Sit With It

When I was in a committee meeting a little more than a year ago in Atlanta, a colleague challenged me to sit with my feelings. The meeting was an hour and a half appointment, and we were twelve minutes in. That wasn’t a great sign, his kind challenge.

It was a terrible meeting in select ways which would take months of posts to unfurl. The committee’s evaluation of me would either keep me in what ACPE calls supervisory education or the result would change my status so that I could offer clinical pastoral supervision as an independent educator. I’d be done with the learning process officially.

I was less concerned about the result for that reason actually. My job was supportive, my manager understanding. Of course, I had conceptualized a dozen directions after having thought through a list of if/then possibilities. That’s the kind of planner I am.

There was something beyond the result about that meeting. Opening to me was, in my work and in the rest of my life, something significant. I knew in my soul that what they said mattered. I had grown to trust the people I met in my process to that point.

I knew that their critique of me, their feedback for me, and their way of being with me were all represented by every previous encounter I had with supervisors and mentors through my process.

I knew that the kind challenge to sit with their feedback and to what it was doing to me was an invitation to some kind of good. I was angry about things in that meeting. I was uplifted by things in that meeting. I was exhilarated when I passed. Surprised too at first.

I celebrated and having finished the process completely one year later, the next November in the same city, Atlanta is still a second home in good ways.

So his challenge was an opening. I didn’t know then that sitting with things and then responding would be a new way for me to step forward as a pastoral educator and person. I have practiced parts of that my nature of my personality, and the committee’s work enriched that part of me. It’s really re-making me and how re-making how I’m trying to be.

Already Better

“When I got to your stage of having a whole night’s sleep several times,” Sasha told me, “I did just one thing. I paid absolutely no attention to ‘it’ whatsoever. I pretended it wasn’t there. I decided I’m not going to give up another second of my life to this ridiculous problem. You are still paying too much attention to it just by having this conversation with me. You’re already better.”

Sasha talking to Kate about years of paying attention to not having enough sleep. The quote says so much about sleeping, dreaming, and living after sleeping and dreaming. Read the rest here at the Guardian.

Reading Humane Insight

Humane Insight explores the ways we see people, the ways we look and notice the experiences of people through the history of experiences of suffering and death.

“Humane” is a word that intends to point toward a particular “kind of looking,” one that “seeks knowledge about the humanity of that person” (5). Baker’s book about seeing pain focuses on the ways Blacks have been represented visually and how those visual portrayals express, challenge, or ignore the intense suffering within black life.

In investigating (or re-searching) how black suffering has been identified, she illuminates possibilities for maintaining the humanity and protection of the black body. The particular kind of looking that she invites readers to is a looking through the experience of African Americans in order to preserve humanity and dignity. Dignity threads the pain-filled pages. It lifts the project to purposes beyond seeing, allowing us to look and to, in my view, hope.

There are a number of conversation partners in Baker’s work. She listens especially to liberationists from the past with Ida B. Wells and Mamie Till as two notable survivalists. Baker points to how these folks have contributed to “the image of the African American body in pain and death” (6), making visible black experience in order to call for change despite what is the extremely private event of a person’s body. Noticing black particularity is a means of understanding how to notice broadly. Baker calls this noticing empathic and political, active and ideological. Her book takes what is seen and interprets the visual into discourse. In using language for this translational purpose, Baker “reveals how black pain has been made to make sense” (7).

Baker takes the reader through discourse (i.e., language) in order to construct a critical understanding of humanity. She brings into dialogue theorists who are steeped in empiricist and scientific ways of seeing, such as Darwin and Schmitt, in order to put forward good questions about the acknowledgement of vulnerability as universal and how racial identity impacts perception. The construction of photography and enduring images from history are her tools to interrogate race, culture, and the various ways black pain and suffering are re-presented.

She traces the re-presentation by lifting up expressions of culture as a component of how humanity is expressed, drawing attention to the abolitionist movement in order to situate the term image, turning to lynchings as a social controlling mechanism, exploring the political and emotional power of Mamie Till-Mobley’s insistent decision to show the world brother Emmett’s brutalized body, and activating imagination for the connected civil gestures of nonviolent direct action. The book ends with a recounting of the destruction around and in Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Baker doesn’t exactly hold her reader’s hand through the text. You know she cares but you don’t always feel it when you meet the deep wisdom in her scholarship. This seems good. Responsible critical discourse, even if it ends in one’s growth, is not first about the emotional. The sentimental is present in the book but there is a wideness to those available sentiments. There is disappointment and anguish in the pages. There is appreciation and gratitude for those who have fought, resisted, lived, died, and made babies who took pictures with their lives and passed on their stories so scholars and teachers and other black people could keep the life alive.

