Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Blackness

Holy Blackness: The Matrix of Creation

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In the velvet darkness of the blackest night
Burning bright, there’s a guiding star
No matter what or who, who you are
There’s a light (Over at the Frankenstein Place)
There’s a light (Burning in the fireplace)
There’s a light, light in the darkness of everybody’s life.

Let us pray:
God of fire and light who dwells in thick darkness,
the light and the dark are alike to thee,
open the eyes of our hearts that we might see. Amen.

In the velvet darkness, darker than a thousand midnights down in a cypress swamp, this luminous darkness, this radiant blackness, the wholly black and holy black womb of God pulsed life into the world against a tapestry of holy life-giving darkly radiant blackness, shaping, molding, knitting, coalescing earthstuff from starstuff from Godstuff. All before uttering the first word.
This more than binary God articulated in the binary idiom of Iron Age folk recalling the testimony of their Stone Age forebears, limited to two gender signifiers but using both to signal to the best of their ability that neither was sufficient even if some would use one more, to the near exclusion of the other, this pluripotent God whose breath-crafted children would bear her, hir, his, zir, our, their image, this God, conjured, confected, and crafted creation out of holy darkness.
The Poet and poetry of creation birth a story made of stories that tells us who we are, who we have been and, who we could be. We are born of blackness, starry night and fertile earth, our first human parents in science and in scripture have Africa’s soil on their feet and in their skin. But somewhere along the way we were taught to fear the dark, to fear the night, to fear the holy blackness that is the swaddling blanket of creation.
Some of our fear of the dark is ancient and instinctual from a time when we were not sure the sun would return from setting or storm or eclipse: Stay with us Lord of Light for the night is dark and full of terrors. The prayer to the Red God on Game of Thrones is in many ways the perfect embodiment of this and perhaps a worthy Advent prayer, (at least in a service where There’s a Light Over at the Frankenstein House from the Rocky Horror Picture Show is the Advent hymn). But some of our fear of the dark is carefully calculated and mercenary.
Some lost sight of or chose not to see the beauty of the diversity of creation having lost the memory of their own ancestral African roots and, when encountering a suddenly much larger world saw that our black beauty was valuable, profitable, salable. Then beginning in 1619 on this continent those ancient fears were seized upon and weaponized to build this nation on a foundation of slavery and genocide and the rhetoric of blackness became all that was wrong in the world just as Malik el-Haj al-Shabazz taught us when he was Malcom X: blackball, black sheep, blackmail, black hearted, black people.
My over-used but nowhere near retirement Black Lives Matter sign says, “Black Lives Are Sacred.” Blackness is sacred. But the world has lost sight of the goodness and sanctity of blackness. That is why it is so easy to kill us and our children and so easy to justify our deaths with fear, fear of the dark. Public Enemy prophesied rightly on Fear of A Black Planet. Fear of blackness. Fear of black people. All in service to a divinization of whiteness and light to the point of idolatry. To this Bishop Stephen Charleston says:
I have heard that the afterlife is a place of perpetual light. That’s a problem. Heaven needs night. Darkness is not evil, but a realm of mystery and imagination. The day is constant, but the night is creative. The stars dance. The moon dreams. The comets write poetry of fire. Without the night there is no dawn or twilight, no moments of sacred ambiguity, no subtle changes of perception, no promises kept or just made, a holy pledge of healing or of hope. No, please, we need the night in heaven. We need that glorious darkness, that obscure beauty, drifting on wedding gown clouds of white across an obsidian sky.
Thus, this the darkest time of the year is one of the holiest times of the year. The bleakest shadows of solar night hold the light in passionate embrace, and where they touch, shades of gray and, every color of the rainbow prism including those we cannot yet see. Our encultured fear, our tribalism, have kept us from seeing that all creation is inherently good. All God’s creatures are good by design. All of God’s children are good, born good, created good, created for goodness, good enough, even when they, we, fail to live up and into the goodness of God within us, it is still there.
We start this new Christian year in this Advent season with the goodness of God and the poetry of creation manifest in the liturgy of the earth. God is Poet and this good God-given earth is her poetry. Indeed, the earth is also both poet and poem, poetry groaning in creation. The liturgy of the earth, its cycles of sun and shadow, ripening and rotting, blossoming and blowing away, drenching and drying, feast and famine, storm and stillness, deep sea and desert wide are fluid ever-changing witnesses to and stanzas in the poetry of our lives, of our world. For we too are her poems, sonnets and ballads, dissertations of rap, rhythm and, rhyme and, more than a few limericks, quatrain and haiku and, forms for which there are yet no names. This great liturgy of creation is a liturgy of transition and transcendence. And so it is with life and death; they are not two separate polar realities for between them lies living.
It is into this life that brown baby Jesus comes to dwell, inhabit, teach, guide, accompany, heal, forgive, redeem, love and, live. And thus are we too called dwell in this good earth in our good incarnations, living, loving, forgiving, healing, accompanying each other on our pilgrim journey. We live in the waiting for the second Advent. Live in a world waiting for the fullness of redemption, restoration and, reparation. Live in this world where people don’t always see our poetry, our obscure beauty, our incarnations as Godstuff, our loving as the goodness of God in this world.
