Hip Hop Culture & A Woman's Worth

In this first part of my respectability series, I will talk about the power of language and the type of words I refuse to reclaim or accept. As a black woman, I fail to understand why I must change fundamental parts of who I am to conform to society while society makes no attempts to receive me.

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The Complications of Respectability

This month, the I Am Free Agent blog will focus on the concept of Respectability Politics and the impact of Respectability Politics on black women in America. Respectability politics are about regulating life to the standards of the most privileged people in white America. The Politics of Respectability regulate sexual practices, family planning, cleanliness and order, education level, and public decorum. No group can avoid the scrutiny. The Politics of Respectability make life restrictive for women, regardless of race, but they make life doubly difficult for women of color. And, they make life triply, perhaps even quadruply difficult for women if they are, say, disabled or have non-normative sexual preferences.

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I find myself disappointed that this will be the final post in our “She Did That” series. Alas, this is the last week of Women’s History Month for this year. I began this series as a tool of historical reclamation. American History teaches us far too little about women. American History is teaching us far too little about the contributions of women of color to the rights and freedoms many of us take for granted today. I believe that this loss of the stories of women is both an act of unintentional historical amnesia and an active and intentional attempt to disempower women by rendering our words, actions, bodies, and minds invisible.

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Perhaps the only laudable aspect of the entire college-naming controversy was that it forced the University to more deeply consider the names it gives to the new buildings on campus. One of the new residential colleges will be named for Anna Pauline Murray (Pauli).

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the churched black feminist.

I believe that all religion is political. To specify the preceding sentence a bit, I will clarify by saying that the three major monotheistic religions have their origins in political concerns. Before I flesh out this argument a bit, I should note that I consider even every day, ordinary things to be political. I see the political at work in where we live, in the vehicles we drive, in the life partnerships we choose, in the diets we observe, in the way we worship, and in the entertainment we consume. For me, the social and the political are integrally intertwined.

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She Did That! A Women's History Month Series

In honor of women and all the contributions we make to the world, I will highlight four African American women in my blog posts this month who made contributions to American History. I will call this short series “She Did That!” By no means do these women represent all the black women who have made and are making substantial contributions to American history. I understand that this sort of practice of naming “exemplars” of the race and gender still obscures so many women and their stories. The movie (and book) Hidden Figures which chronicles the lives of three black women who worked for NASA during the mid-twentieth century has aptly named the conundrum of womanhood (and black womanhood in particular). That is, the general public does not recognize our valuable contributions, and sometimes they even go unrecognized by our teammates and coworkers. I hope that in many posts to come, I can celebrate so many of these hidden figures of our past and present.

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presidential behavior.

In 2009, when Obama became President of the United States, I felt empowered that perhaps, I really could do anything. Despite all the limits I had seen black womanhood place on the potential of my foremothers living in the Americas, many of those limits had been removed. Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office, and the presence of wife, Michelle, made the myth of the American Dream feel less mythic. Yet, the rendering of the myth less mythic does not mean that it is no longer a myth.

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keep hope alive.

The lectionary Gospel reading on Sunday was the Beatitudes, a part of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus teaches the ethics of the Kingdom of God. Let us embrace the ethics taught in Matthew 5, let us recognize that we are poor in Spirit that we may inherit the Kingdom, let us mourn the sorrows of this world that we may be comforted by our loving Creator, let us be meek because the Earth belongs to the meek. Let us hunger and thirst for righteousness, trusting God to fill us. Let us be filled with mercy knowing that we will receive mercy in return, let us be pure in heart so that we may see God, and let us be peacemakers because God is peace. We will resist. We will seek God. We will win. So be it. 

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My Peace I Give You

 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,  

and on earth peace among those

whom He favors."

Luke 2:14

               In the Christian tradition, the Birth of Christ represents our new year. The Light of the World has come, and everything has changed! During this entire season, I have been trying to bring peace. I have said that I would join the cause for peace. I realize on this last day of Advent that perhaps I should have spent more time interrogating my concept of peace. The peace of this world, the kind we learn about in school, might not be the peace of God.

I think most of us would agree that this Christmas season has been anything but peaceful. Every event I have attended in the past month has had an undercurrent of anxiety because of the state of our (inter)national political climate. Almost every child I know has asked me to share my thoughts about our President-elect. I think that regardless of where any of us falls on the political spectrum, we can relate to the anxiety and fear. We are afraid of our leaders, and we are learning to fear each other. Much of this fear has cropped up during this season of Christmas.

