Christina and I met in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on one of the hottest days in July. There was no relief from breeze or shade and our brows quickly populated with beads of sweat. Looking back, it seems appropriate that the weather was extreme when I met this extraordinary woman.
Who is Christina? That is not an easy question to answer. The best reply I can give succinctly is that she is a complex, brilliant, beautiful black woman with a heart to teach and express her one voice through music, dance, and words. She uses her gifts to speak to people about faith, family, racism, oppression, PKD (polycystic kidney disease), and much more. She is witty, wise, and courageous.
Christina’s beloved mother and grandmother molded her into the woman she is today. Faith, integrity, and being proud of who she is as a strong black woman are virtues her elders demonstrated and expected in return. Christina and her family lived in a modest home in Grand Rapids, where black and white people lived as neighbors.
On Sundays, the family went to a Baptist Church where Christina went to Sunday school and sang in the choir. Christina’s faith began early, and it has given her the strength and courage to overcome many difficult challenges. Hymns from her youth continue to bring her comfort and joy.
Church was the only place where Christina was in the company of all black people. Though she was active in the church, she often struggled to fit in. Her light-skin too light to be black and too black to be white.
Christina attended Grand Rapids Public School. She had a group of good friends throughout elementary school, but none of them were black. Faith was the shared bond between friends. After 6th grade, the friends attended different middle schools and lost contact.
Christina attended City High School in Grand Rapids. The school attracts mostly white high achieving students interested in receiving an international baccalaureate degree. While at City High, Christina struggled to find her identity. She could not understand why she did not have black friends. The other black students were cordial but not close. Christina admits that she often felt uncomfortable with other black kids.
In the end, Christina determined that she was not at ease with her blackness. She asked herself often, Am I black enough? Or, how can I be black enough? To be high achieving, smart, and articulate is considered a white thing. Additionally, her interests were not the same as the other black students. While they were hanging out, dating, and participating in typical teenage activities, Christina was reading, writing, and volunteering at church.
The puzzle pieces of Christina’s identity began to fit together when she attended Grand Valley State University. In addition to attending classes, Christina joined the choir. The choir was natural a choice as she had been singing all of her life. Less likely, was dance. At the insistence of her best friend, she hesitantly joined a Tap Dance class. She fell in love.
Dance helped Christina define herself in many ways. Movement unlocked hidden emotions and allowed her to express them non-verbally. Dance made her realize that she could do more than sing, read, and write. It also broke down the barriers of color. She began to look past color and see people more broadly. She gained an understanding that what truly binds us together in relationship to one another are our shared or common interests.
Christina graduated from Grand Valley State University and began teaching 2nd grade at Muskegon Public Schools. After two years of commuting from Grand Rapids, Christina moved to Muskegon. While she loved teaching the kids and meeting other black professionals, something was not right. The shift in the environment felt extreme. She felt isolated and missed her friends, her mom, and Grandmother. She would not realize the depth of her unhappiness until she moved back to Grand Rapids 4 years later.
While in Muskegon, the puzzle of Christina’s identity unfolded more deeply. She describes the experience as a wakeup call. Having been raised in a professional middle-class black family, she never wanted for anything. Issues that many black people face became more transparent. Christina’s heart broke when she realized the extent of poverty, child abuse, and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness that permeates the black community.
Christina is currently an Associate Professor of English at Grand Rapids Community College. She teaches remedial reading and African American Literature.
Christina and I spoke frankly about racism and the current social climate in the United States. The following speaks to Christina’s experience of discrimination and oppression, her desire for change, her hope for the future, and more.
Christina’s first experience of racism was when she was in 3rd or 4th grade. She was in line at a fair when a white man standing in front of her dropped a pen. Christina picked it up and tried to give it back to him, but the man refused to take it. He said I’m not touching that, put it back on the ground. She did as he asked, and then he picked up his pen. She asked her mother later why the man refused to take the pen from her. Her mom did not sugar coat the incident. She simply stated to her daughter that she couldn’t prove it, but it was likely because his skin color was different than hers.
Later, Christina had a wonderful experience as a student-teacher for East Grand Rapids Public Schools. The love and appreciation she experienced from students and staff led her to apply to become a full-time teacher. Though Christina received glowing recommendations, one of her school advisors from East Grand Rapids Public Schools suggested that she not get her hopes up. The advisor shared that though Christina was an excellent teacher, the school system would not likely hire a black teacher.
Christina felt hurt by the experience. The hurt grew deeper and deeper until she became angry. Her anger was not toward a person but with an unjust system.
Recently a white co-worker said she thought Christina received her job at Grand Rapids Community College because she was black. Though, now she recognizes that Christina is a great teacher. Christina was stunned by her co-worker’s statement and thought, this isn’t something that happens to other people. This is happening to me.
