White People and Black Art, Part 3: Until There Are No More Firsts, #OscarsSoWhite Remains Relevant

Ready Steady Cut

For Black History Month, I’ll be doing a series about films, comics, books, and other forms of media which predominantly feature people of color in the cast and/or are created by people of color. I am biracial (White/Arab American), and I will not be writing as an “expert” on black culture or art. I also acknowledge that black art is not made with white people in mind, because everything else is catered to our desires anyways. Instead, I share these musings as one seeking to educate her fellow white people on why black lives and black representation matter, and what we as white people can learn about racial tensions and interactions from these art forms.

This is the final post in my White People and Black Art series. Post One and Post Two can be found at the attached links.

The 90th Academy Awards will air on Sunday, March 4th, and there is a lot of buzz surrounding them.

There’s no clear Best Picture favorite. Get Out made the cut and got 5 nominations. The Shape of Water has the most nominations but it’s still uncertain if it will sweep or go home with little to nothing.

It’s a very exciting run this year, especially in light of the 2015 and 2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversies, which arose when zero people of color received acting or directing nominations.

However, in light of Moonlight’s 2017 victory over La La Land and the increase in diversity among the 2018 nominees, some dare to wonder if #OscarsSoWhite is finally irrelevant.

According to April Reign, who launched the hashtag in 2015, the battle is still far from over.

“Until we are no longer lauding ‘firsts’ after a 90 year history,” Reign tweeted, “until we can no longer count a traditionally underrepresented community’s number of nominations on our fingers, #OscarsSoWhite remains relevant.”

While the list of nominations for the 2018 Oscars reflects a potential shift in films the entertainment industry recognizes, work must still be done to ensure a number of nominees and winners featuring the stories of the traditionally marginalized becomes the norm, not the exception.

This work includes recognizing and dismantling the structures that keep these communities from being well-represented in the first place.

The Academy is predominantly composed of white, heterosexual, able-bodied men, and as such, their standard for “talent” is judged through this lens. The training and education required to meet those standards is often only available to those within certain socioeconomic classes, classes which are predominantly composed of white people. Not to mention, those providing the training and education are also likely to be white.

This is why a common rebuttal to an all-white nominee list is, “The white actors are simply more talented.”

While I am not contesting the talent or ability of any previously nominated actors or actresses, it is worth confronting the truth that certain socioeconomic classes, and therefore a certain race, are better able to access the education and training required to make it into “award-worthy” films. As a result, the white talent often comes out on top, and the talent of the marginalized is often left unseen due to lack of access to these resources.

This is why the Academy continues to dish out nominations which are the “first” of their kind, or ones so rare they can be counted in the single digits, even after a 90 year history.

Among the “firsts” and rarities in the 2018 Oscar nominations are: the first female cinematographer, the fifth female and black directors, and the first black woman in 45 years to receive a screenplay nomination.

In the Best Actress category, only 1 black woman and zero Asian or Latina women have won award. The last black woman to win was Halle Berry in 2002, and she has even lamented this lack of representation, which she thought would be amended with her victory.

These standards also affect the types of stories the Academy rewards, as well as who is rewarded for telling these stories.

When women of color receive nominations, they are often nominated for playing maids, slaves, or abusive mothers instead of three-dimensional characters with autonomy over their own bodies and destinies. Black directors like Lee Daniels and Steve McQueen are nominated for films like Precious and 12 Years a Slave, which are stories of violence committed against black people, while Spike Lee’s films about both black excellence and black struggle are repeatedly snubbed.

And in 2016, when Straight Outta Compton received a Screenplay nomination, the nominees were all white. While the cast was led by black men, the ones recognized for telling the story were white.

The challenging of this predominantly white, hetero, able-bodied, male membership is a major reason why a massive overhaul of judges and Academy members occurred. The 2017 Academy year saw 800 new members join. Of those 800, 39% were female, and 30% were people of color.

This shift in judges alone had drastic results, as evident in the type of films nominated this year.

Call Me By Your Name, a love story between two men that doesn’t end in tragedy, was adapted for the screen by an 89-year old gay screenwriter. Get Out is a “horror parable about racism” directed by a black man. And Lady Bird centers around female friendship instead of a heterosexual romance and is directed by a white woman.

When people from more marginalized backgrounds are given the power to see and judge films, they seek films which embody their lived experiences. As such, they bring with them a judgment criteria different from the dominant white, straight, able-bodied, males who have traditionally held the reins.

And when the films are honored by the Academy, they can also be honored by the American culture.

