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CROSS 2015: A Free, One-Night Missions Simulcast on Feb. 27

Feb 18, 2015 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Editor’s note: Today’s post is by Isaac Adams, who works to serve the efforts of CROSS. I’ll be speaking at CROSS 2015 with my brothers and friends John Piper, David Platt, Mack Stiles, and Kevin DeYoung. We’d love to have you join us online for free!

CROSS 2015: Live Simulcast Feb. 27th (Promo 2) from CROSS on Vimeo.

CROSS exists to mobilize students for the most dangerous and loving cause in the universe: rescuing people from eternal suffering and bringing them into the everlasting joy of friendship with Jesus. To that end, we’re hosting a free simulcast on February 27. All you need to do is register here. And register soon so you can get special offers on missions resources (aka free ebooks!)

You can find more information and a free promotional pack here. If you’ve signed up, please help us spread the word by using the hashtag #PrayForWorkers on any social media and invite your friends.

If you’re hosting the event or want to know who’s watching it near you, this page is for you. We’re delighted that over 250 hosts across 40 states and 5 different countries will be hosting CROSS 2015.

I’m looking forward to thousands of people considering together the unshakeable hope we have in Christ, and how that hope grounds our confidence in taking our unstoppable gospel to the nations. My prayer is that you’ll consider how you can join in spreading God’s glory to the nations, and even that you’ll consider giving your life to God as a blank check to that end. Yes, giving your life a blank check is terrifying. But as our brother David Platt says in the video above, “Don’t forget who you’re giving the blank check to.” Will you join us?

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Letters to a Young Protestor, 8: Black Crime

Feb 17, 2015 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Dear Niecie,

What’s good? It’s been a while since I’ve written. I’m sorry about that. I trust school and life are good on your end?

I came across video footage of another young man gunned down by officers on February 11th. He apparently threw a stone at an officer, for which he should have been subdued and arrested. But instead, the officers fired at him in a busy intersection, pursued him, and when he turned to surrender gunned him down. We learned from the Mike Brown incident that police are only justified in pursuing and using lethal force when their lives are in danger or the fleeing suspect is thought to pose significant harm to the public. Neither appears to be the case here. It’s an emotional scene.

Keep in mind this is not a dramatization; it’s real life. We live in an indescribable age–one where some officers of the law are caught on cell phone cameras slaying citizens they’re sworn to protect. Even citizens with disabilities who make no aggressive motion–as in this incident from a couple years back. Eight officers with a police dog fire 41 times at this young man, hitting him 14 times and killing him. Is there no officer among us wise enough to talk down a man like this or find a way to subdue him? It’s insane!

But whenever you raise the issue of ending police brutality or ending the mass incarceration of African Americans, you’re bound to run into a lot of people who quickly stress “black crime” as the main problem. They come armed with 2-3 statistics that they think buttress the legitimacy and efficacy of the criminal justice system.

Don’t be exhausted by these folks. Most are well meaning and they at least intend to base their position on some evidence. If they’re honest, they’re the folks you can have a good conversation with and the evidence gives you a good starting place free from a lot of the “noise” that comes with these discussions. Have those conversations as winsomely as you can and add some research that helps color in the picture with more details.

On that note, I came across something I thought you’d find helpful the inclosed pages from Michelle Alexander’s wonderful book, The New Jim Crow, might be helpful. Excuse all my highlights! I’m devouring this book. It’s so smoothly written and filled with a blend of true incidents, research and legal  perspectives that I find it difficult to put down! Read it if you haven’t. Give it to those who seem willing to consider another point of view. They will in turns be appalled at what’s going on in the name of “justice” and ashamed (as I have been) that their positions could have been so ill-informed.

I’m also including a little spending money. You shouldn’t be poor just because you’re a student! I know you agree :-)

Much love,

Your uncle

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Letters to a Young Protestor, 7: On Racists

Feb 02, 2015 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Dear Niecie,

It’s been too long since I’ve heard from you or written. I was glad to talk with your mom and see that she’s doing well with the new cancer treatments and to hear you’re doing well in school. I praise God for that.

I was also in turns a little amused and a bit shocked to hear about the run-in you had at a recent protest. I guess you’ve discovered that “racist” is a loaded term! There’s no longer any safe way to use the word, unless the person uses it of himself.

In fact, we’ve entered a time when any use of the term excites anger, confusion, feelings of abuse or manipulation, and a fair amount of eye-rolling. It’s become more difficult to prove that racism exists, not because the evidence isn’t there but because the term has been so misused and over-used for so long now. There’s a cultural backlash. No one likes to be called a “racist.” It’s become one of the ugliest labels you can use. The racist receives no respect from anyone. They are now reviled in much the same way they once reviled others. So it’s at once a powerful and a hated word. My dear niece, use it as sparingly as possible that you might label only when necessary and that it might retain its proper force.

That means we have to know a racist when we see one. And since being thought of as a racist is such a hated thing, many people work really hard to hide their true selves in order not to be labeled. Everyone want’s “plausible deniability.” The basic posture is defensive, evasive and even confrontational. If you don’t want another experience like that last protest, then learn how powerful that term is and learn how to identify a racist.

So, what is racism and who are the racists?

Racism is an effect of the fall of man into sin. When our first parents took fruit from the forbidden tree, defying God and risking life, part of the effect was an alienation from God and an alienation from one another. One specific form that alienation takes is racism. Because the fall touches all of humanity, racism is universal in extent. So mankind—even though related by descent from our common parents—lives in a chronic state of alienation and hostility until redeemed by Christ.

Racism depends on the false notion that there are biological races. Though disproven by genetic science and by good theology, people commonly believe that humanity can be separated into distinct racial categories based upon physical traits like skin color, hair texture, etc. Even some who know that the scientific basis for races is non-existent like to cling to the category as a “social construct.” But the pseudo-scientific quest for racial classification was in reality the sin of racism seeking scientific legitimacy and I fear much the same can happen with this “social” rendering of “races.” For racism wants to assign hierarchical worth and attributes to physical features—whether or not the science supports it. So white skin becomes more valuable than black, kinky hair worse than straight, and so on. That system of “racial” (it needs to be put in quotes as a reminder that what we’re talking about doesn’t really exist) hierarchy gets codified in social customs and public policy. And so it also gets transmitted as a philosophy and lifestyle to successive generations. This commitment to the supremacy of one group over another gets received as birthright and used as currency. Racism is an insidious and irrational disease rooted in our sinful natures.

The racist person suffers from this disease—in either benign or full-blown malignancy. I hope you see that this general definition of racism and racist applies equally to all of humanity without regard to skin color. To be a racist simply requires that you admit the idea of race and then you assign value and hierarchy to it. To assert “Black people cannot be racist” is, in fact, a racist counter-racist delusion. It assumes the moral superiority of Black people. But Black people can be as racist as anyone else—and some are. No one is exempt from this disease, though some have more virulent forms than others. Though many whites throughout history tried to climb to the top of the “racial” pyramid and plop themselves down as kings of the hill, you can find people of every background sitting up there with them.

