Madison Davis | The Common | December 2018 | 31 minutes (6,125 words)
We are driving through downtown Columbus, away from the Greyhound station. I spent fifteen hours on a bus traveling from New York City to visit for Christmas, a holiday, my mother reminds me, that is not even about Jesus anymore. This is a thought she has reiterated over the years, yet it never prevented her from partaking in the holiday during my lifetime. The absence of a decorative tree and gifts reflected a lack of money, not a rejection of the commodification of religion.
As kids, we were encouraged to list our wishes for Santa, and even now in a post-Christian adulthood, I fantasize about the relief a Christmas miracle would provide. Because I have just a few weeks to come up with eight thousand dollars in order to register for spring classes. The most obvious resolution would be that I take the semester off, move back to Ohio, work hard, and live frugally so I can save enough money to return in the fall. But I know that the likelihood of returning to school after a long break is small, because most who leave do not return.
I am turning over stones, small and big, in search of a solution. Can your organization offer financial support to a Black scholar in need? Perhaps if I exert enough effort, a resolution will present itself. Of course the lottery is rigged, but someone has to win sometime, right?
What’s that? my mother asks me, her eyes briefly leaving the road and focusing on the black pendant dangling from my neck.
Onyx, I tell her, hoping that will suffice. The sun illuminates the windshield, causing us to squint. Despite the brightness, it offers no warmth, and unmelted mounds of snow sit in street corners.
And what? Is that supposed to do something for you?
It’s just a crystal, I say. Rock. It’s just a rock.
But what does it mean?
The truth sounds silly even to me.
I guess it’s a protective stone. If you believe in that, I tell her.
We pull into the driveway of the small white one-story house my mother shares with my sister, Ashley, and the twins. My niece and nephew are a few weeks away from their first birthday. Entering through the side door, which opens into the kitchen, I can hear the laughter of Eden and Elijah.
Hi, babies, I say when I walk into the living room.
Elijah stops his crawling around the playpen that Ashley has placed in between the couch and the wall, and Eden pauses her screaming as she peers at me over the couch. They both stare, intrigued by and suspicious of the woman who has just sauntered into their world as if she weren’t some stranger.
Hi, Sister, Ashley calls from the couch. She is holding on to Eden, who stands, preventing the baby from toppling. Shoes off, Ashley reminds me.
I remove my boots, walk over and pick up Elijah first, then Eden, showering them with an excess of I missed you’s and kisses. Rapidly I go from person unknown to acquaintance to loved one.
Eden reaches for the black pendant around my neck and attempts to pull it into her mouth. I pull it from her small hand; she laughs at the game she assumes we are playing and continues to try to bite the onyx.
Oh, no, no, no, my sister says. Don’t let her touch that. Eden, baby, don’t mess with your auntie’s weird stuff.
We laugh. She takes my niece from my arms.
* * *
Let go and let God.
This phrase was spoken by pastors from the altars of the congregations my mother, sister, and I attended. Sometimes it was a declaration. In communion, hands would be thrown into the air while cries of Yes, Lord echoed throughout the sanctuary. Several chords would be hit on the organ, prepping the congregation for worship. These words were also a reminder, punctuating someone’s testimony detailing how, after a stretch of unemployment and being on the verge of homelessness, Jesus followed through with a job offer, or how the Holy Ghost took charge when a potentially fatal car accident resulted merely in scuffed bumpers.
You gotta let go and let God.
Mmhmm. Amen. Amen. He is good all the time, and all the time He is good.
But the saying irked me. It was an incomplete sentence. Let God what? Lead? Fix it? Take hold? The words hung openly. His name alone was supposed to be enough to conclude the unfinished clause, the call for faith.
Growing up, we did not attend “quiet churches,” a label my sister and I attributed to the Catholic mass and Methodist congregations of our predominately white suburban neighborhood. To us, their meetings of worship felt solemn and reluctant. Mostly we attended churches with a Black majority or ones rooted in Protestant Baptist practices whose congregations were mixed. Services were loud and jovial, and tears were shed in ecstasy at the remembrance of Christ’s last act of love. I was accustomed to people dancing down aisles and in between pews, one knee lifting into the air before bringing the foot down to the ground, in time with the melody of a piano and clashing cymbals. More than once I witnessed a body convulsing on the ground as a pastor, clutching a microphone in one hand while the other waved a Bible about frantically, shouted Be gone, Satan! You are not welcomed here! This is not your body! I heard the slew of incomprehensible syllables that we understood as speaking in tongues, the Lord’s way of conveying His presence by taking over a person’s speech.
Even I caught the Holy Ghost at times. It caused me to gallop with joy during my favorite praise and worship songs. I am a C, I am a C-H, I am a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N and I have C-H-R-I-S-T in my H-E-A-R-T and I will L-I-V-E E-T-E-R-N-A-L-L-Y. I felt It during a revival when two men placed their hands on my shoulders and back as they spoke protection and healing over me. Go deep, baby, go deep, one man said, as I fell backwards, their hands guiding me to the ground. Though my body was immobile, I thought that I could feel His power surging through me. My muscles expanded softly, pushing against my skin—something begging for release. I also remember, as I laid still, wondering when would be the appropriate time to get up because I no longer felt like lying on the carpet and lying about my ability to stand.
Our faith did not feel blind but wide-eyed and sentient. Seeing was believing.
And as a child I perceived miracles every day. I craved a Happy Meal and thanked the Lord when my mother returned from work carrying a brown bag printed with a large yellow M, the distinct smell of McDonald’s french fries wafting through our apartment. I watched as my mother lamented over a lack of gas money, which would mean missing a full day’s pay, then I witnessed the discovery of a five-dollar bill pressed between the couch cushions moments after she decided she would have to call in sick.
Other prayers went unanswered. If a failed request felt crucial to happiness, such as the wish for thighs that did not meet one another when I walked, I warded off disillusionment by reminding myself that God does not give you what you want but what you need, the catch being, of course, that often He alone knew what was needed (His larger plan and all that).
I wonder now if these early disappointments could not but help to open crevices of doubt within my faith.
Once, my mother confessed that as a child she had prayed for hours that she would wake up with long, straight hair, but awoke to find that the kinky coils remained. I don’t think I ever believed in the same way again, she said. I was about to begin sixth grade and already had my own recollections of nights spent wishing and pleading. But I was surprised at her confession of uncertainty in the Lord. It was, perhaps, one of the first of these admissions that, though sporadic, would become familiar as I got older, particularly as my sister and I became more aware of our family’s financial strife and questioned our mother’s ability to provide us with stability. I wonder now if these early disappointments could not but help to open crevices of doubt within my faith.
As I skidded into adolescence, my prayers became more extravagant, yet I was careful to maintain my graciousness as I closed my eyes, asking the Heavenly Father in a whisper. God is not a genie, I heard from the Sunday School teacher. I made sure to include in my prayers if it be in your will, reminding God that I understood His power was His own. Like my mother in her youth, I asked for straight hair that took to relaxers more readily; hair that fell in black rivulets past my shoulders; hair that bounced like that of the models in the Garnier Fructis commercials. In church we were told that God was an active participant in our lives. He leads, we follow.
But by the time I entered high school, attending church had become a chore. If you can’t go to church, you can’t do anything else, my mother would say. And sometimes the duty did leave me feeling rejuvenated once completed. Sometimes the pastor’s sermon resonated with me, such as his reminder that we should Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified, because the Lord, your God, goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Usually my religious vigor was a result of the music we—the band, the choir, and congregation—performed.
Gospel felt universal among my Black peers, as if every other Black kid I encountered shared a collective experience of this music even if we had never set foot in the same church. At school, my friends and I loudly sang hymns during our lunch period: Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the water. When we learned good news, such as the cancellation of a quiz we had not prepared for, we mimicked the dances we saw executed during church services. One person pretended to play the organ as another jumped about screaming Hallelujah! Our Christianity felt definitively ours, definitively Black. In these moments we were not just declaring our Christian beliefs; we were also affirming our Blackness in the face of whiteness.
So while, on one hand, the hallway performances of my childhood served as ways for my friends and me to confront our otherness and show ourselves to be a cohesive group, I can now see that at times we may have exploited ourselves by offering a limited and perhaps stereotypical scope of Blackness to white voyeurs, who indeed ogled and reveled and laughed.
* * *
Today, Black Americans are more religious than other groups in the country. Forty-seven percent of Black people surveyed attend church at least once a week, a higher percentage than in all other groups. Eighty-three percent of Black Americans hold an absolute belief in the existence of God, compared to sixty-one percent of whites, fifty-nine percent of Latinx Americans, and forty-four percent of Asian Americans.
As the oldest Black institutions in the United States, Black churches are an important place of communion for Black people, not only as a site for worship but also for political and social activism. It is no wonder that, when canvassing for votes of Black constituents, politicians visit congregations. Or that television and film depictions of Black life often include scenes in sanctuaries as people sing timeless gospels. On a screen somewhere, perhaps on a TV in a bar or on a computer at a friend’s home, I have read, Black Americans are among the most fervent of Christians. But I have begun to wonder about this general acceptance that we all just happen to be faithful, Christ-loving people. This assumption places Black American religiosity as a monolith, both ignoring those who are not observant of Christianity and discounting the church’s role in slavery.
For example, in 1862, Presbyterian Reverend Alexander McGill delivered a speech to the Pennsylvania Colonization Society in which he stressed that, though cruel, slavery was ultimately God’s will and was a path to salvation.
The Africans in our country are strangers and servants “in a land that is not theirs.” They are here for a special purpose …. [T]he condition of the black man here shows that neither a perpetual bondage, nor an immediate abolition, is the will of God concerning him. It is the schooling of slaves in this Republic which Heaven decreed for slavery, when Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia, all implored the British Crown in vain to spare these colonies the curse of its infliction; and the tutelage is to last until the enslaved are able and willing to carry back to their own land the spoils of a Christian civilization.
The speech took place a year into the American Civil War and almost a century after the first Black Baptist church, Silver Bluff Baptist Church, was established by an enslaved man, George Liele, sometime between 1773 and 1775, after the first Great Awakening. According to PBS’ Africans in America, Liele was encouraged by his master in Georgia to take up preaching; eventually freed, Liele forged and built Black congregations. Though some enslaved people were allowed to go to the churches of plantation owners, formally led Black churches were initially frowned upon (as was anything that may have offered empowerment to Black people). Permission slips were required to attend services. Sermons sometimes included reminders to be dutiful and mindful of one’s master.
By the 1780s, Black congregations and official churches were opening more frequently. Sermons often focused on liberation at the hands of a righteous God as congregations often were composed of enslaved people, hopeful and searching for deliverance. The Second Great Awakening ignited an interest in evangelical Christianity as it brought a focus on personal testimony and called for each individual to foster a direct relationship with God. Anyone could possess religious authority. The emphasis on the individual appealed to Black Americans because it indicated an independence that was normally out of reach. A spiritual freedom through God could pave the way for social freedom from structural oppression.
The emphasis on the individual appealed to Black Americans because it indicated an independence that was normally out of reach.
Throughout my teenagehood I became aware of the ways in which churches participate in their own forms of oppression. I grappled with growing discontentment over Christian teachings. Even in churches we attended that were deemed progressive, with racially diverse congregations and openly gay members, never did I see a denouncement of scriptures that interpreted homosexuality as a sin: If a man lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them (Leviticus 20:13).
It was known that Adam was created first from dust by the Lord, and Eve created from the rib of Adam. The story of who was created first and from whom created the hierarchy of dominion with men over women. And it was Eve, of course, who coerced Adam into the act that brought the fall of utopic Eden. Though I can’t remember a time when a pastor blatantly said that women should be subordinate to men, I do recall a man offering a blanket to my sister to cover her legs during a pastor’s sermon. And I recall that two women stood with sheets raised on either side of me, covering my body as I danced in joy for the love of God. When I was seventeen, a pastor approached my sister and me from the pulpit, holding eye contact with me as he reminded us, Now don’t you go lying up in some man’s bed on your back. I grew to understand that my body yielded a power, dark and consequential, but the reasons for how and why eluded me.
Upon entering college, I had ceased to use Christianity as a lens to interpret the world. My upbringing made it hard to immediately reject it. But a liberal arts education, different from the majority of my conservative Ohio schooling, gave me a new space to critically engage with questions of race and gender. Perhaps it was inevitable that my questioning of faith would intersect with these new studies. The theoretical texts I read provided a logical framework to rationalize my distancing myself from Christianity. Unlearning the history of the whitewashed narrative I was taught allowed me to name the God I had previously loved and feared as a tool to justify centuries of unimaginable cruelties. It was liberating. Breaking free of the church because of its role in historical oppression—from slavery to controlling the behavior of women—freed me from having to explain my more amorphous disillusionment with Christ—God wasn’t cool, or sexy, or flexible. It freed me from the possibility that maybe I was just a rebellious young adult.
* * *
You know, our ancestors were probably not Christian, I tell my mother as we sit in the living room after putting my niece and nephew down for a nap. This probability is something I’ve become increasingly aware of. I am eager to point it out.
We are sitting, facing each other on two brown couches. Across from me, a white shelf extending across the living room holds the TV that is usually turned off during the day unless boredom compels us to watch the court shows of network television. Pictures of Ashley and me as children and of Eden and Elijah sit on other shelves. They rest alongside what my mother refers to as her “knickknacks,” like the small porcelain statue of two Black children kissing beneath a tree. I notice the house does not have a single piece of religious iconography on display, which is true of every home we have lived in.
Some of our ancestors could have practiced Voodoo, I tell her.
So? my mother says, shrugging.
You know, I say, the Bible is just a compilation of what was decided was the best version of the stories. There were other books that were destroyed or suppressed that never made it in. Have you read the Gospel of Mary Magdalene?
My mother’s face twists into a familiar crinkle of disgust. It’s the same face she makes when a food she abhors is mentioned, the face she made when we lived near the Budweiser factory and the smell of fermented grains filled the car when we drove by its ugly tan buildings.
Gospel of Mary? Her voice is mocking and full of skepticism. Where did you read that?
In World Lit Survey, I tell her and am livid when she begins laughing.
You believe anything anyone tells you.
Mom, it was also in the show we watched on the History Channel a couple years ago, Banned from the Bible. I rush to speak over her laughter, growing angrier with each snicker that escapes her.
She wasn’t a prostitute, I continue. They changed it because they couldn’t have a woman disciple, especially one that was more important than all the men.
The people who chose the books of the Bible and got rid of the rest, I almost shout. I feel small, like a child, instead of a woman just returned from her fifth semester of college.
It doesn’t bother you that the God you pray to was used to brainwash and enslave
our people? I ask.
Again, she shrugs at what I thought would be the most damning and illuminating assault on her faith.
My mother, breaking the silence, at last says, The word of God is the word of God. Either you believe it or you don’t.
What does God have to say about my tuition money?
She flinches as if I have struck her. I don’t know, she says. Why don’t you ask Him? Her voice is icy and quiet.
You told me everything would work out fine. You said you could help make payments, I remind her. My indignation, of course, is misplaced. It is not her fault that the cost of private college is more than the mortgages of most homes in our neighborhood. But still, I yearn for the certainty I felt as a small child that she could resolve anything with a kiss on a scraped knee or a phone call to the right person.
I’ve done what I can, my mother says.
I hear a small whimper, and our conversation halts. A few feet from me, Eden is napping in the playpen, and neither of us is prepared for her to awake. Ashley is at work, so either my mother or I would be responsible for soothing Eden back to sleep or obeying her demands.
Ashley has told me stories of the twins rejoicing during church services, how they lift their arms to the sky, mimicking those lost in their own worship.
