Thursday, January 8, 2015

The fear of acting white

The room was chilly cold.  It wasn’t the temperature that had most of us trembling; it was the purpose of the gathering.  Administrators at Duke University, the Divinity School, called a meeting with black students to discuss our lack of participation during worship at the chapel.

Worship services were held Tuesday – Thursday at the divinity school.  The time in between classes was viewed as the perfect opportunity to ripen strong bonds with our peers.   It was our chance to practice what we were being taught – what it means to be “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic”.

Many of the black students were being immersed in the teachings of liberation theology for the first time.  Some of us began pondering the significance of Christianity given its long and brutal history in being used to subjugate people of color.  Most of us found ourselves embattled by congregations that regarded theological education antithetical to the cause of the black church.

We were being pulled between diametrically opposed agendas – learning to advance the work of the Church and remaining vital in the churches we were being called to serve.

“I refuse to cast my pearls to the swine and, in the process, forfeit the idiomatic expression of the people I have been called to serve,” I said that day.

I meant every word. 

I was afraid of gathering for worship, taking preaching classes from people who had never participated in worship with a black congregation, learning the theology of white men who died long ago, and, as a consequence, gaining nothing to support the work I’m called to perform.

Put another way, I was afraid of becoming white.

More to the point, I was afraid of being perceived as too white.

The tension I felt then continues to pester many who make the decision to pursue theological education.  Many pastors warn their ministers not to be changed by the teaching.  They’re told not to listen. They’re warned not to learn, but to go. Go and receive credit for going, but don’t accept what is being taught.

They’re taught that theological training is not designed to prepare those in ministry, but to credential and separate those who have it from those who don’t.

So, what is the significance of my working as a pastor at Bethel Church, a predominately white congregation? Does my presence reflect the function of my theological training and, as a result, the surrendering of my role as a servant of the black church?  Is there an assumption that my embrace of the things I’ve been taught has led me toward becoming the very thing I feared.

Does this mean I have become white?

Let’s be clear. That is completely impossible.  No matter how hard some work in denying the implications of race in their life, there is enough to remind me that I can never run away from the relevancy of my skin.

Some want me to pretend it’s not there.  I’ve already been told I talk too much about being black.  Why wouldn’t I? Why would I refute the part of me I love so much?

I love being a black man.  I’m proud of my ancestors and the mass of people who keep it real while working to invalidate the stereotypes people wave in our faces. Yes, we are brilliant.  We are artistic, and we have contributed more to America than any other race.

I said it.  We make America what it is today.

I have no reason to run from my blackness. I love the energy and passion of black worship.  I am a preacher of the black faith tradition.  I love the deep moans that leap in my throat when the spirit of God catches hold of the congregations causing all present to break free from bondage of the week. That’s who I am, and nothing will ever take that away.

So, why am I serving a white congregation? If all of that is true, and it is, what is it that would lead me to step into the pulpit of a congregation that doesn’t understand the significance of what it means for me to be me?

That’s simple. It’s called a calling.

Put another way, this is bigger than me.  It’s beyond what I understand.  All I know, for today, is this is the work that God has chosen for me in this season.

How do I know this to be true?

Because everything I have done, before today, has prepared me for this challenge. I have been trained for this season.  I know it’s true because I’ve written about and preached the message of inclusion long enough to be baptized into its meaning. I know it’s true because my footsteps point in the direction of healing and understanding. 

I know it’s true because the world and the Church have to change the way it functions in regards to the things that divide us. It’s true because hate and detachment has fractured the essence of what it means to be crafted to promote love and peace.  It’s true because someone has to stand beyond the assumptions we claim to rouse faith beyond the barricades built to keep us on the other side of unity.

I know it’s true because of the people I serve at Bethel Church.  They have taught me beyond the things I have been taught.  They teach me not with their words, but with their willingness to build community in a new way.  I’ve watched them transcend the comforts of their sacred community.  I’ve watched them say no to the crippling messages that keep America divided because of an aversion to listen.