Yet one can be a racist without being the group occupying the top step of the racial pyramid. One of racism’s most subtle and sinister victories has been to convince the racially oppressed that they are either all their racist oppressors believe about them or that by virtue of their oppression they are superior to those that hinder them. They thus accept racist ideology as an oppressed person and commit themselves to both racism’s continuance and their own subjugation—showing again the utterly serpentine irrationality of sin.

So it’s paramount that we learn to identify the racist thought, racist attitude, racist action, racist policy, and racist person. And it’s important that we know whether we’re dealing with a racist person—someone whose pattern and habit of life is committed to racial supremacy and superiority—or with a racist incident. For in a given incident anyone can act or think in a racist way, but that may not define the pattern of their lives. Do you see why this requires studied care?

I would generally class people into one of four categories. There is first of all the conscious racist. They actively commit themselves to racist ideology. They may be skinheads, or they may be as respectable as judges. Some people think the racist is the backwoods hillbilly full of ignorance. But that’s a stereotype believed in large measure because, again, everyone wants to maintain respectability. So it’s convenient to limit ugly outward racism to other socially despised people. But respectable racists walk freely among us, using the cloak of respectability to hide the worst of their sin. But we may know them because sooner or later they tell us they’re racists. They’re chomping at the bit to tell us, like Jack Nicholas’ character in A Few Good Men.

Second, there are the unconscious racists. These are folks who harbor all kinds of racist attitudes and beliefs but genuinely don’t know it. They’re blind to the ways racist assumptions wriggle like worms into their hearts. We know they are racists because their words reveal it. As our Lord put it, our words reveal what’s in our hearts, and sometimes that’s our racist bias. When you point it out, they’re often defensive. The defensiveness is sincere insofar as they don’t know they have the disease. They can’t bear to think such awful thoughts of themselves. They fear admitting racism is the worst possible thing. The sad tragedy, of course, is that they don’t recognize that actually continuing in unchecked prejudice is really the worst possible thing. Less defensiveness would actually free them more fully from the thing they hate.

Third, there are those who think they’re racists but probably aren’t. These are the falsely accused. They judge themselves too harshly and are unable to properly assess their motives. They think a racist incident (racist thought, speech, action or feeling) makes them racist persons. Unable to untangle the incident from the person, they live under illegitimate guilt. The same illegitimate guilt can be induced by manipulative and spurious charges of racism. Some call this “white guilt.” But it doesn’t belong uniquely to whites. Remember, the fall affects us all.

Fourth, there are—praise God—persons who are not racist and know they’re not racist. They recognize the difference between an incident and a person, and they and others can testify to a pattern of life largely free from sinful bias. When talking about these things, we must not fall into the trap of forgetting such people exist. But we must also resist two other things: letting real racists parade in this category and letting non-racists think that simply not being racist is enough. The non-racist, the true humanitarian, must be the greatest allies in actively opposing hostility, hatred, and injustice. They must be brought to see that their inaction in the face of present evil makes them complicit in the evil. Righteousness is a positive, active thing. We need active resolve to do what’s right if we ever hope for righteousness to reign.

Now, the hard part and the necessary part is to not blur the categories. That’s how good people get hurt and bad people get away. Thinking the “respectable” committed racist is a non-racist only allows him or her to spread their disease without diagnosis. And calling the person who wrongly judges themselves a “racist” does more to harm those with sensitive consciences and to weaken good-hearted support than just about anything you could do.

Begin with the incidents. Outward speech, actions and policy are easier to identify. Be sure not to castigate the person when it’s only appropriate to speak of the incident. That specificity is your friend, and it helps to reveal other friends. Persons opposed to racism will generally oppose racist incidents. Strive to only make legitimate and defensible linkages between incidents. That, too, requires care. Not everything that seems related is. But when you can link incidents, do so. It helps to establish patterns of individual behavior or systemic bias. When those patterns are demonstrable, then you can speak with passion about people and systems. Don’t hesitate to do so, but be prepared to defend the evidence for the pattern.

Honestly, everyone will have motives to resist your implying a racist pattern exists. The racist persons will not want to be exposed. Many good people will not want to think such ugliness exists in them or in the institutions they love. Self-interest wars against indictment. But trust that your patience, carefulness and the mounting moral pressure of conscience will begin to distinguish the willfully racist from those that can be won to righteousness.

What you should keep in mind, Niecie, is that you can tell a tree by the fruit it bears. We are unable to completely hide the root of our souls. Sooner or later our natures present themselves. Careful, patient observation of our own hearts and the actions of others will in time reveal the truth.

Bottom line: use the term “racist” sparingly. But when you must, use it confidently and redemptively. Far too often people throw away other people with the term. They write them off. So “racist” becomes a final pronouncement rather than an invitation to be different, better, free. When you use the term, give it the ring of an invitation to an important meeting where the hopeful and the broken might find help. As Christians, we want people to hear an invitation to repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ, who in the cross reconciled believers to God and to one another. We want them to hear a call to that fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins, where sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains. If ever “racist” could sound redemptive, inviting to restoration, then we’ll be speaking in the most Christian way to one of the wickedest heart diseases ever. I pray you and I can learn to speak that way.

With all an uncle’s love,
Thabiti

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Recent Conference Audio and Video

Jan 30, 2015 | Thabiti Anyabwile

A week or so ago I had the privilege of joining some dear brothers in Christ for a variety of conferences. These saints have made the sessions available, so I thought I’d link to them for the interested.

First, there was the always wonderful group of students and staff at The Master’s College who pull off the annual Truth & Life conference. I’ve had the honor–and I mean that earnestly–of speaking at Truth & Life two times now, and I have to say that it’s one of the most engaged and mature college conferences I’ve ever attended. The students–who organize and run the event–are quick, alert, engaging and sharp. The entire faculty and staff are hospitable, generous and even sharper. This year I had the privilege of serving with doctors MacArthur, Dever, and Master’s faculty Abner Chou. Our theme was the “one anothers” of scripture. I also had the honor of speaking in chapel, where I hope the exhortation to “be ordinary” was helpful.

On the Lord’s Day, brother pastors Anthony Kidd and Bobby Scott graciously extended an invitation to preach at Community of Faith Bible Church in L.A. What a joy that was! I was relieved to finally arrive at the church after Mapquest (I know, that’s so 80s) left off a left turn and I ended up exploring the “greater LA area,” emphasis on greater. Bobby Scott was more relieved than I was when he finally saw me enter the sanctuary a song or two before the sermon time! We had a great time considering all the Lord has prepared for us from Revelation 21:1-22:5. Oh, to have a greater hunger for heaven!

Finally, the Lord allowed me to join the good folks with Plant Midwest, D.A. Horton, and Eric Mason for a special Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration in St. Louis, Missouri. That was an especially poignant trip for me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to open Luke 10:25-37 among the saints there and exhort us to genuine compassion that arises from the justified life. Eric Mason won the “dapper pastor award” that day. Horton was insightful and passionate. And where did that exuberant Presbyterian choir come from??? You can find the video of the main talks below:

The Justified Life with God is a Compassionate Life Toward Men – Thabiti Anyabwile from PlantMidwest on Vimeo.

Overlooking the Obvious: Consequences for Withholding Compassion – D.A. Horton from PlantMidwest on Vimeo.