This is a big step in the right direction, and it could result in major systemic change if sustained in the future.

But again, this is not yet the norm.

While the 2018 Oscar nominations show a shift in the right direction in terms of the representation of marginalized communities, there is still much work to be done. The Academy still needs to be intentional about the talent they find, produce, and recognize, and Americans who occupy realms of privilege need to be more intentional about the media they consume.

Only when it becomes the standard for traditionally marginalized populations to tell their stories can we truly say change has come, and #OscarsSoWhite can finally retire.

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I Went to Church for the First Time in 9 Months

Episco door

Two weeks ago, my friend Shirley came to visit from Atlanta.

We met during a Spiritual Formation conference at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in June 2016. I was a Christian “none” who wore pink Chucks and asked unnerving questions. She was a purple-haired Episcopalian who wrote a thesis on Buddhism and Christianity and talked openly about how much she loved her cats.

We became fast friends.

Shortly after my husband and I married, she sent me a message about her plans to attend a conference in Alexandria, about an hour’s drive from our abode in Ashburn. She asked if we could loan her our couch, our kitties, and our board games.

I was more than happy to oblige.

The weekend was filled with lots of laughter, IPAs (for her and my husband), storytelling, and yummy food. It was refreshing, energizing, and wonderful for all of us.

And then Shirley had to ask me, the absentee Christian who had all but abandoned traditional church, if I was planning to attend a worship service on Sunday.

I wanted to be a good hostess and a good friend, and I figured if I was going to creep back into regular church again, Shirley would be a great person with whom to do this. As such, we spent Saturday evening surfing the web for local Episcopal congregations. We decided against the one 10 minutes down the road, whose website boasted a picture of an altar-housed American flag, in favor of a non-flag-flying church in a small town about 30 minutes away.

For the first Sunday in nine months, I found myself crossing the threshold of the red door characteristic of Episcopal churches.

It was a tiny sanctuary, quaint if you will. Most of the pews were empty, and the occupied ones contained no more than 3 people each. There were no kneeling bars, but there were adorable cushions embroidered with scenes both biblical and rural, from the Magi following the star to a map of the state of Virginia, from the Annunciation to cats snuggling in wicker baskets.

I also winced in internal discomfort when I noticed a plaque dedicated to past church members who served the Confederacy right above the pew of a black family in attendance.

My eyes and thoughts remained, for the most part, on this jarring example of Christian racism during the opening prayers and music. But the priest’s sermon drew my focus away from the walls. A seasoned metropolitan priest new to this particular parish, he began his sermon with jokes about Virginia Tech and University of VA fans and ended by calling out his own racism and the racism of our current administration and white Christianity, all while walking among us instead of standing behind his pulpit.

I sighed in relief upon realizing there are those who resist systemic evil in the name of Jesus, exist in flesh and blood, and do not just use Twitter as their pulpit.

After the sermon, as is traditional with an Episcopal service, we prepared for Eucharist, a meal I had not consumed at the altar in such a long time. So when the time came, I walked up to the bars, knelt before the priest, and partook of the bread and wine again.

Despite the hiatus, I did my best not to consume the meal too hastily. I savored the light, delicate wafer as it sat on my tongue and as I slowly chewed it. I let the small sip of wine saturate my taste buds, rich and sweet, before letting it fall down my throat.

It had been so long since I had known those particular tastes, and I wanted to hold onto them as long as I could.

After final prayers and final songs, and after taking pictures of our favorite kneeling pillows, Shirley and I had lunch at a nearby cafe, which boasted a much larger attendance than the tiny congregation. Over turkey sandwiches, kettle chips, pickles, and Coca Cola, we talked about God’s restorative work, living with mental illness, and eradicating white privilege and supremacy. In short, we had communion one last time.

And as I said my good-byes to my friend, I realized I had enjoyed my time with the congregation.

Yes, I had issues with the plaques on the walls, but I also had hope that restorative work could be done.

Yes, it was a 30 minute drive on a chilly morning, and it had been a bit unnerving to step into a church building again, but I had partaken of a physical and emotional communion, and I felt refreshed and excited.

To be honest, I do not know if this congregation will become my faith community, if I will search for one closer to my own home, or what my next step in this journey will be.

But I know that as long as my spiritual pilgrimage lasts, there will always be those to house me along the way, from visiting friends to small town churches with cat pillows, and everywhere in between.

I Haven’t Been to Church in Four Months, and I’m OK

Church

Outlook Mag

Next week will officially mark four months since I’ve gotten myself out of bed on a Sunday morning to attend a church service.

