Starting the Conversation with Earth, Wind, and Fire

Article
02.26.2010

From: Jonathan Leeman
Sent: Tuesday, August 22, 2006 10:56 AM
To: Thabiti
Subject: RE: Book recommendations

Hey, I bought Earth, Wind, and Fire’s greatest hits. Man, that’s good stuff! At least the music. I can’t always understand what they’re saying. Did you ever listen to them?

From: Thabiti
Sent: Tuesday, August 22, 2006 11:16 AM
To: Jonathan Leeman
Subject: RE: Book recommendations

Did I ever listen to them?! You kiddin’, right? 😉 Man, that’s one of the first and greatest bands of that generation. They played forever, and I’m surprised their “greatest hits” is one CD. If so, you got robbed! But in any case, that’s classic stuff. They set the standard for a long time. When I think of Saturday morning chores around the house, or “blue light parties” (let me know if I need to explain that for you ;-)), The Elements are the folks that come to mind. Enjoy that piece of African Americana.

T-

From: Jonathan Leeman
Sent: Tuesday, August 22, 2006 11:21 AM
To: ‘Thabiti’
Subject: RE: Book recommendations 

I hate to ask: what’s a blue light party?

From: Thabiti
Sent: Tuesday, August 22, 2006 11:58 AM
To: ‘Jonathan Leeman’
Subject: RE: Book recommendations

“I would not have you ignorant, brother.” J

A blue light party is a house party where the regular light bulbs are exchanged with a blue light bulb that sets the mood by casting a blue hue over things. It basically gave enough light that you could see somewhat, but enough darkness that you had to guess what you were seeing or hide what you were doing. Add a string of beads hanging in the doorway, some afros, and those cheesy velvet paintings, and you’re in the 70s of my childhood, brother!

T-

From: Jonathan Leeman
Sent: Tuesday, August 22, 2006 12:35 PM
To: ‘Thabiti’
Subject: RE: Book recommendations 

Wow. I wanna go and see. Sometimes, I really wish we had time machines. I’ll encounter some cultural artifact and find myself longing to experience it first hand.

All the Presidents’ Men made me want to experience the Nixon era. Forest Gump made me want to experience the transition from the fifties to the eighties. I took a Native American literature class in college. What would it have been like to grow up in a Native American tribe in Montana? Their literature and poetry gave me a taste. But not enough. I found myself wanting more.

Likewise, Listening to the “Elements” cd and looking at the pictures inside gave me a taste that made me want to go back and experience some of what you described. I don’t want the sinful bits that you seem to be alluding to. But I do want to experience the human element of it all. Honestly, Thabiti, seventies black culture can feel as distant and otherworldly to me as native American culture (even though I was born in 73). What was it like? How did it feel?

On a number of occasions I have spent time with older African American folk—probably your grandparents age. I think of Margaret Roy at Capitol Hill Baptist. Was she around when you showed up? I’d sit in her living room and speak about the Lord with her. Man, she radiated joy in a way that you just don’t see in older white folk. In those conversations, I’d get a taste of a culture and generation that seems to have largely passed, but one that I wanted to know. (Is it possible that many in her generation, even if not theologically trained, knew an intimacy with the Lord born of hardship and oppression? I can only speculate). Hip hop culture feels about as far removed from Margaret Roy’s culture as I am from Native American—even though it’s easy to recognize the organic links and common roots to each.

Whenever I left her house, I would always think to myself, “Within the history of America, I know whose going to be first in the kingdom of heaven.”

When the kings of the earth bring their glory into the heavenly city (Rev. 21:24), I expect we will get to experience something like time travel and culture hopping. I expect/hope that we’ll get to see whatever redemptive, God-given lights shone, by God’s common grace, into each of these times and eras. What do you think: will something of the Elements groovy funk be heard there?

Your brother in him,

Jonathan

From: Thabiti
Sent: Tuesday, August 22, 2006 1:04 PM
To: ‘Jonathan Leeman’
Subject: RE: Book recommendations

Boy! You make we want to go back to these times and places too!

