Tuesday, June 30, 2009


I hate using the proverbial race card to articulate a deep aggravation related to any given subject. My role, as a social commentator, is to engage others into a conversation that begins outside the box. Many of my African American readers have branded me as being too white for their taste. On the other side of the tracks, many white readers have disregarded my thoughts for being too radically black.

This comes with the territory. It’s one of the consequences of living with black skin. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one holding to the contention that I’m limited due to the realities of our nation’s historical bearing. I’m proud to be an American, and have witnessed many pull themselves up by their dang bootstraps. I’m all for celebrating hard work and holding people accountable. I’m fed up with the language of victimization and the exploitation of past racial division as fuel for a present-day discussion on the state of American affairs.

The requisite for lifting that proviso as part of this dialogue speaks to the enormous dilemma one faces when addressing the matter of race. For many, the argument is invalidated based on the race of the person delivering the message. For some, this means it’s too radically black. For others, it’s simply not black enough. The discussion of race is often relegated to a critique of the person bringing the message, rather than an examination of the merits of the claims made.

This is evident in responses to many of my columns and blog postings. The analysis is more a repudiation of the reliability of the messenger than an examination of the opinions expressed. One of the challenges facing those who give voice in public space is the need to demonstrate to critics ones right to speak. Fundamental to this assault is the notion that black folks don’t know as much as those holding the power. This is one of the implications of operating from a position of privilege. Those who have traditionally maintained the power move back and forth between the culture of advantage and the impression of empathy with ease.

With all of that being said, it’s critical that we examine what is happening within the larger American landscape. There is a brewing sentiment that feels like what I call, for a lack of a better label, a “blacklash”. Barack Obama’s rise to the Presidency has white supremacist crying the blues. “Those coloreds done gone too far,” I can hear them saying. “We need to stop em before it’s too late.”

This sentiment is manifest in the rise of hate crimes. Countless are the stories I’ve heard from African Americans across the country about confrontations with people angry that a black man is leading our country. The “blacklash” shows up best among those who have long allowed their thoughts to be heard. What is harder to unwrap is how the “blacklash” shows up among many white, privileged, liberal, Obama supporting, Democratic party card carrying folks across the country.

It shows up when the rules of the game are controlled by those hiding behind the cover of liberalism. Questioned are the credentials of those ALLOWED to sit at the table. Lost in the conversation are the assumptions made about those ALLOWED to share in the process of change. Who gets hired to work? What are the credentials of those who get hired? Who is making that decision, and why are they given that power?

This depressing truth shows its ugly head among organizations that claim to be about inclusiveness and the promotion of justice. Many organizations are established to impact the lives of people of color, but a quick check into those staffed will reveal a sad reality-the people who work there don’t look like the people they are organized to serve. My white critics will argue the white folks hired to work have better credentials. I challenge them to consider the assumptions made by those who make those decisions.

What are some of those assumptions? He or she is too vocal. They can’t be managed. We take a risk because of their involvement in outside ventures. The laundry list of issues that keep people locked out is a mechanism used by those in power to keep those who have the ability to share in that power away from the source of that power. In other words, those who possess the ability to make a difference are denied that place due to the power of those who control who is allowed in and who is kept out.

Again, it is critical that I make it clear that I hate using that race card. More and more it feels like a major “blacklash” coming from those who have been advocates for social justice. More and more the credentials of black people are being questioned. More and more it feels like there is no space for a discussion surrounding how a person’s position of privilege limits the sharing of power. The manipulation of the position of power has not changed. People are conducting business as usual. What has changed is the perception that the old system is justifiable due to the election of Barack Obama. Those who have maintained control are now freed, it seems, to operate void of guilt.

Sadly, those who hold the power are clueless that their actions negate the sharing of power. They operate with good intentions. They function out of a sincere desire to make a difference. Missing is an understanding regarding how their actions hinder the movement toward change. What appears to be an effort to include others is more of a design to control the outcomes by managing who is allowed in and who is kept out.

