**The following brief notes were delivered at the Anti-blackness and Christian Ethics Roundtable at Boston College, September 14, 2016. I reproduce the remarks here, particularly, to be in solidarity with Bresha Meadows and to urge against her ongoing incarceration. If you would like to learn more about Bresha Meadows, click here and here. May we all pursue justice.**
August 8, 2016, The Gospel Coalition website published a blog post titled “When God Sends Your White Daughter a Black Husband,” written by a white woman, Gaye Clarke. The piece began:
For years I prayed for a young man I had yet to meet: my daughter’s husband. I asked the Lord to make him godly, kind, a great dad, and a good provider. I was proud of a wish list void of unrealistic expectations. After all, I knew not to ask for a college football quarterback who loved puppies, majored in nuclear rocket science, and wanted to take his expertise to the mission field. I was an open-minded mom.
But God called my bluff.
This white, 53-year-old mother hadn’t counted on God sending an African American with dreads named Glenn.
It wasn’t long ago that interracial marriage—particularly a black man like Glenn marrying a white girl like Anna—was considered the ultimate taboo in American white society…Though I never shared this prejudice, I never expected the issue to enter my life.
The entire piece is cringe worthy. There was lots said on social media, particularly Twitter – a website I frequent – that had lots of commentary, jokes, memes and criticisms of the writing and the theological-philosophical thrust undergirding Clarke’s desires, both before and after Glenn. After a brief description of her daughter’s love for her Glenn, Clarke gives eight suggestions for white parents that do not expect their daughters to engage interracial relationships and marriage.
The first suggestion was to “Remember your theology,” and when explained, Clarke included that the theology to remember is about creation, that we are all descendants of Adam and Eve. What this meant, in practical terms for Clarke, is that, “Glenn moved from being a black man to beloved son when I saw his true identity as an image bearer of God, a brother in Christ, and a fellow heir to God’s promises.”
This movement from black man to beloved son is not a little bit problematic. For Clarke to see Glenn’s worth and value, his blackness had to be erased, had to be liquidated, had to be transformed into an acceptable modality through which love could occur. His true identity was not his blackness but his commitment to Christ; this is what bell hooks describes as white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, it is an ordering of flesh through racialization. It was not Clarke’s daughter that needs to move from white woman to beloved daughter; it is the person racialized as Other. As if whiteness itself is not also a racialization, the racialization of the modern world. This desire to move from black man to beloved son and for that to be the true identity of the black is supercessionist logic. But supersessionism is a core value of modern problems of racialization, the creation and maintenance of purity through whiteness and vulgarization through blackness. The only zone wherein this move could be effectuated is not the material world but the spiritual, invisible, intangible one of salvific condition. So police brutality, systemic and structural inequity, antiblack racism are then the problem of individuals not living into the cause of Christ rightly, are not allowing their lives to be moved from blackness to beloveds.
Of note to me is the way it is the white parents that should be surprised, that they have to change their thinking in order to be accepting. And not because changing one’s thinking isn’t a good thing but because with Clarke’s framing, what she calls on white parents to do is to allow black people entry into their fold. But this entry is conditioned upon the movement from blackness to beloved, from racialized problem to true identification in Christ. I don’t want to pick on Gaye Clarke. I am sure she had the best of intentions. But as Imani Perry offers, we are in a moment of post-intentional racism, and so Clarke’s intentions, ultimately, are not important. Rather, I want to offer that this short blog is an example of a much longer history of the figuration of blackness as completely non-convergent with Christianity in the west because Christianity in the west is fundamentally about articulating whiteness, or a relation to whiteness. Such that for non-whites to be or become Christian is to trade out blackness.
Christians often presume that salvation, life in Christ, takes away racial distinction. We can look to Paul asserting that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female but because of salvation, all are one. My research is primarily in Blackpentecostalism and Gaye Clarke’s explication of what white parents should do in the case of possible interracial marriage is not disconnected from the early twentieth century Pentecostal movement’s figuration of race and racism, and its relation to salvation. So here, I’m thinking about Frank Bartleman, an important figure in early twentieth century Pentecostalism, arguing that the color line had been washed away in the blood of Jesus. The line that was popularized, though not created, by WEB Du Bois, the color line, according to Bartleman, was no longer a problem because of the performance of the flesh at the Azusa Street Revival. But this, of course, was never the case. Members of the Ku Klux Klan began pressuring white congregants of the Azusa Revival, causing what would eventually be splits from several organizations. For example, from the Church of God in Christ – a predominantly Blackpentecostal organization – emerged the Assemblies of God.
There is a misapplication of modern racialization to ancient text in order to enact a post-racial fantasy, a fantasy that leaves intact the hierarchal inequities in the service of Christian witness. In Bartleman’s case, it is important to note that the black people of the early twentieth century Pentecostal movement simply did not see the color line as inconsequential because of speaking in tongues, that they detected the way racialization was occurring on the wooden floors and in between the pews soon after Spirit baptism became a prominent feature of the movement. William Seymour, founder of the Azusa Street Mission, eventually disallowed white leadership after the beginning years of the Revival because he was worried about the ways whiteness remained uninterrogated, how whiteness was, in the name of Spirit baptism, the production and proliferation of antiblack racism.
Mary. In Blackpentecostalism, it is rare to talk about Mary. In other traditions, she is much more fleshed out, so to speak. But from within Blackpentecostalism, she is often described as a “poor, unknown, uneducated Palestinian woman” and that God’s choice for her to be the theotokos, to carry the logos, the word, to hold the child in womb through gestation, is praiseworthy. Isn’t it great, they say, that God used this poor, unknown, uneducated woman, that God used this Palestinian woman who had no renown, who was not royalty, to bring for Jesus. It is said that through God, Mary transcends the categorization of social victimization, that she transcends the categorization of degradation, that she transcends the categorization of stigmatization because of the sovereignty of the deity.
