Saturday, August 25, 2007

Blessing and Cursing

Ever since childhood I’ve hated it: those impromptu African-American or Jamaican get-togethers on someone’s porch or living room. I hated them because although everything would be fine and dandy at first, sooner or later --suddenly-- someone would say some fatalistic despairing comment which everyone else would agree with and bingo! I was surrounded by folks talking about the horrible lot of black folks. I’d be suddenly overwhelmed by a tangible despair. So much so, there were times I simply could not breathe.

Now, maybe this was only my problem. Maybe there’s some chemical missing in my brain that makes it hard for me to be hopeful. Maybe I’m a writer and I think too much. But I cannot adequately describe the sense of hopelessness and doom that would come upon me as a child whenever I heard the adults around me speaking like this.

However, when I was a teaching assistant in the high school I began to realize that I was perhaps not the only one to be so affected. Many of the kids I taught had an existentialist despair and a fear that could only have come from listening to this kind of fatalistic trash talk. I honestly believe it’s a kind of cultural abuse unique to black folks --something akin to the Native American notion of cultural trauma but worse because we as a people are perpetuating the victimization of our children.

Over the years I’ve become an escape artist. I have learned to simply make a quick sudden exit whenever some person beside me starts going on about some possibly-racist goings on. I’ve even been known to rise before dinner was served and say, “Oh my gosh! I have to go. I forgot to do something.” Or – if I simply cannot get away– I get up and sit by myself at another part of the house and remind myself of hopeful Bible verses.

I remember certain talk that spewed out of my unthinking friend’s mouth when my mother was dying. Stuff like: “Well, you can’t really trust them to do their best for your mother. After all, she’s only a black woman.” Stuff like, “Your mother’s landlord is racist. He only wants white tenants and he’ll give you a hard time about getting back her security.” That’s the stuff I had to deal with. The same thing I had to endure when I was a child. It never seems to dawn on these unthinking despairing talkers that they are oppressing someone’s heart with hopelessness and fear. When I think of all the black kids who had to deal with such fear and hopelessness from the day of their birth, I want to cry.

As I see it, we Black folks can be a very negative lot and we generally don’t take care to prevent young kids from hearing our racial despair. Quite the contrary, sometimes we think it is our duty to tell black kids how bad life will probably be for them. We think we are doing them a favor by telling them that the reason they didn’t get the job is because the evil “white man” is all-powerful and simply is not going to give a black kid a chance.

In a recent conversation with The Black Thought Group, a group made up of mostly writers, mostly Christians, the moderator/chairman posed this particular question:

“We've been taught----or should I say, I have heard and read a lot of people teaching Proverbs 26:2, (NIV)

2 As the bird by wandering, as the swallow by flying, so the curse causeless shall not come.

They say it is our own actions that bring about a curse or a bad situation in our lives. Some teachers and preachers also imply that by our thoughts/speech/actions we invite Satan into our lives. BUT----could it be that the curse that is afflicting black people in our nation and on our planet is not just our fault. Could the cause of that curse be racism? Does this also mean that sometimes, even though we are doing our best to be righteous, we are still going to
have racists and other evil people trying to curse us? What I'm saying is this: does the cause of the curse HAVE to be us?”

I answered: Honestly? Spiritual cause and effect and Biblical interpretations aside, I think we black folks use our mouths all the time to curse ourselves, our lives, and our children. I know the Bible tells us that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” I know the Bible tells us that we must be careful what we say because “we will have what we say.” But speaking on a totally materialistic level without considering spiritual laws and spiritual cause and effects, as a culture we like pontificating about the world and talking doom. We talk doom a whole lot. We are a very negative people and we talk despair and fatalism too damn much.”

A few examples:

The black father sitting on his porch with beer in his hand telling his drinking buddy that "the world is out to get the black man and the black man has no chance" -- WHILE HIS CHILD IS SITTING NEARBY.

My neighbor who keeps praying for her son in one breath (blessing him) and at the same time in effect cursing the kid by saying, "If it weren't for bad luck, he'd have no luck at all." (Of course, the guy’s bad luck is the worse I have ever seen. Things happen to this guy that simply seem choreographed by evil.)

The self-pitying woman friend who keeps saying stuff like: Cancer runs in my family. I'm gonna get it. Ain’t nothing I can do about it.”

My son’s annoying teenage friend who says things like: "I just know I won't get this job. They don’t like giving black people jobs." This is obviously a kid who has listened way too much to his pontificating negative knows-how-society-works dad.