I’ve kept myself otherwise occupied.

I played card games with Bryce and our roommate. I visited my mother and helped her with yard work. I watched a lot of TV and read a few books. I spent Mother’s and Father’s Day with my future in-laws. I added to our wedding registry. I fasted from social media.

I slept in.

But I haven’t been with a traditional community of believers.

I have become what I once feared: a non-church attending Christian.

The congregation members I grew up with attached a lot of adjectives to people like me: lukewarm, backsliding, and hedonistic are probably some of the nicer ones.

You can’t be a Christian without a faith community, they insist. If you’re not part of a gathering of believers, you will follow a God in your own image and become idolatrous, they warn. Why must you be one of those pesky Burger King Christians who has to have everything their way, they fuss.

But guess what?

I’m OK.

I’m well-rested, emotionally stable (to an extent), and still in love with the Church, the Bible, and the Holy Trinity.

This being said, I still struggle to read the Bible. I find following Jesus into the difficult places harder than ever. I find God to be more mysterious than I could have imagined. And I am more annoyed by the Spirit’s non-stop calls to lay everything down and open myself up to love.

I still talk about theology and what it means to follow Jesus, although I’m even less reverent than I’ve ever been. I partake in communion, but I break the bread of gigantic slices of Manhattan Pizza with my co-workers and gluten-free, vegan rolls with racial justice co-conspirators. I pray more than I have in some time: for peace, for my loved ones to get through their days, for mercy and justice, and for people to just listen. I look for God’s presence everywhere and in everything, in the breaths I take during a run, in my fiance doing the laundry for me, in protesters as cops beat them, and in writers who share their stories and trust they will mean something to someone.

I know there will be people who will read every single thing I’ve just said and see it all as lies and heresies, more evidence of my backsliding ways.

But in reality, I feel more solid in my faith and more confident claiming a Christian identity than I have in a long time.

It could be because I’m living with my fiance and not afraid of anyone’s nosy judgment, or because I’m politically and socially engaged with no fear that a theological higher-up is breathing down my neck, waiting for me to make a theological mishap and tear me down. Maybe it’s because I have more freedom to actually ask a variety of people a lot of interesting, difficult, uncomfortable questions without having the authenticity of my faith put on trial.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting more sleep.

I’m not saying I will never attend a traditional church again. By no means. In fact, I can no longer pass an Episcopal church without feeling a tremendous pang in my heart and an intense longing for choir anthems and collects.

I also have to admit there are some drawbacks to not having a faith community right now. I miss the communal life of choir practices and youth Sunday School. I miss long, deep conversations with clergy. I miss coffee hours after Sunday service and lunch time gatherings around the seminary table.

But I can’t say my lack of a “real” faith community is completely awful either. And I definitely can’t say I will regret this time in my life, or that I feel like a failure and a backslider in my walk with Christ.

For once in my life, I feel OK with where my faith journey has taken and is taking me, even if it’s the non-traditional route.

And I’m going to soak that up for all it’s worth.

Bridal Showers and Tesseracts and Female Doctors, Oh My! (Or: SWEET BABY JESUS, THINGS ARE LOOKING UP!)

A WRINKLE IN TIME13

Bleeding Cool

ComingSoon.net

Y’all.

This has been one hell of a weekend.

I got to attend a bridal shower thrown by two beloved cousins, with whom I spent some of the best moments of my childhood. My future mother-in-law and her sister met my extended family for the first time, and to my great relief, everyone got along famously.

Not to mention, my fiance and I received a vacuum, a Crock Pot, ceramic pots and pans, and other amazing gifts.

That evening, I went to my cousin Megan’s house, where we sat around a roaring fire in the fire pit, and I played with her adorable, headbutting little girl and traded silly stories and political tirades with my aunts and mother.

On Sunday, I went to my aunt Leslie’s pool, where I squeezed some swimming time in between my younger cousins’ attempts to treat me like the human equivalent of a jungle gym.

The family time and bridal celebration alone made it an incredible weekend.

The geeky celebrations that occurred alongside them made everything ten times sweeter.

The Wrinkle in Time trailer dropped and blew the world away, highlighting its beautiful cast and phenomenal story of a young girl on a journey to save her father and the universe from an evil darkness.

After several fan campaigns, the 13th Doctor is officially going to be a woman, much to the joy of many young women, the necessary feedback and critiques of women of color, and the chagrin of silly “fanboys.”

