On Ferguson and an Unparalleled Hug

When I was in sixth grade, I met a woman who would change my life. She was powerful. Her words and actions were weighty and significant. I did not hesitate to both cower in awe of her and to throw myself into her magnificent, unparalleled hugs.

It was not only that she was large and soft, or that she would sing while she hugged me, her voice resonating in her chest, reverberating off of mine. Her hugs had been carefully crafted through suffering and sorrow turned to joy. She carried heaven in her embrace. It did not take long before I would miss her hugs. The longer it had been since I had last seen her, the more I looked forward to the next one. It was hug therapy.

There were a lot of things I didn’t know when I knew Mae. I didn’t know stereotypes about angry black women or large black women. I didn’t know that food could be racist. I didn’t know that the black body that I sought out for comfort and healing lived a life of problematization. I didn’t know that the reason she could sing the way she did—from a place deeper than lungs—or hug with arms more than matter was because both had been tempered by a world bent on making her less human.

Still, she had infectious laughter. Still, she indiscriminately became a mother to anyone who needed one. Still, she danced. Still, she sang.

She transcended.

Perhaps, I have painted her as too much of a myth. It is possible that time and distance have caricatured her in my memory. I did dream once that I was jumping on a trampoline with her and Abraham Lincoln.

Mae is not and never has been perfect (she has her own story to tell), but I am wholly convinced that on more than one occasion, she has embodied love. It is for this reason, as a recipient and witness of Mae’s unbounded ability to love and give, that I consider the events of Ferguson, Missouri (and other similar events) the way I do. The media provides no shortage of images of thugs and potential criminals. But I think of Mae. I imagine if Michael Brown’s mother were Mae, someone I know and love and trust. Then I know that indictment or no indictment, hearings at the UN, audiences with the president, and press conferences are insignificant next her loss, next to what has torn inside her.

I am grieving that justice for Michael Brown is only a hashtag, not something being acted out by the justice system.

I wish that mine could be the arms that hold the grief and fear and rage, encircling them in love and hope.

I wish that hugs could undo the damage that bullets and pepper spray and tear gas do.

I wish that I were not sitting safely behind a computer screen, but standing face to face with you. I’d look you in the eyes and echo the president’s words last night: your experiences are real, and your emotions are valid. You are not making this up.

I am indebted to Mae. She saw my pale skin, and she didn’t pretend I wasn’t white. Instead, she wrapped my white body in her black arms and held me. No amount of fear mongering can change that.

National Moment of Silence

On Thursday, after work, I attended a National Moment of Silence for a young man named Michael Brown who was shot and killed by a police officer.

As far as we know, Michael committed no crime and was unarmed. As far as we know, Michael was killed because he was black.

I live in Seattle. Michael lived in Ferguson, Missouri.

I missed the vigil, which started at four while I was still at work. There were used candles in a box at the entryway to Queen Anne Baptist Church. Inside, people were sitting in groups around tables talking. I didn’t know anyone there. Just the same I searched the space for a face I might recognize. No one. I just stood there for awhile, unsure what to do. Should I tell someone that I’m here because I can’t take this anymore, and I don’t know how to help, but I thought I’d start with just being here? I noticed someone talking animatedly. I pulled up a chair, sat down, and leaned in.

She was talking about fear. I recognized the tone in her voice. She was talking about keeping something pointy in her hand when she walked alone at night in case she ran into trouble, but always being ready to drop it at a moment’s notice, in case she came across a police officer. I carry pepper spray with me. It has never once occurred to me that this would be problematic if I should come across law enforcement. But in Seattle, in this country, it is a problem if you’re black.

Someone else mentioned how little black boys they knew were being taught to hide from the police, were never allowed to play with water guns or dart guns outside of their house or fenced in area, just in case.

Someone else called out white celebrities who often appropriated black culture but have been silent on this issue. She also said the same of companies who market their product to black people. “We know who not to give our money to, now,” she said. I found myself nodding in agreement to the things people were saying.

As I listened, I found myself feeling this question weigh heavier and heavier on me, What can I do to help? I have been asking myself that question for months now. The longer I live in Seattle, the more dissatisfied I become. This isn’t ok, but I have found myself at a complete loss for knowing how to act. I know I have the option not to engage, but I also know that ignoring it because I can is wrong.

A young man named Jay added, “If you write, if you blog, if you are an artist, talk about this, share this. Include us in your stories, in your art. We need more representation.”

I talked to Jay after the group at the table disbanded. He had been vocal in the discussion, passionate and compassionate. I told myself not to talk when I had come in. I knew I needed to just listen. I knew that I didn’t know what to say or do, so I needed to listen. Something Jay said though, had so much feeling, so much grit, a stream of words came pouring out me.

“I just can’t live this way anymore. I can’t let myself ignore it. I can’t call myself a feminist and ignore this. I have too often been told that my narrative is invalid, that my experiences are false just because I’m a woman, and I can’t perpetuate that behavior toward others. If we ignore each other’s suffering, we’re failing at being human.” I looked Jay in the eyes, “Your experiences are real. They are valid. Your stories are true.” Our eyes were glassy. He didn’t scoff at me (I guess I’d been afraid he would); he nodded and continued to talk about how important it was to stick together at every level, to find camaraderie in our experiences, not to leave anyone behind.

I’m still not sure what to do. I want to buy a plane ticket. I want to scream and yell and cry and beat the ground. I want to hug people and tell them they are immeasurably loved, and we can face this mess together. I want to know why in my Sunday liturgy, there isn’t a litany for the racial struggles this country continues to face and fail at.

In the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit, Father bless
For those living in fear in this country that claims to be free
Lord have mercy
For the oppressed racial and ethnic minorities here and everywhere
Lord have mercy
For the establishment of a society where all are created equal and thereby treated with equity
Lord have mercy
For those who experience violence, hatred, and discrimination based on the color of their skin
Lord have mercy
And especially our all-holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, with all he Saints, let us commend ourselves, each other, and all our lives unto Christ our God
Amen

I know that those in power have a tendency to do whatever they can to stay in power. Maybe they think they are helping people. Maybe, like so many of us, like me, they just want to be comfortable. But a government that ignores the grievances committed against its people, that uses fear and force to control people is not long for this world.

So, Jay this is for you. I hope it helps. I hope there will be a growing number of people willing to cry with you, walk with you, stand with you. I hope that at the end of the day, we can build something together, not separate but equal, together. As evidenced in this tragedy we don’t all look alike on the outside, but when our hearts stop beating we die. If our proverbial hearts won’t be touched by this, moved to some kind of action, then our government may continue to march forward, but our spirit will have died.