Three Little Words

shoppingThis weekend was wonderful in many ways.  After a very trying week, I decided to just really have some fun.  Over the last year, I have had a great deal of strife and loss and to find myself in a position of financial and life security to be able to simply enjoy myself seemed like the greatest gift.

I started the weekend by going to a baseball game for the first time in maybe 20 years.  My friend Lee who came with me, got to witness something few people get the chance to see…me acting like a 10 year old.  We are both big New York baseball fans (him Yankees, me Mets.) Although this was an Oakland game against Los Angele, just being in the stadium and seeing the diamond and the players on the field was a thrill.  We had great seats at field level and a perfect view.  An icy beer and a couple of polish sausages didn’t hurt either.  What looked at first like it was going to be a cloudy day, turned into a bright crisp, perfect baseball atmospheric setting and what looked like at first was going to turn into a trouncing by Los Angeles turned, in the 5th inning, into a fairly swift triumph for the Oakland A’s.  I have kept minor tabs on Coco Crisp since meeting his sister Sheileah at a black figure skater’s event in 2003.  He and the rest of the team made us all proud…3-1 Oakland.

Throughout the game and then afterward over coffee, Lee and I enjoyed wonderful conversation about seminary and life and his latest passion the television series “Orange is the New Black.”  I have yet to watch an episode through, but have caught bits because last year I was fortunate to meet Laverne Cox at the National Black Justice Coalition “Out on the Hill” conference in DC.  She is a wonderful speaker and a passionate advocate for trangender rights and is breaking incredible ground with a starring role in a series like OITNB.  Lee and I would love to see someone like her make a connection with transgender folks out here in the Bay…maybe there’s a way…wheels turning!

I was light on my feet leaving Lee, feeling really nourished emotionally and intellectually, and went on to a great and unexpectedly fun party in Richmond with my friend Zak.  Zak tends to be as intense as I am about social justice and its refreshing to find someone who is willing to meet me on that level.  I think we would happily talk ourselves blue in the face about issues and policy and history, but we managed to actually also just have a laugh with people at the party that was a fundraiser for Richmond Councilmemeber Jovanka Beckles, a black, out lesbian, someone who is yet another force of nature.  What a treat to meet someone with that kind of energy and dedication.  As it would happen, I then had the opportunity to meet the Mayor of Richmond, Gayle McLaughlin.  This was extremely handy in that we’ve been trying to get her for an event at work.  What a stroke of luck!

Sunday was full of beautiful sunshine and church, reconnecting with my friend Julia and discovering that she might be a childhood connection with my friend Nicola in England and spending time with the youth at the church.  I spent the afternoon relaxing and catching up on my two guilty pleasures, Archer and Top Gear, U.K. By the time I went to do my grocery shopping on Sunday evening, I was fully spent and thoroughly satisfied that my weekend was complete.  I had connected with people I care deeply about, I had made new business connections and reflected on other important people who have been in and out of my life and thought about what a gift it is for a kid who grew up in the suburbs of Boston to brush elbows now and again with people who make great differences in the world.  After going to both Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, I decided to look for a small tub so that I could soak my feet in Epsom salt.  Neither of those stores nor Walgreen’s carried such an item, but I knew that in a black neighborhood, at the local market there would be some kind of something that I soak my feet in.  Bingo!…a bright orange tub at the local Lucky’s.  I decided in honor of OITNB that this was quite appropriate.  And then all of the fun and privilege I enjoyed this weekend, all of the reflection on the famous and powerful people that I know and have access to faded in three little words.  They hit me like a slap in the face.  A middle aged white woman approached me and in an angry tone barked at me:

“You work here?”

I was wearing a sweatshirt, scrubs and sandals, my hair was a wreck and frankly, I looked like I should be headed to bed…most clearly not working.  There were white hipsters, black and Latino families, a real mix of people in the store at that time.  The employees of the store are easily identified by the crisp white shirts they wear and the brown aprons that say in big letters “Lucky’s.”  I looked down my nose at her and barked back “no.”  It is this kind of odd juxtaposition of situations, that I could have the weekend I had and be who I am and still have someone approach me in a supermarket, regardless of how I am dressed, and assume that I work there.  I have nothing against grocery workers.  My own mother, during our lean years, worked for A&P; several of my dearest friends through highschool worked at Stop & Shop.  I have even applied (and was no less turned down) for work with Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and Safeway.  People work where they work.  I do however, have something against someone who all she can see is the color of my skin and therefore assume that I work there, wherever “there” might be.  But maybe my assumption is wrong as well; maybe she has a visual impairment, not just a cultural one.

