So another Black History Month is here, and for artists, writers, musicians, and other creative types that hail from the Black community, it’s an opportunity that comes with a burden.
February is a time when your workplace, school, or church might be more open to forms of artistic expression that highlights the achievements of Black people, particularly for those of you who live and/or work in a predominantly White community. And while it’s obviously a great opportunity to highlight the best of our tradition as a community, it also means that from an exposure standpoint, it’s an opening to get your songs, poems, plays, or paintings seen and heard by people who might be able to support you financially.
But the burden is the challenge of successfully executing your art without being swallowed whole by the bitterness of the struggle. I mean, let’s just be honest: struggle might be the catalyst that serves to incubate powerful works of art, but it’s terrible as a sales technique. No one can alienate their audience through their art and simultaneously persuade them to become financial supporters.
The truth is, we’ve come a long way as African Americans. No longer are we restricted to the kinds of gigs and roles that kept us docile and subservient in the minds of the majority. In recent years, there has been a greater level of visibility to the everyday struggle that Black Americans endure, and it’s also helped place a premium on authentic Black art that helps to articulate that struggle.
Still, if we’re not careful, we’ll fall into a false dichotomy, where we feel like either we must keep it fully 100 at all times with our art, or we’re selling out for the money.
But there’s a middle ground.
Discerning the Difference
Ten years ago, I was in a hip-hop duo traveling to a Christian camp to do a concert for a bunch of youth from the inner city. When I arrived onto the campus, I headed to the most logical place for music performance—the chapel.
As I walked into the chapel, I walked up to the sound booth, and told the guy that I was with the hip-hop group that was supposed to perform. He gave me this blank stare, so I thought, “Hey, it’s loud in here, so maybe he can’t hear me that well.” I tried again, a bit louder.
“I’m with the Iccsters… y’know, the hip-hop group.”
Again, he gives me this confused stare. And then he says, “This is Christian camp.”
Right then and there, I almost lost it. I could tell that he didn’t really mean to say anything offensive to me, but it was like all the years of being stereotyped as a young Black man, overlooked and misunderstood as a rap artist, all the times hip-hop had been blamed for all of society’s problems—by other Christians, no less!—almost overwhelmed me. I wanted to set him straight and tell him that there are Christians who perform hip-hop, and his assumption was shortsighted, racist, and insulting.
But I had somewhere to go, so I swallowed that rage, walked out of the room, called my contact, and located my actual destination (a different building with a smaller setup).
Often, when I’m invited to share hip-hop as a form of worship music and find myself in spaces that remind me of that day, I’m tempted to go back to that moment, tap into that rage, and give the audience a piece of my pain.
The wisdom and maturity of age helped me learn how to posture myself, not as someone with an axe to grind, but as someone with something of value to share. And when I share my pain, I do it with an eye toward giving others an opportunity to join me in my struggle, instead of guilting them for not already being onboard.
Sometimes God calls us to stand up and fight; other times, He simply gives as an opportunity to share who we are and how we got here. As an artist, my prayer is for us to flip the script and learn to discern the difference.
It’s not easy to be hated by the person who is supposed to love you most, and unfortunately, being toxic has become normalized in our culture.
Many see misdirected aggravation, gaslighting, physical abuse, and more as “love tactics.” When a child only knows pain as a source of love, then they too love in that way and any other form of healthy love seems abnormal.
However, the question is, can a person ever love authentically if they were raised to be toxic?
The assumption is no. When someone is exposed to consistent, toxic stress, they are vulnerable to mental and physical illness that can sometimes develop into a genetic trait, according to Hey Sigmund; therefore this behavior is biologically passed on through generations.
However, despite the science behind the effects of toxic love, there is always hope for a better life.
Fighting for Love
“I just felt like I wasn’t loved by my mom, says Monique, a woman in her 40s who was often told she wasn’t good enough. “I felt growing up in my mom’s house I wasn’t allowed to be me, an individual.”
To suit her mother’s perfect image of a family, Monique, was to participate in certain activities without any consideration of her talents or desires. While at the same time, her brother was given free reign to participate in activities of his choice throughout their childhood.
