The Oaks Academy launched a discussion series based on “Be the Bridge.”  This is a 12-week course with the first 4-week segment focusing on the history of racism/white supremacy in the US. They wanted me to give some opening remarks to set the tone for the discussion. Here’s what I had to say:

My first day of working as a sub for the Oaks, Mrs. Dierlam introduced me to her first-grade class. She asked me about the spelling of my last name, fascinated that it had two D’s. I kinda froze and asked “do you really want to know?”

She said yes, so I explained that in tracing my family tree, I only had to go back three generations before I had to sift through receipts. It turned out that there was a spelling error on a transfer of property order and just like that, our one D family became a two D family.

I get done explaining this and I’m standing in front of this class like “Hi kids, welcome to the realities of chattel slavery … I’ll just see my way out.” But Mrs. Dierlam doesn’t miss a beat and puts my story immediately into historical context. Unafraid to have difficult conversations in the moment. That willingness is what first impressed me about the Oaks.

I’ve been having these sorts of conversation with a couple of friends of mine, one whom I went to elementary school and the other I grew up in church with. They reached out due to all of the uprising and racial strife. I thought it was telling that they had to reach out to someone who they knew thirty years ago.

You should probably know, I don’t always engage in these conversations. They require me to open up old wounds in the hope that the listener will hear my story, see my humanity, and perhaps learn. I’m not always up for that.

But I made the exception because I am in relationship with them. It became the familiar conversation. With my “friends” wanting to start from the place that they weren’t even sure that systematic racism is a thing. So, I took the opportunity to set a couple of parameters:

One, we may not be ready to have a conversation about this. If you’re at the stage where you are essentially questioning whether gravity is real to a scientist, I probably don’t have the emotional bandwidth to get you there.

Two, in the entirety of us knowing each other, you never understood that we live in the same country experiencing its systems completely differently.

What do I mean by that?

The only reason either of them knew me is because:

-First, my mother essentially tricked the bank into loaning us money. Redlining was still a thing. We were buying a house in a neighborhood on the westside where black people didn’t live. But my mom did all her business through a white male lawyer. When she went into sign the papers, with her lawyer in tow and toting my newborn baby sister with her, the banker assumed her to be the nanny. She still delights in remembering his face when her lawyer looked over the paperwork, nodded with approval, and then slid the paperwork over to her.

-Secondly, the school system I was enrolled in wanted to default me to their remedial program. My mom fought and argued with them to have me tested. They didn’t want to. Good luck arguing with my mom. When they relented and got the results back, they quite reluctantly admitted me into their Accelerated Program. The only black male in the class.

-Third, my mother insisted that me and my brother go to church. So, we went to the one within walking distance of our new house. One of only two black families attending there.

I grew up in that conservative Evangelical church from when I was in fourth grade until about halfway through college. One of the big reasons why I left was over issues of race.

While I really liked our pastor because he was such a student of the Bible, there was some questionable theology among the congregation. Besides the blue-eyed, blond Jesus iconography, there was an undercurrent of “the curse of Ham” brand of theology when it came to black people.

Your teenage years is a time for trying to figure out your identity. Who you are. Who you want to be. Church was supposed to be the place where you could ask those kind of questions. But the answers very much felt like “you are a son of God … but don’t date our daughters” because we weren’t meant to be “unequally yoked.” When I started studying the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. there was immediate pushback because “you know he was a womanizer and a Communist.”

Which was when I first started studying Malcolm X. Malcolm X had a profound impact on my growing worldview. My youngest son is even named for him. But at this point I was labeled as “angry” by my church and left alone. Eventually I had enough and quit the church. And white people. And joined the Nation of Islam.

And I did eventually find my way back to Jesus. But it took many years.

This part of my story stunned my church friend (btw, turns out he’s the uncle of a former staff member here. She loves the fact that I’ve been having these conversations with him). But I reminded him that he was only shocked because race was a conversation no one wanted to have. While we were studying the Israelites great exodus, he spent more time trying to identify with Israel than wrestling with the idea that his culture might be Egypt. Or how the story of Israel’s exile might have special resonance with me: a people being transported to a new land, forced to learn a new culture, and a new language in order to navigate the dominant culture. When my friend asked me about what I meant by that, my next words hurt him.

In the thirty plus years we’ve known each other, you’ve never heard my authentic voice.

From the time I started in the new school and new church, that was when the lessons of navigating white spaces were driven home. I had to act a certain way, speak a certain way, if I wanted to get ahead. Get ahead meaning allowed entry and the possibility to thrive in those spaces. The lessons so acutely learned, if a white person is in the room, I automatically code-switch.

Redlining. Code-switching. The public school system. He didn’t have to think about navigating any of this. That’s the reality of the system for him. I’ve simply learned to survive in it. The status quo serves him. It has never served me.

My work at the Oaks is one of my three full time jobs. I’m also an Afrofuturist by training (as a scientist and as a science fiction writer) and practice (as a community organizer at the Kheprw Institute). I see these times brought about by the twin pandemics of racial injustice and Covid-19 as an opportunity. To see torn down all the institutions and practices that keep us in states of inequality. This country was built on the backs of the free labor of black people and reinforced those same people not having equal say and rights from the beginning. Woven into the fabric of its systems, laws, and practices. Now is an opportunity revealing where the cracks in the system are. Where it’s not serving its citizens.

And, most importantly, as an opportunity to have the kind of conversations that have been decades in the making. Long overdue conversations. working with folks to create something new and better.

Because that’s literally my hope.

There’s this quote that I love from the book God of the Oppressed (by James Cone): “To hope in Jesus is to see the vision of his coming presence, and thus one is required by hope itself to live as if the vision is already realized in the present.” My work here at the Oaks, in the community, and in my writing all springs from a place of future hope. I live in light of who I was meant to be, who I will become, and join with God in reconciling the world back to Him by living with intentionality toward the world we want to see.

That’s my story. I can only speak for me and to my experiences. But thank you for listening.