Park Swings

I heard Nina Li Coomes, a poet from Japan and Chicago, and her poem–which I got to by her essay in my inbox through the On Being newsletter–made me think of you. It made me think of your brother, too, but the thought of you came first.

Her poem was written to her unborn daughter and for a moment the title of the poem, spoken at a Chicago slam which Nina won, felt implausible to me, felt foreign to me because of my deep experience with you boys, felt distant to me because your mother used to say all the time how she thought I’d soften if I ever had a daughter and how she wanted to see that softening.

Presumably I’ve spent a lot of time hardening. Well, I should be honest that it’s not a presumption. I have hardened. I could insert the things I’ve said in a dozen ways before to explain that calcifying of my heart, that drying of my spirit, and provide departure points that begin with you, extend with your brother, and deepen in the country of loss that I live in while being a father whose own father exists in memories, in pictures, in videos, in the mouths of loved ones, in the twinkle of my mother’s eyes.

But I have softened and I thought of that softening today. I thought of it last night as I melted over the pain joy blanketing me in the quietness of a wonderful day to be a father. I softened all over again as I thought about why going to McDonald’s is so hard for me, why white and brown vans send my heart into its own swirls, why passing by parks and playing in parks with you and your brother the way we did yesterday is a trip full of complicated pleasures. These softenings remind me of the days when I held my father’s steep, chiseled hands, when he took me and my brother to eat, to play, to run, to be free. Thinking of them let me think of the hardening.

Nina’s words brought back my scholar and peer’s words while we were swinging on the swings, your brother commanding me to push and him watching you and you doing the same, smiling just the way you did when you were your brother’s age when we played in our park across from the Obama home, and me pushing you both by using the back stretch that ends of a sanchin kata that you haven’t learned yet, one you’ll do better than me. I was being a good dad and it was a way to spend the day with you and with my good dad on his birthday.

Nina’s poem had a line. You know lines because you possess many of them, keep your own like a poet awaiting his debut, inching up to the stage at Busboys, breathing lines at Louder, testing phrases at the Hyde Park Blvd bus stop, whispering them while you review a kata just before a promotion. Her line made me think of your line, which made me remember a moment that you discussed with me and your mother late one evening, after bedtime came and went.

You were distressed and that distress etched something in me that made me want to shield you. We talked it through. You and your mother had talked it through before. I heard some of it and stayed out of it. I waited until I was brought in so that you could do your thing with mommy. Then, we three discussed it. And we kept at it. I hardened in the moment because I’m used to hardening. I’m not bad at hardening. I would soften later. We would keep speaking over themes like the one you raised that night. We would edge toward the swing, lift ourselves in it, and eventually press ourselves into the blue.

Second grade would be a long grade for you (and me), longer than the others so far. It would be the grade where I heard difficulties emerge for you that were never difficulties before. It would be the grade that would show me the poverty and richness of my fathering skills. It would be the grade when me and your mother worked through how to become even better at something we do well.

It would be the grade that would deepen my longing for my own father, when I would write for him and offer my words to the sky for him to read the way I pushed my sons on swings during the holiday when their father felt free with them and, surrounded by friends over poorly coordinated leisure that worked out fine, despite his little fears that felt less strong.

You and your brother will keep swinging. The smiles in your faces tell me that. I’ll be one of the ones behind you, pushing, pausing, pressing you to extend yourselves, kick your legs, and dig into the movements of freedom. And we’ll all be engaging in that extending and kicking and digging. We’ll all be freer for it. One swing at a time. One smile at a time.

You and your brother can fight about who will write the poem. I have my thoughts about who will win.

Reading Lynched: The Power of Memory in a Culture of Terror

It’s as important to record reflections about my reading of Lynched as it is my own context for having read the book. I’ll start with my context because it sets the stage for my critical appreciation and my eventual scholarly appropriation of Dr. Sims’s work.

First, I’ve spent the last ten weeks reading and writing in the areas of Black and Womanist Theologies and African American Political Theology, and while those terms can be expansive in what they cover academically, it’s important to state those two courses as broad but immediate readying agents in my thinking about what happens in this book about Black people living in and in response to a culture of lynching. The book could easily be on the syllabi for either course. A Womanist scholar, Sims adds to the collective a historical reading of a time that’s not seen enough in the United States of American history.

