Category Archives: Honestly

How will I die?

Ideally, I will die comfortably; old, rested, peaceful, on a pleasant day, in the immediate or nearby company of my child or children, and grandchildren, and my partner if he has not preceded me.

But, during weeks like this one, it’s hard not to wonder if I will die tragically. There are so many options for how to die a tragic death when you are Black.

Obviously, I could be murdered by the police. Obvious to me anyway. Perhaps not obvious to my now-grownup classmates from childhood, the ones who told me, I wasn’t “really Black;” they didn’t “think of me as Black;” I’m not like those* Black people.

*Those niggers.

I’ve never actually been called a nigger. Not that I know of anyway, not to my face. I have complicated feelings about having been spared this awful rite of passage. Does it point to my economic and educational privilege? I don’t know, as I’m certain that many a professional Black person has been called a nigger. I am the “respectable” sort of negro, at least I present that way. Conditioning is hard to overcome. But then, many a respectable negro has been lynched, by both modern and old-fashioned methods, for minor to non-existent infractions.

I live in Alabama, and my partner is white, and I wonder if it’s a matter of time until someone calls me a nigger. If it happens, I hope that my partner isn’t around. Anger might get the best of him, and he might hurt someone, and then that someone might call the police, and then the police might murder me, the nigger – the victim of the original verbal assault.

So, that’s just one option.

I could die during pregnancy, or childbirth, due to either the medical negligence that treats Black women’s pain as less severe or alarming, or due to the poorer maternal health outcomes that plague Black women, outcomes that don’t give a shit about class, or education, or respectability. They know: a nigger, is a nigger, is a nigger.

So, that’s a second option.

I could die in the midst of a mental health crisis. Depression could swallow me whole, and if I can’t find my way to the surface, I might die.

That’s three. Let’s stop counting.

During my worst depressive episode, I admitted myself to the hospital emergency room. I stayed there for several hours before they moved me to a nearby medical facility. The police transported me from one place to the other. I was handcuffed before being put in the backseat of the police car. I think the cop who put them on was a Black woman, I can’t remember for sure. She apologized, and said something about “protocol.” At some point during the drive, the two cops in the car had to make a stop somewhere else. Maybe they moved me into a different car? I don’t remember. Another cop asked the first two if I definitely needed to be handcuffed, said something about “compliant.” They agreed that I was that, and took the handcuffs off.

If I wanted to get creative, I could combine options one and three, and go off in the middle of a mental health crisis. Be a little less “compliant.” I thought about that option that night. I’m glad I stayed compliant, respectable, checked into the facility, and eventually, got “well.”

Ideally, when Black people are murdered by the police, and videos and images are circulated widely and constantly on social and news media outlets, I would be wise enough and boundaried enough to stop scrolling, to call in sick, to lean into healing rituals, and be the one to protect myself in a world that’s not interested in protecting Black women or Black people.

Ideally, I would center joy, and healing, and resilience, and I would not write honestly about the fact that my grief and fear drive me to imagine the tragic and violent ways I might die at the hands of white supremacy.

In a world where Black people must keep very strict control of their emotions, and words, and behaviors – in a very literally futile attempt to avoid death or destruction at the hands of white supremacy – it’s hard, or perhaps unreasonable, to maintain that level of control over one’s pain and grief and fear. I find myself consulting my over-scheduled agenda, assessing when is the most convenient time to finally allow myself to unravel, while minimizing the impact to my work, because I am, and must remain the “compliant!,” “respectable!,” nigger.

More of us will die. This is the hardest part for me. I do my best to choose hope, and joy, and healing, and resilience, but it’s difficult when I remember that we have been here before, and white people have woken up, and gone to anti-racism trainings, and graduated from allies to accomplices to co-conspirators, and Black people have grieved together and healed together and leaned into community with each other, and still we find ourselves here again, mourning and fearful.

Our progress is simply too slow to save us all.

So, what are our options?

As for me, I will lie down underneath the soft warmth of the blanket handmade by my mother, and remain still and quiet until my breath has evened. Then, I will get up and drink a glass of water. I will go outside and go for a walk. I will, eventually, turn to my ancestors and allow them to remind me that our legacy is one of survival, of looking out for one another, of creating beauty and magic out of next-to-nothing.

Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Tony McDade. Four new ancestors. We honor you.

Hello, it’s your depression

Hello, I have returned.

When I am gone, you hope that maybe this time I will stay away for good. When I am back, you say to yourself, “of course, I was foolish to think that I would live my life without your presence.”

Rest assured, I am not here to stay forever, though when I am curled up beside you in your bed, it feels like I may never leave.

I am not always an alarm. I am not always a crisis. Sometimes I am inevitable. Certainly, in this world, in this country, with the identities you carry, I am the likely byproduct.

Might you see me as a gentle reminder? Might I invite you to slow down, pull back, turn inward, and take stock of what is happening inside you?

You are tired. You are so tired. You have pushed yourself too hard. You have fallen for the lie that your worth is defined by your productivity, by your ability to problem-solve and fix problems that you did not create.

I am an invitation for you to ask for help. Oh, this most vulnerable, challenging, humane behavior. You are your most beautiful when you are honest enough to say, “I am struggling. I am hurting. I am not perfect. I crave control and do not have it.” Don’t you know that the people around you have the same thoughts, and need you to model this most human of behaviors, needing other people?

I am here to remind you that life is hills and valleys, joy and heartache, victories and failures. We live our lives in seasons, always.

Can you feel your heartbeat? Curled up here on the couch under a blanket? Can you feel and hear it pulsing through your flesh and reverberating in your ears? Good. You are alive. You are breathing.

In the past, I have brought darkness for you, but today I bring a quiet and heavy companionship. Not hostile. But somber. I have pulled you out of the world and into a small quiet room, for us to sit together and observe the goings on from a distance. What do you see? Do you want to be in this world? Me neither, not now. It is broken, but not beyond repair. You know this. I am here to tell you that it is ok for you to rest today, and tomorrow and days after if necessary, and after those days have past, you may take up your tools and your gifts and continue to rebuild with the freedom fighters around you.

Where are your tears? I am here to call them forth. They are a gift to you. They are release, they are healing waters. You carry oceans behind your eyes, and the riptide is pulling you down. I will keep you company at the bottom of the sea, I will gaze with you up toward the light, as you gather your strength to swim with all your might.

I am urgency and uncertainty, all at once. At this very moment, I am weight and inspiration for your fingertips as you write brave words to share with the world about the view from your small quiet room. You are a gift. Fragile and precious. I am here to remind you that you need protecting.

Isn’t life something else?

I did an important self-care thing today. I had an appointment with a psychiatric provider here in Montgomery so that I can continue refilling my prescriptions for anti-depressants and anxiety medication. It was also a first step toward potentially connecting with a therapist, which I can’t decide if I want to do again or not. I managed to find a mental wellness practice that is run by a black woman, with one other black woman working under her, the person I met with. It’s difficult to say what I found more reassuring, her quiet and gentle demeanor, or her dark skin and natural hair; arbitrary traits, except they aren’t so arbitrary, because in this life, skin and hair are enough to dictate a large number of your experiences, and having health providers who can relate to my own experience is paramount for me at this life stage.

For those who’ve never had a mental health intake performed for them before, I’ll describe the process to you. Questions, questions, and more questions. What is your height and weight? Do you work? Part time or full time? Do you live alone? Do you feel safe at home? What is your relationship status? What is your mental health history? Do you currently take any medications? How are those medications working for you? Do you have any family history of depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, or other mental illness? Do you have any history or emotional, physical, or sexual abuse? Have you ever had surgery? Do you smoke? Do you drink? And on and on.

Again, her gentle demeanor made it much easier to offer up answers to these questions to a complete stranger. It wasn’t very pleasant to dredge up the history of my emotional, mental, and medical health. In part because providers tend to focus on what needs fixing, and less on areas of strength and resilience; but also in part because – and I don’t know how I forgot this – I’ve been through a lot the past 6 years. Seeing a stranger’s reaction when I told her that I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29, and when I told her that my oncology provider recommended I find a new antidepressant to prevent interactions with the medication I now take to prevent a recurrence of cancer, and when I told her that I ended up being hospitalized because that new antidepressant didn’t work for me, and when I told her that the recommended solution was to go back to the original antidepressant and hope for the best in terms of avoiding a cancer recurrence – after all the research is inconsistent… seeing these reactions reminded me that these aren’t experiences any young person should have. But then again, can we assign “shoulds” to any of our painful experiences? None of us should have to confront grief, loss, heartbreak, hospitalization, abuse, assault, or relational toxicity, and yet we experience these things, and we endure.

I’m sort of addicted to Instagram these days. (I know, I am like so far behind the curve, now it’s all about snapchat and apps I’ve never even heard of.) I love curating a photo journal of sorts, mostly of mundane moments that make up the majority of my day to day. I also love seeing other people’s pictures. I love your selfies, because they show off how fabulous you look and feel today. I love your pictures of your kids, because they demonstrate that you made this incredibly reckless choice laced with uncertainty, to bring life into the world, and try to raise your child to be a compassionate human who leaves the world better than they found it. I love your landscapes and your sunsets and your plants and your dinner plates. Today, I found myself perusing the feeds of people whom I knew years ago, and was struck by how divergent our paths seemed to be. You have a one year old and a mortgage. I… have a dog and an herb garden that probably won’t make it to spring.

Seeing these picturesque Instagram feeds on the heels of my mental health intake from the morning, I felt a wave of disappointment and self-pity begin to overtake me. And then I had to remind myself that my envy has no place here, for you too have endured grief, pain, loss, heartbreak. You too may know regret intimately; like me, you may have said things you wish you hadn’t, withheld love you now wish you had offered freely, without expectation. Neither you nor I are our worst mistakes. And you are in the midst of healing, just as I am healing from the ways my life has been torn open.

Isn’t it a miracle what we can endure? Isn’t it a miracle the goodness what we are able to create from barren emotional landscapes? Isn’t life… something else?

An open letter to my Durham / NC community

Dear friends,

It’s hard to believe that I’ve spent the past five years building a home here in North Carolina. When I first moved here in 2012 to begin graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill, I thought, “2 years, and then I’m headed back to the west coast.” That’s not at all how things worked out. My decision to stay in North Carolina was originally one of practicality and convenience – lower cost of living, more professional connections with which to find my first job out of grad school. But now I believe that there was far more at play. I believe my ancestors were calling me home. “You have work to do here,” they said to me, “and we have work to do on you.”

Moving to North Carolina was the start of my (long overdue) politicization. It was here in North Carolina, and in Durham specifically, that I developed a political and social analysis that was able to deconstruct patterns of oppression. Moving to North Carolina also supported my continued racial identity development. Durham is where I learned that there are all kinds of ways to be Black, and that I have no reason to apologize for my particular flavor of (often bourgie) Blackness, to white folks, or folks of color. Durham is where I turned thirty, battled breast cancer, battled suicidality, grew into the person I am today.

Knowing all of this history, it is hard for me to believe that I am leaving Durham. Soon. At the start of September, my parents and my partner will help me load a U-Haul with all my possessions, and drive 8 hours to my new home in Montgomery, Alabama. I have accepted a job with URGE, Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity, as their Alabama State Organizer. The short explanation is that I am moving to Alabama to be closer to my partner, who lives in Selma. The truer explanation is that I am moving to Alabama for myself. In moving, I am admitting that I desire and need and deserve romantic love, and that I can make choices to prioritize that need and desire, something I have rarely if ever done in my past. It has been an extreme paradigm shift for me, talking with B about building a life together, forming and growing a family together, integrating the communities that make up our constellations of support. Until our relationship began to reveal itself as “the real deal,” I had assumed that I would forge my way through life unpartnered, have a child unpartnered, do my best to live a full and gratifying life, unpartnered. Not that those who are unpartnered are less worthy or less whole or less adult than those who are. Spending 28+ years unpartnered showed me the ways in which our society treats single people as less than, as though they are waiting in some sort of purgatory. In my experience, people don’t know how to categorize or place you when you’re single.  I remind myself regularly that I am no more or less worthy, no more or less whole, no more or less alone, partnered to B than I was before he became a foundational presence in my life. Neither of us subscribe to the “partner as lover and best friend and primary/solitary source of support” mentality. And so in some ways, moving to Alabama is going to be hard work for me, as I seek to build a new community of support, and seek to maintain my ties and bonds to folks here in North Carolina.

In moving, I am also acknowledging my desire for growth and challenges (like, extreme challenges, apparently). For at least a year now,  I have claimed a commitment to the southeastern United States. This is where my people are from. This is where I want to be, and where I believe I belong, even in my areas of difference from the people around me. Within 30 seconds of hearing me talk, people know that I was not raised in the South. Strangers in barber shops have told me that I “look educated” without me even opening my mouth. Fears of being scene as “uppity” plague me in a variety of predominantly Black spaces. I am aware of the ways that I am “other,” even among people of color here in North Carolina. But I have gained a level of security in my sense of self to own it, and laugh it off, knowing who I am and what I’m about and what work I still have left to do.

I see now that my claim of commitment to the southeast was a somewhat shallow one. By southeast, I really meant North Carolina. I would throw a fit anytime I had to drive through South Carolina and actually exit my car, always looking around to make sure I saw at least one other Black person before deciding it was safe to make a stop for gas. This move is an opportunity for me to put my money (what money?) where my mouth is, and make good on my commitment to this region so rich in civil rights and social movement history, this region that has taught me so much about self-love as a Black woman, and what it means to fight for my own liberation, and the collective liberation of us all.

If you had told me five years ago that I would be accepting a job as an organizer, I would have called your bluff. I was very adamantly not an organizer. A facilitator, a trainer, a coordinator, yes, but never an organizer. I think I had it in my head that my introverted self was too reserved to do the work of mobilizing folk, that my bourgie self was too privileged to do the work of empowering marginalized folk without it being paternalistic, that as a young woman who didn’t realize she was Black until age 25 would never be sufficiently politicized or radicalized to take a leadership role in social movements. And yet here I am. I think my understanding of organizing has changed and matured, with much maturing left to do. I see organizing as another means of facilitation, facilitating communication between people who share areas of struggle, facilitating opportunities to build power, training folks as leaders and change agents in their own lives.

I am, in many ways, broken-hearted to leave Durham. In other ways, I am confident that the relationships, intimate and casual, and connections, close and loose, that have sustained me while I’m here in North Carolina will continue to sustain me as I move into this next chapter. What I’m saying is, I need you. Yes, you. To be available for in person visits and long distance phone calls and Skype sessions. To visit me and spend time with me and my partner as I build a new home. To remind me that I am good, that I’ve got this.

What I’m also saying is, I thank you. For all the ways you have invested in me and allowed me to learn from you, the ways in which we’ve learned together. From my process of politicization, to my process of racial identity development, to my expanded understanding of gender and sexuality, to my deep love for doing work with young people, to my process of battling physical and mental health crises, you’ve been there, and you’ve supported me, in large and small ways. I am forever grateful.

Now… let’s do all the fun things before September 2nd.

Much love and solidarity,
Mawiyah

A spiritual history, part 3

If you follow my blog, or know me in real life, you know that I have had a complicated journey with racial identity. By complicated, I mean that I didn’t know I was Black until I was about 25 years old. This is a key factor in this third chapter of my spiritual history.

Just before I turned 23, I was hired onto the staff of a large predominantly white evangelical church in San Diego, the church I had called my home for a number of years. At the time, I was going through the struggle that many people my age were going through, proudly wielding a bachelor’s degree and finding it completely insufficient to secure meaningful full-time work. So, getting the job at my church was a dream and an affirmation of my passions at that point in time. My role was to manage and co-direct our local and global impact efforts, which meant partnering with local community-based organizations to create volunteer opportunities for church members; partnering with the local high-school from which we leased Sunday meeting space to offer tangible support to students and staff; and partnering with international church plants and nonprofit organizations to coordinate overseas trips focused on community service or leadership development conferences. I worked most closely with two other staff members, the local and global impact pastors, both men, both people I knew from my time interning at the church, and both people that I cared about deeply.

My work at this church felt like the epitome of my “Don’t tell me; show me” mantra. It felt good to work in the company of people who understood why service to “the least of these” was the most natural outgrowth of our faith. In retrospect, some of my values around this were problematic, as reflected in the language used. The whole idea of “service” implies some altruistic sacrifice by individuals of means toward individuals without means, for which the latter should be demonstrably grateful. The word “impact” makes me cringe now, as I imagine two cultures or communities coming into contact with one another, like a collision, and the dominate, more well-resourced culture or community obliterating the other. It’s a dramatic image, but not entirely inaccurate. In all of my work, the idea was that we, with God’s provision, could be a blessing to others. We often failed to acknowledge that the communities or individuals we “served” might have things to teach us as well, or that they might not be interested in our service at all. It is hard to do ministry work without being paternalistic. Then again, it’s hard to do social services work or nonprofit work without being paternalistic. So, there has been some consistency in my life the past decade after all.

Working at a church never felt as right as it seemed it should. I constantly wrestled with the same issues I had been for the past several years. I felt inadequate, I felt like I didn’t belong, I felt like I had not lived a life of sufficiently radical sacrifice because I hadn’t lived in a developing country for two years and I didn’t make my own clothes out of hemp. It was during this time that I began meeting with a therapist for the first time. That is a true gift – not to be understated – that this community gave me, the assurance that it was okay to need therapy, and not only that, but maybe mental and emotional well-being is God’s will for us, and God would have us pursue those things through additional means besides fervent prayer.

I needed therapy during this time because I was drifting in and out of depression, as I often have, but also because I was struggling relationally. The thing about being a part of an evangelical community is that, generally speaking, everyone is coupled, and everyone is on the marriage train, with most folks headed toward the child-bearing terminal as quickly as possible. Just as I had during my college days in the on-campus fellowship, I waited patiently for my turn to pair off, but it just didn’t happen. The birthdays continued to pass by, to my horror, without ever having been on a date and without ever having kissed anyone.

I think it was at the prompting of my therapist that I started online dating. She presented me with a logical argument, and that was it, I couldn’t refute it. The argument was, essentially, how the hell else did I think I was going to meet people? The strategies I was using (meeting friends of friends, going to church community groups, waiting for cupid to let loose his arrows in a grocery store or coffee shop, avoiding interaction with anyone I was remotely interested in) weren’t working. And I’m forever grateful to her for recommending that I try online dating, not because I found the love of my life, but because I stumbled upon a long awaited revelation. I realized I was Black.

