Reading and Waking Up: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Hate

Goodreads

Let me begin this entry of my Lenten reading series by claiming my own privileges and biases: I am a white female coming to terms with my own complicity in an unjust system which values people like me above black Americans. As such, I am writing these reflections for people who want to become more aware of the injustices in our nation, who want to be good allies, and are doing what they can to nudge those in power and privilege into solidarity and action with the oppressed and marginalized. 

It started out as a therapeutic exercise for author Angie Thomas to process her grief over Oscar Grant’s murder, and the title comes from Tupac Shakur’s interpretation of “THUG LIFE,” or “The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everyone.”

To many publishers, and even author Thomas herself, it was “too black” to be profitable. But thanks to efforts promoting more diverse publishing, and a strong national need to confront racial tensions, “The Hate U Give” is here, and it’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for four weeks.

It’s the story of a young woman, Starr, who by age 16 has already witnessed the death of two of her friends, one at age 10 from a drive-by, and again at the novel’s beginning by a police officer. It’s about how the media depicts black victims and police officers in different ways, how witnesses are questioned, and how juries and communities alike respond.

It’s a story of Starr struggling to find her true voice after years of code switching between her “ghetto” neighborhood and upper-class, predominantly white private school. It’s her struggle to be her true self, not her “too black” or “too white” self, around everyone.

It’s brutal in its honesty about the grief, anger, and hope the black community experiences when young lives are snatched away in their prime, as well as the grey areas of how to best support a struggling neighborhood while caring for the safety of a family.

It shows the amazing, strong marriage of a black man and black woman, and the navigation of an adorable teenage interracial relationship. Anyone looking for OTPs will find them aplenty in this novel.

It shows the strengthening of old friendships and familial relationships, the strains of being friends with people who refuse to acknowledge their own racism and biases, and the power of repentance and forgiveness.

It’s simply an amazing book, and I recommend it to anyone who has questions about the Black Lives Matter movement and its legitimacy, the issues black Americans continue to face, the difficult topic of police brutality, and lovers of 90s rap and hip-hop and retro sneakers!

What started out as a step in one woman’s grieving process developed into a story I hope may pour love into the black community while alerting the white community of the consequences of our unacknowledged and damaging behavior. I pray it will be a wake up call to repentance and solidarity, that we may undo the hate we’ve given so less people will be messed up in the future.

Please click here to read the Teen Vogue interview with author Angie Thomas!

Reading and Waking Up: Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

Piecing Me Together

Goodreads

Let me begin the second entry of my Lenten reading series by claiming my own privileges and biases: I am a white female coming to terms with my own complicity in an unjust system which values people like me above black Americans. As such, I am writing these reflections for people who want to become more aware of the injustices in our nation, who want to be good allies, and are doing what they can to nudge those in power and privilege into solidarity and action with the oppressed and marginalized. 

It’s often said fiction is the best way to understand difficult issues. I especially agree with this sentiment in regards to Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson, a young adult novel about Jade, a young woman who “believes she must get out of her poor neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed.” As such, her mother pushes her to take up every single “opportunity” possible: attending a mostly white private school far from her friends, tutoring students in Spanish after school, and the Woman to Woman mentor program.

This last one is quite unwelcome, and a major theme of the book is the relationship she develops with her mentor Maxine, who is black and went to the same private school Jade attends, but seems to have trouble understanding Jade’s own reality. Jade also navigates a friendship with her white classmate Sam, while also managing her relationships with her hard-working mother, her loving father, her best friend Lee Lee, and others. She is also a budding collage artist, and she is most expressive in the act of taking ordinary items and piecing them into something beautiful and whole.

The book touches on a lot of important themes: police brutality, sexism, body image, subtle racism and classism, and family and friend relationships, but it struck me most in the honesty with which it addressed mentor programs catered to “at-risk youth.”

I coordinated a mentoring program, Sister2Sister, for 2 years after I graduated from college, which worked with girls from predominantly Latino and African American communities. I have also been a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters since 2008, and my Little is Latina. My experience has given me the privilege to be in relationship with girls from different ethnic, racial, and social backgrounds from my own, and in the midst of joy and connection, many accidental faux-pas occurred due to my own white privilege and bias. I received a lot of grace from other mentors, leaders, professors, and the girls themselves in acknowledging and properly dealing with my privilege and biases, but I still have a lot to learn, as I did then.

Jade’s interactions with her mentor Maxine, and her white friend Sam, taught me a lot about the flaws in my own good intentions and how those aren’t always enough. I also learned forgiveness and repentance are possible when allies and mentors alike are willing to acknowledge their own complicity, accidental or otherwise, in a white supremacist system.