And this began to bother me deeply. Because what is assumed about Mary is what we assume Mary must have believed about herself in order to glory in the fact of her being chosen. Such declarations have to assume the valuelessness of the persons in question as the grounds from which to make assertions about the choices of deities. That is, we have to believe that Mary believed her station in life was valueless, that she was without virtue or honor, in order for the narratives we tell about her to make sense, in order for the theology and philosophy of Mary as chosen to cohere. We do not think with Mary but our thinking is supersessionist, it supersedes the very possibility for Mary to think herself valued without being chosen, without Mary being harnessed and used as the anchoring point for our theological-philosophical projects. None of the markers ascribed to Mary in this normative narrativity are, in and of themselves, markers of valuelessness. It cannot be assumed, in other words, that Mary internalized the inequity of a political economy as a personal moral failure such that only after such an internalization could she glory in the fact of her being chosen.
And this is the key for me: I think this is so precisely because I keep thinking with the ways blackness is narrativized in various modalities: from the juridical to the medical, from popular culture to the interpersonal. It is what I think about as paternalistic benevolence, a narrativizing occurring from the position of the ones that have been Othered in order to declare the relative value or valuelessness of said Others. This is what Gaye Clarke performed in her writing, implying that Glenn could not be valued or think himself of worth until his transformation from black man to beloved through Christ.
Blackness in western theological-philosophical discourse is the antithesis of the holy, the sacred, the set apart, the hallowed. Blackness is narrativized as the bestial, as the burdened, as the problem for purity. Blackness is the wretched, the worm, the worrisome station. But this from the position that assumed – attempted to grasp and hold, to harness and abuse – black flesh, this from the position of whiteness. Black performance, however, illustrates the ways that such narrativity is always in the service of the propping up of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, not its undoing.
And we see this with sharp intensity and focus with Black Lives Matter protests; with the demands for the abolition from police, the carceral state, the end of the Prison Industrial Complex; we detect this refusal of narrativity with the solidarity work between Indigenous people fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline or between Palestinians and the Movement for Black Lives; and we detect this refusal of narrativity in the protests of NFL players, Colin Kaepernick as an explicit example. The stories told about us, in other words, we do not have to internalize. And the ways we inhabit the world are often against such narrativity. This refused narrativity, the refusal to accept the narrative of whiteness, of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, the refusal to assent to anti-black racism and its contents is what I think of as a non-ethical or an-ethical project.
Bresha Meadows’s father, Jonathan, was abusive to her mother, Brandi. He was verbally and physically abusive to Brandi, and emotionally and psychologically manipulative. Jonathan was also emotionally and manipulatively abusive to the children, Bresha inclusive. They existed under the rule of thread and terrorism and Bresha sought relief from the constant barrage of violence and violation in the home. She decided to kill her father. Bresha was arrested for murder though there are calls from social justice activists for her release. Brandi Meadows calls Bresha a hero, giving her and her family the space to breathe again with ease and comfort.
Jamall Calloway says the following: “instead of criminal charges, what Bresha Meadows needs now, desperately, as opposed to incarceration, is productive psychological counseling and treatment for severe post-traumatic stress. Bresha (and her family) need psychological attention and help, not a conviction from the courts. In fact, it is the courts, it is our law and authorities who need convicting for such a callous response to this ordeal and every ordeal like it.”
But how can one come to such a conclusion? I think it is because what Bresha’s actions did is obliterate the question of the ethical in ways that are consistent with how blackness exists as a critique of the terrain of the ethical, of ethical being. Frederick Douglass is famous to have delivered the speech, “What to the slave is the fourth of July?” What Douglass was interrogating was the ethical terrain upon which celebration of warfare and liberation emerges since the emergence of such celebration and warfare was produced through the violent exclusion – through brutality – of black people. Another way to ask the question Douglass lodged, the animating force of black performance, is what, to the target of antiblack racism, is ethical responsibility, what – to the target of gendered, racialized, classed, sexed violence and violation – is ethics itself?
To appraise Bresha’s behaviors through the normative rules and regulations of the juridical is to assume a normative ethics. But what I detect is that Bresha enacted the critique of ethics, she enacted a non-ethics, an anethical performance. And I consider antiblackness and Christian ethics through a similar thinking, through a similar sorta analytics, that asks first what is the relation of blackness to ethics, and blackness to Christianity, such that we can have something along the line of an ethics, a black Christian ethics that responds to, and anticipates, antiblack racism. And I think to get there is to think more with renouncing the terrain of the ethical because such a terrain is produced through the exclusion of what Denise Ferreira da Silva calls the others of Europe. Perhaps we are after a mode of thinking equity and justice from the position of the excluded.
In the filmic version of The Color Purple, Celie said: “I’m poor, black; I may even be ugly. But dear god, I’m here!” And with that, she rode off with friends into the sunset and away from the man that abused her. Celie did not need to be chosen or shown favor because at that instance, she refused to internalize what the world said about her, about her capacity for life. It was the declaration of being “here” – which is to say, existing, breathing – that was of radical importance. Her being here is what distressed Albert, it’s what distressed and disturbed him because he spent so much time and energy wanting to disallow the possibility for such a declaration. To riff on my friend Fred Moten, the consent to being shamed she could not resist she could still, importantly, withhold. Withhold, withheld, as in breath, as in the possibility for existence, as in life.