               While some Christians I know have been struggling with the juxtaposition of political divisiveness and the joy of the Christmas season, the tension directly aligns with the situation Jesus entered at the time of His birth. The Christmas story did not happen in a spiritual bubble. Neither do we have to receive the Christmas story in a spiritual bubble. The Glory of God is meant to shake up our fragile understandings of peace. Mary and Joseph and Jesus victims of the cruel Roman Empire. Jesus’ mere presence was a direct threat to the Empire because Jesus’s birth into the midst of chaos and confusion and violence was a direct affront to the spirit of fear that hung over the people. They were the young Middle Eastern family, living with the anxiety of not knowing what was next for them. Joseph was that father, risking life, limb, and livelihood, to defend his wife and newborn son from everyone from a state that wanted to kill them to nosy neighbors who wanted to soil their reputation.

               In Scripture, we constantly see and hear the refrain, “Do not be afraid.” The sentiment of the phrase is that we ought not be afraid if we have access to God. In Luke 2, the angels say to the shepherds that they need not fear because they are receiving “good news of great joy for all the people.” As I approach this text today, it perplexes me. Why did the angels tell the shepherds about the birth of the baby; wouldn’t they have wanted this story announced to people of greater status? And, why were the shepherds excited about the baby; shepherds are supposed to look after their sheep, so why did they drop everything to go looking for a baby? And, how did Mary and Joseph really feel sitting in a cold barn, she having just given birth to her firstborn when shepherds came in from the fields to revere her child? What is going on in this story?

               It must be a God-thing. Jesus was part of the lineage of David, Israel’s second king. This David was a psalmist and warrior, but before he became psalmist, warrior, and king, David was a shepherd. It is only appropriate that shepherds would receive this newborn son of the House of David. He was born into a shepherd’s family just like them.

Brave young Mary knew that she was the mother of royalty, but the words of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) reveal that Mary was a burgeoning liberation theologian. She understood God to be on the side of the lowly, hungry, and the people of Israel. Her theological underpinnings allowed her to embrace placing the Light of the World in a manger and that His first visitors were shepherds. Her theology was big enough to wrap around the strange idea that God was inside of her. The God inside her was on the side of the oppressed.

               So, I return to my original thought. What is peace? Jesus did not come to give us more of the peace of this world. Look around. The peace of the world is contingent upon the killing and trampling upon of the innocent. The peace of this world is false, constructed to help us sleep better at night. But, what is the peace of a boy born thousands of years ago in a war-torn town and placed in a manger? What is the peace He brings us? It is the glory of the Lord. It is the light of salvation. We can be reflections of that light! As the prophet Isaiah said, “Arise, shine; for your light has come!” How will you reflect the light of Jesus in this new Christian year?              



"Teach Your Children"

On Friday, October 28, 2016, I delivered the eulogy for the Home Going service of my Great-Uncle, Johnnie U. Brown. My uncle was born on October 17, 1937, in Roe, Arkansas (the youngest brother of my late maternal grandmother, Willie Mae Mitchell). He died on his 79th birthday in Dover, Deleware, leaving to cherish his memory his wife of 47 years, Vertie Brown, three incredible sisters, and a host of nieces, nephews, adopted nieces and nephews, and friends. Below is the eulogy I delivered. We love you, Uncle Johnnie! We are so grateful for the years we shared with you. 

The Eulogy "Teach Your Children"

          First, giving honor to God, the Creator of every living thing, truly, I tell you that I humbled to stand behind this sacred desk in the presence of God and each of you to remember the late, Johnnie Brown, my great-uncle. I thank you, Aunt Vertie, for entrusting this task to me and I pray that Uncle Johnnie would be well-pleased by the spirit of this Homegoing service.

Earlier in this service, we heard these words from the Book of Deuteronomy: “You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.” Our Old Testament reading this morning implored us to teach our children. Write God’s words on the doorposts!

