Is Dark Skin A Sin?

10856651_826008774130194_8062477244597007895_oI am black, but [AND] comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept. Song of Songs 1: 5-6

As the Executive Director for Faith in New York, an affiliate of the PICO National Network, I organize faith communities to take action for justice concerning issues that threaten the health of our communities. One of our campaigns is Live Free New York, which is a part of a national movement in which people of faith are working to end mass incarceration, gun violence, and police brutality through policy change and direct action.

Mass incarceration is an issue with many tentacles, and in New York, one tentacle is school suspension rates that are through the roof for black children. What many in the black community don’t understand is that according to data from the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, as presented in a recent New York Times article: “black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide are suspended at a rate of 12 percent compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls and more than girls of any race or ethnicity. … An analysis by Villanova [University] researchers of data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health indicated that black girls with the darkest skin tones were three times more likely to be suspended than black girls with the lightest skin.”
In the black community, we usually see colorism as regulated to beauty and dating choices, but research shows that colorism (defined as a practice of discrimination where those with lighter skin are treated more favorably than those with darker skin), affects educational and economic opportunities, as well as who is swept into the mass incarceration system and how long they reside there. Colorism is an implicit bias; research shows a connection between implicit bias and mass incarceration. From the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity:

“Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness.”

The implicit bias of colorism affects prison sentences. Villanova researchers studied more than 12,000 cases of African-American women imprisoned in North Carolina and found that women with lighter skin tones were sentenced to 12 percent less time behind bars than women with darker skin tones. Mass incarceration is showing that we can no longer ignore colorism in our communities. What many are not aware of is that black woman of child-bearing age are one of the largest groups entering prison for the first time. While the New Jim Crow was coming through the front door and removing black men from our communities, it was going through the back door and quietly removing black women. We are unaware of the impending crisis that the incarceration of black mothers, daughters, and sisters is going to cause in our community.

As a person of faith and someone who has studied colorism for more than 15 years, I recognized that throughout American history, black skin has been deemed sinful, with false theologies such as the “curse of ham” where Genesis 9:20–27 was incorrectly interpreted to deem all people of African ancestry as eternally cursed and sinful. In the famous passage from Song of Songs, we see that most English Bibles translate the verse to state, “I am dark BUT lovely,” which is an apology for darkness, whereas the correct translation in the original Hebrew is “I am dark AND lovely,” which is not an apology but a bold declaration of beauty. This is a small change that makes a huge difference in the message the reader receives about dark skin. The implicit bias of colorism or anti-blackness is fostered through all aspects of human activity: religion, relationships, business, and politics. As a black faith leader, I struggle with the fact that although the black church has been a healing agent of justice for our community, it has also been one of the institutions that promoted colorism through historically inaccurate icons of Jesus and other religious figures that support the idolatrous notion that whiteness is next to Godliness.

As the black community grapples with the effects of incarceration on generations of black men, we now have to grapple with the incarceration of black women and the fact that colorism and the disdain for blackness is a contributing factor to who enters prison and how long they stay there. When black is deemed sinful and thus regulated to incarceration, what is the future of melanin, that powerful chemical we all possess but that blacks possess most explicitly? When even our holy books are translated and interpreted in a way that deems blackness as sinful and something to be apologized for, how can we truly say #BlackLivesMatter? If we are honest even in the black community, #BlackLivesMatter as long as they are not too dark or too poor. The research on implicit bias, colorism, and mass incarceration are all intersecting to challenge American society, but especially the black community to deal with the long-term, deeply held belief that blackness is inherently sinful. Instead of waiting for American society to absolve blackness of this imagined sin, what would it look like for the black community to stand empowered declaring that blackness doesn’t just matter but is beautiful, powerful, and worthy of freedom? Only when we stand in empowered blackness can we fight strategically and powerfully to end mass incarceration.

 

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An Interview with Queen Quet of the Gullah/Geechee

I am very excited to say that in the August edition of Sojourners Magazine the interview I had with Queen Quet was published! The Gullah/Geechee Nation is a spiritually powerful group and Queen Quet is a beautiful advocate with her people.

“A lot of people don’t know that we exist,” says Queen Quet, referring to her people, the Gullah/Geehee Nation, an indigenous group that spans the coastline from North Carolina to Jacksonville, Fla.

In 2006, Congress passed the Gullah/Geechee Heritage Act to help preserve the living culture of this “nation within a nation.” The Gullah/Geechee, however, continue to fight for their heritage as they battle against environmental racism and climate change. Read more in “‘We Are Not an Island’” (Sojourners, August 2014).

