Six years ago, as a 17-year-old senior in high school in Fort Worth, Texas, I was horrified to wake up to this news story: Silk Littlejohn and Broderick Gamble, a betrothed couple in a city next to mine, had purchased a home together, but then, out on a walk, the couple was approached by a 66-year-old neighbor, Grace Head, who proceeded to beat Ms. Littlejohn with a 2-by-4 piece of wood. After Ms. Littlejohn was released from the hospital, she and her fiancée found the words "KILL, DIE, NIGGER" on their unfinished garage door. Mr. Gamble and Ms. Littlejohn were, understandably, upset, confused, and outraged.
Up until this point, I had had no interest in racial justice. Yes, my parents and grandparents had shared with me and my brother honest stories about their own racially charged difficulties. Yes, I had heard the stories of Emmett Till and Rosa Parks. Yes, there was a picture of Mae Jemison that hung on my family's refrigerator for years. But at 17, I thought racial violence was a thing of the past, a museum statue to gawk at, a discolored article buried deep in the archives of human experience. Racially motivated violence wasn't something I was particularly passionate about at 17, which is why it's hard for me to understand what actually motivated me to go to a march in support of the embattled couple. I don't know if it was curiosity or genuine disbelief.
At the 300-person demonstration in front of the couple's unfinished home, I saw a quotation by Martin Luther King Jr. that I had never seen before: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Seeing that quotation made all the difference. Never before had I thought of injustice as a common journey. Never before had I been able to imagine a world in which violence and unjust systems connect us all. In the words of Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, I was "[s]prung free from the trap of self; self-protectiveness; [and] self-defensiveness." It was a moment of conversion. It was the moment I was baptized into the long, holy tradition of black rage in the United States of America.
This conversion, this baptism into rage, isn't something I desired. Up until that point, I had lived a comfortable life with supportive parents in a comfortable neighborhood on a comfortable street on a comfortable corner. Unbeknownst to me, though, was the high cost of that comfort. When my parents moved into that house in 1990, they became the first black people on that street. Earlier that year, the very year in which I was born, they were one step away from closing on a different house, but when it came time for the closing and they showed up at the realtor's office with their brown skin, it turned out that their difference in hue, their variation in shade, their contrast in color, their dissimilarity in pigment was problematic for the realtor -- so problematic that he immediately revoked the deal. My comfort did not come easily.
On the subject of black rage, Mychal Denzel Smith has this to say:
Anger helps build movements. Of course, anger alone isn't sufficient, but it has a galvanizing effect. There's an anger unique to experiencing America through blackness that has pushed this country to react. ...
What some call depression or pessimism, I would call impatience and rage. Our impatience and rage is what has produced progress. That we are still impatient and angry reflects not black people's failing but how far America still has to go.
Smith is correct. Only when we're fed up, out of breath, backed up against the wall of oppression, and have "had it up to here" with systems that oppress, dehumanize, alienate, and incarcerate black bodies will we be led to force our government to treat us like the children of God we know we are. To be a black Christian in this country is to be exhausted. We are, in the words of actor-activist Jesse Williams, "tired of the criminalization of the black body in this country." Williams explains, "People are tired of seeing black people killed out of inconvenience. This fantasy of what the back body can do has become more important than reality, and we pay for it with our lives."
Black self-knowledge -- dare I say Christ-knowledge -- is a radical practice in the face of a system of government based on white supremacy. To say "I am beautiful" when almost no major magazines depicts bodies of your color is revolutionary. To say "I am free" when you live in a nation hellbent on imprisoning you for no reason other than the color of your skin is revolutionary. To say "I am worthy" when law enforcement sees your body as threatening and dispensable is revolutionary. To say "I am loved" when front-page news says you are violent and frightening is revolutionary. You are beautiful. You are free. You are worthy. You are loved. And I don't care what anyone says about it. Like my ancestors in rage sang, "before I'd be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave." I am free. You are free. And we know this in our bones.
This knowing pushes our rage into action. Charles M. Blow wrote about this in his column, saying:
Where rage should be, there is too often a whimper. When will we demand the country we deserve: reflective of its people, protective of its people, simply of its people? When will the young and the poor and the aggrieved and the forsaken walk abreast to the polls and then to the public squares? If we don't like the government we have, we can change it. If we don't like the path we're on, we can alter it.
Beloved, I woke up late to black rage. I don't want the same for you. This rage will help you experience the very heart of Christ, the heart that is upset by every instance of oppression and misuse of power. This is the same Christ who announced that the impoverished, the meek, and the mourning are blessed; the Christ who critiqued exploitation of the poor by throwing the moneychangers out of the temple; the Christ who became an innocent victim of the state and went to death row for the sake of injustice. In his death on the cross, he absorbed our injustice, guilt, and shame. Jesus Christ is every young man who is pulled over for a DWB (driving while black) and every teenage mother raising two children on her own. Jesus Christ is Trayvon Martin, a young black man killed for no reason other than white racism, fear, and anxiety.
To hold black rage in your body is to know Christ's own rage. When injustice unsettles your very being, know that you are experiencing Christ's own unsettling sense of compassion and justice. So be awake and outraged. Practice resurrection. Sow seeds of a new world. In that sowing and in that rage, something new must spring forth. O God, it must.