In my Uncle Johnnie and Aunt Vertie’s house, the food was always fresh, everyone always spoke a little bit too loudly, there was constant laughter, every member of the family was valued, and stories were shared generously. In moments like those, in a home filled with warmth and compassion, we truly see glimpses of the Kingdom of Heaven. Any of you who had the pleasure of knowing, or even meeting, my great-uncle probably will remember his gregarious laughter, his generous spirit, and his talkative nature. His zest for life and his genuine kindness rubbed off a bit on everyone who knew him and if you met him even once, it is unlikely that you could ever forget him.

          Uncle Johnnie and Aunt Vertie’s hospitality reached far beyond the walls of their home. When I was growing up, my great uncle and aunt considered it to be their duty to show me our nation. I have seen Roanoke, North Carolina and even the Grand Canyon because they thought it was important for me to learn the history of distinct parts of the United States. I remember learning about the Wright Brothers and their historic flight and dressing in colonial garb in North Carolina. I remember experiencing hole in the wall restaurants that served flap jacks and seeing unbelievable landscapes in Arizona. Using child and senior citizen discounts, there was nowhere we could not go. We as people learn so much by going places and having new experiences and I will forever be grateful for the richness these trips have added to my life.

          By now, you have probably read Uncle Johnnie’s obituary. You know that he honorably served our nation in the Vietnam War. You know that he was a proud graduate of Rutgers University. And, just to underscore that, he was very proud to be a graduate of Rutgers University. You know that he was a dedicated father, uncle, and brother. You know that he was the loving husband of his wife, whom he often fondly referred to as “Ms. V.” But, as we gather to celebrate his life today, I want to take just a few minutes to share with you just a bit about the man I knew who is now at rest in the arms of his Creator.

          My Uncle Johnnie used to call me “soul baby.” I know, it sounds sweet and all but, it was, in actuality, a gentle reference to the fact that I was a bit of a pig. As a child, eating was one of my favorite pastimes. I became kind of well-known for it. People who have met me as an adult often comment on my small appetite but as I was preparing to stand before you today to remember Uncle Johnnie, I realized that I probably don’t eat much now because I have so much food still stored up from the ages of 0-17.

My parents tried their hardest to curb my appetite but, my metabolism was fast. I was underweight for years despite all my eating. In retrospect, I feel sorry for them but at the time, I was hungry . . . EVERY. THREE. HOURS. So, friends, I have to tell you, any trip to Uncle Johnnie and Aunt Vertie’s house was truly a joy because Aunt Vertie loved to cook, Uncle Johnnie loved to grill, and they both loved sharing meals with the people they loved. They delighted in watching me eat collard greens and cornbread and ribs and my favorite, macaroni and cheese. In their house, the underweight little piggy was always welcome at the table, she was soul baby.

          And, as I stuffed my small stomach with delicious meat, right off the grill, I had the distinct pleasure of being able to sit near Uncle Johnnie and to learn from him. He was one of my greatest encouragers and teachers both because of his loud speaking volume and because of the depth of what he had to say to me.

As I began to reflect on how to tie together this life that was at as boisterous as it was fragile, my theological imagination constantly brought me back to the children of Israel, preparing to cross over into the new land that God was giving to them. Earlier, we heard this beautiful story from Deuteronomy in which the children of Israel were finally about to enter the Promised Land. You might remember from your own study of Scripture that the Children of Israel had been through a lot prior to this point. They had literally spent forty years walking in circles and now, here they were, on the precipice of something new.

You see, the children of Israel were not biologically children. They were responsible and well-worn adults. Many of them had travelled with God for all forty of those wandering years. They had either experienced bondage in Israel or they had older relatives who had faithfully recounted the stories of bondage to them. They knew what it was to live lives of captivity. In the passage from Deuteronomy that was read in our hearing this morning, they were about to taste freedom in the land that was to be their home. They were going to be free for the first time.

          Finding spaces where we can be free is exciting. And there are all sorts of freedom. There is the freedom to vote safely, which is a privilege that I am sure Uncle Johnnie would want every adult here to exercise next Tuesday. There is the freedom to go to a school that is invested in your learning and success. There is the freedom that we are exercising right now to gather to worship God without fear of persecution. There is the freedom to sing a favorite song or the freedom to play a sport. There is the freedom to feel confident and comfortable in your own skin. There is the freedom to sit around the kitchen table playing games or telling stories or just being together. Like the children of Israel did so long ago, we all want to find spaces of freedom. And, aren’t we blessed that God offers us those spaces. God offers us spaces to be ourselves and to simply enjoy being alive. And God had finally, after years of slavery and wandering, brought the children of Israel to the border of their promised land. Can you feel their enthusiasm? Can you feel their joy? God had made a promise to them, and several generations later, they were not forgotten.

