The Curious Case of James Fortune and the Rest of Us

The Curious Case of James Fortune and the Rest of Us

James Fortune has won three Stellar awards and has been nominated twice for a Grammy award. In 2004, his hit single “You Survived” was the second most played gospel song in the country; even now, 12 years later, it remains in the top seven of most-played gospel songs.

In 2001, three years before Mr. Fortune lit up the gospel music scene with “You Survived” and other popular tracks, he stripped his then-four-year-old stepson naked, beat him with a switch, ran a tub full of scalding hot water, forced the already-battered child into that tub, and held him there. When speaking to the 911 emergency dispatcher about the incident, he lied, saying the child burned himself by running the water at a too-hot temperature and getting into the tub. He pleaded guilty to the charge of felony injury of a child, but in a statement after the trial, stressed that he was never convicted of any felony charge. His trouble with the law didn’t end there.

On October 24, 2014, Mr. Fortune was arrested for aggravated assault of a family member with a deadly weapon. The family member turned out to be his wife, and the weapon was revealed to have been a bar stool. In 2016, through a plea deal, he pleaded guilty to the aggravated assault charge—a third-degree felony—and received five days in jail plus five years of probation. Other than some irate women commenters on websites that have covered the incidents, the response from the Christian community seems to have been a collective “So what?”

The “so what” factor isn’t entirely surprising but is nonetheless disappointing. A four-year-old child was burned on over 40% of his body and permanently disfigured, and a woman suffered broken bones and internal injuries. Certainly that child and that woman deserved more from the Christian community than they received. In fact, James Fortune in interviews has thanked fans for their love and support during those times, but where was the love and support for his stepson and wife? Don’t their lives matter?

This isn’t the first time a high-profile Black Christian has become entangled with the law or transgressed the law of God. Contemporary Christian music mega-star Israel Houghton admitted to committing adultery and causing the breakup of his 20-year marriage; World Changers Ministries leader Creflo Dollar was investigated for allegedly choking his teenage daughter during a verbal conflict at their home; Bishop Eddie Long was outed for allegedly having multiple sexual relationships with young men; Minister Thomas Weeks stomped then-wife and popular evangelist Juanita Bynum in an Atlanta hotel parking lot.

Grammy Award Winner Israel Houghton performs for a sold out audience. Houghton is one of many gospel greats that has publicly admitted to personal indiscretions.

Grammy Award Winner Israel Houghton performs for a sold out audience. Houghton is one of many gospel greats that has publicly admitted to infidelity in his marriage.

Because of sin, potential scandal resides within the bosom of every follower of Christ, so the question becomes, “What say we to these things?” because more definitely needs to be said and done.

First, acknowledge that sin is real, and the struggle to overcome it is real. It causes real damage and suffering. Here language makes a difference and often reveals hesitation to call a thing a thing. Too often the “all” in “all have sinned” only includes others, and the “sinned” gets labeled as episodes of misspeaking, misconduct, mistake, and other non-culpable acts.

If sin is named and claimed by the perpetrators, true healing and restoration can begin. Which leads to the second necessary adjustment: change the objective of accountability. The legitimate reasons to hold James Fortune and others in similar positions accountable are to restore them to right fellowship with God and with their fellow believers and to heal the heart of susceptibility toward that sin.

Humiliation, disgrace, and revenge or vindication are not acceptable motives for calling anyone to account for sin. If violence, non-marital sex, lying, manipulation, and such are treated as sin, the connection between the problem and the remedy becomes much more apparent.

Third, restore biblical church discipline. Talk to almost any Black churchgoer, and you’re liable to hear a story of someone in a leadership position being “sat down” for some wrongdoing. But just sitting a person down doesn’t necessarily produce restoration for the guilty party, nor healing for the victims.

Authentic church discipline scares people because it violates two long-held and sacrosanct views of addressing problems and trouble in the Black community—keep it quiet and don’t judge. Moreover, secular ideas of shame have crept into the thinking of many church leaders and congregants alike, resulting in a laissez-faire approach to dealing with sin and its consequences.