I couldn’t read Humane Insight without seeing more of how I see. I think Baker’s meditation on critical race watching has contributed to my “sensitive” sighting of race as an enduring, political, and ideological tool that can construct, dissemble, and reconstruct how we see beautiful black bodies. Baker’s work makes me think of the body and she helps me reconsider how the body is depicted in popular media and in decidedly theological discourse.

Related, black bodies that have been afflicted by pain–be it through sickness or violence–are particular, and the re-view of such bodies takes and develops care. I would be interested in seeing a similar analysis by Baker on black photographic resources and materials. She highlights the important role of black newspapers in portions of US history, but her primary work is to interrogate the ways mainstream images have constructed views, calcified understandings, and sustained images of and about Blacks, images which don’t represent true expressions of suffering and death in African American life.

How you see matters. How you see people matters. I’ve known this and Baker tells me a lot more about what I know. She deepens my knowledge in a relentless, thorough, painful, and captivating way. She shows and tells a truth about how black bodies have been shown and how black bodies have been told or spoken or languaged into existence and death. In creating such an engrossing, scholarly project, Baker has given a gift to the world, even if it’s a gift that’s hard to fully appreciate. Gifts remarking upon pain are no less valuable for the spread of responses we have to them.

Reading Lynched: The Power of Memory in a Culture of Terror

It’s as important to record reflections about my reading of Lynched as it is my own context for having read the book. I’ll start with my context because it sets the stage for my critical appreciation and my eventual scholarly appropriation of Dr. Sims’s work.

First, I’ve spent the last ten weeks reading and writing in the areas of Black and Womanist Theologies and African American Political Theology, and while those terms can be expansive in what they cover academically, it’s important to state those two courses as broad but immediate readying agents in my thinking about what happens in this book about Black people living in and in response to a culture of lynching. The book could easily be on the syllabi for either course. A Womanist scholar, Sims adds to the collective a historical reading of a time that’s not seen enough in the United States of American history.

Lynched is worth reading if for nothing other than its relevance to issues that many Black people are still facing around policing, community engagement, race, and political discourse. It’s relevant because as people we continue to be subjected to explicit legalized and legally authorized brutality in the form of newly designed lynching strategies, including police who still participate in the heartless, legally indefensible murder of Black bodies, while being shielded by and in some cases lauded by the governing bodies in place to protect citizens. I intend that as a theological comment even if it can be read from a particularly psychological, sociological, or ethical point of view. Lynching and living in response to it is a theological matter. As so is the support of persons who do the lynching of Black persons.

Second, aside from my current reading list, like every Black person in this country, I’ve spent the last several years participating to varying degrees in the anguish, contentment, alarm, prayerfulness, silence, and soul-bruising nature of this environment leading to our deaths. I say “our” in order to point to the corporate nature of how the long list of boys, girls, women, and men who have died as absolutely unwilling participants in the culture of lynching that pervades this country. I, like every other Black person, am recipient of the chronic, even if unseen, pain that comes from being Black and being alive, being Black and loving, being Black and wondering, being Black and hoping, being Black and quitting, being Black and fighting, being Black and parenting, being Black and serving, being Black and leading, being Black and going to the barbershop, being Black and grocery shopping for my family, being Black and driving through the suburbs, being Black and watching women clutch their purses at the sight of me, being Black and opening my empty hands when I see the police so that they see there’s nothing in them, being Black and holding my beautiful boys as much as I can while being Black.

Coming to this reading while Black was like coming to the notes of an aunt who wrote important things down, things that she said over and over while I was small but that she knew I’d listen to differently when the milk was no longer behind my ears. I’ve told you about the book already, though from a decidedly current and autobiographical sketch. That’s part of the power and beauty of a book like Lynched. It anchors you, if you’re Black, in a part of your story that you know intimately and may not be able to explicate.

That said, Dr. Sims pursued a project to conduct an oral history of experiences of lynching, inviting and meeting 50 persons from Virginia, South Carolina, New Jersey, Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, California, Pennsylvania, and Alabama. Participants in her project were at least 70 years old, and she was interested in learning why people did or didn’t discuss lynching; how a culture of lynching influenced their understanding of justice or faith; and what those participants wanted future generations to know.

As she sets out onto this psychologically taxing and uplifting quest, Sims makes early notes about the ways participants first responded. People were cool to respond to church announcements promoting her study. She wondered about this and said that silence served purposes for Black elders. For some, silence was an expression of fear. For others, silence served to preserve life. The fear was not always acknowledged; it was subconscious and underneath the quiet of Black people. Fear motivated the silence as did life preservation.

In terms of preservation, when lynching wasn’t discussed and silence kept, Dr. Sims approached people directly in churches for instance, knowing that they were old enough and that their church was involved with justice long enough, so that there would be some story to tell. Those folks wouldn’t approach her always, she said, and that was to engage in any number of “countercultural techniques” like mentoring students, teaching literacy to adults, providing scholarships, and promoting arts rather than to deal directly with the bruising subject of lynching. There are those “public and private responses to moral issues” that Sims puts forward from her interviews (8).

