“…herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the [Twenty-First] Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, gentle reader; for the problem of the [Twenty-First] Century isthe problem of the color line.”
Thanksgiving has arrived and that can only mean one thing. African Americans across the nation are about to enjoy some delectable soul food. A colleague from seminary asked me a seemingly simple question one day: What is the soul? To really understand my struggle with this query you have to appreciate my background. While attending a majority white seminary, it’s safe to say that I had a bit more melanin than some others. My flesh tone was a hue that resembled many from our historical past who were considered African Americans or Negroes.
He asked a question that evoked thoughts of pride as I pondered my godly heritage. Soul (at least from my perspective) was inextricably interwoven in my DNA. Soul music from the Harlem Renaissance resounded within as I began to recount the great jazz artists of the time (ranging from Cab Calloway to Duke Ellington). I thought of the great James Brown, who is deemed the “Godfather of Soul.” If anybody knew soul, it was my people. And soul in the African American community wasn’t just limited to melodic harmony and sound. Soul had a significant role in food preparation. Soul food, as we know it in this country, originated in the African American community. This delectable culinary genre included a wide range of items including, but not limited to, collard greens, ham hocks, pig’s feet, pork neck bone, fat back, and chitterlings a.k.a. pig intestines. (If that last sentence didn’t make you hungry, please check your pulse.)
During an oppressive era beginning in the late 17th century, slaves were afforded the “opportunity” to have the leftover pig parts from their masters’ tables. This normally included the parts the slave masters felt were unfit for human consumption. The slaves took them, carefully cleaned them, salted them up to make them flavorful, and served them to their families. As a result, soul food became a staple in the African American slave community.
So an inquiry about my soul transposed the generally perceived idea of soul in society (and the Christian community generally). It involved retained customs and traditions that accompanied thousands on an infamous Trans-Atlantic journey hundreds of years ago. When my colleague asked that question about my soul, many images, tastes, and sounds came to mind.
“One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” —W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk
Despite those elicited proud images of soul defined in my own experience, I can appreciate DuBois’ “twoness.” I live it out every day. There is a soul dualism that perpetuates itself. I am both an American and a Negro. For many, this is a comfortable idea. However, in reality this duality presents two warring ideals that have a profound impact on the way I live my life. Even in a seminary, where a majority of the books read were by white, middle-aged men, this duality impacted my experience. I’m quite sure this twoness had some role in issues presented in the “Jena Six” and Trayvon Martin stories. Both painted portraits of cities that still have some “color line” issues. When a group of black boys respond violently to a “noose” incident in a schoolyard, how could one not surmise that color line issues are still prevalent in society? When distrust of a local Central Florida Police Department mobilizes thousands of African American, how could we question the existence of the color line?
As I sat on the seminary campus and reflected, I realized that it was this twoness that led me there. I figured out that it wasn’t enough to say that I casually associate with people outside of my own ethnic group. Instead, I wanted to be able to experience community, fellowship, and dialogue with people who did not share my ethnic background. As I walked from class one week, I stopped to have a conversation with one of my classmates. We spoke about diversity and its real meaning for our seminary (and the Church generally). We both explained frustrations with tossing around diversity labels without authenticity. During our conversation, I had to apologize for assuming that he understood what I was talking about when I mentioned the acronym HBCU (Historically Black College and University) or when I spoke freely about tendencies in black church leadership.
Ultimately our conversation reassured me that there are others who wrestle with duality of the soul (whether a white Christian trying to genuinely understand other cultures or a minority Christian doing the same). I have learned that some people want to be able to function in that “twoness” to better understand others outside of their culture. Isn’t the body of Christ called to this kind of unity and understanding? Will we stand by idly as the color line widens? If the Church isn’t called to unite how can we expect it from a fallen world?
So as I lay into some Soul Food this holiday season, I remain grateful. I am grateful for the African American story. I am appreciative that my life is being grafted into a story of struggle and triumph. But the soul “twoness” is ever present. Reminding me that our story as a people is tied into God’s greater story of redemption. And for that I am thankful. Now pass me those collard greens.
The National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases is partnering with black churches to host Kidney Sundays (Photo courtesy of the National Kidney Disease Education Program).
You could be slowly dying and not know it. Your blood could be poisoned, yet you don’t have a clue. Then suddenly you need to be rushed to the hospital, but it’s too late. If only you had taken two simple tests that could have caught the disease before it became critical.
That’s what I was thinking as I listened to Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers,director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases talk about the “silent” killer. Rodgers described this scenario that is sadly real for too many African Americans who fail each year to get tested for kidney disease. “It’s really considered the silent disease,” Rodgers said, which is why the institute has partnered with African American churches to publicize the importance of getting tested early before it’s too late.
March is National Kidney Month. On March 3, sixty churches across the country are kicking off the month with ongoing National Kidney Sunday. In partnership with the Chi Eta Phi nursing sorority, the American Diabetes Association, the Institute provides free testing at churches along with a kidney disease toolkit of information to be used for group discussions or individuals. Information includes how to prevent kidney disease and how to treat it successfully. In its second year, The Institute expects this initiative to reach at least 55,000 church members, who will hopefully spread the word to family, friends, coworkers, and so on.
“If you’re living in an area where there is not readily access to fresh fruits, but rather fast food that has more soda, and sugar that’s a factor,” said Rogers, adding that the two leading causes of kidney disease are hypertension and diabetes.
The preventable culprit is obesity, which often triggers hypertension and diabetes, Rodgers said. Obesity is a national crisis, which is why First Lady Michelle Obama has initiated the Let’s Move Initative. taken it up as a cause. But why are blacks particularly plagued by obesity? The good doctor didn’t say it, but I will: Much of the black community’s various health and destructive behavior problems are rooted in our cultural practices. These practices have in large part been shaped by our response to racism and oppression. Living sicker and dying younger is a predictable outcome. For generations we have been killing ourselves without thinking. It’s a miracle that we have survived. The black church has been a life source, but it has also have aided and abetted our bad choices.
As I’ve previously written on Urban Faith, Sunday dinners at Big Momma’s house or in church fellowship halls have been killing us gradually. Salty meals that contain starch Mac & Cheese, greasy pork and ribs, and chicken wings fried in lard – washed down with sweet tea or red Kool-Aid that tastes like liquid Skittles – are actually toxic. They may taste heavenly, but they’re not nourishing our bodies no matter how religiously we say the grace before eating. We’ve institutionalized and romanticized soul food rituals to our demise. Caribbean and Afrocentric meals are often no better. We need to renew our minds when it comes to managing our health. The church can lead the way.
We can eat healthy soul food that tastes just as good but with healthier seasonings. We can adopt a Bible-based diet. We can reject processed fast foods that are high in sugar and salt or eat them sparingly. We can eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and drink plain water. We can get our bodies moving. If we can’t exercise at a gym for at least 30 minutes a day three times per week, we can get out and walk every day. We can transform poor health in the community by renewing our minds in order to break our destructive eating patterns.
The kidneys are the body’s trash filter. When the kidneys fail the garbage piles up and starts poisoning the body. Rodgers said kidney disease can be found with simple blood and urine tests. For example, protein in the urine could mean kidney disease. If you catch the problem early enough, however, disaster can be averted.
Don’t let death sneak up on you. Get tested. Get your church involved. The life you save may be your own.
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own…. Therefore honor God with your body.” 1 Cor. 6:19-20
It is well known that blacks live sicker and die younger than any other racial group. Look no farther than the church with the pastor battling hypertension and diabetes or the congregation with several obese members sitting in the pews. It would seem that the black church in America would be the leading ally supporting the nation’s first black president in the debate over access to affordable healthcare. It would seem that the black church would lead the way toward healthier eating and living.
Could it be that black church culture is leading us astray?
I thought about this during a recent conference in Baltimore on black global health. The International Conference on Health in the African Diaspora, hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions, brought together healthcare professionals and researchers, from across the Western Hemisphere to discuss common health problems among the descendants of African slaves. Black Arts Movement icon Sonia Sanchez set the tone as the keynote speaker July 4, inspiring the crowd with a special poem for the occasion. The award-winning author participated throughout the weeklong conference.