Finally, remember the victims. Seeing James Fortune’s plight play out in the media is an opportunity to re-examine compassion and grace but also to reconsider justice and healing. There are many James Fortunes, Cheryl Fortunes, sons, and daughters living through similar circumstances.

They need justice for the sin committed against them and healing for the devastation wrought within them. Their pain needs to be acknowledged and addressed within the context of meaningful accountability and action, and we must be able to depend on Christian leaders to shepherd people through these processes.

 

Have you witnessed instances of authentic, effective church discipline in your congregation?

Have you ever been part of an accountability group or reconciliation process?

If the church isn’t addressing these issues effectively, what legitimate role does the state play in getting justice for victims?

Sound off below!

The Roof is on Fire: Dismantling the Juvenile Justice System

The Roof is on Fire: Dismantling the Juvenile Justice System

Burning Down the HouseThe premise is simple but powerful: our country’s criminal justice system, particularly as applied to our youngest citizens, is irreparably broken. Don’t try to reform it; dismantle it. This bold approach might seem extreme, but a serious consideration of the overwhelming evidence for such a proposition stops in its tracks our halting and limping toward some kind of middle ground for justice. Veteran journalist Nell Bernstein’s stunning book, “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison” lays bare the incomprehensible racism, brutality, and turbulence that undergird and motivate our juvenile justice system. The numbers tell the story[i]:

*As reported in February 2013, 66,332 American kids were housed in juvenile facilities.

* A 2010 federal survey indicated that more than a third of juveniles in secure facilities reported that staff used excessive force; about 50% had experienced some kind of ‘group punishment’.

* A 2011 Annie E. Casey Foundation report authored by Richard Mendel reports pervasive abuse of juveniles in the system, including “systemic violence, abuse, and/or excessive use of isolation or restraints” in 39 states.

* Youth of color make up 38% of the youth population but 72% of locked up juveniles.

And the stories back up the numbers[ii]:

* In Mississippi, guards stripped girls who demonstrated suicidal behavior, tied them up and threw them into solitary confinement; they also forced girls to run in hot weather carrying logs, and when they got sick from heat exhaustion, forced them to eat their own vomit.

* In Georgia, guards punched a young boy so hard in the ear that it punctured his eardrum.

* A teen girl in a juvenile facility recounts being sexually abused by the man who was assigned as her counselor.

Nell and I had a very personal, transparent conversation about her book wherein we each learned from the other as we considered the state of the juvenile justice system and what it means for us and our communities. Below is an excerpt from our talk, edited for clarity.

CWC: This book was hard for me to get through. There were times when I literally stopped and put it down anywhere from a couple minutes to a few days because there were some parts that were hitting home in a personal way or were just so devastating for me to read and be up close and personal with that I had to step away. So I’m thinking if I’m reacting that way reading it, what was it like for you writing it?

NB: That’s funny when you ask that question; I was thinking that I had the same kinds of feelings when I was reporting it. I’ve known kids and worked with kids who’ve been locked up for a couple decades and so in a way for me I think that was the harder part when they were kids I loved. I think there’s a little bit of numbing that you have to engage in as a reporter; but I remember Gladys Carrion who was the head of the juvenile system in New York, she talked about visiting her facilities when she first took that job and then sitting in the parking lot and crying and I do remember doing that sometimes.

CWC: The average reader, someone who [is not an advocate or familiar with the issues]—do you want them to have a certain kind of reaction, i.e. a ‘shock-the-conscious’ sort of thing?

