“Next time someone asks you for your story of race, tell this one.”
These words have simmered in me for weeks now. Many aspects of a mid-December Fire&Water retreat have simmered in me, held in a patience-of-spirit to let them cook for a while. Sort themselves into wheat and chaff? Distill the unnecessary away from the necessary? Come to a sense of seasoning and slow-cooked flavors? I dunno, to be honest. This morning, these words converge with awareness of the weekend, the increasing yearning I feel each year to participate actively somehow in the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorialization, beyond a white-woman’s nod of respect and thanksgiving.
It’s not insignificant that a F&W friend’s interest in a previous post emerged this week, with resonances for her own writing/leadership work. A couple others have also now expressed interest in the intersections of Christian theology and white supremacy, to which I bring the work of Willie James Jennings and The Christian Imagination. My naming this is clearly not an original observation, by any means...that there is a connection deep in the roots of the Christianity in the USA historically AND right now. I have tended to observe from the sidelines, however, quite distrustful of the politicizing and the woundedness with which Americans in popular discourse engage 1) even the suggestion that Christian theology has, at its roots, a formative force in shaping white supremacy, and 2) race-reconciliation conversations in the cyberspace/social media worlds. I don’t engage in things I cannot digest healthily, and the toxicity and volume in media-discourse here are simply too overwhelming for healthy digestion, no matter your skin color.
So…this is not a “post” on “race,” though it is. It is not even a peg in the argument that Christian theology helped create the toxic brew that IS white supremacy, though I know it has. But these words are a heart-felt response to the request and/or invitation of a new F&W friend to “tell the story” I first learned to be one of “race” on Saturday evening, December 11th, about 11:30 p.m. in a fire-placed living room, with a lively game of Spades going on with other friends in the kitchen.
The antecedents that make this storytelling possible are too numerous to really recount here, but each contributed to one of the most honest discussions exploring being human together, across-amidst race in the USA, that I have ever had in a room with four white faces and four black faces. We were sitting in the living room, couches and comfy chairs, having played several rounds of a two-team game of #CultureTags. We had spent days tending a communal fire outside, including amidst a tornado watch and severe thunderstorms that required us to “place a tent-top” over it for it to survive the onslaught of the waters. Yet eight of us (to my recollection) sat in the living room, just talking. No agenda. No place we were trying to get to…
One of the white women in the group made an observation from her own work in anti-racist, now more integrative, reconciliatory work. She may have asked a question of us all which I’ve now forgotten. (As this is my re-telling, I’ll name how I’ve come to hold this…which differs from “what actually happened” and “who said what,” just to be clear. I’m renown for poor memory about specifics like that). She comes from an Italian lineage, with awareness of the stories of European ancestry. She used a phrase “left out in the cold.” She spoke of her own awareness of an ancestral wound in her own line: you abide by and conform to the group’s norms, or literally, you can be left out in the cold to die.
European ancestry, collective from before memory, dealt with cold-climate and the threats to survival by which such cold confronted the group’s survival. Unaware of anything special to come, we began to muse about this tension between “aligning with the community to survive” and “leading the community in new directions” of deeper evolution, more compassionate human being, greater awareness and consciousness.
Another strand for me, seemingly unrelated, emerged when I shared my own befuddlement at the lack of judgment or anger, even rage, against the elders of these new friends, African American men and women who have faced crises and challenges I cannot begin to imagine. Things that I see as physical or emotional abandonment, even abuse. The vice-grip of poverty with addictions that result in persistent poverty, overcome only in faith and a tenacious will, communal wisdom. How can they not be enraged, furious, even accusatory of their parents, their elders?