And to make matters worse, Monique’s father suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and would often abuse her. She recalls him touching her to satisfy his physical desires and severely beating her when she reported it to her incredulous mother.
Fortunately, Monique found refuge in her grandmother’s home, where she found the kind of love her mother envied. Monique remembers her mother punishing and verbally abusing her as a result of the love she received from her grandmother.
Like many girls, Monique found herself looking for love in empty relationships during her teen years that lead to a forced, terminated pregnancy and physical and emotional abuse similar to the treatment she received from her own father.
Eventually, Monique met a gentle and caring man named Laz. However, Laz’s compassion and gentleness were unfamiliar to her, which ultimately lead to Monique returning to one of her previous, toxic relationships.
She went on to marry a former flame named Xavier and stayed in her abusive marriage for eight years.
“Towards the end of my [3rd] pregnancy, I found out he was cheating and when I confronted him, he hit me,” says Monique who recalls her toxic relationship that mirrored her childhood. “He asked, ‘Who are you to question me?’…It felt like because of the way I grew up, if I wasn’t getting hit, then it wasn’t love,”
After her divorce, Monique fought against her toxic past. She made the decision to rise above her father’s mental illness, her mother’s jealousy and apathy, and their collective effort to make her their emotional punching bag for their marriage troubles.
Although the struggle did not end after her marriage when it came to love, her children, and health, she remains hopeful enough to fight for the love she deserves. She charges her will to carry on to God, because without Him, she would have taken the final blow to end her suffering.
Turning Off the Gaslight
Bella was born to a Catholic family that rejected her mother for having a baby with a man that she later learned was married. The rejection caused her mother to make multiple attempts to prove her worth to the family by making Bella seem exceptional, but in private her mother was spiteful and unloving as the list of accomplishments grew.
“[My mother] did everything for me to prove herself, but not for the love of me,” Bella explains. “She worked hard to put me through private school and extracurricular activities, but at home I was repeatedly told I was nothing; sometimes she even called me a waste of a human being. To this day, she has never told me she loves me.”
Whenever something would go wrong in Bella’s life, she would automatically blame herself as a result of her relationship with her mother. Even when her husband and father of their two children committed adultery, she took the blame.
As time went on, Bella lost the love of her life, her job, and believed that she would never be loved which drove her into a suicidal state .
Until one day, Bella decided that she had enough and began to fight for her life, beauty, and self-love through therapy. “Once I figured out that I wasn’t this awful, unlovable monster that I was made to believe as a reality by someone who was unloved, it turned my world upside down in a great way,” Bella says. “It never would have happened without me doing the work in therapy.”
As a result of her treatment, Bella was led to a love that she has been enveloped in for the last four years. Even though the pain of rejection transcended through two generations, love won in the end.
“In the middle of all of this, I met a man who just rained love on me,” Bella joyfully exclaims.
Is there hope after a toxic upbringing?
“But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of [your abuser], which I also hate” (Revelations 2:6, NIV).
In the beginning of this article, the question was, can a person love authentically if they were raised to be toxic? The answer is yes, but you must fight for it.
It is easy to nurse the scars of someone that you love, because love is to be unconditional, right? But what good is unconditional love when a person’s pain has replaced the spirit that you desperately want to love?
That is spiritual warfare and it is best to back away and allow God to handle it if they are unwilling to get help. It is important to recognize the signs of someone who has been abused and trying to regain power, which can include verbally sharing memories of their toxic loved ones.
Fortunately, Bella and Monique worked past those painful memories found a way to defeat them so that the tradition of toxicity ended with them and a reign of love could begin.
The innocence of the question did nothing to prevent me from being flabbergasted. As I stared into the almost cartoon-sized blue eyes of this 4-year-old boy, compassion filled my heart. I simply smiled and replied, “Why yes, of course!”
He nodded in understanding and continued playing with the toys that had previously occupied his attention. As I sat there watching his imagination create a world only he would understand, I wondered if this moment would be as memorable for him as I was sure it would be for me.