NB: Absolutely, yes. I think there’s a lot of work out there that’s really good work that offers a more distanced analysis of why this is a failed system. But I did feel like there was a need for something that included that analysis but also went for the gut. It’s almost become in my mind not ok not to be upset about what we’re doing to kids. It’s funny in terms of the pushback that I expected versus the response I’ve gotten. First of all, I’ve gotten very little pushback from conservative radio and more mainstream venues for a position that I would’ve thought would be seen as pretty extreme. The only pushback I’m getting is, ‘This can’t be true. This is not a credible writer. She has to be making this up.’ When I reported the book [and] heard a story like [the one about a young man incarcerated who was made to kneel for two weeks], I always did my best to check it out. What I found when I looked at court papers and investigations in that particular facility was not only official reports that kids were being forced to kneel for long periods of time but that in some cases they were forced to kneel upon sharp objects. So it was even worse than this kid had told me. I think the way that we protect ourselves seems to have gone from, ‘These are bad kids. If they didn’t want to have this happen they shouldn’t have done these things’, to a certain level of disbelief.

*********************************************************

As I read the book, I waited to see whether Nell would explicitly name racism as a factor in the functional collapse of the juvenile justice system. She did not disappoint.

CWC: One of my favorite chapters in the book was Chapter 3: Other People’s Children. In that chapter, you say, “Racism does not merely inform or infuse our juvenile justice system; it drives that system at every level, from legislation to policing to sentencing to conditions of confinement and enforcement of parole.” I get weary of people talking around it, trying to come up with different ways to say it. Or they try to attribute racism to other things and it gets under my skin. Given the truth of a statement like that, can changing how we confine and treat juveniles really change why we do it? Does it matter why we do it, or just how?

NB: That’s a really profound question. I guess the first thing I’d say is that changing how we confine [kids] to me is a different question from changing whether we confine them. I’ve visited therapeutic prisons and what I call ‘better mousetraps’ but they’re still based on this premise that the best way to deal with either certain actions or certain groups of kids is to isolate them. I have a personal problem with that premise, [and] all the research indicates that confinement doesn’t rehabilitate, [but] in fact exacerbates whatever problems led to the original act. But are you saying that even if we changed our response so that it was something other than confinement, if we didn’t change how we thought about the kids, would that really make a difference? Is that your question?

CWC: Yes because to your point, racism is at the very bottom of it.

NB: I think unless we can change the way that we look at kids and get rid of this notion that there is such a thing as ‘someone else’s kid’, or ‘a different kind of kid’, we’re not going to make lasting progress. And I say that for two reasons.

One is my fear that the main driver has been financial. Until state budgets really began to crumble, [reform] just didn’t happen. I used to call incarceration the last standing entitlement because I think we reached a point where states couldn’t balance their budget unless they did something about [mass incarceration of juveniles]. My fear is that if the economy shifts, if our thinking doesn’t shift along with it then we’ll just fill those beds right back up again. You can tinker with the facility but when you don’t change the fundamental relationship between the ‘keeper’ and the ‘kept’ there’s resentment that the kids have built up and it’s built up over years and years. It’s not going to just go away because you unlock a door but don’t change the fundamental premise that [kids] need to be confined and isolated.

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Whose responsibility is it to address these issues? Is it up to the families only?

CWC: With the kind of bias that we’ve just been talking about being so entrenched, people have started having town halls where they’re talking about this is what you do if you get stopped; these are your rights; this is what you need to know if you’re out with friends, etc. And I’m beginning to wonder are those kinds of [conversations] ultimately helpful? In other words, trying to build a structure around our children that is supposed to keep them [safe]—does that matter?

NB: You’ve gone right to the heart of where I’m most uncomfortable. I feel like it is made the responsibility of black people to address this, but I think if we don’t talk about [it as] a white issue and then an everybody issue too, then it’s the thing that [black people] know, but nobody [else] speaks.

CWC: As the mother of two African-American young men, I’m concerned that in our effort to try to stem the tide or wrap another layer of protection around our kids, we’re buying into the erroneous thought that says, ‘There’s something else out there [something that parents aren’t doing] that will help this situation‘ [of young black people being targeted by law enforcement and the justice system]. It seems we’re saying that the racial disparities or racism is really about [parents] telling kids to be respectful; telling them not to wear their hoodies after six; tell[ing] them don’t put their hands in their pockets; make your hands visible at all times; and make sure if you get stopped you put your hands on the steering wheel. I’m afraid [this approach] gives our kids a false sense of security. As if there really is something they can do if they run up against Jim Bob in North Carolina or Albany or Orlando that is going to stop him from proceeding in the way [he determined] to proceed from the moment he saw that child.

