Racial Cred

I make it a habit to never question someone’s racial cred.  In a world of blended families, interracial families and trans-racial adoptions, none of us has any business questioning someone else’s racial identity.  So when I point out the fact that both Barack Obama and Kamala Harris are bi-racial and the fact that none of their parents identified as African American, I do so from a very personal place. I know from my own family that this is a specific and sometimes complicated place to occupy in American racialized culture.  It is a place that comes with its own unique challenges and triumphs, many of which most Americans who identify as exclusively white are entirely oblivious to.

Office of Senator Kamala Harris

I also recognize that this social location (multi-racial…comprising many social locations) is particularly important as the United States grapples with its history of race.  I am the son of a light skinned, green eyed Jamaican immigrant who has “good hair” and I have cousins, a nephew and other family who are multi-racial.  And I am someone who is the great grandson of a first generation enslaved African. My mother met countless professional and personal barriers in life because she was very dark skinned; an experience I share with her having grown into a relatively dark skin tone as well. I wonder when and how we will really talk about the lethal secret power within racism: colorism.  When will we be mature enough to talk about and deal with colorism which is not just about black and white as a binary but about dark and light as a spectrum of acceptance, access and privilege.  The poison of colorism that floats in the water of racism is particularly toxic to people of color. In addition, it is colorism expressed among people of color that becomes even more damaging to women who are judged globally according to their proximity to the center of a persistently white color wheel.

I am thrilled that Kamala Harris is in the center of our national consciousness right now. She is uniquely prepared and positioned as Obama was not, to be engaged in the dialogue on race. She is a woman; she is explicit about her racial and cultural identities; her public brand has been more associated with her identities and she is fluent in communicating them. Just recognizing who her parents were and when she was born (in Oakland, CA), I know that she has thought deeply about colorism and that she has had conversations about this issue.  These are conversations that are often reserved for the confines of sorority circles or between mothers and daughters and sisters.  Too light for some, too dark for others; black on the outside, white on the inside.  Just like the conversation black parents have with their children about how to behave with police, this is another conversation that many families of color have that shapes our superhuman sensitivity to the nuances of racism in everyday life. Sen. Harris is the right woman at the right time.

The Black Lives Matter conversation is just beginning.  We all need to prepare ourselves for where it is headed, but particularly people of color need to brace ourselves for dealing with colorism.  It is the internal struggle with race that we have yet to face. Eventually though, we will need to address this problem that is all too obvious when you look at the complexion of the black people who are killed by police. It is not just a question of black lives matter but which black lives matter…light or dark?

This just got real…thank you Kamala.


A Prayer for John Lewis

Black Lives Matter.

I know there are people who will not read on after seeing these words.  Black Lives Matter is a statement that has become political and polarizing even though it is not intended to be either.  As far as I can tell, it is only political if you’ve never had to phrase these words as a question while looking in a mirror and is only polarizing if the concept of black life mattering is foreign to you. Black Lives Matter is a challenging concept if in fact black life has not mattered in your own life regardless of the color of your skin.

As more and more white people take up the mantle of Black Lives Matter, I will caution that these are words that must not fall into slogan.  It cannot become “Black Lives Matter ™ Brand” justice.  Over the last few years and recently again, I have seen groups of well meaning white folks with signs on street corners emblazoned with these words “Black Lives Matter”…and people as they pass by in their cars, honking their horns in affirmation.  That’s nice.  I guess it makes them feel good.  But this feels a little bit too much like advertising for a political candidate or worse a local car wash.

Black Lives Matter is not a slogan or a catch phrase or a candidate or a church fundraiser.  It is a statement of fact that has been historically and legally denied.  It is a declaration of defiance against a system that legislates inequity.  Most importantly, Black Lives Matter is a non-sectarian prayer for full humanity and it deserves reverence and a proper place in our consciousness.

Representative John Lewis understood this.  His last public act was meeting Mayor Muriel Bowser at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C.  There, he was pictured by D.C. photographer and creative director Gary Williams, Jr. in a space of deep contemplation, a lone figure, one of the last survivors of the last great era of racial reckoning.  The iconic pictures of that moment capture him ready to pass the flame, something we couldn’t have known yet, though likely, he did.  He is reverent because he knows that the words at his feet contain the promise, the desire and the expectation for racial equality in the United States…something he lived his whole life working for.

And, most personally for him, those words carry blood.  They carry his blood shed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and other places.  They carry the blood of generations of children born of enslaved rape and the mothers who survived that nightmare.  They carry the blood of men who went to war in segregated armies to defend a nation that would never defend their humanity.  They carry the blood of the future activists, politicians, teachers and health workers that will live a promise and a dream that none of us can imagine today.

We must not ever forget that the story of blackness in the United States is one of embodiment.  It is the black body that is incarcerated, sexualized, mis-gendered, beaten, starved, excluded from medical care, impeded, uneducated and unemployed.  But it is a towering figure like John Lewis who taught us about the power, resilience and magic of our black bodies with his own black body and proved that the black body no matter how badly beaten, was born to survive.  Blackness is black bodied-ness.  And so, no matter how political or polarizing one wants to paint the words “Black Lives Matter” they will always come back to the basic fact that they are words which are inherently connected to flesh, tears, breath and blood.

Black Lives Matter is a living prayer for black bodies.

I know that as he stood there on that plaza seeing those bright yellow words, John Lewis held them in his heart and prayed. He prayed for peace.  He prayed for justice.  He prayed for the safety of those to whom he would hand the torch.  And I know he prayed for all of the black bodies before and after him that are born into those words.





From Gary Williams’ Twitter feed: