I loved Hidden Figures and cheered throughout and cried at the end. It was powerful. Go and see it and take your children. One my favorite images in the movie was Octavia Spencer as Vaughan under her car in full mechanic mode laying on a tarp with her lovely pump clad legs sticking out from under the car and her skirt. The accomplishments of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were due to their brilliance, tenacity, nurture of the black community, and opportunities grudgingly granted them but denied most other black people.
But I was most particularly struck by the depiction of segregation and its impact on black wealth and upward mobility. There was no pretense of separate but equal segregated education when engineering courses were only offered at whites-only schools and books on computing were only in the whites-only section of the library, protected by police. (Virginia has a longer, uglier history of closing public schools rather than integrate and white churches opening whites-only schools leaving black folk to fend for themselves and their children with virtually no resources for their tax dollars.)
This intentional under-education, miseducation, and constant changing of job qualifications to exclude African Americans-along with excluding black veterans from the GI Bill-was designed to build the white middle class at the expense of and on the plundered wealth of black folk.
The legacy of segregation left generations of black folk perpetually behind white folk in every social and financial index by design on top of the inequities resulting from slavery, anti-Reconstruction policies, and Jim and Jane Crow.
At the same time the Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan were dealing with entrenched racism they were also dealing with entrenched sexism. (Note the adversarial and antagonistic posture of the white women under the same patriarchal hierarchy. Notice the colored-only bathroom was only addressed when Katherine Johnson’s commute to pee interfered with the larger project.) The idea that there needed to be protocols for women to attend Pentagon briefings or an engineering course wasn’t taught for women-meaning at their level-would be laughable it it weren’t also intentional structural discrimination.
Lastly, as much as these women are being celebrated now and their work was acknowledged to some degree then, don’t miss that Katherine Johnson could not put her own name on her own computations, not even in a subordinate position, and the man whose name was on the report could not do the math. (How did their salaries and benefits compare?) But it was her position in the group that was no longer needed–until they figured out they could not do the moonshot without her.
Hidden Figures was a wonderful, powerful movie that made me so appreciative for the love and nurture of the black community, especially teachers who see and saw what we and our children are capable of and help us succeed against the odds.
The world is on fire. Black women and men are being slaughtered in the street, in jail and in church. Some of the country is talking about race out loud and in meaningful ways. Some mainline denominations are following suit – not leading. Eavesdropping on a couple of these conversations brought me back to the beginning of my teaching career at a predominantly white and segregated seminary (black folk dominated the evening courses which were often less rigorous and more often taught by adjuncts) in one of the whitest denominations in America.
I blogged in the closet, anonymously, because I didn’t have tenure to save my sanity in the face of micro aggressions like students calling me by my first name while calling my colleagues by their titles – I shut it down. And macro aggressions like being called a nigger in chapel and having white faculty and administration white-splain that the way the student used the term wasn’t the same as calling me a nigger. I paid for my defiance and insistence by being forced to apologize to a white woman who was offended that what I was saying reflected poorly on her partner’s leadership.
I didn’t have tenure. I did what I was told. And I blogged. Anonymously. A few, very few, knew who and where I was.
As I look at conversations in that church and others this summer I have decided to exhume some of my original blogs. I think it doesn’t matter whether I wrote them 2 or 12 years ago, nothing has changed.
Here’s some of what I blogged to keep myself sane:
I. There is nothing so dangerous as person who thinks that their progressive social and political values make them bias-free. There is no racism like liberal racism and no sexism like progressive sexism.
II. As important as is racial, ethnic, gender, orientation and ability diversity – and it is crucial – ideological diversity seems to be rarely invoked. I have noticed that some communities are happy with visual diversity as long as there is no theological, philosophical or ideological diversity. You are welcome as long as you think like the dominant culture (even if you don’t look like them). Physical diversity has become for some an opportunity for self-congratulation, proof of liberal/progressive identity and/or fetishism. Frequently the basis for accepting visibly different bodies into a community is the degree to which they accede to the values and beliefs of the majority culture.
I do not suggest that communities – particularly believing and worshiping communities – have no right to theological, philosophical or ideological boundaries. I do wonder how much space there is – and ought be – between confessional communal identity and individual theological convictions.
My experience has shown me that my black woman’s body is acceptable when it performs, preaches, teaches and worships in the image of whatever community I’m in, even if it is my own. Tension, rejection and rebuke arise when my theological commitments, perspectives, beliefs and practices are divergent.
How hollow is that diversity which is only as thin as a photograph of variably colored people!
III. When I teach about privilege – white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied – I also teach about peril. I’m careful to point out that privilege and peril regularly coexist in individuals and communities to avoid setting up an “oppression olympics.” For example, the peril I experience as a black person and as a woman coexists with the privilege I experience from my socioeconomic status and the privilege I experience from my hierarchical standing as a professor and as a priest.
Apparently, that’s just me. I have been watching other folk who also enjoy privilege while living with peril who have no interest in articulating or acknowledging their own privilege. In this case it is white privilege. I have been watching and listening as some white gay men dominate the equality movement articulate gay identity over and apart from black identity, build on and steal from the Civil Rights Movement and proclaim that black liberation is “over.”
I have also observed white women who are deeply concerned about the status of women in the academy and the church invest in, nurture and support white women and only white women. For these women, women of color are not women – unless we want to support the white women’s agenda. Support for women of color is called divisive, shifting the focus from gender to race and ethnicity.
Neither group, white gay men nor white women in these contexts acknowledge the power they have from their white privilege. But they use it. It is a peculiar thing to see white privilege wrapped in a mantle imperiled victimhood.