There’s a temptation to somehow prove my humanity, to validate my existence; especially because I live in a society that labels me a minority. The definition of “minority” is “a racial, ethnic, religious, or social subdivision of a society that is subordinate to the dominant group in political, financial, or social power without regard to the size of these groups.”
My nation, my homeland, defines me as a racial subordinate to the dominant group. It’s a label that follows me every time I check “Black/African-American” on any document. It’s a label that follows me any time I walk into a room and I’m the only one there who looks like me. I have a pre-disposition to believe that I am less than because it is what I’ve been told since I was born. It’s even printed on my birth certificate.
In indignation, I wear my hair natural. I comb through hundreds of photos on Instagram that have the “#BlackGirlMagic” marker. I recite Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” at any given opportunity. I go out of my way to compliment any black woman I meet.
I vote knowing what it cost my ancestors to grant me this right. I fight to prove that no quantifiable data could box me in and keep me from living the life I want to live.
It’s funny, all of that effort did nothing to quiet the comparison or stop the Caucasian woman from accosting me and my little cousins. It did nothing to abate the voice in my head that hurls insults every time I’m in front of a mirror. The only thing that has proven strong enough to rectify my identity is the Word of God.
I am black. I am a woman. I am southern. I am a millennial. I can come up with lots of ways to identify myself. I can make a list of a thousand superlatives. However, anything I fathom about who I am does not compare to who I am in Christ.
Society has a lot to say about who we are. In fact, we have a lot to say, ourselves, about who we are, and a lot of times we are better than anyone at putting ourselves down. Is it possible that when we say “yes” to Jesus, when we surrender our lives to Him, in doing so, we subject our idea of identity to Him as well? Identity then becomes more than a list of quantifiers.
If the Word of God created the world and all we see, how much more powerful then would it be to believe His words about us? We are children of the Most High God. We are His handiwork. In the same way He created the earth, He fashioned us together in our mothers’ womb. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. We, the children of God, are His royal priesthood. We are the head and not the tail. We have every spiritual blessing made available to us through Christ. We are chosen.
We aren’t beautiful because of, or in spite of, being black. We are beautiful because we were created by Beauty Himself. My skin color becomes more than a sign of my socio-economic status; it is part of the hand-picked design as imagined by my Creator. We aren’t worthy because our society calls us worthy, but because Jesus thought us worthy enough to die for.
Our choice is this: To live subjected to societal labels or to allow this new identity to supersede what we once believed. My faith then doesn’t just inform my identity. It becomes the lens through which I’m even able to see who I really am. It doesn’t stop there.
When we are able to see ourselves through this lens, we are empowered, nay obligated, to see others the same way. It transforms a “me against the world” ideology into an understanding that it is “us under God.” The need for validation becomes obsolete and pure confidence flourishes as the love of Christ permeates the entirety of our beings.
“Bittersweet” is how Joshua Canada describes his memories of working to improve the experience of students of color at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, when he was a student there.
As vice president of the Multiethnic Student Association at Taylor, Canada successfully petitioned the school to restructure its ethnic recruiter position and to re-establish its director of multiethnic student services position. He was also an original member of Taylor Black Men, a student group that provided support for young men who didn’t necessarily feel comfortable discussing the unique challenges they faced with White classmates.
“I was really excited that I was able to do that, but there’s also this sadness that I have now because, although I felt like it was important, it painted a lot of my senior year,” said Canada, who occasionally writes for UrbanFaith.
He was compelled to act, he said, because he feared that no one else would if he didn’t. “I was blessed enough that I had a lot of coping skills,” he explained. “I could ‘code switch,’ and sometimes get in that middle world, where I could deal with both cultures, but there were several students who couldn’t.”
It is those students that concern a number of professionals who work at Christian colleges around the nation, and especially those affiliated with the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. The CCCU, an international association of Christian institutions of higher education, seeks to provide resources and support for the students, faculty, and administrations of its member schools. Assisting students of color with their often difficult transition into the culture of predominately White Christian campuses has become one of its chief missions during its 36 years of existence.
Slow but Steady Progress
Twelve years ago the CCCU established a Racial Harmony Award to celebrate the achievements of its member institutions in the areas of “diversity, racial harmony, and reconciliation.”