No, it has not been easy. Yes, it comes with a cost beyond what I may be able to pay.

But, I’m here now glaring at my words from long ago.

“I refuse to cast my pearls to the swine and, in the process, forfeit the idiomatic expression of the people I have been called to serve,” I said.

I have a new message.

Beyond the color of my skin.  Beyond the history of suppression. Beyond the assumptions made when I show up to speak. Beyond all of it, I have been baptized in a faith that makes me who I am today.  Yes, I say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud. Nothing will ever take that away.

But, beyond all of that, thank you Lord for calling me to a purpose beyond things I can comprehend.  I accept your will.

Show me that way.  I don’t know the way, but I hear that still small voice calling my name.

Here I am Lord, send me.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Dr. William Barber's prayer at the Congressional Black Caucus Prayer Breakfast

William Barber II, state president of the North Carolina conference of branches of the NAACP and head of North Carolina's Moral Monday movement, delievered this prayer before the Congressional Black Caucus in 2007.  It was before the rise of the Moral Monday movement.  It was before the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Barber sent this prayer to me on last night to encourage me upon hearing I have been appointed to serve as Co-Pastor at Bethel Church.  The prayer reminds me of why we serve. It's a challenge to serve with integrity and passion. The prayer moved me to tears. After reading it the first time, I felt like hands had been placed upon me again to affirm my calling.  I'm sharing it with my readers to symbolize my unyielding faith in the God who called my name and set me free to serve.  This is my yes to the work at Bethel.  This prayer is my mission statement. I will feed upon each word and use it as fuel for my faith.
I thank God for William Barber.  I'm also grateful for the others who sent messages supporting this appointment: Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr., Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry and my good friend Dr. Robert C. Scott.  The outpouring of support challenges me. 
Read the prayer, say Amen and join me and Bethel as we move toward embracing this amazing calling. - The Rev-elution
Gracious eternal and all wise God.   Thou who formed what is out of nothing, and called us into being to serve you. You, oh Lord, who weighs every nation in the balance of your own standards. Today, we acknowledge how great Thou art, the marvelous mystery of your mercy and exalt the excellence of your name.

                Because your Holy Spirit brings all things to remembrance, breathe on us now, that we might remember how gracious you have been to this nation, we call America.  As a nation, we have our faith and frailties, strengths and shortcomings, yet you have allowed grace to be shed upon us. When we have honored your ways and when we have fallen short you have been a merciful God.   Remind us that the history of this nation is more about your grace than about our greatness. When we are not where we should be, let us hear and follow what you said to Solomon, 2 Chronicles 7:14, "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will I forgive their sin, and will I heal their land."

                In our land we need healing, for a land so blessed by grace there is too much poverty, too much sickness, too many children dying, and too much war. We need a healing.  Michael Bell and five others in Jena, or the three year unjust lock down of James Johnson in Wilson are but symbols of a justice system that needs healing.  Katrina was more than a flood.   It was a failure to protect the vulnerable and a metaphor of the wave of disenfranchise that flows in too many communities.  We need a healing.

In your word you have said, he who rules the nation must be just and if we are to please you we must learn to do justice, care for the fatherless, support the widow, loose the bands of wickedness, pay people what they deserve, care for the sick, the homeless, and the hungry.   To please you it must be said of us, “For I was hungry, and ye gave me meat:  I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”  

                Trouble the soul of this nation as you did in the days of Amos so that no one is at ease in Zion. Use our prophetic words and our prophetic actions to remind those in the seats of power that they are not God.   Trouble this nation with the voice of concern and the voice of compassion.  Make us mindful of the thousands without paths to the pursuit of happiness…

