The Talk

What you’ll learn here is important.
Sit quietly, now, and let me explain.
I will show you how this works.

First, be perfect. No errors in diction,
in posture, attire, stride, or movement.
What you’ll learn here is important.

Second, be patient. Watch your grandfather,
mother, brother, daughter, push the rock uphill.
I will show you how this works.

The rock will slip at the top of the hill,
but see! This time it falls not quite so far.
What you’ll learn here is important.

The secret is blood and bone, piled so high,
the rock can slide no further. Progress!
I will show you how this works.

Your ankles’ skin will serve for bootstraps,
and one day, your flesh will shorten the day’s work.
What you’ll learn here is important.
I will show you how this works.

-C. G. Brown
9 April 2018

Y.N.D.

“Your nigger dead.”
Checkmate. A King just got shot.
“Your nigger dead.”
I had to shoot. He was smoked out on that pot.
“Your nigger dead.”
He had a gun, crowbar, toy, a cell phone.
“Your nigger dead.”
He shouldn’t have carried that in front of his home.
“Your nigger dead.”
He was twelve, but he looked like a grown man.
“Your nigger dead.”
He left me no choice. It wasn’t my plan.
“Your nigger dead.”
She shouldn’t have mouthed off at that cop.
“Your nigger dead.”
If you weren’t a criminal, the violence would stop.
“Your nigger dead.”
He shouldn’t have tried to run away.
“Your nigger dead.”
He was a threat, even still as he lay.
“Your nigger dead.”
Selling loosies is a crime.
“Your nigger dead.”
It’s better that we skipped the judge this time.
“Your nigger dead.”
Stop saying you didn’t do nothing, you lie.
“Your nigger dead.”
You come for me, it’s gonna be “Die, Nigger! Die!”
“Your nigger dead.”
You can’t treat Samaritans with respect.
“Your nigger dead.”
She’s a slut. We stone. What else did you expect?
“Your nigger dead.”
Talking about some, “I am”! Who are you?
“Your nigger dead.”
He should spend some time with real Jews.
“Your nigger dead.”
Enemies of the state get crucified.
“Your nigger dead.”
“Your nigger dead.”
“Your nigger dead.”

Naw, death’s gon’ die. We still alive.

-C. G. Brown
4-5 April 2018

Fifty

Fifty years.
Fifty years since one of the greatest theologians and social activists of the 20th Century was shot down.
 
Who is Rev. Dr. King to you?
 
To too many Americans, he is a messiah of cheap grace, who finished the work of racial reconciliation in his blood, because it was too hard for us. In this false good news story, we are now clean, blameless, and above reproach. For this group of us, challenging systems and behaviors that persist is insulting, unreasonable, and unfair.
 
To many more of us, he’s a Great Figure of History, like Frederick Douglass, George Washington, and so on. For this group of us work is important, formative, but vague and disconnected from our daily lives.
 
As I meditate on his life and death today, I think about how far we can progress in fifty years. When I went to my college Reunions parade for the first time in the 90s, the fiftieth anniversary alumni had their first black members. My class wasn’t at the proportion of the country as a whole, but there were hundreds of us. When my father registered people in the Alabama countryside to vote fifty years ago, the experience seemed more like one of the countries we cluck at today, with citizens afraid to vote because what might follow was state-sanctioned murder by the white members of the community. Today, it’s a short and easy trip to Memorial Drive to vote early, or across to a nearby church to vote on the day. I’m far more worried about being late for work or late for dinner as a result of voting than I am about making it back home.
 
Despite this, we still have problems. Racial animus wasn’t erased, it was buried. Individuals who actually got to experience life with people from other racial groups were better for it, as we found none of us neatly fit into the stereotypes and tropes created to keep things as they were, or created to protect the vulnerable. (As an aside, something you must understand is that while white stereotypes can be hurtful and unfair, they were created to protect vulnerable people of color in a system designed to keep them oppressed and to eliminate those who got out of line, while stereotypes about people of color were designed to dehumanize and justify the continuance of same system. So while we should let go of all stereotyping, the hand-wringing and false equivalence should be released as well.) But as black people moved in, white people moved out. Old laws that were explicitly, undeniably racist, were not removed from the books, but simply (usually) not enforced.

Grandparents and parents who grew up in a system designed to protect their benefits and raise their preferences at the expense of everyone else taught their children how unfair it was that these people now were getting such large slices of the pie. Looking at the slivers being cut for others, they’d say, “Why, there’s hardly any left for us! We used to have the whole pie, and now these people who didn’t even help bake it get to eat it up. What about us? We’ll starve!” All the while, their eyes remained averted from the kitchen where the pie was made.