This earth is given into our care and we are given into each other’s care. Advent prepares us to encounter a God who dwells with us in the waiting earth. And Advent tells us that we are loved and worthy of love. Most of the world outside of a very specific set of churches doesn’t know that it is Advent. It is pre-Christmas sale season which began after, or even before, Halloween. Even in the Church Advent is often crushed into Christmas and the first Advent, the Nativity of black baby Jesus, often overshadows the second Advent, the return of the rainbow Christ, the fullness of humanity encompassing the poetry of all flesh, all kinds of flesh, transformed, human and divine, yet retaining enough of the poetry of the past to be recognized as the very same person, Mary’s baby.
Mary’s poor brown migrant baby. Christians the world over will sing their love for the baby Jesus for the next five weeks. But for many their love will not extend to Guatemalan baby Jesus or Muslim baby Issa who share his name. In far too many churches the stories of Advent and Christmas are used to sanctify white supremacy in the church. Introducing children to and reifying adult belief in a white Jesus who is not simply an aesthetic choice but a statement of power and domination. White Jesus is a colonized and colonizing Christ. Until the deaths of black and brown mother’s children mean as much as the deaths of white parent’s children and the windows and walls of our churches do not silently whitewash the brownness and Jewishness of Jesus, his family, friends and followers and his ancestors, the whiteness of Christian art and nativity plays will always be in service to white supremacy.
When Christ returns every system that holds people captive, dominates and subordinates will be unmade. And so we long for the second Advent. But I don’t think we’re all waiting for the same thing. The Church has been waiting millennia and in that waiting, has not only not healed the ruptures that form when we forget that we are all a handful of the same dirt, but in some cases has dug and deepened those fissures. And in some parts of the Church, the more you believe in the literal return of Jesus, the less you believe in or care about climate change because Jesus will just fix it after while.
Some read today’s gospel and see the immanent and unexpected return of Christ and all they can think of is who is going with him and who will be left behind. But that’s not the Jesus I know. The Jesus I know is in the field with the agricultural workers in the gospel. He’s with the women doing undervalued work in that same gospel. He’s not making a list and checking it twice. That’s someone else’s bag. And, I believe he is telling us this story so that we will take notice of who is around us and might not be able to make it alone.
We already live in a world where some people get left behind. In this world, people are left behind if they’re black or brown or poor or gay or trans or women or femme, or felons, or, or, or. But it won’t always be that way. While a traditional Advent reading might focus on Jesus’s return, I want to offer another reading. I don’t believe we have to wait for the return of Jesus for things to get better. I don’t believe that our problems are so big that only God can sort them out. I don’t believe that there is nothing that we can do about the quality of human life or the capacity of the earth to sustain life.
Jesus showed us by how he lived and died and lived again on the other side of death that nothing is too big, too much, too hard for God, that human dignity and flourishing are God’s dream for us no matter under what oppressive systems we find ourselves. The Jesus who allied himself with the poor and disenfranchised by becoming poor and disenfranchised will not abandon us to a world that does not love us, fears us and seeks to harm us. Rather Jesus stands with us as we remake the world that is our heritage, our sacred trust, as we rediscover its poetry and the poetry inside of each of us.
The time between the Advents is a pregnant time, indeed the earth is already in labor in apostle’s view. Now is a waiting time. Now is a watching time. And now is a working time. Jesus calls our attention to the people the world, and sometimes the church, says will be left behind. For much of human history women have been kept behind if not left behind. But the One for whose Advent we wait chose the flesh of a woman for the glory of the incarnation, that intimate bleeding flesh that the world of men wanted to leave behind, thus forever sanctifying woman-flesh and all human-flesh. And, for much of our history folk have wanted to leave gay folk and queer folk behind, yet Jesus comes to us through a miracle that transcends and queers gender roles, God-beyond-gender yet disclosed as the feminine spirit conceived a child with a human woman. From as soon as one person had two sticks while another had only one, we have left people behind in poverty and inequity. Yet Jesus came to us poor and underhoused. We are building walls – lying about building physical walls – while building legislative walls and the border-crossing Jesus is an asylum seeker. If we are not careful, we might just leave Jesus behind, not recognizing him because we’ve lost the sight and sound of the divine poetry in every human person.
We wait for the Advent return of the One whose incarnational gender poetry transcends the grammatical categories of frail human poets and translators, with that Advent will come the majesty of God, the manifestation of God’s perfect justice and love, for where God is, there can be no injustice. And dare I say, in God’s perfect justice none will be left behind.

