When I first started out as a high school teacher at the tender age of 20, I quickly began to realize something about my even younger pupils. They held some very interesting views about Latinos, women, Muslims, immigrants, and the like. Having just come from the outside world of college and whatnot I knew very well how poorly these views would serve them outside of the walls where so many had nearly grown up. So, thinking I was doing them a favor, I sought to offer more exposure on people groups they rarely, if ever, came in contact with in their day to day lives by assigning literature written by those people. One such book that I chose was 12 Years a Slave.
It was eye opening…for me. I found myself reading about a man who lived centuries ago in a system even older than that and yet, somehow, seeing far too many correlations to present day for my own liking. In reading, I began to understand why so many African Americans today don’t know how to swim or why so many of our cultural dishes are comprised of less desirable cuts of meat. I thought about how we favor broken English and considered the colorism we keep so close to our chest. It dawned on me that comparatively, America has spent more time steeped in slavery and its practices than out of it, and most of us don’t even know that we left with full pockets even after we crossed the river Jordan, leaving Dr. King behind us.
Up until that point my own education of African American history was cursory at best. I knew that slavery had occurred, Abe Lincoln freed the slaves, we liked Martin, Malcom we didn’t (but I couldn’t tell you why), and Rosa helped get the movement going. Obviously that’s relatively perfunctory and one dimensional, but we only had a month dedicated to learning about it so that was the best my teachers could do. But stumbling into the facts about my ancestral past made me curious- what else didn’t I know? I became voracious- books, documentaries, museum exhibits- you name it, I took it in eyes wide open.
I learned about the emergence of Whore Lake in the wake of Emmett Till’s murder. I learned about Black Wall Street in Tulsa and the ‘Race Riots’ that that left a model city of black industry burned to the ground and hundreds slain in the streets. I learned about Tignon law, which prohibited women of color from wearing their hair out in public and required that it be covered. I learned about the likelihood of our government’s involvement in the assassinations of key Black leaders like MLK, Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, and Malcolm X. This is history and I had to go looking for it.
I cut my hair in response to what I was learning about my own roots. There was blood and ugly and injustice everywhere. There is blood and ugly and injustice everywhere. In my study, I came to realize that a hand from the past that shaped and molded what was considered beautiful, acceptable, and appropriate did not include me. Beautiful hair, among other things, subscribed to a more European ideal- I am not European. So there came a point where I had to grapple with asking, Can I be beautiful with hair that did not conform to the constructs of straight and long? These are the finest waves of oppression, minutia really. To see oppression on a grander scale, look to Tulsa or Baltimore, look for Tamir Rice or Sandra Bland. Stop at one of our inner city schools and ask to see their textbooks, never mind that the school is named after a former Klan member or a confederate general and its students are primarily black or people of color.
I share this because I realize I run in circles of all types of people. However, I think sometimes we surround ourselves or find ourselves surrounded by mirror images- people who look and think like us. This monolithic existence can often sequester us away from the reality that others’ experiences are, in fact, vastly different. My perspective, like yours, is constructed by the unique boxes I check- black, female, Christian, heterosexual, etc. The intersectionality of those demographics all contribute to an experience unique to me- as a woman my perspective and experience will still vary greatly from a white or Hispanic woman or from a black Muslim woman. These boxes curate our reality but our reality does not necessarily reflect the reality of others.
From their history to their hair, sometimes we cannot imagine how differently life can be for individuals that differ from us in even the slightest of ways. But this is why we need each other, this is why community with people that reflect the fullness of the image of God is important, dare I say vital. It is also why in the spirit of true community, we must participate fully in the human experience by engaging and exposing ourselves to the humanness of others and their realities. And if that reality is less than the full dignity that Jesus came to restore and uphold, we who stand strong should know that we were given that strength not to turn away but to turn toward and continue the work of ransoming those that are being destroyed.