My first foray into online dating was Match.com. I don’t think I told a soul, minus my therapist, about what I was doing. What you need to know about Match is that not only do you fill out your own basic/demographic information – hair and eye color, height, body type, level of education, race/ethnicity – you also indicate what attributes you’re looking for in a potential partner. I was fairly liberal with most categories, telling myself that it was good to be open at this stage. I did indicate a minimum level of desired education, and I articulated some preferences around body type, but when it came to race/ethnicity, I checked every box. This was the late 00s, so Match’s algorithms weren’t intelligent enough to prevent matches from showing up in my list if didn’t meet their criteria, even if they met mine. And so what resulted was profile page after profile page of men of all races including Black who had indicated they were open to dating women of all races, with one very clear exception. Black women. I was genuinely shocked by this. All this time I had believed the post-racial narrative, because I had lived it, I had found belonging in a multi-ethnic (I thought) community, and I was seen and respected for my gifts and intelligence. And so it was shocking to me that so many men were uninterested in dating me right off the bat, without knowing anything else about me, simply because I was Black. In retrospect, anti-Blackness was all around me, always. It was in statements from my friends, “Mawi, you’re not really Black.” It was in our willingness to send missionary teams overseas to Malawi and Uganda or south of the Mexican border to Tijuana, while we ignored Black American and Black immigrant neighborhoods in San Diego County. It was in the tokenism and exceptionalism that surrounded me in my role on the staff of my church. And, it was rampant in online dating communities. Articles like this one published by OkCupid confirmed that I wasn’t imagining it.

What does all this have to do with spirituality? Realizing I was Black by way of experiencing racial discrimination on Match.com was a catalyst for my realization that the pastors of my church were not telling my story. There was a strong, even if implicit, narrative in our church that you find love by following God’s call to be in church community, that Godly man meets Godly woman, and after a Godly number of months dating, Godly marriage awaits. It happened this way for so many of my white female counterparts, and I expected it to happen for me. But Match helped me see that there was more to my particular circumstance. I did not have the same options available to me as white women did. The Black men who were (more) likely to be attracted to me were nowhere to be found in our church community, or the hipster San Diego community at large. I had denied my Blackness in most every facet of my life thus far, but I could not deny my Blackness in my romantic life.

I realized I was going to be faced with choices if I was serious about seeking a partner. The “Godly” (white) Christian men I had spent 8 years surrounded by did not seem interested in me. I could not continue with the same effort and expect different results. One by one, the limitations and standards I had set for myself were called into question. Was it really that important that the person I dated was a Christian, or would it do for them to be a person who shared my moral values and respected my spiritual beliefs? Would I choose to be single and never experience sex until I was married, even if I never found a person to marry, or would I consider sex in the context of a committed relationship? What if I met someone with whom I felt I could be in a long-term relationship, but with whom I didn’t want to raise children? Would I consider cohabiting without marriage and children, for the sake of companionship?

I found myself considering decisions that I never had before, all because I had not understood my own story, and the spiritual teaching I had received did not tell my story. I began to wonder who else had been left out, and who else was experiencing criticism and judgement for choices that I simply did not understand because I had not lived their story. It became difficult to judge or criticize people who were gay or queer or who smoked or used drugs or who were caught in “unhealthy” relationships and behaviors. There were trauma histories that a white evangelical church could not fathom. Their were identities that were relegated to the margins, invited to the table, but never allowed to set the norms at the table.

As I started to lean into my newfound Blackness, and examine my racial identity and my experiences around race in the church, I felt increasing discomfort within our church staff and the broader community. I began to see whiteness everywhere, and it was suffocating me. When I tried to give voice to what I was experiencing, when I tried to name that maybe our “multi-racial” church was a lot whiter than we were willing to acknowledge, and maybe that was a problem, I was gaslighted or told that if it bothered me, it was my responsibility to change it.

It was one of the saddest times of my life, witnessing this growing distance between me and these people I cared for so deeply. There was also a rift that grew between me and God, as I came to realize that my understanding of God was wrapped up in whiteness. The God I knew was a God who was principally concerned with the affairs of white people, not a God who desired that we work actively to eradicate structural racism and sexism and homophobia. My experience of church and religious community was forever changed, and I’ve yet to feel completely at ease upon reentering a place of worship.

Not all who wander are lost. This was the start of my wandering, and years later, maybe I am still wandering. But I feel more like the person that God created me to be now than I did then. God created me to be a person who writes transparently about her lived experience, even when it is scary, which is always. If I’m brave enough to keep writing this spiritual history, parts 4 and 5 will delve deeper into themes of spirituality and sexuality, gender, race, and ancestry. Until then.