Y’all, this is an amazing week to not only be a geek, but to be a female geek.

Women of color, both young and old, dominate Madeline L’Engle’s beloved sci-fi story, which is also directed by a woman of color, the amazing Ava Duvernay, and released by Disney, which practically owns the realm of imagination right now.

An intelligent and talented woman (albeit a white, blonde, and thin one, which carries its own issues) will be embodying an immortal Time Lord/Lady who carries wisdom and knowledge of all of time and space.

After months of news stories that would tell women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and other marginalized people that there is no hope, fantasy kicked down the door, grabbed us by the hand, and took us away to worlds into which we are not only allowed to enter, but into which we are called to lead the rest of the world.

For once, I don’t care what the “haters” have to say.

The joys of being with family, of celebrating my fiance and I and our love and life together, of being a fangirl, an activist, and a seeker of the Kingdom of God broke through the despair of my anxiety, stress, and skepticism. The joy of these beautiful works of art reminded me that if neither the world nor the Church will lead us into the Kingdom of God, then maybe the imagination of sci-fi and fantasy will.

This weekend, for the first time in a long time, joy won.

 

Watering Plants After Watching Philando Castile’s Killing

Planet Natural

Yesterday, I finally watched the dashcam footage of Philando Castille’s death.

This morning, as part of my house-sitting promise to my mother, I watered her plants.

I turned the faucet until it could turn no more and felt the water immediately pump through the extendable hose at full blast. I heaved the heavy load over the porch, unraveled the hose from its tangles, and walked to the first bed. I changed the setting to “Shower” and remembered to depress the lever slightly, because even a heavy shower can be too much for those tiny buds.

As I wandered through the beds of mulch and among their scatterings of green, pink, and blue, showering the delicate buds and small leaves, I prayed this small offering of water would be enough. I prayed the light shower would keep them hydrated when the hot summer sun mercilessly beat down on them later in the day. I prayed my neglect of the past couple days would be amended through this sprinkling, that it would be enough to keep them going in the time between my departure and Mom’s return.

I remembered I was not their real gardener. I was not at work under the soil soaking up nutrients to send up the roots, through the stems, and to the leaves and buds. I was not their planter or their keeper. Heck, I wasn’t even going to continue this work after Saturday.

And still, I watered each plant, each green that stretched out of the mulch and flower pots, each colorful bud closed up but expectant of the day it would open again.

I guided the small showers lovingly over each plant, and I wondered if God does the same with the tears shed over each unjustified killing, over each act of hatred and animosity towards the “Other.” I wondered if God uses those tears to water the hearts of the brokenhearted, that they may have comfort. I wondered if God uses those tears to water the hard hearts of those who do not understand the reasons for this pain, that they may soften and open. I wondered if God waters us with those tears so we do not remain numb but continue to be sensitive enough to soak them up and keep moving forward, to remind us that we cannot just let ourselves and our siblings continue to die and be killed.

And I wonder if God also sheds tears over our sorry, pitiful, divided state, and I wonder if God waters us with those tears, too. I wonder if in the midst of being showered, unknowingly or otherwise, with the tears of the oppressed and marginalized, we are also being showered by the tears of God.

And then I wonder where one’s tears stop and God’s begin.

*****

After I finished watering, I returned to the house and tidied a few things up. By the time I finished, the pitter-patter of a gentle rain shower sounded on the roof.

Maybe my small offering was accepted and met with another. Maybe God is still listening to and responding to our small acts of faithfulness.

Maybe that’s enough for me to believe right now.

Sometimes, People are Amazing

Shutterstock

Sometimes, people are amazing.

Sometimes, while driving through a rain storm, we roll the car windows down and put our hands out to catch the drops.

Sometimes, we stop what we’re doing to watch butterflies.

Sometimes, the kids clean up the room with little prompting after completing an activity, and they do it with gusto.

Sometimes, people write beautiful, thought-provoking, intelligent, biting, and necessary stories.

Sometimes, we call out hate crimes, at home and abroad. Sometimes, we hold a work meeting just to publicly apologize for the way they treated a co-worker.

Sometimes, we do fantastic things.

And other times, we don’t do the fantastic, awe-inspiring things.

Other times, we ignore the rain, and make big messes without cleaning them up, and destroy and censor beautiful works of art, and are behind the hate crimes, and degrade our co-workers without repentance.

We are human, after all. Sometimes, we remember that being human is sacred. Other times, we feel the weight of the burden it can be.

