Simran Jeet Singh:
Thank you for watching the Religion News Service series, “Anti-Racism as a Spiritual Practice.” I’m your host, Dr. Simran Jeet Singh. And this episode is part of the second season of our series, which we filmed late in 2020. The first season, which was entitled, “Becoming Less Racist,” can be viewed on religionnews.com. We thank Columbia University and Trinity University for their support in making the second season possible.
So, I’m ready to introduce Lisa Sharon Harper, who is incredible for, for a lot of reasons. She’s, she’s a prolific writer, activist, thinker. I recently, most recently I’ve come across her in many different walks of life and have admired her work from a distance. She has an organization called Freedom Road, which is fantastic. She’s a fellow with Auburn Seminary. And most recently, well, let me say, over the pandemic, I started following her Instagram Lives, which are just so compelling and so insightful. And occasionally I’ll like pop in and push a little button to say hi to Lisa.
But most recently I’ve been reading her, her book, The Very Good Gospel, and it’s fantastic. It’s from Penguin Random House, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right. Thank you, Lisa, for being with us. And let me just begin by asking you, how are you? How’s everything going on your end?
Lisa Sharon Harper:
Okay. So, the question of how are you right now is so loaded. Isn’t it? After the, we really, we literally, as a nation got beat up a couple of nights ago. I think everybody was kind of punch drunk yesterday and is finally, still like starting to get equilibrium today. And that’s kind of how I feel. I’m coming in getting my equilibrium, but it’s actually been a good day, a really good day of talking with evangelicals, white evangelicals, men and women about what it looks like, what are the intersections of race and gender in our legal history that actually bring us to where we are today? And I just, there were tears at the end of our conversation from them. So, I have hope. I come in with hope that there are, there’s a softness there that has not been there for decades.
Yeah, I have questions about that. And you know, I wanted to jump in asking you about your life, but let’s, let’s start there. What does that look like for you as someone who clearly, I mean, I have read your book and having followed your work, you know the role that evangelicals have played, white evangelicals are played, in, in forming American racism and perpetuating it.
And so, what does it look like for you to enter into a conversation with them? Is it what, well, two questions there. One is, how do you prepare yourself for that conversation, and what is your intention going in?
Okay. So, the funny thing about how I prepare myself, you see this necklace that I have, I had got this in Soweto in South Africa. And for me, this is, this is my armor and I put this armor on to talk with them today. And these are earrings that were also given to me in in South Africa, but they were from a Kenyan woman. So, this is my armor. My armor is who I am, who I descend from and, and knowing who I am.
So, I do not need them. I go in not needing them, but wanting, wanting for them to want it quite honestly, for them as human beings to experience the transformation that is possible, with all human beings. And so, there’s gotta be, another piece of the preparation is to enter in with humility, understanding that I, myself, I had a process that that book is actually about, I had my own process of awakening.
All of us have nobody came out of the womb getting it, you know, nobody, nobody came out of the womb woke. We all had to be awakened in some way. And it just so happens that the structures that are a part of that, that, that church set and the history and the stories they tell about who they are, which leaves so much out, perpetuates ignorance quite honestly and closedness to change. But I know I went through a process. I know I’ve seen others go through a process. And so, I go on with my armor, but I also go in with my humility, knowing that I’m human, and so they are too, so they can be changed.
It’s such an interesting thing to hear you speak about right now, because I think a lot of us have those relationships or close relationships with friends, family, that have been fractured by, by politics right now. And, and, you know, I, I grew up in Texas, in South Texas, and a lot of my friends are conservatives. So, I’m very close with a lot of my high school friends. And they’re not so far to the right that I would call them extremists. Right? So, so we still have a lot of common ground. But I, I find it really hard to relate, and I think a lot of us can relate to that. We all have family members and friends like that.
And so, to hear you speak about that, it’s, it’s, it’s kind of jarring a little bit to hear you do it at that level. Like, does it, does it feel safe for you to enter into those conversations? Like what does it take for you to feel — you’re talking about armor. And it sounds like you’re, you’re not going in with armor prepared to battle, but you are going in wanting to protect yourself. So, what does it take, aside from what you’re wearing, like what what’s, what is the preparation on that process been like for you?
I think one of the things that, in order to understand how to, how to move white evangelicals, you have to understand the things they value most. And the thing that they say anyway that they value most, is the scripture is the Bible itself. So, I go in, get this, I go on with my Bible. Hello, somebody, this thing is raggedy because I have really used it. And so, I go in, I go in with scripture and we talk about scripture, but this time was interesting because you normally do start with scripture with evangelicalism.
But this time I didn’t, I started with the history. We went into this, the scripture was woven through it. In fact, the content from chapter two of The Very Good Gospel was woven through my talk today. But we went really, we went into law, like the legal history of race and gender in America and, and how it… and then the second piece that they really understand, so scripture, and then there’s personal story. So, woven into my conversation with them today was my own family’s history of race and gender.
And it just so happens that I’m doing research for my next book right now. In fact, not just research, I’m writing my next book right now and doing some of the research as I’m doing it. It’s called Fortune, and it’s based on 10 generations of my family story, which reaches back to 1682, Maryland. So, my own family was right there and impacted by the first laws, the first race laws in America, which also were also the very first gender laws on this land. So, you can’t have race and gender apart from each other, I found out just by researching my own family history.
So again, if you can offer a testimony, which is really what evangelicals value, that I know that I’m going to be speaking their language, at least they’ll be able to hear me. And it turned out today, they really did. And we’re talking about, this was a very conservative network. One from which I came, like, decades ago and have been invited back in into, into, to influence today. I just find that there is, there is an incredible amount of, let’s put it this way, scales falling off of eyes. Like they are seeing now where their politics has gotten everybody, including them. That they have been fighting for something that got them Nazis. They didn’t think it was going to get it, that wasn’t their conscious desire or thought. It was… I think it might’ve been an unconscious desire to have a white-run nation. That’s for real, I do believe that. And I think that, that the stats bear that out. But I think they’re beginning to see the content in our hearts is coming to the surface for all to see, and they’re seeing it and it’s scaring him to death.
And so, they know something’s wrong. Something is wrong with the way they’re seeing the scripture and with the way they’re seeing the world. So, I’ve experienced an openness, like never before. I swear to you. In my DMs, you know, you’re you, you tag into the Instagram Lives. We do this kitchen table conversation every Friday night, 7:00 PM. Join us. It’s fun. And from those, and also from the poster in the week, you would not believe how many people I have had DM-ing me, direct messaging me, to say, you know, I’m sorry, I didn’t know. Especially around the abortion, the recent abortion conversation. I didn’t know. I’ve been, I’ve been speaking out of talking points, but not out of anything I really knew. And actually, literally just saying, I’m just here to listen now. I’m blown away. I am blown away. This is not normal.
Yeah, I love that. And so, so let’s, let’s have you strip that down a little bit and make it into a, almost, almost a formula because I, I find that you were really effective at this. What does it look like for us to engage people who have different perspectives than us? Right? And it could be anything, but this, this is what you’re doing. This is what you did today. What does it take to move someone and really see what you’re trying to say, whether they end up agreeing with you or not? I, I don’t know if that’s, if that’s the end goal here, but, but what does it take to get them to see that?
No, it’s the end goal. My end goal is to save my people. That’s my end goal. My end goal is literally, my end goal is to have a world where my niece can flourish in 30 years. That’s my end goal, a world where my niece and my nephews, where they can flourish 30 years. Right, so that’s my end goal.
So, okay. I’m not used to, honestly, I’m not really used to doing the formula thing, but, but I think, I think I can share with you, I can share with you what I would say to that is that. I think it really does come out of my understanding, interestingly enough, of The Very Good Gospel. I think that it comes out of my understanding of the first page of the whole Bible. That on that very first page of the Bible, we’re told that all humanity is made in the image of God. And what that means in that text is profound. It’s profound that that was even stated. Because up to that point and all of civilization that we know of, that I know of anyway and certainly Western civilization and in, in, in nearby, nearby African civilizations and others, the image of God was only placed in the royalty. It was not at that point placed in all humanity. So here you have, at least as far as I understand, the first time that the image of God is being cast out to everybody.