Listening to a sister from Brazil and a brother from Peru discuss high rates of obesity, diabetes, infant deaths and the spread of HIV/AIDS among blacks in their countries sounded like the health crisis of black New York, Chicago, or the Mississippi Delta. Modern racism and the legacy of slavery haunt all of us. Participants also shared solutions and pledged to work together. In fact, according to Dr. Thomas LaVeist, a book and curriculum addressing these health themes are being created for the public and for high school and college educators. Thomas, who happens to be my brother, directs the Hopkins center and is the mastermind behind the conference, which is scheduled to take place every two years.
Solutions are basically what government and institutions can do to end racism and ensure all people have access to quality affordable healthcare and what blacks can do themselves to care for their “temples of the Holy Spirit.”
The black church should be more outspoken in support of increased access to quality affordable care. Our cousins from Canada and Central and South America, who for the most part receive varying degrees well-executed and poorly-executed universal healthcare, are puzzled as to why we richer Americans are debating what the rest of the industrialized world has long settled — that healthcare access is a God-given human right, not a privilege to be determined by profit-seeking private insurance companies.
After the conference, Thomas told me that the Catholic Church (obviously many Catholics are also black) has been the most vocal Christians on healthcare, mainly around the debate on whether Catholic organizations should be mandated to support abortions for employees (some evangelical Protestant organizations have recently joined that fight, too). Thomas suggested the traditional black church denominations could find their unified voice by calling for all Americans to be insured (Obama’s Affordable Care Act would still leave 20 million people uninsured). However, regardless of what the government does, black churches should lead by example with healthier eating and living, he said.
BAD FOR THE SOUL? Black churches are routinely feeding their people unhealthy soul food staples such as fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. Is that biblical?
“Black church culture is out of alignment with some biblical teachings, particularly when it comes to how we eat,” my brother said. “Church culture has got us drinking Kool-Aid, eating white bread, fried chicken, large servings of macaroni and cheese and collard greens drenched with salty hog maws (foods that are high in sugar, salt, calories, and carbohydrates that trigger health problems). We’re eating this in the church basement at dinner and at church conventions! Meanwhile, the Bible teaches against gluttony.”
Don’t judge or condemn those who are obese, but encourage and show everyone how to eat healthy, Thomas added. He cited Pastor Michael Minor of Oak Hill Baptist Church in the Mississippi Delta as pushing the healthy eating message that all black churches should adopt. The Delta is one of America’s poorest areas and leads the nation in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates. In 2011, Pastor Minor, known as “the Southern pastor who banned fried chicken in his church,” banished all unhealthy foods and insisted soul food meals be prepared in healthier ways; many of his members are losing weight and improving their overall health. Other churches across the country such as, First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, are on similar missions.
Ask yourself, when it comes to health, what is the black church best known for?
What might the state of black health in America (and the African diaspora) be if your answer was healthy eating and living?
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO KEY AND PEELE: Beyond being funny, Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele's irreverent comedy shines a light of truth on African American life.
In Part 1, we examined the connection between Comedy Central’s Key & Peele and the tension that Black men feel between being accepted by society and being true to one’s self.
Here in Part 2, we’re going to take a look at several Key & Peele sketches, get at some of the underlying issues behind the comedy, and see what biblical truths can be applied to them, particularly as they relate to the lives of young men like Trayvon Martin.
(Before I go any further, a DISCLAIMER: Key & Peele is rated TV-14, and while there are very few sexual references, there is a fair amount of profanity, albeit mostly bleeped out. As always, use discretion when viewing clips. You don’t want your 5-year-old repeating this stuff — or your 45-year-old boss, for that matter.)
(Also, let me say this for the record — despite the adult content, I think each of these sketches is absolutely hilarious. No, they’re not for children. But they’re funny nonetheless. In the following paragraphs I do a lot of cultural exegesis, breaking down the principles behind the humor. But never let it be said I don’t think it’s funny.)
“Yo Mama Has Health Problems,” is a depiction of a doctor with an Indian accent, trying to give a consultation to a younger Black guy with his posse standing behind. Every time the doctor tries to engage the guy in conversation about his mother’s failing health, dude has some juvenile comeback with which to delight his friends. Riffing on the classic pastime of playing the dozens, this sketch demonstrates the communication breakdown that happens to people with misplaced expectations and different cultural traditions.
The brilliance of the sketch is in its metaphysics — that it’s one long joke about people joking with another. The twist at the end is when the doctor figures out how to play along, and does so — with shockingly inappropriate results.