Shake the foundations of our conscious until we cannot help, but change our course. Move on us to study war no more. Cause us to live our lives to serve others.   Teach us that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness requires justice and hope and help and caring.  Expand our morality beyond the narrowness of personal piety into the broadness of public policy.   Give us the strength to challenge racism, classicism, poverty, and uncheck militarism.  Empower us with your Spirit that we might be a nation unto God, not unto fear; show us again that America is only here by your grace.  Show us that grace carries responsibility.   That a nation under grace must lead the world not merely police the world.  A nation under grace must care, must remember her past so that she will not be arrogant in her present. A nation under grace must bring the world together and not tear it apart. A nation under grace cannot refer to people as aliens when we all were created with one blood. A nation under grace cannot leave cities decaying and flood victims barely surviving.   Grace demands something better than that. So Lord as you stirred up dry bones in the valley, stir up hope, and stir up righteousness.   Restore the Prophets and the prophetic voices to the land.  Revive the spirit of Medgar, Martin, Malcolm, Corretta, Harriet, Rosa, Cinque, Douglass, Dubois, Sojourner, Jordan, Wilkins and Bethune.    Hold and sustain the Congressional Black Caucus whose seats are dipped in the blood of martyrs and were raised to be the conscience of this nation. Call us and challenge us again.  Teach even this nation that even with all our power and all our resources we will still have to stand before your judgment one day.   Give us leaders who understand that the purpose of power and influence is to help someone.   Grant us a citizenry determine to be yoked together in common humanity.   Let us know the only way to a more perfect union is for our laws and policies to reflect your kind of love. Let faith be a conviction not a convenience. Help us, Oh God, to smooth out every wrinkle in the flag of our community life until we are one nation under God, with one justice system for all, with living wages for all, with quality education for all.  Finally, oh Lord we pray that the mind of the psalmist will be ours:

Psalm 66: 1-7

1 Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands:

2 Sing forth the honor of his name: make his praise glorious.

3 Say unto God, How terrible art thou in thy works! through the greatness of thy power shall thine enemies submit themselves unto thee.

4 All the earth shall worship thee, and shall sing unto thee; they shall sing to thy name. Selah.

5 Come and see the works of God: He is terrible in His doing toward the children of men.

6 He turned the sea into dry land: they went through the flood on foot: there did we rejoice in Him.

7 He ruleth by His power for ever; His eyes behold the nations: let not the rebellious exalt themselves. Selah.

                We thank you God that your eyes still behold the nation.   We thank you God that you still see injustice, you still see poverty and because you can still see it, these things don't have the last word.   We thank you God that you still see America.  You still see our leadership.  You know how to bring down the high and lift up the humble.   O God we bless your name, we lift up every voice, we declare and rejoice that you are still the God of our weary years, the God who is able to bring life out of death. Help us to know like our foreparents sung, ‘Time is filled with swift transition, naught of earth unmoved can stand, Build your hope on things eternal, Hold to God’s unchanging hand.”

In the name of the Father who sticketh closer than a brother, watches us like a mother, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  AMEN.

Additional Scripture References:  Colossians 1, Daniel 5,

Isaiah 1-58, Ezekiel 37, Luke 4, Matthew 25, and Psalm 27 

In memory of all the saints of old who taught us the words and worth of prayer.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The making of a better me

2014 has been an amazing year.   I’ve learned lessons that have considerably shifted the way I think about life, love and faith. My biggest regret is the time misused in focusing on the wrong things and failing to honor what it means for each of us to be created in the image of God.

I’ve discovered what it means to live in balance.  This lesson has been a process that began over 10 years ago after things began to fall apart.  All of us endure these types of seasons – a lost relationship, career changes, the death of a loved one or the inability to find meaning – but what matters is we learn from it all.

Sometimes we have to fail before the light bulb lights the room.  Like I said, learning these lessons will alter the way you function.  I like to call it enlightenment. 

This is some of what I learned

Learning to let go of things that don’t mater

My life had been an unending game of grabbing for one thing after another.  I gave things power in defining my worth.  Things were used to determine my happiness.  I limited meaning by playing the game of counting toys and depending on things outside my skin to make me smile.

