Seeking Home: A Young Adult Gathering

I’m a millennial young adult. Why I still believe in faith community, and in Unitarian Universalism

Fort Worth. Seattle. Denver. Arlington. Columbia, Missouri. Five of us, young adults from across the South and West, huddled in the Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church office at one in the morning and strategized for the big Sunday morning service just hours away.

As I looked at each face, all betraying exhaustion yet each still filled with determination, a simple message permeated the room.

We’ve got this.

Oh home, let me come home
Home is wherever I’m with you

All weekend our worship quintet, along with the event’s general leadership team and fifty other young adults, had been working to build community at our Winter Gathering—no easy task considering attendees’ birth years ranged from 1979, or the year of Village People and Gloria Gaynor, to 1996, when Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ ruled the airwaves.

In Unitarian Universalism much has been made about the dearth of YA programming, with graduating high school folks feeling they are not being “bridged out” of youth group, but rather “pushed off a cliff,” with little support waiting for them. Youth rallies and “cons” touched their souls; adult worship services too often leave them cold.

Trying to build a young adult worship community—or else a spiritual space truly welcoming to young adults–has always been a challenge. We’ve read the articles. Millennials are less likely to go to church, to identify as religious, and to believe in God. Often our generation gets blamed for our absence from religious spaces. We’re told that we are too focused on our cell phones and individual lives to aim for anything greater.

It’s easy to believe such statements, to accept them as fact—even as members of this generation. Often we are quick to believe the worst about one another, and ourselves. Perhaps, though, we ought to heed wisdom from one of my generation’s favorite movie characters, The Lion King’s Rafiki, and “look harder.”

Four months ago a team of young adults–some of whom had, prior to the event, never met–united virtually and planned worships, justice actions, workshops, discussions on religious covenant, and more. Over fifty people took time away from their families to travel to the Houston area on the weekend after Christmas, and to make a statement: we are about something.

The late men’s basketball coach Jimmy Valvano said, “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day.” And so, for three days, we did. It was an unapologetically spiritual, religious space. We danced, we laughed, we stayed up late. We sang ‘Amazing Grace’ tearfully arm-in-arm at midnight, and ‘I’m On A Boat’ at 1:30 am another night. Both were spiritual experiences for many.

We listened as people found their voices, in some cases for the first time in years. Those who loved their voices were encouraged to use them less. We were called to action, to live out our UU values, and to work for environmental, racial, and economic justice. We struggled through covenant building and then through covenant following. We discussed body image and sexuality and mental health. What most of us found was something profoundly messy, and imperfect, and beautiful.
Many of us, we found grace. We found hope. And through struggle, we found home—or the beginnings of it.

That word—home–undergirded our time together.  For many in our age range, home eludes us. Perhaps we have gone away to school. We are where we grew up, and it no longer feels like home. We may not be fully welcome at home anymore, or we have grown beyond it. We are forging new homes with families and friends of our own.
 
Oh home, let me come home
Home is wherever I’m with you

It was this exploration of home that brought five Unitarian Universalist young adults together, poring over worship outlines at one in the morning as friends danced the Wobble two rooms over. Our goal was to bring two messages to the suburban Houston congregation the next morning.

The first message, the stated theme of the service, was to lift up the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, to call for more Unitarian Universalists to join the struggle, and to make a case that racial justice has always been about the quest for black Americans, and other folks of color, to find home in the midst of discrimination.
Speaking truths at home, as Jesus did at the synagogue in Nazareth and Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni did/do right here in America, likely means being hated and reviled. We argued that we must combat such hatred with support and love and solidarity.

Our second message—our latent statement of purpose—was, to quote another seminal millennial film, to bring it. Through song and impassioned readings and poems and story and laughter and silent meditation and fiery preaching, we strived to show what multigenerational, multicultural worship can do. Can be. Can feel like. Worship—and faith community more generally– can do more than make us think—it can make us laugh, make us cry, make us sing.

Worship can call us to action, call us to justice, call us home.

Home was never meant to be easy.

Our faith is hard. People who don’t or can’t agree, who struggle to understand one another, nevertheless stay together and covenant together.

Through these experiences—an oft-challenging yet ultimately rewarding young adult gathering, and a YA-led, boomer-musically-supported Sunday morning service full of tears, laughs, and energy—I find myself with some hopes for Unitarian Universalism going forward.

I hope that when we come together, we bring our whole selves, and not just our minds. I hope we heed Emerson’s warning in his 1838 Divinity School Address, about the preacher in the snow storm:

I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more…A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it.

Emerson believed “The true preacher can be known…that he deals out to the people his life,–life passed through the fire of thought.”
May we bring our minds and willingness to reason; may we also bring a willingness to laugh, to weep, to dance, to share our stories. May we truly come alive. May we bring a willingness to listen and be silent together.  May we be willing to make some noise. May we be willing to work for justice and change our ways when needed.
When we do these things, tough as they are, there’s little we can’t achieve.

