#MillenialWomanism: Excerpt of a Collaboration of Thinking Women of Faith, Healing, & Activism

An excerpt from the #MillenialWomanism forum, curated by Liz Alexander & Melanie Jones

“The current iteration of my work as a “millennial womanist” started as an approximately six person online book club, a website domain name purchase, and a post about “inheriting mysticism from my Christian other-mothers”. Up until that point, my M. Ed journey in Higher Education / Student and subsequent years spent working in university contexts had me informally considering the many ways in which students of color learn and / or unlearn toxic theological lenses that might impede upon their identity development. Additionally, my own “biomythography” [i] writing allowed me some space to unpack how I was unlearning toxic theological lenses. I didn’t go into any of this work considering that I would be contributing to the emerging millennial womanist framework and I didn’t understand how quickly the work would expand. However, I realized that if I needed more formal space to question how the Christian faith intersected with the lived experiences of Black women, queer people of color, persons with chronic illnesses & disabilities, etc., others might need it too.

Thus, the online book club grew to a closed group platform whose formal outcome is to support “those who are seeking solidarity, community, and intersectionality as they navigate feelings, experiences, and questions that come with theological shifts”. It is a fully affirming, recommendation only space, with a community library, and dialogue series on a range of topics. The domain name purchase, jadetperry.com, became a way for me to do autoethnography work around matters of inherited spirituality, womanism, and more. Perhaps most surprisingly, the post on inheriting mysticism from Christian other-mothers grew into co-founding a non-profit called Mystic Soul, which seeks to center the voices and indigenous spiritual practices of people of color “from the Christian tradition and beyond”.

Currently, I am working with other millennial womanist scholars to consider theory on sexuality for Black churched women, curating a specialized list of resources for holistic wellness, and more informally, supporting the spiritual processes of faith & community leaders by offering intuitive tarot readings & pursuing reiki certification. The “sacred platforms” on which I stand most often often bring me into “hybrid” (interspiritual & interdisciplinary) spaces to work with visual artists, storytellers, scholars, preachers & ministers, reiki healers and acupuncturists – all working towards the collective healing & wellness of Black women. It has been a work of healing justice and decolonizing spiritual practices. It remains difficult to find a singular definition for this type of work, because it is continuously revealing itself…”

“So, I approached my spiritual activism work with an ethos similar to that of interdisciplinary millennial womanist & popular R&B singer, Solange Knowles: “We aren’t thanking anyone for ‘allowing us’ into these spaces… until we are truly given the access to tear the got damn walls down” [ii]. I don’t believe that the assertion here is that gratitude is inappropriate or that access to additional opportunities are unnecessary. I believe it channels an ethos connected to the millennial womanist framework of “moving beyond respectability politics with an intentional call for recognition and reciprocity”. Moreover, I believe millennial womanism envisions our work by moving through walls, when necessary, and at times, disregards the niceties that keep walls intact…”

For the FULL piece, click here!

To Write About the Living: Excerpts from “Mothering”

This piece was offered as a reading / storytelling piece for Mothering, “a program of performances queering the construction of mothering as an action rather than an assigned and gendered role”, organized by artist Amina Ross, hosted by Compound Yellow.  

It is hard to write about the dead. And it is hard to write about the living. To offer a rendering of them that is not solely romanticized, not solely demonized. To tell you that, like everyone else, they were-are complex. To express how the complexity showed up in them… “as told by” me.

My biological mother is alive and has recently discovered emojis.

My “other-mothers” – women who took me to school and picked me up when my mother worked early morning to late in the evening, women who enabled my sweet tooth by teaching me to make strawberry icebox pie & buying cream puffs each Thursday for an after-dinner treat – both dead. Cancer, both times.

For a long time, I have been pondering how to share “mother” with the world, hoping that by providing some kind of access, the world might better understand me. Hoping that I might better understand myself. What you are about to hear are some snippets of things I have written throughout the years and in recent months – perhaps we can connect these pieces, together…

*Names have been changed & in some instances, facts include fiction to protect those living who deserve this protection

I was 13 when I found out that my Mother hates Mother’s’ Day.
“Because who can REALLY say who the day is for, who is a mother & who is not, who qualifies to get a card & who does not? And why should I be asked to choose whom to celebrate: my mother or my mother in law – spending the day with one OR the other? And if I’m spending the day with them, then how shall my children celebrate me?!”


Those who do not know my mother might think this is about the logistics of a holiday. But I know better. There was a critique in the tone of conversation – just missing the words that I use in written posts & during brunch with my friends:
“on capitalism and adding profit to reproductive capability, on policing modes of mothering & leaving out or being forced to choose among with Patricia Hill Collins calls ‘other-mothers’, on the patriarchy my father had internalized – asking her to relinquish her time with her mother (a biological mother of one) so that she could be more present to the celebrations with his mother (a biological mother of 8)”

Years later, when I’d come home from grad school, I would try such words out on my mother and she’d listen if it caught her interest. I would try them with my Grandmother and she’d up from her coffee, slowly, saying, “Jadey Mae, you’re talking so good but I don’t know what you’re talking about”. Needless to say, this changed my public, externally-facing writing style.

At 13, I learned that after presenting Mom with her card, I could go over my friend’s house and eat the slightly under-seasoned food that their barely teen aged children prepared for them. I would place my napkin neatly in my lap and say, “Happy Mothers Day, Mrs. Stevens”, as she opened up the gifts that her children bought her. She opened them slowly, animated, delighted, and tickled to find whatever was resting in the bottom of the bag.

Age 9 – Philadelphia, PA – Sunday Morning – Church Name: Redacted.
As we walked in, the ushers held out one box of white roses and one box of red roses. “If your mother has passed, please take a white rose. If your mother is alive, please take a red rose.” I asked, “Which mother?” They looked at me as if it wasn’t a shared cultural practice to be raised by multiple women, femmes, femme-identified persons, non binary persons…

And how could I take that red rose when my friend Valerie, also 9 years old, was left with the option of the white rose, pinned to her chest – a reminder. I decided that if I ever had a church, a church of misfit mystics looking for the Divine, there would be no red or white rose choices. Take a flower, if you’d like. Leave a flower, if you’d like.

I was still regularly going to church when I was 19. I was trying to find a theology that fit this spiritual eclecticism that I was quickly encountering inside of myself. “On this Sunday, we want to acknowledge all of the mothers.” Let us say that by 19, I’d inherited the side eye of my mother.

The pastor said, “If you are a mother, would you please stand to be acknowledged.”

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck…” I whispered this under my breath… briefly considering whether I should begin speaking in tongues lest Mother Gail hear me cussin’ in the sanctuary. (I didn’t. Some things you just don’t play with).

As much as I tried to block out the voice of my mother in my head, she was there just the same: “Because who can REALLY say who the day is for, who is a mother & who is not, who qualifies to get a card & who does not?”

What about my friend Alicia? She had a baby that year but they shamed her during the pregnancy because she was unmarried. Should she now stand to be acknowledged by the same people? What about Mrs. Dempsey? She asked us to pray that she and her husband conceive this year but if she didn’t stand this year then…

…And my godmother, who didn’t want to be partnered. She called my mother every day with updates on how the adoption process was going. It seemed like all things were moving ahead, but her son just wasn’t here yet. The women who were biological mothers and did not want to be. The persons who mothered past time, space, and even biology.

