by Rev. Angela Shannon
Dan's Note: Angela Shannon is a pastor in the ELCA. Angela Shannon is an African American pastor in the ELCA.
The difference in the second sentence is that I've added a modifier. It conveys a distinction. I'm a cisnormative, white, male, former clergyman-turned-writer, but I'd would never introduce myself that way unless the occasion called for it. What's the distinction? The color of her skin. That distinction particularly stands out because there are few black Lutheran pastors in the United States. (Angie assured me the numbers are growing, which is heartening.)
You'd think the era we live in would preclude such differences. On the contrary, race matters, not from what I imagine a God's-eye view to be, but from the experiences people share that confront the pain, frustration, injustice and cruelty. Racism continues to fester, like an infection on an open wound, a wound we'd rather cover than treat. We need to hear Angie's story because if we want to move a step closer to creating a more just world, we need to know what the world looks like now. Maybe then we can imagine a world where transformation isn't just a word or a concept, but a value so deeply rooted we no longer fear the challenge that CHANGE requires of us—it's time to see the grotesque wound for what it is, and finally place a healing salve. I hope you're moved by Angie's story as I was
From time to time I get writer’s block. I can look at my tablet, and…nothing comes. This time, I couldn’t get past it for days.
So I went for a long walk, hoping something would shake loose. For some reason, walking distracts my mind and creates a space for my spirit to speak.
As I walked about my neighborhood this is what came: "This is not writer’s block, rather your mind has been numbed by the constant devaluation of black life as evidenced by the proliferation of killings of unarmed African Americans of late. (Funny, how my spirit strings long polysyllabic words together).
"It’s a burden. Your malaise did not begin with Trayvon’s murder, either. There is a long history of mayhem against black bodies. You’ve heard the stories since you were a little girl. Grandmamma and ‘nem put you and your cousins out of the room because ‘grown folk talk’ was too real and rough for tender ears. Remember?
"You listened anyway as they spoke in soft, hushed tones about the harsh realities of black life underneath the triptych of Kennedy, King and Jesus that adorned the faded green living room wall. Granddaddy, sat in stoic silence as Mama, Daddy, uncles and aunts through the telling of their own stories, supported and helped each other cope. As closed mouthed as Granddaddy was, he always had a huge bag of circus peanuts, that orangey sweet candy that would set your middle age teeth on edge, for the grandchildren. Perhaps something in him wanted to sweeten life for you, if only but for a fleeting moment, given what lay ahead for each of his grandchildren.”
As we grew, we were taught:
“When you go to the store, touch nothing.” I thought my parents did not want me to break or mishandle the merchandise. I would later catch on what they were actually teaching me, as I noticed security guards following me in stores. They were teaching me not to look suspicious.
“Remember, you have to work twice as hard to get half as much.” Life is not fair and there would be some who would discriminate, so do you stellar best.
“Try not to intimidate them with your presence.” In other words, try not appear threatening.
“Be a model citizen, become educated, make sure you leave the house well put together. You don’t want to look like one of “Aunt Hagar’s chirren.”
These are the politics of respectability.
The elders did their best to mitigate racism’s impact on the psyche. They were trying to protect us, help us navigate racism, perhaps even keep us alive.
The more I walked to discover what I should write, the more my spirit spoke. It raised these memories and more to consciousness in the wake of the events of McKinney, TX. Seven minutes of footage was archetypal. The footage went viral and effectively raised the collective horror of a people. It was like watching a reality television version of the abuse of Patsy in the movie “Twelve Years a Slave.” Racism makes for epic entertainment. On the ground, in the stark reality of life, racism for the average African American is risky business.
Racism is the “white noise” of black life. I spend a lot of time actively muffling its din. I know well enough to stay out of “sundown towns.” I have enough sense to avoid the obvious presence of the Klan. However, there is no hiding from other Christians, in whose presence I spend the majority of my waking hours. It is an occupational hazard of being a pastor. It’s in that space where I have experienced a subtle but a no less injurious form of racism—the micro-aggression.
Micro-aggressions are those pin pricks of racism that add up over time.
I have had good Christians refuse communion from my hand and recoil from my touch. I wish I had a dime for every time a White Christian who tried to touch my hair without asking. I have become adept at ducking and saying, “Please don’t pet me, I’m not an animal.” Amazingly, one woman got offended and whined, “But you let children touch your hair!” I told her children tend to have better manners because they are polite enough to ask. I have never refused a child—their curiosity is guileless. Here’s another common one: “Oh, you are so articulate and well spoken.” Really? At middle-age I have a handle on the English language.
The spiritual practice of Lectio Divina is helpful as I find the center in Christ. Whether I am sitting or walking, I ruminate on scripture, literature and even my life as I “do” Lectio. Verses from Psalm 55:12-14 come to mind:
It is not enemies who taunt me—
I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me—
I could hide from them.
But it is you, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend,
with whom I kept pleasant company;
we walked in the house of God with the throng.
I share the Psalmist’s puzzlement because he wasn’t dealing with strangers. These were his friends! These are my friends, my sisters and brothers in Christ. My spirit is grieved as I hear them scramble to defend the indefensible acts of Officer Casebolt, formerly of the McKinney, Texas Police Department. The Chief of Police described this officer’s action as “being out of control.” And yet, there are people who continue to blame Dejerria Becton—a teenage child—for a trained police officer’s excessive use of force. That child could have been anyone’s child, regardless of skin color. We miss the fact that Dejerria Becton is a child.
I ask, “What if that had been me?” They assure me that would never happen because, “You’re different.”
And another micro-aggression drops. Am I really that different? Of course not. They are not either; we are created by the same God, sharing the same humanity and as Christians sharing the same baptism. The disconnect between our confession and our actions is troubling.
Out on my walk to banish my writer's block, my spirit spoke yet again: “Your mind is not numb, either. You are in shock. Rest, recover and arise! You must continue speak and write the truth in love, most especially when those truths are difficult to hear.”
Racism is nothing new, but I will never get accustomed to it or accommodate it. I will continue to work with those who are seeking reconciliation rid ourselves of this sin and other “isms” that seek to dehumanize those who God looks upon and calls “good.” I am convinced that God wants more for the Eric Casebolts, the Dejerria Bectons, for me and for you, and for the Beloved Community.
About the Author
Rev. Angela Shannon
Angela is a Child of God, Follower of Christ, Lutheran Pastor, Benedictine Oblate, Friend to Many, Auntie Mame to her nieces and nephews. She enjoys gardening, reading and taking long walks. You can follow her on Twitter at @PastorAngelaS.