We plow on as resolute and relentless individuals, completely unaffected by the portions of the past we find distasteful, and clinging to those portions of the past we think are critical. We have had no lament about where we have been, no place to process any sense of collective shame or guilt. We have had no reconciliation. Given this, is it any surprise that we have elected leaders at multiple levels of government who are individualistic, who have no sense of shame or guilt, who have no ability to weep with those who weep?We could speculate about what King would do or say if he were still here to guide, to be a conscience, but there are only a few people who have studied him enough to be qualified to do that. What I’m more interested in is what I’m going to do and what you’re going to do.

If you are white, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I in multiple actual relationships with non-white people where we talk about real issues and feelings?
  • Am I under the leadership of non-white people in any aspect of my life? Professionally? Spiritually?
  • When I disagree with non-white people about where we are on race in this country, do I look for other non-white people to validate my beliefs?
  • Have I ever borne an emotional burden about something they’ve experienced regarding race with a non-white brother or sister?
  • Have I ever felt shame or guilt, untempered by resentment or resistance, around the way things are in this country, even if they’re not my fault?

If you are not white, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I in multiple actual relationships with non-white people of different ethnicities than myself where we talk about real issues and feelings?
  • Am I under the leadership of someone non-white of a different ethnicity in any aspect of my life? Professionally? Spiritually?
  • Do I center the pain of my ethnic group and compare it quantitatively against the pain other ethnic groups have experienced, or do I lament with other stories of injustice?
  • To what extent am I complicit in holding up systems of power that unfairly preference those that have historically held power?

The reason why none of these questions are reciprocal toward white people is because since white is the historically dominant group, all of these preference raising questions come naturally. It’s not anything magical about the notion of whiteness; it’s just how cultural dominance works. You will be in relationship with the dominant group in some form. You will be under leadership from someone in the dominant group. You will understand their preferences and cater to them if you want to thrive. So for those of us new to this conversation, please understand this isn’t a finger-wag at something you were born with. This is about being intentional about dismantling imbalances in systems of power.

When I hear King the philosopher and social activist speak, I hear him asking us to seek the Beloved Community. When I hear King the pastor speak, I hear him asking us to lay down our preferences at the Cross and seek the well-being of our brothers and sisters at both an individual and systemic level.

Looking at 2068, what kind of country do we want for our grandchildren? Do we want a country that’s still in a cold Civil War that’s now 200 years old? Do we want a country that sits in resentment, fear, and individualistic separation? Or do we want to make the braver, harder, choice, and plow forward in love, letting lament and a sense of righteous shame break our stone hearts and remake them as flesh, then letting our collective love and intimate knowledge of each other heal and reconcile?

It sounds like a pipe dream when you put it like that. But just sixty years ago, I’m sure someone sat at their dinner table and thought “I appreciate what King is saying, but he’s crazy. Things will never change.”

As-Is

This house is falling apart.
The paint crinkles, bends backward,
ripples like skin on cold soup.
Beneath, drywall experiences ennui,
waits for a purpose beyond demarcation.
The ceiling and the walls recede.
The floor bends, tilts to one side or the other.

The load-bearing wall talked to me this morning.
She’d had enough of the weight.
She told me how, overwhelmed by the pain,
she whimpered at night. The floors creaked
in sympathy, but then were silent.
The front wall said, “me too,” but offered no buttress.

This house is falling apart.
One day, the occupants who so blithely reside
will find themselves awakened to a crash,
as a wall awkwardly ambles down a suburban side street
and facades, shocked by their loss of bearings,
try not to crush them on the way down.

-C. G. Brown
2 April 2018

“God Is In Control.”

Advance Note: You’ll see me use the word “conservative” a lot in this. While there is overlap with the political meaning, I intend it less as opposed to politically liberal and more specifically referring to the traditionalist and fundamentalist perspective of the conservative Christian church in America. I’m doing my best to look at a conservative witness against itself and against the Gospel rather than against a liberal witness or liberal view on the Gospel. 

I recently had an exchange with a friend about the current state of politics in America. Like many, even though she’s not a Trump fan, she downplayed my concern about Trump’s authoritarian leanings, citing that he was just one man. I said “sure, but the Republican Congress is moving in lockstep with him from a policy perspective.” She said, “not always.” I responded, “Name one major policy area where they haven’t. ACA? Consumer Protection? Deregulation? Immigration? Foreign Relations?” We could not identify an area off-hand, and I’m also not aware of any Republican-led initiatives that prompted Trump to use his veto power.