Home was never meant to be easy. Home is hard work. All over, Unitarian Universalists of all ages and races and backgrounds are working to find home. To build home–together.

The Moderate Protester

Some of what’s said at protests makes me uncomfortable. Why, as a leader, It’s not my job to “police” others’ anger

My maternal grandfather, the late Oscar Stewart, served seventeen years as the chief of police at Texas Christian University. A black man in charge of the TCU campus police force, the flags at TCU flew at half-staff when he died, in 2013. While in college I drove to Fort Worth and spent a weekend with him. We played a couple rounds of golf, his favorite post-basketball pastime; on the course we ran into some of his white former police colleagues. They shook my hand and, laughing, told me to root for Missouri less–and TCU more. I was 20, six feet tall, and black, yet those chuckling white, Texas-accented men on the golf course made no attempt to make me feel less human.

I struggle when I hear protestors chant “fuck the police.” I struggle when all cops get thrown under the proverbial bus. I understand, though, where that feeling comes from. My life experience–having lots of white friends and being treated mostly well in society–must not be used, by myself or anyone else, as a weapon against other black and brown folks speaking their truths.
Since Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown on August 9th, I’ve emerged as one of Denver’s leaders in the fight to end systemic police violence and brutality. We’ve held rallies, forums, protests at grocery stores, and marches through the streets.

You name it, and we’ve heard it. There are those who believe in respectability politics—that “black people must love ourselves before the police or white people can love us.” There are those who want us to “be more like Martin and less like Malcolm.” We are often implored to “stop killing each other first.” Self-proclaimed leaders have called for calm, for us not to show too much passion, because it will scare moderate white people away from our side.

And we’ve heard that all police are evil, that voting is useless, that black pastors are worthless, that “we should be openly violent in return.”

Never mind that calm protest has never changed anything. Never mind that black people who kill other black people get thrown in jail, unlike cops who kill unarmed teenagers. Never mind that we needed both Dr. King and Malcolm X, and that they were not as far apart as their posthumous caricatures suggest. Never mind that passionate nonviolent protest—and, frankly, the looting—is what made Ferguson into a national story in the first place.

This is not an argument for moderation. We have had enough of that.

Those of us with a propensity towards moderation—towards decorum, towards respectability—I implore you–us–to hold it in. Black people are being killed. This is no time to be calm. This is a time to disrupt, a time to move beyond silence.
Some have called on myself and other leaders to “control the message” at these events. We have our opinions on what works best, but rather than unilaterally deciding, I invite a broader, truly democratic conversation on best practices.

As soon as we in leadership positions tell other people how to feel, we are lost.
If you don’t like “fuck the police” as a chant, get some friends together and start “black lives matter.” If large numbers of people would rather chant the former, be honest with yourself that maybe that’s not the rally for you. That’s okay. There are events at which I don’t feel comfortable.

And lastly, to my white protesting family: By now, you’ve likely read articles about why “all lives matter” isn’t the point. Black lives are the ones in question. I ask you, here, to evaluate how often you take the bullhorn or microphone. If you’re frustrated with black people who don’t seem radical enough, remember that we are more likely to have police retaliate against us and/or keep us in jail longer.

But at an event, I’m not going to tell you what to do. If you want to do that work on your own, it will be warmly welcomed.

It is often said that we have to work together for this movement to work. Indeed. But “working together” doesn’t mean silencing anyone who disagrees with us. Working together doesn’t mean men silencing women. Working together doesn’t mean older civil rights activists running over younger ones. Working together doesn’t mean white people taking the mic or otherwise telling black folks how to respond.

Working together means understanding not just how each of us is disadvantaged but also how we are privileged. Working together means knowing when to talk, and when to listen. Working together means having hard conversations.

I am a moderate protester. It is an honor to march with ‘radicals’ as well as (relative) conservatives. We are showing up, and it’s a start—though we have more work to do, both within and without.

Dreaming of Heroes

“Dad, what in the world am I supposed to say to him? He talks to world leaders!”
“How about ‘hello’?”
I sat at a table with my father at a Washington, D.C. restaurant, but eating felt like an impossibility. Nerves overtook me. I felt sick.

In an hour, I’d be meeting the president of the United States.

Never had I been more nervous. My dad, a former Clinton employee from the late 70s, had received an invitation to the White House from his old boss. All of eleven, I joined him.

As a child my friends read comics; I read little history books. Children’s stories of civil rights leaders, of women like Ida B. Wells and Susan B. Anthony, and American icons littered my room. The women and men in those stories kept me up at night. How did Harriet Tubman not lose hope? How did Rosa Parks get her courage? What gave FDR strength?

Maybe most children don’t pore over books about women’s suffrage, but nearly every young person spends time dreaming of heroes.

Back then I made little distinction between mainstream, elected leaders—like President Clinton—and those who challenged the status quo, often at great cost.

After meeting President Clinton in the Oval Office, I decided I’d go into politics. I wanted to be, I told my mom, a “real-life superhero.” And, as I became a teenager, even through bouts of severe depression, that hope persisted.