So that is a democratization of power that happens on the very first page of the Bible, which is amazing. And then in case they didn’t get it, you know, cause they were just thick in the head, then they say, and let them have dominion, which has been sorely misunderstood for like, millennia. But what they were really saying was and let them exercise agency that impacts the world and let them steward this world. And there’s a really great picture of dominion and the next chapter, Genesis Two, where God takes the human in this story and places the human in the middle of the garden and says till and keep it. And the words, and that’s a picture of exercising dominion, the words till and keep are they actually mean serve and protect. So, serving and protecting are what exercising dominion really looks like. It looks like serving the rest of creation. It looks like protecting the wellness of the relatedness that God declares very good of all the relationships in creation at the very end of that first chapter.
So when we look at that, right, and then there’s this fourth word, the word demuth. The word demuth is the word for likeness, right? It’s, we are made in the image of God and God’s likeness. And that does not mean we literally look like God, right? It doesn’t mean, what it means and what it means in the text is that we are made like God. But we are not God. Check that out. Like that was actually really important to the writers of that first chapter that we understand that God is apart from us. God is Supreme. God is over all. And I think that the reason why that was important to them is because they were writing in the context of having been enslaved for 70 years. They were writing at the end of having been enslaved in Babylon for 70 years, told by that worldview that they were created to be enslaved.
So, it’s important for them to know that they are made in the image of God. They were created to exercise dominion in the world, but also to be humble and to understand they are like God, but they are not God. That there is, there is a standard that even surpasses them, that it goes beyond them. The wellness of the relatedness between us is dependent on us serving each other in the same way that God serves all of us.
So, when so when I go in to talk with white evangelicals, I know I’m going to get a lot, I’m going to get all kinds of stuff. People are going to get defensive, the spirit of 50-50, which is what I call it, comes out inevitably. Oh, but they’re equally responsible, right? Like these are the things I know are going on inside of them because I’ve had enough interaction. I just know it’s there. Right? So, I know that there’s literally a war, a silent war, happening as I’m speaking inside the hearts of people. And sometimes that comes, spewing out all over me.
So, I have to understand two things as I go in. One, I too, am made in the image of God. I have a core that is not at all related or dependent on them. It’s related, as in, we are all human, but it’s not dependent on their acceptance of the truth that God has given me. What I know, I know. And my experience is my experience and my read of the scripture has been tested. So, I go in and I stand, and I exercise dominion in that space because I too am made in the image of God and I do it without apology or caveat. Okay? And then the second thing that I have to understand is that I am not God. And therefore, I do not know what God is actually doing in their lives. I don’t know. I have to come in with humility, the humility to know that I had a process. I had my own paradigm shift, and that is what God does with all of us.
So, if I come in with a preconceived idea of where they are, as in, they’re going to, like, they’re Trump lovers and they’re racist. And they… I mean, all which I mean, look, the majority really are, but if I come in like with, with animosity without love, without honestly, without having forgiven them to some extent, before I come in the door, then my action toward them will not be an action in love.
And therefore, that I leave them with no choice, but then to defend themselves from me. Whenever you swing at somebody, they have to defend themselves. That’s just a human instinct. So, I don’t go in swinging. I go in and with invitation to go deeper. And permission. I always ask them; do I have permission to be real with you? Can you, can we just make a pact that, before I speak that you are right now, giving me permission to be real? And they say yes, and then I’m real. And then they can’t say, well, you know, you said — well, you gave me permission.
Yeah. There’s a lot that sticks out from what you just said, but, but one of the things that I noticed is, you know, when, when, when I asked you that question at first, you said you go in with your armor. That’s, that’s defensive, right? That’s protective. But you don’t go in swinging. You’re, you’re not going on the offense. And it’s not that you’re using that as a strategy. It’s also that you don’t think that’s an effective. I mean, it’s, it’s not an effective approach, but it’s also not the way in which you want to comport yourself. Right?
So, so part of it to me and part of my experience in the way that I’ve been racialized and, and learn to deal with my own racialization — It’s been, it’s been this really interesting thing that I think a lot of marginalized folks will get this when I say it, which is, you, you have no choice in, in your life, you have no choice, but to learn that you can’t rely on other people to give you your value . You can’t wait for them to see you. You can’t be so caught up in their perceptions because when you do, you, you get totally lost and, and you lose that, that sort of self-confidence.
And so, I’m, I’m hearing you talk about that. And I mean, it’s so powerful to me. It totally speaks to me. And, and I, and I want to hear a little bit, and then we’ll, we’ll go into your, your personal process a little bit, but the talk to you, you’ve talked about humility multiple times. And, and what I heard you say at the end was when you go in with anger and you go in swinging, you’re not able to create some sort of empathetic connection. That’s what I heard you saying.
Here’s honestly where it comes from it comes from the strategy. It is a strategy. It’s a strategy of nonviolence. It’s also a way of life. I mean, really what we’re talking about is we’re talking about the strategy that won the Civil Rights Movement, and that’s, I’m a student of the Civil Rights Movement. I’m a mentee of a Civil Rights Movement. And so, it’s people like John Lewis who I had the amazing privilege of listening to several times and, and traveling with at one point and on his, on his pilgrimage journey that he, he took people on once a year. And then also Dr. Ruby Sales, who would kill me if she knew that I just said the word doctor, cause she doesn’t like to have that. Like, you know, so Ruby Sales and my mom, my mom, my mom was in SNCC. So, I think that there’s, there’s a way that, and I’ve studied it, Dr. C.T., Vivian, Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian. There’s a moment and eyes on the prize.
When I believe it’s Dr. C.T. Vivian, although it could have also been John Lewis, where they stand up to a police chief, I believe it might be John Lewis because I think it was in Selma and they say, will you pray with me? They invite the police chief to pray. Will you pray with me, brother? Will you pray with me? And the police in the, you know, in the news, they’re getting it. Like the cameras are right there. That the police chief goes, Oh, well, you know, puts his hand on his holster, well, I have my God and you have your God. You go pray to your God and I’ll pray to mine. Right? But it’s disarming. It’s disarming to invite, to invite into love.
When I was standing on the stage giving the talk on The Very Good Gospel. in the early years that I fought in the first, when the book first came out in 2016, I was in Australia. I believe it was 2017. I was in Australia and I was standing on the stage. And it occurred to me looking out at this all-white audience that mostly doesn’t think that they’re racist because they don’t have the same kind of racial structure as we do, but they, they are very, very white supremacist and it just is, it’s not Black, white, although they do have that construct, but it’s Aboriginal, white and they call their Aboriginal people Black, because on the scale, Black is on the bottom and they’re on the bottom. That’s what that means. Right? In, in the colonized structure.
And so, I’m on the stage and it occurred to me that, that fourth word, demuth, that it really is a word for them. It is good news to people who have been oppressed because it says to, and I’ll say it in the context of the story that I tell there, I talk about, I start the, I start my talk talking about my third great grandmother, Leah Ballard, who was the last enslaved woman in our family. And what I come to at the end is that the good news for Leah is the fact that she was made in the image of God. Hello, Leah? God wants you to rise up and stand straight and live fully into the call to exercise dominion in the world. And the good news in our tradition is that Jesus was the king of the kingdom of God who has come to confront the kingdoms of this world that are hell bent on crushing you, on hell bent on crushing the image of God. So, Leah, does that make you dance and shout? And I just can see by third great grandmother say yes, girl yes. So, right? So, the good news to Leah’s master, hello, is that he was made in the image and likeness of God, but he is not God.
And so all of the striving that they have done as white people, as people of European descent who declared themselves white, who, who put together a taxonomy of human hierarchy and human belonging and place themselves at the top and made it their business to define and control everyone and everything, that’s exhausting. And it’s not possible. And I believe that people of European descent are exhausted by their own project, which has been a war with God for supremacy. That people of European descent have been at war with God. Because only God should be able to determine what a full human being is.
