Politics of Being Woke

by Sander Smeeks

Read Professor Lawrence Ware’s post here at the Root.

For me, being woke means awakening to the pervasive, intersectional insidiousness of white supremacy. This awakening is not limited to people of color. Black folks are not the only ones who needed a wake-up call.

Souls that inhabit white bodies can be allies and accomplices in the fight against oppression, in the same way that black folks can be agents and accomplices in promoting, promulgating and protecting white supremacy. As my grandmother once said, conjuring Zora Neale Hurston, “All your skin folk ain’t your kinfolk.” Meaning that you can inhabit a black body and be an agent of white supremacy. Just ask Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, or any of the thousands of black Americans who are more concerned with white feelings than with black lives and bodies. Black folks don’t have the market cornered on being “woke,” and there is no agreement about how best to actualize the potentiality of the black community.

White supremacy frames black intellectualism as monolithic. Put another way, to expect black folks to think the same is an assumption filtered through a white conceptual lens. To quote Kanye West’s “New Slaves,” white supremacy says, “All you blacks want all the same things.” But this is not true. Black people may all awaken to the reality of institutional, covert and overt racism and still disagree about what is the best response to those ills.

Panama Jackson’s Letter to a Friend

Photo Thanks to Blake Verdoorn

Photo Thanks to Blake Verdoorn

Dear Homie,

If my math is correct, you’re set to become a father next month. Congratulations. There are few times in the life of a person more exciting (and nerve-racking) than the birth of your first child! As your friend and brother, I couldn’t be happier for you and the wife on this life-changing event. (it’s good to know how to use insurance terms, since in your case, the baby will be born during most open seasons—good timing!). I look forward to watching your daughter grow into the young woman she’ll become with the wisdom and guidance of her great parents.

And since I’ve been around that mountain a few times, I figured the least I could do was tell you a bit of what life is going to be like in the near term.

Basically, you’re going to miss a lot of it because of sleep deprivation. I mean, you’ll be there, but you won’t be there sometimes. Once, when #YoungPanamontana was an infant, I literally had a dream that I rolled over on her on the couch and woke up terrified that I’d killed my child, only to realize that she was upstairs asleep with her mother. Do you understand what I’m saying? I was so tired that I dreamed I was asleep, except I committed murder in my sleep WITH MY SLEEP. Which gets to where I’m going with this.

There are probably countless people who have told you to get all of your sleep now. And though you can’t, it’s one of those things that scientists should be working on: a sleep bank. Right now you can go to sleep at, say, midnight, and wake up at 8 a.m. after a night of uninterrupted sleep—assuming the wife allows you to sleep all night, since I’m sure she’s super uncomfortable right now.

But let’s say she does. Yeah, that’s going out the window the DAY young Homie-ette is born. See, babies, they have to eat every two hours for the first few days (weeks) of their lives. You don’t have to do the math to realize that means that at least 12 times a day—maybe less if she’s doing 2.5 hours—your child will be awake seeking sustenance and attention. Many of those hours come at times when you’d normally be asleep.

I don’t know what you all are going to do regarding breast-feeding (if your wife decides to breast-feed, it saves a FORTUNE on formula; if not, price matching and Amazon.com are your friends). But if she is going to, she’ll be up all night after short naps, only to arise to continue giving life to this person you two created.

Trust me on this one, fam: Wake up, too. Just be awake. Stare at the ceiling fan. Cut your toenails. Hold her boob. Do something so that she knows she isn’t up by herself. There’s a good chance she’ll be scowling at you even if you are helping, but it gets better. And if you’re asleep, there’s a great chance that she’s going to wake you up. I promise.

Read the rest of the letter here at the Root.

“Fierce People”

When asked about how she talks to her sons, navigates with them, on topics such as being black in the violent world, Poet Elizabeth Alexander said this:

That the life force we have as a culture that has survived against all odds is extraordinary and beautiful. That is why I teach African-American studies. And my babies—two tall young men, walking around in these tall bodies, made vulnerable by their skin color, that is a parent’s nightmare. You teach children to be safe and smart in the street. But you need to teach them to stand up straight in themselves in their gorgeous, mighty culture. That they are fierce people from fierce people. The worst damage racism can do to our children is to raise them up to be fearful.

There’s much to learn in these words.

Read her full interview in “On the Healing Power of Words” on the Root here.