“What was it like? How did it feel?” To be black in the 70s…. Man… that’s like asking a fish what wet feels like (you know that saying/proverb?). He can’t tell you. It’s all he’s ever known. You have to ask the amphibians what “wet” feels like, someone that’s been in and out of the water and knows the feeling of both. I’m afraid black is the only skin I’ve been in and it’s a darn deep skin to try and climb through. And feeling black is a tremendously powerful thing. It is at once the proudest feeling you can sometimes imagine and simultaneously the most dangerous feeling. It’s strange really. So much of what it feels like to be black comes from outside yourself, assumes things about blackness that are foreign to you, and is vested with intensity and emotion you don’t always understand. So 70s black culture was as much about “funk” as you pointed out as defiance and negotiation of an identity amidst a lot of social change. I mean, for me, the question was, “Am I to be cool and funky (Parliament Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, The Elements, etc) or am I to be Shaft, Superfly, and Foxy Brown?” And how am I to tease out the “sinful bits,” the counterproductive bits, from the bits that reinforce and direct in some positive way?” None of these questions were being directed (humanly speaking) to or by Christ in any way that I can recall. And all of the questions simply assumed themselves to be some intrinsic part of “blackness,” as ill-defined and changing as that notion was.

And if you can dig this (to use the era’s parlance), all of this stuff was happening at the speed of images, man. These weren’t explicit philosophical talks we were engaging in. These were the questions we were trying to figure out after watching Car Wash or listening to Kool and the Gang or the first generation of rappers like Grand Master Flash & the Furious Five and Kurtis Blow (we seemed to spell all things that should start with “C” with a “K”; I don’t know why) and then going to the pool hall to hang out or turning to some homework assignment for school. These were the things that were even shaping how we played basketball of all things! The modern-speak of “who’s got game” is little more than the braggadocious individualized smoothness we tried to emulate from one another and develop over and against “white boy ball” with all its structure, precision, and choppiness. That was the politics of black and white identity at work. One called it “game,” the other called it—pejoratively—”street ball.” We were “being black,” whatever that meant and as uncritically as we did it. 

What was it like? How did it feel?

I remember when I first found out that the black male was an “endangered species.” Whoa! That’ll get your attention! Who owns that list? How did I get on it? What endangers me beyond the danger of being black like I’ve always felt? And—oh my—does the fact that somebody besides me now knows (or at least, admits) that I’m endangered change how “they” are going to respond to me? What will that mean? Do I need the attention? I’ve already figured out some ways for negotiating these shark-infested, mine-filled waters; what’s old and what’s new, given this new definition of blackness?

There was the “Crack Epidemic” (read “Black Epidemic” or “Crack Down on Black Users of Crack Epidemic”). Man…the ravaging of entire zip codes that that drug completed! Nothing like it. Even the older folks who had survived “smack” (heroine, another ironic name) were just shocked motionless at the speed and total devastation this drug wrought. Mostly in black neighborhoods, many of which in the 70s had been middle class to lower middle class areas. Blue light house parties turned into crack houses, then into blue light raids as police with “three strikes authority” showed up (happily, in most cases, but pretty late).

The 70s….

We went from being mostly two-parent families where kids knew their daddy (though already on a steep decline) to mostly single-parent families where a significant amount of kids didn’t even know dad’s name. That happened in just over a decade, brother, mostly through the late 60s and 70s.

Jonathan, honestly, it’s CRAZY being a black man!! It’s CRAZY.

I wish you could check it out for a day though, man. It’s also pretty COOL 😉

T-

From: Jonathan Leeman
Sent: Tuesday, August 22, 2006 2:14 PM
To: ‘Thabiti’
Subject: RE: Book recommendations

Thabiti,

Couple of observations. Three questions.