In my sophomore year of high school Spider-Man 2 came out; one scene still gives me chils. Many know it as the ‘Aunt May scene.’ Peter Parker asks her why a neighborhood boy, Henry, wants to be Spider-Man. She replies:

He knows a hero when he sees one. Too few characters out there flying around like that, saving old girls like me. And Lord knows, kids like Henry need a hero. Courageous, self-sacrificing people. Setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer.
I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.

“I believe there’s a hero in all of us.” It’s that line that has, over the years, kept me believing. But Aunt May got a couple things wrong.

When a person is truly courageous and self-sacrificing, they draw disdain, even rage. Everyone may love Dr. King now—or, at least, love to quote him, no matter their political views—but in life, many reviled him. When Dr. King spoke out against the war in Vietnam, other black leaders criticized him, and President Johnson felt betrayed.

A hero cannot be in it because she wants people to line up for her, cheer her, scream her name. Whether it’s in comics or in real human rights movements, heroes are not celebrated. Heroes are despised. Heroes are ignored and, so often, unknown. And sometimes, heroes are killed.

To be a hero means speaking truth to power. Heroes advocate for freedom, not the status quo; for hope, not hate; for the presence of justice, not the absence of tension. Heroes call us to be better versions of ourselves.

Here at the end of 2014, I find myself, again, dreaming of heroes. I look around at the public sphere and, at first glance, I don’t see many. The actions of officials—local and state—in Missouri surrounding the Ferguson situation have been troubling. A ‘peace’ “won” with tanks and riot gear is no peace at all. Too many appear more interested in policing the actions of poor and working-class blacks than with working with them to help improve their lives.

While politicians get the credit, they have almost never been the true heroes. The Kennedy brothers and Johnson were good-hearted men—men who waited a long time to get involved in civil rights issues. They did so because they were pushed and prodded, by Dr. King and by thousands of others. Black people (and a few white ones) were being attacked and sometimes lynched, and yet they waited, because they feared losing the South.

I met one of my childhood heroes, Bill Clinton. I later learned he was willing to hurt people by cutting (though he called it reforming) welfare. He was willing to compromise and buy into—or at least not challenge–myths about people, from poor blacks to folks in the LGBT community—to score political victories.
Mr. Clinton was incredibly kind to me in the White House that day in 1999. By most accounts, he genuinely loves people. But is he a hero? Is Barack Obama? Are any politicians? I’m not sure.

I don’t think (most) politicians are evil. Politics is complicated, and messy, and requires compromise. Yet I still dream of heroes.

And if we look harder, we will find them—being shouted at, harassed online, and ignored or shamed or misunderstood by the public. There’s one other thing Aunt May got wrong: heroes need not give up their dreams. Heroes inspire us to join their dreams.

Frederick Douglass dreamed of a day when black folks could truly celebrate the Fourth of July. Sojourner Truth dreamed her society might answer her “Yes!” when she asked, “Ain’t I a woman?” Mary White Ovington dreamed her white people such as herself would join the struggle for racial equality. Ida B. Wells dreamed of a nation without lynching. James Weldon Johnson dreamed we might ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.’ At the March on Washington, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson implored Dr. King to “tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.”

And today: sportswriter Jessica Luther dreams of a sports world without intimate partner violence and with people in power who believe the victims. Elon James White dreams that men will take responsibility for their public actions. Anita Sarkeesian and others dream of a gaming community less hostile to women.

The day after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, I scoured the Internet every five minutes to see if someone in Denver had organized a vigil or protest to honor Mr. Brown’s life. I checked church websites and searched on Twitter. Nothing. Finally, I saw one. I tweeted out seeing if anyone would join us in a peaceful vigil.

A few people responded. We’d meet near Civic Center Park. I told my roommate Kierstin about it, and ten minutes later, she came downstairs with markers and posters. “Let’s make signs.”

That first night, there were nine of us out there. Numerous cars honked their support. Two people heckled us. Bolstered by Kierstin’s support, we kept tweeting. A few days later, over 100 showed up for a vigil. A few days later we held a march through Denver in solidarity with the Ferguson protestors, at least 300 strong.

On those days, and many since, Kierstin has been a hero. I’ve met many others. They are not famous. Many do not have official titles and positions. But from them I have learned: heroism means showing up. Heroism means pushing officials to do better, to be better, to build a more inclusive world.

Our country, our world–we need leadership. We need heroes. This can be done without hating the “other side.” It can be done through love, even of our adversaries. But it cannot be done without the willingness to be despised, to be heckled, to be ignored.

After all this time, I still dream of heroes. And despite the hateful rhetoric, despite the fear that rules so many, I still believe there’s a hero in all of us.