She responded to my restatement of concern about where America could end up with a favorite phrase of comfort among evangelically-minded people: “God is in control. God is sovereign.” I was reminded in that moment of an exchange I’d had in 2016 on social media with a friend who was pretty much diametrically opposed to me politically, where she responded to my fears of a then merely-possible Trump presidency with the same statement.

Another friend with whom I was conversing pointed out that that comforting phrase about God’s sovereignty is seldom used to assuage fears of cultural change, or immigrants, or crime. It only seems to appear when people are expressing concerns about conservatism going too far. Regardless of intent, the phrase can seem to the listener to be saying, “God is in control because I am comfortable, and it doesn’t matter if you are not.”

Like Paul, I can claim the title “chief among sinners” in seeking my own comfort and convenience, though I actively work against it. However, the Church is supposed to be a place where we support each other through the incredibly rewarding but often quite uncomfortable and countercultural life of Christianity. What is this desire that has taken hold in the American Church for comfort above witness? Comfort above compassion?

“God is in control.” is a phrase that reminds me not to worry or obsess about temporal matters, however massive they may seem at the time. It breaks me out of my navel-gazing social media loops and friend circles to recognize that both problems and solutions are bigger than I am. It reminds me to recognize that the arc and scope of God’s goodness is not limited to my narrow view, but expands and unfolds at the periphery and beyond.

Much of the American evangelical church uses this powerful phrase now as a blindfold, a gag, and binding rope. It blinds the speaker to human needs directly in front of them. It silences those that complain about social injustice by telling them that there is a problem with their faith if they don’t see how God’s point of view is aligned with the speaker’s, even if it is hurting the listener. And it ties the hands of both, telling them to be passive and let God’s wonderful plan finish playing out without meddling.

If God’s sovereignty means that I should not take any action to protest against conservative policies that seem to be literally killing people either through hostility or inaction, then why does God’s sovereignty not equally apply when I see abortions being allowed, or cultural changes that I don’t agree with spreading, or when immigrants come across our border to seek a better life? Why is it that when it is a conservative point of view that needs assurance and patience, we need to take action in protest or policy change? But when the concern is that the conservative perspective has become Pharasaic, or that it has become a hypocritical, compromised witness, then God’s sovereignty becomes a call to be still, silent, and show a passive grace.

God is in control. Yes. God is sovereign. Absolutely. But if you’re saying it to reinforce your comfort, your culture, your understanding to someone else who is challenging those things, then it’s time to re-examine your heart. Would you still say God is in control if it were you who was uncomfortable? If it were you who were being persecuted or treated unjustly? And if not, who is?

Carnival

Something in the smoothness
of machined plastic and polished steel,
something in the perfect warmth
of lights designed when electricity was not tamed,
carried in pockets, on wrists,
when things electric still warranted wonder,
still burned the curious touch like Franklin’s key,
takes me up and away, to filtered film reels
in the mind, to see through their eyes, untainted joy.

Our devices secured, we spin around
in seats engineered to hold us
like a father holds a child, sifting kernels of dread
for fine joy through a sieve of imagined danger.

And even with alert eyes, and encompassing arms,
and higher heights, and bigger drops,
somewhere inside, I am stretched wide with trust,
hurtling impossibly high, six feet above ground,
glowing golden in the encroaching darkness,
with newly-minted wonder.

-C. G. Brown

I’m Sorry.

“Yeah, that was during that period when you hated women.”

One of my closest female friends, who I’ve known since college, responded to some conversation that we had had, about I don’t remember what. We must have been talking about something absurd I had said a long time ago or that I was trying to reconcile with how differently I see things now. I was taken aback, but not offended. I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but she was right.  I was even more ashamed in that moment that whatever phase I was going through, I was comfortable enough with it to not even bother to clean it up for or hide it from her.

Last week, actually before the #MeToo hashtag, I had been dealing with a lot of guilt and shame surfacing. I don’t know whether it was the climate we are currently operating in or just some sense of the wave that was cresting. But I was thinking back to a time when I acted very much like the men that we talk about today, that we look down upon, but that we do very little about.

This isn’t an attempt to receive pats on the back for my seeing myself more clearly. This is something I’d frankly rather not write. People think I have it together, generally. They see the way I treat my wife, the way that I generally treat women, and the way that I at least talk about gender and gender privilege. I don’t want to risk being viewed as just another toxic male, or a fraud pretending to give a damn to make himself look better. I even toyed with giving this post the pithy title “I Was A Teenaged Toxic Male”, but after the tenth or so Me Too story, it seemed inappropriate to be too clever or lighthearted.