Lynched is worth reading if for nothing other than its relevance to issues that many Black people are still facing around policing, community engagement, race, and political discourse. It’s relevant because as people we continue to be subjected to explicit legalized and legally authorized brutality in the form of newly designed lynching strategies, including police who still participate in the heartless, legally indefensible murder of Black bodies, while being shielded by and in some cases lauded by the governing bodies in place to protect citizens. I intend that as a theological comment even if it can be read from a particularly psychological, sociological, or ethical point of view. Lynching and living in response to it is a theological matter. As so is the support of persons who do the lynching of Black persons.

Second, aside from my current reading list, like every Black person in this country, I’ve spent the last several years participating to varying degrees in the anguish, contentment, alarm, prayerfulness, silence, and soul-bruising nature of this environment leading to our deaths. I say “our” in order to point to the corporate nature of how the long list of boys, girls, women, and men who have died as absolutely unwilling participants in the culture of lynching that pervades this country. I, like every other Black person, am recipient of the chronic, even if unseen, pain that comes from being Black and being alive, being Black and loving, being Black and wondering, being Black and hoping, being Black and quitting, being Black and fighting, being Black and parenting, being Black and serving, being Black and leading, being Black and going to the barbershop, being Black and grocery shopping for my family, being Black and driving through the suburbs, being Black and watching women clutch their purses at the sight of me, being Black and opening my empty hands when I see the police so that they see there’s nothing in them, being Black and holding my beautiful boys as much as I can while being Black.

Coming to this reading while Black was like coming to the notes of an aunt who wrote important things down, things that she said over and over while I was small but that she knew I’d listen to differently when the milk was no longer behind my ears. I’ve told you about the book already, though from a decidedly current and autobiographical sketch. That’s part of the power and beauty of a book like Lynched. It anchors you, if you’re Black, in a part of your story that you know intimately and may not be able to explicate.

That said, Dr. Sims pursued a project to conduct an oral history of experiences of lynching, inviting and meeting 50 persons from Virginia, South Carolina, New Jersey, Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, California, Pennsylvania, and Alabama. Participants in her project were at least 70 years old, and she was interested in learning why people did or didn’t discuss lynching; how a culture of lynching influenced their understanding of justice or faith; and what those participants wanted future generations to know.

As she sets out onto this psychologically taxing and uplifting quest, Sims makes early notes about the ways participants first responded. People were cool to respond to church announcements promoting her study. She wondered about this and said that silence served purposes for Black elders. For some, silence was an expression of fear. For others, silence served to preserve life. The fear was not always acknowledged; it was subconscious and underneath the quiet of Black people. Fear motivated the silence as did life preservation.

In terms of preservation, when lynching wasn’t discussed and silence kept, Dr. Sims approached people directly in churches for instance, knowing that they were old enough and that their church was involved with justice long enough, so that there would be some story to tell. Those folks wouldn’t approach her always, she said, and that was to engage in any number of “countercultural techniques” like mentoring students, teaching literacy to adults, providing scholarships, and promoting arts rather than to deal directly with the bruising subject of lynching. There are those “public and private responses to moral issues” that Sims puts forward from her interviews (8).

Her stake is about the immense value of language, and stories in particular as a form of language, and its use “to minimize the gravity of lynching and the countless lives forever disrupted as a result of this practice” (16). What a comment! There is gravity. There is the impact upon countless lives. There is the longstanding word forever that names the existential disruption. There is the sad reference of the fitting word practice that captures it all. My sense from Sims is that it is uncommon to talk about lynchings, how they were publicized, how lynchings were cultural events paraded as spectacles which were government-sanctioned in order to produce terror in Black people and in Black communities and to assuage white communities by virtue of those communities’ uses of this perverted, brutal mechanism even while those white (people in) communities were community leaders like police, pastors, and politicians. The book gives insight into how hard it is to discuss this culture and why Black folks do and don’t jump into the conversation. And why whites don’t either.

For Sims, “These oral histories can serve as entry points to provide the human community another frame of reference from which to examine diverse ways in which notions of civility frame narratives that offer insights about these individuals’ human capacity to make a conscious decision to go into their interior archives and determine for themselves, if, or how, they will give voice to a truth that reflects their lived reality” (33). These are contexualized analyses and constructed “alternative responses” by the people who experienced these remembered atrocities turned “cultural symbols and their embedded meanings” (66).

Throughout my reading I came to basic questions about inspecting images offered in media and education and mining the relationship between images and symbols which are those deep, abiding, hardly changeable understandings of Black people. The symbols emerge after the use and spread of images over centuries. It’s hard to see lynching as both legally wrong and morally unacceptable when centuries teach you that Black people are worthy of death, even public, gruesome government-supported death. These are character questions and cultural questions. They are critical issues that make you, whoever you are, turn and ask what you really believe about people.