Who Are My People? A Black Unitarian Universalist on Selma and Ferguson

“Man, I don’t have any people. I’m with everybody, Julius.”
–Louie Lastik, Remember the Titans

Wintertime in Houston sneaks up on you. As children we sweated in our Halloween costumes and, some years, played the big Thanksgiving Day basketball game in shorts. That first 40-degree day in early December alerted us it was time to ask our parents for money for Christmas shopping.

It was such a 40-degree day in my ninth year, a Sunday, when an adult said words that still stick with me.
“It means so much that your family worships here with us, Kenneth. It shows how far your people have come.”

Baffled doesn’t quite say it.
I thought the folks at church were my people.

I am a proud lifelong Unitarian Universalist. My roommates will tell you that some days I sing Spirit of Life to myself as I make breakfast. Coming of Age and YRUU summer camps brought me ever-mingled comfort and stress.

I am also black. The struggle for black freedom has long held a grip on my soul. In adolescence not even complicated high school romance got me feeling quite like Toni Morrison and Lorraine Hansberry could.

I love being Unitarian Universalist—I think.
I love being black—I know.

During college I joined a great UU congregation. They were thrilled to have me, and I them. Older adults had me over for dinner and looked out for me on campus. When my mom died, church staff and members alike wrote cards and weren’t afraid to ask me how I was doing.
There were also only two black men active in the church, and the other gentleman’s first name was my last. Though he was older than my father, it took some folks two years to stop getting us confused. Sometimes it was funny and sometimes it hurt, but it always reminded me that I was not fully at home.

In Soul Work: Anti-racist Theologies in Dialogue, UU minister and scholar Rosemary Bray McNatt relays the story of the time she talked for an hour with Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. King.
Mrs. King told Rev. Bray McNatt, “Oh, I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin. And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston.”

Mrs. King continued, “We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.”

The first time I read that, during my failed attempt to do seminary and become a UU minister, tears came down my face like a mighty stream. Night after night I read that passage from Rev. Bray McNatt’s chapter in the book. Night after night I wept.

I cried because I understood. I understood why they would choose to root themselves in a black church, and with a suffering God who could help black people and tell them He would never forsake them or give up on them, even in death.

I teared up also because I’ve often wished I could leave UUism. Sometimes I feel so alone because of race. I need church, though; almost by default, this faith is my religious home. I believe in God, but don’t call God ‘He.’ Unless Jesus somehow finds me, I cannot in good conscience join a Christian church.

Experience has taught me that being black and UU means feeling great most of the time, yet waiting for the next microaggression, the next moment of non-belonging. It is to feel profoundly uncomfortable in the midst of the familiar.

Growing up I needed to figure out how to navigate a mostly white society that accepted me quite warmly, so long as I did little to rock the boat. I had no real black community to help me out, save for a few friends and two extended family members. Talking about race with many white UUs too often means shouldering their insecurities, patiently answering their questions, making the fight for racial justice appear warm and inviting.

It isn’t.

On Facebook I am quite active; on Twitter, I have few followers and mostly listen/read. I follow young adult activists who fight for racial equality, champion black feminism, and struggle for change. Mostly they are people of color, often also members of the LGBTQ community. They are not conciliatory. They regularly call white people out, challenge PoC men’s sexism, and support one another.
They live out theologian Allan Boesak’s words from The Courage to be Black: “No one person has the right to take our life into their hands, and to exercise the power to give our life to us or to withhold it from us.”

For them the way is clear and straightforward, albeit difficult. For them white people, even (or perhaps especially) well-meaning white liberals, mostly get in the way, re-center themselves, and derail conversations. These folks are mostly done with the mainstream society that blindly trusts conventional authority. I mostly agree with their analysis and support them with favorites, retweets, and small financial contributions.

All the community they need is with each other.

Nothing is so straightforward for me. Most people in my life are white. I cannot so easily dismiss them, nor do I want to. White individuals have caused me stress, and others have been there for me. White people have told me awful race jokes I never again want to hear, and white people have marched alongside me at rallies and protests.

Some may read this as internalized racial oppression. It is. I am shaped by my upbringing. Many privileged black folks revel in being accepted by white America, in opting out of blackness (see: Raven Symone and Pharrell). I want no such thing. I am black and proud; being authentically black, for me, means something a bit different.

When Mike Brown was killed by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in August, something fundamentally shifted within. I felt called to act, to organize rallies and vigils in Denver.

Planning those rallies terrified me, but not because I feared the inevitable white backlash. I worried that I wasn’t “black enough.” I thought my being a Unitarian Universalist would put me on the margins of the movement.

I was wrong.

A black, Christian pastor I met at a Denver rally said to me, “As long as you’re not ashamed of your blackness, you can be one of them and one of us at the same time.”

And so it is.

At rallies for racial justice in Denver, UU ministers and laypeople have shown up. I have looked out and seen “my people.” They are black folks and white UUs.

This is, it seems, less true nationally. Our faith has a complicated racial history, and a less than stellar record on race presently. St. Louis-area UUs put out a call for ministers and UUs to come to Ferguson, to be present for Ferguson October. Some, like Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley and Rev. Julie Taylor, were there and proved vital. But not enough.