“WHO APPROVED THIS?”

I thought I said it in my mind but then I heard my friend lean over and say, “Chiiiiiile…”

Now, I am closer to 30 than I am to 19 and it has crystallized in some ways for me, as it did for my mother. Mothering is complex and contextual. There are nuances upon nuances, and nuances beneath those. There are those of us who have had to learn, as Audre Lorde said, “to mother ourselves” (1) – maybe at certain points in our lives and maybe our entire lives (2).

I’ve decided to contact my mother after the dust has settled from reading this piece. Currently, we are struggling to decide who gets to mother me. For there are some moments where I really need her to mother me. And there are other moments where… [redacted]. I believe this is what we have been arguing about lately, even though it typically masquerades as being about faith, spirituality, living arrangements, or a piece of juicy gossip that a stepsister told her regarding one of my post on Facebook.

Yet, I want to know more about my mother because of her life before me, her oldest, and because her face implies that she has stories that she hasn’t told quite yet. When I call her, I think I’m going to say, “I know that you hate this day. But I also know that you appreciate a call on this day.  Life sets up such delicious ironies. And none of them are comfortable with being denied”.

1. “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger,” Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches. Berkeley: The Crossing Press, 1984.

2. Gumbs, A.P. (2010). “We Can Learn to Mother Ourselves: The Queer Survival of Black Feminism 1968-1996” (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/

 

What I Mean When I Tell You that Ability is Constructed & Temporary

And one day it was hard to walk.

Chronic illlness & chronic pain are realities that consistently sit in the background of my mind & the forefront of my body. However, everything seems so heightened since the recent calamities of the American healthcare system (deep sigh).

Fortunately, I have a social media sphere that seems to be familiar with the terms ‘ableism’ and have the basic understanding that living a ‘good life’ cannot and does not prevent pre-existing illnesses & conditions. However, there always seems to be the ghost of what is often difficult to name, to reason through, to accept.

Ability is constructed. Ability is temporary…

Or in the words of Wendell’s 1989 feminist theory of disability:

“Our culture idealizes the body and demands that we control it. Thus, although most people will be disabled at some time in their lives, the disabled are made “the other,” who symbolize failure of control and the threat of pain, limitation, dependency, and death. If disabled people and their knowledge were fully integrated into society, everyone’s relation to her/his real body would be liberated” (p. 104)

I admit that I have often relied on this meaning. It’s understandable. It’s feminist (and even with all of the issues I hold with particularly White feminism, this piece is still helpful for me – or as my Grandmother would say, succinctly, “It helps to chew on the meat and spit out the bones”). It works for illustrative purposes, especially now, when we can see that reproductive issues go in and out of ‘covered’, ‘uncovered’, ‘ability’, ‘pre-existing condition’ (another deep, deep, deep sigh).

Yet I must also admit that this is only the beginning of the phrase’s personal meaning for me (even though I comment on the construction of ability and the temporary ability of our own bodies about four times a month, at least). This essay is a personal attempt to go a bit further.

I.
I am the child of a medical professional. I’ve seen my mother come home, take off her coat, plop down on the couch… only to receive more illness-related phone calls from friends & relatives.

“My daughter has a persistent cough…”
“My grandfather fell down the steps two weeks ago, and now…”
“This is kind of embarrassing but I’ve had these symptoms of…”
She was direct. She would refer. She knew that some symptoms would pass and others would not. And the trembling voices on the other end of line betrayed that no one ever expected that they would be the ones who would have to call her for advice. Until they were.

Ability is constructed. Ability is temporary…

So, I learned how to listen to the subtle shifts of the body including which coughs would pass & which coughs were precursors to larger threats. She taught me to read vital signs & good breathing techniques for when shots were being administered. She tutored me in discerning when there might be signs of ‘wellness’.

“Look at the face, Jade. What do you see?”
Perhaps, more fat. Fuller cheeks. More or less dilation of the pupils. More hair. Less skin abrasions. And so on.

Some days she would come home & I would smell blood, faint cigarette smoke, and Lysol lingering on her coat. On harder days, I could smell that she had been close to someone who was experiencing physical decline, decay, or death. I’ve known my mother to be proficient in stalling these effects.

II. 
I called my mother, first thing, on the day that it became difficult to walk. My father, former gymnast, taught me how to wrap my feet with tape & bandages to construct better support. My mother told me to when to ice them, when to administer heat, and how many NSAID’s were too many NSAID’s. “There’s a good chance that this will go away, but there is also a small chance that it won’t… keep watching it.”

Whenever I’d visit, she would sit on the bed and take my feet in her hands. She would press her palm to the balls of my feet & stretch them upward. She followed each stretch on the sheet that my physical therapist printed. I winced. She prayed. We both tried to breathe through each movement.

III.
My family went to the beach on holidays when I was a teenager. I spent hours in the water, wading in to breast level so that my feet barely touched the sand. I stood-swam-floated for hours with the assistance of the water. Yet, back on land, my feet struggled against me. My mother offered her arm to me for balance but the 7 minute walk still took 25 minutes in total. We walked in silence for most of the way, both a bit baffled (one of the few times I’ve experienced my mother that way) because one day (it was a day in September), it was just hard to walk. And this persisted in June. My feet could not hold me as they once did, so the muscles frayed instead. The cortisol shots, intended to offer relief, only deepened the pain. Mom cut the silence: “It’s time for you to consider a wheelchair.” I still hear echoes of this phrase in my mind at times.

IV.
I was a teenager and I resisted the wheelchair. My only concession was renting one when we’d go to amusement parks, malls, or other places where I knew it was inevitable that my feet would fail me. My mother couldn’t understand why I was resisting so much and why I put both of our bodies under such strain. (The wheelchair was easier for both of us since I wouldn’t have to hold onto her arm in order to continue walking).

I didn’t really understand my resistance either, until this year, when I read a perfect description in Maranda Elizabeth’s piece on magic, pain, & trauma:
“my feelings (were) all tangled up with internalized ableism and fears about pain (will it get better? will it get worse?)”

Those things were paired with the way I’d seen people patronize me in the wheelchair, the doors & rooms that seemed near impossible to get into, and the people who watched with confusion and (sometimes) disgust upon discovering that I was, in fact, able to stand to transport into and out of the car. I wish I had the words then:

Ability is constructed. Ability is temporary…

One day my father put a cane in my car. I found it when I was unpacking. There was a sword inside of it.

V.
“Breathing in, I see chronic pain.
Breathing out, I smile to it”.
(a personal adaptation of the meditation practices written by Thich Nhat Hanh in No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering)

This year, I’ve made it a point to take more baths. Of course, baths can be very helpful for pain management but suffice it to say, I’ve taken it to another level this year: rose petals, epsom salt, crystals, white noise or a podcast playing in the background.

On one such occasion, I was listening to a dharma talk (the name of it escapes me now). The teacher noted that every morning he chanted about the suffering of life & the impermanence of all things. This made me feel like I could breathe.

I understood chronic illness and ability as constructed in a much deeper sense when I began to study Buddhism. A key tenet in the Buddha’s teaching is that all is impermanent. Everything. The configuration of our relationships. Our daily life. Our bodies. All changing constantly. All impermanent.

