Living in a Different Way

A lot of black men die early. And many die from preventable diseases and the sticky consequences of them.

When I read of John Singleton’s death, this came back in an undeniable brightness. I grew up loving his work. I didn’t know how young he was until obituaries began.

Then, I visited the catalog in my mind. The men I’ve loved as an adult who have died, namely my father Mardell Culley and my then father-in-law John McKinney. There’s the list of men I’ve served as a leader, a list of those living who, like Singleton, struggle quietly.

Among the responses to Mr. Singleton’s death, researchers have turned again to the problem of black folk dying, particularly black men. Dr. Clyde Yancy, a cardiologist at NM whose work around social determinants of health I respect, grow from, and learn from is a consistent care provider around these issues.

Dr. Yancy says bluntly, “I want this message to be explicitly clear: Check your blood pressure. That’s a hard stop. That’s the takeaway; and especially if you’re an African American man, check it today.”

That is within reach. Drop-in clinics, CVS, Target, your doctor, your cousin’s doctor, your family friend who is a nurse, your ex’s distant friend from third grade. Check your blood pressure.

Speaking about the rates of disease in the black community and after stating the men he has lost, Dr. Yancy sums it up, “It’s just unacceptable. We can live life a different way.”

It’s true. We can. And we can struggle while making noise for the health of our beautiful selves and the health of those we love.

Read the full, brief piece here.

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.

Ashes to Ashes

I’m reblogging this from 2016 to mark this meaningful moment in the liturgical year. It’s written post the event and I’m repurposing it to look ahead to this Wednesday.

On Wednesday, all day long, me and a group of chaplains were going about the hospital saying a version of the same thing. “You were created from ashes and one day you will return to ashes. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. Repent and believe the good news that God loves you and longs for you to be whole.”

I’d ask for the person’s name, look her or him in the eye, and pronounce these words so that each word was clear, pronounced. And for each of us, me and the individual, we heard the echo of our limitation in life. We heard that we could respond to the good news and that we were going to die.

I have acknowledged two Ash Wednesdays in a hospital, and it’s a deeply sobering experience. Level 1 Trauma Center. Downtown Chicago. All kinds of people. Many different reasons for their hospitalizations when they’re patients. Just as many different stories when they’re on the staff. And my role—with other spiritual caregivers—is to remind them of their wonderful and simple createdness while also reminding them of their eventual end.

I have thought, on more than one occasion, about dying. Not all the details of my death. But the broad vague fact of it. You can’t flee from it when you see death a lot. When you’re alongside a doctor who checks for a pulse and who tells a wife that her husband of five decades is taking his final breaths. Or when you walk with people on the cusp of it. Or when you listen to last breaths being taken and released. Or when you hold all those tears of loved ones whose burdens are unutterable.

The contemplation of death is a prerequisite for the minister. The articulation of some hope in the midst of it is as well. Part of our articulation is in the hope hinted at during Ash Wednesday. We hold both life and death in our mouths. And we pronounce that both are true, that both are to be accepted as (now or eventual) gifts.

It’s not a conversation starter, this ashes to ashes business. It’s not something you want to open the day with. And yet it happens to hundreds of people. It’s the one day I’ll see people as Christians. Non-Christians don’t get “ashed”. Catholics almost certainly do, and many Protestants will as well. Dark crosses become an acceptable part of the otherwise identical uniform. Some wear that chalky cross and some don’t. I tell myself that these are the people who are more closely aware of their ends. They know their limits. They realize that death is coming.

And the coming of death for the Christian, ashed or not, is a confusing experience. We don’t welcome it because we love life. Yet we don’t see it as something worth running from when it comes since “to die is gain.” And of course as I’ll say in upcoming posts, the experience of grieving after loss is another long matter.

Approaching the Eternal

I’m writing this a few weeks after your diagnosis. It wasn’t an intimate event at all, so public and so known. It started me to thinking about you, about the role of public service and how you might heal as a public servant. I’m considering you and the things you might be dealing with. I waited to send this to you, wondering whether it was worthy. And then I saw a story last night that pushed me to send.

I’ve thought about you in the moments after your exam, after your vote on the healthcare bill, and after your remark, now, about this considerable enemy. I can’t imagine what you’re experiencing or how you’ll change, how you’ll heal. Perhaps the parade of it all can be a picture of your healing. Of course, healing may not include a cure in your case. You knew once the team explained that this might be the thing that ushered you into the rest of life, the new life, the eternal side of life. You’ll die and this may, as far as we can tell, be how you die. And then there’s the other how in how you die, the nature of your dying rather than the medical cause.

I wonder how you will respond to that slow movement toward newness. It seems that death is a bad thing to most of us. As you see it, I hope you tell us about it as much as you can. I’ve seen spiritual leaders do this, taking the notes of their sufferings and writing them into the records of their followers. I wonder if you will do something like that. Political leaders are also, simply, leaders. There’s no reason why you can’t embrace how you might offer spiritual insights as a politician. You are more than one thing.

I encourage you to tutor us in the eternal’s approach. Before you go, whenever you go, leave us with as much as you can. You’ve served honorably in so many areas of your life that it would be consistent if you did. Of course, it’s completely understandable if you decide that this final approach is a more private one. Maybe all I’m reflecting on is the paradox of living as a servant in a public way all the way til the end. Maybe you’ve already shown us how to live and how to die.

Either way, thank you, Senator McCain.

Giving & Receiving Hugs

I approached her the way I would anyone in her situation. Softly. Gently. Quietly. My head was bowed. It was a form of what I’ve explained to my wife is my chaplain walk.

The woman was crying. It’s not all she was doing but crying sums it up. More broadly she was at the side of her dead father. I had already been with him. Now, I got to meet his daughter and stand with her to witness life once father is gone.

I came to her side. I asked her if I could touch her shoulder. I did so, recognizing the tender permission you give to a stranger you realize is only there for you. You may never see him again. You may never have to explain yourself. You may never have to re-live that moment. So you say yes with a shrug that can be interpreted as a grief heave, even though it’s the answer to his question.

My hand was on her and at some point, she turned to me. She asked me if I could hug her. My arms were already open. That opening was not planned, though it was intentional somewhere in my soul. My posture knew what it meant to be there, knew those tears. I knew something about that woman’s grief. And we both gave and received each other’s hugs.