In a vivid personal essay for Kweli Journal, author Jodi M. Savage writes about growing up in New York City with her Pentecostal evangelist grandmother. The church gives their family a community to belong to and allows the narrator’s grandmother to build a life of leadership and influence. But it could also be stifling and punishing for the women of its congregation. The author figures out how to honor her grandmother’s memory while bearing witness to the church’s limitations.
Granny raised me on mustard greens, hot water cornbread, and a super-sized portion of Jesus. Although I mastered the Rubik’s cube of rules for sanctified living, religion robbed me of my voice and left shame in its place. You could say that it all started with my teenage neighbor Bobby.
When I was a kid, I let Bobby paint my fingernails red. I knew it was a sin by Pentecostal standards, but my nails looked so pretty and shiny in the sunlight. A few days later, our street had our annual block party. Everyone had moved their cars off our Brooklyn street that morning; one end was blocked off with a Cutlass Supreme and the other with a Nissan Maxima. We played in the street all day until late into the night—volleyball, tag, double Dutch, hide-and-seek. Folks played spades and dominoes on the sidewalks; roamed from yard to yard sampling each other’s food; and blasted reggae, reggaeton, old school R&B, and hip hop from speakers all at the same time.
As I played across the street from my house, Bobby barreled into me on his bike. His front wheel and handlebars collided with my groin and stomach, sending me flying several feet away. I limped home to tell Granny what happened. She suddenly noticed my red fingernails for the first time. Again, we were Pentecostal, which meant we weren’t allowed to wear fingernail polish. Anything red was considered to be a special kind of sinful—carnality of the whorish variety. Instead of consoling me, Granny whipped me with an extension cord. That was the day I learned that one’s own pain is secondary to religious dogma. I learned to keep quiet when people hurt me, or else risk punishment for revealing something far worse—something sinful.