Hundreds of UUs are planning to go to Selma, AL in March 2015 for the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed writes in The Selma Awakening that, after years of absence, UUs came through and journeyed to Selma. Rev. Morrison-Reed argues that in Selma, “Unitarian Universalists’ values in practice snapped into alignment with their espoused values.”

Last summer I went to Selma as part of a moving road trip through the South. With a friend I walked from Brown Chapel to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a muggy June evening. On the way we stopped at the marker honoring Rev. James Reeb, the white, Unitarian minister from Boston who was killed after answering Dr. King’s call for clergy to come to Selma.

Kneeling in front of Rev. Reeb’s marker drove me—to tears, and to an understanding of history’s importance. Finally, after ignoring the race problem for years, we showed up in Selma. But fifty years later, if we UUs show up in Selma in 2015 but not in Ferguson right now, and not for all those black and brown victims of police violence in the sadly inevitable future, we will not have learned from our past.

The harrowing truth is that I could be the next Mike Brown. My household had two parents. I have a college degree and a job. My pants don’t sag. When I’m out protesting or canvassing, though, none of that matters. I cannot opt out of blackness, and I do not want to. In the wrong situation, though, my respectable nature may not save me—from a racist police officer or citizen, nor from the ensuing character assassination. I would go from the decent, reasonably friendly guy some of you know to a mentally deranged (I have depression) Harvard dropout who was “no angel” and deserved what he got.

I know some of my people—black people—would come to my defense. Some UUs and other friends would, too. But would there be a broad movement on my behalf? Or would faith members send my dad and sisters thoughts and prayers before moving on?

These questions keep me up at night.

There are so many things to fight—and fight for—in the world. We mostly do a great job on climate justice and immigration. Our LGBTQ work has saved and changed lives. Black lives, too, are worth fighting for. When the next Ferguson happens—and sadly, it will—we can and must do more. We have to show up, be willing to follow others, and be willing to change ourselves.

Unitarian Universalists, you are my people. And UUs, my ‘other’ people—of which some of you are—need you. We need you to show up. We need you to listen and go beyond platitudes. Not everyone can travel hundreds of miles, but we can all do something—something beyond what we thought we could do. Oct. 22 is National Day Against Police Brutality, and several cities are hosting events.

The next call to action for racial justice has arrived. My people: Will we answer?

My people want to know.

race depression

I have depression.
I am young and black.

These two basic truths of my existence do not directly correlate, nor did the latter clearly cause the former. Yet the statements ought not be separated. I am depressed. To the extent that depression ever has a ‘cause,’ mine is both chemical and situational.

Long have  questions and thoughts about race consumed me—and, for nearly as long, I have wished I could stop caring. During my childhood small books on Rosa Parks, SNCC, and the March on Washington littered my room.

Even as I came of age in mostly white external spaces, from school to church to friend circles, questions of race—of supremacy and history and inequality—did not let me alone. In high school I grappled with black voices across the political spectrum, trying to find my way without a guide. I read books from Toni Morrison, Malcolm X and Shelby Steele, feeling pulled to the left but willing to entertain anyone who would at least discuss race openly.

After a history teacher first pointed me to W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, one sentence brought me, night after night, to tears.

How does it feel to be a problem?

I felt like a problem because I had what my parents called “an obsession with race.”
I felt like a problem because depression had twice nearly killed me.

I was black, depressed, and race-conscious. And few people wanted to talk about any of it.

Even among well-meaning friends, bringing up depression often stops conversations short. People don’t want to say the wrong thing and mentally search for the perfect words. Those of us who suffer learn to speak of it sparingly, and to frame it carefully when it does come up. We share our pain and end up consoling our friends.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be okay.”

Those who battle depression also fight stigma, of course. We combat feel-good messages of positivity. Just feel better. Think happy thoughts. Think about your past successes.

These suggestions sound ludicrous to us, but we try them anyway—and then feel disgust with ourselves that they didn’t work. Something must be wrong with us, and not with the suggestion.

Those feelings of shame create a culture of silence. Depression becomes our burden to bear twice over. We feel it, alone, before dueling the ensuing shame.

That feeling—that people are okay with knowing that you have depression, as long as you don’t talk about it—mirrors some of what blackness has meant in the post-civil rights era.
It’s okay that I have blackness, as long as I don’t talk about it, or “act black” in any way.

We know the lines:
“If you want racism to end, stop talking about it.”
“I don’t see race.”
“Nobody brings up race except you.”
“Stop bringing race into this.”

Which brings us to Ferguson, Mike Brown, and battling injustices many people can’t, or won’t, see.

Most of what’s transpired in Ferguson, Missouri since Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown on August 9th has been utterly predictable, from the slandering of his character to the justification of his murder, to the disproportional focus on the looting by a relative handful.

47 percent of white Americans believe race received “too much attention” during the heat of the Ferguson situation (Pew). 37 percent agreed that Brown’s death raised important issues about race. Those of us who took to the streets to protest yet another black death at the hands of police were told to “wait for the facts.”