And yet they put it into law that some people were only three fifths of a human being. And because it was put into their law, it was. Only God should be able to determine who is called to exercise dominion on particular land. And yet Pope Nicholas the 5th said, it is only the civilized who can create, who are called to exercise dominion on particular land. And, and when you come across land, that is not civilized, you have hereby the right to claim that land for the throne and to enslave the people. That’s God’s power. That’s not human power. They have been at war with God for supremacy. So, the word that they are only made in the likeness of God, and not God, gives them the ability to step down off of the scaffolding of the hierarchy of human belonging that they built for themselves and to rejoin the community of creation and exhale.
So, I think that it’s, it’s understanding that even those who are our, who position themselves in opposition to us politically, whose votes kill us, that even they are merely human, and that repentance is possible. The question for me was, what do they need to repent of? It’s not just repenting of racism. I mean, that’s too, that’s too simple. Why are they racist? What’s going on for them? What’s going on? Why are they? They are striving for supremacy, but it’s not just supremacy against us. It’s supremacy with God. It is utter control of all things.
That’s really powerful. And again, so many, so many directions we could go with that. And, and one of the things I’m hearing you say here is, is around, you said this thing that really stuck out to me about the exhaustion of, of trying to play a role that’s not yours. Pretending to be something you’re not.
And as we see with, with a lot of studies, behavioral science, psychology, the, the very act of performance, it is exhausting, right? Like pretending to be something you’re not takes, it takes a real emotional toll on you. And, and based on what you said, like there’s that, but then there’s also the spiritual toll it takes to not just be something you’re not, but also convince yourself, so that pretense becomes your reality. And then there’s a spiritual dissonance that you’re dealing with and you don’t even know what’s going on inside of you.
Like, I mean, that’s, that’s pain and, and I, I mean, I’ll speak personally. I’ve been there for other issues and you know, not, this isn’t my specific issue, but spiritual dissonance, when it’s there, you, you can, you can always put your finger on it. You’re, you trick yourself into thinking you’re doing the right thing and it takes you awhile to figure out what’s going on in your head and what’s going on in your heart and, and how to get out of it. So, yeah, I mean, I love what you said there. And I want to ask you, so, so talk to us a little bit about the flip side of this. We’re, we’re talking about the dissonance and the pain. What is the, what is the outcome or what is, what is gained by finding that, that oneness or that integration of thought and practice?
Oh, that’s good. What is gained is partners. What is it gained is allies in this war against the kingdoms of men in this world that are hell bent on crushing the image of God? And I think that’s what we’re experiencing right now with this, in this election cycle. I was watching the news earlier today and they actually showed that interestingly in a very, honestly, a disturbing way that we have lost Black support since 2016. That’s kind of weird, but it’s true. Biden has, has lost not a whole lot, but like five points, but that’s significant.
So, so it looks like there might actually be five points within African Americans that have gone over to Trump or just aren’t going to vote. Right? And then you also have Latino — and Latino vote as well, we’ve lost points, but the place where we gained in major ways is with Biden. Now, I think there’s lots of reasons for that. Part of the, one of the big reasons I know is true is patriarchy, is the fact that both white women and white men are more comfortable with white men leading than white women.
That’s just, that’s reality, but I also, I know what I experienced around the George Floyd death and also the Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper experience in in Central Park. And I did a Facebook Live conversation with my friend Jen Hatmaker about we, we tried to do it like a couple days after, and it didn’t work on IG Live, and so we ended up moving it to Facebook Live. It’s still there if anybody wants to see it. But 100,000, mostly white women watched us have a conversation about white women’s toxic tears in relationship to Amy Cooper that day, on that June 1st and since then nearly a million white women have seen that, that video. That night as they were doing, people were doing interviews all over the country, you know, people going out and protesting and they were seeing all these white women out there, like, what are you guys doing out here? Well, one person literally parroted what I had said on that, on that broadcast, I was like, oh my gosh, people actually went out. Now, I’m not, I don’t, I can’t, I’m not claiming I’m not claiming all the credit, but what I am saying is that that helped. And what we saw one week later, the Biden campaign registered a major bump among white women. I was like, wow, look at that. They are shifting, there is a shift that’s happening. Where was I going at with that? I forget what your question was. Forgive me. It’s late. What were you, what was the question?