About the texts: The Women’s Lectionary is the project of the Rev. Wil Gafney, PhD, Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, an Episcopal Priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and Licensed in the Diocese of Fort Worth. Dr. Gafney selected and translated the readings using an expansive gender-explicit approach and, in the Psalms, explicit feminine language and pronouns for God. Church House, the Episcopal press, will publish the Lectionary.

Year A
Advent 1: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 8; Romans 8:18-25; Matthew 24:32-44
Genesis 1:1 When beginning he, God, created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was shapeless and formless and bleakness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God, she, fluttered over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; so God separated the light from the bleakness. 5 Then God called the light Day, and the bleakness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, day one.

Psalm 8
1 WOMB OF LIFE, our Sovereign, *
how exalted is your Name in all the earth!
2 Out of the mouths of children and nursing babes *
your majesty is praised above the heavens.
3 You have founded a stronghold against your adversaries, *
to put an end to the enemy and the avenger.
4 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *
the moon and the stars you have established,
5 What are we that you should be mindful of us? *
the woman-born that you attend to them?
6 You have made us a little lower than God; *
you adorn us with glory and honor;
7 You give us mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under our feet:
8 All sheep and oxen, *
even the wild beasts of the field,
9 The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, *
and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.
10 WOMB OF LIFE, our Sovereign, *
how exalted is your Name in all the earth!

Romans 8:18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the daughters and sons of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the daughters and sons of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Matthew 24:32 Jesus said, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that the Son of Woman is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Creator. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Woman. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Woman. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Redeemer is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, the owner would have stayed awake and would not have let the house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Woman is coming at an unexpected hour.

Sources for opening:
Richard O’brien, “There’s a Light (Over at the Frankenstein Place)” Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975 © Warner Chappell Music, Inc.
(Sources for first paragraph in order: Richard O’brien, Rocky Horror; James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation,” Howard Thurman (title, This Luminous Darkness); “black and radiant,” Rabbi Marcia Falk trans. “The Song of Songs”; “darkly radiant,” Mia McKenzie, The Thing About Being A Little Black Girl In the World: For Quvenzhané Wallis.


Love God Herself

2016_10_20 Wil Gafney from Candler School of Theology on Vimeo.

Yes, I am black! and radiant–
O city women watching me–
As black as Kedar’s goathair tents
Or Solomon’s fine tapestries.

Will you disrobe me with your stares?
The eyes of many morning suns
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine
Black as the light before the dawn.

And I have faced the angry glare
Of others, even my mother’s sons
Who sent me out to watch their vines
While I neglected all my own.[1]

Normally I only preach from my translation of the scriptures believing you can’t preach what you don’t read, and reading the bible in English is like eating when you’ve lost your sense of smell. Rabbi Marcia Falk’s translation of the Most Excellent of Songs, the Song of Songs, is itself most excellent so I invite you to consider for the time that is ours the following lines:

The eyes of many morning suns
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine
Black as the light before the dawn.

And I have faced the angry glare
Of others, even my mother’s sons
Who sent me out to watch their vines
While I neglected all my own.

Black is beautiful. Not just some black is beautiful. Not just that light, bright, almost white, mixed with something, Becky with the good hair, Beyoncé, video girl type A or B (but not so much C or D) black is beautiful. My black is beautiful. Your black is beautiful.

Whether hailed as luminous darkness or radiant blackness, our black is beautiful. Hand-crafted sun-kissed shades from cream to coffee—no sugar, no cream—to blacker than a thousand midnights to the bluest black, from the bluest eye to the grey, green, brown, black eyes deeper than the well of souls, crowned with cottony soft puffed crowns, regal ropes, intricate braids, coifs and cuts in every color imaginable and some you couldn’t, or smooth shaved like Luke Cage. All of these studies in black are beautiful. Black is beautiful. Blackness is beauty. Blackness is worshipful. All blackness is divine. It is the imprint of the holy darkly radiant God in whose image we are created. Look in the mirror and love God herself in you, in your fam, in your heart and skin kin, in your neighbors and strangers, enemies and allies.