Don’t make it about race. 

Had Mike Brown been white, he could have acted exactly as he did, store theft, jaywalking and all—and he would almost certainly be alive today. That may not be provable; however, while the Aurora theatre shooter was taken into custody, John Crawford III held a toy gun and was killed in a Wal-Mart.

We speak up and get told we are race-baiters, or opportunists looking for attention. We want to keep racism alive so we can have jobs and get on TV.

Those comments sound a lot like what some say about those who dare speak of their depression. “Attention seeking.” “Wanting the spotlight.” “Not to be taken seriously.”

How does it feel to be a problem?

Talking about being black makes people uncomfortable.
Why do you bring up race so much?

Talking about depression makes people uncomfortable.
Just don’t focus on it, and you’ll feel better.

Talking about inequality makes people uncomfortable.
Stop bringing race into everything.

I once wished I could ignore it. But I will not—and we cannot—any longer be shamed into silence. Rarely does ignoring any issue actually make it go away. Audre Lorde told us her silences had not protected her, and that ours will not protect us.

And so rather than opt for silence, I choose to speak. I choose to speak my truth. My truth is this:
I am depressed. I am depressed because of chemical imbalances in my brain. Medicine and therapy have provided some relief. Friends and ritual have also helped. I am depressed. I likely always will be, to some extent.

I am depressed also because, despite us having a black president and a black attorney general, and despite living in a society where I can play ultimate frisbee with white people and high five white strangers at football games and work at a white church and have lots of white friends, black lives still matter less in America.

I am depressed because I watched many of my friends go blissfully about their lives, seemingly unconcerned as police pointed guns and deployed tear gas against their unarmed fellow citizens.

I am depressed because black men have devalued the moving, vital leadership of black women going back to Sojourner Truth, who said in the mid 19th century, “There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about colored women.”

I am depressed because black editor Thomas Fortune’s 1883 words still ring with truth today: “The white man who shoots a negro always goes free, while the negro who steals a hog is sent to the chain gang for ten years.”

I am depressed because those who speak up are labeled as The Problem, while the issue they strive to solve goes unchallenged and often unseen.

Shame is powerful. Depression makes us intimately familiar with shame, with doubt, and with fear. Supremacy, though it no longer requires supremacists to operate, teaches us the same lesson.

Depression and supremacy aren’t satisfied with our shame. They want our silence. And as much as it hurts–as often as we’re told, verbally or otherwise, to shut up, as many times as we curl up and cry or bury our faces in our pillows–we have to keep going.

Audre Lorde said, “only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”

At rallies and protests and forums around the country, we are fighting doubt and finding truth—in her voice, and in ours.

Moving Beyond ‘I Feel So Helpless’

Mike Brown, Ferguson and Injustice

Moments away from addressing the crowd of two hundred, I panicked. Who could I draw upon for inspiration? My mind turned briefly to MLK–which made me feel even worse. Wow, Kenny, I thought to myself. You tweet a few times, co-organize a couple vigils and rallies and now you’re Dr. King. Real humble there, buddy.

Okay, so that wouldn’t work. I went over names and faces in my head. Fannie Lou Hamer. John Lewis. Ella Baker. Bayard Rustin. Dorothy Day.

Names flew by faster and faster. Two hundred-ish of my fellow Denver residents had joined together to honor Mike Brown and other victims of police violence, and to rally for justice and racial equality. I had volunteered to co-organize and to emcee the vigil itself.

Why had I done that again?

I’m just some guy who works at a Unitarian Universalist church. I’m not an ordained minister. I’m not a pastor. I’m not a professional organizer. I have no clerical collar or stoll or robe on—just jeans and a shirt that says “DENVER.”

Many of us, at least in childhood and adolescence, learned narratives about the civil rights movement that went something like this:

There was slavery. Then there was Jim Crow. Thurgood Marshall and Linda Brown challenged school segregation and Rosa Parks stayed seated on a bus. Dr. King led a boycott. Then Dr. King had a dream and led marches in Alabama. He wrote a letter in jail. He was killed for his dream, but segregation died, too.

 Too often we credit a handful of people—Dr. King and Rosa Parks in particular—for the work and sacrifice of untold thousands, even millions, who strived for equality.

This has terrible consequences.

We watch the news or our Twitter feeds and feel horror—horror that another unarmed black person was killed, horror that the deplorable actions of some black youth were used as justification to essentially create a police occupation of a St. Louis suburb, horror that too many of our colleagues and former classmates and even family members seem more interested in focusing on what Mike Brown might have done to ‘deserve’ being murdered than in the killing itself.

We watch yet another slander of a dead person of color and we are filled with frustration, filled with anger, filled with rage.

And then that vicious thought bubbles up, the thought that sends us back to the other room, back into our seats, back onto our Netflix queue:

There’s nothing I can do. I feel so helpless.