          God had kept God’s promise to them. Now, they had a promise to keep to God and to one another. It was a two-part promise. First, because of God’s radical love toward them, they had a responsibility to keep God’s commandments. What does God command them to do? There are lots of laws throughout Deuteronomy but it is all summed up in a commandment to love God and to love every living thing. Second, because of God’s love toward them, they had to teach future generations of the goodness of God. Why? Because all the generations to come had missed the awesome signs and wonders God had done before their ancestors and they needed to understand just how faithful God had been.

          And, when I think of my Uncle Johnnie, the man who was well-loved by so many of us, I have to say, he kept this promise to God. Uncle Johnnie was a servant. He was a servant to our family, a servant to his community, and a servant to our nation. In these roles, he showed integrity. In our family, he had a strong sense of fairness. A good deed never went unnoticed, no matter how big or small it was. I remember going to visit Uncle Johnnie and Aunt Vertie on many occasions and seeing thank you notes that I had written to them several years before on display in their home. He saw the good in people, and he rewarded it. In his community, he was active in the NAACP, Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, and the National Order of Trench Rats. He loved being a trench rat! But, even more valuable than his membership in these civic organizations, he cared about the young people he met. He always spoke a word of encouragement, he was willing to help perfect strangers financially, because he wanted the best for people. In his nation, Uncle Johnnie was a soldier, and he loved it. I never knew Uncle Johnnie during his years of military service, so I most clearly saw his passion for our nation in his insistence on calling it to task each time it fell short of what it promised to be, each time we weren’t the nation he, and so many others, had fought to keep free.

          My Uncle Johnnie also carried out the second part of the promise the children of Israel. Uncle Johnnie taught the future generations that had not seen everything he had seen. He was the embodiment of the idea that one can be both strong and vulnerable. In my travels with Uncle Johnnie, there was never a topic he refused to discuss with me and we all know that children can sometimes be almost inappropriately inquisitive. And, I think, he was such an open book because he knew how much I had not seen. Unless he told me, I could not know how far he had come. Unless he told me, I could not know how far our family had come. Unless he told me, I could not know just how faithful God had been to us and, he needed me to know. And, even though I didn’t know it yet, I needed to know. I needed to know so that I could cultivate my own faith life but also so that I could sow the seeds of faith in future generations. So, he told me stories of God’s faithfulness, over and over. And he told me loudly; I don’t think he had an “inside voice.” He told me the stories at home, and away from home, and when we were awake, and late into the night, because I needed to know, and because it is what God demands of each of us.  

          Friends, I would submit to you today that we can all learn from Uncle Johnnie’s life. Perhaps he is still teaching us, even in death. Maybe he is teaching someone here that family is everything. Perhaps he is teaching another to practice integrity. And still, he might teach another to encourage someone. Yet, I think the courageous lesson that he teaches each of us on this day as we celebrate his life is to tell our stories. God has been so faithful to us, individually and collectively. So, teach the things of God to your children, write them on your doorposts and gates, because right now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are free. You are free! Thank you, Uncle Johnnie for teaching us. May you rest easy in the arms of your Creator.  

"My Own Vineyards I Have Not Kept"

What is it to be a black woman, preparing for a lifetime of married life? What physical changes must occur? What spiritual adjustments must take place? Must the black woman become larger, large enough to keep a home, to keep another’s home and to work in a world that has not yet learned to love her? What are the theological presuppositions, if any, that she brings to her pending union? What are the thoughts and imaginings that trouble her soul during her time of preparation? What are the thoughts and imaginations that make her soul light during her time of preparation? What does her relationship to her pre-married life become? What is the black woman’s process of “becoming married”? To which new vineyards must she tend? Who aids her in attending to her own vineyards?