The eyes of many morning suns
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine
Black as the light before the dawn.

In the black church we trumpet our love for our blackness—Imma come back to that—but we don’t always love our black bodies. The black church loved us and taught us to love ourselves when nobody else would and folk were out here in these streets hating our skin, our hair, our lips, our noses, our thighs, our buttocks, our thickness, our swish, our sway. And at the same time some in the black church were separating us like goats from sheep based on brown paper bags and talking about good hair. Perhaps even more insidious, too many black churches still privilege whiteness in theology and culture, expectations about dress and deportment, trying to please an abusive white supremacist culture that does not love us and despises our flesh.

The whiteness against which we have been defined, measured and found lacking has been deified and is hanging on the wall in too many churches and homes. The white-Christ-idol hanging on the wall denies the bruised black beauty of God in human flesh killed by the uniformed arm of the empire like too many of our trans and cis sisters and sons. Be very clear, white Jesus is does not love you and cannot save you; he is the god of white supremacy and the demonization of blackness is its gospel.

But…

The eyes of many morning suns
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine
Black as the light before the dawn.

This beautiful blackness is the gift of God. It is delicate and diamond strong, fragile and fearless, resilient and resplendent. Our blackness is more than the skin we’re in, it is the treble of our souls, the multi-strand web of our culture that binds us to all our folk—and the rest of God’s folk too, for we are all children of the same mother, from the African earthen womb of the God who writhed in labor with us and Rock who gave us birth. (Deut 32:18) And like all of God’s good creation we are charged with its care, care for ourselves, our bodies, our minds, our souls, the sacred trust of our blackness.

I believe that we ought to be passionately in love with ourselves, our bodies and our blackness. For this I take my lesson from the Song of Songs which has scandalized so many Jewish and Christian interpreters because it does not talk about God explicitly, instead it focuses on the love of two people expressed sensuously, sexually. It is all about the love of and between two black bodies—offered as scripture and revelation. Now, one of those bodies is blacker than your average brown-to-black ancient Afro-Asiatic person. She is black as a black-haired goat. Y’all can have them white cotton ball sheep, I’m going to hang out with the goats. Let me let her tell you about herself as we walk through this text together:

shechorah ani v’ navah

I am black…

Actually, it’s the other way around. Black am I… Black is the first word. Blackness a priori. Black before all else, intentionally, by design, according to the will (and the Wil) of God for my life. Black am I…

Black am I and resplendent.
Black am I and radiant.
Black am I and exquisite.
Black am I and beautiful.

It seems the city-women can’t keep their eyes off of her. They keep staring, looking her up and down. And you know how we do; she asks them if they like what they see:

Will you disrobe me with your stares?

The shout out to the daughters of Jerusalem is an acknowledgement that our bodies are always under scrutiny. We are weighed and measured, consumed and labeled acceptable or defective in a glance. The black beauty Shahorah—we can call her Ebony, Raven, Jet or Onyx—Shahorah says you call me black like that’s an insult. Let me tell you, I am black, as silky-black as the luxurious coat of a Kedari goat, like mink, only blacker. I see you looking, you can’t keep your eyes off of all this good black. And neither can the sun.

The eyes of many morning suns
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine
Black as the light before the dawn. 

She says, don’t stare at me because my beautiful black skin has gotten even darker while I bask in the sun. Our black beauty revels in the blackness of her skin and has the nerve to get a tan on top—we hadn’t destroyed the ozone layer yet so she didn’t have to worry about melanoma—she embraces the kiss of the sun and some folk are out here bleaching their black.

And I have faced the angry glare
Of others, even my mother’s sons
Who sent me out to watch their vines
While I neglected all my own. 

The angry glare is a reminder that everyone won’t look at us and see the glory that God created. Some folk are mad that we’re still here. Mad that we haven’t been destroyed. Mad that we survived the hells of the middle passage, slavery, Jim Crow and lynch law. Mad that we have the right to vote. Mad we’re exercising our right to vote. Mad that it looks like we’re benefitting from affirmative action when it benefits more white women than black women or men. Mad we’re in their schools and on their jobs. Mad some of us are in charge of some of them. Mad this continent once peopled by red and brown peoples is turning brown again. Mad we don’t back down, step aside, shuffle when we’re not dancing and scratch when we’re not itching. There are some angry folk out there and you can see it in their eyes long before they open their mouths or send the first tweet.