I grew up with a strong sense of Christian ‘striving’. (Let me be clear, I do not think that this completely coincides with the teachings of Jesus’ embodiment, but perhaps I’ll do some writing on Jesus, chronic illness, & the impermanence of the physical body at a later date). I grew up in a church tradition that suggested illnesses could be mitigated and even eliminated by sufficient prayer & belief. My Grandmother was fascinated by healing services (both televised and real-time) and she would take me when she could. I began thinking about transcending the body at an early age & still contend with Christian theologies of what it means to heal. Some, I accept. Others, I reject.

So, it’s accurate to say that in this sense, Zen Buddhism gave me a much-needed break from all of this processing: Your body will change because everything changes. Give up the delusion that it won’t.

Noted.

VI.
And one day it was easier to walk.

Except if it gets too cold. Except if I have been standing too long. Except if I’m wearing flat shoes (very ill advised in my case). Except if I danced too hard.

And if I wear the boot when I sleep. And when I hang my heels off the curb to stretch them before I continue walking. If I take off my shoes under my desk & roll my feet on a small, green tennis ball. If I wear my inserts. If I park close.

And some days, it is easier to walk just because ability is temporary

This piece was inspired by (life) and Maranda Elizabeth’s writing on magic, pain, & trauma. Please read that piece because it is beautiful.

“Her Sexuality Should Not Be Pathologized”, Found Poetry

Published in celebration of National Poetry Month, 2017

“Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage, found poetry is often made from newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, or even other poems” 1

(My source material included free writes, prose, albums, & documents curated and collected as part of a Beauty Breaks workshop, led by Imani Jackson, as well as quotes from my own, unused, draft material)
My parameters included:
1) Using phrases that referenced or envisioned “Grandmother”, “Grandma”, “Gramma”, etc.
2) Using phrases with a color in them
3) Using half of the sentence / phrase for each instance (the meaning was re-imagined through punctuation and / or lack of punctuation, where appropriate)

“Her sexuality should not be pathologized”.

Red and hot like that candy my Grandma loved
I feel you come closer and your blue energy cools me
And then she came, coffee skin, red hair –

more red

The whitest background you’ve ever seen
The velveteen blood orchid
Purple sounds so tasty like sweet and tart
Purple rain
I could still smell its sweet magenta rimmed message
Premonitions of a grown ass woman.

 

Whine Club Reading: On Hope (Video Content)

Last evening, I was so excited to be a Featured Reader at Whine Club: A Monthly Storytelling Series for Women, Femmes, & Gender Non Conforming People alongside other brilliant & powerful readers: Lakshmi Ramgopal (you can sign up for her newsletter), Bria Royal (check out the pocket healing zines on the site), & Katie Burke.

JTP Reading

Photo Credit: Keisa, @WhineClubChi

My good friend, Jené, is amazing and crafty and managed to get a good bit of the reading on video (without me even seeing her recording – which was quite good for my nerves lol)! So, now I can share it with you all. The full transcript of content is available below. Follow @WhineClubChi to stay updated on their programming! **Special thanks to all who came out & sat in the chairs & stood in the aisles, to Whine Club & Uncharted Books, & to Ramona – the bookstore pup ❤

Intro:

“I’m a bit of a pragmatist so when I was invited to read, I immediately picked out the two pieces I would do. And then, Keisa sent the theme… It was hope, so I was like, ‘(Expletive) I don’t even know if I’m GOOD at that!’ (laughs) So, I want to offer this piece for those of us who find hope to be ephemeral. Those who hold their hands out and stretch to touch it – finding it like holding snow in their palm – lasting for a moment of precious wonder but all too short lived.

Hope is a complicated thing.

I. Every other week, I show up to my therapist’s office (we’ll call her Khadijah)…

 

——————————–
Full transcript:

Hope is a complicated thing.

Every other week, I show up to my therapist’s office (we’ll call her Khadijah). I take a break from work and get on the train, head up to the 16th floor, guzzle her filtered water from recyclable paper cups, and try to talk about my feelings without theorizing them.

“Let’s try to take a deep breath in… aaaand out”, she says. “That’s good work for the day. I want us (by us… she means me), to get to a point where we’re embracing ambiguity & hoping in life a little bit more”.

She puts two books into my hands: bell hooks’ All About Love on top. And right underneath it was Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. She ain’t slick.

When I leave her office, I sigh in the key of East Coast born Black girl, wondering why the fuck she wants me to trust in life… to continue this activity of hope… doesn’t she know mass incarceration is real? Doesn’t she know the Orange Cheeto was elected? And I’m pretty sure I’ll have to be way more fastidious about cyber security now that *ding ding!

And the elevator open, goes down, deposits me back onto the first floor. Past the coffee shop. Out into the streets.

My therapist is convinced that I’m not bad at hope. I’m sure she’s right. I just have a hard time living into the Hallmark card, bootstrap theology version of what we’ve normalized hope to BE. My friend Ashon says that consistently showing up to therapy is a type of hope too. I’ll take that for now.

II. I went to church with my family every Sunday as a child. It was a nondenominational and charismatic church. I still remember the routine. Wake up. 8 am Sunday school. Praise and worship (for those who aren’t familiar with charismatic church spaces just know that during this section, we had to wait for everyone to catch the Spirit, shout, fall out, & get back up before it was all through) Then, there was the sermon. The altar call. (Where people might decide to pick up a shout again). After church conversations. Brunch – that was really around dinner time. Readying for school in the morning. Sleep. Nowadays, I recognize that it was the equivalent of a full work day. It took me a full 5 years post “adulthood” to sleep in on Sundays without it feeling like a crisis.

“Now faith is the substance of things HOPED for…”

I grew up feeling like hope was something I needed to ask for. Pray for. Wait for. Hope was expected to look a certain way. So, I got familiar with its mask. I smiled when I didn’t want to. I offered myself quick platitudes and Scripture when the emotional reality was too much. I was real inspirational those days.

On Sundays, I made my supplications at the altar and imagined warm light falling on me. Older women placed their thin, cool hands on my head and wrapped my body in white sheets. They put their hands on my belly and asked for spiritual fire to consume all doubts. I thought it could help me to be reborn.

At night, worry descended upon me again as I pulled the comforter up. I recounted the pending catastrophes – what might happen at school the next day, at church the next week, when I arrived home, when I got on the bus. I’m a Taurus, Aries-rising, long time maker of mental lists and plans. Yet, despite my lists, scribbled in bright neon post its around the bed, the anxieties followed me into dreams.

My Grandmother said I had a “sensitive disposition”. My father said I had “bad nerves”. My psychiatrist said, “She has general anxiety disorder”. So, hope is a complicated thing.
III. Reading tarot grounds me in so many ways. I’ve got a few favorites in the cards: The Queen of Cups, the Hermit, the High Priestess, the Nine of Pentacles. The Tower tends to make my hands shake. The Knight of Wands reminds me of the charm & the quick temper of my father.

I’m still working out my relationship with the Star. You could say she’s got the iconography of hope.

I invite her out for coffee in my mind on the rare occasion that the Star chooses to visit me. In the tarot, the Star comes after the Tower has fallen down – after all that they’ve known has fallen in fire & light. And here they kneel, drawing up water in the dim glow of the stars. They are naked.

“Don’t overthink this, Jade”, she tells me. As I hold the card between my fingers she reminds me, “Let’s start our work by drinking more water. Hope means relaxing into that which we do not know yet. And that’s going to take some hydration. Allow your body more time to be naked – this body, this chronically pained body, this sometimes-walks-with-a-cane body, this Black body – allow it space. The rest will come soon enough”.
IV. Hope is a kind of suspension. Sometimes, when I look at my lovers face, it morphs into the consummation of my vulnerabilities and fears. Anxiety makes it easy to spin their locs into all of the reasons that the moment is fleeting: brevity of life, emotional stress, the inevitability of death…you know, the light stuff. But sometimes, when I have enough rest & food & medicine & ancestor help… I can push pause on that tape. I can find enough space to choose another path and hold onto it for as long as I’m able to – until it is replicated again in this life or the next. Counting their locs, one by one, for the reasons I’m so grateful. I’m practicing. Hope.

Hope is easiest to do when I’m showing up for my written work, editing what doesn’t work, trying to create new language, & reclaim other language. Using a Black queer radical imagination to see new ways forward. It’s sitting my ass down, writing shit that doesn’t only – SOLELY – respond to Whiteness or ableism or homo-antagonism – stuck in a feedback loop: inciting incident, think piece, praises or hate filled comments, “Say both your words AND mine-for-me. Give me digestible works that I can quickly share with my (racist, ableist, homo-antagonistic) facebook friends so they don’t have to do their own work”.

V. This year, I’ve taken up the spiritual practice of allowing myself some room to dream and to tell my stories. I want to tell you that I come from a long line of Black American storytellers. You probably don’t know them… but my aunts, uncles, my father can roll their trip to the grocery store into 45 minutes of entertainment with a life lesson at the end. For example…

“My family was fighting at the 2008-2009ish reunion. I don’t remember why. I do remember that my cousin processed this issue by telling a story about friends who enjoyed waffles, and friends who enjoyed pancakes, and how they needed to realize that both of those breakfast dishes benefit from syrup. Therefore, it’s wise to share your syrup if both parties want to stay away from dry ass breakfast dishes. It’s also wise to choose your fights when it comes to family, if you can help it.

I would tell ya’ll the stories – in my own dialect– about how I’m always doing the most. This is not self-deprecation. I’ve taken a poll and most of my friends… and coworkers… agree. Doing the most… is what I do. You want a report? You’re getting report, graphics, and likely a sequined outfit when I present the report to you. I could literally have a series of “Doing the Most” Chronicles. I would always have something to write about and we would both be cackling” (snippet from: Because I’m Not Solely Writing About DT for the Next 4 Years).

A full blown cackle – might that be categorized as hope too? I’ll have to take that for now.

VI. On some Saturday nights, I bring my body to the dance hall and twerk like my life depends on it. My feet, cramping & swelling with chronic plantar fasciitis, hold me up for as long as I need them to – even if it’s just for a few songs. Ass up & down, defying the laws of physics, that’s a part of the way I hope too. And that’s gonna have to be good enough for now. Because that’s what I got. Showing up. Writing. Laughing. Dancing. Staring at my lover’s face. Drinking more water. Being naked. And understanding that while hope fuels the collective work of artivists & activists, it is also an individual practice.

VII. My therapists usually asks, “What are you up to nowadays?” I told her, “Writing about hope, isn’t it ironic?!” She wanted me to bring this piece in so we can discuss it. I will not. It’s for us. It’s for those of us, that are here, that find hope BOTH within & outside of reach – yet need it to exist in this world. If I remember to go to therapy next week, I’ll take out a piece of paper, and roll it out on her desk. It will read: I’m practicing it now… the shit is still complicated”.

Photo Credit: Ally Almore

“I Still Want It”: A Review

Also titled: DiShan, the Matrix of Domination, & Deconstructing Binaries of “Holy / Horny”

My friends send me videos, clips, flyers, etc. about churchy (1) things to file away in my “Why do we do things like this?” folder. Last week, I was introduced to DiShan Washington’s body of work through her newest “online symposium” (titled then as) Single, Saved, & Still Wanting Sex:  I Still Want It – A Transparent Conversation about being Holy & Horny.

Initially, I laughed (like… a lot. It turns out there’s a large bandwidth of things to cackle on given how this was rolled out). Yet, as the virility of the symposium increased, I decided to do some research about where it was coming from. It is important to walk through that context for the purposes of this piece. Please bear with me for a moment:

DiShan Washington is a writer, speaker, and primary author of a genre that she calls Christian erotica. The distinguishing point in this genre is that “all of (her) characters are married“. In her personal life, Washington is the daughter of a preacher, married to a 20 year old minister at the age of 16  (2). During this time, she experienced “bouts of low self-esteem, depression, two suicide attempts (3)“. After her marriage ended (due to infidelity), Washington writes that she went “from living a life of luxury to homelessness and even days of wondering where her next meal would come from” (3).

It is important to call out that many of DiShan’s formative years as an emerging adult were spent as a “First Lady” (read as: pastor’s wife). Depending on the church’s context & relationship to patriarchal norms, this could indicate learning & practicing wifely subservience, dependence, & service to God, the church, & their husband above self (3).

In an NPR interview, Washington clarifies:

“I was raised by a generation of women that said sex was for the man […] (I thought) when this marriage ends, what will I deem the cause[…] How do I get Christian women to remove the stigma that being erotic was sinful”.

All of these things are important to note. If we look through our Black feminist lens, we can see certain themes emerging in her specific story and sociocultural context (4).

Washington, like many Black churched women, seems to be (publicly) navigating the “matrix of domination”: the oppression that is connected to racial stigma, gender, mental illness & ability, & class (Collins, 1993). The context provided above allows that the church served as a primary institution in perpetuating the aforementioned “axes of oppression”, in addition to sexual subservience, and economic dependence through marriage & patriarchal norms. In my lived experience, I have also seen similarities of story with many other Black churched women – age differences, notwithstanding.

From the NPR quote above, as well as various live feed posts, it seems that Washington is attempting to create new ways to navigate these spaces.  Creating genres such as Christian erotica & affordable online symposiums that deal with holiness, being horny, & transparent conversations about sex & sexuality might be intended towards this goal (4).

The rhetoric of the symposium fell short of that goal. This was not necessarily surprising, given the way that this symposium was framed (i.e. the symposium itself was not accessible to “men”; a prelude video states that within this conversation, the goal was to “still remain saved” which is read here as coded language for upholding puritanical beliefs on sexuality).

The conversation went back & forth without imagining new pathways of destigmatizing sexuality & the erotic for Black churched women. For example, I could see Washington’s attempt to complicate our understandings of the Bible (she did this in context of masturbation). However, this was situated along her point that masturbating (as a single Christian woman) promoted lust, which was still a “slippery slope”. I appreciated the assertions that our sexual desires are good & can occur at many different moments (i.e. “sometimes, my hand will graze my nipples and they will get aroused”) but cringed at the suggestion of disembodying ourselves (i.e. “our hormones aren’t ‘saved”). A few of the final notes included smoking as a metaphor for premarital sex (or as my good friend Anaya* said, ‘Fuckin’ is to your spirit as smoking is to your lungs’).

In the case of Washington’s symposium, there is an underlying premise that sex & erotica can only be normalized IF it is within the scope of marriage, patriarchy, and heteronormativity (briefly defined here as the assumption that heterosexual coupling is the “norm”, the standard, and the preference for all persons). Let me state plainly: this premise is dangerous. It allows no room or space was given for persons who identified outside of the “man / woman” gender binary or have chosen partnerships / relationships outside of the gaze of heterosexuality. It allows no space to craft an individual sexual ethos inside of or outside of state sanctioned marriage (which costs money & has gatekeepers). We cannot decrease & disrupt sexual stigma by attaching additional stigmas. We further marginalize ourselves & others by functioning within the realms of heteronormativity & patriarchy.

