Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Arrogance and Privilege, Not Just Fear

I've struggled with language to express how my mind is connecting the latest wave of racist murders in our country. The names of Jordan Davis and Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin keep ringing in my ears...their stories, their families, their potential. People keep describing their murders as part of a culture of fear - fear of black bodies; fear of black teenagers; fear of the "other." And while that is certainly part of the case, I keep thinking that these particular murders, and so many like them, are about the age old issue of black folks daring to step out of place, daring to step outside of the narrow racial boxes in which we are supposed to exist.

How dare this kid walk around this gated community ignoring me?  He's stepped out of his place...he's not supposed to be here.

How dare this woman come knock on my front door?  She's stepped out of her place...she's not supposed to be here.

How dare this boy not turn off his music when I told him it was too loud? He's stepped out of his place...he's supposed to do what I told him.

Underlying these racist murders is an attitude of arrogance and privilege, not just fear.  It is sheer arrogance to assume that because you don't like the volume and genre of someone's music, they are obliged to turn it down. And it is even more arrogant to act from paternalistic motivation, getting a gun to shut down their music because you weren't "going to ask for favors anymore."  Arrogance insists that you teach a "thug" a lesson, instead of common sense that would simply keep it moving when confronted with something you don't like.

We cannot talk about the larger culture's fear of black people and black bodies without talking about the privilege and the arrogance that also accompanies that fear.  It is privilege that causes you to patrol neighborhoods trying to decide who you feel "belongs" and who you feel is an "outsider."  And it is from arrogance and privilege that you dare to question, interrogate, and kill those you deem as outsiders and interlopers, as if somehow you had the right and authority to control the movements of other law-abiding citizens.

The questions that are posed in the killings of Martin, McBride and Davis reveal this arrogance and privilege when you decode the actual subtext of the interrogation:

Question: why wasn't he home at that time of night or what was she doing that late at night? Subtext: black folks should just stay in the house and not dare to walk the streets.

Question: why didn't he just listen when he was asked where he was going or when he was asked to turn down the music? Subtext: black folks have to respond and obey when white folks speak to them.

Question: why was the music so loud or why was she out partying?  Subtext: black teenagers can't behave like other teenagers, who are allowed to live, breathe, and grow even if they make mistakes.

It's important to me to talk about arrogance and privilege, not just fear, because that same arrogance and privilege undergirds the daily racist acts and microagressions people of color experience on a regular basis. We are constantly confronted with the literal and figurative questions of: do you belong here? Are you stepping outside of your place? Are you daring to speak and challenge dominant authority?

Unless we wrestle with the causes and repercussions of racist arrogance and privilege, we will continue to throw our hands up in shock and surprise whenever another unarmed child or teenager is shot by a gun-wielding murderer who was supposedly "in fear of his life."  We need to decode that "fear" for the arrogance and privilege it actually is.

© Yolanda Pierce

Saturday, December 14, 2013

An Advent Reflection on Being Fully Human

I'm glad for all the scholars, pastors, and lay people who can so easily debunk the continuing myth of the whiteness of Jesus.  It's a tired conversation that frustrates me; that in 2013, there are those who call themselves Christians and have no idea about the origins of the Christ in which they believe.  In 2013, there are people who are content to be ignorant about someone they claim is their God and Savior. There is nothing but white supremacy at work when we continue to insist - despite scriptural, archaeological, and historical evidence to the contrary - that a first-century Jewish man, born into an Afro-Asiatic culture, who wandered the desert for his entire ministry, would have pale white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes.

But it is most especially during the Advent season that I am frustrated with our inability to come to terms with the historical, social, and physical context of Jesus. These details matter, if we are Christians who stake our hope on the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  It matters most profoundly that Emmanuel, God with us, was fully human and fully humane.

The Christ child was born through the messy, bloody, and painful birthing process through which we all made our appearance into the world. The Christ child was nursed at the breast of an unwed teenage mother; she, and perhaps other women, would suckle the precious infant through his first few years of life.  The Christ child would have cried and laughed; played and slept; ate and drank.  In other words, the birth and early life of Jesus was as ordinary and human in its scope, as the birth and early life of any other child born in his time and place.  He was born into a culture, a people, a distinctive ethnic group, a community, a family, a faith system, a setting, and an environment that was utterly contextual and specific.