Solemn Assembly: Looking to the Living God – Eric Mason from PlantMidwest on Vimeo.

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Letters to a Young Protestor, 6: Evangelical Escapists

Jan 09, 2015 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Dear Niecie,

Thank you for your question the other day. I thought it was a good one and I’ve been spending some time trying to get my mind around an answer. “Why don’t some Christians seem concerned or interested or even oppositional to calls for social justice?” There are a great many answers that could be given to your question. But, personally, as an evangelical Christian, I find your question has more teeth if I ask it specifically of myself—of evangelical Christians like the pastor who told you all that the only thing that would help is the gospel. I know how hollow that felt to you, and I have at least one idea for why.

There are many Christians who are escapists but don’t know it. Learning to spot gospel escapism is vital as you try linking arms with Christians. They think escapism is a matter of believing falsehoods. But strictly speaking believing false things is not the strongest form of escapist. The strongest form relies on the comfort of the truth. It’s that escapism which embraces abstract truth without bothering with actual application.

The escapist is like the kid whose balloon slips from his hand and floats away. He can still see it and recognize its bright red orb against the cerulean sky. But the child’s actual enjoyment of the balloon is entirely a matter of memory or imagination. He no longer feels the actual tug of the string as the wind jostles the balloon or the ability to make it bounce at his whim to his delight with a curt tug of the arm. The real balloon floats away and so does his immediate enjoyment of it. Escapism is releasing the balloon of applied truth—whether intentionally or unintentionally—while pretending to have it in hand. It’s pointing to the sky while acting as if merely pointing controls the balloon. We can do that with the truth, and because it’s the truth we’re discussing we tell ourselves that we have it in hand.

It’s like the man who wrote to lecture me on the scripture, how it never commands God’s people to protest or organize or march. He tells me Christianity is completely unconcerned about such things. He claims to be “orthodox” and charges me with careening off some “liberal” cliff into the abyss of the “social gospel.”

This man is blind. He means well, no doubt. But he doesn’t see how he not only removes the Scripture from real life concern, but also abandons his own “orthodox” view of the Bible. In a more abstract context he would tell me the Bible is sufficient. He’s quote a text like 2 Tim. 3:16-17—” All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” But in the actual world in which we live, he thinks the Bible has nothing to say about dead unarmed men, about our duty to show mercy, and the blessing of rulers who rule righteously or the prophet’s constant challenge to power. While claiming to be orthodox he’s really managed to escape both the hard facts of real life and the guiding truth of applied theology—a Harry Houdini act that too many evangelical Christians perform with alarming regularity. What does such an “orthodoxy” mean when it matters?

And this is why Evangelicalism—safe far away from the cliff of “liberal” theology—has backed its heels onto the opposite cliff of complete irrelevance to the residents of Ferguson, who want to know if God remembers them, loves them, or cares about them at all. Does God the Judge answer the cries of the disenfranchised, the poor, the weak, the fatherless? Is there a hope of justice for mothers and fathers bereft of their children playing in the park, or husbands and fathers choked to death on city sidewalks? Have we no answer for them?

We do if we are not escapists. For the escapist cries out and recoils at the sight of words like “oppressed,” “poor” and so on. He’d rather not think about such things, which is an indication that we have unwittingly conceded such concerns to the dreaded “liberals” again. Those words are their—the liberals’—words, and the people they describe are their—the liberals’ people—and the issues that affect their people are not our—the evangelicals’—issues. So words like “poor,” “oppressed,” and “marginalized” become shibboleths for entry into “our” camp and once inside we mustn’t use them lest we fact McCarthyite suspicion and inquisition. But all of this is escapist drama because such people and such problems really do exist in the world we inhabit.

And it won’t do to take another escapist turn by arguing in so many words, “It’s all their fault.” Blaming others rather than offering solutions has been the way of sinners since Adam blamed Eve. The principal benefit of blaming others is we don’t have to examine ourselves or risk ourselves. We don’t have to face any complicity—whether our own or our forebears. We get to pretend “all things are equal,” the world is a blank slate, that we’re each self-made without any legacies, inheritances, or entitlements. This blaming others is, by definition, escapism—turning away from the unpleasant truth to dull the trauma with banal half-truths or full truths loosely grasped. We become unreal. And our religion in the hands of escapists becomes unreal too. I want my religion back! I want the balloon string in my hands, tied around my writs, that I might feel its pull again and feel the upward possibility of the Truth!

Reclaiming evangelical Christianity from escapist tendencies is vital because it’s the truth that actually helps you to help other people. Not until we face the truth about ourselves and our situation can offer biblical solutions to hurting people.

We know this well enough in evangelism. Think of that family that mourns the death of a loved one lost eternally in their sin. That loved one has gone on to a Christless eternity of agonizing judgment. Do you know what happens contrary to all gospel reason in far too many “Christian” funerals? The minister will preach that lost soul right into heaven though everyone there knew him to be without Christ and without hope in the world. And the family members tell themselves that their loved one is in “a better place” (as if Hell could ever be better than earth!). That’s the kind of thing they told themselves while he was alive. They kept saying the person was okay, that he was going to get it together, that he had made a profession once a long time ago at a camp long grown over by weeds. They took the escapist route of denying the truth of a fast-approaching Hell. They chose not to think long about Hell because they didn’t want to think of their loved one going there. More selfishly, they didn’t want to face their own lack of love, faith and hope as “evangelists” who didn’t evangelize their dearest family members. Rather than face the pan they fled to a dream world where everyone has time and everyone will be okay. They were not truthful and so they were not helpful.

The same is true of so many evangelicals who refuse to look into the unpleasant things of racism and the systemic injustices facing people today. They’d rather stick their ostrich heads into the hole of their “orthodoxy” than take a long look in the light at this country, our history, our present realities, and those “others” that cry out for help. The sad fact is that you can’t expect help from them–not even the “blows of a friend”–if they are unwilling to be honest and to bring their theology back down into this world. Dr. King once said the most disappointing thing he encountered during the Civil Rights Movement was the sometimes indifference and sometimes opposition of white evangelical Christians. He’d imagined that once the justness of the cause touched the hearts of his fellow Christians that they’d come out in support. It never happened on the scale he’d hoped, though some did join the movement. If Dr. King found disappointment, then perhaps we should expect the same. And like him, we should continue to press our cause until the real world dangers and difficulties are acknowledged and addressed by all people of like precious faith.

Keep praying. Keep pressing.

Your uncle,

Thabiti

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Letters to a Young Protestor, 5: The Conscience and Racism

Jan 08, 2015 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Dear Niecie,

How are things since we’ve last written? Are you doing well in class? How are your friendships? Catch me up on your life outside the protests. I assume you have one! You’ve heard it say, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Well, “All protest and no play makes Niecie a bitter girl”! Don’t forget it.

I thought about you as I read this morning’s paper. Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the death of Franklin McCain. Now if you’re going to continue the struggle, you’ve got to know something about those who have gone before you. McCain was one of the “Greensboro Four,” the four young men who in 1960 began the sit-in movement at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro. February 1 will mark the anniversary of the actual sit-in, which caught on like fire and spread throughout the country. Those sit-ins—and the disgraceful way those students were treated—pricked the nation’s conscience and began the slow sawing of segregation’s legs. In just six months the Woolworth’s lunch counter desegregated!

