A Black Response to Tim Kreider on Reentry

I am incredibly lucky. I am a well-paid religious professional who is able to live in a certain amount of moderate luxury as a single gay man. I work and navigate some fairly impressive academic and cultural circles between Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard and Princeton Universities, national policy and politics and the like. My intellectual work gets read and published and I am well paid to simply show up and share my thinking and creative work. I have literally traveled around the world. Lucky, yes…but I’ve also put in a ton of hard work and effort. I’ve had plenty of days where oats were my only meal and where I didn’t know where my rent was coming from. I’ve moved more than 50 times in my life. I have made sacrifices of relationship and family to achieve my professional goals. Some of it I would trade, some of it I would not.

I’m also black. This means that the pandemic has played out very, very differently for me than for non-black folks. When I read Tim Kreider’s piece for the Atlantic I’m Not Scared to Reenter Society.  I’m Just Not Sure I Want To, I was entertained and of course appreciate the buoyant and subtle humor; the self-deprecation and awareness. Yet, I found myself on the outside looking in…again. Last week I published a poem about a white woman crossing the street to avoid me…in front of the church where I am the lead minister. The painful juxtaposition of her actions with my professional orientation to where we were located is something that I am accustomed to having grown up in the Boston area and of course being black in America. But interactions like that take on a different power in the context of mask politics and human interaction post-pandemic.  The minefield of race is something that makes “reentering society” significantly more complex for me than the dainty positing of ideas that Kreider engages in.

Over the last year, I have had multiple weeks on end where I was the sole non-white face in zoom meetings. Something about the technology makes this even more jarring, if you are looking for it.  When the meetings are large, with several pages of white only faces the image can be overwhelming…at least to my black sensibility.  At the same time, when emerging from my home and not on zoom, I’ve been very aware how the only black people I have regularly encountered have been primarily service employees. The most racially telling moment of this pandemic was when I went to get my vaccine shots. Both times, I was the ONLY black person in a line of over 1000 people at the Gillette Center, while nearly all of the service staff (nurses, vaccine center workers) were black and people of color. The color line of the pandemic is incredibly stark and I’ve found myself regularly starving for blackness.

…being able to curate the whiteness of my days through the pandemic has been a blessing.

Although I’ve experienced a catastrophic amount of loss through this time (sadly not only to covid), the more disruptive aspect of this situation, has been the way it has racialized my work and my world. Because of my identities layered on my position and my proximity to privilege, I have regularly been the person to raise questions of access and empowerment for everything from tests to vaccines to education to housing. I have been in spaces where I remind people that their liberal agenda may not actually be what the marginalized people want or are willing to trust; and at times I’ve been dismissed. I have also been in spaces where I literally had to remind people that I am black. And all of this has been in the shadow of the ongoing murder epidemic of black people by police and the increasing resurgence and legitimization in our government of a white supremacist agenda.

As a result, being able to curate the whiteness of my days through the pandemic has been a blessing. I can choose to engage or not engage. I can be on screen or screen off. I can simply and honestly say, “I need a mental health break” or even go so far as to say “I need a whiteness break.” Going back to “normal” means I will have to surrender that kind of control. As my interaction in Harvard Square reminded me, whiteness is a weapon over which I have no control and often little defense. I would rather not have to return to being hyper-vigilant to the unconscious racism of strangers.

We must consider the impact of reentry on those of us who will have to sacrifice having been able to choose where and when we want to be the target of intentional and/or unintentional toxic whiteness. There are those of us who will now have to be on guard again for that person who wants to touch our hair, or comment on the shape of our eyes, or follow us around the shop floor, or quiz us on our accent or our country of origin. Even worse, some of us will have to once again face people who assume because of our voice, carriage or skin tone that we are white…erasing us completely.  That sucks.

Reentry is not just about workload, sweat pants, weekends, circadian rhythm or depression. Reentry is, like everything else in the United States, a project of and an experiment in race. For someone like me, it is not a questions of whether or not I want to reenter the society we left in March 2020; I do not. I’m wondering how do I hold on to some of the safety and affirmation I was able to suddenly have access to when I left.  I would very much like to continue cultivating a certain amount of emotional health that has come from keeping whiteness at bay.  To paraphrase Kreider, I’d love for my world to continue to be devoid of that “bullshit.”



Liberation Universalism

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Note of acknowledgement: I am incredibly grateful for the academic and collegial relationships that have allowed me to develop a deeper understanding of my Unitarian Universalist faith.  In particular, I would like to offer my thanks to Dr. Sofia Betancourt and Dr. Elias Ortega who have both been integral parts of my development and growth in ministry and scholarship and who are already leading Unitarian Universalist theology into new and exciting understandings.

I identify religiously as a Unitarian Universalist.  I am also black.  These two identities often sit in conflict.  I am also gay. Anyone who has read this blog knows all of these things about me.  Its worth noting that I was once publicly challenged by Michael Eric Dyson for choosing the predominantly white spiritual space of Unitarian Universalism that affirmed my identity as a gay man over spiritual spaces that affirmed my blackness and left my sexuality on the sidelines.  I’m not alone in making this choice.  A significant portion of black UUs leave their spiritual homes (AME, Pentecostal, COGIC, Catholic) to find the freedom to publicly have the partners of their choices and live in the physical expressions that are most resonant to them.

Contrary to what Dr. Dyson and others may believe, and despite there being some LGBTQ affirming black religious spaces, it is not an easy choice.  The black church is deeply ingrained in who we are as African Americans.  In fact, I originally started this piece with a deep dive into the why and wherefore of my own journey away from the black church as a spiritual home, that also explained how I maintain a strong affiliation with what it means to me at my core as a black American.  But I decided in the end that for the purposes of this piece which is aimed specifically at a black Unitarian Universalist audience, it is more useful for me to look forward even if many of us do look back with great affection and winsome sentiment and a certain sense of loss.