Observations:

First, I was eating a perfectly ripe peach the other day. The flavor was unbelievable. The only way I can think to describe the flavor is “soft, velvety orange peachness.” It didn’t taste like a blueberry or a strawberry. It tasted like a peach. There’s no analogy for describing that. You can say it’s juicy or squishy or whatever. But how do you describe the taste of peachness itself? It caused me to reflect on God’s marvelous creativity in creating peachness, and to praise him.

When I encounter different cultures, it can feel something like that. Sometimes I think I’m getting a taste, as when I listen to the Elements. At other times, however, I feel like someone is trying to describe the taste of peachness, but it’s as if I have never had a peach. So I can’t make the connection. The translation feels impossible. That’s a bit what I feel like when you describe being black (or when my wife describes what it’s like to be a woman!). No doubt there are clear places of correspondence that the human condition—and the conditions of the fall!—afford us. And no doubt that there’s an even more glorious foundation of commonality in our redemption (neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female). At the same time, I’ve not been black, not even “for a day,” as you said. Even from the standpoint of our redemption, the body has many members.

It’s humbling, isn’t it? It reminds me of my finitude. Can you imagine what God must be like, Thabiti? How diverse and “colorful” and multi-flavored and resplendent? O brother, what must it be like to be in his presence? To talk with him? To enjoy him?

Back to peaches: I want to praise God for the peach. And I want to praise God for the strawberry. And I want to praise God for the blueberry. Each—marvelous flavors!

With human beings, of course, it’s not so simple. You have to extract the good from the bad, the light from the dark, the clean from the unclean, the pure from the impure. (Isn’t this what God is trying to teach the Israelites with those strange food laws?)

Second observation: in Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, he talks about how humans form their identities through the very things they oppose. He grew up as a Croat in former Yugoslavia, and watched as Serb soldiers decimated their towns, families, etc. But even as the Croats hated the Serbs and the Serbs hated the Croats, they were defining themselves through the other. Whatever the “other” was, they weren’t. (In high school, I came to the same conclusion about punk rockers. Don’t tell McKinley.)

At the same time, I wonder if that’s more true for minorities than it is for majorities. Between Serbs and Croats, there’s something of a parity (though I suppose it depends on what region you’re in). Between blacks and whites in the history of the United States, there hasn’t been. There has been a clear power heirarchy. So growing up, I never thought of myself as “white.” It wasn’t until I taught the second grade in a Washington DC public school for a year and was one of two or three whites in the entire school that I began to think in those terms. At the same time, when I left that school, and through the course of my days now, I don’t really ever think in terms of “being white” in the way that you describe for yourself. I called this my second observation. I guess I really have a question: would you say that’s a fair assessment? In other words, have you found that African Americans are more inclined to think in terms of “being black” than white Americans are inclined to think in terms of “being white”? If so, does that bespeak a woeful ignorance on our part?

Now for my three (further) questions:

First, when were “they” saying being a black male was an endangered species? Why were they saying that?

Second, would you agree with the distinction I made between Margaret Roy’s generation and the hip hop generation? Is there a dramatic difference (I suppose there is in culture at large)? Are there many remnants of her God-fearing, Bible-believing, joy-in-Jesus generation left?

Third, what are your thoughts about my feeling like you’re describing peachness even though I’ve never eaten a peach? Is the experience untranslatable? Is there hope for understanding? What? How? What’s the best book I can read to help me know what it’s like to be you?

Grateful for you, my brother of a different mother (but the same Father!!!),

Jonathan

From: Thabiti
Sent: Wednesday, August 23, 2006 11:05 AM
To: ‘Jonathan Leeman’
Subject: RE: Book recommendations

You wrote: “In other words, have you found that African Americans are more inclined to think in terms of “being black” than white Americans are inclined to think in terms of “being white”? If so, does that bespeak a woeful ignorance on our part?”

Yep and yep.

You wrote: “First, when were they saying being a black male was an endangered species? Why were they saying that?”