We think this because somewhere along the way we internalized the notion that a few people make history happen while everyone else watches. And so we scroll through social media and flip through newspapers, waiting for official statements from our ministers, from our elected officials. We wait for someone to ‘fix it.’

We don’t have to wait.

While many around the country waited for President Obama and Governor Nixon to make statements on the situation in Ferguson, local leaders like Alderman Antonio French spoke out and documented events on the ground. A hundred years from now, schoolchildren will know Obama’s name. They probably won’t know French’s name.

But this week, to that community and to those following the developments around the world, who has been more important? Whose actions have mattered more?

And so moments before the Denver vigil began, as my legs shook and the media members’ cameras prepared to roll, it was on Antonio French—and the protestors and mourners in Ferguson, Denver and nationwide—that my mind landed to glean inspiration. Antonio French cared about his community and did what he could—document and witness the events on the ground. The people who showed up at #NMOS14 vigils in Denver and all over the country, we did what we could: we showed up. We made signs. We answered questions and spoke our truths into the cameras.

I told my terrified, pre-vigil self: I’m not Dr. King. I’m not Fannie Lou Hamer. I’m not an ordained pastor and I don’t organize for a living. My co-organizers and I can sing okay (or okayish, in my case) and give decent TV interviews and take down emails.

And that’s okay. I’m somebody, and I care. 

Not all of us can plan or attend rallies. Not all of us want to chant. A good close friend said to me after the vigil, “I care about inequality too, but fighting racism isn’t my leading cause. Mine is battling stigma around mental illness.”

Everyone—everyone—can do something about racial injustice, in their own ways. My friend, when he becomes a therapist, can understand that the black woman who schedules an appointment with him may be battling not just depression, but also sexism, racism and the damaging stereotype that all black women can handle anything and don’t have problems.

We can challenge our friends. We can practice empathy. We can pay attention. We can educate ourselves about inequality. We can learn that ending racism is not black Americans’ fight or Latino/a Americans’ fight or Asian Americans’ fight but must become America’s fight—especially white Americans’ fight. We can review hiring practices and seek out different information sources. We can challenge our own notions.

And we can keep our gaze on the situation in Ferguson and connect it to a broader system of injustice. We can channel the anonymous elderly woman who, when a car driver during the Montgomery bus boycott offered her a ride, declined, saying “I’m not walking for me. I’m walking for my children and my grandchildren.”

She did what she could.

So can we.

How Long is 50 Years? My Civil Rights Trip Through the South

“Darnell! It’s so good to see you, honey. Give me a hug.”
My plate of collared greens, cornbread and two kinds of casserole still minutes away, I had only the glass of sweet tea to feebly distract me from the table to our immediate left.
Darnell, a young black man, had emerged from the kitchen, cleaning supplies and all,  at a popular diner in downtown Oxford, MS–much to the delight of the middle-aged white woman I’d only been vaguely aware of thirty seconds prior.

had previously noticed the man who turned out to be Darnell. He’d looked tired, even bored–but now his expression looked intimately familiar, as though he’d studied my face to learn its proper form. As the woman talked excitedly to him and introduced him to her group, tears approached my eyes. Her warmth and her friendliness reminded me of my now-deceased mother, and, at first glance, showed how far America has come from the days of Jim Crow. Fifty years is a long time, I thought.

And then I kept looking–at the woman, at her table, at Darnell, at the patrons in the restaurant, at our nation–and the question, sitting everywhere and waiting to be acknowledged, found me.

How long, really, is fifty years?

I left Denver Monday morning, June 2, with my friend Jen. We stayed a night in Oklahoma City before driving to Arkansas and beginning our tour through the South. Jen and I–twenty-somethings, a white woman and a black man–started with a pretty specific itinerary and ideas about what we’d find.
Over the ensuing thirteen days, we walked through parks and museums, looked at statues and rivers, and wandered small towns and big cities. Our reasons for going were complementary yet not identical, which worked for us.

I grew up “southern-ish,” spending my first fourteen years in the Houston metro area and my college days at the University of Missouri. Living in Denver and Boston helped teach me that neither the history of racial discrimination nor its present effects are limited to the South. Yet I suspected that I might find in Montgomery and Birmingham answers, and questions, that I wouldn’t find in Houston or Columbia.

And so we journeyed. The question–how long is fifty years?– proved omnipresent.

We didn’t need to travel the South to know this, but even so: America has changed. A young black man and a young white woman toured the South without major incident. We clicked with a white historian at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery and danced to an unforgettable cover of ‘Proud Mary’ with an integrated, middle-aged crowd on Beale Street in Memphis.
We toured famous black Baptist churches, large UU congregations, and worshipped at a black Bible church. We walked the elaborate, glitzy National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and stood alone in Money, Mississippi, at the marker where Emmett Till was abducted and killed in 1955.
We stayed with a white mentor of mine in Oklahoma City and a black mentor of mine in Little Rock. We took photos for white families in Athens and black families in the Smokies. We stayed with a black rower in Clemson and a white basketball stud in Atlanta. An older white woman offered me a tissue as I teared up inside the elder King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

And fifty-two years after James Meredith overcame a violent scene to become the first black student to enroll at Ole Miss, Jen and I sat in the Oxford, MS diner with white and black Ole Miss football players eating together on one side of us, and, among others, the woman who so liked Darnell on the other.

