REVIEW — I’m Still Here: Black Dignity In a World Made For Whiteness
Present happenings in South Africa show a growing urgency and a desperate need for talking about racism; but perhaps in ways that, before, we have been too afraid or too uncomfortable to do. We need to build firm and sustainable bridges between black and white people that do not ignore the pain wrought and the anger that is still widely felt. In this review by Mphuthumi Nthabeni he shares the living struggles of black American Christian author, Austin Channing Brown, and what has brought her to see her faith as “a living framework for understanding God’s work in the world”, in a way that does not negate or lessen the pain and violence of her past and that of countless others – not only black.
I'm Still Here: Black Dignity In a World Made For Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown: C|onvergent USA, 2018, ISBN 978-1524760854
“I am not interested in getting anyone in trouble; I am trying to clarify what it’s like to exist in a Black body in an organization that doesn’t understand it is not only Christian but also white. But instead of offering empathy and action, whiteness finds new names for me and offers ominous advice. I am too sensitive, and should be careful with what I report. I am too angry, and should watch my tone when I talk about my experiences. I am too inflexible, and should learn to offer more grace to people who are really trying. “It’s exhausting.”
This is how Austin Channing Brown begins her memoir, I'm Still Here: Black Dignity In a World Made For Whiteness (Convergent, 2018). It is not often that we find writings on this topic from the religious perspective of what it means to be a Christian – Christ-like. Less often still, is the approach of interrogating a spirituality of racial integration.
This book really does both very well. Not only, does it have a comprehensive and deep familiarity with the authentic demands of the Gospel, it is also well-versed in the jargon of Ebonics – the study of black culture in the US.
You know you’re in for something when the first sentence of a book calmly declares, without making any qualifications or apologies: “White people can be exhausting.” This might be discouraging to those suffering from what Brown terms White Fragility.
White Fragility, Brown explains, is dangerous because it “…ignores the personhood of people of color and instead makes the feelings of whiteness the most important thing.”
If white people are being racist, like Adam Catzavelos, we must be sensitive to their feelings because not all white people are racist. If white racist police are killing black youth on the streets we must be careful of the feelings of those who are not. “If an organization’s policies are discriminatory and harmful, that can only be corrected if we can ensure white people won’t feel bad about the change. White fragility protects whiteness and forces Black people to fend for themselves.’ [reviewer’s own emphasis].
Pope Francis has ushered a kairos season for the Roman Catholic church. A season when it must do serious introspection and self-flagellation. If his warm welcome in Ireland is anything to go by it is abundantly clear that people still love their church, but they want her to own up to her sins and repent.
Of course, there are still those who think this is about competing for doctrinal purity, between so-called conservatives and liberals, or about the power to subjugate the faithful in the name of bankrupt moral and spiritual authority. This being, what Pope Francis terms “clericalism”.
The rest of us, along with Ms Brown, have “.. learned that harmony—the absence of outright conflict—often leaves deeper complications untouched.” For far too long the church has aimed for harmony, instead of authentic reconciliation.
Brown quotes Paul Lawrence Dunbar's poem, We Were Masks, to illustrate how black people are compelled to hide their true feelings if they want to fit into most institutions that are designed for whiteness:
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
If the church is to emerge stronger from this kairos we need to be honest in our engagements. If we’re to collapse the distance between personal responsibility and our tragic past history, then we also need to inherit and take collective responsibility for the not-so-glorious-past actions of the Church in the same way that we celebrate the acts of her glorious past.
We need to understand the emotional and spiritual connection we have to her sex offenders, gender and racial discriminators, not just as part of a regrettable inheritance but as a hard stain our current tradition that we need to root out.
Ms Brown explicates this by remembering Sankofa tours when, as students of the University of Chicago they had to tour slave plantations and lynching museums.
The first thing the white students did was to setup a false dichotomy. They saw themselves as not being responsible for that past, and how things have progressed since. They didn’t understand why their statements peeved black students.
For black students that reality was not history but a narration of present-day life in the black areas they lived. It denoted the opportunities that not only their predecessors but that they too were denied and also the suspicion with which they were still widely treated within a system rigged to promote white supremacy and patriarchal culture.
Even if there has been significant positive change; we must still not celebrate these as progress, but rather as an increase in humanity from a subhuman and inglorious past.
No one should hope for a pat on the back for being a non-racist, a non-sexist or for that matter, a non-paedophile. We must set our standards much higher than that.
Another error that is too easily made and accepted, which Brown draws our attention to, is in thinking that just because we know people then they cannot be the monsters they’re accused of being. Monsters have always been among the most articulate, well-versed and well-loved, by their own brethren, family and friends.
This is why it is so hard to detect them: they’re somebody’s beloved father, brother, priest and so on.
Protecting them from the legal process when the evidence is overwhelming against them is tantamount to complicity in the crime. No family, church or nation is worth being maintained if it harbours or promotes criminals. If these cannot withstand the scrutiny of justice then they do not deserve to exist. Fiat justitia ruat cælum – Let justice be done though the heavens fall.
Brown concludes by outlining the need, seen by Martin Luther Jr and James Baldwin, for the arch of history to point towards justice by lifting the justified anger of good people, and what she calls “a ritual of fear for black people.”
She says our failures start with not being angry enough about injustices; that must lead us, like Jeshua the Christ, into upsetting the tables and channelling that anger into works of righteousness:
“It was hard at first, trusting my voice of anger. But Black life is full of opportunities to practice. And so I did. I wrote. And I spoke. And I engaged with others, and then I wrote some more. Just like Lorde promised, my anger led to creativity, to connections with others who were angry, too. My anger didn’t destroy me. It did not leave me alone and desolate. On the contrary, my anger undergirded my calling, my vocation. It gave me the courage to say hard things and to write like Black lives are on the line.”
So perhaps, instead of policing other people’s anger it would do well for us to get angry and also to upset the status quo for the better.
Brown traces the ritual of black fear from the time they got off the American docks, with heavy chains, to black youth dying today on the streets of America’s cities. She relates the life story of her cousin Dalin who died young in an American prison.
She recalls the day his path to prison began, when Brown was only eight years old, watching him look for a gun because someone had ‘jacked’ his new sports shoes on the streets. Stories that, as too many black stories, end in tragedy.
In the end, Brown recoils into her religion and the God of The Accused, for solace:
“All those years ago, I learned in church that Jesus understood the poor. Because of Dalin, I realized that Jesus also understood the accused, the incarcerated, the criminals. Jesus was accused. Jesus was incarcerated. Jesus hung on a cross with his crime listed above his crown of thorns. It doesn’t bring Dalin back. But it matters to me that my God knows what Dalin’s body endured. Suddenly racial justice and reconciliation wasn’t limited to Black and white church members; it became a living framework for understanding God’s work in the world.”
God's work in the world is what we’re supposed to be about for us to become Christ-like. The clarity of Brown's prose is Baldwinian, even in its preachiness. But sometimes, this is what you need to do when urging people to live by their Christian ideals and acknowledge the brokenness brought by Christianity through Christendom and racial segregation.