In 2001, the organization’s board affirmed its commitment. “If we do not bring the issues of racial-ethnic reconciliation and multi-ethnicity into the mainstream of Christian higher education, our campuses will always stay on the outside fringes,” remarked Sam Barkat, former board member and provost of Nyack College in Nyack, New York.
CCCU schools have made “steady gains” since then, according to a report co-authored by Robert Reyes, research director at Goshen College’s Center for Intercultural Teaching and Learning and a member of CCCU’s Commission for Advancing Intercultural Competencies.
Robert Reyes: “We’re supposed to be unified as Christians.”
Reyes and his colleagues found that overall percentage of students of color increased from 16.6 percent to 19.9 percent at CCCU schools between 2003 and 2009 and graduation rates for these students also increased, from 14.8 percent to 17 percent, which still only adds up to a tiny fraction of all students at CCCU’s 115 North American affiliate schools.
According to Reyes, CCCU has a new research director and is developing a proactive research agenda related to these issues. This kind of research “creates a certain level of anxiety,” he said, because it categorizes people and theoretically separates us when we’re supposed to be unified as Christians. “I think it’s a misunderstanding of what the unity of the body is, and what unity means in the Christian faith,” said Reyes.
For those, like Reyes and Canada, who are engaged in diversity work on CCCU campuses, the task can feel like slogging through a murky swamp. UrbanFaith talked to current and former diversity workers at nine CCCU schools about their efforts and experiences. We repeatedly heard that students of color face unique challenges on these campuses and that CCCU schools are not always prepared, or willing, to deal with them. We also heard about successes and how challenging they can be.
The Problem — a Whole Different God
Multiple sources said students of color at Christian colleges are routinely harassed with racially insensitive jokes and comments by members of their campus communities, for example, and that this harassment is sometimes not taken seriously enough by school administrators.
When racism isn’t overt, students often feel like they won’t be accepted by their school communities unless they suppress their ethnic identities. Many students feel profoundly lonely on majority-White CCCU campuses, our sources said.
Dante Upshaw, for example, has been both a student and a staff member at evangelical schools. He recalled the challenge that worship presented when he was a student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
“For the average White student, it’s an easy crossover. … It’s kind of this big youth group. But for the Black student, the Hispanic student, this is a whole different God,” said Upshaw.
He was unfamiliar with the songs that were sung in chapel, for example, and found himself in conversations about what constitutes godly worship. “I was a young person having to articulate and defend. That’s a lot of pressure for a freshman,” said Upshaw.
Monica Smith: “We haven’t gone far enough.”
Monica Smith has seen the same phenomenon played out on her school’s campus. As assistant to the provost for multicultural concerns at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, she said students of color once complained to her about being judged for skipping chapel services that felt culturally foreign to them. They were told they should be able to worship no matter what kind of music or speaker was up front. “The retort was, ‘You’re right, so why can’t it sound like what I’m used to?’” said Smith, who also teaches courses in social work.
Smith and her colleagues have identified four specific areas of challenge that confront students of color at Eastern: financial, academic, social, and spiritual. “If students are struggling in those areas, they really can’t pay attention in the classroom,” said Smith.
The university is making headway, but it’s slow, she said. “As much as we have done administratively and in the academic arena, I still don’t know that our university’s administration has gone far enough with this.”
Institutional Challenges — Like Turning the Titanic
Upshaw served as a minority recruiting officer and assistant director of the office of multi-cultural development at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, in the early 2000s. He said the number of non-White students who were in pain over their experience at the school would have been as big as his admissions file.
He recalled leaving school one day to commute home to Chicago when he saw a student of color sitting on the stairs “like a lonely puppy.” Upshaw read the student’s demeanor as saying, “You about to leave me here, man? You’re actually going to leave and go to your home?”
Dante Upshaw: “Too many students felt alone.”
“There were just too many students like that, where they felt so alone on this beautiful, immaculate campus with great food service and great athletics,” Upshaw said. “Those were some hard years.”