Now I’m not guiltless in this either. I’ve gone into Prophetic Mom mode.
“Don’t wear dirty underwear; what if you end up in a hospital?”
“Don’t make faces like that; your face will be frozen like that?”
As a Jamaican mother who was a child of a Jamaican mother and raised in the United States, I tended to take my little prophetic mom mode to a higher – or perhaps lower– level. Like many other minority mothers, I added racial, governmental, and social consequences. This was no mere case of wearing dirty underwear. This was a black child wearing dirty underwear whose future – and mine– in the white man’s America would be greatly affected by those messy boxers.
“Keep behaving like that,” I said to my son, “and keep hanging out with those no-good friends of yours and you’re going to end up in jail.”
“You’re going to kill me with this selfishness of yours. Then when I’m dead you’ll see how right I was. But then it’ll be too late.”
“I hope I don’t have to trust you to take care of me in my old age. I’ll be in so much trouble if I have to depend on you.”
“Son, it’s tough for black people out there. You have to work twice as hard as white people to succeed. If you don’t study, you’ll end up with some low-level job for the rest of your life.”
“Son, please don’t date a white girl. If you go to some racist part of this country, they’ll kill you.”
“Daughter, please don’t go out and get pregnant. If you do, you’ll be making life very hard for yourself. You won’t rise above the job of being some mere secretary.”
It is understandable that during stressing arguments, we black mothers want our children to learn the economic, racial, and social facts about life. But black folks simply go too far sometimes. And honestly – admit it– is there anything that is accomplished by any of these negative prophecies? Can’t we just give an order without adding a negative prophesy tag to it?

Yes, RACISM is powerful and affects us. But we as a people have protected ourselves from racism by adding negative self-fulfilling prophecies to our normal conversation. Indeed, negative mindset has become such a part of our lives that many people expect a good joke to have a great deal of self-loathing and negativity to it. I understand that we must address the racism in society, that we must teach children that choices they make have consequences. I understand that we have had experiences with racism and other troublesome factors. We have a dirty pool of harsh memories from which we can continually scoop life lessons. But can we not learn to simply keep our mouths shut? Yes, I know. We are a people who like to talk and we are a philosophical people...but as a noble and spiritual people, can we perhaps learn to keep our mouths shut?

The Bible tells us that no one can tame the tongue. Many people may not believe what the Bible says about the power of the tongue – like a rudder– to steer the course of our lives. I believe it, but not every Christian believes everything the Bible says. So I won’t speak about spiritual things. I’ll only talk about matters on a materialistic non-spiritual level: My people, my people, the tongue has a power to destroy us psychologically. Can you not see that?

We must also learn to speak more hopefully as a culture. We must tell our kids that if the worst happens and they do end up in an accident in dirty underwear – that God is able to help them and that they have resources within them to bring about restoration, that if they wear dirty underwear and not end up in an accident while wearing said dirty underwear, that the worst case scenario probably will not happen, that they might meet a nice white person who actually likes them and will mentor and help them.

In the Bible, James wrote in his general letter, “how can we bless and curse with the same mouth?” In short, how can we say we trust God in one breath and yet two seconds later talk about how hopeless it all is for black folks. We are very undisciplined with our mouths. Whatever comes to our mind, trips over our lips.

Why do we sing and dance in church about faith yet on our doorsteps talk fatalistically? Why do we fill our kids’ brains with fear about their futures and make them feel they are inevitably doomed?

I used to hang out with writing groups where all the people talked about was how hard it was to be published. They kept saying the evil white publishing world just didn’t see how great they are. I kept telling them to stop speaking such negative self-fulfilling prophecies over their lives. But they couldn’t stop. Many people think they’re being realistic when they despair, and they believe they are being ignorant and childish when they hope. As far as I was concerned, if a story of mine wasn’t published it was simply because my story wasn’t good enough or I had chosen the wrong publisher. But these guys were always seeing conspiracies and hopelessness. After a while I HAD to leave that group. As yes, I’m the only one from that group who has had my book published.

As a culture, we black folks aim to be righteous. We are a very, very decent people. We bring food to our poor neighbors, we visit the sick, we clean the houses of old folks and we have prayer services for people in distress. Yes, we do righteous stuff. But righteousness has to do with not only right behavior but with right words. And as a culture our mouths are full of negatives and we have to set a watch before our lips, as the Bible says. And we must “be careful how we hear.” (Luke 8:18)
I challenge you – as I challenge myself. The next time you’re at a barbeque or in a cultural group and someone brings up the old refrain of how bad it is for the black man and starts running his mouth with negative prophecies –especially in front of kids– tell him to be quiet. Or get up and leave.
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