I hope this encourages you. You and your friends have a lot in common with McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond—the other three who sat-in that day. First, they were college freshmen, just as you are. Never underestimate the power of students to change the world—from Soweto to Tiananmen Square to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and others during the Civil Rights Movement. You stand in a proud tradition as you and your classmates take to the streets to protest the injustices of the police and criminal justice systems.

Second, they suffered indignities during their protests too. I remember the sense of shame you wrote about in your last letter, and the anger. These students at sit-ins had ketchup and mustard smeared over their heads and clothes, were sometimes physically beaten and bashed, were jeered and mocked, had their drinks—when they could get one—spat in, were called all kinds of names and labeled “troublemakers,” and on top of all that arrested and carted off to jail. Peaceful protest has always drawn violent and unsympathetic reaction from those in power or with advantage. You really shouldn’t feel ashamed, though. The shame belongs to those who mistreat you as you peacefully call for justice. The end of the shame will come, as it did with McCain and others, as you keep your head up and persevere to victory. The dignity is won in your demeanor, not lost in your defeat.

But this all got me to thinking about why a peaceful call for justice and fair play should ever draw such visceral and ugly reactions from people—especially from people today who all the while claim they believe in justice and equality. Such reactions make more sense in 1960, when hate is the official civic religion of the country, and bigotry was not only socially accepted but reinforced and rewarded. Up through the 1960s, whites were as imprisoned in racial dogma and practice as African Americans. If they broke ranks, they were forced back in line with a well-placed “Nigga lover” or worse. But that was the 1950s and 1960s, and one wonders why so many react so swiftly and angrily today when the social mores have changed so much and the equality of persons is taken for granted by so many.

There’s a university professor, a philosopher named J. Budzizewski, who some years back wrote a little book called The Revenge of Conscience. It’s an excellent book you should pick up. Here’s one of the things that really stuck with me when I read that book nearly 15 years ago: The conscience doesn’t act the way people tend to think it does. Most people think that once the conscience is pricked, it automatically moves us to do what is right. But J. Bud (that’s what some people call him) shows that actually the conscience sometimes double-downs. Instead of leading to repentance and contrition, it takes “revenge” by suppressing the knowledge of righteousness and pressing deeper into the problematic behavior. And I think that understanding of the conscience helps to explain some things.

The reaction you got from some people at the silent vigil strikes me as suppressing the conscience on racial justice issues and driving head long into the behaviors that demonstrate racial injustice. The name calling, racial slurs, threats and intimidation suggest their consciences were pricked and rather than repent they sought a kind of revenge. I think some people protest too much at the mere mention of racism or that somebody somewhere might be a racist. I would never say that everyone who disagrees with us about Ferguson, Garner, etc. is a racist; but I would also never say that none of them are. The truth is in the middle, and I fear a lot of pricked consciences that react in strong opposition would be better served if they’d stop and ask, “But why am I so angry? Why am I responding as if personally attacked? Why am I being disagreeable when I simply disagree?” They might see that they feel implicated because they should feel implicated for some of the attitudes, thoughts, words and actions that are upon closer inspection racist.

Don’t forget that participating in these protests isn’t simply about your conscience; you’re trying to stir the conscience of others too. There’s a great line in the new movie Selma where Dr. King makes this very point. He’s not worried about awakening the Negro’s conscience, but white America’s. Don’t forget you’re doing that, and don’t forget that’s dangerous business. People don’t like it because people don’t really like to look deep into themselves for the ugliness that may be there.

But ugliness is inside us all—including the ugliness of racism. Racism is a stubborn stain. Reminds me of your momma’s scrambled eggs. When we were kids, she used to fix breakfast for the rest of us children. We had a cast iron skillet that we used to fry most anything in. That skillet weighed about 300 pounds, and we always knew when your momma was fixin’ breakfast because she could slam that skillet on the stove—boom!—and it felt like the whole house sunk a foot into the ground. She’d scramble eggs so hard that they’d stick right down into the metal of that pan! Man, Lou Ferrigno couldn’t scrape the eggs out of that skillet when your momma was done!

Racism is like your momma’s eggs. It gets fried right down into the metal of the human heart. And you can’t scrape it out with sheer force. The last pan we’d wash after your momma finished cooking breakfast was always that iron skillet. We’d finish all the other dishes then leave the skillet in hot sudsy water to soak. Only a good long soak would bring that egg up out of the pan. You could see it loosening and waving like sea grass up from the pan. Once it softened and loosened we could take a Brillo pad or a dish rag and smoothly wipe the dregs from the pan—but not until to that thing soaked.

The human heart needs to be soaked in love for a long time before racism comes out. And the best love is the love of God in Jesus Christ His Son. Gospel love conquers racism and renews the conscience. But that love ain’t cheap, Niecie. It cost the Son of God his life, and it will cost you and me a great deal too. The thing about soaking is that it takes a long time and a lot of hot water! That’s the thing about the gospel, too. In our spiritual growth and sanctification, some things take a long time and a lot of hot water before God boils it out of us. Then when you consider you’re trying to soak a nation’s conscience—well that can take a while and a whole lot of prayer. And that time and hot water are the difference between trite Christian platitudes pretending to be gospel and real gritty gospel ministry.

Some of the people you face in these protests don’t know what’s happening to them. They know they’re angry, but they really don’t know why. They know they feel things, but they don’t know where they come from. And sometimes they know the things they feel and say are not right, but they can’t bring themselves to face it and deal with it. So it’s easier to blast you and the other protestors, to stereotype and lump everyone together as “looters” and “rioters,” to shift the blame by pointing the finger at other issues in the Black community, or to ignore it altogether. Your goal is to keep at it until they deal honestly with you, which won’t happen until they deal honestly with themselves. So don’t be surprised by the vitriol. Holding a mirror to a man’s conscience is an invasive and spiritually violent act. We don’t like it even though we need it.

Stay strong. Stay focused. Stay at it. And be sure to have a life beyond the protests.

Your loving uncle,

T

P.S.–Does your momma still fry those hard eggs in that black skillet? :-)

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Letters to a Young Protestor, 4: Never Hate

Jan 06, 2015 | Thabiti Anyabwile

A Letter from My Niece

Wassup Uncle Thabiti?

How’s it going? How are Aunt Kristie and my cousins doing? It was good seeing y’all over Christmas. I gotta say, I miss y’all already. I need more time with my cousins because I can’t believe how big they’ve gotten! The girls are young women!

With all the people around Granny’s house, we didn’t get to talk like I wanted. But I want to tell you again how much I’ve appreciated getting your letters. They’ve been helpful in some ways as I think through things. But just hearing from my big unc’ has been the best part!

Especially over the last week. It’s been really rough. First, momma found out last Tuesday that she might have cancer. Three days after Christmas. That just rocked us. There’s a lot of testing to do still, but already this feels life changing. Momma is in good spirits. She says she doesn’t feel sick. But you know momma. Even if she did feel sick she wouldn’t tell you. She’d just keep working and cleaning and fussing about everything! We’re trying to keep it together with prayer and thinking positively about things. We have our moments. But the hospital has been full of visitors and the doctors and nurses have been great. I know you’ll keep praying for us.