In response to the need he saw, Upshaw founded Global Urban Perspectives, a multiethnic student group devoted to urban issues. He believes it was successful in part because it helped foster healthy relationships.
“The fact that we were together in a safe setting where we were given space to be ourselves, I think that really struck a chord with many of the students,” he said.
“It’s a wealthy system, it’s an established system, it’s a strong historic system, and it’s a very Christian religious system,” said Upshaw of the institutional challenges he faced at Wheaton. “Changing a system like that would be akin to turning the Titanic … It is going to take a long time, and it’s going to be real slow.”
Even so, Upshaw said he saw “the ship” turn quickly when influential individuals decided to act. Too often, though, he saw inaction born of the fear of alienating potential donors. Upshaw left the school, in part, because he was frustrated with the administration’s commitment to a broadly applied quota system that he felt undermined his efforts to recruit more students of color.
Additive and Subtractive Approaches
Although Joshua Canada is ambivalent about his experience at Taylor University, he returned there for graduate school and now serves as an adviser to the Black Student Union at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, where he is also a residence director. He said not all students of color struggle with the racial dynamics on their campuses and some students rarely do.
“In their ethnic development, they’re not dealing with this tension, or this is what they’ve done their whole life and they know how to do this,” said Canada.
Joshua Canada: “To be successful, our vision of being multicultural must be transformative.”
He described two approaches to multiculturalism, one that is additive and one that is subtractive. With the additive approach, elements of non-European culture are added to the core culture, he said, and with the subtractive approach, people of color drop elements of their culture to assimilate into the majority culture.
“Students feel it, if it’s additive,” Canada said. “We did Black History Month. We did Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s a nice gesture, but people realize it isn’t who we are.”
“To really be successful, we have to come to a place where our vision of being multicultural is more transformative and then it really does change aspects of the institution. It really does change the big-picture experience, and not in a way that is unfaithful to the history of the institution, but that maybe acknowledges gaps.”
“There’s an issue in retaining students of color in higher education in general,” he told UrbanFaith, “but I think Christian College campuses have even more of a challenge because of some of the dynamics that are there. A lot of times, the way the faith is practiced is racialized. People don’t always realize it.”
It wasn’t only African Americans, however, who recounted stories about the challenges students of color face at CCCU institutions. Jon Purple is dean for student life programs at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. He recalls the mother of an incoming student crying when she dropped her young Black son off at the rural Ohio campus, and not just because he was leaving home.
“She was in tears and was afraid to leave her son here, because of very real fears that some good-ol’ White boys might accost her son,” said Purple.
For two and a half years, Ja’mel Armstrong and Matt Ness have jointly led One Church, a congregation striving to be diverse in a neighborhood in Louisville, Ky., that is more interracial than most.
It’s a work in progress, they acknowledge, but the African-American and white co-pastors say they believe their congregation, which is close to 50 percent black and 50 percent white, is more fulfilling than the more racially segregated churches they used to lead.
“On our own, we just didn’t feel like that’s who we were meant to be,” said Ness, who formerly led a mostly white church. “The picture we believed in was much broader than the local church I was pastoring and the local church Ja’mel was pastoring.”
The co-pastors’ congregation is part of the Evangelical Covenant Church — a small denomination that claims to be one of the most diverse in the country. One Church is part of a trend reported by scholars this month: Multiracial churches are on the rise and so is the percentage of U.S. congregants who attend them.
The percentage of U.S. multiracial congregations almost doubled between 1998 and 2012, from 6.4 percent to 12 percent, according to a study published in June in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. In the same period, the percentage of U.S. congregants attending an interracial church has reached almost one in five, advancing from 12.7 percent to 18.3 percent. The 2012 statistics are the latest available.
Co-authors Kevin Dougherty, a sociology professor at Baylor University, and Michael Emerson, provost at North Park University, defined multiracial congregations as ones in which no single racial or ethnic group constitutes more than 80 percent of the people in the pews.
But the co-authors point out that interracial congregations have long faced a number of challenges. And their recent findings show that while the average percentage of black congregants in multiracial congregations has increased, the percentage of Latinos in those kinds of churches has decreased in the same period.