When we experience regret, it’s usually the thing that we can’t do anything about that looms largest. I had a story prepared, but it wasn’t a story to be proud of overcoming. It was a story about how, long ago, I was a perpetrator. It wasn’t sexual assault or abuse, please know that, even though it doesn’t make it any better. It was just unwanted advances, repeated, repeated, rebuffed on multiple occasions. It was just my entitlement and disregard for her full humanity, accelerated by a few drinks. It was me being a person that turned a fun nighttime place into a hostile environment for one woman I kept running into there.

I’m not even sure why I did it, or what I was thinking. Maybe I wanted to date her but she was too far afield from who I thought I should be with. I don’t know what it was I saw in her that made me feel that I could act like a person I didn’t typically act like, a person I would hate, and on a very good day, intervene to stop, if I saw them from the outside. I don’t know.

She carries what for her was probably yet another minor incident on a heap of incidents that she as an average woman deals with just for being a woman. And I carry this lie inside me: this lie that I’m better than these men who brazenly abuse their influence and power, or the men on the street that are looking for their next encounter.

I always strove to be a nice guy. When the guys in elementary school were touching girls’ butts against their will as a game, I abstained. When the teenagers around me were looking for their first time, I was looking for romance, or at least a TV and film caricature thereof. I did what I was “supposed” to do. I acted like I thought I was supposed to act. And when I didn’t get the girl like the shows told me I would, I was mad.

They’re lying, I thought. They say they want a nice guy, but they want a bully, a thug, a macho man with no substance. In me, too many of them saw a sweet little brother. The inability to be seen in my fullness rankled. Ironic, considering how few women get to be seen in their fullness. Doubly ironic, in that I inevitably picked the women least likely to actually be interested in me in the way I wanted, the same crime of which I accused the objects of my desire.

Of course, as my mother says, there’s a sock for every shoe, and some women did see me. Of course, I couldn’t see them. I was supposed to choose, hell, I was supposed to have my pick. The very fact that they saw me must have meant something was lacking, right? Because my niceness was all about seeking my worth in someone else, and then having bitterness about the fact they didn’t have what wasn’t theirs to carry in the first place.

That’s really the heart of it, for men. The world tells us that we are superior, that we are the standard, and women are objects in our peripheral vision, only to be locked into our sights for conquest and consumption. We’re raised on that sour, false nourishment, and if we’re lucky enough to not have it poured at home, then it’s still poured at school among friends, or from the taps of our music and entertainment. It’s drilled into us, a mantra. How many times did I sing along with NWA in high school? With Dr. Dre’s Bitches Ain’t Shit in college and after? How could that not alter my perception? And it’s not just one form of “entertainment”, by the way. If it wasn’t hip-hop for you, maybe it was rock and roll, or the endless cavalcade of sexualized bodies across a screen selling household products and consumer goods, or video game characters that somehow manage to twist their backs like the neck of an owl to be sure you can view all of their body parts at once.

What’s worse, when the lie is exposed, when women prove to be autonomous beings with their own hopes and desires and free will rather than servants to men’s will or flawless projections of our hopes, it makes us mad. How dare they not want us? How dare they not live up to our fantasy? I bought you a meal. I said you were pretty. I deigned to touch you. Some of us turn it inward, to bitterness or depression. Others turn it outward, to verbal, or emotional, or physical assault. We hide our emotional disfigurement like a switchblade, unsheathing it when we feel threatened, and hoping to hurt someone worse than we are hurting.

It was only in realizing my agency over my own life, as well as everyone’s autonomy over theirs, that I began to heal some of the toxicity that filled my spiritual and emotional bloodstream. The work I’ve been doing in the racial reconciliation space took on a new level of empathy when I began to understand how my privilege as a man was similar to privilege of those born white in America. And as I encouraged white people to lament and repent, my own heart began to answer the same call.

I don’t want praise for working on being a decent person. I am even concerned about centering my story when we should be doing more listening and lamenting than talking. But this is a piece of my repentance.

I’m deeply sorry for the harm that I’ve caused women that I’ve known or been acquainted with, for the carelessness with which I treated them. I grieve with girls and women who live in a hostile and terrifying world that appears like a nightmare unfolding out of a happy dream as soon as the first signs of development hit them. I feel confused and don’t know how to be most helpful, but I’m just trying to not be a bystander anymore when I see the old evils unfold.

I do not ask for forgiveness, and I’m not owed it. I pray instead that the wounds I’ve caused are long healed and forgotten, and that those women do not think of me at all.