My babies love the Lord, she said during one of these talks, and I smiled, imagining their bursts of giggles as they moved about in their Sunday’s best. After she joined her college’s gospel choir her freshman year, my sister’s faith amplified. She became more dedicated than I could remember her ever being throughout our childhood. When our mother stopped regularly attending church—an act that was justified, she said, because church folk are too conniving and fake but the Lord knows her heart—Ashley’s diligence continued. She is far less open to my tirades about the roots of Christianity than my mother.
I’ve learned not to speculate about how the kids might one day begin to point out the plot holes in Bible stories or to wonder about the fairness of the lengthy list of actions that could condemn one to Hell—the same trail of inquiries that aided in my departure from my own Christian faith. Because to ask such questions is not only to offend the ideals that my sister has maintained—and holds to with a sincerity and dedication that is as admirable as it can be frustrating—but to threaten the foundation of beliefs she fosters for her children. I have also realized that I see the value of Eden and Elijah coming into consciousness amidst religion just as my sister and I did. They will be immersed in the same culture that I loved and am fortunate to have known, despite its complications. Sometimes it is hard to draw distinctions in my memories between what was religious and what wasn’t. Church gatherings weren’t too dissimilar from family reunions, with the singing and dancing to music we all knew, cooking and exchanging food, celebrations of survival, of our community, of love.
Eden sits up, eyes closed, and clutches the face of an oversized stuffed dog. She turns over to lie on her stomach, light snores indicating that she is deep enough into her sleep to allow us to exhale relief.
I take her from the playpen and place her next to a sleeping Elijah in their crib in my sister’s bedroom. I walk softly back to the living room.
You think your tarot cards can save you? my mother asks as I settle back onto the couch. Her arms are rigid, crossed over her chest, and her dark eyes narrow at me behind her black-framed glasses. At the bottom of her T-shirt I see a pale, faded stain that she now rubs over her lenses to wipe away smudges. Even without her glasses on, her gaze is focused on me.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
Not everything is about salvation, I say, snorting and feeling a moment of triumph as if I have scored a point somehow.
She shakes her head.
You think those cards and rocks have some sort of magic power? she asks. Sitting with her back against the cushion of the couch, she raises her hands to her sides, her palms facing upward.
No, I guess not. Not in the way you mean, anyway.
So what, then? she says. What do you believe in?
I hear this as a question, an accusation, and an invitation to make a formal denouncement of Christianity and Jesus before her and perhaps God as well.
So what? my mother repeats. You don’t believe in God? You believe in the occult or some stupid mess like that?
I believe good manners are important. I believe in upheaval. I believe it is worth reading one’s own natal chart. I believe that perfection is unattainable except in the cases of Eden and Elijah. I believe that God and Satan might as well exist if so many people think it to be true. Nothing is simple. I believe this to be one of the few constant facts.
I don’t know, I tell her. She nods in a silence that engulfs us.
* * *
When both my mother and my sister are at work and the twins are at daycare, I set up a small altar in my bedroom. Beneath the stand that holds my TV, old jewelry, and CDs, I spread out a red blanket. I light a white candle that I bought at Walmart the day before and place it on top of the blanket. In the center I place the crystals I have brought with me from New York—amethyst, carnelian, rose quartz, and selenite. The room smells like burnt wood from the palo santo that I lit moments before. My right hand holds my newest item, which my friend has mailed to me as a late Christmas gift: a small wand made of quartz. I close my eyes. Exhale, inhale. Release what is not helpful, invite what is well. I try not to think about how my family would react if they discovered me in this moment, how many people would react, Christian or otherwise.
I used to write down intentions—the things I wanted to see actualized in the world or within myself, such as a better work ethic or new employment—but now I meditate on these thoughts, visualizing them into a reality. With my eyes still closed, I envision myself attending classes, doing homework in the library, getting drinks with friends. I see the world that I have cultivated for myself in New York City and continue to build upon its reality. I know that I will continue my education consecutively up until my graduation.
This is what I know as magic, the ability to create. For me it is not a process of boiling potions in a cauldron or reciting rhymed spells. It is the exertion of my efforts. It is the willpower to surpass what seems “realistic” or “practical” to achieve a goal. It is my own strength combined with something that exists outside of myself and beyond a complete comprehension. Often labeled as energy or the Universe or luck or coincidence, that “something” prods me, like an amorphous hand, in the right direction of what door to knock on, what stone to flip over.