NB: I honestly don’t know what to say to that. I’m a hyper-vigilant mother anyway so because of the work I do, I have had that conversation with my kids and understand that they are much safer. I remember my son asking me when he was about 10: ‘When’s it going to hit? When are they going to start looking at me with suspicion?’ I think [the issue is] racialized, but there’s also a hatred of youth generally, and youth in groups, and youth in mixed groups; it’s really complicated. I don’t know the answer on an individual level. Definitely it shouldn’t be an individual parent’s responsibility.

************************************************

These are our children—all of ours. They know the system is broken, and they want out.

“The many thousands of young people locked away today cannot afford to wait for incremental reform. … As the decades-long debate over juvenile justice drags on, these are the young people whose lives hang in the balance. They are living in a state of emergency, and they want someone—everyone—to take notice.” Burning Down the House, p. 318

It can’t be fixed, so it’s time to burn the whole thing down.

[i] As reported in Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison

[ii] Id.

Black Christian Women Now: The Strong Black Woman Complex

Black Christian Women Now: The Strong Black Woman Complex

Identity is a tricky pursuit. For black women in America, the pursuit is complicated by the stereotypes and image distortions put upon them by dominant culture—both male and white—and the ones into which they are socialized by their mothers, aunts, pastors, husbands, and friends. Every woman wants to be her own person; she wants to know and understand who she is for herself. But black women are shaped, pressed, and squeezed into a universal, truncated identity of superhuman “strength” that superimposes predetermined responses, beliefs, and roles onto an already complex existence. It used to be a source of pride and distinction to be called a ‘strong black woman’ but now women are awakening to the dangers of that double-edged sword. An identity that was thought to be protective and life-giving because it prevented hurt, pain, and damage is now being unmasked as a disguised death because it has brought illness, loneliness, and dysfunction. Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes confronts head-on the ubiquitous identity of the Strong Black Woman (SBW) in her new book, Too Heavy A Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.

Dr. Walker-Barnes’ work is a welcome addition to a growing group of contemporary books that tackle identity issues of black women, for example: “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America“, by Charisse Jones and Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf“, “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America“, by Melissa Harris-Perry, and Sophia Nelson’s “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama.” “Too Heavy a Yoke” is more in the tradition of Harris-Perry’s treatment of the subject: academic in tone and heavily intellectualized. It is not targeted to the mass market women’s audience, but rather is intended “primarily for pastoral theologians, pastoral caregivers (including pastors, pastoral counselors, and women’s ministry leaders), and Christian mental health professionals whose ministry and services encompass Black women.”[i] Readers outside those categories should be prepared to push through the didactic approach but will be aided in their understanding by the author’s personal transparency and patient delivery.

The book’s readability is also helped along by a logical structure and flow that makes it easy to follow the author’s discourse and to connect the dots from one thesis to the next. Her topical subjects go from a detailed and illuminating profile of the Strong Black Woman (Chapter 1), to naming and critiquing the historical and contemporary cultural forces that shaped and necessitated the identity (Chapter 3), to honing in on the unique role the black church has played in reinforcing the Strong Black Woman identity (Chapter 5), and finally to laying out her model of healing and recovery. Also, the “Purpose and Organization of this Book” section in the Introduction is particularly helpful because she gives insight into why she chose womanist ideology as her framework. Explaining her approach is smart because many black readers in her intended audience, particularly black pastors, are not necessarily well-versed in womanism, and if they are familiar with it, are likely to disagree with its tenets and philosophical slant, particularly those not of the Millennial age group. Case in point: her quotation of Alice Walker’s definition of a womanist: “A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility…and women’s strength…”[ii]