This question arose in me because of my own story, of course. While I know my parents provided for me beyond reproach–materially, physically, in all the ways that can be seen and communally lauded–I yet reached adulthood as a deeply dissociated, disembodied little girl in a masculinized shell of a body, traumatized by shame and guilt given fuel within Protestant Puritan Christianity.I was unable to name my desires as sacred, unable to imagine my own story mattered or could be seen as beautiful. That I could be loved for who I am more than what I have accomplished, what I do. That I am loveable as I am, regardless of whether my family is proud of me. The little girl I was, the full-throated fierce woman I am now, only came together amidst years–and I mean years–of re-mothering (by two anam cara spirit-friends and countless circles of women) until I learned how to hold myself in that Love. This journey to myself as a conscious feminine woman who knows she has value beyond any of the giftings and failings of her family has taken decades. You can pray for my folks, my family...because it has also been one of seemingly unending anger and rage–anger at my parents for their refusals to learn their own emotional selves, work (though that is clearly not their first value/choice in this lifetime, which must be honored); at my family line for preferring our own myth of specialness instead of reality, a Hess-ness that can overshadow wounds and gifts alike; my religious tradition for choosing persistent ignorance and refusals to see a historical tradition canNOT be more important than one person wounded and in the corner, silenced and dying. I am a lava-eruption of anger when it gets nicked just right…[...and blessedly, the souls of my folks chose this way to be in my own life so that I would do this soul-work now....it's all precisely as it needed to be...]
…and yet... I named this decades-long experience of anger/rage in my own story…and how I am most befuddled how it is not the experience of those who have so much more to be furious about than I do from their elders.
There were other voices, other stories, that wove into this tension…but whatever all the strands were here converged into a braided strand that snapped the white faces in the room to attention in some way, to exchanged glances and eyes meeting eyes with recognition. Something about our shared European-ancestral lines where you align and conform or you are left out in the cold to die and (for me) this weight of rage & judgment that I carry today snapped some energy into the room.
The black faces in the room SAW us, saw us white folks seeing something in one another that we all recognized but which was foreign to each of them as black. Each of us would describe this differently, of course, but this is what has been cooking in me…
Judgment and rage against one’s own elders was incomprehensible for all the black people in the room. Again and again, I heard brothers and sisters of African-American descent speak their unconditional love and respect of their elders, not because they had earned it per se (though many obviously had and many obviously had not) but because they knew their elders’ love for them was unconditional. It was never even a question for them, to question, to ever consider as conceivable that "love" could be conditional. The four black voices in the room had spoken of the unconditional love they knew in their families. Their elders were doing the best they could do, in unimaginable and overwhelmingly difficult circumstances in Jim-Crow, civil-rights-era advocacy and plain living in hostile society(ies). Regardless of any failings–physical or emotional abandonment, neglect in back-breaking poverty, cycles of addiction and more–these four black human beings knew their love shared in family was unconditional. There was sadness, outrage at injustice, so much necessary to grieve, but no judgment or rage against their elders.
This is probably what poked my own disbelief and befuddlement, because I do not know that. I don't know what unconditional love feels like, as mixed up as it is with performances of all kinds. All of the four white people in the room said they didn't know that either, within their own families. And the four black voices spoke with shock and disbelief… Surely we cannot have meant that? each asked in his/her own way. One white person after another told the story of having to perform so to be seen by their family, by the larger community as worthy, as loveable. One was from elementary school, required to behave a certain way or be shunned by her own mother, by her friends. Mine was from kindergarten and early elementary school. Another named how it plays out now in herself amidst her own family, being a mother and a wife and another as a religious leader. We might call it the overwhelming poverty of the performative that drenches white communities, continuously remaining unconscious of the need to perform in order to be worthy, to have value, in society’s or family’s eyes. Continuously needing to remain unconscious of this lack, this emptiness, with few to no collective-communal skills to actually face the unbearable shame, shaming, that will surely mean a dying of some kind.