It feels like a “blacklash” to me.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Mothers Becoming Fathers

I’m left speechless when I hear a woman talk about being both a mother and father for their children. Implied in this avowal is the outlandish assertion, due to no fault of their own, that they were forced to assume both masculine and feminine roles in assuring the growth of their children. Obscured in this affirmation is the unrealistic expectation that women void of male partnership are forced to take on dual functions to effectively raise their children.

This position is laced in the language of patriarchy. It becomes the fuel used by conservative Christians and political moralist to classify the root causes of the evils that hinder society. There are decades of squabbles related to the decline in family values and the rise of societal ills correlated to women raising children alone. Congregations have asked the relevant question-where the men go? This is a more perplexing query when placed in the context of black life in the inner city.

For decades now, people have asked why are there more women in church than men? Why are there more black women in college than men? Why are our prisons flooded with black and brown brothers? What happened to trigger this massive shift in mindset that has black men clinging to obsessions over celebrating the beauty of raising a family? At the end of protracted and grueling deliberations, it is assumed that all ills can be associated, in some manner, to the failures of a man.

Father’s Day becomes more than a day on the calendar to honor dads for contributing to the success of their children. It becomes one among many days to reflect on the failures of the men we should love. Father’s Day becomes a day to reflect on the significance of dad, and it leaves many conscious of how they learned more on how to structure their lives by doing the opposite of good ole dad.

Dads receive alternative names to illustrate the significance of their contributions. They become “sperm donors”, the” baby daddy”, the “deadbeat” or the “big mistake”. Children are left motionless as they vacillate regarding their Father’s Day reaction. Should they buy a card or gift and tell ole dude they love him? Should they rise above the fray and call the ole deadbeat and say “happy Father’s Day”? Should they pretend all is well for the day while mama is infuriated because child support hasn’t been paid and the sperm donor hasn’t called the kids?

It’s enough to drive a hard working mom crazy. She strives to teach those hurting children to love and respect ole boy even after he refuses, for whatever reason, to do the right thing for his children. I grasp the agony of the moms fed up with contending with the travails of parenthood alone. Those men should be called out for walking out on their responsibility. With that said, there is a truth that must rise above the rhetoric.

To begin, will someone help me slay the notion that a child is doomed to fail due to the absence of a man. The truth is, in many cases, children are better off not having the loser around to stir them in the wrong direction. We should be careful not to concede power to the male genitalia. A penis is not the remedy to all the woes we see. Two parents in the home isn’t, in and of itself, the road of promise. In many circumstances, single parents do a better job at raising children without the S.O.B around. Absent is the rage and abuse that can be heard when men and women simply can’t get along.

In addition, somebody help me, please, please help me, undo the notion that single parents have to be both mother and father. This notion presupposes the company of qualities in men void in women. The assumptions of gender based roles are rooted in Biblical interpretation that is rendered from a cultural context that placed women as subservient to men. Men are the strength of the family. They are the heads of households, and women, due to their gender identity, are held to a position of submission.

This leaves women deficient whenever a man is absent to lead the way. She is regarded as incapable of accessing spiritual truth when a man is not present. Her only recourse is to take on a dual status-to be man and woman, father and mother. She has to assert qualities of manhood while, at the same time, lifting the virtues of her gender. She must become both man and woman. This is necessary because men are needed due to the failures of women.

Women are admired for being nurturers, but strength and leadership are qualities we find in men. Any woman who takes on this role has stepped out of divinely sanctioned order. She does so because of the failures of the man she has chosen. The man is chided for creating an environment that breeds immaturity and fragmentation. He forces the woman to be both mother and father, and children are left uncertain about what it means to be human.

It is all grounded in sexist notions based in a moralist interpretation of the Biblical text. This is what happens when we read text crafted in sexist societies as valid guiding principles for today. The dangers in literal interpretations are in the fostering of cultures that limit the humanity of women in relationship with the status of the men that own them.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Lesson from Paulo Freire

"How can the oppressed, as divided unauthentic beings, participate in the pedagogy of their liberation?"