It seems to me the movements for women’s equality and LGBTQ equality when divorced from any concern about the status of women of color or queer colored folk is not really about civil or human rights. On one level these culture wars are about the fury white folk feel when their white privilege is not universally acclaimed and honored. As a result, some white gay men have no problem using sexism or racism in their campaigns for – not equal rights – but the restoration of their privilege. And, some white women cannot identify or partner with women of color in achieving equity for all women because their womanhood is intrinsically linked with their whiteness, rendering women of color unrecognizable as women.
Unarticulated privilege is still privilege. White privilege is nearly inescapable.
IV. I am a woman.
I am a man.
I am a person.
I am human.
I am somebody.
These ancestral affirmations refuted the twisted logic of the American slavocracy, Jane and Jim Crow and polite northern racism.
Their time has not yet passed.
The accomplishments of Barack Obama directly benefit him, his family, his children, his friends and his inner circle.
For the rest of us it has opened up a new and unimaginable experience:
We are told that our experiences of discrimination no longer matter, or are no longer even real because of his success.
The Black Church has been the bulwark of black peoples since the Candace’s servant was baptized on the road to Damascus.
The Black Church is also, ironically and unfortunately, a bulwark of sexism and heterosexism.
I recently participated in a conversation with scores of black women, most of whom are pastors or preachers, who uncovered the widespread practice of male clergy regularly inviting them to preach and forgetting to pay them, sometimes for months, if ever.
The irony is apparent.
Many of these male preachers are lions of the Civil Rights movement who marched around in signs saying, “I AM A MAN.”
For some of them, male identity was more important than human identity.
The silent Civil Rights protestors who marched in signs proclaiming, “I AM A MAN” were denying the dehumanizing agenda of white supremacist society with every breath.
They were demanding simple human (humane) recognition, which turns out not to be so simple after all.
Recognizing the full humanity of other persons requires full recognition of all of their rights, abilities, gifts and possibilities.
The male hegemony of the Black Church is not alone in seeking the power and privilege of white, male, hetero-patriarchal society for themselves. They are not alone in seeking a few more chairs to be added to the table of exclusion for their benefit, or even seeking to replace a few chair-holders.
There are white feminists who seek a place at the table for white women, no others need apply.
There are white gay men who believe that theirs is the only expression of Queer identity that exists or matters and the movement must be guided by them to achieve their goals, and theirs alone.
I am a woman.
I am because we/you are.
(I inadvertantly mispelled Quvenzhané in the earlier version of this post affecting the text in the link. I have corrected it in the post I sincerly apologize to her and to her family.)
A black girl-child must be the most fearsome thing in the world based on how hard so many adults in the juggernaut of
Hollywood Hollywierd are working to demean and debase her. Whether it's reporters who can't or won't learn to say her name – "Can I call you Annie?" No. "My name is not Annie. My name is Quvenzhané." (I am not naming the offenders. I refuse to call their names.) Can you imagine a reporter not bothering to learn the name of a world leader because it makes demands on her articulation? Yet some want to call her uppity for insisting on the dignity of her own name. We've seen that before: Grown black women called "Gal," never "Mrs."
And then there was the person and organization who thought it was ok to call a nine year-old baby girl carrying a stuffed dog a vaginal slur.
I am reminded of the prophetic and prescient bell hooks and her continually relevant essay "Selling Hot Pussy." Black women and girls and our brown sisters are commodities from plantations to picture shows reduced to our urogenital orifices. (Bootylicious anyone?) The claim of comedic license would be a joke if it were not so feeble and so deadly. The law of this land not so very long ago was that black women and girls could not be raped because we had no ownership of our own bodies, no right to withhold consent or access from any white man or any black man to which he wanted to breed us. A black woman or girl who defended herself and her womb against violation and pollution was beyond uppity; she was a criminal.
White privilege and its daughter, White Ladihood, cover white child-actressess from Jodie Foster and Drew Barrymore to Dakota Fanning in its embrace. They were not and would not be called filth and out of their names on their big night. The actions of these journalists reveal their belief that Miss Quvenzhané Wallis is not deserving of the protections afforded white ladihood, not even at the tender age of nine. Like a slave, she is not afforded the luxury of a childhood.
No baby, we haven't come a long way. Some have never left the plantation. Others are trying desperately to recreate it and impose it on the rest of us. We are not a post-racial society. We are a society in which a few people of color have made extraordinary accomplishments and are then used as shields to defend against claims of racism. We also live in a world in which violence against women and girls is epidemic and cataclysmic. Little Quvenzhané lives at the intersection of black and female and is doubly impacted, doubly marginalized, doubly vulnerable.
That the writer who called Quvenzhané Wallis a word no nine year-old should hear, know or have to be shielded from should be held professionally accountable and lose his (or her) job must be said. That so many in the twitterverse an on other social media platforms are outraged is a hopeful sign. But that the media outlet which posted that comment and later took it down without apology has not taken responsibility for its vicious act of sexualized (verbal) violence against a child is reprehensible. That the people who work there don't understand that they feel entitled to treat Quvenzhené they way they are because she is black is the point and the problem.
Quvenzhané, I say your name with pride and respect. You are a gift to this world. You are brilliant and beautiful, made in the image of a loving God whom many cannot or will not recognize because she is a black girl flowering into womanhood. And the world that lynched a Jewish single mother's child simply can't handle God in black female body. (See Janet McKenzie's iconic image of Jesus using a black woman as Christ/a.)