Things began to change when I moved to Columbia, Missouri.  I gave away most of my possessions.  I took pride in the things collected over the years – furniture, art, clothes, cars – and depended on them to nurture my self-esteem.  Things told part of the story, but none of it came close to communicating what was happening within.  I was changing, but material things interfered with the massive growth begging to burst free.

Letting go was the first step in discovering the power things played in forming my understanding of life, love and faith.  The more I let go, the more I learned about myself.  It’s an important lesson that many never learn.

Now that I’ve been set free from the power of things, I’m able to recognize the power things play in limiting the lives of others.  I now pray for my friends who limit life, love and faith by asserting most of their energy toward grabbing more things.  They lack significant balance.  They find themselves trapped on a merry-go-round that keeps grabbing at things they do not need.  The more they gain, the more they need, because it is never enough when happiness is dependent on things that don’t matter.

Discovering the power of my name

There is another consequence related to grabbing one thing after another.  Our attachment to things leads to undeniable stress, but it also leads to our defining ourselves based on the world around us.  Our opinions and ideas are not our own, but are the result of our desire to fit-in with those who form who we are with their opinions. What we wear, what we think, how we think and most of what we do are a construction of their opinions.

As a result, we don’t know our own name.

We spend our days chasing happiness. We fear rejection.  We fear isolation and non-meaning.  We keep pressing toward the vision of others until our true identity is lost in our pursuit of happiness found in the things we grab for in search of happiness.  We fear pain.  We define pleasure based on the things and people we collect in hope of avoiding the things we fear.

The pursuit of freedom

We are taught to collect things and fame.  We keep pursing things in hope that they will make us happy, but when we acquire the things we seek, we don’t stay happy long and begin chasing something new in hope of finding happiness.

Our life is eaten up with deep anxiety related to chasing things we hope will make us happy.  We worry when something we grabbed is lost.  After chasing one thing after another, we discover the things we thought will make us happy leads to deep misery.

In chasing one thing after another, we lack the freedom to detach from the things we think we need for happiness. Our lives are defined by things and we forfeit our freedom in discovering who we really are detached from the things we convince ourselves we need.

Freedom comes when we give ourselves permission not to chase what we want.  Freedom is learning to live with the things you don’t need.

Living within my skin

It’s empowering to no longer give external things the power to make me miserable.  The misery comes because things lack the ability to make me happy.  But there is more.

I had to learn that I was being trapped by my own ideas about goals and rewards.  I was ensnared by the notion that happiness demands that I find a better place.

Living within my own skin accepts that this is the better place, and that the reward I seek is already mine.  Happiness is not where I live or where I work.  It’s not conditioned by the terms used by others to define meaning and worth. 

It comes from learning to live within your skin.  It means embracing and loving yourself in a way that celebrates the gifts you bring to the party.

Yes, it’s been a great year. I’m thankful for the lesson.

And I love me some me.

Join me by learning to love yourself

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The police can help by saying "I'm sorry"

Members of the New York  City Police Department turn their backs to Mayor Bill de Blasio during funeral (picture: Wall Street Journal)

There are a few things in life that are hard to overlook.  It’s demanding to hold a conversation with a person who refuses to admit their mistakes.  It’s challenging being attacked by a person who thinks they know it all. Its problematic being in the presence of a person who assumes power over their critics and it’s hard to forgive a person who refuses to apologize.

These are some of the reasons people don’t like the police.

When I say people, I mean primarily black people, but others are beginning to read between the lines of defend and serve to get to the fine line of do what we say, not what we do.

I’m saddened to make this claim. Why? Because some of my best friends are members of law enforcement. I know, insert upchuck beside “some of my best friends are black”. That’s the common line used to wiggle out of the assumption that you’re carrying judgment related to a group of people.