Watch this video as Onleilove Alston, a Sojourners board member, sits down with Queen Quet to discuss the environmental rights of the Gullah/Geechee people.

I am grateful to A Black Tribe and Kendria Smith for shooting and editing the video.

‘Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)’

PrayerRallyforTM

For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14

Revival is defined as: Restoration to life, consciousness, vigor, strength, and repentance (emphasis mine)http://dictionary.reference.com

Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you. You are all that I have. At the end of the day, GOD is still in control.”-Sabrina Fulton mother of Trayvon Martin

Saturday night as I was waiting for the subway to take me from the Upper Westside of Manhattan to Harlem I overheard an African-American cop tell his co-worker that George Zimmerman was not convicted of any charges. The face of his co-worker who was an African-American woman dropped and she silently turned towards the tracks to look for the next train. The scene was disturbing to me because I saw the powerlessness in both cops faces which is disheartening since these are “New York’s Finest” and yet with their badges and city issued authority they like many African-Americans were reminded of our powerlessness in a system that was founded on devaluing African life. As I sat on the train heading uptown I was outraged by the verdict but not surprised. When I arrived home I had to tell my African roommates from Tanzania the news and we had a long discussion about the case and one of my roommates stated “I guess we can only get justice from God.” My African roommates like myself are followers of Jesus who have had evangelical conversion experiences yet we know that our faith cannot save us from white supremacy. The Sinful fact is that though the Apostle Paul proclaimed in Galatians that: “we are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28) this oneness has not occurred in our daily realities.

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A Caution In Pursuing the Common Good

I hope all is well as we attempt to settle into spring, I wanted to share a reflection I wrote about the notion of the “Common Good”. Be Blessed!

In the Summer of 2008 I interned in Washington, D.C. at Sojourners a progressive Christian advocacy organization that focuses on economic justice, creation care and immigration issues. The founder of Sojourners Rev. Jim Wallis recently released a book on the notion of a “Common Good” and I was invited to read and respond to it earlier this week at the New York City launch. As I was thinking about the notion of a “Common Good” I started to examine if the “common good” would be good for non-white people or if we were taking the common standards, beliefs and customs of white America and making them good for all. In the post below I give a caution for pursuing the “Common Good” which was shared on Huffington Post and Sojourners: Common Good Forum. See the post below:

Social speech bubble,  Cienpies Design / Shutterstock.com

Social speech bubble, Cienpies Design / Shutterstock.com

Whenever I hear the term “common good” I think of Thomas Paine’s infamous pamphlet Common Sense, which challenged the British government and the royal monarchy, but did not challenge the institution of slavery. As an African-American woman I enter the common good conversation cautiously because I know that in our society we have a habit of taking what is good for Western hegemony and making it the standard for everyone else.

As we pursue the common good, let us remember what was once considered common and good during earlier points in American history: chattel slavery, indigenous genocide, and institutionalized sexism. To truly come to a common good, we need to honor a diversity of voices and challenge our assumptions about what is common and what is good. Our default is to take what is good for our culture, gender, or community and make it the common standard for all. I have experienced being invited into organizations that were aiming to do good in the world, but an expectation existed that I would be silent about my unique concerns as an African woman. I know that denying my reality can never be good for my spiritual, physical, or social well being. Read the entire post here

Connecting the Dots: Hurricane Sandy, Climate Change & Poverty

This article was originally published in the April 2013 Issue of Sojourners Magazine.

Image: Hurricane collage, Amir Ridhwan / Shutterstock.com

OVER THE PAST few years, we have seen tangible proof that creation is terribly off balance. Global warming is causing droughts and heat waves around the world and is making hurricanes more powerful. In my hometown of New York City, we have experienced the effects of severe weather: Hurricane Irene in 2011 and, most recently, the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Sandy was an eye-opening demonstration that climate change is a poverty issue, a race issue, and an immigration issue.

Though neighborhoods of all socioeconomic statuses were affected by Sandy, poorer communities are taking longer to recover. Many of them were without electricity, heat, and water longer than were more affluent communities. For instance, residents of Red Hook’s public housing projects in Brooklyn were without power and water for two weeks after the storm. My cousin Dabriah Alston, a Red Hook resident, told me that the city ignored residents’ repeated requests for information about when the heat would come back on: “The bottom line is, they don’t care about us. Projects are filled with poor folk, and as we all know, the poor are seldom a priority.”
Read the Entire Article Here

A Great Blessing & A Great Responsibility: Sojourners Emerging Voices Project!