But we are still amazing in our capacity to do both, to do the wonderful and the awful, to be so complex that we are neither good nor bad, but simply human. There is nothing simple about being human, but there is always something sacred about it.

Maybe we are always amazing, even when we don’t act it.

Maybe.

Theater is Church

Theater_header_1

Eastern Mennonite University Black Box Theater

I met my Dad halfway through my sophomore year of college. I remember hearing his voice on the phone for the first time in 15 years and thinking to myself, “He sounds just like he did on those old home videos.”

During those early phone calls, he told me about my siblings, my stepmom, her pregnancy with my then unborn brother, his upbringing as a Palestinian born and raised in Jordan, and about his life as an Arab American.

That same semester, my Theater professor assigned My Name is Rachel Corrie for my class and I to read, a one-woman play about the late activist who lost her life defending a Palestinian home in the Gaza strip from being bulldozed by the Israeli army.

This play brought me closer to my father and our shared roots, and it pushed me into an inner confrontation with American and international policy. It is a story I return to when my Dad tells me about the pain of displacement and when I continue to see the plight of Palestinians, who are my family by blood, ignored by American and international media.

*****

During the first semester of my senior year at college, I took a Basics of Acting class. For our final project, my fellow actors and I acted out scenes from a themed series called “University.”

At this point in my life, I was in the deep throes of my faith crisis. Day by day, my firm foundation revealed its unsteady nature. I kept hoping to find solid ground but continued to be met with sinking sand.

It was in this state of mind that I found out my professor had assigned me the role of a young college student who had just had an abortion and found herself in a confrontation with her one night stand about it.

I hated him for that.

And yet, it was this acting exercise that met me where I was in my crisis, in all of my uncertainty over my previous ideologies and biases, and pushed me into the mind and body of someone I had once deemed “other.” It was in the black box theater, as I worked on memorizing my character’s lines and getting into her skin, that I realized how to play with a story, discover the crazy nuances of human lives, and remember that when we talk about “issues,” we are always talking about divinely made human beings.

*****

My second year of seminary, I joined the cast and crew of Corpus Christi, a play depicting Jesus as a young gay man living and proclaiming the Gospel in Texas. I served as the dramaturg (a nice, fancy, theater word for the one who does lots of research) to prepare the cast and help them understand their roles as disciples, and I joined rather last minute as an actor to play the part of John the Baptist, in which I baptized (read: washed the hands of) all of our cast members.

Unfortunately, due to the “controversial” nature of the show, we had to shut it down.

That didn’t stop us from holding a final and open dress rehearsal to a packed house, though.

The powers that were also couldn’t stop us from sitting around during rehearsal time and trading laughter, tears, university cafe treats, and stories about how the Church had wounded the LGBTQ community.

The powers that were could never take from us the power this production had, in many ways, to save and heal the lives of the cast and crew, most of whom identify as LGBTQ+.

In this communal theater experiment, I found myself pushed into a story that was and wasn’t mine. I found myself in the supporting role, and as such, I learned to listen and be present instead of my more natural role of taking charge and stealing the spotlight. I confronted my own pain and the pain of others suffering in ways I cannot completely understand but with whom I can sit, stand, and live in love and camaraderie.

*****

Theater is not frivolous. It is not for the faint of heart or the narrow of mind, but it is for the experienced and inexperienced, the diva and the shy, the believer and the skeptic. Theater molds, shapes, and even break us in ways we spend a lifetime unpacking.

There are times when theater is the voice, body, and spirit of God when churches remain silent, paralyzed, and breathless. There are times when theater becomes the Church to the doubters, skeptics, LGBTQ+, people of color, and the oppressed when the churches all but slam the door in their faces.

 

Theater does this, because theater is story. It’s the stories with the immense power to make us confront our “others” and our own roots. It’s the stories which wake us up and wind us up. It’s the stories which comfort the uncomfortable and discomfort the comfortable.

It was stories Jesus used to illustrate the finer points of his gospel message, through parables of seeds and soil, great banquets, feuding families, and pestering widows. It was theater Jesus employed when he caused a public and zealous disturbance in the temple. It was these stories that baffled the disciples and the religious elite but made sense to the ones who had lived them in some capacity.

And throughout all of those stories and theatrical displays was the call to remember we are God’s, and we belong to each other.

While many fear the “death of the Church,” I have no fear of this, because as long as theater and stories exist, and as long as we continue to tell the stories to each other without fear or shame, the Church will survive and thrive.

I’ve seen the theater be Church for me and for others, and it gives me hope that Church will outlive every congregation we ever make or attempt.