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February 2019

The Black Card

The Black Card 700 441 Corey Leak

Like most black people who were raised correctly, I grew up playing spades. I played as a teenager and on into my early adult years. My wife and I had a group of friends we would play with, and the games would get so intense that we would lose track of time and miss the evening church service from the firey competition and trash talk. Spades makes you feel the pressure to pay attention to what you’re doing for a couple of reasons. First of all, being bad at spades brings great shame to your family. Secondly, you have to pay attention so that you don’t renege. Lastly, you have a partner that is counting on you.

I’ve reneged plenty of times in my life. I’ve seen people almost come to blows over how somebody played their cards, and I’ve suffered the painful embarrassment of not playing my hand as well as I should. Spades is serious business! We play it, but it’s not a game!

There are different rules people use when they play spades. Some play with Jokers as the high cards and others with the 2 of diamonds and hearts as the top cards, but either way, you don’t want to mismanage the highest card in the game. Whatever the specific rules are you’re playing with, there is one card that trumps all. Playing it at the wrong time can cost you the game and possibly reveal that you’re not that great at spades and should have never been born.

There is a lot of drama around the spades table, especially when somebody doesn’t know when to use their trump card. Your partner, as well as the inevitably gathered crowd around the table, are all watching to see how you will play your cards. That can add complexity to what should be pretty straightforward. I find that knowing when to play the black card can cause similar angst.

Unfortunately, the act of bringing attention to race as a factor in a social dynamic has been reduced to a trivial exercise of gamesmanship – as if raising the issue of race is only a tactical effort for black people to evade personal responsibility. I find it interesting that we don’t accuse white people of playing the race card. Our culture usually reserves that claim for people of color trying to grasp for equal footing in a world that assumes that all races are an offshoot of whiteness.

The irony is that race is a conjuring of racism. The concept of race was only instituted to give racists a way of knowing who the good guys are from the bad. (I’ll admit that I have been wrestling with how we label ourselves ever since I stumbled upon that information, but that’s a conversation for another day.) We balk at people calling attention to racial injustice, discrimination, or cultural insensitivity because we are afraid that life will be harder when we have to pay attention to how our actions might affect someone else. It is embarrassing to be called out for lacking the awareness of how our words or actions may have negatively affected someone with a different cultural or ethnic background, but it’s a mistake to try and transfer that embarrassment to the victim in a pathetic attempt to relieve ourselves of the burden of change.

Too often in our society, we demonize people for having the courage to share their story. Black men and women across America bite their tongues and look the other way because they don’t want to “play the black card” and be labeled as angry or too focused on race. Some of us have been told that playing that card is an excuse to get an easy win, and as a result of that ideology legitimate claims of racial tension are too easily dismissed. A friend of mine once said we couldn’t play the black card enough. I’m inclined to agree, and here’s why.

I’ve had enough conversations with white men about race in the last few years to know that it’s never been harder to be a white man in America. That may sound like something that should engender sympathy for our white brothers, but that’s not my intention. I use the term “harder” as a genuinely comparative term. America has been oriented around the whims and concerns of white men since her conception, so it’s never been as hard to be a white man in America as it is to be black. That’s how the colonizers designed race. It was intended to establish who would sit at the top of the food chain in American culture, and that seat has read “White’s Only” for most of America’s history. Today we are challenging that notion. Through the work of civil rights activists 50 years ago on through to today, we have seen a change in how we view race. We have recognized that black isn’t evil or worse than white. How have we come to that conclusion?  Courageous black men and women throughout history have dared to play the black card.

Image result for civil rights movement

Image result for civil rights movement

Whenever there is an inclination that something may be off because of racial dynamics, we should stop and evaluate it. If that means that people with power have to be more sensitive, then so be it. It says that we create space for people to voice their tensions about how they are being talked about, treated, or disregarded. No one should feel unsafe sharing their truth with the world.  Just societies don’t penalize the marginalized for calling attention to their plight.

I’ve admittedly been reluctant to play the race card as if doing so is akin to reneging in a hotly contested game of spades, but lately, I’ve been challenging myself to trust my instincts more. I’ve permitted myself to share my truth, and I’ve been better for it. You’ve been better for it. I’ve realized it’s not my problem if someone responds negatively to me expressing the tension I feel over something they said or did that was culturally tone deaf. I’m realizing that I cheat my community out of the opportunity to grow if I keep my cards to myself.

The black card is not an excuse to get things to go my way. it’s not an easy out. If people in power will learn to accept the awkward tension it brings, we will find ourselves making progress in our society we never thought possible.


Black Witness

Black Witness 1280 720 Corey Leak

Our blog last week has the highest views of any of the posts on our site. I was surprised by the response and attention that post received. Many of you who read it were so kind with your words, and to be honest, I was a little uncomfortable after sharing it. While it is my truth and my story, I still felt uneasy with how many people were reading my diary essentially. Perhaps that’s what people meant when they applauded me for being “courageous.” The funny thing about that is, every time someone said that I got scared that they knew something I didn’t about the risks of sharing my story. As I reflect on what the tension I felt after sharing was, I have concluded that what I felt was the weight of black witness.