No, that’s good. I mean, I, I love, I love this story and I love where you’re going with it. And I, I mean, I, I think what it speaks to for me is your, your capacity to meet audiences where they are, to meet people where they are, right?
Like you are, you are a Black woman, and you speak truth, and you don’t, you’re not apologetic when you speak. I mean, I’ve, I’ve heard you enough to know that. But you’re, you’re still able to connect with people in a way that’s meaningful to them. And the question to me was a lot, a lot of our conversations around anti-racism is about pointing the finger and correcting other people. But what do we gain when we do it for ourselves? What, what, what comes through for us individually?
That was the question. And so that’s the reason I told that story is because the, what we gain is we gain allies. Here’s the thing, y’all. MLK said this very clearly during the Civil Rights Movement. There is literally no scenario that actually leads to peace, our peace that involves violence in this context. It can’t, it cannot lead to our peace. Not without allies. We need allies. Now the Civil War was different. And that I’m not even sure that led to our peace. We had about nine years of peace and then we had pogrom, like then we had Jim Crow, we had 90 years of lynchings and peonage and house bombings and all of what Jim Crow was and is, and then 50 years after that of mass incarceration. We are, we haven’t really reached peace even after the Civil War, but there is absolutely no way. We are outnumbered. We are outnumbered as people of African descent.
And if we think that we’re going to have this people of color army, and we’re all going to be — that’s not true. Among people of color, there are different views of the world. And many, many immigrants that are coming in, that are new immigrants are actually, just like all first, like, or most, but most first-generation immigrants are actually just trying to assimilate. They’re just trying to, they’re just trying to fit in. And usually the idea of a, of assimilation for first-generation immigrants, is that they’re trying to fit in to whiteness, because they think of Americanness as whiteness. So, people of African descent in America who have been here for multiple generations, we can’t necessarily depend on, on the alliance without a conversation of our immigrant brothers and sisters who are coming in in more recent waves.
So there has to be, we have to, we have to work. We have to work to bridge that, to bridge the gap, to bridge the narrative gap, which is what I’ve come to understand it to be. It is a gap in the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves and how we got here. And that gap is what creates the gap in the visions of what we think is necessary moving forward.
If your narrative tells you that we were once a great nation, if your narrative tells you we were free, we built this country with our own bootstraps and nobody ever gave us anything, and oh, and by the way, that’s slavery thing that wasn’t, we didn’t last that long and it wasn’t that bad, and we were good to our slaves. We gave them homes. We gave them shoes — which is all a lie actually. But see, like, if that’s the narrative you were taught and this is the narrative that is in history books throughout the South, if there’s any narrative at all. That’s what it is. And that they were, they, you were encroached upon by the North. If that’s your narrative, then of course you would be fighting and you would be, of course you would have a vision of America becoming great again, meaning becoming white again, because you’ve been told a false narrative.
So, our work is to bridge that narrative gap. Is to just stand in that gap and to call forth that inside that, that soul, that spirit force inside of every human being that actually does want peace and actually knows that something is not right with their narrative, especially nowadays, and to speak truth and to let it be, if they’re ready for it, they’ll receive it. If they’re not ready for it, it’ll fall. And maybe they’ll be able to pick it up later when they’re ready. But the call, the call is to bridge that gap.
Hmm. Tell us, tell us a little bit about what that looked like for you as a, as a process. You’ve mentioned that a few times, and I don’t want to lose that thread. Tell us a little bit about, you know, your, your formation as, as a young person where you grew up, what that was like as, as a Black girl, as a Black woman, and then also what that process looked like to bring you to where you are today.
