Authentic Voices

Authentic Voices

MOTHER AND SON: UrbanFaith's Christine Scheller with her late son, Gabe.

“During the early days of the AOL Huffington Post merger, we had a chuckle when Arianna Huffington was named editor-in-chief of an array of AOL blogs outside her area of expertise … perhaps most glaringly, Black Voices.” So began an article in The New York Observer about the site’s re-launch.

“There’s no need to cringe anymore,” said the writer, Emily Foxhall, because Huffington has hired a black managing editor named Rebecca Carroll and a black strategic advisor named Sheila Johnson. They, in turn, will hire a core of black writers and editors.

“It’s not black voices if it’s not black,” Carroll said. “Oftentimes when white reporters and editors go out to cover black America what happens is you get the same headlines. That’s because it’s about black folks as opposed to being of black folks.”

Carroll makes a good point. As news and religion editor at Urban Faith, I’m keenly aware of my own limitations in communicating stories that reflect authentic African American experience and interest, which is why I’m enormously grateful for the black men and women who contribute the majority of UF’s content.

“I feel like I have been working on this idea of creating a place where people can go and read about and learn about and understand a nuanced narrative about race for my whole life,” Carroll said.

Creating a nuanced narrative about race that excludes both the positive and negative contributions of non-blacks to black life and history, however, is like celebrating our first African American president and ignoring the fact that he was born of a white mother and raised by white people.

In her book, Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America, Renee Christine Romano writes, “The taboo on intimate personal relationships between blacks and whites served a crucial function in creating the American racial order. Arguably, without such a taboo, the very categories we now think of as ‘black’ and ‘white’ would not have existed in the same way.”

She notes that in 1960, when the United States Census Bureau first tracked interracial marriages, there were 157,000 of them (roughly one-third of which were black-white). In 2000, there were more than 1 million (363,000 of which were black-white). In 2010, the figure rose 20 percent to 4.5 million interracial marriages.

The future is brown, not black or white. In advocating exclusivity, Carroll may be clinging to a past that only really existed in our racialized society’s imagination. Urban Faith, on the other hand, has a specific, yet broad vision. Here’s how it was described in a 2008 pre-launch email I received from editor Ed Gilbreath:

Urban Ministries, Inc. is an African American-owned company. Our core audience is black, and UrbanFaith.com will naturally be rooted in that perspective. At the same time, recognizing the beauty of diversity in God’s kingdom, UrbanFaith.com will strive to also be ethnically inclusive and multicultural in flavor.

Today, urban culture transcends racial boundaries and covers many different socio-economic backgrounds. What’s more, Christians who are engaged in the exciting call to urban ministry come from all races and walks of life. UrbanFaith.com will be more about a way of looking at the world than where folks live or the color of their skin. It will be both for those who make their home in an urban setting and for those who care about the people, culture, and issues related to urban life.”

This description accompanied an invitation to write for the site. At the time, I had a lot of confidence about the contribution I could make. I had raised a black son, after all, and he encouraged me to “go for it.”

His affirmation is important because after he died by suicide one month later, I couldn’t imagine writing for any audience, let alone an African American one. Among myriad losses, I experienced a profound sense of identity dislocation. For 24 years I belonged to a racially integrated family and suddenly I didn’t feel like I did anymore because our one non-white member was gone.

Rereading Ed’s description, I’m assured that my values correlate with his vision, but I also have slowly regained both my confidence and my sense of identity. I will always have carried a black child in my womb. My surviving son will always only have had a black brother. My husband will always have fallen in love with and adopted my biracial baby. Ours will always be an integrated family; it’s just that now this defining feature is veiled.

There’s something else too, and that is the grief I share with too many black mothers who’ve watched their young, brilliant, beautiful black sons come to tragic ends.

Carroll is apparently tired of hearing about this. She intends to avoid “black headline fatigue” that emphasizes negative statistics about African Americans. Urban Faith avoids dwelling on these statistics too, but we don’t ignore them.

Perhaps when Carroll told Foxhall that she sees the audience for Black Voices as “a broad one of ‘race-conscious, race-savvy people,’” what she really meant was that she is after HuffPost’s affluent audience for whom these statistics don’t represent sons and cousins and brothers, but instead reinforce stereotypes about a dangerous other.

UrbanFaith is up to something else. That something resonates with me not only as a mother, but as the daughter of a cherished only child and a former gang leader who came to faith through the work of urban ministers. My earliest memories are city ones.

Psalm 46:4 says, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.” My son resides in that city and one day I’ll be reunited with him there. Then I won’t feel the need to explain why my voice belongs in a conversation about black life. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to bring you stories that convey authentic interest–and, I hope, you’ll let me know when I miss the mark.