That was the major slogan, phrase, rallying cry throughout the 1980s. It was a provocative way—used a little by the media but mostly by black leaders and politicians—to describe the serious condition of African-American males. The favorite statistic was “1 out of 4 black men are either in prison, on drugs or dead by the time they’re 25.” That’s an extraordinary statistic! There are problems with this stat, but it did point to the three major social/political issues getting a lot of attention—high incarceration, drug addiction, and violent crime/murder rates. Add to that the then-astronomical black male unemployment rate and you had yourself “an endangered species.”

You wrote: “Second, would you agree with the distinction I made between Margaret Roy’s generation and the hip hop generation? Is there a dramatic difference (I suppose there is in culture at large)? Are there many remnants of her God-fearing, Bible-believing, joy-in-Jesus generation left?”

I think certainly there is a broad distinction to be drawn between Mrs. Roy’s generation and today’s. First of all, today’s generation is with the first or second generation of African American young people that grew up largely unchurched. That was more or less unheard of until the 1970s. Black church attendance was quite high historically, even if it was in many cases nominalism at work. But there are still folks of her generation around with the kind of joy you talk about. And honestly, that kind of faith I think is far greater and stronger than my own. My grandmother would sit on the porch and talk with Jesus. She’d hum to Him (“because the devil doesn’t know what you’re saying if you hum”). And she found a tremendous joy in the Lord (“The joy of the Lord is my strength”) when she reflected on her hardships, etc. I think that’s still alive with folks who have a fairly experiential approach to the faith and folks who have been bolstered through great hardship by faith in the Lord. But today is about “CEO pastors” and “empowerment” and “prosperity” in a way that was hardly true two generations ago.

You wrote: “Third, what are your thoughts about my feeling like you’re describing peachness even though I’ve never eaten a peach? Is the experience untranslatable? Is there hope for understanding? What? How? What’s the best book I can read to help me know what it’s like to be you?”

Hmmm…. Well, I guess at some point something enticed you to eat a peach before you knew what peachness tasted like. Maybe it was the look of the thing, or it’s smell, or the flavorful report of a friend. Those are aspects of peachness as well, and I think they’re pretty accessible even if you’ve never actually sank your teeth into the thing itself. Those are not less real or less meaningful ways of experiencing a peach, though they’re not the essence of the thing either. And those things (smell, touch, sight, reports) are ways of understanding; they transmit useful information. Enjoy those things if that’s your interest. Enjoy them unapologetically! Rejoice in the goodness that’s found there. And do it all the while enjoying the fact that God has made you Jonathan! Don’t worry so much about what’s beyond your grasp—especially if it means you don’t bother to lay hold of what’s in your grasp!

And finally, if you want to know what it’s like to be me: (a) don’t make me a mythical “me” that is somehow the archetype of all other folks who look like me, and (b) do the slow and steady work of getting to know me. Questions and listening are better than books, in my opinion. Books can be helpful, especially for broad trends and basic facts. But when it comes down to it, when you’re witnessing to an African-American or trying to strike up a friendship, you’re not sitting across the table talking to a book. You’re talking to a person. If you enter it that way, while not denying the real differences, you’ll find yourself more successful and getting hints of peachness, and you’ll be better liked by the peaches who won’t mind so much your coming by from time to time and catching a whiff. 😉

How did this exchange start? You asked me a question, and then I was somewhere back in small town North Carolina enjoying a blue light party! That’s how you taste a peach in my opinion.

Grace and peace,

Thabiti

From: Jonathan Leeman
Sent: Wednesday, August 29, 2006 9:36 AM
To: Thabiti
Subject: RE: Book recommendations

You wrote: “do the slow and steady work of getting to know me.”

Rightee-o. I’d love to.

Earlier you said it was CRAZY, all caps, that is, to be a black man. Why? At least in your own experience?