These impacts cannot be overlooked, regardless of intent (5).

I’m working on a longer form article & what I’ve found in that process is this: Black churched women, at various ages, have capacity to internalize gendered oppression even within efforts to resist gendered oppression. Disrupting internalized oppression is key in gaining sexual & gendered freedoms for self AND for others. This is what I wanted to see in Washington’s symposium… despite the sense of knowing that I wouldn’t likely see it.

I’m writing about this because “a great deal of my work (coincidentally or in-coincidentally) points to dialogue with and about Black church(ed) women. I facilitate & curate resources on sex & sexuality for a private space for women (primarily WOC) who have been and / or are currently church(ed). This is important to me, because there are so many spaces & scenarios where parents weren’t talking about sex, sexuality, consent, etc. and  churches / private religious schools weren’t giving that information either. It is important to me that particularly church(ed) WOC have a space to ask these questions to better discern how they prioritize their sexual health” (6)and construct their sexual ethos OUTSIDE of patriarchy & heteronormativity dressed up as ‘holiness’.

(Black church-ism: You oughta shout right there. Nods head churchily).

In other words: We have to find better, freer, more expansive ways forward. 

Washington stated that a key reason she chose the path of celibacy included a moment of unsatisfying sex. She also announced a forthcoming book on the topic of “remaining holy while horny”. With this in mind, a neat “summary” doesn’t seem appropriate. There are questions yet to be answered and modalities of thought yet to be ironed out, including:

  • How might the sexual lives & choices of Black churched women look different if we prioritized pleasure & found instances of sexual pleasure in sacred text (7, 8, 9, 10)?
  • How can we more readily recognize when gendered oppression is masquerading under the guise of holiness? How do we disrupt, disengage, & divest from in commitments to White, Western norms of morality (10), gender (11), and sexuality?
    • Who can / should partner in this work?

There are a great deal of scholars who are coming back to these questions (and more). I plan to commit to these questions as well. I believe that working towards the answers require our time and helps us to get free.

Vials of Oil for Anointing & Souls Behind the Eyes: Exploring Spirit*

This biographical essay is written for the #52essays2017 challenge by Vanessa Martir.

I.  It is a brave thing to write about Spirit. It is much easier to write, solely, about God, or colonial Christianity, or even decolonizing Christianity. Yet, matters of Spirit are often unwieldy. We can theorize them, but even that comes with its risks. Keating’s exploration of the spiritual work of Gloria Anzaldúa notes:

After all, those of us working in academic settings are trained to rely almost exclusively on rational thought, anti-spiritual forms of logical reasoning….

We might admire Anzaldúa’s bold spirit vision yet fear that if we explore it in our work, we will harm our careers. Not only will our colleagues scoff at us, but we will have difficulty publishing such explorations. As Lara (2005) suggests, these fears can be intensified for Chicanas and other women of colors who are often already viewed as interlopers in the academy. (Keating, 2008, p. 55)

However, matters of Spirit are often unrelenting. They show up, most often, when I want to write fluffy, easily-shareable pieces. They are determined.

Whenever we speak of Spirit, or spirits, we are both aided and blocked by our language. “What do you mean by Spirit”? In the past few months, I’ve been asked this question in so many different ways. I never give specifics because it’s typically already been decided I’m in need of re-Evangelizing.

The women in my family are always negotiating spirit*. For the purposes of this piece, I define it as the essences / life forces which we cannot always understand… yet find ourselves either intrigued or repelled by.

The women in my family are brilliant and can intellectualize most things. Yet, I often hear behind the words, because I came from them. And there is much concern about holy & good spirits – “wait, do you believe in one Holy Spirit or many other spirits” – staying away from evil spirits. But then there are the metaphorical spirits* – the energies & memories of the things we’d rather forget or leave alone. There is always the risk of being blocked by language, of being misunderstood, of being seen as “at-(spiritual)-risk”. It is a brave thing to write about Spirit*.

II. My Gramma was always intrigued with the concept of exorcism. She chased the next revival services, healing events, and traveling “prophets” like ones who would chase a storm. Seeing where it began. Seeing how it ended.

She had a library of books on methods to keep evil spirits away. A hobby? A passion? A fear? All three?

As a child, she would tell me about these excursions of spirit. Sometimes, I could travel along to a service – if she felt it was safe enough. She kept a vial of oil, anointed for the task of both blessing and protecting – warding off evil & inviting in good. “Spirits ain’t nothing to play with”. She told me, “You’ll know when it’s a bad one. Your stomach turns. Your throat feels like it’s hot and dry. Look into the eyes. See if it looks like a soul is behind there“.

She often retired to the back room to pray. It used to be my play room, but I grew too big for the walls. I grew too big for the house, itself. I grew too big for the entire state, I suppose. Years later, she asked me to mind my size – and help her clear out that back room.

I spent hours on the dusty pink carpet, eating home cooked meals, pausing to look up at the sparkly popcorn ceiling, and sneaking journals full of Bible study notes from 1985 into the garbage bin. She would catch me, occasionally. “Grandma, I can type these up for you”. But she preferred the hard copies all around her like a shield. So, in one month, I could only clear one chest. After she passed, there was so much more clearing to do.

III.
“Mother, are spirits real?”
“Why are you worried about this?”
“I just am…”
“You’ve got God inside. You have nothing to fear”.

My mother’s jaw clenches when she is trying very hard to be patient. My Gramma often regaled her with stories about faith healers, far and wide. How much she was intrigued by them. My mother is a medical professional with complicated thoughts around faith healing (life sets up the most beautifully ironic situations). She listened carefully, because this was her Mother, and they were good friends. Only I could see, standing underneath her with my childhood body, that her jaws were clenched & her smile required effort.

IV.
I began getting bored with my church at 16 years old. How many more Sundays could I watch the parishioners march up to the altar, seeking more deliverance from the spirits which were real, imagined, a mix of both, who knows? I craved “something intellectual”. I was young and wanted more of everything, really. So, I took a sharp turn, tried out Reformed Calvinism. I was intrigued by their use of the word “eschatological”  , the thought that perhaps life could be figured out by a few “simple” tenets, and the added surprise of walking in to church with multitudes of handsome brown men. I was young and thought I knew everything.

I theorized everything then – the life of “spirits” didn’t seem to be worth as much exploration as the “doctrine of election”. I stopped dancing at religious services. I kept up with the rhetoric – until I realized that believing in “totally depravity”  left my soul dank & depressed. Until I saw how much violence it did. Until I realized that beyond my Black church, most of the prominent scholars in the denomination were White. They believed & taught that a spiritually elected-somewhat-Divinely-yet-arbitrarily-decided group would access heaven. The implications of that horrified me. I was young, and old enough to know I needed to get out.