When we remove the context in which Christ was born, when we try to strip away the ethnicity or faith system or family setting in which he was reared and developed, we strip away the fullness of Christ's humanity. And if there is no humanity with Christ, then there is no hope that any of us, fully human, can ever live and walk as Christ lived and walked.

We can affirm the particularity of the environment into which Christ was born even as we can rejoice in the universality of the message that Christ represents.  And that is the radical message of the gospel: that we can be in relationship with the Divine, without stripping away any of our particularities...we can be exactly as God made us, in the fullness of our racial or ethnic or familial or communal context.  Long before the world knew Jesus as Christ, he was Mary's baby...fully human, though no less divine.

© Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

An Advent Reflection For Those Who Are Afraid

For many Christian communities, the Annunciation - or the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary - is a cause for celebration.  Mary is told that she will miraculously bear the Christ child; she has been favored and blessed above all others. But I aways pause in the story when the angel attempts to reassure Mary with the words "do not be afraid," or as other translations render it: "fear not."

What if we take seriously the idea that Mary was, in fact, afraid...that the angel's words are not simply ones of mere reassurance but acknowledgement that anyone in this circumstance would be in fear.  Afraid of the unknown angel who appears to her without warning; afraid that she would be ostracized and shunned for being pregnant and unmarried; afraid of the very process whereby she would be "overshadowed" and impregnated.  Mary is not presented with a choice of bearing the Christ child; a decision has already been made on her behalf.  Can we imagine the fear of a young girl, born and reared in the country, greeted by an unknown figure who tells her that she will be the God-bearer?

Before we rush to the celebration of the annunciation, I am reminded of all those who are afraid by the news that greets them; I want to remember all those who live in fear of life circumstances that may not be of their choice.  My thoughts this Advent season are with the 22,000 homeless children in New York, afraid that the shelters will be full and there will be no place for them to sleep.  My thoughts are with the parents whose minimum wage paying jobs can barely cover the bills, afraid that they won't be able to provide food this winter, let alone toys.  My thoughts are with the victims of domestic violence, afraid that the drinking of this festive season will lead to more abuse.

Perhaps God has chosen, even in this story of blessing and favor, to remember those who daily walk with fear: fear of the unknown road; fear of what the future holds; fear of failure; fear of insufficiency for the tasks that lie ahead; fear that basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter can be met.  Yes, Mary was blessed and highly favored.  Yes, Mary received an honor above all young women.  But Mary, fully human, would have known fear, doubt, uncertainty and confusion.  She knew and experienced fear at the blessed event of the Annunciation, just as she would know and experience fear at the Crucifixion.

Our blessed assurance during this Advent season is not that we won't ever be afraid...our blessed assurance is that even in moments of fear, doubt, and uncertainty, we can be bold enough to ask God, "how can this be?"

© Yolanda Pierce

Monday, December 2, 2013

An Advent Reflection for Renisha McBride

The Advent season is here and my thoughts are centered on the family of Renisha McBride; a family that will spend Christmas continuing to mourn the death of this 19 year old African American woman.  McBride was shot and killed while standing, unarmed, on the front porch of a Dearborn Heights homeowner, after she was in car accident.  I've been thinking about McBride ever since hearing news of her murder.  I continue to have so many questions that may never be answered...not just about this specific case, but about the value of black women's lives in this country.

I am daily assaulted with messages that black women are ugly, inferior, undesirable, unmarriageable, angry, violent, promiscuous, and unwanted. From every socio-economic index, to the pages of every fashion magazine, black women receive the message that our lives are less valuable.  There are very few conversations happening about the psychological and bodily violence faced by black women, or of the racism and sexism we endure both from within our communities and from the outside.

As a culture that continues to stereotype black women as freakishly "strong" and apparently impervious even to bullets, there seems to be very little sympathy for the loss of a 19 year old woman.  The court of public opinion wants to try Renisha McBride for her own murder, willing to go to whatever extreme necessary to justify her death at the hands of gunman. Somehow, even when someone else is holding the gun and pulling the trigger, black people are still responsible for their own deaths. And so my thoughts this Advent season, turn toward violence and death, and not just the newness of life.

