It was a strange feeling.
While on vacation during July of 2016, in the midst of one of the most explosive periods of tension in the country this year, I received the Facebook notification that three years had passed since I wrote, “Reflections on Being a Black Man in America.” That blog post, which was meant to clear my soul, was read and shared over 10,000 times, propelling me into national platform I was not prepared for. It led to numerous invitations for speaking engagements, panel discussions and trainings, several Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and a new role in a new department in InterVarsity.
It also has led to a tremendous amount of grief, sorrow, confusion, anger, and depression these last three years, and more recently this past month. In the three years since that post, a few things have happened:
– Michael Brown, John Crawford, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Rekia Boyd, Samuel DuBose, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile, and too many others have all died after being stopped or arrested by law enforcement (the list isn’t comprehensive; I just stopped with these twelve names because I can’t type any more).
– A Facebook posted entitled “black lives matter” became a hashtag, and an eventual grass roots organization of the same name.
– Awareness has been re-raised about these issues (“re-raised” because these issues are not new).
The End of Endurance
There has also been what I can only describe as “the end of endurance” for countless Black people around the country. I have watched as droves of people have rallied under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter, some fully or partially embracing its principles. I watched as people who were angry and without hope used the name of the organization to engage in violent protests, and as a result, there is a petition to have the entire group labeled a terrorist organization—much like the Black Panther Party was by the FBI in the 1960s.
I have felt my heart break into pieces and seen the same in my friends and family. I went to the barber shop (i.e. The Black Man’s Support Group), and listened to one of the barbers pour out his heart in sheer fear. “I’m 6’3, 280 pounds. I’m an introvert and don’t like to talk. People always tell me, ‘I look scary.’ I have always thought that if I complied with the police, I would be safe. This man [Philandro Castile] complied and he’s dead. What am I supposed to do?” I watched my married friends have the conversation about what to do if the black husband is stopped, if the wife is present or receives a text from her husband if he is stopped, and the wives broke down in tears. I watched as countless people invited me to watch videos, read blogs, listen to podcasts, and attend cutting edge training that in reality was white-centered—not in any cultural context, a basic overview of race, and ignored any possibility of systemic issues. I have watched hope pour out of my soul over the last three years as I have met with numerous white people from ages 17 to 71 who have never thought anything I just mentioned in this paragraph—ever.
…And I have watched the West do what it does best: control the narrative. I have been asked leading questions to get at the answers my leaders want. I have been told “It’s not that bad,” “Things are getting better,” and that I should simply be grateful for where I am right now. There is a perpetual celebration of the progress of the past while ignoring the plight of the present. I have watched the dismissal of the call for dignity for Black lives attempt to be swallowed up by #AllLivesMatter, but I have yet to see an “All Lives Matter” protest when black blood is shed in the streets. I have shut down in conversations when my calls of social justice have been labeled as bad theology or “angry Black man syndrome.” I have seen how quickly the two Black soldiers that horrifically killed police were labeled terrorists within 24 hours of their crimes, while Dylan Roof was diagnosed by non-medical-media-professionals as having a mental illness and the police were kind enough to arrest him without lethal force, give him a bullet proof vest ensuring his safety, and stop at a fast food restaurant because he was hungry.
Strangely, all of that I can deal with. That’s a part of what it means to be Black in America: overlooked, unheard, yet photographed as a symbol of progress. What has brought me and my friends to the brink of despair has been this new wave of compassion from people after a Black person is killed. We get text messages, Facebook messages, voicemails, and emails, all telling us to “remain hopeful,” “thinking about you today,” “don’t give into despair,” “things are getting better,” and “I’m glad you’re safe and not like the ones on TV.”
I am typically the only Black person at the functions I attend that are diverse, which means no one in the room walks in my shoes. No one else has their blood pressure drop when the police pull behind them or feels their heart move to the pit of their stomach when a black person is killed every 26 hours in the country. I wondered this month when I received all of those messages, “Did they call anyone white and tell them the same thing? Did my white friend call someone white and advocate for my life and the lives of my friends? Did they call that friend or peer that quickly defends every officer and condemns the deceased? Did they call someone who looked like them and say, ‘This has to change.’”
How many times will a black person be killed in questionable circumstances before it ceases to be an isolated incident? How many times will we as black people before we start to grieve, while the blood is still stained in the streets have to hear, “Be quick to forgive”? How many more times will our cries be silenced, our tears ignored, our grieved dismissed, and our rage mislabeled? What will it take for you to believe us?