I want to return for a moment too, to the black shock and disbelief. Four black voices spoke with shock and disbelief…Surely we cannot have meant that? We really don’t know that our family loves us unconditionally? I can still see my new friend’s face, trying to comprehend or put it together inside herself. And I saw a wave of empathy and sadness cross her face, her entire body. She sat back finally, and threw her hands up in the air. “If I had known that, I would have dealt with the white-woman boss in my previous job totally differently,” she said. “I cannot imagine…” she trailed off. There was an overwhelming sadness in me that I finally had access to…I could feel my own sadness as my own…and it was seen by someone I respect and yet do not know well. I grieved a little that night--welcomed this sadness, knowing that it was seen.
The eight of us sat in stunned disbelief, silence, even wonder, looking at one another, unsure of what had just happened. Earlier that week, we had been held in a tightly facilitated “tell your story of race” session, so my new friend of African descent said to me, “Next time someone asks you your own story of race, tell this one.” This is one of my stories of race, whether politicized and civic debates on race and anti-racist work agree. Many of these voices would say it's not their white story or their black story. I'm not invested in those back-and-forths, here.
My own story would not be complete without deep belly gratitude for my own family that after fracturing, even shunning me for a time, did return to a reconciling relationship for us, though we are really care-full and tender now with one another. The fact remains that we do not know unconditional love in our family, nor are we particularly emotionally adept with our frailties, shadows, broken-places. We sever, judge, try to rationalize it all, then perhaps come back into overt emotional connection. (I have learned that we're always emotionally connected, even if we have utterly no contact for long periods, so by overt I mean "intentional" and "practiced again." Connection-in-aversion is simply deep-attachment, but negative or painful, suffering, as Buddhists might say).
With utter faithfulness and a genuinely deep heart, my father continues his struggles to receive love and know that he matters regardless of whether he does anything at all. I would say the same for my mother, though her own physical challenges have meant that she’s more practiced being just as she is, without obsessions over accomplishment. I don’t know my sister well enough to know where she would fall in this tension, but I’d guess she’s still imprisoned with it in some fashion, giving it intensely Conservative-Christian language. But maybe not. Her religious choices have meant she’s at a further periphery from the highly elitist, overly-intellectual norms of my extended Hess-ness family, whom I love and adore, and who do NOT know unconditional love very easily, if at all. My beloved husband is completely enthralled to this work-for-love-and-approval wound/reality, as he is a practicing pastor in a suburban, largely white congregation.
Remember: this is my retelling of my story–my own family would disagree, I’m sure, even refuse and want to push it away. I learned from my earliest years that achievement was more important than my little girl’s heart and embodied experiences, stories. Not out of malice or neglect from my folks, but because to succeed in our largely white, homogenous community meant achieving in school, achieving in music, becoming an establishment figure with great success in a sacred vocation. The woundedness in my folks and therefore in me here is this damning separation/being separated from unconditional love that other human beings on our planet actually DO know. I don’t know HOW they can know this–it is not my experience–but clearly, it is an act of Godde to KNOW it. Other white people won't have this story of race, but perhaps more of us will than can admit it openly...because to admit it means unconformity to their own white families, and a deep, vagrus-nerve fear of being left out in the cold.
And this is only my retelling of an event that changed my life because of commitment in Fire&Water, and the commitment of those who continue to walk together, complicated human beings on a sacred journey toward deeper healing, forgiveness, maybe even reconciliation some day (that I doubt any of us will live long enough to see, truly, fully, but no matter…). I would name you by name, but hereby honor your privacy and intimacy until/or unless you ask me to name more. I do welcome the other lenses on this story, which is not just my own anymore.
This is one of my own race stories then, emergent because it could unfold gently, after deep-belly laughter, with softened hearts and empathy across difference. Thank you, friend, for requesting me to tell it.
I bow to the imagined, unbearable challenge that empathy can be, perhaps always is here in our fragmented and polarized world, but again, with Godde, nothing is impossible.
Trust the divine order of things, I hear (QR). Once you’ve already surrendered, all of this becomes available. To me. To You. To Us.
We ARE one another; we belong to one another.