My purpose in writing this essay is because it is increasingly necessary for black UUs and specifically black UU faith leaders to put theological stakes in the ground.  With all due respect, it is not enough for us to be satisfied with a retrofit of the Seven Principles or to spend the bulk of our time and emotional energy “dismantling white supremacy” even though these endeavors are crucial.  Nor is it truly productive for us to repurpose the work of dead white scholars who had no interest in speaking to black audiences and sometimes even stated their belief that blacks didn’t have the intellect for “liberal religion.”  Black thought outside of Unitarian Universalism is vast, rich and important and not at all limited to responding to whiteness.  I believe that black thought inside of Unitarian Universalism must be just as robust, groundbreaking and public.

A Framework

Black UUs are hungry for a more solid framework within the broader vagaries of Unitarian Universalism.  What I want to lay out are a few of the basic goals that I see as being necessary to serve black UUs.

A-Colonial – First, any uniquely black UU theological framework must be a total repudiation of the colonial project.  The oppression of black people within the European colonial industry is global and continues to be one of the most devastating oppressions in human history.  Colonialism placed a socio-political value on blackness as the measure for the opposite of “good”, “productive”, “intelligent”, “beautiful”, “desirable”, “welcome” and more.  Blackness was defined as the absolute negative of Western culture and in doing so, European colonizers created a framework that changed the world giving us everything from the total violence of the n-word to modern capitalism. We do not deserve to be bound to this.

African Origins – Next, a black UU theological framework must affirm that the immediate connection to the African diaspora (what we call blackness), precludes, predates and is totally independent of the violence of colonial frameworks.  Blackness must know its origin story.  People of and connected to the African continent and cultures were not created by racism; they were not “discovered”; they were not “civilized”.  The culture of African peoples, much of which has been erased, ignored and made inaccessible by European history is literally as old as humanity.  The rickety cart of white supremacy cannot be put before the gleaming thoroughbred horse of people of African descent.

Contextualized Christianity – Next, a black UU theology must have a relationship with the gravity of how African people across the globe have been colonized by and indoctrinated into European religion; first as a tool of oppression and then as an essential and profound tool for survival.  The painful and deeply challenging question that any post-colonial black theological framework must ask is “how well are black people served by worshiping gods created in the context of colonialism?”  This is not to erase the sustaining and life-giving influence that black church communities have provided black people.  Nor is it to disparage anyone’s belief in a Judeo-Christian God or the saving power of Jesus.  Rather, this question is to explore how can all expressions of black faith (whether they be Abrahamic or indigenous, theistic or atheistic) move outside of the context of anti-black oppression, find and cultivate their own generative power, and thrive in a way that has nothing whatsoever to do with responding to whiteness.

Full Humanity – Finally, a black UU theology must on its most basic level begin with a commitment to banishing the concept of the “other”.  In that blackness in the European colonial project is the ultimate “other”, the pretext of total invitation to humanity must be foundational.  This is with regard to all forms of embodiment, gender and sexual expression, ability, social location, culture, ethnicity, etc.  Here is the invitation and commitment to the totality of humanity as part of the embodied world.  It doesn’t excuse violence, ignore bigotry, avoid sexism, or apologize for oppression.  It simply acknowledges shared humanness as the most important starting point.  This is theology that requires us to not so much rise above our differences as to rise through them.

Liberation Universalism

These four core elements (a-colonialism, African origins, contextualized Christianity, full humanity) sit at the heart of a theological framework that I will call Liberation Universalism.  Considering the complex legacies of both these words, I will attempt to offer some enlightenment as to how I am using both “liberation” and “universalism”:

Liberation – This is liberation that is not an act of resistance or defiance; it is not a response.  Instead, this is a liberation that is inherently born into human being.  It is a liberation that is not so much fought for and won but revealed, reclaimed and reaffirmed.  It is liberation that has and will always been within.  It is the assumption of liberation as an initial state of being.

Universalism – Rather than being an homage to ideas about “salvation”, this universalism is a beginning.  It is a universalism that seeks to begin with the fullness and wholeness of all humanity.  It is universalism that begins with the assumption of the full spectrum of human being rather than trying to figure out how to include what it didn’t think was worthy or didn’t know.  It is humanity before judgement.  It is a universalism in which for example, blackness holds shared value and capacity in human being in addition to its unique qualities born of African descent without the burden of colonialism.  This is universalism as transcendent being.

Ultimately, Black Unitarian Universalists will have many expressions of their faith.  What I present here as a framework of Liberation Universalism is just one interpretation.  Others will differ greatly.  I’m convinced however that if the name “Unitarian Universalist” is going to remain a part of black UU identity, both blackness and Unitarian Universalism must be challenged and deeply interrogated and put through a rigorous theological exploration.  They also must be intentionally woven together in thoughtful and thought provoking ways.  Being black and UU cannot just be about white supremacy.  Nor is Black UU identity solely a question of surviving anti-blackness.  Black UU theology is a question of black affirmation, origins, faith, history, empowerment, mortality and more.  And it is categorically unique to the experience and need of people of African descent.  It is not to say that black UU is better, but black UU theology must be different.  It is needed to carve out places of self-understanding that allow us to grow and thrive within all UU communities while holding our heads equally high among non-UU black faith communities.  It is time for us to claim a uniquely black Unitarian Universalist theological place.  Let us finally call this place home.