V.
One of my favorite tarot cards is “The Hermit”.

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The Hermit, Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck

In the dark, deep, blue glow, the Hermit carries one single light and walking stick. They are walking across the cold, craggy mountains. They are looking down, inward. They are reaching deeper spirituality. Some people feel this card is a bit obscure (and sometimes, I agree haha). However, the Hermit is a guide – that sense of “knowing” inside of ourselves when we need a “container”, a “cocoon”, somewhere dark, quiet, and even a bit windy to shake up our previous understandings. A figure, resembling a Hermit, found me in a church in the middle of Nowheresville, Pennsylvania (population 50,000). I was living in the LITERAL, actual mountains during this time. “The Hermit” showed me that there was a healthier way of Christianity & of spirituality, itself.

Then, I moved to Smalltownsville, SC (population 9,000) to continue my journey in further shades of solitude. I spent time with myself. I didn’t write.

VI. It is now 2017 & a few conversations with friends have turned into a nonprofit organization which “centers the voices, teaching, practices, and wisdom of People of Color at the intersections of mysticism and activism”. It is interesting that it is built on Christian contemplative tradition, deconstructing what this means, and breaking open space to include indigineity & diasporic religious traditions – a chance to bring our ancestral knowledge out of “hiding”. Equal parts Howard Thurman, Barbara Holmes, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, the saints, the Christian mystics, and our Grand-ancestors teaching us prayers, songs, and ways to invite God in. Equal parts “what we know” and “what we’re open to discover”. Someone inboxes and says it sounds like potential to the slippery slopes of “idolatry”.

I wish I could explain how western colonization has prompted us to see these practices as “idolatrous”. I wish I could explain how it was demonized… not inherently, demonic. I wish I could read them the quote I read today – from the long process of resource sharing we’ve undertaken. I would read slowly:

“Ostensibly, all women in colonial Mexico and Latin America, like their counterparts throughout the Christian world, were suspected of being witches on the basis of gender, but women of colonized groups were suspect on multiple grounds. Indian women, African-origin women, and racially mixed women—whether Indo-mestiza or Afro-mestiza—were suspect by virtue of being female, by virtue of deriving from non-Christian, or “diabolic” religions and cultures, and by virtue of being colonized or enslaved people who might rebel and use their alleged magical power at any moment. —Antonia Castañeda, “Engendering the History of Alta California, 1769–1848, as seen in Lara’s 2005 work.

Most of all, I wish I could explain that I see this as “spiritual activism” (Keating, 2008) – a way forward that allows us to get into deeper touch with God, self, & others, as we fight for social justice in this world.

But I sense their fear. I’m close to them. And I swallow these words with my morning tea. Perhaps, another time. Perhaps, never.

VII. 
The next night, I dreamed of my Gramma. First, I described the dream on Facebook (because #millenial). In this dream, I was preparing for my meditation practice. I wore bright yellow.

My Grandmother sat where my teacher usually sits. She wore white and gold. She said to me: “I want you to meditate on this mantra ‘I ain’t got time’.
(Let me pause here to say that everyone who is familiar with AAVE / African American vernacular English understands all of the nuances of that statement. It is not concretely translatable in Standard American English. ‘I ain’t got time’ means something between “I have time, but refuse to engage something”, and “Something is distasteful to me and / or hazardous to my health, so I will reserve my time for the things that help me to thrive”. This is a loose translation).

I cackled, as per usual. She smiled and said, “Yepp, say it, ‘I ain’t got time”.  Sometimes in your life, there will be giant pizzas rolling toward you – moving fast…”

This was very typical of her – to take a somewhat random object & work it into a life lesson.

“In that moment, you have to decide. Do I want to take a bite out of that? You can only take a bite with it moving that fast. Do I want to knock it down and share it with friends? That’s an option too. And sometimes, you’ll say to yourself, “I don’t even WANT pizza” & just let it roll by. That’s when you say to yourself, “I ain’t got time”.

I woke up to the Twitter-news that Mercury was in Pisces & that my dreams might hold some keys for deep learning at this time (@starheal). It’s funny how that works.

VIII. 
I believe that art allows us forms of exorcism – appeasing the spirits of things our families, sociocultural histories, and personal journeys leave us with. Moreover, it invites us to welcome in all that is “true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious” (Phil. 4:8-9, The Bible).

My Gramma’s lived in enough awareness of what could be bad. These days, she’s telling me “She / we / I ain’t got time”. And the only spirits* I deal with are good ones.

Resources & Further Reading

Keating, AL (2008). “” I’m a citizen of the universe”: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Spiritual Activism as Catalyst for Social Change”. Feminist studies (0046-3663), 34(1/2), p. 53.

Lara, I. (2005). BRUJA POSITIONALITIES: Toward a Chicana/Latina Spiritual Activism. Chicana/Latina Studies, 4(2), 10-45. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23014464

Image Credit: Createherstock.com

Feature: Taylor Johnson-Gordon, Food Healer, Herbalist, & Urban Gardener

Taylor Johnson-Gordon is a Black womanist, food healer, herbalist, and urban gardener. Her work intersects food sovereignty, healing work as a form of political resistance, and the Black Church. Taylor believes that the body is our first site of resistance and her mission is to help black women and girls heal and build physical resiliency through real, affordable food.

I met Taylor Johnson-Gordon at the #BlackChurchSex convening. I immediately noticed t an effervescence that was so refreshing. Upon our conversation, we realized just how many mutual friends & connections we had. Her good work proceeded her, as well as the praise of our mutual friends on just her generous spirit!

It has been a wonderful journey as I’ve become more familiar with Taylor & her work in food healing – adjusting my own diet & herb cabinets to include some of the staples she’s introduced me to! So, I wanted to e-introduce her to my readers here because I truly believe that her passions & thoughts around healing as resistance are integral to us getting free! Text below is largely her own, to preserve the integrity of her words.

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The break down of Taylor’s work is extensive. It includes adult nutrition in corner stores, supermarkets, churches, housing complexes, farmers markets, and community centers in North Philadelphia with The Food Trust. Taylor is also an afro-vegan and founder of Sistah of the Yam, a webspace and a series of community programs for Black women and girls that prioritize healing, nutritional wellness, and self-sufficiency through the act of growing food and cooking. The target audience of her work is clear: Black women & girls. To this, she states:

“I unapologetically center the lives and needs of Black women and girls, because we are routinely told that we are not deserving of being at the center.

I unapologetically center Black girls and women because I believe that we as Black people are only fully free to the extent that our Black women and girls are free.

Black women are known for lighting the torch for freedom and doing the work by any means necessary, yet we are routinely erased and abused in the process. Our self-sacrifice leaves us with broken hearts, reproductive disease, emotional eating disorders, low-self esteem, deep loneliness, and unresolved anger.

So, my work involves creating a space for Black women to engage in Black liberation work by concretely focusing on themselves via the food they eat. My tools are my hands, a good knife, and a cast iron skillet. In my experience, saying “yes” to prioritizing physical health has been the biggest obstacle for the women that I interact with. As a result, I rarely interact with a Black woman who has not had a diet related illness or dis-ease. This a result of a white supremacist system that is anti-black and that positions black women at the bottom. This is also a result of a lack of community support. I often think about how Black women are the most churched demographic in our pews, yet we are the poorest and least supported and visible. In my work, these are the very women that I am accountable to. This is why my approach to health and nutrition is always through the lens of affordability and practicality. I encourage making homemade stews/soups and eating beans and rice and leftovers, because these are affordable and highly nutritious. I don’t encourage buying specialty vegan meats because they have a lot of sodium, additives, high processing, and they are  also expensive. I try to teach the art of cooking intuitively, using substitutions for things they don’t have, and knowing how to listen to what their body is telling them that they need.