It’s true that I grew up calling police “pigs” and “popo”. I hated police because of what I witnessed – unfair treatment of people who look like me.  So, after working with and getting to know the men and women who wear those uniforms, I moved past the assumptions I made.

I learned to respect law enforcement.  September 11 helped.  Americans wanted to love and support police and firefighters after so many gave their lives to rescue people after the twin towers came tumbling down.

But things have changed.  Their arrogance is showing.  People are turning their backs on the police and it’s not the fault of those who protest.  It’s because of a lack of humility after the deaths of black men and women.

People are screaming “Black Lives Matter” for a reason.  Stop. Don’t get insensitive by screaming back “all lives matter.” Of course they do.  Everyone knows that.  The point of it all is a lack of sensitivity coming from those so bent on making a point that they refuse to say “I’m sorry.”

After a grand jury set Darren Wilson free, instead of saying I’m sorry, he said he would do it again.  No remorse.  He defended his judgment. He failed to apologize and show the pain related to killing an 18 year-old. He called Michael Brown demon-like.

Excuse me!

That spirit seems infused in the culture of the police. Not only are they demanding respect for defending and protecting us, they promote the right to not be criticized when a mistake is assumed. They attack people who attack them under the veil of legal jargon and police policy. 

Now, police unions are moving beyond defending and serving by demanding a different type of law enforcement.

On November 30, St. Louis Rams wide receivers Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey and Chris Givens came out of the Edward Jones Dome with hands raised in the fog. The next day, the local police union demanded punishment. They wanted to team to take a position.  They wanted the league to stand up.

No takers.

Cleveland Brown wide receiver Andrew Hawkins decided to protest by wearing a shirt.  The shirt read, "Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford III." Both were shot and killed by police.

"They are there to play football, not to judge what we do out there. … They owe Cleveland Police officers an apology," said Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association President Jeff Follmer.

Cleveland police shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he reached for an air-soft gun that looked real.

Tension was rising.  The bullies were out of control.  Then the madness intensified.

On Dec 20, officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were gunned down in their patrol car by Ismaaiyl Brinsley after Brinsley had made online threats, including a vow to put "wings on pigs" and references to the Garner and Brown cases.

All of us grieved their deaths.  There was space for healing and understanding.


Within hours of the death of Liu and Ramos, the head of New York City’s police union blasted Mayor Bill de Blasio and those who protested the deaths of Michael Brown and the 48 others killed since Brown’s death.

They blamed protesters and the Mayor rather than mental illness.  They used the meaningless deaths of their colleagues to affirm a point that should have been off limits – we told you so.

"There's blood on many hands tonight," Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch told reporters outside the hospital the day officers Wenjian Liu, 32, and Raphael Ramos, 40, died.

"Those that incited violence on the streets under the guise of protest that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day. We tried to warn it must not go on, it cannot be tolerated," Lynch said. "That blood on the hands starts at City Hall in the office of the mayor."

The mayor's office responded to Lynch’s attacks in a statement reported by CBS New York.

"It's unfortunate that in a time of great tragedy, some would resort to irresponsible, overheated rhetoric that angers and divides people," the statement said. "Mayor de Blasio understands this is the time when we must come together to support the families and friends of those brave officers New York City lost tonight -- and the entire NYPD community."

Others supported Lynch’s claim.

"Sickened by these barbaric acts, which sadly are a predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric of #ericholder & #mayordeblasio. #NYPD," tweeted former New York Gov. George Pataki.

Can you hear the unwarranted conjectures?

When people protest it leads to the death of police?  This is not a case of mental illness, but this is about protest.  We told you so.  We know it all. We’re not sorry for what we did, and, yes, we would do it over and over again.

I want to support the police. How can you when they refuse to adequately apologize for the death of a 13 year-old for carrying a toy gun?  How do you trust police when they demand silence?  How can you move forward when police establish a culture of us against them?

It’s a simple lesson.

Confess your mistakes and give us a chance to forgive.