And if news of momma’s possible cancer wasn’t enough, I had the worst experience at our New Year’s rally for justice. We planned a silent vigil on New Year’s Eve. We wanted to bring the New Year in remembering those who lost their lives this past year. And we wanted it to be peaceful, so we thought a silent vigil that focused on both the officers who lost their lives in NY and Florida and those killed by officers would keep things balanced and quiet.

Things started well. We marched down Main Street with candles and signs. We tried to work on the slogan stuff you were suggesting, but right now we’re still using “Black Lives Matter” and “End Police Brutality.” We added “Police Lives Matter” and “Respect the Police” for this rally. Everything was going fine until we got down to City Hall. It was around midnight when we got there, and we didn’t think about the tons of people who would just then be hitting the street from their parties and stuff.

As you can imagine, things took a turn. As more people flooded the street from the New Year’s parties, they began to slow down at our vigil, then stop. Some were respectful, dropping their voices and even nodding in approval. But then people began to comment. Some were saying things like “F- the police!” Others then joined in with “F- Mike Brown.” Before long what started as a peaceful silent vigil turned into an ugly shouting match with drunk people staggering around and a lot of people getting in each others faces.

But the worst part was some of the racist things that were said. We were called all kinds of names. “Black monkeys.” “Nappy-haired B-.” “Go back to Africa!” One man in his 50s shouted, “Black lives only matter if they’re picking my cotton!” He called us “obsolete farm equipment.” One girl about my age went on with “Nigger” this and “nigger” that. It was bad enough being called that, but the way she spat the words was filled with the iciest hate. The mocking in fake “black voices and slang” was relentless.

The police stood by and watched. Except for a couple of them who looked like they were laughing at us and telling jokes of their own.

I don’t think the worst part was the name calling, though that was bad enough. The worst part was I didn’t know what to feel or how to respond. I was so mad I could’ve hurt somebody. But then I was so scared that they would hurt us at any moment. I was ashamed that I was afraid. But I couldn’t help it. When that girl my age called us “nigger B-,” fear shot through my body like lightning! I froze when I heard her voice. When people came up into our group, kicking over candles and knocking over signs, I didn’t know whether to run or to kick back. But if I kicked back, I don’t know what would have happened or what the police would have done. And this morning I woke up still burning mad and still feeling ashamed.

That’s the worst part. The shame. I feel like I did that time when I was six years old and wet myself in school and my mom had to come pick me up. I felt like I was standing there in my own urine, running down my leg wetting my stockings and dress, unable to stop it with my legs clinched at the knee or to cover it with my hands, alone while the faces of the entire whole world made fun of me. It’s so shameful. I feel ashamed because people treated us that way. And I feel ashamed that I didn’t respond to them. I should’ve said something—anything. But I took it. I froze. And when some of the people with us began shouting back, I felt ashamed at some of the stuff they said. I just feel like I wet myself with my own shame, then had the dirt of other people’s hatred thrown on me, and just muddied all over from the mix of the two.

Why do they hate us so much? What did we do to deserve this? What’s wrong with us that people can’t accept us? I hate white people. Since they hate us so much, I’m going to hate them right back.

Please keep writing back, uncle. I wish you were here. Love,

Niecie

———————–

Dear Niecie,

I hope this letter finds you feeling better than you did when you last wrote to me. I hope the Lord has comforted you by His Spirit and helped you process all that’s been happening lately.

How is your mom? What’s the latest from the doctors? We’ve been praying for her and for the family there. I called her the other day and asked how she was coming. She said, “These doctors can’t kill me. They’re trying, but I ain’t letting ‘em.” That’s your momma!

I’m sorry to hear about the silent vigil, which ended with way too much talking and shouting, it seems. I want to write a lot more to you, but maybe it’s best to pass along one lesson I’ve learned growing up a generation ahead of you. It’s this:

There’s nothing wrong with you and me. The problem is in the racist.

Don’t ever forget that, beloved. Whenever you’re tempted to think, “What’s wrong with me?” when encountering racist people, know that that’s the wrong question. We all have our problems, but God making us who we are isn’t one of them. If people have a problem with your brown skin and want to make all kinds of irrational conclusions about you based on it, it’s really their soul that’s sick. Not yours.

I can’t emphasize this enough, Niecie. One of the wicked effects of racism is that the attitude of the racist sometimes worms its destructive way through the heart and mind of those being mistreated. We can—and very often have—internalized the attitudes of others and that’s led to all manner of self-hatred and self-destruction. When that happens, the racist wins the most significant battle. You cannot let the racist win this way. Let them have a thousand laws or revert to the 1950s if they want. But never let them have the pleasure of so thoroughly defeating you that you begin to believe about yourself what they say about you. Never.

The problem is the racist and their heart of hate—not you. And that’s why you must never hate them. Returning hate can feel so logical, so natural a response to what you’ve received. And you can feel so justified because you’ve been mistreated. But it creates a vicious cycle, an unending loop of barbarity between people. Racists are to be pitied and loved, resisted and instructed, but never hated. Don’t let them pass that along to you. Be angry about injustice without forgetting what you’re demanding—that everyone—the racist included—be valued as someone made in God’s image. I know it’s difficult to see dignity in persons spewing irrational and abominable hatred, but that’s the burden we bear as a people who through suffering should see the value of humanity more clearly than some others perhaps do. It feels like a heavy tax, and it feels hopelessly unfair, but it’s the only way to retain your own dignity and protect it in others. That’s your twin goal; don’t let hatred make you forget it.

I will write more soon. But right now, don’t let hate win. Hate is wrong. It’s sinful. Fight real hard to love, forgive and continue. And know that you momma, your uncles and aunts, and a whole bunch of friends love you with an everlasting love.

Wishing I were there,

Thabiti

 

 

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Letters to a Young Protestor, 3: Purpose and Perseverance

Dec 31, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

Dear Niecie,

What’s good? I pray you’re well and staying strong in faith, hope and love!

I read something in the paper the other day that surprised me. Did you know that the protests stemming from the killing of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have become the second longest civil rights protest movement in the country since the Civil War??? Apparently, it’s second only to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That’s what one of the organizers claimed. If so, this young movement has already achieved something significant: a little longevity.

The fact of the matter is that it’s difficult to build and sustain a local movement of any sort, much more difficult to do it in a number of cities all at once! Your generation, with its widespread and constant use of social media, has organized and acted with a speed and spread previous generations could not have imagined. Take it from an ol’ head; this is impressive.

If you can get a word to your organizers locally and nationally, please let them know they encourage many of us older guys. They really do. And please tell them not to quit. Keep it up. Press in and press on!

I’m sure they’ve discovered this already, but the key things right now are purpose and perseverance. The early success and the organic nature of the protests means a lot of people have “joined” who perhaps have different agendas or the same agenda expressed in different ways. There’s a sense in which you don’t want to weaken that dynamism with too much control. But at the same time it’s imperative that a clear message emerges. One that states the purpose of the movement in clear and compelling terms. You want the purpose statement to be so clear that no one can mistake your meaning and your goal. And you want it to be so compelling that no good faith observer could oppose it.