And I have faced the angry glare
Of others, even my mother’s sons

Sometime the angry glare is more than a look. Sometimes it’s a catcall. Sometimes it’s a death sentence executed in the street because you refused to acknowledge a cat call, smile, or give out your phone number. Our blackness is under assault, verbal assault and even physical assault. Sexual harassment and predation is a matter for the church because it happens in church to church folk and is perpetrated by church folk.

We can’t talk about taking care of black bodies in or out of the Black Church without talking about the perils black women and girls face from black men and sometimes boys in and out of the church, and in and out of the pulpit. That peril is often physical and sexual violence as Shahorah knows first hand. She tells the story of her sexual assault in 5:7:

The men who roam the streets,
guarding the walls,
beat me and tear away my robe.

Don’t miss that the men who assault Shahorah are the men who guard the walls. If we read them religiously they are the men responsible for maintaining order in the city where God dwells. If we read them civilly they are the men responsible for protecting the city and her citizens from those who would prey upon her. Pastors and police can be equally dangerous to black girl magic.

And I have faced the angry glare
Of others, even my mother’s sons

Later in the text (8:8-9), Shahorah describes the efforts of her own brothers to constrain and confine her, to make her conform to their notions of comportment.

We have a young sister
Whose breasts are but flowers.
What shall we do
When the time comes for suitors?

If she’s a wall
We’ll build turrets of silver,
But if she’s a door
We will plank her with cedar.

Being unapologetically black out loud and in public sometimes means scrutiny and censure from your own people who still believe that respectability politics will save them, and all too often what is respectable, civilized, decent and professional is what white supremacist culture demands. Like so many good church women Shahorah’s self-care has been side-tracked while she takes care of everybody but herself.

And I have faced the angry glare
Of others, even my mother’s sons
Who sent me out to watch their vines
While I neglected all my own. 

It’s time to tend our own vines and their sweet, luscious, intoxicating fruit. It’s well past time for us to love God herself in ourselves and each other. Too long the church has taught us to love others at the expense of ourselves. It doesn’t work that way boo. As Rev. RuPaul asks, How the hell you going to love somebody else if you don’t love yourself? Can I get an amen up in here? The answer is you can’t. You cannot love anyone else—or tell them how and where to love you, how exactly it is you like to be loved—if you do not love yourself, all of yourself, in every way.

But some of us don’t love ourselves. We have been told for so long that our blackness is bestial, fit only for the end of a rope. Our despised bodies were raped and plundered by those who hated us, literally hating on us with their unwanted bodies. Their descendants plunder the creative riches of our culture all the while denying we have a culture, compounding the theft of our labor while relegating us to under-resourced schools and neighborhoods, all the while pathologizing our beautiful blackness when they’re not hunting us down in city street safaris. They work so hard to cast our blackness as the demonic so they won’t have to accept the fact that they have been killing God herself. All the while appropriating our hairstyles and recreating our contours.

It is no wonder some children looking at the world unfolding around them don’t want to be black and can’t see the gift it truly is. Some of us can’t help our children find the holiness in God’s touch on their skin because we have been so brutalized in and because of our skin, hair, diction and mannerisms we wish we could be somebody else too. It can be hard to love yourself, no matter how woke you are, when you are bombarded with so much hate for your person and your people, passed down as an intergenerational curse millennia after millennia. Isn’t any wonder so many of our bodies, minds and souls are unhealthy? You can’t care for your black body if you don’t love your black body.

It’s time to tend our vines. It’s time to tend our own vines. It’s time to tend the vines of our minds. It’s time to tend the vines of our souls. It’s time to tend the vines of our beautiful black bodies. It is time to love ourselves and love on ourselves. It is time to be our own best lover. It is time to know every inch of our flesh, revel and delight in it: every curve, every roll, every wrinkle, every freckle. How are we going to know when something feels wrong in our breasts or testes when we don’t know what they feel like when nothing is wrong?

What happens to your vine is a community affair. Our vines are all planted in the same vineyard. What happens to your vine affects my vine and what happens to my vine affects your vine. What we do or fail to do in the care and nurture of our vines is not just confined to our own bodies. In our strength we can strengthen others. A strong vine can help support a weaker vine. But a diseased vine can infect the whole vineyard.

When you hurt me, you hurt yourself
Don’t hurt yourself
When you diss me, you diss yourself
Don’t hurt yourself
When you hurt me, you hurt yourself
Don’t hurt yourself, don’t hurt yourself
When you love me, you love yourself
Love God herself [2]

Gafney Candler Black Church

[1] Translation of Song of Songs Poem 2 (1:5-6) by Rabbi Marcia Falk (The Song of Songs: Love Lyrics from the Bible. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2004.

[2] “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” Beyoncé, Lemonade, Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia Records, 2016.