We all make mistakes, but, when lives are lost because of those mistakes, gives us time to share our pain and don’t assume it’s easy to forgive.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The challenge of Christmas memories

Crystal lay in a coma as the choir sang Christmas carols.  It’s was her last Christmas before she died the next month after a two year bout with brain cancer. 

I attempted to sing with the others, but listening to her breaths sounded like a clock ticking – tick, tock, tick, tock – to remind me time was coming to an end.  I took a few steps back from the choir and quickly made my way to my bedroom to cry alone.

It’s one of the memories that have led to my battle with depression every Christmas since.  It begins on December 4, Crystal’s birthday, and ends on January 10, the day she died.  It’s a Christmas memory that brings balance to my preaching, teaching and service to others.  It’s a reminder of the gift of love that shows up when a 13 year-old sister looks at her brother, with eyes bigger than her face should hold, and says I love you for the last time.

I welcome the depression. 

After years of confronting the despair of missing her, I’ve discovered that she has been with me every day since she died in 1976.  I hold my depression close. I cherish each tear that comes in between the date of her birth and death.  I feel her presence deeply when my body shakes so fiercely that it feels like a part of me will break.

Christmas is about memories. 

We reminiscence about childhoods were evergreen trees adorned with bright bulbs and flashing lights stirred laughter after the opening of each gift. We beam from ear to ear when thoughts of mama and daddy bellowing with deep joy after witnessing the joy of children.  Christmas reminds us of days when family bonds overshadowed the weariness before the coming of the promise of peace, joy and hope.

Christmas cultivates thoughts of grandma’s honey baked ham and collards greens placed in the middle of the table were uncles, aunts and cousins held hands in prayer.  Memories of snowmen built during a white Christmas and recollections of journeys down the hill in the back yard on a sleigh with room for two. 

The good comes bundled with all the bad that challenges the peace and questions the hope of Christmas.  Memories of the first Christmas without grandma cooking and grandpa telling stories that sound like lies told after a fishing trip.  The urge to stay away from the emotions that creep up in the middle of the first verse of silent night keep coming, and coming until you can’t fight the tears from coming. 

The temptation to hide from people, conditioned to have a good time, makes it hard to appear.  How do you sing happy songs when you only know the blues?  How can you pretend to have happy feelings when death, loss and misery keep coming back to disrupt the indulgence of eggnog and decorated cookies?

Christmas is about the good and bad of life and death.  The promise of life inspires the best of us, while the pain of loss challenges us to embrace the hope lurking with each song we sing.  Christmas is a reminder that more is left after everyone leaves. We’re left with the promise of more because Christmas comes again.  For those who trust, it comes every day, and can be found within each breath we take.

I stepped back in the room at the end of verse one.  The tears remained pasted on my face as I joined the choir.

Silent night, Holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
I prayed for Crystal to open her eyes. 

“Give me a miracle God. Please,” I prayed.

Her eyes remained closed as the sound of inhales and exhales matched the movement of her chest.

Heavenly, hosts sing Hallelujah.
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born.

I stopped singing. The tears came back.
There are many memories of Christmas.  Some evoke pleasant thoughts. Some renew thoughts of death and pain.

I’m looking for that star that twinkles bright – the one called the “North Star”.

I’m listening for the songs that awaken hope.

Christ the Savior is born.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Black sororities forbid members from wearing Greek-letter paraphernalia during protest

You can’t wear your Greek-letter paraphernalia when you protest the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

That’s the official word coming from the heads of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.  Both sororities have stood on the frontline in promoting community service and social justice in the black community. Why would the women wearing green and salmon (AKA) and cream and crimson (DST) forbid their sorors from promoting their participation in the protest against police brutality?

What damage can come from sporting a t-shirt with those celebrated Greek letters?  Is the official word from the big shots a statement against the protest, or is this a way for the more seasoned membership to keep youth in their proper place?