This is a book about remembering rightly. It faces the direction of remembering parts of history that are not seen or not regarded and about courage that isn’t either. One main attribute that Sims lifts is “an ethic of resilient resistance” and her oral histories enact “an ability to name and respond to evil in a manner that challenges practices that are neither just nor fair” (124). In summarizing the histories as an ethic, she promotes a truer reading of what happened and what happens during lynchings. Sims offers an alternative to naming silence or speech as resilient acts of resistance against the culture of lynching.

She also includes material about how Black folk are a people just as engaged in an “ethic of forgiveness,” an ethic that can’t be held without the aforementioned resistance. After all, how can Black folk forgive without also resisting the brutal murders bringing up the need for such forgiveness? Who would suggest the need to forgive without a prior acknowledgment of the God-made flesh and humanity of the murdered? It’s important that both are in the book and that forgiveness is after the former. Also, Sims makes all the interviews public. Look into her notes to find the wide trail to them.

In terms of my critique, I don’t think Sims goes far enough with her employment of the liturgical review of baptism. It’s clear that she’s leaning toward the historical and that she wants to respect her interviewees while not forcing a theological reading upon their work. I think she wants their words to shine rather than her interpretation of them. Still, I think she could have added a chapter to work out her own theological renderings of the interviews. She hints at this, of course, saying “the act of remembering is symbolized as a ritual of baptism—not a literal baptism by water, but a symbolic immersion that plunged and invited me to journey with participants into repressed, suppressed, reconfigured, and ritualized memories as they remembered lynching and a culture of lynching…” (5). Sims’s work is a social-cultural-religious approach to these primary narratives as sources of discovery and meaning. These narratives are gifts that Sims gives us, grants us access to, and it’s important that others come along to work with these narratives as they’re presented. I don’t fault Sims for her not dealing for pointedly with theological matters. I respect what she’s set out to do. She’s left more to be done, rather for her next works or for those of us picking up this book and living with it in our memories.

If you read this book and find it interesting to your soul; if you read it and you want to step into similar reads, I’d commend James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, M. Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom, Kelly Brown Douglas’s Stand Your Ground and Terrance Johnson’s Tragic Soul-Life. These are not fun reads. Like Lynched, they are important, sobering theological works that help ground us further in the basic reality of Blackness that is faced with both uncertainty and deep certainty.

Those books, like Lynched, will remind you of what Howard Thurman called the “place for the singing of angels.” He was writing into our memories the way Thurman does about the truths recognized over and over. In Deep is the Hunger, Thurman described what is underneath these kinds of works. “Despite all the crassness of life, despite all the hardness of life, despite all the harsh discords of life, life is saved by the singing of angels” (p. 92). That’s the kind of spirit underneath the oral histories of Sims’s project. Her interviews possess the spoken words, the hard-won melodies, and the unshakeable echoes of Black people who in the face of their own harsh discords decided to speak and to sing. May the Listener of our prayers encourage us to keep speaking, to keep singing, and to keep listening to our beautiful selves. And may in that collective chorus, we move toward transformation.

You Wonder

A couple months ago, I took to the hermitage Eve Ewing’s Electric Arches and Joyce Rupp’s My Soul Feels Lean, two collections of poetry. I commend both to you.

With Ewing’s collection, I found myself relating to a new-to-me voice whose poetry revisited the streets and experiences of Chicago, along with the lovely images and scenes of blackness that she wisely integrated. A sociologist of education, Ewing may be my Chicago poet, after Professor Gwendolyn Brooks.

I’ve read Rupp’s book a few times, especially at transitional moments where loss, grief, love, and potential are at the tips of my fingers. If you want to read either of them, you should!

Of the many things I could pass onto you, here’s the one from Joyce Rupp that may open you to your own inquiry:

You Wonder

You wonder

why you take those daily

steps, pushing

to get your work done,

to conform to a schedule

beyond accomplishment.

You wonder

when you end each day

with the discomfort

of not making the mark,

leaving much undone, unsaid,

unloved, unresolved.

You wonder

how you could miss

those moments of friendship,

those invitations to compassion,

those connections to a world

not of your making.

You wonder

if you could live differently,

more in tune with your true self,

more in step with your deepest desires,

more in love with cosmic beauty,

more in sync with the world’s desolate.

You wonder,

but then you continue forward

on the same old trek of dull

repetition, karmic garbage,

and sludgy unawareness.