we saw in front of us. My deep desire to be known and accepted, cared for and nurtured, seen and heard, has been one of the primary gifts that I have received this year and that happened both in my relationships and from the stage at Urbana15. I make it sound like institutions have dramatically changed or that systems have been overthrown, but really, having returned recently from Urbana15 and possessing plenty of critiques as to the backlash and response to it, I can still say that I have never seen an event so affirm the dignity of Black lives on such a large scale. Erna and her team led some of the most incredible and enriching gospel music for a community that was 50% people of color. Hell, there were even a couple praise breaks in there. People wore #blacklivesmatter shirts on stage, Black women were given platform to speak and have prominence, a video about Ferguson and activism was played for thousands to see and Michelle Higgins delivered a profound word that I will never forget. If you haven’t watched it…seriously…you missed something crazy.
Again, it all feels pretty unprocessed and I will write more about it later, but what I have seen is that God is at work in bringing value and dignity to Black lives and he is doing it by revealing the resilience and beauty of the Black experience and inviting others to hear and believe that story. That has been a primary tenant of my year -hearing and receiving the gift of the Black racial story and what it means to be a Black women. I love it. I love being a black woman. I never thought I would say that, I would have just chalked it up to circumstance of birth, but at this point, beyond the Holy Spirit of God himself, my Blackness is one of the greatest providential gifts that I have received.
In summary, since I know that I have not been brief, this year God taught me that I am not alone and that I, in all of the beautiful and dynamic Blackness that he has given me, am enough. It is enough for the people around me and it is enough for him. God takes joy in the robustness of my identity and I receive it as a gift given from God himself through all of you who have been on this journey with me. May 2016 bare the fruit of this version of myself- this truer manifestation of who, deep down, I have always been. Thank you for being with me in the life, death and resurrection narrative that was my identity journey in 2015.
If you made it this far, I owe you a burrito or a high five or something.