Translation, don’t mess with the corporate brand.

Recent actions of black institutions expose a deep generation divide that could impact the future of black activism. As older black leaders seek ways to manage protest, youth are outraged over the criticism they receive after putting everything on the line for the cause? A variety of assumptions are made regarding youth that feeds the expansion of the schism between older leaders and youth.

In Columbia, Missouri, members of the local chapter of the NAACP challenged college students not to march after the grand jury decision related to the death of Michael Brown was read.  Mary Ratliff, state president of the NAACP, informed students their planned march wasn’t sanctioned by the national body, and there was no way to assure their safety.

She asked them not to protest.

“This is not a youth movement,” Ratliff informed those gathered at the Second Missionary Baptist Church to hear the ruling. “It’s up to us who have done this before.”

The protest couldn’t wait for corporate approval.

Youth showed up after members of the NAACP marched 130-miles from Ferguson, Missouri to the Missouri State Capitol.  Seventy-five dedicated people endued all kinds of weather and racist confrontations along the way to the capitol.

“We march because all, all, all, all lives matter!” Cornel William Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP, shouted to the cheers of 150 people.

Tension began to swell when Roslyn Brock, chairman of the NAACP’s National Board of Directors, made an assumption about the youth in the crowd.

“I want you to think about the consequences of your actions, because too many folks died for the right for us to be here,” Brock said. “The time is now, because courage cannot skip this generation.

What did Brock mean by confronting youth regarding the consequences of their actions? Was she blaming those in the room for looting and rioting? Her words reflected a deep disconnect with youth. Her words were perceived as disrespectful of the hard work of youth in organizing and showing up in Ferguson soon after the death of Michael Brown. 

Michael Hassle challenged the NAACP marchers not to take pride “in marching 100-and-something miles, when we’ve been out there protesting for over 100-and-something days!”

The Rev. Cassandra Gould, pastor of Jefferson City’s Quinn Chapel AME Church, told the crowd she understands the “passion” of the younger protesters. 

In Ferguson, youth managed violent protest the best they could.  Youth organized on college campuses and communities across the nation.  They have done so devoid of the support of adults.  This is why youth dismiss the opinion of many civil rights icons.  It’s why they asked Jesse Jackson to leave and question the motives of Al Sharpton.  It’s why many turn a deaf ear to the voice of black clergy.

Many showed up too late, and many who showed up failed to consistently show up.  Youth are demanding accountability, while older leaders are demanding respect for what happened long ago.

Brock told youth not forget those who led the civil rights efforts of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s “to move this nation forward, not backwards.”

Youth want to know why many failed to show up before the cameras took over. 

“The time is now, because courage cannot skip this generation,” Brock said.

To that youth are asking a deeper question.  Where have you been? Youth are not waiting for the baton to be passed on to their generation of leaders.  They have created their own way, and aren’t looking for or asking for permission from those still stuck in an old strategy.

Instead of telling youth what to do, take notes.

The AKA’s and Delta’s are attempting to define the terms of protest.  They want youth to keep their name out of the movement for justice.  They don’t trust youth with their corporate brand.  They’re afraid a picture will be taken with a looter wearing a t-shirt with their Greek letters.

They don’t get it!

This is not an AKA or Delta movement. 

It’s a “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe” movement.

Word of wisdom to old leaders - stand back and watch.

You showed up too late, and your baton is too short to pass on to these youth. 

They carry a big stick.

And, in case you missed it, the stick isn’t used to beat people.  Like Moses, youth use that big stick to point the way to justice.

They show up every night.  They keep fighting, and they don’t need your permission.

That’s called a new day.

Friday, December 5, 2014

This feels like strange fruit dangling from a tree

I feel numb.

That is the only way to describe what I’ve been carrying for the past week. It’s been hard to move.  It’s even harder to speak with clarity related to what just happened – two grand juries ruling not to indict white police officers in the death of unarmed black men.