That’s more difficult than it sounds when you consider the sheer number of words available in the English language and the many folks whose instinct will be to oppose protest. You’re trying to communicate in a context that ranges from antipathy to apathy. So getting the purpose statement clear and compelling is tough.

But think of the Civil Rights Movement. The aims of that movement could be reduced to two couplets printed in huge black letters on two posters: “Equal Rights” and “End Discrimination.” That’s clear. Everyone understands “equal rights” on a gut level. If you have a right and I don’t, then we ain’t equal yet. And everyone understands the wrongness of discrimination and the rightness of ending it. That doesn’t take much thought as all and it taps into a sense of parity we’ve all had since learning to share in the sandbox. In fact, the Civil Rights Movement’s simple demands for “Equal Rights” and “End Segregation” put the segregationist on his heels. He had to defend his prejudice and his inhumane treatment of African Americans against the rising conscience of the country. Now any time your statements prick the conscience you have an effective purpose statement! When you think about it, those statements not only galvanized the Civil Rights protestors, in time they won over most of the country and, indeed, most of the world. You had people in Third World countries looking at the U.S. Civil Rights Movement saying, “That ain’t right” even when they had no rights of their own! The only people left supporting America’s apartheid regime were die-hard segregationists and virulent racists. The moral appeal and authority of the movement and the message has all but eliminated any legitimacy racism ever had.

So you gotta have that clear and compelling message. Tell them the hours and hours and days and days they spend on this will be more important than they might think right now.

And along with the message, tell them they’re going to need some perseverance. Settle in, but don’t settle down. Most of the cameras have left the scene and now there’s no light for the media fly to buzz around. Now begins the test of mettle. If we would have a lasting justice and a systemic reform, we must be prepared for the long fight. This is a 15-round bout. There won’t be a quick KO. The “opponent” is big, muscular, bruising in retaliation, cunning, quick and deadly. Like a heavyweight, he will try to lean on you, wait you out, and finish you when you’re tired. “Power concedes nothing without a fight,” and the most frequent way power “fights” is by waiting you out and wearing you down.Yyou can get so tired that you just want to throw in the towel, not answer the bell. But the race is not given to the swift or the strong. You must wait on the Lord to renew your strength longer than they wait on you to fail in strength.

Getting the purpose clear helps with keeping the perseverance up. You’ll struggle longer if you have a compelling purpose that reaches deep into the heart. Likewise, your persevering will help spread the purpose beyond yourselves to others. Think about the reactions to #BlackLivesMatter. Now, that seems like an entirely reasonable statement. It’s just true. And it needs saying when events make it seem as if it’s been forgotten, taken for granted, or even denied. When several unarmed Black men get killed by those in authority in a one to two month span, it makes you naturally want to say, “These Black lives matter.” You marvel that you ever must say it, since the truth of it should be apparent to all!

But the marvel you felt at having to say “Black lives matter” is nothing. That marvel gets overshadowed by the second marvel of hearing other people retort, “All lives matter” or “White lives matter” or “Police lives matter.” As if you were denying any of those things. All of a sudden what you thought was a simple clear slogan gets met with counter-slogans and charges that you are the racist for saying “Black lives matter”! People act as if those words hurt more than the bullets that killed Black men! They act as if valuing Black life necessarily devalues or overlooks other life. And all of a sudden you realize you’re on your heels. You’re clarifying and playing defense when you’re on the side of justice. And the whole thing feels like you’ve entered this bizarre would where everything is upside down and inside out.

Perseverance requires that you figure out whether there’s a problem with your core message or whether you’re simply dealing with the know-nothing, admit-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing intransigence of ignorant people. If there’s a message problem, then you refine and restate. If there’s an intransigence problem, then you press on. Be undaunted by the sneers and stares of detractors pretending the high moral ground while demonstrating a willful ignorance. Every time you point out their ignorance or try helping them see your point more fairly, they’ll twist your words and keep you reeling on your heels. That’s their strategy. It takes the bright light off their own hearts, leaving them to go on unexamined and unimpeached. You have to know the difference between the genuine person working their way through important questions and the covert saboteur siphoning your energy to weaken your perseverance.

For my part, I think #BlackLivesMatter works  only in the way that “We Are All God’s Children” worked in earlier generations. That is, it says something true and general that forms part of the moral context for discussion. But it has the same failings of those other general slogans: It’s too abstract to inform action, communicate demands, or engender perseverance. It doesn’t quite aim at anything that can then be used to measure progress. So use it, but don’t think you’ve said anything that wins the day. We need our equivalent of “End Segregation” and “Equal Rights” applied to these policing and criminal justice issues.

I don’t know what the purpose statement should be. I’ll give that a lot more prayer and thought. And I’ll pray for the organizers as they work on this. It’s crazy how much of the movement’s success depends on getting untold volumes of pain, death, tragedy, grief, hope and pleading down to a few short words! But the right words will become boxcars freighting all that experience and more!

Hug your mama for me. I hope to see you over the holidays. If you have something going on then, I’d love to join you all!

Much love,

Thabiti

P.S.–I want to make something clear that I assume you would understand. Stay away from those whose messages contradict your own, call into question your motives and cause, and otherwise disrupt the positive efforts you’re making. Find ways to keep them out of your work, and certainly don’t join them in their destruction. Read the first 8-9 chapters of Proverbs for wisdom on this point.

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Letters to a Young Protestor, 2: Equality and Dignity

Dec 30, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

My darling Niece,

It was good to receive your letter the other day. Letter writing must be among the lost arts of our time. That you would take the time to actually hand write a letter rather than sending me a series of instant messages, tweets or emails made hearing from you all the more special. You imparted grace to me simply by scribing.

But you shared so many things in your letter it’s difficult to know where to begin. Rather than try answering your entire letter, let me start with a general observation and burrow into it.

Equality is too slim a basis for human relationships.

Don’t get me wrong; legal and social equality is a good and necessary goal. And, you’re quite correct to say this country never intended the African American to have such equality. That you and I should have the same rights and privileges of white men was never the design. So you correctly see that the fight for equality has been uphill all the way and that the fight is necessary. But I think that’s at least partially inaccurate and unhelpful. It’s unhelpful because there are at least two defects with equality—(1) if it can be given with the stroke of a pen, it can be taken by another; and (2) people only want equality with their superiors. Fundamentally, seeking and granting equality are acts of power and pride. Power because it locks “superiors” and “inferiors” in battle for a perceived scarcity. Pride because the disenfranchised only want more while the privileged never think to lower themselves as a viable path to equity. “Ever upward” is the motto of protestors seeking equality, and we usually want it at the expense of others.

For all intents and purposes most laws in the country now require equal treatment. We cannot underestimate how the Civil Rights Movement radically changed our standing in the eyes of the law and eventually our standing in the eyes of all fair-minded Americans. The removal of legal barriers in housing, employment, transportation and every sector of society has brought with it freedoms and opportunities your grandmother only dreamed about!

So here’s the key question: Why do so many African Americans still feel unjustly treated in the country?