It’s not heartbreaking anymore. It’s not nauseating. It’s numbing. It’s exhausting. We just don’t have it in us anymore. To quote Fannie Lou Hamer, “You reach a point in your life when you get sick and tired of being sick and tired.” That is the end of endurance. That is where many in the Black community, and those grafted into our community, are.
Woke, Asleep, and Sleep-Walkers
The last three years, I have seen ultimately three types of people. First, are the people who are Woke. They are aware of realities of inequality and systemic injustice, the need for social change, and affirm the value of police officers WITHOUT seeing these issues in conflict. You are allies, partners, spouses, mentors, bosses, colleagues, friends, family. You hold us up, and use your voice when we have lost ours. Second, there are people who are Asleep. They are largely unaware and apathetic. They have eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear. They are far too often proudly and falsely colorblind. The third group I can only describe as Sleep-Walkers. This is a group of people who believe they are awake, but are very much asleep. They have parked at awareness of the issues, quick to call when there is a crisis—and that’s about it. These are people who regularly call for lament without asking what we need to repent from so progress can actually be made. This the group that quickly calls for racial and ethnic reconciliation without ever asking questions like, “When was there conciliation?” Or “What caused the division that required reconciliation and has that rift been repaired/healed/restored…acknowledged?”
Woke people! God bless you! I am treating all of you…to an endless supply of my gratitude. To the Asleep: Wake up! While you are sleeping, people are dying and the divide across ethnicity, gender, economics, and politics is growing. To the Sleep-Walkers, if you are unsure, as a person of color–the one you doesn’t agree with everything you say.
What Gives Me Hope Right Now
Cameras. For 400 years, we as Black people, even more broadly as people of color have not been heard in the West or in the United States, unless that voice has assimilated to the dominant culture. Our story, our experience has been dismissed or not believed. Now, there are videos everywhere, and while indictments are about as rare as a good DC Comics movie, the evidence speaks for itself every day.
Social Media. My God. Black Twitter is real. They give me life. The international collection of voices all highlighting the same injustices, creating memes in real time, have merged my laughter and my tears.
The Return of Our Voice. Silence from the evangelical world, white-centered conversations on issues of race and ethnicity, perpetual lamenting without repentance, and an inability to name systemic injustice, have together given people of color back our voice. More woke Asian, Black, Latino, First Nations, South Asian, and a handful of white people who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and are yelling from the mountain tops “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand! THIS is not good news! Where is the good news of the gospel of the West?” I have witnessed more people of color who are unapologetically followers of Jesus and using their ethnic voice to raise awareness, call for action, and advocate for the overlooked, unheard, and marginalized.
Numerous Asian Voices. Erna, Sarah, Becky, Andrew, Erina, Amy, Angelo, Wendy, JP, I can’t name you all because I will forget someone but your words, your voice, your fire, your passion, have moved me to tears and give me hope. I/we feel like we are going crazy always having to bring awareness, call for change, advocate for justice. I cannot tell you what you have meant in my life, to our community. Henri Nouwen called it, “a ministry of presence.” It means the world. (For the record, much love as always to the Latino and Indigenous communities. They have been allies throughout history and have led this charge longer than us.)
Scripture. The West models a disconnect between the present and previous generation. Because the culture is highly individualistic, it is primarily forward looking without reflecting on the past or evaluating the present in context. Scripture is not that way. God holds generations accountable for the actions of their ancestors in the Old and New Testaments. We inherit the blessings and the burdens of the previous generation. God may wait 400 years, but at some point, He calls people and nations to repentance and He as the Judge reminds us all what true justice is. I am grateful to read from Genesis to Revelation that God is concerned about the suffering of the oppressed, and He alone will defend and rescue, which means: justice is coming, repentance is unavoidable, and there are no shortcuts in His kingdom.
I am convinced I am a Samaritan and I live in Samaria, because the death of Black people and the dignity long withheld from us is avoided like the Jewish people avoided Samaria in Scripture. They would rather go to another country than deal with the mess in their backyard.
I long for the day when the church of the West is no longer punked by Goliath, and is willing to face what is facing us. There are no shortcuts. We will have to repent and change, or we will perish.
That change begins with me. I am done apologizing for who I am, pouring my heart out and explaining my experience for it to only be dismissed or fall on deaf ears. I am done checking my ethnicity at the door while people who look like me are left bleeding in the streets while pastors and politicians affirm the denial of our God-given dignity. I am done pretending like what is happening in our country does not effect me every single day because it makes someone else uncomfortable.
God made me a Black man and placed me in America at this particular time, with all of the beauty of my culture and the trauma of our history, not to ignore or downplay or dismiss it, but to celebrate what God has done, is doing, and will do through the African Diaspora.
And I am done apologizing for that.
We all are.
Sean M. Watkins