Walking While Black

“I still remember the first time it happened. I was dropping off my 17-year-old cousin at a friend’s house in the wealthy, whiteMassachusettssuburb in which I lived and where my father is still a professor. We knocked on the wrong door. Minutes later, I was pulled over by the police. Slight, young and scared, I was interrogated about my activities, whether I was delivering drugs and what I was up to.

I remembered. My parents had sat me down months before when I got my license. It doesn’t matter that you are an honors student. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never been in trouble a day in your life. It doesn’t matter that you are leaving to start attending Stanford this fall. When most of these police officers see you, all they will see is a young black girl and that can be dangerous. So, when you are harassed, and you will be, try to stay calm. Try not to be afraid and call us as soon as you can. A black teenager’s right of passage.

Since then I, a minivan-driving soccer mom of three, have been stopped because I “looked suspicious.” My husband, a partner in aDallaslaw firm, has watched white women clutch their purses in the elevator out of fear of him because he “looked suspicious.” One of my best friends from college, a Wall Street banker, was stopped last year after leaving a midweek choir rehearsal at his church and arrested for “looking suspicious” in his own tinyWestchestersuburb, and was forced to spend the night in jail. And my 26-year-old brother-in-law, a Princeton honors graduate, an ordained minister and a Habitat for Humanity staff member living in Harlem, was stopped and questioned while walking home from work by four white police officers just a six weeks ago because they thought “he looked suspicious — like he was looking into a van.” Thank God none of us were shot out of “self-defense” since our brown skin made us look so “suspicious.”

I am scared. It is not a new fear, but one that has never gone away, and is heightened as I look at my three beautiful boys. These precious ones, for whom my husband and I have lovingly and willingly sacrificed much; with whom I have stayed up countless nights, wiping noses and reading bedtime stories; for whom I have visited dozens of schools and spent hours of research, trying to find the right school; in short, the sons for whom I have given my life could find themselves in danger through no fault of their own.

Now they are growing up from babies into fine young men. And that should be nothing but pure joy. Yet, in our society, that also means new danger for them. Not just from the random violence that can touch any life, but due to the particular violence that is visited upon black boys — especially as they begin to look like young men.

We have to prepare them for what they will encounter because of someone else’s perception of who they are, based on media images that portray black boys and men as predators, pimps and thugs — even though my sons have no personal reference for this. No, the black men in their lives are loving, responsible and hard-working fathers, uncles, teachers and friends, who model courage and conviction, values and virtue, and family and faith.

So, how could it not be the case that the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin inFloridalast month breaks my heart, troubles my soul and compels me to action. How can it be that, a month later, his shooter has not even been charged with a crime? How can it be that we live in a country that we fight to defend, but where the taking of our sons’ lives does not even warrant their killers’ arrest? How can it be that this child’s life was taken simply because he was walking while black? How can this be theAmericathat I love? Sadly, so little has changed.

My well-meaning white friends have no idea why so many African-Americans distrust or fear the police who have vowed to protect and serve. And they have no idea what it is like for black parents to have to prepare their children to deal with a public that often still judges them by the color of their skin. These friends are so committed to the idea that we live in a color-blind society that it is hard for them even to perceive, let alone to help change, the reality that impacts our lives and the lives of our children daily.

I learned in law school, and it is still true today, that it is the color of the victim, not the perpetrator, that is the one of the greatest determinants in criminal sentencing. The harshest penalties are given for crimes against white women and the least harsh, even for the same crimes, are meted out when the victim is “only” black.

So, I can’t make nice. I can’t pretend. The killing of Trayvon Martin could be the killing of any black boy going to the store for iced tea and candy, including my sons. The clock is ticking, and justice has not been served. The clock is ticking, and my sons will be black young men soon. And my husband and I have to prepare to have the same talk with them that my parents had with me. You are bright. You are funny and smart and sometimes silly. Your laughter and smiles fill up the room when you enter. And your warmth and your hugs fill my heart with more happiness and joy than any one person has a right to expect in a lifetime. You are capable of being anything you want to be in this life — even President of theUnited Statesone day. But when you walk out of the safety, protection and loving arms of our home, you are walking while black, and only our prayers can protect you then.”

