Black August & Baldwin's Birthday
Written by Michelle Higgins
...the principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles governing the rites and customs of other churches, white. The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others. I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.” James Baldwin, 1962
In his “Letter from a Region in My Mind”, James Baldwin wrote the words that have been most difficult for me to read as a Black, Christian, cis-gender, heterosexual woman. Because I first read this letter when I was a teenager, i doubt i knew what these words meant to a still developing me at the time. My own identities stretching against the wickedness of a religion so white-centered that whiteness became the religion itself. Jimmy’s summer of fear was a threat to the presumption of my discovering once and for all “my place in the world”. In narrating his own process of self-diagnoses, he slowly unwinds the convoluted religious principles of whiteness: Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, before the crushing gasp of naming them outright.
Baldwin’s sermonic story remains an entire mood. Since the uprisings in Ferguson and around the world, a new age of ancient evils has been proof that racism is both successful and defeatable. And much of melting pot America is too tired to care.
There might be a better live example of this tension than the experiences I will focus on here, but the now and not yet has never been so real for the household of faith in the United States. The same principles for becoming or cuddling a colonizer now white out the liturgical calendar with feast days for closed door complacency and holy habits of nose-tip confession that end at the first hint of community care, or self determination. People power is communism, you see.
For the better part of five years, thousands of believers have spent Black August unfolding “a profound religious crisis” that brother Baldwin has named. A new- to-us element of Black struggle that is so soul-saddening it’s hard to say that it’s real: going to church. “Ferguson” firestarters are all of us too much for church attendance . Too abolitionist for prison reform progressives, too Black for white Jesus, too radical for polite centrism. Too queer loving for the “one gay friend” rule. Too vaginal to preach that power = penis.
That I know of, to date, four churches have rejected or made a rule about my participation in ministry as staff or a guest.
I speak my own story in part because I’ve nothing left for my haters to threaten. I speak also because I am not alone. My beloved sisters who seek to serve the Lord in the house of the Lord - please stop and re-read that phrase: they want to serve IN the house of the Lord - are being suspended and “sabbatical-ed”, their events are being canceled without their knowledge, they’re told to “back down”, not because they are disagreeable or dangerous, but because people are not comfortable with how they work.
In 2016, Three people worked themselves into a sweat to explain how awesome I am, and how much they agree(d) with my work, but the invitation they had extended to my ministry had to be cancelled because they could not be sure I would agree to stick to “safe wording for mixed company”. Specifically: Ferguson unrest, not uprising; the deaths of Michael Brown and VonDerrit Myers, not murder. In February of 2017, I approved a digital outreach campaign for the faith community that used the term white supremacy as if it is factual. I was informed by the hiring org that a small group of pastors who love me and would always advocate for me needed to give approval for each future post I planned. This news was delivered as a fix to discipleship failure.
Since then I been watching rumors float by me like math equations on that famous meme. “Seems to be losing the faith. Looks too close and comfy with queer women.”
These stories are small. And I acknowledge temptation to bitterness and risk of idolatry.
I also understand that my faith family value is most lovingly affirmed in private, public support depends upon the opinions of current church gossip, wealthy donors, trolls.
I wonder at the worthlessness of my worship in the places that were built for praise. I weep at the wickedness applied to womanhood - in the places where I’m supposed to experience community and closeness with my Creator.
In times like these I wish I was the only one, a sister with a mouth and a long history of watching religious whackness werk. But we’re a voting block, y’all. We are a generation. We are planning healing spaces and calling each other to vent and to pray.
Because working in some of these churches ain’t much different from navigating the confederacy. We hear veiled threats to job security then get gaslit when we ask for clarity. We see Black power compared with white nationalism during community engagement sessions led by people who are experts by association.
We are extremist by association. We can’t have lunch with Muslims or attend gay weddings. We walk into meetings where church leaders have printed and highlighted our social media histories “your last 50 likes were in these ungodly categories”.
It’s approaching epidemic in my view, because few Black women are afraid to GreenBook the mess out of First Historical Armitage Plantation Church.
Issa witch hunt, and all of it is born from the white man’s burden to preserve and unburden himself.