Desmond-Harris on Facebook, Compassion, and Choice

But here’s what Facebook comments are good for: revealing data about whether you want your “friends” to be your friends any longer. That is, of course, if you believe, as I do, that the way someone responds to other people’s pain and mistreatment—including the systemic mistreatment of entire groups of people—is a perfectly fine way to decide whether he or she is someone you like or want to continue to interact with.

Call me intolerant, but my view is that, if someone’s reaction to an unarmed black teenager being killed is to announce that he probably deserved it, that person is not someone I’m interested in being associated with, and I won’t miss him or her a bit after I hit “block.” There are too many compassionate and smart people in the world for me to waste even a fraction of my social media scrolling time on interactions with people who are either racist or unintelligent and insensitive enough to appear so.

From Jenee Desmond-Harris’ article “How to Deal With Friends’ Racist Reactions to Ferguson” here

Fred Shuttlesworth and Pieces and Pictures of Greatness

Fred Shuttlesworth was a pastor, leader, and man of faith.  Rev. Shuttlesworth died yesterday.  Of course he was not the only great person who died in our country.  I’m sure many people are moved by the loss of Steve Jobs.  I’m sure many more people have been moved by the countless other losses and deaths from yesterday to today which most of us will never blog about.  Still, I thought of this particular notable individual this morning as we discussed in class two streams of the Christian faith.

We’re reading and talking about Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water, and today’s topics were the Charismatic stream and the Social Justice stream.  I won’t presume to know which stream (or tradition) Rev. Shuttlesworth felt most comfortable in, but he was on my mind as we talked about justice and how we pursue it because of the renewing gifts which God gives.

After class, I paged through A Testament of Hope and read how Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. described some of Rev. Shuttlesworth’s work.  They joined together to launch the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.  While what I’ve copied below is only a piece of a picture of this man’s life, it is a reminder that his life (and ours) is made of these kinds of pieces and pictures.  In an interview Dr. King said,

Our major campaigns have been conducted only in cities where a request for our help comes from one of these affiliate organizations, and only when we feel that intolerable conditions in that community might be ameliorated with our help.  I will give you an example.  In Birmingham, one of our affiliate organizations is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, which was organized by the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a most energetic and indomitable man.  It was he who set out to end Birmingham’s racism, challenging the terrorist reign of Bull Connor.  SCLC watched admiringly as the small Shuttlesworth-led organization fought in the Birmingham courts and with boycotts.  Shuttlesworth was jailed several times, his home and church were bombed, and still he did not back down.  His defiance of Birmingham’s racism inspired and encouraged Negroes throughout the South.  Then, at a May 1962 board meeting of the SCLC in Chattanooga, the first discussions began that later led to our joining Shuttlesworth’s organization in a massive direct-action campaign to attack Birmingham’s segregation.

In addition to the above picture, Charles Cobb, Jr. at The Root has a good tribute to Rev. Shuttlesworth, which you can read by clicking here.  Cobb says of Fred Shuttlesworth that “His life framed a struggle that changed the nation and teaches us the power of commitment.”  I agree with that.  And last, look at this quick video with Rev. Shuttlesworth talking about how we ought to live.

Celebrating Divorce

The Root posted an article by Angela Bonner Helm the other day about divorce parties.  The parties are described as ways for women to get through the difficult transition that is divorce.

If you’ve read some of my archived posts about marriage, you know that I celebrate marriage, that I’m a pastor whose most popular activity after prayer some years is leading marriage services, and that I’m concerned to ensure that people get married, stay married, and that they build strong marriages.  But the article made me think about a few things in relation to marriage and divorce:

  • We need to ritualize divorce.  I’m not talking from a position of strength when I make this point, so that should be clear.  But I think communities that love people, communities like churches for example, need to find ways to acknowledge when a marriage ends.  In the article, Angela Helm talks about how society’s understanding of divorce has moved from a hardly talked about decision to be more accepted and even public.  Even with that social movement, I think my professor’s words ring true in Promising Again that “The end of a marriage is often a secret sadness.”  I imagine a church, like mine and others, will be concerned that ritualizing divorce will erode matrimony, that nodding and walking through transitions like separations and divorces, will somehow take away from marriage.  However, if people (i.e., families, communities, and churches primarily) cannot develop rituals to name and understand and accept divorces, we will miss opportunities to continually love people.
  • We need to support couples who make the hard choices to leave their marriages.  I think people who often talk about divorce hardly ground their words.  They speak about it as a concept and not as a personal (series of) decision(s) that has difficult consequences.  Moreover, people divorce.  And people who choose to end their marriages, whatever their reasons for ending them, need help.  The men and women who end those relationships are at a most critical time in their lives.  Quoting Christine Gallagher, an author, Helm writes,
“Friends can throw a party to show their divorcing pal that they are supported, loved and not alone, [and] the party can be a great way the newly divorced person can thank all the people who stood by them through the ordeal of separation,” Gallagher writes.
  • We need to provide all kinds of support.  Support may look like these parties, events which push people to mark the endings of their marriages and continually look forward to what’s next.  Support may resemble counseling sessions with therapists who specialize in counseling with people who divorce.  It may look like listening on the phone to an ex-husband while he laments the end of his relationship or sitting at a table where a wife brightens up after being “freed” or “relieved” or finally let go by a deadening marriage.  It may certainly look like awkward moments where you don’t know how to introduce someone who was always a part of a couple.  It may mean having some clarifying conversations so everybody feels ready to go forward.  But with more than 50% of our couples divorcing, we do well to prepare for being more supportive.
  • We need to ensure that churches are equipped to serve people who have divorced.  Churches are places where the good news about God’s alternative to things as usual is proclaimed.  That good news is a message for everyone.  It is about a person and is personal.  And we have to work hard not to exclude people with particular histories (do we not all carry our stories?) from our churches.  No one was excluded during the early church and no one should be excluded these days.  I believe with some hard thinking and careful praying and a lot of listening, churches are best suited to bring people who have divorced to the great message about Jesus.  Earlier I quoted Promising Again, a pastoral resource about renewing, remembering, and revisiting the promise a couple makes when it marries.  I’ll end with another quote from it.
The sad truth is that for some couples, promising again will not occur.  Some couples keep the initial promise unchanged for the sake of the children.  These couples survive in hollow shells of marriages, occasionally managing to maintain appearances of family tranquility.  For others, even the best help may not be enough.  With some marriages ending in these painful circumstances, the church’s presence becomes crucial, though difficult.

If you want, tell me what you think.  And if you’d like to read the entire article at the Root, click here.

Welfare Myths About Fathers

Cynthia Gordy wrote a helpful and informative post on the myths of politics, economics, and fatherhood over at The Root.  In her article she includes several statements from leaders in the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development where officials are working to promote their hopes for father involvement in families.

“All of us realize the critical importance of fathers in the home,” Ron Sims, deputy secretary of HUD, told The Root. “We want fathers to understand that they are welcome at our housing-authority sites, and that we want them there to play meaningful roles in raising their children and supporting the women that they’ve been with.”

Gordy tracks the main myth that the welfare system has inherently sought to undermine families and the unification of families.  She clears up the historical thread associating financial assistance from the government with the dismissal of fathers from homes.  Enlisting the words of Andrew Billingsley, a sociologist, the article points to unemployment as the main culprit in the abrupt shifts in male presence and participation in the family.

“What happened in the mid-1950s were technological changes that abolished unskilled jobs that most black men could do and created high-tech jobs that they couldn’t,” Billingsley told The Root, explaining that the advent of efficient, goods-producing machines drove millions of black men out of the stable blue-collar work force. “That’s what kept black families from getting and staying married, not the welfare system. To say otherwise is a misunderstanding of the data, and it’s a misreading of history.”

I have to confess that I have functioned from the notions which Cynthia Gordy so carefully addresses.  Though I do not receive funds from the government these days, I worked in a church for several years that served as a site for the Department of Human Services, cutting checks to women who were searching for work as part of Temporary Aid for Needy Families.  I’ve heard their stories.  I have lovely memories visiting the WIC site over in Roseland near Roseland Community Hospital when my niece was newly born.  And like most of my friends, I know what it means to stand in a line or two waiting for those huge blocks of church cheese.  I am thankful for Ms. Gordy’s work in this article.  Take a look at it by clicking here, if you haven’t already.


You may be interested in some of this:


  • The Root has a provocative piece on Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings as they relate to the legacy, import, and memory of Justice Thurgood Marshall.



  • Nathan Albert, Director of Pastoral Care at the Maurin Foundation and member of New Community, writes about his embrace of a man in his underwear at the Pride parade and the meaning of reconciliation.


  • Here’s an interesting post on the importance of a father’s involvement, particularly during infancy.