Now you might think I’m overreacting.  But this is a regular occurrence.  I’ve experienced it my entire life.  But sometimes I get lulled into the pace and excitement of what my life is really about and I forget that for some people, in the end, I am just another brown face that is there to serve.  Post racial?

I think not.

Lee Wittaker “Coffee With God”

Body

adam_2In the Fall of 2003 I was asked to be a model for P90X.  It is now the world’s best selling workout DVD.  If you’re unfamiliar with it, there’s a link at the bottom of this page.  At that time, I was in the midst of a grand personal experiment.  I had come to Los Angeles at the end of a national tour determined to be “LA Adam.”  When I started the experiment, I wasn’t actually sure what that meant.  But I knew one thing for sure, it involved having what I called the “LA Body.”  This was a body that would always be camera ready, shaved, sculpted and looking 10 – 15 years younger than it actually was.  Prior to the LA body, I had lived with people commenting on my body as a dancer, for its shape and definition and flexibility; sometimes, welcome, sometimes not.  The most disturbing and regular comment on my body was “you black guys, never have to work out” or “you all look like that” or “dark skin always makes someone look better” or some variation on that theme.  I will happily admit that my parents gave me some good clay to work with, but it was up to me as to what I did with that clay. The idea that my body simply appeared the way it did is naive to say the least.  I started exercising when I was about ten or eleven.  I secretly did hours of ballet exercises in my basement throughout high school.  My freshman year of college, I spent more time in a dance studio than I did in class and then throughout the rest of college, the gym was my refuge from feeling like an outsider.  This past year is the longest I’ve gone in 30 years without a gym membership or regular access to an exercise facility of some kind…only because I spend so much time blogging…but I still, run, do pushups and situps and ride my bike to work.  Yeah, my body just happens because I’m black!

Black men and women have been objectified since day one in America.  Being paraded, proded and peddled as livestock meant we had to have strong bones and teeth, good backs and healthy genitals for breeding.  Stories of auction block antics surrounding the treatment of slaves would disgust most of you so I will let you explore that on your own (see links below.)  But it is that same history that expects us to be good athletes and day laborers and not necessarily bookish and un-athletic.  It is the same history that is behind racial profiling and is history that sits behind the assumptions about Trayvon Martin’s physical ability to inflict harm on George Zimmerman. Black women who are called “Brown Sugar”, black men who are called “Mandingo”…these and the dumb jock mentality are gross assumptions and the worst kind of stereotypes because the black community has frequently adopted them as well.  Blacks have played into a self objectification that makes us out to be nothing more than collection of wildly exaggerated body parts.

It has been a very dicey business for me personally to separate just what is the perverse racially motivated fascination with black bodies in America and what is the perverse fascination with sexuality in America in general.  Living at those crossroads is at times unbearable.  How do you know if someone is going out with you because they like you or because they want to sleep with the ‘P90X Ab Guy’ or because they are expecting nothing short of a sexual freak when they get in your pants?  Or how do you know if that same fascination isn’t just part of the whole “body=sex” equation here in the US?

Simply, you don’t.

I’d love to see us change the dialogue about how we not only talk about black bodies, but how we talk about ALL bodies.  Objectification, racialization, gendering…these are all aggressions we throw at each other, sometimes all too casually.  This fall I will be teaching a course at the Starr King School for the Ministry, In Your Hands: The Language, Ethics and Spirituality of Touch.  My hope is that in this class I can lay the groundwork for changing the game.  When I think of racially motivated violence, both physical and verbal, it is very clear to me that people are only capable of doing these things if they have never been intimate (in the platonic sense) with someone who looks different than they do.  I also believe that faith community leaders have a unique power to introduce a new language of touch.  The crimes of the Catholic church in abusing this power, show just how much power really exists in the ability to influence how someone sees their body.  Repulsively, this power was used by certain members of the Catholic church to horrific ends.  If we only punish them, no matter how severely, they have still won.  We must make a concerted effort to not only make sure those crimes don’t happen again, but to establish a new way to communicate through touch.  The answer is not to eliminate touch…that is inhuman.  The answer is in exploring the deeper meaning of touch as it relates to our physical identity, sense of physical well being and creating a language of liberated body justice where we can not only touch one another, but we can enjoy what that means, without fear or threat.  Imagine a room full of gang members (of any race), or people who hate one another, or total strangers, who are put in a room and simply asked to hold hands…no words.  The potential is tremendous, if we do the tough work…exploring our fears about touch, bodies and physical intimacies.  Faith communities have been vilified in terms of how they view the body and how they use the body.  If faith communities and spiritual people can lead the way to reclaim touch and body awareness, we literally can change the world.