Well, I think it’s because “equality” as a legal and social goal isn’t as helpful when we can no longer point to obvious signs of discrimination and oppression. Equality loses it’s body, it’s tangible substance when inequality isn’t as visible as “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs, or as divisive as segregated seating in public places. What is “equality” when you’re no longer faced with visible forms of inequality?

Honestly, I hope we can find ways of keeping “equality” out of your protests. That framing is really counter-productive and misses the point. If our concern is an end to police shootings of unarmed people, what “equal” result would we want? Is “equality” fewer African Americans killed by police officers, or more white Americans killed to even the proportions? (What a ghastly thought that is!) And who do we now want equality with, and why them? The value of Black life can’t be tabulated in comparison to White lives. Black life has a value all its own. Unless we have lost our collective minds, we know the best possible result is the elimination of deaths altogether. But how will that happen?

As I said, equality is too slim a basis for human relationships. What we need is that deeper, sturdier basis for human relationships on which equality rests: dignity. Dignity roots itself not in human law but in a decision God made before the world began—to make all people in His image and likeness. An end to police brutality and the valuing of Black life won’t happen until African Americans receive that dignity that comes from realizing we, too, bear the image of God. That’s a challenge because a great many people called to champion the idea of “equality” still find it difficult to embrace the dignity of Black life.

Have you paid much attention to how police officers describe the unarmed men they killed? The victim is always a “big Black man,” even when it’s tiny little twelve-year old Tamir Rice. Or, Black men are ascribed “superhuman strength” while being shot several times. Sometimes they pull out a raging animal metaphor like “charging like a bull.” Since Ferguson, all you hear is “thug” this and “thug” that. Have you ever wondered why the “thug” label and narrative stuck so quickly and proved so stubborn? If these folks ever met a real thug they’d think Brown a boy scout. But if you listen carefully, what you’ll hear in these labels is age-old fear and anger. And all it takes are a few well-placed coded phrases like “big Black man” to conjure enough fear in people to dehumanize and terrify.

This “thug” perception isn’t new either. You’re too young to remember this, but in the early ’90s high-ranking officials like Presidential advisor William Bennett began to describe Black youth as “super-predators.” Writing the phrase shocks me even today. And I can’t help but think of the movie Predator. It featured a dreadlocked alien! Can you believe that? This alien killed humans for sport, which was effectively what Bennett was saying about young Black men in the 90s. He argued that a certain percentage of Black men were “natural born killers” who needed to be stopped with large government investments in prisons, tougher sentences, and funding for more police officers. We were dreaded if not dreadlocked aliens who needed to be rounded up and imprisoned. Bennett fueled a lot of hysteria.

Go further back, to the late 1800s, and you’ll find that a lot of people who lynched Black men justified it by saying they were “rapists.” Again, hysteria and falsehood. From “rapists” to “super-predators” to “thugs,” we’ve been in a long fight not merely for equality but for human dignity. All these tags dehumanize African American people. That’s their purpose. And they’re trotted out like show dogs in order to make acts of injustice palatable, even justified in the eyes of some people.

So, African Americans have not been fighting these four long centuries for something as ephemeral and impermanent as “equality.” I know it’s commonplace to think of the struggle in those terms. But we’ve been fighting for our humanity, and trying to fight the most humane way possible. Our repeated appeal has been to be recognized for the human beings that we are. During slavery the signs read, “Ain’t I a Man?” Those who came along later, during the Civil Rights Movement, didn’t leave the question open. They answered with another sign that read, “I Am A Man.” Now your generation feels compelled to shout, “Black lives matter.” Those are not appeals for equality, but for something older, deeper, more precious—the full flowering of our humanity as people made in the image of God. Those are calls for dignity, a common dignity shared by everybody made in God’s likeness. There’s a logic and force even in the sequence of slogans.

But some of our white brothers and sisters sometimes fail to see us for who we are. The fail to see we are people made in God’s image, that we are therefore full of dignity and worth. Rather, too often, and often without thinking about, they look at us and see something subhuman, animalistic, and therefore something undignified and often something dangerous. The killings won’t stop—nor will the defensive justifications and the shrill denunciations of protestors—until something changes in the way some people see us. Rare are the people like Commissioner William Bratton. Did you catch what he said a few days ago?

“The police, the people who are angry at the police, the people who support us but want us to be better, even a madman who assassinated two men because all he could see was two uniforms, even though they were so much more. We don’t see each other. If we can learn to see each other, to see that our cops are people like Officer Ramos and Officer Liu, to see that our communities are filled with people just like them, too. If we can learn to see each other, then when we see each other, we’ll heal. We’ll heal as a department. We’ll heal as a city. We’ll heal as a country.”

I think he very nearly nails it. We need to see each other, and we need to see each other as made in God’s image. As a Christian, I’m tempted to say only the new life that Jesus gives can change this sight problem. But a good number of professing Christians perceive African Americans the same way as some who make no religious profession at all. I wish this were an anomaly, but seeing us as subhuman goes back hundreds of years. And to be completely honest, I don’t know what to do about that. If they’re not convinced by their own Bibles that we lay common claim to being made in God’s image and therefore deserve to be treated with the utmost dignity along with the rest of humanity, then I suspect this problem will only come out by prayer and fasting—and a whole lot of gracious influence by the Holy Spirit!

Don’t forget: You’re fighting for your own humanity and the dignity that comes from being made in God’s image. Do so in a way that confers humanity and dignity on others. It’s a heavy burden, and you won’t always feel like doing it. But it is, I believe, the Black man’s burden and a stewardship from God.

With my love,

Thabiti

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Letters to a Young Protestor, 1

Dec 29, 2014 | Thabiti Anyabwile

My darling niece,

I pray this letter finds you well and rejoicing in the grace of our Savior! The Lord Jesus is coming soon, and those who have this hope must purify themselves for His return. I trust and hope you’re seeking that beauty we call holiness, conforming to the image and likeness of God our Savior. Pursue holiness with great abandon, knowing that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion at the Day of Christ Jesus!

Your mama tells me the shooting deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, John Crawford in Beaver Creek, Akai Gurley in New York, and the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island have pricked your conscience and awakened you to injustices you haven’t really seen before. It’s not that the injustices are new. As you’re discovering, the suspicious and outright heinous murder of African-American men and women and even children has a long sad history. The name Emmet Till is perhaps the most famous incident, but read Ida B. Wells’ account of lynchings and you’ll see Till was no anomaly. It’s simply that these tragic deaths are new to you. And having seen them, so many other things also seem new to you.

Something has “dawned on you,” as they say. In my day, we called that rising of awareness “consciousness.” It is the cultural equivalent of being “born again,” if I can put it that way. You look at your hands and they look new. You look at your feet and they do, too. It’s like those resuscitations you see on the movies. The guy has been dead and the people are beating on his chest, performing mouth-to-mouth, and calling out to him to come back. Then all of a sudden his entire body convulses and heaves as life rushes back into him.