Her stake is about the immense value of language, and stories in particular as a form of language, and its use “to minimize the gravity of lynching and the countless lives forever disrupted as a result of this practice” (16). What a comment! There is gravity. There is the impact upon countless lives. There is the longstanding word forever that names the existential disruption. There is the sad reference of the fitting word practice that captures it all. My sense from Sims is that it is uncommon to talk about lynchings, how they were publicized, how lynchings were cultural events paraded as spectacles which were government-sanctioned in order to produce terror in Black people and in Black communities and to assuage white communities by virtue of those communities’ uses of this perverted, brutal mechanism even while those white (people in) communities were community leaders like police, pastors, and politicians. The book gives insight into how hard it is to discuss this culture and why Black folks do and don’t jump into the conversation. And why whites don’t either.

For Sims, “These oral histories can serve as entry points to provide the human community another frame of reference from which to examine diverse ways in which notions of civility frame narratives that offer insights about these individuals’ human capacity to make a conscious decision to go into their interior archives and determine for themselves, if, or how, they will give voice to a truth that reflects their lived reality” (33). These are contexualized analyses and constructed “alternative responses” by the people who experienced these remembered atrocities turned “cultural symbols and their embedded meanings” (66).

Throughout my reading I came to basic questions about inspecting images offered in media and education and mining the relationship between images and symbols which are those deep, abiding, hardly changeable understandings of Black people. The symbols emerge after the use and spread of images over centuries. It’s hard to see lynching as both legally wrong and morally unacceptable when centuries teach you that Black people are worthy of death, even public, gruesome government-supported death. These are character questions and cultural questions. They are critical issues that make you, whoever you are, turn and ask what you really believe about people.

This is a book about remembering rightly. It faces the direction of remembering parts of history that are not seen or not regarded and about courage that isn’t either. One main attribute that Sims lifts is “an ethic of resilient resistance” and her oral histories enact “an ability to name and respond to evil in a manner that challenges practices that are neither just nor fair” (124). In summarizing the histories as an ethic, she promotes a truer reading of what happened and what happens during lynchings. Sims offers an alternative to naming silence or speech as resilient acts of resistance against the culture of lynching.

She also includes material about how Black folk are a people just as engaged in an “ethic of forgiveness,” an ethic that can’t be held without the aforementioned resistance. After all, how can Black folk forgive without also resisting the brutal murders bringing up the need for such forgiveness? Who would suggest the need to forgive without a prior acknowledgment of the God-made flesh and humanity of the murdered? It’s important that both are in the book and that forgiveness is after the former. Also, Sims makes all the interviews public. Look into her notes to find the wide trail to them.

In terms of my critique, I don’t think Sims goes far enough with her employment of the liturgical review of baptism. It’s clear that she’s leaning toward the historical and that she wants to respect her interviewees while not forcing a theological reading upon their work. I think she wants their words to shine rather than her interpretation of them. Still, I think she could have added a chapter to work out her own theological renderings of the interviews. She hints at this, of course, saying “the act of remembering is symbolized as a ritual of baptism—not a literal baptism by water, but a symbolic immersion that plunged and invited me to journey with participants into repressed, suppressed, reconfigured, and ritualized memories as they remembered lynching and a culture of lynching…” (5). Sims’s work is a social-cultural-religious approach to these primary narratives as sources of discovery and meaning. These narratives are gifts that Sims gives us, grants us access to, and it’s important that others come along to work with these narratives as they’re presented. I don’t fault Sims for her not dealing for pointedly with theological matters. I respect what she’s set out to do. She’s left more to be done, rather for her next works or for those of us picking up this book and living with it in our memories.

If you read this book and find it interesting to your soul; if you read it and you want to step into similar reads, I’d commend James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, M. Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom, Kelly Brown Douglas’s Stand Your Ground and Terrance Johnson’s Tragic Soul-Life. These are not fun reads. Like Lynched, they are important, sobering theological works that help ground us further in the basic reality of Blackness that is faced with both uncertainty and deep certainty.

Those books, like Lynched, will remind you of what Howard Thurman called the “place for the singing of angels.” He was writing into our memories the way Thurman does about the truths recognized over and over. In Deep is the Hunger, Thurman described what is underneath these kinds of works. “Despite all the crassness of life, despite all the hardness of life, despite all the harsh discords of life, life is saved by the singing of angels” (p. 92). That’s the kind of spirit underneath the oral histories of Sims’s project. Her interviews possess the spoken words, the hard-won melodies, and the unshakeable echoes of Black people who in the face of their own harsh discords decided to speak and to sing. May the Listener of our prayers encourage us to keep speaking, to keep singing, and to keep listening to our beautiful selves. And may in that collective chorus, we move toward transformation.