Taylor’s path to facilitating healing through healthy food is as interesting as the work itself!

“This work really chose me (via God and my ancestors). Growing up, I always thought that I was going to become a medical doctor. I entered college with that determination, studying biology and spending half my time as a pre-med student. Midway through my sophomore year, I realized that it wasn’t “me” (though I couldn’t necessarily pinpoint the “why”). I quit the pre-med program but continued with my biology degree.

My sophomore year was an extremely intense and dark time. I had to create a new identity for myself – outside of what I had thought my chosen path was. Now, almost 10 years later, I have the clarity to see how that experience was preparing me for my current work. To be clear: I think we still need Black doctors in the health care system and medical field. However, my path towards becoming a healer outside of this system (through food education, integrative nutrition, black foodway history, and herbalism) has allowed me to go through the growing pains of healing first hand. The fact that this work is very personal to my own wellness and healing allows me a greater level of authenticity in my work.

Taylor formally received her Bachelors in Biology and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Currently, she is pursuing her Master of Science in Nutrition & Integrative Health with a focus on Herbal Medicine.

castor-bean

From @sistayoftheyam #BlackHistoryEats food nutrition campaign on IG

She leaves with us the following information, ideas, and tips:

1. Food is inherently political. Eating real, nutrient dense food is a deeply political practice. When we eat real food we are saying that our bodies matter … not only to us, but to God, our community, and our ancestors.

2. Cooking nutrient rich food from scratch doesn’t require fancy tools. Don’t spend your money on fancy sauces and dressings; those things can be made at home with half the amount of sodium and no trans fat or additives — save that money for something else. Get yourself a good, sharp knife (Ross and Marshall’s sell pretty great marked down ones!), a cutting board, and a good skillet. Start building up your spice and herb cabinet and getting a couple of great heart-healthy oils on deck (I recommend always having one for low heat/baking and one for high heat).

3. Black women can be vegan and/or vegetarian and still have curves! Some many sisters are really nervous about dropping a ton of weight if they choose a plant-based diet. While that may be true for some, it is by no means everyone’s reality. Being a Black woman who is thick, curvy, healthy and vegan is in itself a paradox for most folks. I am not what many folks picture when they think of veganism (or nutrition for that matter)! Even though I have struggled with this in the past, I have come to realize that it’s also one of my greatest advantages in the work that I do. It makes me relatable.

4. I am convinced that being well is our birthright as black women. I believe that wellness through food can be developed and expanded to include every black girl and woman, regardless of class and economic status.

Taylor lives in Philly with her husband Jason (they are both amazing) & you can follow Taylor’s work at http://www.sistahoftheyam.com and @sistahoftheyam on Instagram!

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Taylor Johnson-Gordon, @sistahoftheyam, enjoying the fruits of the earth!

Feature Photo Credit: Jason C. Johnson-Gordon

Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church – The Devil is in the Unknown

This post is a part of a larger series, which can be viewed here.

Let me tell you about one of my favorite people on this side of the sphere: Ebony Janice of the Free People project. In addition to her vlogsjustice work, and philanthropy, Ebony Janice is the author of a few books. #PutyourfriendsonFriday

The point is that in one of these books she coins the term #ChristianDemonicFilter. This is the notion that everything that is not EXPLICITLY in the Bible with EXPLICIT EXPLICITNESS in all EXPLICITRY… is not just unknown… it’s demonic.

And anyone who grow up under the influence of folks who interpreted the Bible literally knows exactly what I’m talking about:

Under this type of teaching, you begin to (either ignorantly or arrogantly) think that the only acceptable spiritual practices happen within the confines of Evangelical Christianity.
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This post is not intended to debate on whether malevolent forces are real. It’s to share a personal understanding: the devil, demons, and / or malevolent forces are not involved in every thing we do not OR willingly refuse to… understand.

When I was in high school, there was a “minister” who came to prominence by the name of G. Craig Lewis and Ex Ministries. In high school Bible study, we watched one of Lewis’ dvds (lol) in which he posited that hip hop music & artists were demonic. As in… literally transferring demons through our “ear gate”.

Ya’ll think I’m kidding. I can feel it through the computer screen. Yes, this is a real dude. Yes, he really taught such drivel. And yes… this was the topic of an entire high school Bible study. #IdontlooklikewhatIbeenthrough (LOL).

It seems far-fetched now, but I can see how this type of teaching came to prominence at the time. It was the time where everything, anything could be cause to cry out “Demonic”! And unfortunately, some of this rhetoric still persists. It often confounds me.

For more on this, consult Bartlett’s 2006 work, Rachel Pollack’s 1998 work, and Katz & Goodwin’s 2015 works (to name a few).

As a note, if it was not clear, these same spaces are where some of our chakra centers are!

Given this logic, we could also have an entire conversation here on the ideas of cultural arrogance / dominance that comes from Christian religious privilege. Because these are practices that have also been in place for thousands of years. For now, I will say that this is a thing… and folks have to do better about acknowledging it – and fixing it.

According to this logic, there are thousands of trap doors – thousands of levers that the enemy can pull. So, as you can imagine, this gives way to a dominating fear… a fear that renders people incapable of exploring anything outside of their own understandings of the Bible (oooorrr their pastor’s understanding).

This simply wasn’t a sustainable way to live for me. The concept was toxic because it bred fear, constant penance, and even a bit of arrogance. And this is not the type of person, I believe, we are actualized in the earth to be.

I’ve benefited from a variety of spiritual practices through the years but in the past 3 years I have been increasingly vocal about it. My friends will tell you, if you come into my home with low vibes… we’re doing an aura cleansing at the door. Saging or burning palo santo happens at least once a week in my home and as we speak, my crystal is charged to assist me in the work I’m doing on my crown chakra.

I’ve learned to sit in meditation and it’s absolutely necessary and non-negotiable for me to do this. It calms me, grounds me, helps me remember why I’m here. And I do all of this in addition to prayer and other forms of charismatic spiritual practice I grew up with in the nondenominational (but Pentecostal-leaning) Black church (the irony is that those things aren’t spelled out literally in the Bible either… they are a product of cultural / ancestral lineage i.e. shouting, “catching” the Holy Ghost, etc). These aren’t necessarily “new” practices for me – it’s simply that for a while, I had to go through the process of being unbothered. It is through pursuing these practices that I have found no slippery slope – simply more expressions of & languages for the Divine / G-d in my life!

This year, I decided to fully embrace the things that once caused me inordinate (and unnecessary) amounts of fear. I decided to trust that God was within me; that God would guide to me the things that served me… and away from the things that would harm me. This year, I decided to pursue the “spiritual technologies” that called out to me the most (Lomax, 2016).

Through reading & speaking with various ministers & healers, I also began to understand a bit more about my social location as a Black American Christian. Perhaps you can imagine my *mind-blown* moment, when I realized that in a not-so-distant-past, Black ministers were often diviners as well. There was room for spiritual syncretism (and there still is, in many traditions). For example, in the 1997 text Conjure and Christianity in the Nineteenth Century: Religious Elements in African American Magic, Chireau unpacks:

“For generations, magic has persisted in black culture, often obscured but deemed compatible with other spiritual traditions. Its widespread appeal is attested to by numerous accounts describing conjuring relics, supernatural rituals…among African American churchgoers. From slavery days to the present, practitioners and clients of the magical arts have moved freely across ecclesial boundaries, drawing copiously from the symbols and language of Christianity”. (p. 226)

Yet, given all this, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve been asked “But are you still ‘saved’ (in the Evangelical sense)”  more than enough this year. I’ve realized that this question is not necessarily about me and that it is, to some level, socialized into people. On an individual level, there will be (and are) practices that we may be uncomfortable with. However, I think it’s time to (at least) consider that there’s toxicity in believing that everything unknown, unexplored through evangelical Christian lenses or fundamental Christian lenses = demonic.