I am convinced that the reason we love the Advent season is because of the warm fuzzies we get when picturing Mary, cuddling  her newborn son, with a pastoral setting of twinkling stars, cute animals, and worshipping pilgrims in the background.  We love the sanitized version of Advent. We don't want to think of the pain this unmarried teenage girl experienced while she labored; we don't want to contend with the smell and filth of nearby animals; we don't want to acknowledge the fear and uncertainty that attended this holy birth - that attends any birth.  We don't want to take seriously the messy, unjust, and inequitable world into which the Christ child was born...it was a world that believed nothing good, nothing valuable, could ever come from the town of Nazareth.

Renisha McBride, like all of us, was born into a messy and mixed-up world.  It is a world that stereotypes you as a threat by virtue of the color of your skin; a world that tells you that you are undesirable because of the combination of your gender or your race.  It is a world that neither wants to acknowledge your birth nor mourn your passing.  So for this Advent reflection, I simply want to speak the name of Renisha McBride. This young woman was someone's daughter, friend, co-worker, cousin, granddaughter, neighbor...she was someone's child and she was loved and she was valuable.

There is no more holy message of the season than to know that despite whatever the world insists, your life is worthy of celebrating and your death is a source of weeping and mourning.  Let there be justice on earth and let it begin with me.

© Yolanda Pierce

Sunday, November 10, 2013


The fall foliage season this year has been extravagant. I can't remember a November where the colors of the leaves have been so bright and so rich. Apparently we had just the right combination of weather conditions this Spring and Summer to create an incredible display of Fall colors.  With the peak of foliage at an end, I am reminded that some seasons, like autumn, seem to only last for a brief time, while other seasons, like winter, seem to linger far too long.

I've been thinking about the passage of time within seasons in my own life, most especially when I reflect on two vastly different seasons: seasons of solitude and seasons of loneliness.  In solitude, I've been able to gather my thoughts and write, listen deeply to my soul's voice and pour my thoughts upon the page.  In peaceful solitude, I have been able to listen for the Divine, to see with sharpness and clarity my purpose and passion.

It was in a season of solitude that I felt the peace of my decision to uproot my life, move hundreds of miles away and begin a new phase of my vocation.  Like most academics, I crave the sweet solitude of a productive stretch of work...the writing that takes place in a coffee house when you may be surrounded by people, by alone with your thoughts and ideas.  These seasons seem all too brief for the tasks at hand.

But there have been far too many seasons of loneliness and they seem to last far too long.  Theologian Paul Tillich says: language has "created the word 'solitude' to express the glory of being alone" and language has "created the word 'loneliness' to express the pain of being alone."  These seasons of loneliness may find you surrounded by people, but feeling misunderstood, or unappreciated, or not affirmed, or simply invisible.  Your soul longs and yearns for things it doesn't even have words to express.

In lonely seasons, we still do the work that must be done; we cross items off our "to do" lists; we continue to pay the bills and do the laundry and even have lunch with our dearest friends. But loneliness presses deeply into your very being and you feel like there's no place where you belong or you feel like there is no one with whom you can share your inner thoughts.  You feel unloved. In these seasons of loneliness, even God seems far away, seemingly indifferent to your deepest needs and desires.

Afraid to be naked and vulnerable, we endure our seasons of loneliness in shame...ashamed to admit that with all our Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and real life companions, we can still feel deeply lonely...not just alone, but lonely.  And yet, there is perhaps nothing more common in our human condition that those moments and seasons (and sometimes they are prolonged seasons) in which we feel lonely, and lost, and disconnected even from those who love us the most.

As a preacher, the sermons I often preach are the ones I most need to hear.  And as a writer, I simply write what I know most intimately.  So my sermon/word for today: there is a sweetness in solitude and a terrible poverty in loneliness.  But each endures for a season.  And when enough of us are brave enough to share our stories, our hurts, and our deepest yearnings, perhaps the seasons of loneliness won't linger quite so long.

