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As we close out the 2020 election, the As The South Votes team reflects on their own political journeys—as journalists, and as active agents of change in democracy.
My whole life, I was the perfect example of your stereotypical conservative Evangelical millennial. I dreamt of becoming a worship leader like the ones I watched in admiration as a child—singing songs that inspired people to believe in something more than what they could see while I bunny-hopped across a stage cloaked in fog with an acoustic guitar slung over my shoulder.
In 2008, I attended a Bible college at a megachurch in Virginia Beach to work toward that dream. That's where, predictably, my spouse and I first met. Shortly after graduation, in 2011 we got married and relocated to my hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, where we happily settled into the church my family had attended for several years.
Dave and I became the music ministers at the satellite location of the church, and we truly loved it. He was the funkiest white drummer anyone had ever met, while me, my acoustic guitar, and my two-strand twist out led the band. We became very close with our bandmates. Like most Southern churchgoers, our happiest moments were made around food, and our summer evening trips to the Goodberry's Frozen Custard stand after worship team practice.
On March 5, 2012, everything changed. It started just like any other day when I tuned into the Tom Joyner Morning Show during my long commute to work as an administrative assistant for a Josten's salesman. I heard Cybil Wilkes reporting about a shooting in Florida. A Black child had been killed by a man—George Zimmerman—who was following him that night under the suspicion that he didn't belong in the neighborhood. Trayvon Martin was in fact shot and killed over a week earlier on February 26, but the police had yet to arrest his murderer.
Horror filled my heart as I arrived at my office.
Driving to and from work in the days, weeks, and months to come, I listened every day to the developments of Martin's story and State Attorney Angela Corey's refusal to arrest his killer. As more details came out, all I could think of was my own upbringing.
I grew up in a conservative Black family in the City of Oaks. We often lived in white suburban neighborhoods. My younger brothers often found themselves in communities like the one Martin's father lived, where he was stalked by Zimmermann. We were keenly aware of the feeling of being the only Black person in the room, but we never imagined we could be killed for it.
The more attention the case drew in the mainstream news, the more people I knew on social media began to express their opinions on it with the reckless abandon that only comes through a computer screen. A close friend I had gone to church with since I was a teenager (who also happened to be white, like most of my friends at the time) shared an intensely racist post about Martin on his Facebook page, explicitly saying that the child deserved to be shot to death by the grown man who chased him down in his own neighborhood.
I was repulsed, and when I arrived at church the next day it felt like someone had turned on the lights in a room I walked through happy and blind my entire life. The worst part was that those racist remarks were the only thing anyone at my church said about the case. The typical response was nothing at all.
Their silence, in contrast to the horrifying news reports I heard each day driving to work, was deafening. My community's lack of action, rage, or emotion revealed the silent racism, homophobia, and misogyny that had been bubbling under the surface for the first time.
I kept going to church, but the sermons stopped inspiring me as they did before, and the music no longer moved me. I knew I loved God, but I could no longer trust the white faces of those who claimed to be my spiritual parents and siblings.
A year later, my husband and I would leave that church, and the city of Raleigh. We couldn't afford the internet or cable, so I took the opportunity to rekindle my love for literature. I read a book that put language to the anger and hurt I was feeling. In Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, he eviscerates the faith of the Christians who enslaved and tortured their fellow human beings. Contextualizing his disdain for his peers, he penned an essay that is included in the appendix that explains what he saw as a religious crisis:
What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. (p. 117)
In the three years that followed, I went through what I now understand to be a religious "deconstruction" as I unpacked what these new realizations meant for my own faith. But, like many Black Americans raised in the Evangelical church, I found that I was also deconstructing my racial identity. After Douglass, I read Dr. Joy deGruy, Michelle Alexander, James Baldwin, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis, and more, devouring them one by one. Throughout my years in Winston-Salem, often cloistered in our quirky 1924 craftsmen rental house, with little money and even less contact with my family and friends in Raleigh, I realized that my struggles with my identity as a Black woman were evidence of my lack of exposure to narratives outside of those shaped by white teachers, pastors, and TV personalities.
This shaped my politics, along with my faith. The only president I had ever canvassed for was George Bush in 2004. I never voted for Obama, and almost certainly parroted the racist conspiracies about his faith and his birth country. The only fight I had ever been in outside of a sibling skirmish was when a Liberal white classmate called me a disgrace to my race in geometry class.
But, at 27 years old, I was being exposed to phrases like "mass incarceration" and "racial wealth gap" and "redlining" for the very first time. I remember the enraged conversations I'd have with my husband. His blue eyes stared from his white face into mine as I sobbed, realizing for the first time the grotesque and present impact of systemic, anti-Black racism on everyone I loved. And what hurt the most is how my ignorance had not made me an innocent bystander, but an agent of white supremacy in my own community.
The interactions that my husband and I had with our friends and family began to change as we changed. Pleasantries began to slip, but something much more meaningful took their place: honesty. Sharing my journey of deconstruction and self-realization with my parents opened them up to share stories I had never heard before. The love we have for each other was tested, and thankfully proved itself based on something more substantial than agreement and compliance.
My siblings shared the racism they experienced in school, or the homophobia they experienced at church. We stopped pretending everything was fine, and it was my first taste of Black liberation—sitting and crying with them on the floor of my parent's home.
Those conversations slowly turned into public action. After my daughter was born in 2014, my doula introduced me to a group of her clients—also poor and mostly women of color—and we formed a perinatal task force for the Triad area. We wanted to create a safe space for mothers to gain knowledge and empowerment regarding their pregnancy, something none of us felt we received from the hospitals where we gave birth.
After the back-to-back murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in 2016, my family participated in our first Black Lives Matter protest in Downtown Winston-Salem. In the rally ahead of the march, we gathered in Corpening Plaza. The organizers' speeches reminded me of sermons that stirred my heart and caused tears to hang in my eyes. We sang and prayed, and it felt like church. It was the feeling I had been looking for since I left the Evangelical community behind in Raleigh two years earlier. I felt intact, awake, and standing in the light of truth.
Since that summer day marching in Winston-Salem, I have continued reading, learning, and speaking up about the injustices that Black people experience in America, especially in my home state of North Carolina. My own journey allowed me to have empathy for those who are ignorant of how racism manifests in themselves and their community, and led me to understand that anyone—regardless of their race—has within them the capacity to be either an oppressor or an agent of liberation.
See also: The Last, the Least, and the Lost
I've learned that although people can use their faith in God to defend terrorism and exploitation, that doesn't have to determine the kind of Christian I am. Above all, I have learned that my stories–and our stories—matter. To share them is one of the most potent tools for dismantling the ignorance and segregating individualism that are the support beams of anti-Black racism.
Frederick Douglass concludes his story with hope:
"Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds — faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts — and solemnly pledging my self [sic] anew to the sacred cause, — I subscribe myself, Frederick Douglass" (p. 124)
Douglass' bravery and brutal honesty did accomplish the freedom from the chains of slavery for many Black people. But if he were alive today, I think he would conclude that we still have much more work to do to accomplish true liberation. Sharing our stories—on the page, in a rallying speech, or from a pulpit—is what keeps us along that path.