I’m glad you’ve awakened to things. You’ve been asleep a long time and, honestly, most of us—your mom, your aunts and uncles—have been content to let you slumber, unaware of many harder aspects of life. We’ve secretly hoped our not telling you about the ugly ways Black people have sometimes lost their lives might spare you some pain, bitterness, and confusion. We’ve very much wanted you to be able to live a fuller freedom than we’ve ever had. That’s been our heart. But if I’m honest, we’ve been unsettled by the prospect that “freedom” might mean an unconscious existence for you. While we’ve sought to spare you, it’s been no easy bargain because the cost of not telling you was your own self-knowledge or self-love and the cost to us was a nagging sense of betrayal or failure or cowardice or dignity.

But now you know. The lights have come on. So let’s talk, Niecie.

This “consciousness” is really quite exhilarating, even intoxicating. That’s why I wanted to write to you. To drop you a few lines about what’s happening—not only what’s happening around you but also what may be happening inside of you, too.

If you’re like me at your age you’re probably feeling nearly every emotion all at once. The winds of life fill the lungs of your soul and everything tingles with feeling. Anger usually appears first. Wrath asks a hundred questions. How could this happen? Why did no one tell me? What’s going on with all these other deaf, dumb and blind Black folks? Why aren’t they in the game? I’m not going to take it anymore! Your blood runs hot. But right on the heals of anger comes its first cousin: fear. You begin to wonder to yourself: If I’ve been asleep this long, what else have I missed? How often have I “betrayed the cause” or “failed my people”? Will this new me be accepted? What friendships will I lose and what strange place must now be my home? So you bounce between fear and anger until you resolve not to “sleep on things” again.

It’s a roller coaster, this consciousness. Alongside the anger and fear there’s the joy. You’ve awakened to an entire world of song and sorrow, dance and demonstration, blues and ballads, pain as old as the country itself, and triumphs unimagined just a generation before. Somehow you’ve finally discovered that you’re Black and that means something. There’s fresh pride in it. Your mom tells me “everything is Black” with you now. You buy Black. You talk Black. You dress Black. You would walk Black if you had a bit more ‘hood in you! Black authors line your shelves and Black art decks your walls. Go ‘head with yo’ Black self! LOL

But here’s the first thing you need to know about what’s happening with you right now: You think you’re discovering yourself but you just might be losing yourself.

What do I mean? Well, take, for example, the anger you feel. You can lose yourself in that anger. You interpret it as righteous indignation. You feel justified because you feel mistreated. And all the mistreatment of all Black people has become “yours.” You voluntarily own generations of undocumentable mistreatment. Of course it’s right to be angry at injustice. But, Niecie, some people are addicted to anger. They’re not happy unless they’re unhappy. And the flame that burns them up will soon burn up everything around them. Some of the looters in Ferguson didn’t just throw Molotov cocktails. They were Molotov cocktails. They simply needed a match to explode, and the kangaroo court that was Ferguson, MO was one giant strike of the match for them. So they burned, and they burned things, and if they’re not careful they’ll get burned. Anger is a volatile master. Don’t serve her or she’ll incinerate so much of your humanity.

And you can also lose yourself in the heady romanticism of Black culture. You can so focus on the greats of African and African-American history that you see neither the grime of the same history or the glory of other cultures. The irony with this is you become what you’re protesting. In my day, we marched and chanted for African-American cultural centers on major university campuses. We rejected as oppressive the Eurocentric canon along with all its patriarchs (for they were all men; you’d think white women weren’t even a part of white history and culture). We wanted a Black canon and Black patriarchs (sadly, we ignored Black women as astutely as white men ignored white women). We gave ourselves so fully to this movement that the rest of the world—Asian, European, Latin American, Caribbean, and so on—simply vanished from consideration. In the end, we effectively traded one hegemony (European) for another (African-American). We thought we were emerging, becoming, awakening… embracing an Afrocentric ideal, but really we were losing ourselves in ourselves.

The ways to lose yourself in this protean period are legion. Can I tell you one other? You can lose yourself by letting other Black people define you. There are a lot of us waiting to tell you exactly what it means for you to be Black, and then judge whether or not you are “Black enough.” They’ll want to “keep it real” for you by telling you what Black people do and don’t do. We do have family reunions but we don’t go skiing. We do vote Democratic—and maybe independent—but never Republican. We do eat chicken but not around white people. And on it will go until you’re like a shoestring tied into so many knots your life cannot lace the holes that God made for you. My dear niece, it’s entirely possible to be enslaved by Black people who think themselves the arbiters of what it means to be Black.

Here’s the paradox in all of this is this: Blackness isn’t one thing. Truth be told, it ain’t even a thing. Blackness doesn’t exist ontologically. There’s no essential essence, no irreducible nucleus around which all the other elements revolve. Blackness is a “thing” seductive yet elusive. It’s a shape shifter. It’s like nailing jell-o to a wall. The quicker you discover Blackness does not exist objectively (though the discovery can’t be rushed) the sooner you’ll be able to be Black without trying. There is a sense in which the persons who try most to be Black wind up being the “least” Black among us. They try to demonstrate something that cannot be demonstrated, only received from the all-wise Hands of Providence. Blackness is a gift, a stewardship, a fractal design fashioned by Omniscience.

Right now your life is one big assertion when you stop to think about it. You’re crying out along with everyone else. Your hope disguises itself as a demand to be seen, heard, acknowledged, and respected. Those are good things. But first you have to demand it of yourself for yourself. Can you see yourself? Can you hear yourself? Have you yet acknowledged and respected yourself? To do those things, you must not lose your self. You gotta know who you are.

You’ve no doubt come across the ancient saying, “Man, know thyself.” I can’t help but laugh as I remember how we used to fight with our classmates and even professors over whether that was an ancient Greek or ancient Egyptian saying. Then we’d have to fight with some people about whether the ancient Egyptians were Black or as one writer put it, “white Africans”! Seems Hollywood is still provoking that argument. But in my day knowledge of self was the summum bonum, the highest good. It was the touchstone of cultural consciousness and to be sought above all things.

My dear niece, you will discover this in time: Your cultural or ethnic identity can become an idol. It seems a silly thing to say to you now. It may even seem like a betrayal of self-knowledge and a betrayal of our people. To say that knowledge of self and cultural pride can become idolatrous may even have the ring of self-sabotage, a kind of suicide in a world seemingly bent on destroying Black people. If you can, trust me on this. If you serve this idol it will, like all idols, first control you, then destroy you.

Remember this: You cannot know yourself truly and properly until you know God your Creator. We only partially know ourselves if we lose sight of God. And that partial knowledge is so imperceptibly small and even deceptive that it can barely be called “knowledge.” What you must not lose is a clear grasp of who God is and how knowledge of God defines, shapes, and colors all other knowledge. If that’s true of you then you cannot easily be lost.

My hope is that the fire that drives you is the fire taken from the altar of God, a purifying fire that makes good all your protests for justice. I pray that it’s God’s fire “shut up in your bones.” And I pray that your zeal would be according to knowledge. I’m glad you’re finding out things about yourself and our people. Cherish that knowledge. But cherish even more that these things are not accidental; they were determined by that God who made all people from one pair of parents and determined the times and the borders of our habitation. You’re coming into the knowledge of something done by God; only don’t let it undo your relationship with God.

There’s so much more to write. I trust the Lord will give me an opportunity to write again soon. But for now, don’t lose yourself in either the protests or the awakening consciousness you’re experiencing.

With undying love and hope,

Thabiti

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