The author’s profile of the Strong Black Woman is clear and compelling. She draws upon the already-established Jezebel and Mammy stereotypes parsed by Melissa Harris-Perry in Sister Citizen, and the Sisterella personality crafted by Jones and Shorter-Gooden in Shifting, as well as other scholars’ descriptors, for her three-part characterization of the Strong Black Woman identity: 1) excessive caregiving; 2)independence; and 3) emotional strength/regulation.[iii] Using examples of women she’s worked with in her professional practice, she highlights the common behaviors and attitudes that accompany each aspect of the SBW identity. In caregiving roles, these Strong Black Woman:

…took care of ailing family members and…generally were the first called whenever someone had a problem. At work and at church, they could be counted upon to take up the slack when someone else failed to live up to their responsibilities. Often, in fact, they foresaw the probability that the other person would fall short and they stepped up to the plate long before they were asked. …They rarely said no to anyone. …Whenever they felt the weight of responsibility bearing upon them, they ignored it, believing sincerely that God would continue to empower them to serve.[iv]

Walker-Barnes uses analysis of three hip-hop and R&B songs as the backdrop for her discussion of independence, which, she asserts, is basically about self-reliance. Looking to herself for financial provision, the SBW doesn’t need—in fact often eschews—the help of anyone, particularly men. Her comportment labels her as someone with an “internal sense of power and authority.” with a ‘boss’ mindset and who apparently carries this off with mystique-like ease.[v] The author perhaps sees the emotional strength aspect of the identity most destructive. Strong Black Women reflexively repress emotions, sometimes even the ‘positive’ ones. Fear of affirming others’ perceptions of angry black women, she strives for emotional equilibrium, or more precisely, the appearance of it. The author convincingly demonstrates the links of this false emotional strength to ongoing declines in the physical and mental health of today’s black women, urging attention from both the social science and ecclesiastical community and black women themselves.

A hallmark of the true value of “Too Heavy a Yoke” is the final chapter in which the author lays out her model of recovery and healing for the Strong Black Woman. She utilizes a twelve-step framework similar to addiction recovery programs, which makes sense given that she views adherence to the SBW personality as an addiction, a “force of habit ingrained in many African-American women from childhood.”[vi] Any woman who reads this book and can see herself in the attributes of the Strong Black Woman will not be untouched by reading the twelve steps for recovery. A woman who sees herself in the pages of this book will be forced to confront her profound need for Jesus’ intervention in her life, and her utter dependence on that intervention to abandon the strictures of this artificial identity. We all need to lay this burden down, and “Too Heavy a Yoke” can be a powerful catalyst to move us in that direction.

Writer’s note: The themes and ideas put forth in this book will be explored in more detail in subsequent articles in this series

[i] Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, (Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), 8

[ii] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, p. 9 (quoting Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens)

[iii] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, p. 10

[iv] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, pp. 16-17

[v] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, pp. 29-31

[vi] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, p. 186

Black Christian Women Now: Political Engagement

Black Christian Women Now: Political Engagement

These are exciting yet tumultuous times politically, in no small measure because of the vibrant and insistent involvement of black women. We see history being made by The “Georgia Five,” the record-breaking group of black women vying to fill statewide office posts as lieutenant governor, secretary of state, insurance commissioner, state schools superintendent, and labor commissioner. Political advocacy groups run by and focusing on black women are hotly contesting voting rights attacks in states as politically disparate as North Carolina and Wisconsin. Even young black women are finding their voice through advocacy groups like Million Hoodies (@MillionHoodies) and Black Youth Project (@BlackYouthProj), both of which have taken leadership roles in the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown tragedies. To fully understand this dynamic, one has to go back two election cycles.

The Pew Research Center declared the 2008 election the most “racially and ethnically diverse in U.S. history.” Blacks represented 12.1% of all voters who cast a ballot, and had a 65.2% voter turnout rate (less than one percentage point behind the white voter turnout rate) which measures the percentage of all eligible black voters who actually voted. While impressive, some discounted the importance of these statistics, reasoning that we should expect black voters to run to the polls to support “their” black candidate. But there was more: at 68.8%, black women led all demographic groups with the highest voter turnout rate among eligible black female voters—for the first time ever. People seemed stunned at this turn of events. Groupthink and black politics aside, no one really expected this result from the most-overlooked, least-consulted voting bloc in our country. Black women walked neighborhoods, called friends and family, handed out leaflets, donated $5.00 at a time each payday, both informally though social and personal networks, and formally as part of local campaign offices. Obama infused hope in hearts and homes where it had been scarce for too long.