I have to admit that I would not personally say that it’s crazy being white, either in all caps or lower-cased. In the last email, you graciously suggested—”yep”—that it bespoke a woeful ignorance on my part not to identify myself as being white. What would it mean for me to overcome my ignorance? In other words, how would I go about thinking of myself as “white” in a way that’s societaly health-giving and, more important, Christ-imaging?

(And at some point, Thabiti, I would be grateful if you could help me understand when it’s appropriate to say “black” and when it’s appropriate to say “African-American.” Is a white guy who’s emigrated from Africa African-American?)

Grateful for you, brother,

Jonathan

From: Thabiti
Sent: Wednesday, August 29
To: ‘Jonathan Leeman’
Subject: RE: Book recommendations

Have you ever read Grace Elizabeth Hale’s Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 or Withrop Jordan’s White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812?

Why is it CRAZY to be a black man?

Well… for starters there is the great fear and distrust associated not just with blackness, but with black maleness. Have you every thought about how many people fear you because of the skin you’re in? Sometimes it seems the fear is universal. And consider what people do when fear grips them. It’s “fight or flight.” Can you imagine constantly provoking those extremes in nearly everyone you meet? Can you imagine how tenuous every interaction becomes? And can you imagine how difficult it is to always maintain a balanced, patient accommodation of every body else’s ignorance? So, many black men check out. They’d rather renounce society than negotiate it. It’s like trying to cross a land mine with snow shoes. You need to be able to monitor your steps, move with precision and gentleness, yet what you’re dealt are a pair of clumsy, huge bomb seekers for feet! Then others capitulate and wear a mask that makes it easier on some level, but dangerous psychologically. It’s crazy.

And, brother, the mistrust shown black men isn’t limited to folks outside the black community. Black folks are suspicious of black folks, too. So, the mistrust remains high… in male-female relationships… in walks through the neighborhood… etc. There seems to be no respite from being a black man. That’s crazy.

Never mind the other stereotypes. Phenomenal athlete… great dancer… sexual predator… intellectually inferior… and on and on. It’s crazy. And nearly all of these things crash upon you from the start, from outside of you, before you can even say “hello.” It’s crazy.

You asked: What would it mean for me to overcome my ignorance? In other words, how would I go about thinking of myself as “white” in a way that’s societally health-giving and, more importantly, Christ imaging? 

Oooh. I don’t completely know. My hunch is we have to do the customary things for overcoming ignorance. Question our presuppositions, listen to others, read, pray, etc. But again, I think that’s slow, patient work. Perhaps simply starting to think of yourself as white would be helpful. That suggests, at least, that your experience is not normative and universal. It’s more local than that, and it, therefore, needs to be inspected and put in dialogue with other perspectives without assuming either its normalcy or its superiority.

You asked: And at some point, Thabiti, I would be grateful if you could help me understand when it’s appropriate to say “black” and when it’s appropriate to say “African-American.” Is a white guy who’s emigrated from Africa African-American? 

My quick response… say whatever you want whenever you want. But usually, say what the other person respects or identifies with. Think of it as ethnicity. We don’t refer to all Arab peoples by one label when we know the ethnicity they own. So, Lebanese are Lebanese not Arabs or Middle Easterners once we know something about them. Same would be true of Ibo, Hausa, Tutsi, Xhosa, etc. All are Africans, but they identify by these ethnic distinctives. So, when someone wants to be called “Black,” call them “Black”. “Negro,” Negro. Etc. Don’t be uptight. Once someone offers their choice, use it with them. And “yes,” a white guy from Africa is in a technical sense an “African American” if they have American citizenship. It’s not the typical usage, but it’s legitimate.

Now… a question for you. Why do you suppose you never think about being white? And what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of not doing so?

With Christ’s love,

Thabiti

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan Leeman is the Editorial Director of 9Marks, and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Cheverly, Maryland. You can find him on Twitter at @JonathanLeeman.

Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is one of the pastors of Anacostia River Church in Southeast DC. You can find him on Twitter at @ThabitiAnyabwil.