I looked at Jen and knew she, too, had her eyes on the scene. We’d found it: the personification of post-racial America. Then I shook my head and looked around. Patrons filled nearly all the restaurant’s tables, yet the only visibly black folks in the place were Darnell, myself, and an Ole Miss football player. I again looked at Darnell’s face, and again registered the familiarity of his facial expression.

His expression was a mask, a mask I put on too often.
At once, I understood: fifty years is a long time, but it’s not long enough.

The 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery did not start right at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, famously the site of Bloody Sunday. They began less than a mile away, at Brown Chapel A.M.E. church.
The marker at the church reads:
The demonstration that led to the most important advance in civil rights for millions of Black Americans began here March 21, 1965…This is a tribute to those who planned, encouraged, marched, were jailed, beaten, and died to change Black Americans from second class to first class citizens.

Brown Chapel stands in a mostly black housing project on, predictably, MLK Street. The walk hundreds made for freedom fifty years ago is now littered, metaphorically and otherwise, with evidence that the march both lifted millions up, and left millions behind. So many of us in suburbia grew up looking at pictures of the Brown Chapel steps in textbooks. Freedom was won there, we were told. The view out from the steps narrates a far more complex tale.

We walked silently from the church steps down MLK Street, past the James Reeb memorial and over to the Pettus bridge. Walking over the river and under the bride’s infamous sign, the font unchanged in fifty years, brought me more than goosebumps and tears. Darnell’s mask–my mask–swam to the front of my mind. The mask and the shoddy neighborhood surrounding Brown Chapel; the bridge and the simplistic tale of civil rights permeating our country’s racial discourse; my own racial frustrations and the disdain some people in my life have for me whenever I mention them–everything felt connected.

We grow up being told that racism is a matter of the mind and heart. Being racist is an individual action. Racists are somewhere, and someone, else. Racism, and racists, are mostly a thing of the past. And we grow up learning that Rosa Parks and Dr. King challenged white folks’ hearts and changed them. It’s clear that things are different, and we must acknowledge that. Jen and I can travel together, tour SEC campuses together, and sit on the steps of the Alabama state capitol together. Fifty years is a long time.

Fifty years has gotten us here: to the mask I saw on Darnell and know well myself. We are welcome, conditionally. We’re welcome in mainstream society, and welcomed, if. We’re welcome if our diction is like mine. We’re welcome if we smile a lot. We’re welcome if we don’t show anger. We’re welcome if we assimilate, if we don’t speak up too much or talk too loud. So many black folks are never given the tools to learn or the education to make it, and then people ask why they never made it, why they won’t do anything with their lives.

The next fifty years won’t automatically bring improvement. Contrary to popular belief, racism won’t end “one funeral at a time,” as ‘old racists’ die off. The next fifty years won’t be about the racial prejudice in our hearts or in our minds. The next fifty years will be about the racism in our policies, in our housing laws, in our school zones. Most of us don’t hate each other anymore–we just don’t know each other. We don’t understand each other.

And as someone who spends a lot of time as the only black person in spaces, I wear a mask. I wear a mask that talks sports and The West Wing, 90’s TV shows and Star Wars. My mask smiles often and patiently explains why something hurt me. My mask loves ultimate and doesn’t mind that I’m one of a handful of black players. My mask isn’t a lie, but it’s far from the whole truth.

I wear the mask to hide my loneliness, my weariness at always sticking out, my sadness that my attempts to change things get cast as race-baiting or ‘holding onto the past.’ I wear the mask to get along, to get through the days and weeks. I wear the mask because, in a strange way, it’s comfortable. I know it well, and it knows me.

The mask, which some black folks know well and I suspect Darnell at Ole Miss had on, gets to come off sometimes. It comes off when I talk with a handful of friends, most of them black. It comes off when I call my Aunt Michelle, a professor in California. And it came off in Selma, halfway between Brown Chapel and the Pettus Bridge, as I wept in front of the memorial for Rev. James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who was killed trying to help the march.

What we have to fight–redlining, police brutality, microaggressions, sexism, educational inequality, mass incarceration–it is different from what Rev. Reeb and others battled. It may feel less urgent to many.
Kneeling in front of Reeb’s marker just steps from the Bloody Sunday bridge allowed me to feel my purpose. In my own way–with patience and clarity and love of all people–I am supposed to continue the struggle. I am supposed to continue the march. Luckily, there are plenty of people from all races and backgrounds, gender identities and personality types, who are already walking.

We all have our roles. Mine is to ask, and try to answer, again and again:

Just how long is fifty years?

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