Okay, so well, so I can never really talk about who I am without also talking about who my ancestors were, because I absolutely understand and truly believe in, I’ve come to understand they are not only, not only did they pave the road for me, they are me. Like, literally my DNA is their DNA. Absolutely. Like they are literally in me. That freaks me out when I think about that, but it’s true. I am an ancestry.com fiend and that’s part of the reason why I’m writing this next book. Right? So, when I, when I think about who I am, I think back to, I think back to Fortune McGee, I think back to 1686, 1682, when, when my first ancestors came here.
And one was from, from actually originally from Scotland, but from Ireland, they came here and then Sambo Game was from Senegal, probably the, the Eastern edge of Senegal where his name actually meant second son. And he was put on a slave ship in 1686 and he got to Maryland and he, he fell in love with, and had a child with, Moblin McGee from Ireland. And it was their child Fortune that was in the middle of, born in 18, sorry, 1687, in the middle of the creation of the first race laws, probably the second iteration of the race laws in Maryland. And as a result, her whole life and all of her descendants were shaped by those laws and she fought and I haven’t like it was, like my nine times great aunt, there’s a tax document about how she owned land in 1756 and the tax document documents, the fact that she chased the tax collector off her land, because he was coming to get the extra actual Black tax. They actually had an actual Black tax that was put on the heads of Black women who were free. If you were a Black woman was free, you had to pay extra. And they, that too, it was, it was my great aunt and also my great, great, like eight times great-grandmother, they chased the tax collector off the land saying, we will not pay your tax. I say, that is in me. That is who I am. That’s who I am. That’s in me.
My mom was in SNCC. Jumping way forward. Right. But she was in SNCC, she’s at 17, I think, or 18, she joined, no, 17, she joined SNCC. She was, she worked in the Philadelphia office with, with the only Northern office that was opened. And it’s like, Philadelphia is right on the border between the North and the South, and Rizzo. She was there when Rizzo did all the controversy that brought down SNCC in Philadelphia. And you know, my dad was a photographer in the Black theater movement. And so, this is who I am. It’s all who I am.
Now, my own development, I mean, I think my political development, it stretches back to, I think my first inkling that politics was a thing, was canvassing my neighborhood when I was seven years old with my mom. She was knocking on doors and asking, are you going to vote? Are you going to vote? Literally they went door to door to door on our block and, and I was into my little seven-year-old self. And, and I remember asking my mom, why are we Democrats? And she said to me, we’re Democrats, because she knew my favorite book was Robin Hood, she said, well, the Republicans are, the Republicans steal from the poor and give to the rich and the Democrats steal from the rich and give to the poor. So, we’re Democrats, we’re like Robin Hood. And I was like, well, yeah, it makes sense to me, I’m a Democrat, right? At seven years old.
And so, you know, but then I became, I became an evangelical Christian. I, I, down Jesus. I walked down the aisle in 1983. Happened to be also the same year that Bob Jones University lost its fight to maintain its tax-exempt status for maintaining white space, segregated space. And they lost it because they were trying to maintain it, maintain segregation. And that exact same year is when the religious right was born. The Moral Majority was established and the Supreme Court strategy, flipping a three… Supreme Court was named as the prime strategy for, for taking back the House and winning against Roe V. Wade, which had never been an objective of the religious right up to that year. So that was the context within which my own faith was born.
And it was in that context, having had my parents, my, my heritage, I was completely drawn in, you know, I was in an all-white area at this point, Cape May, New Jersey. I went through Cape May, New Jersey. Through all my teens, my junior, junior high and high school years, I cut bangs. You know, they stuck out like this, cause they’re not meant to be, I didn’t know what bangs were in Philadelphia. Nobody had bangs in my Black neighborhood.
And yet I tried to assimilate, and I couldn’t. I auditioned for the Wiz first time I ever auditioned for anything, I was like trying to try out for Dorothy, Dorothy ends up being a redhead. Right? So, in the Wiz, right, I was the only Black person in the cast, and they cast me as the Wicked Witch of the West, hello, Evaline in the Wiz. So right, this has been, this is my context, right? And so, and it’s in that context and I’m also in youth group and my youth group is all white and Jesse Jackson is running for president and I’m all for it. I mean, my mom made me watch him every single time he was like, watched Roots every single time it was on TV.