P90X

Starr King School for the Ministry Course Descriptions (mine is at the bottom)

Slave Auction History 1

Slave Auction History 2

Slave Auction History 3

Slave Auction History 4

Point of View

20130720_071432My word for the day is ‘perspective.’

Yesterday, President Obama did something unprecedented.  He completely personalized an issue that he didn’t have to.  Until yesterday, He was treading the road of Washington D.C. professional, political navigator…insider.  But yesterday he made a surprise statement about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case.  For at least a portion of those 18 minutes, he was no longer the President of the United States, but the president of black men in America.  A risky stance when it’s open season on black men.  But this was an important step and a step that only he could take.  Black men have never had a president say “I am unapologetically one of you.”  Conservative pundits are critical of him for identifying, for reminding us that 35 years ago it could have been him who was shot by a local vigilante; for reminding us that he has had people lock car doors when he walks by, women clutch their purses when they see him…just as I and millions of black men have had happen to them as well.  But where were the criticisms when George W. Bush put in place tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (largely white men) or when he made any number of statements about ‘conservative’ values (abortion, gay rights, affirmative action) that only spoke to a specific demographic of white Christians again, largely men?  Yesterday, black men in America finally had their moment.  Deal with it.

Yesterday, there was also a wonderful program on KQED, Forum with Dave Iverson, Assessing Racial Equality and Justice in 2013 America.  His guests, Angela Glover Blackwell (PolicyLink), Eva Paterson (Equal Justice Society), and Peniel Joseph (Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, Tufts University) brought about a rich conversation that highlighted both the passion and the data behind how we actually see race today in America.  The conversation between the panelists was extremely well balanced and full of great moments, including one where Angela Glover Blackwell said in response to a listener who said they were tired of the conversation about race, “I’m tired of having to come back to the same issues again, and again…but until I see progress, I’m not going to stop.”  You can listen to the conversation and view the comments here.

I’m using the word perspective today and pointing out these news items because I think it is crucial in this conversation, and as we start conversations about race that we maintain perspective.  That we realize that our personal perspective is always skewed in the direction of our personal experience.  If you have never been called a nigger in the street, you can’t understand what that feels like or what that does to your personal sense of safety.  That is the only word in the American English language that carries with it an immediate association with specifically white oppression, violence and privilege.  It is a word that no matter how much one may thing that blacks have ‘reclaimed’ it, will never be able to be anything other than a word of pure “otherization.”  It creates a barrier with its history.  In my comments on the KQED program, I reminded people who were complaining about the focus on “black/white” in the current conversation about race that our American perceptions of race are based almost entirely on the historical relationship between black and white.  You cannot have a conversation about oppression and bigotry against Asians or Latinos or Native Americans in America without talking about blacks.  Just look at the fact that the three groups I just referenced are identified by location or language; yet blacks are identified primarily by a color.  It is the total anonymizing and obliteration of a history and the complete packaging in the context of oppression that s contained in the word nigger and that is why this conversation must continue.  One can claim, Scoth-Irish ancestry, French, Chinese, Spanish, Mayan ancestry, but blacks in America can claim only a vast continent…Africa.  We can’t point to tribes or recognized ethnic groups within the African diaspora, it was erased when our humanity was erased.  When we simply became bodies that were part of the machine of America.

Although I believe that sexuality and gender oppression is the worst global issue, I believe that the lack of understanding between black and white is America’s worst issue by far.  But that is my perspective and the perspective of every other person who has lived with the fear and cultural restriction that goes with our history.  My perspective would, I’m sure be very different if I woke up every morning and never had to think about justifying my education or worrying about publicly expressing my solidarity with other black men for fear of being seen as a threat.  But I will never know that for sure.  All I can do is have compassion for your perspective and ask you to have compassion for mine.

Add your photos to my ‘un-mugged’ project on facebook or tumblr #adamdyersays

Too Little Too Late

LynchingI chose this morning’s word because I was reflecting on things that are unique in the American struggle with race.  In that reflection I realized that part of what has registered for black Americans with the Zimmerman trial and verdict is a throwback to lynching.  The US government sat on its hands for 100 years while thousands of blacks were murdered by groups of white vigilantes.  Blacks were held on trumped up charges and then casually turned over by local enforcement officials to angry mobs who hung, burned, castrated and mutilated blacks as a public display and a threat to black communities.  The current Federal law on ‘lynching’ is not explicit to the act and is fairly deeply buried in the Civil Rights Act (Housing Rights Act) of 1968. In 2005, the US Senate officially apologized for not enacting anti-lynching legislation when it was most necessary.  But by this point, lynching and the mentality that allowed it, was already part of our cultural DNA.