In order to Make America God Again, socially progressive Americans must be characterized as people who cannot possibly be Christian. Christianity must be removed from its own Eastern roots. Different languages, visions and perspectives in worship and ministry must be marked as dangerous, or else someone will discover that hymn singing is a golden calf, presbyters function more like Pharisees, and all complementarian discipleship is a lie.
My sisters, some of us must be thrown out before we destroy the place with our “blackening” of every song and our “smelling up the whole place with your hair products”. Some of us must journey on before our mental health is broken. We have been physically assaulted by ordained men. We have been accused of intentionally “hypnotizing” people with our breasts. We have been pointed at and told that our own mentors will “throw you under the bus” to spare themselves an uncostly eyeroll.
We are not perfect, we will never be. But we have perfected the posture of presenting imperfection before we teach or lead.
Saints grant higher regard to Black women when we self identify as sinners. But Mother Toni taught us, no person on the face of the earth is your source of self-regard. No, not one.
It’s been five years since the season that my community was changed by tragedy. It’s been twenty-some years since I read Baldwin’s words and was frozen by what I hoped was writer’s hyperbole. But I spent a thousand days trying too hard to prove him wrong. In the now and not yet of hoping for homecoming, I believe that Baldwin is right, and I believe that the church can solve the problems he presents in our day. Today. Before the eternal renewal.
So I mark the seasons with more than mourning. Beginning with Black August. In 1971, incarcerated activist George Jackson was murdered by prison guards. Radicalized by witnessing guards execute his friend and two other Black men in prison with them, in cooperation with the Aryan nation. From then on, George constantly demanded protections for incarcerated people. He was targeted, abused, and threatened. He was assassinated by prison guards on August 21st. Critical Resistance highlights this quote:
“Settle your quarrels, come together, understand the reality of our situation. Do what must be done, discover your humanity and your love of Revolution. Pass on the torch. Join us, give your life for the people.” George Jackson
Our country continues to act brand new to compassion, truth, and humility. This might be the reason the church in the United States can be so bad at living out these principles we idolize but never implement. Compassion requires empathy, the truth requires education. Baldwin wrote “A person does not lightly elect to oppose his own society. One would much rather be at home among one’s compatriots than be mocked and detested by them.” We ain’t out here because muck raking is fun. I cringe at the idea of protest high. Black women lead and Black women need therapy. These statements are mad intertwined.
Baldwin’s message is as relevant for the church as it is for the country, because their pool of citizens is the same. Because the Black identity experience is the same. That’s why the governing principles he observed are so striking. We have all seen them, we don’t have to caveat to agree. I have text threads, job contracts and prayer groups that have named these ills and written this letter ten times over without ever reading it.
Spiritual blindness and silent indifference - whether selected or inherited - is a requirement for peace keeping in the evangelical church. Loneliness, the sadness of living without friends or fellowship, is the social portion of both the critically bold and the earnestly meek. Terror, weapon of the abusive privileged, death sentence for martyrs, opiate for placating the pious who know no difference between diversity and the devil. The cure to weaponized whiteness is the audacity of Black pride.
None of us faithy folks should find fault in Baldwin’s sufferings. He argued “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” For Black people of faith, I read this as a warning about pursuing proximity to whiteness for the sake of power. What we don’t know about white violence will kill us with the swiftness, but what we don’t know about Black struggle will poison us so slowly that we’ll live long enough to pass down internalized anti-Blackness through generations.
It’s time for a season of discovering our humanity and loving revolution. I want to hold space for tears and celebration, for following more than leading, and for Black women to be fully free.
August 2nd - Baldwin’s Birthday - let’s make #JamesBaldwin trend with quotes and your favorite photos.
August 11th, 11 am - in St. Louis, preaching at Salvation Army
August 23rd, 7pm- in Richmond, VA with Truth’s Table and Urban Doxology. $25 per ticket. bit.ly/TTLive2019
August 30-31 - in St. Louis for the Anew Conference. Faithforjustice.org/anew
August 31, 5-7pm / Black August Block Party in Tower Grove Park
These are the spaces where Black August will find me. If your story is at all similar to mine, allow me to testify, your Blackness will be safe, welcomed, and dignified.
Here is a link to the Baldwin article, The New Yorker, 1962.