Most of all, I heard a young woman’s passion, one which broke through despite the world attempting to break and silence her, through overt and hidden racism, through savior complexes, through flat-out ignorance, and through her own conditions.

Through Jade’s story, Renee Watson reminded me of the power of truly hearing someone’s story as told by them.

So if you’re looking to understand a piece of the contemporary black narrative, please read this story of a strong, intelligent, articulate, creative black young woman coming to terms with the world around her and how she will live into it.

It changed me. I’m sure it will change you, too.

Reading and Waking Up: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

jim

Let me begin the first entry of my Lenten reading series by claiming my own privileges and biases: I am a white female coming to terms with my own complicity in an unjust system which values people like me above black Americans. As such, I am writing these reflections for people who want to become more aware of the injustices in our nation, who want to be good allies, and are doing what they can to nudge those in power and privilege into solidarity and action with the oppressed and marginalized. 

As part of my #BlackLivesMatter reading list, I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

To describe it as eye-opening is an understatement.

I knew there was underlying racism in our prison and criminal justice systems, but I didn’t know how it could happen. Like many other white Americans, my education conditioned me to believe racism in America is dead and gone. I’m still dealing with those biases, and Alexander’s thorough work brought the stories and statistics long hidden in the dark into the bright light of day.

Overview

Alexander’s thesis is this: the current mass incarceration of black Americans in the United States acts as a new system of control reminiscent of Jim Crow society. She begins by explaining the relationships between black slaves and white indentured servants early in American history. Since the indentured servants and slaves otherwise occupied the same class and social ranks, they collaborated together against the white land owners for whom they worked and fought side by side in rebellions. To prevent further collaborations, the white land owners pushed an agenda of white supremacy, which caused a cease in interracial collaborations. Alexander then goes into detail about emancipation, the failure of Reconstruction, and the rise and “downfall” of the Jim Crow laws, setting up the stage for the start of the War on Drugs and the mass incarceration of black Americans which followed.

As of now, there are over 2 million people imprisoned in the United States, compared to 300,000 people thirty years ago. Four million more are on parole or probation. However, despite the fact that the use and selling of drugs across races is similar, three out of four young black men are likely to serve time in prison, and black men are often admitted on drug charges “at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men.”

Alexander compares this mass incarceration of black men for drug use the “New Jim Crow” because of the permanent and legal revoking of the rights of incarcerated citizens upon receiving a felony conviction. Revoked rights include the right to vote, access to government assistance, and securing a job, similar losses black Americans legally sustained during the Jim Crow era. Unfortunately, few are able to push back against these losses, because so many legal cases have supported a “colorblind” criminal justice system, and racism is only seen as a matter of intention instead of a subtle, systematic issue. This is because the only ones deemed racists today are the KKK and people who act in outright ways to show hatred and hostility to black Americans. Subtle, even unintentional and everyday, acts of racism are not regarded as racist, because they are “unintended” and, to some, invisible.

Now What?

This is an excellent and important read, because to those unaware, Alexander provides insight into the racist (intentional or otherwise) structure of our legal and prison system. When a disproportionate amount of black people are imprisoned for drug crimes committed at an equal/greater rate by white people, something in need of confrontation and change is lurking below the surface.

The problem is not guilty people being imprisoned for drug use. The problem is the obvious racial biases inherent in the War on Drugs, which result in the targeting of black Americans and black communities at a rate disproportionate to Americans involved in drug crimes. The problem is mandatory minimum sentencing laws which require any person charged with any type of possession to be sentenced from five years to a decade or more in prison. The problem is the inability to be able to plea anything other than guilty, even when innocent, because of biases surrounding race and lack of financial and legal assistance.

This is a human rights issue, and unfortunately, because these human beings are labeled criminals and felons, few seem willing to rush to their defense.

However, if we claim to be a just and equal society, we must stand up for all Americans, and the incarcerated are our citizens. If we claim to be Christians who follow Jesus, who is found with the imprisoned, we must advocate for their full inclusion in the world as children of God.

The stories, facts, and questions Alexander raises can increase awareness around the nation and push activists, new and seasoned alike, to confront the injustices occurring in a system called to uphold the law. Alexander, who wrote this book seven years ago and before the Black Lives Matter movement officially began, calls the activist community to cease ignoring this issue. Her advice and wisdom seem all the more appropriate and timely now.

