Friday, July 17, 2015

No Country For Black Women

As I was leaving campus late one night, a student graciously informed me that my right brake light was out. The next afternoon, as I drove to get the light fixed, I held my breath the entire way. What would otherwise be a routine inconvenience on a busy day, just one of those many errand you do during any given week, became a source of fear and anxiety for me as a black woman. I wasn't worried about the time it would take; or how much it would cost; or if they would find something else wrong with the car; or if I had enough time to get it done and make it back for my 4pm meeting. Instead, I was worried that if pulled over by a police officer because of a faulty brake light (a very routine reason for a traffic stop), it might actually lead to my death. This is not hyperbole. I drove with real fear and trepidation that I would get pulled over, within ten miles of my own home, and might end up in jail…or worse. And this is what it means to be black in this country: events that are typical encounters for some, are potentially death-dealing situations for others.

The story of Sandra Bland terrorizes me because I know that her story could also be my story. She was 28 years old. She had just accepted a job at her alma mater. She was stopped for a routine traffic violation, arrested by the police, and subsequently jailed. And three days later, she was found dead in her cell. Authorities have ruled her death suicide. The stark facts of this case leave us with more questions than answers. Would a young woman take her life after landing a job at her alma mater? What injuries did she suffer as a result of the brutal arrest, which was caught on tape? Did something horrendous happen to her in that jail cell? Did someone kill her or do something so horrendous to her that it made her take her own life? What happened to Sandra Bland? Some of us find it difficult to believe the official report of her arrest and “suicide” because of the many cases where official accounts have been proven false. 

Perhaps the question of what happened to Sandra Bland may eventually be answered, but the answers cannot quell the fear and terror that these cases inflict on black people. I know, without a doubt, that my education, my degrees, my credentials, and my “good citizenship” will not save me from forces that want to criminalize and dehumanize me. Nor will my gender protect me. Racial terror is a reality for black people, from every walk of life. The very real and present danger of knowing that you can obey all the laws, do all the right things, conform to every standard, and still find your life hanging in the balance is an awful way to live. Living under racial terror suggests:

 If I assert my rights as a citizen, I am "combative." If I wait until I reach a well-lit area to pull over, I am "fleeing." If I protect my head and neck from being bashed against the concrete, I am "resisting." If I dare to express my pain and trauma, I am "angry." If I commit a crime at any level, I should accept that I may be summarily found guilty and executed without trial. And if I am killed, I should accept that my death is my fault, despite someone else pulling the trigger. 

And so, I found myself driving to get my car serviced, with shaky hands, thinking about Sandra Bland and her last days on this earth. I found myself reflecting on the racial terror that her death and the deaths of so many others evoke. I found myself crying about the trauma of racial terror that haunts life in America. And all I could think about is how this is no country for black women...

©Yolanda Pierce

Friday, July 3, 2015

Inexplicable Joy

I have struggled to make space for the full range of human emotions that these past few weeks have engendered in me. I wake up still crying in rage at the deaths of 9 Black men and women, killed by a racist terrorist while they were holding Bible study in their Charleston church. I shake with anger at the silence of so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ, as African American churches mysteriously burn. My heart breaks when thinking about black women clergy receiving threatening letters for daring to be unapologetically true to their calling and vocation, letters written by someone opposed to women in ministry. I just haven’t had the words to describe the layers of hurt and pain and sadness as I reflect upon both the prophetic witness and the challenges of the Black church, the place that is my spiritual home.

I had made a commitment many months back to preach at a church, which I thought long and hard about cancelling after the events of this past month. My schedule was packed and I was already struggling to find clear words to speak to the media about various events. I had nothing encouraging to offer, no good news to bring. I simply wanted to stay home and weep, to deal with the searing images of two young black girls burying their father. But I had made a commitment, and so I went.

I was sitting in the pulpit and from that vantage point, I had a clear view of the congregation. I saw what I expected to see: an aging African American church. The membership was under 100 people; there were some young people under the age of 18, but mainly members over 60. There were only a handful of men, including the two ministers who shared the pulpit with me. The facility was well-cared for, but worn. The words appearing on plaques below the stained glass windows reflected the names of members who passed away long ago. I was in a historically black city, an inner city church, and a neighborhood that time and gentrification forgot.

But then...

An elder whose face was carved with lines and memories of things he cannot forget, approached the altar and began a prayer of intercession. His firm voice called on the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. He petitioned the Rock, the cornerstone that the builders rejected. His prayers anointed that small sanctuary and the presence of God filled the place. I watched a frail hand lifted up in worship. Dressed in her Sunday best with a wide-brimmed hat in place, this church mother stood with hands uplifted as tears streamed down her face. She, too, was at the throne of grace. Prayers both private and corporate, joined together; the words were indistinguishable, but all our hearts gathered together for this moment of prayer.

On that Sunday morning, there was music and dance; there was laughter and sorrow. Announcements were read and visitors were welcomed. Choirs sang and babies cried. As I brought forth the Word, my message seemed insufficient and my ideas too simplistic. But those same frail hands and lined faces responded to my words and lifted me higher. They encouraged and pushed; they called and they responded. In that small church in a city that stimulus funds neglected, a great cloud of witnesses in this realm and beyond, worshiped with a truth and intensity that moved my soul.

This joy I have/the world didn’t give it/and the world can’t take it away.

This church was a place of joy; joy that doesn’t make any sense. These lives did not represent the academy or a comfortably-ensconced middle-class America. This congregation did not have a pastor who marched on Washington or who sat down with presidents. By every standard, this was a poor congregation in a poor city. But there was so much richness present! They were raising grandchildren whose parents were lost to the prison industrial complex. They were awarding scholarship money to graduating seniors, even though some of the members had never finished high school. They were praying for the sick and visiting the shut-ins; filling in the gaps of a racially-biased health care system. This congregation was full of joy. Yes, they were also grieving, angry, and feeling the pain of all the injustice in the world. But there was joy; it was palpable and tangible. And this joy in the midst of so much pain is the paradox of the gospel and the mystery of our faith.

This joy I have/the world didn’t give it/and the world can’t take it away.

Joy is finding a way to get up every morning in the midst of a death-dealing culture. Joy is gathering for a barbecue with friends, even when your laughter turns to angry tears. Joy is watching little brown babies dance and clap their hands in a world that often denies them a childhood. Joy is a courageous black woman who dares dismantle a symbol of racist oppression, risking her life and freedom. For those who far too often live on the edges of death, joy is daring to say “I am still here.” 

In a world that refuses to even acknowledge black pain, grief, and sorrow, joy is being able to say: though we may be cut down, we are yet alive. Joy is defiantly rebuilding a church torched by arsonists. Joy is going to Wednesday night Bible study and Sunday morning worship, casting aside a spirit of fear. Joy is simply daring to show up...when the world wants you to silence your voice. For all of you who continue to show up - though bruised, battered, with tears in your eyes, scarred, and broken - know that the world will not and cannot steal your joy.

© Yolanda Pierce