By Lisa Williams, MTS Student
Rhetoric of Race Class-Summer 2012 part of the Rhetoric Race and Religion Institute
*Special to Rhetoric Race and Religion
The genesis of the word “race” was predicated upon the procurement of social, economical and political domination in order to render people of color impotent. Throughout history, the marginalization of African Americans has existed on a continuum, providing variant experiences that are often ignored due to an overzealous inclination by White America to relegate all persons of color to a social ethos of crime, poverty and familiar dysfunction. African Americans have been subjugated, demoralized, and stereotyped throughout history, often placing them in the proverbial box of socio-economical complacency and inferiority, well constructed by White America for the preservation of their position, privilege, and power. The propensity to define a human being solely upon the color of their exterior has been the greatest sin perpetrated to date, creating a social structure that has unfortunately left an indelible impression upon the psyche of many men and women who have yet to escape the repercussions.
While numerous of African Americans have adopted the mantra, “Nobody knows the trouble I see”, this anthem is not true for all people of African descent. While many did succumb to master’s whip, the nooses of White supremacy and horror of Jim Crow, some did manage to rise above the canopy of systemic racism in order to secure a better life. There are exceptions, evidence of those narrowly escaping being imprisoned by the labels, limitations and perpetual lies orchestrated to deny equal access to the endless possibilities God intended for all people.
African Americans are indebted to the brave women and men who cleverly concealed the horrific nightmare they faced day by day, fighting tirelessly so their children’s children could envision an American Dream! This essay will explore extensively my formative teachings on race inherited from early childhood highlighting my first experience of being made to see color, navigate through young adulthood and subsequent encounters with racism , concluding with concise theological reflection candidly expressing how I have come to cherish being Black, woman and free.
Early Childhood: No Longer Colorblind
While others can attest to a similar upbringing, I still consider my experience growing up in North Carolina during the late 60’s and 70’s an exception to the rule in circulation about people of color during this time in history. I was raised in a home with two hard-working parents, matter of fact my parents have been married for 59 years. I cannot recall a time in my life growing up when we did not have everything we needed, with parents habitually quick to remind my siblings and I of just how blessed we were. When I was six, my parents bought a split-level home in an exclusive neighborhood in the suburbs where there were only a few Black families, a move over 40 years ago, coming on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s, and heighten racial tension resulting from the deaths of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Prior to this move to the suburbs, where I lived, went to school, and attended church was definitely segregated. It was not until we went on vacation during the summer that I encountered people who did not look like me, yet I never felt uncomfortable or mistreated. You see, I was taught at an early age to be proud, stand tall, always look others (white people) in the eye, skin color may vary, but inside we are all the same. However, it was at the age of six when I was first made to see color, leaving a residue on my palate of a taste I would never forget.
Being made to see color is really self-explanatory, but for the slow learners like myself I will offer clarity. The move to the suburbs in 1970 landed me in a predominantly white elementary school, integration was in effect, and for the first time in my life I found myself sitting in classrooms where I was the only little black girl. I was confounded at an early age by the mystery of how little white girls and boys were allowed to do certain things, when I was forbidden, or how they were never punished for doing the same things, while I endured constant reprimand for each offense. When I think about it now, I am amused by how my brother would come home on a daily basis and tell my mother: “Lisa was sitting in the corner again today.”
Finally, one day during our ritual so what happened today routine, I asked: “Momma, I just don’t understand why I am the one always getting into trouble. A white girl or boy can do the same thing, but I am the one sitting in the corner not them.” I remember this conversation over 40 years ago with my mother like it was yesterday, allowing me to understand why she never seemed to be upset once I told her why I had to sit in the corner. On this particular day, she sat me down, looked me in my eyes and said, “Lisa, you were taught that all people are the same, right”, I answered yes. “Well some people are taught differently, feel differently, see and treat others differently.” She then went on to say, “when you look at a bowl full of white marbles with only one black marble, which one are you going to see first”, the black one, I replied. “Baby, you are being made to see color, so you must remember that just like that black marble in the bowl full of white ones, it will be easier for your teacher to see what you are doing.”
It is strange, but somehow at the age of six I was able to process what my mother was saying to me, it made sense which is why even to this day I will say, I don’t see color unless I am made to see color. Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood was not what many would assume, life was good, no racial issues, slurs or ill exchanges, just good honest living.