Read the rest of the ‘toxic concepts’ series here.

Additional Resources:

Yvonne Patricia Chireau. (1997). “Conjure And Christianity In The 19th Century: Religious Elements In African American Magic”. Religion And American Culture. Volume 7, Issue 2. 225-246. http://works.swarthmore.edu/fac-religion/38

Lomax, T. A. (2016). “Technology of Living” Toward a Black Feminist Religious Thought. The Black Scholar, 46(2), 19-32.

Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church – On Sex & Throwin’ It In a (Prayer) Circle

“Once you know the truth, you can’t ever go back and pick up your suitcase of lies. Heavier or not, the truth is yours now”. – Sue Monk Kidd

“What are the heavy truths that are yours now”? – Journaling exercise

In the past, I’ve chronicled the toxic concepts that I have unlearned from church and / or church adjacent spaces (campus ministries, study groups, etc.).

Today, I’m picking up the series with three more posts on toxic concepts I unlearned (because…word count).

Toxic Concept: Women’s sexuality can be and SHOULD be treated as a commodity, define her level of “purity”, and only be used in the service of gaining & keeping a husband.

Lena, a youth group minister*, sat us all down for one of her infamous ‘talks’. You never really knew what to expect from Lena, so the best course of action was to brace yourself for whatever was coming. In this talk, she took out a box of tissues:

“If I need to wipe my nose, then I use one of these tissues”. She feigned wiping and dramatically dropped one to the ground. “Now that I’ve done that… who wants to use this tissue”.

Of course, the room was enveloped in silence and stares.

“Some of you want to be hoes in the hallway and sluts in the stairwell. But once it’s gone, it’s gone. Once it’s used, it’s used. Have some more pride and dignity in yourself. You ought to carry yourself in the manner with which you want to be treated!”

Humming under the surface of my consciousness, I learned that having sex (and moreover, having it freely) would bring my worth down to the size of a snotty, used tissue – fit only to be discarded.

If you’re not familiar with this type of rhetoric, then this example can seem pretty extreme. To be clear, there are many spaces where similar analogies are made: “Your virginity is a gift – you don’t want to give your husband an opened gift”. Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye (and icon of the Evangelical Christian movement in the early 2000s), likened virginity to a rose. “Losing it” or giving it away would result in all of the petals being plucked off – there would be nothing left to give for your someday-husband.

So, I learned to be afraid. Afraid of my own body and its desires.
I learned that good Christian women “keep their legs closed” (as if that’s the only way to… you know what, let me not get ahead of myself) until marriage and that THIS would result in procuring a wonderful husband – and at that point, he would be provided with access to your body as a gift, an unused tissue, a fully blooming rose.

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I know it sounds like… a lot. But it is this rhetoric that reinforced what we now refer to as ‘purity culture’.

So, why am I writing about this again and why am I writing about this now? First, because this culture still exists and is now being further distilled down / spread abroad via memes. (Help us, Jesus). Second, because many Black churches have adopted, repackaged, preached, and profited off of these ideals. (Help us, Jesus).

It suggests that women who do NOT make the choice to abstain until marriage are unclear about their body’s worth. Not even THEIR INTRINSIC worth. The worth. Of their body. Yikes.

But perhaps most importantly, I bring it up now because these beliefs have such harmful ramifications in day-to-day life. These ramifications are things that some of the people I love are STILL living with & through. The No Shame Movement chronicled an entire chat  regarding some of these lasting impacts.

I want to tell you about the countless moments of attempting to comfort friends who really & truly felt like / feel like “losing” their virginity means losing their greatest “commodity” and “asset”. (Shudder). I want to tell you about the private spaces I’ve curated with the help of some good friends – in order to address the feelings & even questions that come up when you’ve grown up with this type of toxic belief. I could tell you about the women I’ve known who married hastily – simply because they had sex with their partners and felt that penance meant marrying that person.

I could tell you about the panic attacks that came over me in waves – even after I knew that my sexuality wasn’t a bargaining chip. Even after I knew I could make my own decisions about my sexuality AND have a secure relationship with the Divine. Even after I knew that my virginity wasn’t just some commodity for a husband to enjoy. And I want to tell you that I’m not the only one who experiences this – that after healing from this, I went on to curate private spaces for other women to process unlearning this shame & to ask basic questions about sex & sexual health after the gaps that abstinence-only education left in their path. I could tell you, from first-hand conversations I’ve had, that sometimes your body has to unlearn the trauma of this toxic concept… has to learn how to experience pleasure without guilt. But the word count it would take would be too great for just one post…

So, I’ll end by sharing a story about its ramifications in my own life.

A friend of mine is doing research on this very topic (and it’s going to be amazing when it comes out). I’d agreed to help out with a research query she had – and responding opened up my own experience to me in a way I’d never considered before. I told her:

I saw the toxicity of this belief first-hand when I ended up in a pretty bad relationship with an aspiring minister. I was beginning to do more formal study into this topics at the time, which really wasn’t agreeing with this partner. So, asking for what I wanted resulted in being seen as “domineering” and / or a temptation to deviate from the Gospel. I listened to their stories about they repressed their own sexuality and was told that even passionate kissing paved a way to the slippery slope of eternal damnation. (This is not hyperbole). It was clear that the only circle I was going to be throwing it in… was a prayer circle.

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The hilariously awkward Netflix show, Chewing Gum, does a great job of showing this type of dynamic

Who knows whether that choice was actually mine – I was too busy worried that my “feminine wiles” would steer us “off the path”. Hashtag the patriarchy is a mind-fuck.

Of course, over time, I had to re-imagine my role in that relationship (read: chile, we broke up – Mama didn’t raise no fool). But after debriefing this period of time, I realized two major things:

1) My partner got this from somewhere. They got these notions from the pulpit, from their Bible college, and from their socialization into male privilege.

2) This didn’t just happen to me. 

There is an unbalanced pressure on women in religious spaces to view their sexuality as nothing more than a commodity – something to preserve and give away in service of a husband. Given the huge industry that purity culture makes through selling rings, books, and multimedia efforts – sex is selling – even the lack of it.

So, what I’m saying is this… and this alone… WHENEVER we feel we have the right to be prescriptive about every woman’s body & sexuality… we’re already in the wrong. And although not under the same circumstances, it’s still helpful to ask the question that James Baldwin posited (one that gets me free every. single. time): Who benefits?

Who benefits from the mass sexual repression of women? And how does it point to making money off of our bodies?

Ending Notes:
In the pursuit of answering this question, do feel free to check out Dr. Tamura Lomax’s work on religion & the erotic, NoShameMovement.com, and the #Blackchurchsex thread on Twitter.

*The title “throwin it in a prayer circle” stems from a popular meme which made its rounds on Twitter & Instagram

This post is a part of a larger series. You can read the other posts in the series here.