I aim to create a lineage for myself, one in which I can be descended from women who did not worship within the Christian faith.
Yet the association of magic with New Age philosophies that are themselves often based in misinterpretations of non-Judeo-Christian religious teachings crafted by white Westerners seeking enlightenment and curated for other white Westerners causes me to feel self-conscious about my beliefs. The recent wave of popular interest in the occult and mysticism only adds to this feeling. At Urban Outfitters, one can purchase blocks of amethyst, tarot decks, and essential oil blends that promise to dispel anxiety. I’ve walked the aisles where these items are displayed and experienced bouts of discomfort that are difficult for me to understand. Is my ambivalence about the commodification of spirituality unjustified because my own spirituality is also reliant on such objects? On some level, shouldn’t I feel a sense of camaraderie among others searching for alternative forms of belief? Or am I just a participant in a niche fad, one that is no less vulnerable to scrutiny than Christianity?
The Christianization of African people in the United States is nonlinear. Some people brought over as slaves had already long been exposed and converted to Christianity, as well as Islam. Some African customs or religions, such as Ifá, were retained in the U.S., but some were lost or reconfigured. Black people’s sociology was not considered important enough to be recorded; some enslaved people, such as those in South American countries, were able to disguise native African religions by linking their deities with Catholic saints. This led to the creation of practices like Santeria, a blend of native Caribbean culture, Yoruba, and Catholicism.
I wonder if I have latched on to this spiritual tradition of the Diaspora; slavery has left many Black Americans unable to trace their ancestry beyond a few generations. I aim to create a lineage for myself, one in which I can be descended from women who did not worship within the Christian faith. But perhaps this genealogy is simply more convenient for my current narrative. Because I also recognize that the desire to understand my ancestry as steeped in magic can lead me to commit the same misappropriation of practices and misunderstanding of religions that aren’t truly my own. Purchasing a book about Candomblé or browsing the Wikipedia page on Orishas is not akin to being indoctrinated into a faith and immersed in a culture. Though it may be possible that I am a part of a non-Christian lineage, I am also undoubtedly entwined with the Christian practices derived from my mother, my aunts, my sister, my grandmother, her mother, and so on.
I suppose my own practices began with my experimentation with a roommate’s tarot deck, as I attempted to distract myself from the dissolution of a romantic endeavor. A friend sent me links to articles about the meaning of the new and full moon. I began reading Chani Nicholas’s weekly horoscopes. Someone gave me amethyst, rose quartz, and angelite, and I remembered my lost rock collection from childhood.
In a Newsweek article from 2013, “Hexing & Texting,” Katie J. M. Baxter analyzes the rise of interest in the occult among Millennials, noting that the attraction could be tied to people searching for a sense of control, especially those who are a part of groups that have been marginalized. In the article, Jesse Bransford, a New York University art professor who co-organizes an occult humanities conference, says, “[Magic] has always been a technique of the disenfranchised. … It’s something you do when the tools you have available don’t seem like they’re enough.”
I view magic as an often mundane aspect of my life—moments of quiet as I sit with myself or a lighting of a candle as I clean my bedroom—but it is true that it is crucial in times of distress, when all the practical instruments at my disposal have been exhausted.
Because, in the end, I do not produce the thousands of dollars I need for school in a fantastical manner, such as a wave of a wand and the sudden appearance of green stacks before me, or through a winning lottery ticket (though I purchased several losers). When I return to my school’s campus in New York after Christmas, I negotiate with the financial aid office. Although it seems I have little to bargain with, I am persistent. I have the vision I have drawn for myself. I have support from classmates and teachers. I have the gall to write to the president of the school and explain that I will continue to go to classes regardless of my registration status.
In my efforts to dissent from the upbringing that I now see partially rooted in white supremacy, have I maintained a kinship to some of its principles?