Christina does not feel she led a sheltered life, but she did not experience racism often. Christina, who questioned most of her life if she were black enough, suddenly realized that she was black enough. The experience was eye-opening and made Christina infinitely more aware of the issues that black people face daily.
Desire and Hope for Change
Today, Christina struggles to reconcile the horrible things that people say and the actions taken against African Americans. Social media has given everyone a voice, and it is impossible to deny the reality of racism. Daily news feeds contain hurtful and ignorant comments that range from innate cultural bias to blatant hatred. The stream of constant and insufferable dialog makes it difficult for Christina to remain hopeful for change.
Still, Christina is unwilling to accept that this is just how it is. She has become a fierce advocate for justice. She is creating awareness of racism and oppression through her blog, tap dance, and educating people like me. Christina is unafraid and stands up for the rights of others. She states, though, that all voices must be heard to create real change.
Christina has had little hope for change. However, since the murder of George Floyd, she has felt a shift of consciousness. The black community has grown more unified, and many white people have become allies. She also thinks that the movement is not a fad and that it is not going away. There is a glimmer of hope. But, Christina, a realist, knows it will happen slowly.
The following links are to songs that Christina chose for tap dance recitals that acknowledge the existence of oppression.
Glory, By Common and John Legend from the Motion Picture, Selma https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUZOKvYcx_o
A Change Is Gonna Come, By Aretha Franklin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6YCxXQ6Scw
Christina wrote the following blog, Black Ink. It speaks to the excessive number of black lives that are lost unnecessarily. I encourage you to read it and feel the depth of her words and the gravity of the world in which we live. https://tickledpink1.weebly.com/blog/archives/05-2020
In Her Own Words
I asked Christina if she felt she had to work harder than a white person to prove herself. Her response is as follows:
I think that I have to work 100 times harder to prove myself, especially as a professional. I struggle with being labeled “the angry black woman.” While I know that speaking up for injustice is the right thing to do, too often, when black women speak their minds, they get this label. We are constantly evaluating our speech, our behavior, our attire, etc. I don’t feel like I can have off days – I have to be on all the time.
And lastly, I wondered how Christina reconciles or carries her burdens? Here is her response.
When I think about the things that I do to live with the unrest, I have to say that I struggle. A lot! I am continually reminding myself that there is only so much that I can do as one individual. I think about the impact that I make as an educator and in my spheres of influence. I think about the hard conversations that I have with friends. I do all of this to remind myself that all hope is not lost and that change will come – slowly – but it will come. I also dance. There are so many times that I tell myself, “just let it all out on the dance floor.” I think one of the most significant ways that I reconcile everything is through my faith. I remind myself that God is in control.
Christina’s battle is not only related to racism and oppression. She also fights a physical war with her own body. Christina has Polycystic Kidney Disease. This plays a huge role in who she as a person. It helped her in her journey of advocacy. She is involved with the PKD Foundation and became a staunch advocate for kidney health – specifically in the black community. The experience of having kidney disease completely changed Christina as a person. It softened her and helped her think about what other invisible illnesses or circumstances people may be going through. She became more compassionate and a spokesperson for self-care. Having a condition with no cure changes your perspective immensely.
Thank you, Christina, for participating in A Time To Heal. I value you and your contribution. When I began this project, I hoped that it would open eyes, provoke thought, and heal hearts. However, my expectation changed significantly within the first few weeks. Almost immediately, people I love began to question whether I should speak about race, racism, and oppression. I was heartbroken.
I could have quit. I could have changed the focus. But, I made a commitment, and I still believe that the only way to bridge the divide that exists in our country is to open peaceful conversations with people unlike ourselves. Christina, you gave me the courage to continue. I asked you, “What if the only heart changed by this project is my own?” Your response was, “Well, then it was all worth it.”
Christina, your one wise voice has changed my heart. I am forever grateful.
For more information on PKD (Polycystic Kidney Disease), go to https://pkdcure.org/
A Time 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 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.
A Time To Heal, the Exhibit will be on display at City Center Arts in Muskegon, beginning September 2, 2020, to October 10, 2020. Please check the website before attending to verify hours of operation. http://citycenterarts.com/
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, purchase Gail’s photography at Lakehousephoto.com, City Center Arts in Muskegon, http://citycenterarts.com/, NCCA-Artsplace in Fremont, http://www.ncca-artsplace.org/ or directly from the artist.
Photography Website: https://www.lakehousephoto.com/
The Gratitude Project: http://gratitudebylakehouse.com/
2020© 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.
Christina once asked herself, Am I Black Enough? Later in life, the answer became self-evident. Christina has experienced racism in many forms. She is an educator, and passionately speaks of the inequalities that exist in our country today. Christina uses her one voice to seek justice. She expresses her concerns, her anger, and her wisdom by blogging and through dance.
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/
The Gratitude Project: http://gratitudebylakehouse.com/
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.