© Yolanda Pierce

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Jake Adam York

Our paths crossed in a seminar room far above Cayuga's waters, with tentative conversations about home. What did a white boy from rural Alabama and a black girl from inner city New York have in common? As it turns out, so many things...so many things.  While Jake Adam York was a budding poet, writing about his grandparents' era, I was a budding theologian, trying to figure out my grandparents' religion.  We talked race, religion, history, sweet tea, buttermilk biscuits, and the lack of good barbecue. I remember a lot of talk about food.

I followed his career from afar after we finished school; his meteoric rise as a star in American poetry wasn't unexpected. I had heard his poems before they were poems, workshopped in the classroom.  I heard the love and passion in his voice as he channeled the pathos of the Civil Rights movement; the raw anguish when he wrote about lynching. I always joked with him about the ancestors speaking to us.  We were both drawn to historical periods that we had not experienced; events we hadn't lived through and could only know through the whispers of our ancestral muses.

I watched from a distance and envied his success and brilliance. Only once after graduate school did I have a chance to hear him read, after the publication of his second book of poems. I knew I was witnessing an extraordinary voice in American literature and that I had been privileged to sit with him in a classroom and learn alongside him. He had been a welcoming voice in the wilderness of a rigorous academic program, the epitome of Southern hospitality in upstate New York. His death last year, at the age of 40, still leaves me bewildered.

The death of a classmate forces you into a mode of introspection and we grieve not only for the loss of someone we knew, but we mourn for the things left undone, unwritten, untried, untested, un-experienced in our own lives. Which of my words, stories, and poems will live? How will I be remembered? And with death always lurking so close and so unexpectedly, how can I live to the fullest knowing tomorrow is not promised?

I'll be teaching one of Jake's poems next semester, and so I am thinking of him and his body of work. But mainly I am thinking about what it means to be fully present and alive in the current moment, with a whisper of a poem always on my lips.

© Yolanda Pierce

Monday, September 30, 2013

Shame on Poverty, Not the Poor

A recent article in my local paper detailed new procedures in the state's free breakfast program in public schools. Rather than addressing the economic reasons as to why so many children need free breakfast or perhaps even addressing why and how the state made changes to the breakfast program, the hundreds of comments after the article exhibited an almost visceral level of hatred for the poor.  Some comments suggested that the parents of children who qualify for free lunch should be jailed. Others suggested that the children should either starve or only be given bread and water. Some went so far as to suggest forced sterilization or other eugenics solutions to combat the "plague" of needing to offer free breakfast at schools.

I waded through the filth to see if there would one comment, just one, that would tackle the high unemployment/underemployment rates in our states, the rising cost of health care, or the soaring cost of food.  But every single comment blamed the poor for their state of poverty...and went a step further. Every comment shamed the poor for simply being poor, wedding together a socio-economic status with an ontological state of being.  The poor are shameful to us by mere fact of their existence and the poor should be ashamed of themselves and do everything in their power to hide their condition.

The structure that gives our state's Fortune 500 corporations millions in tax breaks is a shame.  The fact that members of Congress, with an average salary of $174,000, will continue to earn that salary even after voting to shut down the government is a shame.  The lack of paid maternity leave, the astronomical cost of housing and health insurance, and the unlivable minimum wage is a shame.  But hungry children and families in need should not be ashamed nor shamed when they are seeking assistance. The wealthiest 1% of our country receive far more help, government assistance, tax breaks, and outright cash than the poorest of the poor will ever receive - and they do not seem to be ashamed of how the "system" works on their behalf.

We want the poor to hide; we want them to be content with crumbs from the table.  We want the poor to be grateful and silent.  We want the right to criticize the grocery carts of those who use WIC or SNAP, so we can determine if they really "need" that juice when tap water will do. We want the right to insist that the poor give up their dignity and humanity when seeking unemployment or government assistance. We want to control the lives, wombs, and mobility of poor people.  We want to shame the poor into non-existence.  But not only does the strategy of shaming not work, it strips away the full humanity of people who are working and struggling against our grossly shameful economic practices.

Yes, shame on the rates of poverty of the wealthiest nation in the world! But no more, absolutely no more, shaming of poor people.  Instead of scrutinizing grocery carts, sneaker brands, and food choices, how about we critique those systems, structures, institutions, and powers that create such economic inequity that working families find it almost impossible to survive between paychecks.

© Yolanda Pierce