My numbness is not caused by shock.  It’s the outcome of hauling painful luggage for as long as I can remember.  I’m saddened even more by the knowledge that I’m not alone.  Most black men share the burden of stuff so deep and old that we can’t frame words to define the angst in our souls.  Black women bring feelings compounded by anxiety related to witnessing their sisters beaten and killed, potential husbands broken, and their children and other kinfolks opposed by a system rooted in enduring hate.

I simply don’t know how to feel.  What I do know is how the madness impacts the assumptions I bring to the work I do. My work as a journalist forces me to discard many of the ethical expectations we embrace when we say yes to this work.  I’ve abandoned the desire to be impartial in my reporting and writing on the stories involving the death of black men and women.  I’ve rejected the need to get the other sides of the story.  I’m critically aware of how all of this influences my credibility as a journalist.  I get all of that, but I’m too numb to make the transition back to the land of impartiality.

I’m not sure if it is possible to keep yourself out of the story.  Journalists are taught not to make the story about you. I’m long past violating the sacred trust of locating the real story and allowing readers to come to their own conclusion.

I get it. I embrace all of it. I teach it, and I want my students to enter the field with eyes pointing beyond their assumptions.  All of that is true, but how can I commit to that vision?

This story has impacted me personally.  I carry the commentary regarding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner with me each day.  The images of their dead bodies follow me to work, to school, and the places I spend money.  My faith is measured by their deaths.  My willingness to trust is impacted by the disappointment of no indictments.

It is about trust.

I’ve been seeking clarity regarding this numbness. Where did it come from? What can be done to overcome this pain that has my heart beating faster than it should?

It came to me after listening to Charles Barkley dispute Kenny Smiths contention that we shouldn’t bring up slavery whenever problems like this show up. Smith penned an open letter for USA Today to address some of the comments made by Barkley during a recent broadcast of NBA on TNT. Barkley called those who looted stores in Ferguson, MO “scumbags”

Barkley apologized for going too far by calling looters “scumbags”. What followed was an enlightening conversation that displayed the complexity and diversity of responses in the black community.  Smith questioned why the media quotes Barkley as an expert on black life and thought.

The conversation shifted when Barkley stated his opinion on slavery.

“The only problem I had with Kenny’s, umm, open letter was, umm, I don’t think anytime something bad happens in the black community we have to talk about slavery,”  Barkley said during Thursday’s broadcast of the NBA on TNT. “Listen, slavery is, uh, well, I shouldn’t say one of the worst things ever, because I don’t know anything about it other than what I read or what my grandmother told me,”

That’s when it hit me.  The tension in America is about slavery.  Barkley suggest we shouldn’t bring it up whenever there is a problem in the black community, but is it possible that all of the tension is the result of the lack of trust related to treatment during slavery?

Is that the foundation of my personal numbness? I can’t trust that America won’t treat me like my ancestors during slavery.  So much of the evidence authenticates the legitimacy of my fear.

It’s like a person in an abusive relationship.  We tell them to leave before it’s too late.  If he beats you once, he will do it over and over again. Despite the warning, she comes back.  Isn’t that what we feel? Has trust been shattered due to the constant attacks after we come back home to try again?

I had to pause to contemplate my thesis.  Is it the same? What do I feel when I witness the body of a dead black man burning on hot pavement?  What are my thoughts connected to watching a police officer chokes a black man after he cries “I can’t breathe”? What do I carry, deep down, when I watch until he stops moving? How can I move on when I see it over and over again, and each conclusion ends the same?

No indictment.

That’s when it hit me.  This is our strange fruit.

That’s why I can’t stop crying. It could be me dangling from the tree.

Its bullets instead of nooses made from rope. 

Slavery officially ended in 1865, but it feels like we’re beaten whenever we attempt to run from the grip of the white man on the plantation.

That may be an unfair assumption, but those are the emotions behind this numb feeling.

How can I move toward the future when the past stands in the way?