Remember the summer of 2020. It seemed everything was amiss. The world was shutting down due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, The murder of George Floyd had occurred, and protesters from all walks of life gathered in mourning and cried for justice. In some cities, violence erupted, windows smashed, fires set, looting occurred, and people died. Politically, the United States was ramping up for the presidential election, and the process could not have been uglier. Friendships ended, and families divided as the lines between who’s ideas were right versus wrong became more important than relationships with one another. Even the Earth seemed angry as wildfires in the West claimed countless acres of wildlife habitat, the flora and fauna that resided there, and the lives of nearly 50 people.
The summer of 2020 was when I met Kwame Kamu to speak about his life experience as an African American man, racism, and Black Lives Matter. It was one of the most peaceful, thought-provoking conversations I had all year, to my surprise and delight. I expected an angry man filled with outrage demanding immediate action to make amends for all the wrongs that have occurred. Instead, I found a philosopher-poet with a gentle voice and heart. It is not to say that Kwame does not feel or experience anger, but the way he chooses to process and articulate it is thoughtful and nonthreatening.
Another curious thing occurred as the conversation between Kwame and I unfolded. We spoke like two old friends, freely and easily for nearly two hours. Yet, instead of the interview I planned, we weaved together our personal experiences related to Jesus, Christianity, and our mutual passion for self-expression through our art. Though we did talk about racism and Black Lives Matter, it seemed secondary to faith and hope.
Kwame grew up in Los Angeles, California. He and his family were heavily involved in a Black Evangelical Church in the neighborhood. His faith was strong, then and now, but it has evolved heavily. Kwame describes his former self as an egotistical evangelical Christian concerned with living the “right way.” Unfortunately, that left very little room for those that believed differently and created a space where it was easy to judge others. A case in point is that he felt sorry for his gay brothers and sisters and believed they would never be allowed in the kingdom of heaven.
Kwame’s rigid Christian beliefs began to disintegrate one day as he rode in the car with his father. Kwame’s father, a rugged individualist determined to live life his way, challenged Kwame. He said, Kwame, you know Jesus was black, right? Kwame had seen the pictures. Not only did fourteen-year-old Kwame know what Jesus looked like, but he was also solid in his understanding of the gospel. So, he said, no, dad, I did not know Jesus was black. Where would you get such an idea? His father, not taken aback by his son’s confidence, explained that the people living in the Mediterranean 2000 years ago were not White. Suddenly it made sense to Kwame that his image of a light-skinned fine-featured Jesus was incorrect. But what difference does it make if he is black or white? Kwame asked his dad. His father’s response gave Kwame pause and propelled him into a full-fledged deconstruction and reconstruction of faith. His father said, “If it didn’t make a difference, they would not have changed it.”
Kwame feels that most folks want Christianity to be easy but that the 21st Century Christian must delve more deeply into what it means to be a Christian. For example, is the gratification of being right more important than being fair or just? Kwame encourages us to see Jesus alive in each other. In doing so, we would see one another in a different light. The illusion of separateness would fall away, and we would find that we are far more similar than we acknowledge. As a result, we would become more compassionate, understanding, and less judgmental.
Kwame firmly believes that everything is as it should be and exactly where we start from to move forward. These days Kwame experiences a more profound sense of contentment around the difficulties we have getting along. He understands that every individual has their own lens with which they view life. Considering that over 7 billion people live on the planet, the idea of embracing one another though we may live differently is unfathomable. However, Kwame has hope that one day we can achieve a more just world.
Though we are living during a turbulent time, Kwame sees it as a period of growth. His view is that Black culture is bringing the gift of humanity to the rest of the world by teaching us to get along. For example, the murder of George Floyd created greater awareness of disparities that Black people experience. Since then, Kwame witnessed more white people becoming enraged, getting involved, questioning, and helping to change unjust systems.
It is a start, but difficult conversations about complex and sensitive topics must continue to move forward. White supremacy, white privilege, Black Lives Matter, and defunding the police trigger deeply emotional responses from nearly everyone involved. Kwame uses defunding the police as an example to make his point. He compared the defunding of education and defunding of the police and how differently people reacted. Kwame stated that no one misunderstands that defunding education means reducing revenues, consolidating resources, and finding less expensive solutions to preserve education. But that defunding the police is wholly misunderstood though the principles are very similar.
As for white supremacy culture, Kwame sees it as a way of making oneself better or more important than someone else. He also feels that there is a lot of fear related to sharing resources. In part, he blames the way that history has been recorded and taught in public schools. There is just so much of our history that has been left out or erased, especially related to slavery, African Americans, and Native cultures.
When I asked Kwame about the Black Live Matter movement, he laughed and quickly rattled off several examples of memes he had seen on Facebook demonstrating the difference between All Lives Matter versus Black Lives Matter. However, the image that stuck most for me was a distressed person calling the fire department. Please help, the panicked caller shouts into the phone. My house is on fire, please come quickly. The operator calmly states, I am sorry, sir, but all houses matter. Her words are accompanied by an image of firefighters hosing down homes that are not o fire. His point is that we cannot honestly say that All Lives Matter until all lives are valued the same. Black Lives Matter is seeking justice for all, a concept that anyone that has ever heard the pledge of allegiance understands at least conceptually.
Kwame shares his final thoughts with grace and optimism. We’ve hit turbulence, and the ship is shaky. But we can thoughtfully redirect ourselves and come out of the other side of this crisis better. We need to stay grounded and be on each other’s side. He refers to another great philosopher, Woody Guthrie, and reminds us that, This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land. This Land was meant for you and me.
Thank you, Kwame.
Kwame is a musician. You can learn more about Kwame Kamau James and Soulstice Wind at [email protected]
Also, check out the Facebook Group: What’s Mine to Do to join the conversation for racial reconciliation.
A To Heal is a project that promotes peaceful and constructive conversations related to difficult topics. Topics are related to the events of 2020. They include but are not limited to Covid-19, Essential Workers, Race, Racism, the LGBTQIA community about the recent supreme court ruling, and more.
Please Note: The purpose of the project, A Time To Heal, is to create a safe space to allow others to express their feelings and opinions. The opinions of those interviewed may not be the same as my own or the reader. If you choose to comment on a post, please do so respectfully.
Gail is the owner of Lakehouse Photo LLC and The Gratitude Project By Lakehouse Photo LLC. Learn more about Gail, The Gratitude Project, and her photography at the sites listed below. Additionally, Gail’s photography can be purchased from Lakehousephoto.com, City Center Arts in Muskegon, http://citycenterarts.com/, NCCA-Artplace in Fremont, http://www.ncca-artsplace.org/ or directly from the artist.
Photography Website: https://www.lakehousephoto.com/
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2021© Gail Howarth, Living At The Lakehouse, and Lakehouse Photo. Unauthorized use or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author or owner is strictly prohibited.