By the time the 2012 election came, support and naïve enthusiasm might have faded somewhat but again black women were the darlings of election night. This time around, the results were even more decisive. Blacks had the highest percentage of votes cast for Obama—93%, and of black women who voted, 96% voted for Obama. David C. Wilson, political science professor at University of Delaware, concludes, “These very basic points call into question what the 2012 election was really about: Was it about the economy, or was it really about the “type” of leadership desired by a new coalition of American voters largely consisting of progressive but not necessarily ‘liberal’ thinking and acting racial minorities?” “Progressive but not necessarily ‘liberal’ thinking and acting” aptly describes where black Christian women (BCW) often find themselves, making a variation of Professor Wilson’s question a good one to ponder: What are politics and elections really about for us? Are they about giving white America political comeuppance for the inexcusable way blacks and other minorities are treated in this country? Are they a way to push to the forefront our concerns about domestic violence, racial disparities in health and criminal justice, adequate and affordable housing and daycare, and living wages? Can they, and should they be a means of witnessing to the world around us the truth of the gospel and its relevance to life’s challenges and oppressions?

As black women continue to rise in political influence, BCW are increasingly forced to consider questions like these, culminating in one even more difficult: How do we politically engage in a biblically faithful way when neither Democrats nor Republicans, neither white evangelicals nor the weakened “Christian right” completely reflect all of our values and beliefs? Black women might seem the next best hope, but troublesome, too is the ascendance of black women who label themselves as political progressives but who act and think in line with traditional liberal platforms and positions. The problem is not in supporting issues that relate to the black part of us. Not many black women would argue against fair housing, equal pay for equal work, equality under the law in the justice system, or voting rights for all. The conundrum comes when we consider issues like marriage equality, sexuality and contraception, abortion, and others typically categorized more as theological rather than political.

BCW acknowledge the responsibility to maintain a faithful Christian witness across the full spectrum of political policies and issues but too often it seems easier said than done. For those who desire to find a more fully integrated political sweet spot, a few things might help ease the psychological and spiritual dissonance that comes from trying to honor all parts of the BCW identity—female, black, and Christian.

First, decide that non-involvement is not the answer. Sometimes concern defaults to avoidance because engagement focuses on the areas of common ground between BCW and those seeking their support. This approach often results in silence on vital social and cultural problems. Especially on the tough issues, BCW cannot be silent. The BCW voice and viewpoint need to be part of the political discourse in homes, churches, city halls, and on the national stage.

Second, carefully investigate the policy positions and agendas of prominent advocacy groups led by black women and others. Get familiar with language and lingo. For example, marriage equality and reproductive justice/reproductive health are common phrases used in support of same-sex unions and abortion. For example, Higher Heights for America and Black Women’s Roundtable are two highly visible and active groups. They both support positions that are not problematic, and some that are. Higher Heights describes its mission as investing “in a long-term strategy to expand and support Black women’s leadership pipeline at all levels and strengthen their civic participation beyond just election day.” This mission is supported by its #BlackWomenLead, #BlackWomenVote, and #SundayBrunch initiatives, all focused on increased and informed voting by black women. But curiously, it also issued a report, “Black Women’s Response to the War on Women”, in which support is evidenced for abortion. Another black woman-led group, Black Women’s Roundtable, a program of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, “is viewed as being among the most powerful coalition of African-American women in the country, mainly because of the clout held by its membership”. In 2013, its president Melanie Campbell participated in high-level fiscal cliff discussions at the White House, and Campbell was also present at a February 2014 meeting in which civil rights leaders presented a document outlining the black community’s agenda for jobs and freedom. In March of this year, the Roundtable issued a groundbreaking report, “2014 State of Black Women” in which it lists as a policy agenda item: “End war on women in the states including reproductive justice and women’s right to control their own bodies.”