“When you bring groups, different ethnic groups, together in a congregation, they come with different cultures, and those cultures include all types of expectations,” said Dougherty, citing music styles and food choices. “To help them develop a sense of shared identity above and beyond those cultural differences is a key part of the adaptability necessary for a multiracial congregation to succeed.”
Ness, co-pastor of the Louisville church, alternates preaching with Armstrong. He said before One Church opened its doors, they formulated a nontraditional approach to music. The worship team includes a gospel-style keyboardist, a blues, rock and country guitarist and a jazzy drummer and bassist. Singers represent a range of genres.
Ja’mel Armstrong is a pastor at One Church, an interracial congregation of the Evangelical Covenant Church, in Louisville, Ky. Photo courtesy of One Church
“We didn’t want to be defined by a particular style and so we didn’t tell you to stand up. We didn’t tell you to lift your hands. We didn’t tell you how to worship,” said Armstrong. “The goal was: If you are naturally contemplative in your worship style, then you be that. If you are naturally expressive, then you be that.”
It didn’t work for everyone. Armstrong said there was a gradual “mass exodus” from the 250-attendee first service in January 2016, with the congregation dropping to about 50. The congregation has since doubled to 100 after attracting new congregants.
The Rev. Michael Davis, the African-American teaching pastor at 10-year-old Downtown Church in Memphis, Tenn., said intentionality is key to multiracial churches. His congregation strives to have leaders of different races regularly preaching and making announcements. The church avoids identifying with political parties and instead seeks to foster an environment where various viewpoints can be aired.
“So nobody is trying to suffocate the identity of any of our minorities,” said Davis, who co-leads the fledging congregation with its white founder, Richard Rieves. “It’s intentionality, it’s empowerment and it’s sacrifice.”
The congregation, which Davis calls a “multiracial/class plant” or offshoot of the mostly white Second Presbyterian Church, meets in Clayborn Temple, a historic church that once housed a predominantly white congregation and later a mostly black one.
But Davis acknowledges that his Evangelical Presbyterian Church congregation that is 70 percent white and 30 percent minority (mostly blacks but including some Asians and Latinos) hasn’t achieved all its milestones toward integration, including among its smaller community groups attended by some of the 300 who worship together on Sunday.
“Are we doing it perfectly?” Davis said. “No. Because there are some times where I have to talk to some of my groups that are predominantly white and say, ‘How do we get more diversity?’”
As they strive for inclusiveness, leaders of multiracial churches say they sometimes feel like they are on their own without many role models.
Worshippers gather at the Downtown Church, a multiracial congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tenn. Photo courtesy of Downtown Church
Ness, 39, who has pastored for 16 years, said, “I feel like I’m brand new at my job when I started this.” Armstrong, 38, agreed that the nontraditional church stands out from others: “We almost feel a lot of times that we’re on an island.”
The Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a Chicago Theological Seminary professor, informally polled former students and found they have seen evidence of the new survey’s findings about the growth of interracial congregations.
“One woman graduate who identified as white indicated that she had ‘pastored a black church for seven years,’” said Thistlethwaite, whose seminary is affiliated with the United Church of Christ. “A number of graduates emphasized, however, that there have been congregations that have been racially diverse for many years, with racially diverse pastoral leadership.”
The survey, based on data from the National Congregations Study, also found an increase in black clergy leading multiracial congregations, rising from less than 5 percent in both 1998 and 2006 to 17 percent in 2012.
The Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, professor of African-American studies and sociology at Colby College, said the willingness of white congregants to join churches with black pastors is a positive sign, given the long history of segregated Sunday morning services.
“Although white people have always been willing to appropriate style and music from black churches, they have resisted black leadership,” Gilkes said. “This new moment in American religious life could be quite helpful in countering many negative current events in the area of race relations.”
Despite the challenges of interracial cooperation, Davis said, he sees rewards as he helps lead his Memphis congregation.
“I experience the body of Christ more, the wider scope of it, and so it broadens my perspective of who the Lord is,” he said. “Being in a multiracial church, you see the beauty of different cultural backgrounds, different walks of life.”