-Frances Cudjoe Waters, 03-21-2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frances-cudjoe-waters/trayvon-martin-black-boys-mothers_b_1369971.html

The Beauty of Low Self-Esteem

I’m just going to say it: I love me.

Go ahead and say it to yourself a few times. I love me. I don’t know how it will make you feel, but I can guarantee that it won’t make you a liar. Look in the mirror. Not bad, huh? No? Well, whether you love or hate what you see, chances are you’ll keep on looking.

None of us has a problem with low self-esteem.

Scripture tells us we were born with the opposite issue. We all think of ourselves as a little more pretty, a little more talented, a little more worthy, and a little more deserving of just about everything in this life. Far from having naturally broken hearts, our hearts are naturally bloated with the calories of self-consumption and filled with obscene levels of self-obsession.

We’ve been taught that there’s nothing more valuable than how much we value ourselves. Sometimes we like to doll it up with introspective words like self-realization or self-fulfillment, but it’s all the same thing: egos the size of Kanye West performing with Jay Z on top of the Empire State Building. Yes, our esteem is that extreme.

Depths of Our Souls

The frightening thing about self esteem is the staggering lengths God goes to completely eradicate it from the depths of our souls, in order to produce depth in our souls.

If the Lord loves a humble and contrite heart, it means that he equally abhors a prideful and defiant one.

One of the prevailing themes of the Bible is how God makes nothing out of men by flipping the object of their esteem from themselves back to him. These stories play out like dark, epic, cinematic tragedies. We all hope our story doesn’t.

In Moses we see a rich, short-tempered prep school kid who got embroiled in a racial murder scandal. Fleeing the scene into exile and obscurity, he gets a blue-collar gig tending sheep for 40 years. God eventually steps back into the picture and assigns him the CEO position of the world’s largest relocation project. What he doesn’t tell him is that the relocation’s going to take another 40-plus years and that he’s going to die right before the final move-in date. God spent a lot of years breaking down Moses. His whole life, actually.

Then there’s Joseph, a spoiled, insensitive trust-fund baby, coddled by his Daddy until his brothers have finally had enough of his insufferable bragging and throw him in a hole while they discuss how to do away with him. They end up selling him into slavery instead, because you could do that back then. He lands a manager position for good behavior until he gets framed on rape charges. Dude ends up back in jail until a VP gig for the nation ofEgyptopens up, and through some heartbreaking circumstances, he lands the job.

God broke Joseph down during the prime years of his young adult life.

You see where I’m going here.

God takes sometimes horrific, drastic measures to destroy our self-esteem.

We’re not told much about the personal pain Moses and Joseph experienced. We’re not told of the sleepless nights spent in isolation, gripped by emotional despondency while grasping hopelessly in the dark, trying to fathom why God was doing this and whether he was even there. In hindsight, we tend to view these figures as emboldened, courageous, pillars of the faith, but it’s foolishness to think that their responses were any less weak and human than ours would be.

But we see a God that uses very human experiences to change the hearts of human vessels. And it hurts.

Call to Brokenness

The call to brokenness is a call to openness. It’s an altered vision. It doesn’t mean that our lives enter into a continuous state of disrepair so that God can use what “working” functions we have left for his glory. Brokenness is the gentrification of our hearts. It means that the heart we had was condemned and the only way for God to make it fit for use was to demolish it and rebuild it from the ground up. Same body, new heart.

The reason it hurts so bad is that we all love our old hearts. We love the familiar pulse and well-worn rhythm that our old hearts provided for us. They filled us with adrenaline, pumping the blood of self-indulgence through our veins . . . until we remember that they didn’t at all. We remember that they shut us into the cells of our own self-belief, closing us off from the liberation of godly self-denial.

The beauty of low self-esteem is that we finally have the hearts to highly esteem God.

It’s not that we all turn into Debbie Downers and drench ourselves in self-loathing and self-pity. No, there’s no time for that when our eyes are fixed firmly on our Lord.

“You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, Lord, do I seek’ (Psalm 27:8).

Help us, O Lord, to see only you.

-Ronnie Martin is a writer, speaker, recording artist, and worship leader at Ashland (OH) GraceBrethrenChurch. He also co-hosts The Reformatory, a radio talk show with Ted Kluck. You can visit his blog and follow him on Twitter.

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/03/14/the-beauty-of-low-self-esteem/