There is no mistaking that shades of the inaction on lynching are evident in the public vindication of a vigilante who decided to tail a 17 year old without provocation…other than his appearance.

Strange Fruit

By Abel Meeropol (Recorded by Billie Holiday)

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
scent of magnolia
sweet and fresh
then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit
for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange
and bitter crop

http://www.americanlynching.com/photos-old.htm

http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/245

You can now share your own “un-mugged” shots on my Tumblr page…http://adamdyersays.tumblr.com/

 

Two Men are Lynched in Marion, Indiana

Un-mugged

Sometimes all it takes is one word to start a conversation.  This is an invitation to start the conversation.

Choose a word, write it on an envelope or similar sized piece of paper, take a picture of your self holding that word like a ‘mug-shot’ and post it to your facebook wall, twitter account or here in my comments.  Share it everywhere you can.  We need these words if we’re ever going to get past the current conversation.

What ONE word would you use to start the conversation about race in America?

Listen - Un-muggedIn the last few days, I have seen people writing and posting about how hurt they are, or how justified they feel; I’ve heard people speak about feeling abandoned and feeling angry and also feeling proud and honored to be American.  My friends sit on both sides of the Zimmerman verdict and I have resisted the urge to unfriend those I disagree with because I believe in dialogue.   But REAL dialogue.  No matter how I feel, I refuse to discuss the case because I was neither victim, accused, judge, jury or witness.  The dialogue we can all legitimately have…and that we NEED to have, is the conversation about race, today in our society.  America has a problem. When communities start destroying their own property because of how impotent they feel in the system and when the media chooses only to talk about that destruction instead of the beautiful way those same communities that have come together to hold and reassure their children that they are safe and loved, we have a problem.  When we start comparing only black and white, not just in skin color, but in actual issues, we have a problem.  When we start whispering how we really feel instead of speaking it aloud, we have a problem.  This is how we know we have reached the end of the silent road, of suspicion and hatred.  This is the end of silence and the beginning, hopefully of millions of voices shouting “let me be heard!”

Why “un-mugged?”  I have spent a lifetime of watching women clutch their purses when they are alone with me on a subway car. I have also (just this weekend) watched someone cross a street because we were the only two coming toward each other.  I have spent 30+ years watching police cars slow down when I’m alone on a street, or follow me when I’m driving.  I am no criminal, no mugger, no thief.  But I have brown skin and dreadlocks and I look young.  I fit a profile.  And although you may think this is something in my imagination, there are millions of black American men who will back me up.  I should never expect to have a “mug-shot” taken of me unless I’m in a protest, but the odds say that my chances of that happening are much higher than any other demographic in the country.  I shouldn’t have to live like that.  I don’t intend to ever see it happen…and neither should you.  This is the only mugshot that will ever be taken of me.  This picture represents my way of eliminating that chance…being ‘un-mugged’.

Let’s get rid of both the racism we endure and the racism we ignore.

Do the Work at Hand

The bloggosphere is electric with reactions to the Trayvon Martin case.  I will keep this brief.  If you are in the clergy, bring your people together and comfort them, regardless of their race.  If you are preaching tomorrow, preach the sermon you intended, do not change your subject, rather offer a prayer for those who have come to this bizarre decision and a prayer for real change and real solutions to our colonial sickness.  If you are the member of a church come together with your youth and explain to them that they are safe; particularly if they are black and particularly if they are male.  Do not look for a reason to cause more harm here.  If you are not religious or part of a religious community, talk to your friends, your brothers and sisters, your family, and keep on talking.  We are stronger than this.

Tomorrow I will preach a sermon on Islam to a mostly white congregation.  I will preach about how I am as flawed as any racist or bigot and that in order to be the person of faith that I wish to be, I must acknowledge my failings and face them.  I ask you all as I will ask that congregation, before you react to today’s news, before you tell yourself that you are a good liberal; before you assume that you are immune to bias, look at yourself, ask yourself in your heart where you are broken and where you are flawed and dive deep into working with it to fix it in your heart.  This will allow you to see in the broken hearts of those who have just placed a young person’s life on a lower rung than that of a scared vigilante.

No injustice was ever solved by created greater injustices.  We can take back this country and our dignity and our future if we first learn how to truly love ourselves and one another.

A prayer to us all.