This sketch makes you laugh and cringe — often at the same time — because few things are more destructive to a relationship than a failed attempt at humor. This is not to say that we shouldn’t joke around with one another, but rather, we should understand how and when to do it. Gilbert Arenas had to learn this the hard way — there are times when jokes are not an appropriate way to make a point. After all, there’s a reason why, in Proverbs 26:18-19, careless jokesters are compared to arsonists.
What’s especially poignant is, a few minutes in when Jordan Peele’s wisecracking character lets down his guard, his acknowledgement rings true. Many people, Black White or otherwise, use humor as a coping mechanism. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is in context. When others around us take their cues from our sketchy behavior, that creates misunderstandings of epic proportions. If those misunderstandings are propagated long enough, you end up with people resorting to smartphone apps to see if they’re allowed to say the n-word.
If we as Black folks want to help edify and build up others outside of our culture, it’s going to require, at times, that we rein in our sense of humor. Not mortally cripple it, just put some good boundaries around it. Otherwise we’ll continue to have tragic episodes of miscommunication, and the net result will be fewer people willing to take the risk of a potential offense for the sake of gaining greater clarity and perspective from someone outside their cultural context.
Given our nation’s overall racial divide, it’s clear that we as Christians need to share as much perspective and gain as much clarity as possible. It’s just one way to help our nation avoid more Trayvon-like incidents.
In the book of Acts, there is a profound story regarding Peter, a leader in the early church, and a vision he has regarding a blanket of food that the Lord told him was no longer considered to be unclean. Space constraints don’t permit me to fully break this down, but that vision leads Peter down a path of greater love and acceptance for outsiders.
This sketch reminds me of that story, except that the cultural model is inverted. Instead of ethnic-specific foods being outlawed, they’re actually preferred. And rather than exclude each other, we see Jordan and Keegan trying to outdo one another, proving their in-group status by ordering more and more “authentic” soul food, which comically regresses into more bizarre and less-edible fare.
There are many underlying truths in this sketch. The obvious one is that men are often hypercompetitive, and African American men are no exception. Another is that soul food, while an important component of African American culture, sometimes lacks in nutritional value.
This makes sense if you factor in the role slavery had in restricting the culinary habits of Black people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Blacks rarely had access to choice cuts of meat, so had to adapt by eating the parts of animals that their White masters found undesirable.
Indeed, it seems as though ingenuity as a survival instinct has become a defining characteristic for African Americans; the history of hip-hop, for example, is full of people who took undesirable, marginal or forgotten elements of music and turned them into something original and innovative (graffiti, turntable scratching, sampling, etc.).
The downside, though, is that just because something is culturally authentic doesn’t make it good. It’s no wonder that a people who were subjugated and dehumanized for centuries might internalize behavioral ways of coping that are less than truly healthy. This dynamic is what is satirized by K&P by the pursuit of food that sounds less than edible.
My favorite moment of the “Soul Food” sketch is at the end, where Keegan says, in response to the server’s offer of gravy: “What’s a cellar door without gravy? It’s not food.”
Isaiah 55:1-2 calls out to people in this situation, who find themselves grabbing plate after plate of stuff that isn’t really food. Isaiah proclaims the compassion of the Lord, who wants His people to be satisfied with goodness and settle for nothing less.
Rather than chasing only what is culturally authentic, as Christians we should chase after what is anointed and Godly. Rather than competing for cultural acceptance, we should be spurring each other on toward love and good behavior, worrying less of what others think than of what the Lord thinks. That’s true for Black men, yes, but it’s true for everybody.
* * *
So now, in two of these K&P sketches, we’ve seen several aspects of Black masculinity on display, and identified a few solutions that can help our young Black men continue to develop and make the world a better place for all the other Trayvons out there.
But what about our relationships with women? There seems to be issues at play that affect our interactions with each other and with the opposite sex. Whether male or female, this is something worth paying attention to.
So make sure to check out Part 3 of this series, where we delve into the final sketch of our sample.
The Pendulum provides a weekly survey of America’s top trending topics. This week, we’ve got the latest on the death of Osama bin Laden, Beyonce & The First Lady make a music video, gas-price solutions, rethinking soul food, and much more!