I suppose my belief in magic is similar to the sentiments and refrains that I grew up on. After nearly twenty years spent believing in an exterior force and being that could enact change in my reality, is it more comfortable for me to believe in some power than none at all? In my efforts to dissent from the upbringing that I now see partially rooted in white supremacy, have I maintained a kinship to some of its principles? I have struggled to reconcile this thought as I consider whether or not it undermines the truths that I discovered for myself. A fear sometimes permeates my conscious: how foolish I might appear if the future found me settling back into a love of Christ. After all, it can be argued that there is little difference between an incantation and a prayer except to whom credit is given in the aftermath. In church we took communion to honor the body and blood of Jesus. We were taught to incorporate Bible verses to strengthen prayers. We kneeled at altars to thank or appeal to the Lord. In my kitchen I steep honey, lemon, and cayenne to ward off a cold. I write down intentions because it is said that this helps pull one’s desires into focus. I sit in front of the desk that holds my spiritual items and ask for guidance from… myself? The universe? An unnamed energy?
I’ve come to realize that it’s not the assumed faith in the supernatural that I find troubling within Christianity but the terms on which one is often asked to believe. How does one begin to undo the violence that a white patriarchal culture perpetuates if we ignore or even accept its history? The word of God is the word of God. When those words condemn and exclude people who are marginalized and vulnerable, I feel I have no other choice but to turn away.
* * *
How’s school going? my mother asks over the phone. A week ago, when I called her and said I was going to be able to stay at school, she had cried for joy.
I sit on my bed. Next to me is a nightstand that I have fashioned into an altar. Rocks rest on a wooden tray and spill onto the surface of the stand. Ashes of sage and palo santo have darkened a white bowl. I grip a piece of fluorite, a dark purple point with flecks of green and gray.
It’s fine, I say.
Is there anything going on? What’s your GPA? Have you been falling behind because of work? Do you drink?
Why do you ask questions you don’t really want to know the answer to? I say in exasperation.
Because I do want to know. I need to know you’re doing okay.
I’m doing fine. Just stressed is all.
You focus on school, she tells me. That’s most important. Because, believe me, they don’t want you there and it means something that you are. Pray to the God of your understanding for patience and strength.
Mom, I say with a groan.
What? What else can I tell you to do? You got to stay at school. That has to mean something. That has to show you the power of Jesus.
God is white—
Don’t start with that nonsense.
No. Listen. I don’t mean He is actually white. He’s white in the way that everything in this country is seen and thought of as white.
I take her silence as an indicator that I can continue, so I say, Church wasn’t all bad, you know? And I know that it’s been important for Black communities for so long, but maybe it’s time to make room for other things. How much good does it do for Black kids growing up, learning that there are limits to how they can explore and express themselves?
We’re just trying to protect ourselves and each other, she says. You have to know early what the world is really like.
White kids just get to worry about themselves.
But you’re not white.
I know, I say.
I think of my last conversation with Ashley, the night before I left Ohio. When I tried to explain the meanings of astrological birth charts, she had laughed. None of that makes sense, she said. It’s all so general and vague.
It’s no weirder than anything you believe, I said in annoyance.
Well, I guess that’s how you’ve chosen to deal with life and cope. I have my own way, she said, shrugging.
In my left hand is the small ball of quartz I use for meditation or when my fingers need something to grip. Staring into the sphere, I imagine an image of my mother, on the phone with me, sitting in front of the television as The Andy Griffith Show plays silently. Maybe it would make her happy to know that, from time to time, after I’m relieved from a great stress, the words Thank you, Jesus, do pass through my mind. A habit, not forgotten, that I tell myself is more of an idiom than an invocation. But I don’t tell her this, and instead I listen as she describes a perilous co-worker whom management refuses to reprimand.
Still gazing into the quartz, I almost expect that I’ll be able to conjure a vision in its surface, some secret revealed or insight gained. But scrying is not my talent. In the crystal, only a shadowed inversion of myself is reflected.
This essay first appeared in Issue 16 of The Common. Our thanks to Madison Davis and The Common staff for allowing us to republish it here.