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"You Don't Ever Get Tired Running for Jesus: Cradle to Grave Faith"

“I don't feel no ways tired, I've come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy, I don't believe He brought me this far to leave me.”         James Cleveland  

    Today, I officially launch the blog portion of my website, I Am Free Agent. In my blog posts, I will be writing about various aspects of the lives of black women living in the Americas. The women I write about, for the most part, will be women I have never met whom I understand to be free agents, compelled by their faith. A free agent, as I define it, is one who finds freedom within themselves to creatively resist the restraints that society has placed upon them.

               I have said in the preceding paragraph that I will normally write about women whom I have never met. Today, however, is the exception to my new norm. Today, I am going to write about my grandmother, Agnes Riddle Crumley. My grandmother died on the morning of July 26, 2016 (yesterday) peacefully in her sleep, which is the same way she lived. I am still learning from her. While I will usually rely on black feminist or womanist theories and theologies to stake my claims in my blog posts, today I will simply do the work of remembering.

               Grandma Agnes wore lots of hats in our family. First and foremost, she was an unbelievable mother. She seemed to always know how to love and challenge her children. She knew how to spoil and how to teach them the value of hard work. They never had much money but she knew how to cook three filling meals a day so no one was ever hungry. She molded my father, James, whom she always called Ricky, into a wise, hardworking, and ethical man who is a constant role model to me. Grandma Agnes was a wise and loving grandmother. She cared for us when our parents could not. She always told us the truth. Even though she was one of the hardest working women I have ever met, she has driven home for me in my adult years that I must take times for rest, that family comes first, that home is the place where I will be loved best and most fully. Grandma Agnes was also a parental figure to her great grandchildren. She was a beloved sister and aunt and friend.

               Grandma Agnes had a fierce love for her family and for God and I believe that those loves kept her. The truth as I see it is that the world did not always love my grandmother the way she deserved to be loved. Her life was never easy. But I never remember a time when my grandmother was negative. She loved to travel, she loved watching the generations of children she knew grow to adulthood, she loved her church, she loved good food. One year ago when I graduated from Yale Divinity School and was ordained to Christian ministry, my cousins travelled with my grandmother from South Carolina to Connecticut so that she could attend both events. And she arrived, right on time, dressed very respectably and wearing a hat. The only complaint she had concerning her travels was that the plane ride had been far too short.

               Although there are still a fair number of people who question a woman’s call to ministry and even insist that women cannot be called, my grandmother never questioned my call. When I went to Divinity School, she dreamt about me spending time with God’s Word and it gave her comfort. She enjoyed watching my sermons and hearing about my work. She proudly sat with my cousins and my parents in the front row at my ordination, excited that her granddaughter was working for Jesus. I remember her light and her joy, she didn’t doubt me, she was proud of me. That weekend, we took her first selfie together. I was grateful for her presence on what was the most important day of my adult life so far.  

               The last time I saw Grandma Agnes was about three weeks ago in her hospital room. Many of our family members had gathered there to see her and to spend time with her. From her hospital bed, she was holding court as only she could. She teased her great grandson about his weight, she scolded my mother for working too hard, she rolled her eyes about healthy hospital food and explained what she would prefer to be eating, she talked to me about my job prospects, she gabbed sarcastically on the phone with her friend, my adopted grandmother, about the length of my hair and whether or not it was mine. In the midst of all of the excitement, my mother asked her if she was tired. She looked at my mother and told her, “No. You don’t ever get tired running for Jesus.”

Not all of us believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation like Grandma Agnes did. I don’t tell this anecdote about my grandmother with the purpose of eliciting conversion experiences. I simply share it as a challenge to those of us who are still running this race called life. All of us are running for something or someone, and each of us needs saving. We are still running. And I wonder who or what each of us is running for.

Running can be tiring at times. But Grandma Agnes was never tired so perhaps the lesson of her life for those of us who often feel weary or weighed down or lonely or afraid is to stop running for ourselves, to stop running alone, to stop running simply for the sake of running. Perhaps Grandma Agnes would say that you would not be so tired if you would find a purpose for your running. So I say to you, run this race for your family, run it for your friends, run it for the needs of your community, run it for a community of faith you love, run it for generations of children yet to be born, run it for endangered plants and animals, run it for the people living on less than a dollar a day. Run with a purpose and don’t stop running until you reach your goals. And to Grandma Agnes I say, you have run your race with courage and integrity. You have said that you are not at all tired. But you have run a great race and I pray that you have found perfect rest in the loving arms of our Creator.