Encountering Racism: Young, Gifted and Black
The days of my youth prepared me for my journey in life; I was never intimidated by others, being the only Black in a room full of Whites never made me uncomfortable. Matter of fact, it was what I was use to, and later being exposed to diversity once I attended college afforded me the opportunity to rediscover and reaffirm my blackness. Please do not misconstrue this statement, I had not forgotten the true essence of my existence, however white suburbia had indoctrinated me into a socio-economical class and ethos that drew me away from the reality most African Americans were experiencing at this time. It was refreshing to be able to relate to those who had similar childhood experiences, dispelling what I had felt for years that I was somehow an anomaly and not Black enough because I was not reared in the ghetto.
My freshman Black Studies course was an eye-opening experience, reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X and learning about other notable persons of color for the very first time was enlightening, but not as life-changing as I had anticipated. In retrospect I truly believe it had everything to do with the perspective of the White middle-aged female professor and context than my willingness to grasp the curriculum. I learned later that one must possess a genuine passion for the subject matter, harboring no inhibitions in order to convey the rawness associated with the complex history of the evolution of persons of African descent in America.
It was not until I began nursing school at the University of North Carolina Greensboro that I was once again made
to see color. My encounter with racism in academia inspired me to strive harder for excellence, knowing I had professors who would suggest that A & T State University might serve my academic needs best, sparked a fire within to prove them wrong “by any means necessary”. It is unfortunate that even in the 21st century men and women of color continue to struggle for equity in the hallow halls of academia. The pervasive ideology of White western male dominance remains on life-support, resuscitated by those who like their predecessors; continue to harbor a belief that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are perks of an exclusive alliance, believing in error that they are offering worship to God. Being young, gifted, and Black in America is a double-edged sword; one will endure many hardships, stemming from those who never conceived dreams of their own and by many who have sadly inherited an insatiable appetite to annihilate the dreams of others.
I would be lying if I said; I was never made to see color again after my encounters with it years ago. Racism is a reality, an unrelenting part of life, part of a social system birthed out of fear, and nurtured throughout the years by a lack of knowledge. Knowledge is power, the lack of it breeds ignorance and ignorance is an incubator for hatred, evil in many forms, with a primal intent to kill, steal and destroy.
Black, Woman and Free: A Theological Reflection
It would be inaccurate to suggest that the Black church managed to escape the influence of White male privilege, power and domination unscathed. The propensity to oppress persists in most Black churches, maintaining a spiritual and theological ethos that continues to deny equal rights for all people. It is indeed heart wrenching to observe perpetual misappropriation of the sacred text by those who have been oppressed and called to seek justice, utilizing it errantly in order to oppress others based upon their ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Racism has mutated much like a disease, creating subsequent strands bigotry which continues to disenfranchise one group so others may preserve their domination, position and power.
Christ came, loosed the shackles, laying a foundation to counter the “powers that be”, reaffirming that all were made in the image of God, “given the power through our belief to become children of God, born not by blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). The challenge for those called to ordain ministry sacredly and secularly rest upon a genuine effort to be the face of Christ, being vessels of justice and channels of love, owning the fact that racism is not an external appendage, luggage we habitually carry. Racism is an internal manifestation, deeply rooted in the historical ramification of oppression endured and perpetrated for the acquisition of privilege; racism is within often projecting itself out of us involuntarily. Racial inequities are not happenstances we can explicate with lofty innuendos, attempting to justify it by accusing others of being oversensitive and incapable of reconciliation.
“Let the redeemed of the Lord say so” by our actions, allowing the stones to fall from our hands that we often throw privately. We are part of one body, one faith, one God in all, working through all, and true reconciliation begins with a clear understanding of this sacred reality that must be lived out for justice and peace to prevail! Amid the hallow halls of academia, inescapable of the pandemic “isms” of yesterday, today and inevitably tomorrow, I thank God for the journey to knowledge, a powerful move of the Spirit shedding light, opening my eyes and revealing truth that sets free indeed.
History has painted an imperfect picture of blackness, one that could have potentially paralyzed me at an early age, but through the teachings of my formative years, wise counsel and tutelage of astute men and women along the way who dared to “speak truth to power”, I have learned otherwise. I cherish daily the blessing of being Black, woman and free, viewing life with clarity through a lens created by the hands of God, unobstructed by the labels, limitations and lies crafted by humans!