So, I knew who I was, and I was, I was my little black self in that youth group. And I said to my, my youth group leader, my white, just wonderful, wonderful youth group leader, who was also a white supremacist. A latent white supremacist didn’t even know it herself. But I said to her, Jesse Jackson is going to win. He’s so good. Cause I just heard his, keep hope alive speech. Right? Or you ask somebody — one of those too. And she said, our country is not ready for a Black president. And I said, what, what? That for me was discombobulating. And how could this woman who I knew and loved and trusted, how could she just wave him off like that?
So, I think that my, my development was in that mix, I just had all kinds of questions. And now I was immersed in a white, a white community, and then I went to college and I immersed myself again in an all-white community because that’s now what I knew, mostly. And, and Campus Crusade for Christ, very, very conservative and not only racist or white supremacist, but also, patriarchy. So, you really had white, hard white patriarchy at work in that organization. So, then I internalized that. My mom was a feminist and I mean, feminist because she grew up before the whole womanist, womanist movement. But you know, but she, I think now she would categorize yourself as a womanist, but she was, she was, you know, I am woman hear me roar. We’re fighting for the ERA.
But here I get into, into Campus Crusade and I’m told I can’t, I can’t lead worship because I’m a woman and there’s a man present. And because there’s a man present, I have to step back. So, I internalize that. So honestly, I think my whole twenties, like my twenties, and my thirties were a time to work out the internalized white supremacy that I took into myself by being in that, in that white evangelical space and to work out the white patriarchy that I had internalized.
And it was in the context of that space that I first met my first Democrat. Hello! It was in the context of white evangelicalism that I first met my first woman who preached her head off. And it was the first sermon that I loved; I loved the most. It was in that context that I went on my first urban project and met people again, who had my family background, who were Black. And I began to see them in the way that God sees them. And by extension began to see myself the way that God sees me.
So that’s, those are kind of the foundations. And then from there, the 1990s happened and by then I was, I was in a master’s program in Human, and I actually did my Human Rights program at Columbia, but I did, my first master’s was in playwriting at USC. And it was in that context, I mean, I just loved that program, and, but that’s where I got at during that time go, just fell in love with Jesus all over again, by studying in the scriptures, through InterVarsity Christian fellowship, which was slightly more progressive than Cru, but not where I am today.
Right? So, but, but they actually helped me to get there because they really would deep on racial reconciliation, is what they call it. Right? So again, I’m to, what I’m really sharing with you is my process. We all have the paradigm shifts. We have a process. This is mine. And it was in the context I’ll, I’ll finish here. It was in the context of InterVarsity that I went on that pilgrimage that I talk about in the first chapter of my book. That were, they were asking, what does the gospel have to do with race? And we went on a pilgrimage through two major stories in American history, the story of the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the story of African experience in America from slavery to civil rights.
And it was there that I began to understand that systems matter, that policy matters and that if my understanding of the good news of Jesus could not be received as good news by my third great grandmother who was enslaved, Leah Ballard, then it’s not good enough.
Yeah, I think it was in one of those moments, it was in one of those moments in your book where you, you sort of experienced this and you’re looking around and you’re like, wait, how can this be? How can this be Christianity? This isn’t, this isn’t the gospel. Right? And that’s where you sort of launch into some of your under, I mean, it’s, it’s really powerful. Thank you for sharing that with us. I think.
I know it was a lot, so, sorry.
No, it was a broad question. I asked you to synthesize your life into a few minutes, but it’s so helpful. I think for a lot of us who are going through the process ourselves, and we’re always going through a process, but, but sometimes it’s easy to look around and feel like everybody’s got it figured out, and has always had it figured out and that’s, and that’s not life. And so, it’s, it’s really helpful to have someone like you and with, with all of your experience and wisdom help coach us through it. And, and even just to recognize that it’s, that it’s possible to get there. I think otherwise it seems really daunting.