The insights from Alexander’s work can also begin the long overdue conversations about race which honor the voices of black Americans, those incarcerated and free, and white voices affected by crippling poverty. They can push white people to confront their own biases, intentional or otherwise. As people shaped in a society in which most of the power is held my white people, racial biases are inevitable, and we must confront, acknowledge, and deal with them, or else we refuse to heal and be good allies to our black brothers and sisters.

In short, Alexander reminds us we need to find solutions to make America a true democracy for ALL. In the fight for justice, we must seek it for “all of us, or none.”

To become involved in the fight for prison and criminal justice reform, check out The Sentencing ProjectNAACP – Criminal Justice, and/or FAMM – Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Why I’m Taking Up a #BlackLivesMatter Reading List This Lent

In 8 days, Christians around the world will begin the Lenten journey with Ash Wednesday, in which ashes are smeared on our foreheads to remind us of our own mortality.

As our pastors and friends press the ashes onto our skin, they may utter the sacred verse,  “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” In this, they remind us we begin the journey by remembering we will die, yet we end the journey remembering death is not the end.

We begin the journey of repentance and resurrection by remembering we must die for both to happen.

This theme of death permeates the entire season. We participate in death, repentance, and resurrection by sacrificing something for the next 40 days. We do this hoping, by God’s grace and power, we will come to Easter Sunday new, resurrected people, letting something in us die in order for new life to come.

Sacrifices are made in many ways for just as many reasons. Some give up chocolate and sugary food and drink to attend to their physical and emotional health. Others give up social media to make more time for Bible study, prayer, and being fully present with God and others.

Last Lent, I gave up Netflix. It was difficult, because I love stories. I love watching new shows to get pulled into a brand new story, and I love finding comfort in old tales I know like the back of my hand.

This sacrifice did, however, free up my own mind, body, and soul to be more present with others. I found myself listening better and making more time to be physically present with friends, family, and acquaintances. It was a Lent of repenting from the ways in which I hide from people and finding new life being in the sacred presence of divinely-made humanity.

I plan to give up Netflix again this year, hoping God will again guide me through repentance and into resurrection. But this Lent, I’m also adding a new reading list of voices I’ve neglected to hear for most of my life. By doing this, I hope to become more present to the sacred voices, stories, and presence of people made in the image of God, and I hope their stories will help me repent of my own sins and find resurrection.

This Lent, I’m taking up a #BlackLivesMatter reading list.

Amazon.com and NewJimCrow.com

I’m doing this, because as a white Christian, I need to repent of my own complicity in a culture of white supremacy and listen to the stories of my black brothers and sisters long ignored and neglected by our society.

This repentance requires death. These stories push me to die to my own privilege and the supremacy endorsed by the society of which I am a part. They also confront me with the lives already lost to slavery, police brutality, and broken systems built upon racism.

These stories push me into the long, hard work of repentance. They should be embraced, but they have long been ignored by a majority of American society, and white Christians need to hear these stories of God’s justice, love, sadness, and anger prevalent in the black community. They are stories which challenge me to drop my preconceptions about “colorblindness” and “post-race America.” They provide stories of hope and joy found in the black community. They push me out of my bubble of privilege and into the uncomfortable world I’ve long ignored, a world of both oppression and celebration, despair and excellence, death and survival.

These are stories to be listened to and understood well, because these are the stories of my black and brown brothers and sisters. They are sacred, because they come from their beautiful, heartbreaking, celebratory lives and contain their own questions, challenges, cries, and cheers.

To be clear, this reading list is not a final solution. By taking up this reading list, I do not claim to be a great ally, insightful progressive, or savior of anyone, not for other white Christians and definitely not for people of color. I am only beginning to notice stories and systems whose existence has been long known by black Americans. Going into this Lent, I still have prejudices, biases, and a whole lot to learn about systemic racism and how it affects my interactions, and lack thereof, with people of color.

Instead, this is a step.

It’s a step past the rubble of the crumbling walls built by my privilege. It’s a step into the lives of others and into their worlds. It’s a step past comfort and into relationship.

It’s a step into repentance and the death embodied in Ash Wednesday, and hopefully a step towards the resurrection awaiting us on Easter Sunday.

 

Reading List:

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Killing Rage: Ending Racism by bell hooks

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison 

Women, Culture, and Politics by Angela Davis

March by John Lewis

Inspired by Black Lives Matter Reading List from LeftBank.com and A Lent Where #BlackLivesMatter: 10 Ideas for Black History Month and the White Church on Patheos. This list is by no means exhaustive, so if you have any other suggestions you’d like to share, please comment!