Third, focus more on local political involvement. National groups strive to appeal to the broadest constituency possible, which often results in policy positions that most BCW do not support. But what can’t be supported nationally can be impacted locally. Research opportunities in the community– whether through churches, sororities, or other community-based organizations—to engage with those issues that require biblical fidelity and can better reflect the obligation to do justice in all areas of our political participation.

Just as “all politics are local,” all issues have a root or some relation to one’s lived theology, and black Christian women must step in to the gap between progressive and liberal politics.

Black Christian Women Now: Where Do We Stand?

Black Christian Women Now: Where Do We Stand?

Part 1: Introduction to Series: Taking Stock and Measuring Up

It’s not black history month or Martin Luther King, Jr. day, but that’s the thing about truth and wisdom, they endure beyond designated holidays or observances. In 1963, Dr. King wrote these words:

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

This statement is from the chapter, On Being a Good Neighbor, in King’s book, “Strength to Love,” a collection of sermons, essays, and other meditative reflections. It is part of a Socratic sequence in which he presses black Christians to release their concerns for comfort, safety, reputation, and status, and venture into the often-tumultuous waters of the fight for change and justice. Black Christian women face the same choice: Will we allow our communities to further deteriorate because we are hesitant or flat out unwilling to speak Truth to color—starting with ourselves? Our measure lies in what we do now that we are faced with a doubled-down barrage of challenge and controversy.

Black citizens are being brutalized and killed with impunity by fellow citizens and by those sworn to protect and serve. Teachers and school administrators are railroading black children into a corrupt and unjust justice system through disciplinary policies that target them. Black health is compromised by disparate access, diagnosis, and treatment. Black women are beaten and killed by those with whom they bear children, share meals and share beds. As caretakers and guardians of our families, we are weakened by unhealthy load-bearing that renders us prime candidates for depression and other mental or emotional problems.

Faced with this stark cultural landscape, it is incumbent upon black women to assess our situation and see where we stand. For black Christian women, this assessment must include an examination of our faith against biblical truth and standards; for we surely cannot and will not stand successfully in challenge if our foundation is weakened by beliefs and behaviors that do not reflect biblical fidelity. Consequently we won’t be prepared to be ambassadors who bring health, hope, and transformation in policy, education, family, criminal justice, or other arenas of society. This series attempts to make these assessments and offers suggestions for a path ahead.

One exploration of where we stand has already been undertaken. In March of this year, the Black Women’s Roundtable—the “civic engagement network” of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation—released a special report, “Black Women in the United States, 2014: Progress and Challenges.” The report evaluates the state of black women by highlighting data on health, education, workforce participation, economic standing, political engagement, and exposure to violence. Notably the report reflects and confirms the two-steps-forward-one-step-back dynamic in which we seem stuck, showing progress in some areas, inertia in others. High school diploma and college degree attainment are up but haven’t translated into better or higher-paying jobs. We have the highest level of workforce participation but still are concentrated in the lowest-paying, lowest-skilled employment tiers. Black women have had the highest rate of electoral participation in the last two elections but have not seen that loyalty rewarded with political attention or policy gains.

An evaluation that focuses on these types of socioeconomic indicators is not a bad place to start as we take stock of our lives. It points us to areas of outcome stagnation and policy resistance as we plan how to move forward, but it fails to address other critical measures of our wellbeing. The plan for this series is to fill in gaps left by this and similar reports by digging beneath the surface of the numbers and deconstructing our apparent spiritual dissonance: studies indicate we are probably the most devoutly religious of any demographic, but our lives don’t reflect the transformation and power typically associated with such devotion. I’ll examine the status of our media; families and other relationships; sex and sexuality, mental and emotional health and its connection to our physical health; and the intersection of our actual lived experiences and biblical constructs.

To get a sense of the context of this project, check out my Sisters and Citizens series:

Part 1: An Interview with Melissa Harris-Perry 

Part 2: An Open Letter to Black Christian Women 

Part 3: Called to Contend