This quote from the first chapter of Paulo Freire book Pedagogy of the Oppressed has been instrumental in the development of my theological mindset. I leaned heavily on Freire while working on my doctorate at the Princeton Theological Seminary. I was grappling to uncover ways to find the unique voice of persons addicted to crack cocaine. I asserted that they, as an oppressed population, perceive God and the community of faith, different than the general population.

Freire asserts an approach that requires a partnership between the oppressed and the oppressor that negates the position of power. Each gains from the other. Freire hoped for the formulation of a system whereby the oppressor no longer forces the oppressed to take on the image of oppression. “Long as they live in the duality in which to be is to to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible," Freire states. "Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one."

Discovering that one has existed as an oppressor is a painful place. Even more regrettable is the realization that this knowledge in and of itself does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed. A radical shift begins when the oppressor recognizes the limits of past assumptions. “The former oppressors do not feel liberated. On the contrary, they genuinely consider themselves to be oppressed,” Freire writes.

Freire attacked the system of education used in Brazil for utilizing what he called the “banking” concept of education, in which students were viewed as empty accounts to be filled by teachers. He strongly criticized the transmission of mere facts as the goal of education. He called for an adjustment in the teacher-student dichotomy that has teachers learning from those they teach.
Freire’s conception that learning, at its best, is interplay between teacher and student helped me rethink many of my theological presuppositions. I had to concede that many of my affirmation were rooted in cultural perspective rather than a divinely inspired authorization. I was guilty, along with the community I represented, of assuming the authoritative voice guiding my ways should be implored in all cases and with all people. My power was used to manipulate and control others, and, in the process of holding my truth as the only truth, I limited my ability to learn from those with truth to share.

This is difficult to concede when the Bible is regarded as the inspired words of God. Many of the battles we face in public space are rooted in how the Bible is interpreted. When used as the voice of God for all people, in every situation, and for all times; the Bible becomes an instrument of oppression rather than a remedy to overcoming a history of power and manipulation.

My column writing has exposed the venom of those who hold fast to their theological constructs. They remain stuck in the power play that wars with those on the other side of Biblical and theological interpretation. What shows up on the other side of their reflection is a celebration of some communal vision that pits those who look and believe like them versus those in need of transformation. The voice of the others can’t be heard due to the weapon held in their hand-the Bible. Texts are picked out of the Good Book to validate their contentions, leaving those on the outside of their interpretation void of the power to overcome the conclusions of those in power.

Freire’s critique of education is reflected in the work of Latin American Liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutierrez and Walter Altman. The work inspired James Cone to develop Black Liberation Theology, and has spread to Europe through the work of Jungen Moltman and others. It is reflected in works in men and women around the world. Feminist Theologians like Rosemary Radford Ruether, Letty Russell, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Womanist Theologians like Jacquelyn Grant and Kattie Canon all begin with the same claim-that the starting point of theological analysis is the community.

These men and women challenge us to consider the pain of the oppressed, and to find God in places not known by those in power. Theirs is a call for dialogue, and this requires a willingness to listen to the voices of those standing on the outside of systems of power. Liberation is an attack on all methodologies that assume truth at the expense of those limited by others who hold the keys in their hands.

What are the implications of Freire’s criticism? It challenges us to rethink the way we teach. It embraces the worth of the student within each teachable moment. It explores the damage done when the oppressed become the image of their oppressors. It forces each of us to concede the failures of our assumptions when placed within a culture with individuals unable to understand or fulfill the demands of our claims.

More than all of that, Freire is a reminder of the strengths of a purely democratic society. He reminds us of John Stuart Mills appeal in On Liberty- that within the marketplace of ideas we must embrace each thought as vital in the formation of a more perfect idea. There is power within each voice. We become stronger when the politics of power are replaced by a spirit of compassion.

Howard Brinton, a Quaker, summarizes it all so well. “Within the meeting equality appears in the equal opportunity for all to take part, regardless of age, sex or ability. It means equality of respect and the resulting absence of all words and behavior based on class, racial or social distinction.”