I am humbled and blessed to be apart of Sojourners Emerging Voices Project which is a  initiative that aims to raise the voices of new leaders for faithful justice. I found out about this in the spring but the project was officially launched yesterday. God is hilarious because a few years ago I  complained to friends and God about the lack of women and people of color speaking, leading and writing in the faith-based social justice world. Often when we complain about something that needs to get done God will point back at you and say “why don’t you do it?” In 2007 I was discouraged about the lack of concern for justice I observed in the church, had recently left a really bad church situation and was praying and crying about the gap between my reality and the church. During that time after a fast I learned about Sojourners from a email to Union students inviting us to apply for a scholarship to the Pentecost 2007 Conference (which I thought was a Black Pentecostal Social Justice Conference, one of my girlfriends even thought I was going to meet somebody there, LOL). I attended the conference and found a community of Christians striving for justice nationally but more importantly in NYC. At the conference I met Lisa Sharon Harper (a fellow Emerging Voices member), Rev. Peter Heltzel and Anna Lee Winans all founders of NY Faith & Justice. I returned home fired up to organize people of faith for social justice. A year later I was able to intern at Sojourners as a Beatitudes Society Fellow and began writing for the magazine and blog. I never expected to have these opportunities but God does hear our spoken and unspoken prayers. Those who know me know that I come from very humble circumstances and I was not raised in church, all I have to qualify me for this work is God’s grace and the words of my testimony.

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Why the Church is the Best Place for A “Pussy Riot”

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Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova makes herself heard before a hearing in Moscow on August 8. Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/GettyImages

On August 17th the punk band Pussy Riot will receive their verdict for the case against them. The members of this band have been in jail since March for protestfying against Russian political conditions in a Moscow’s largest Orthodox Church. According to Slate:

“The trial for three members of Pussy Riot, a Russian punk band that got in a lot of trouble for a prank/protest event where they crashed the altar of Moscow’s largest Orthodox Church to play a single anti-Putin song, concluded this week. The members gave closing statements, which they used to reassert their objections to the authoritarian state and the way that religious faith is being hijacked to garner support for government oppression. Business Insider ran a video and a translation of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s closing statement, where she clearly laid out the case for breaking the back of all oppressive institutions and linked her ordeal with that of many historical figures who have faced similar censorship efforts from social and governmental authorities.”
Pussy Riot’s Closing Statement

As a faith based community organizer I spend a great majority of my time trying to get political issues into the church so that the gospel can be relevant to the reality of those on and off the pews. I believe the best place for a “pussy riot” is the church and though this may seem sacrilegious here’s why I feel this way:

1. When the church ignores social and political issues it silently blesses injustice; see slavery, the holocaust, lynching and child sexual abuse. Testimony Time is a set time in many Black Churches in which congregants can speak of their pains and triumphs and how God brought them through. Testimony time is democratic and a time of raw honesty. I call what Pussy Riot did Protestifying because they protested by testifying about the political conditions of their country.

2. Though Jesus came to earth via a pussy the divine feminine has been dishonored and dismissed in the church. Ironically women make up the majority of the church and without pussy the church could not survive.

3. When we read the Biblical Psalms (which were mostly songs) we read of sadness, joy, justice, injustice, fear, courage and a host of other conditions and emotions. In Church we don’t only need songs of joy and devotion but honest songs where we tell God our frustrations and express our anger. Sadly, in many of today’s churches we are only allowed to sing polite hymns or sugary sweet “power point songs” (a term I coined for Evangelical Praise & Worship Songs), many a Sunday I feel like I am lying to God when I am asked to sing these false platitudes and I don’t think God is pleased with our “false sacrifices of praise”. Everything is not ok in our world and yet the church does not want us to bring our pain into the church. I believe God longs to have a transparent relationship with us in which we are honest about the full spectrum of our emotions.

4. Lastly according to Mary’s Song, Isaiah 61 and countless other Biblical scriptures God cares about the oppressed, so why wouldn’t the church be the place to speak about social issues? I do not believe in the separation of spirit from body or in compartmentalizing our lives. our politics, spiritually and physical realities all matter to God and should be brought to the altar of our churches.
Ironically when Mary Mother of Jesus sang her song (also known as the Magnificat) of Justice she had to do so with another woman outside of the temple.Mary’s Song was a pussy riot of her own because she sang these revolutionary words:

He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

This song is not from a secret lost book of the Bible but can be found in the Gospel of Luke and gives support for being honest with God about our social conditions. I will be praying for the members of Pussy Riot but more importantly for the awakening of the global Church so that we will open our doors and invite reality and justice in.

Take Action and Sign the petition Free Pussy Riot!

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Russia is one of the many countries where the Black Madonna is honored.