By now you’re probably aware of the drama unfolding with Empire start Jussie Smollett. He is a gay black man who shared “his truth” with the world. It turns out that his story is complicated at best and a lie at worst. The internet has already made its decision.

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Image result for jussie smollett lying king meme

Image result for jussie smollett lying king meme

Who knows what happened. Since Donald Trump introduced the idea of “fake news” to us, we’ve been left questioning everything we hear. Regardless of what the truth is in Smollett’s case, I believe it’s safe to say that his original truth wasn’t honest. He bore false witness to black trauma. He was heralded as a sympathetic and heroic example of what black people, especially gay blacks, endure in America daily. In the end, Jussie received misapplied goodwill, and those that supported him and claimed this incident an example of “Trump’s America” have to dial all of that back. People who supported Jussie got duped, and that sucks. It doesn’t suck because those people feel betrayed or embarrassed for supporting a made up story, or because the image of a talented, young, black man is now tarnished. It sucks for a much more significant reason. Jussie’s narrative threatens to delegitimize the stories of black witnesses both now and in the future.

Bearing black witness is hard. It comes with a burden of proof that often causes victims of racial trauma to consider the weight too heavy to carry. We may never hear many people’s stories of racism out of fear the repercussions that befall black people for speaking up. Black witnesses do not receive the benefit of the doubt. I’ve watched people demonize black victims of blatant racism in the face of glaring video evidence of hatred. Some people resist the idea that racism is a serious issue. They object every time a witness shares their testimony about the racism they experienced. Some of them attempt to debunk claims of racism to defend their political persuasion, and others oppose to avoid the weight of guilt that accompanies white identity in the face of racism.

The resistance to black witness is given a gift whenever there is outrage over a false racism testimony or a black witness who joins them in fighting back black advocacy. This week I heard the perfect storm for suppressing black witnesses to racism when I turned on my radio.

I was furious listening to a Larry Elder use the Smollett case as a springboard into trying to delegitimize Black Lives Matter and other forms of black advocacy. It’s tragic that black folks like Larry and Candace Owens often echo the testimony of anti-black witnesses. They enable people who seek escape from the realities of racism to opt out of wrestling with their own bias and complicity in systemic racism. When Larry Elder’s black witness says racism isn’t a significant issue and Jussie Smollett bears false witness, what do we do with the witnesses drawing attention to inconspicuous racism in society?

We keep listening. No one black witness speaks for the entirety of the black experience. However, one witness can shine a light on their experience, and when they do, we should listen. When their witness doesn’t align with our perspective, we can find ourselves agitated. We are unnerved because the new testimony opposes the story we wanted to believe. We wanted to believe the people we thought were the bad guys are indeed evil, and the good guys right. We want our world to be neat in that way. We don’t want to face the reality that we may have been loud and outspoken for the wrong team.

I made myself listen to Larry Elder that day. I hated every bit of what he said, and I stand by why I believe his words are dangerous to other black witnesses who join the chorus of countless other black folks who have a contrasting experience from his outlying perspective. However, he is a black witness, and I have to listen to him because being a black witness is hard. He did provide me with the opportunity to look inward, and juxtapose his views and experience with my own. Larry’s witness doesn’t negate mine, and neither does Jussie’s. A person who is concerned with the goodwill of humanity has space in their consciousness for all witnesses without losing their awareness of justice and injustice.

A good friend of mine once said:

There is a bass note in all of the issues that we face today. the unfortunate reality is that most of us are only in tune with the drums, the singer, or the keys. We listen to voices that we are used to and support us and though that isn’t always a bad thing, it causes us to stay shallow, comfortable, and unscathed by the fragility of our broken system. We need to learn to listen for the bass note. To tune our ears to hear the music that we aren’t accustomed to listening to.

That bass note is the sound of black witness. Can you hear it?

Dear Corey (An Open Letter to My Former Self)

Dear Corey (An Open Letter to My Former Self) 6000 4000 Corey Leak

Dear Former Self,

Your non-threatening demeanor and disposition created great opportunities for you in White Evangelical churches. They loved that you could sing and play guitar with just enough soul to give them credit for hiring a POC, but not so much that it was uncomfortable for the majority white audience that sat in the seats. You learned so much as a man and a leader because of the spaces you led in.

When you worked at churches, you and the white folks that hired you, celebrated what it meant to have a black man leading within the church. You thought that the optics were important. After all, diversity is the buzzword of the modern church. They all knew that black skin added value to the church daily requiring zero effort. You are black, and every day you went to work, you were doing a huge part of your job. Up top! That’s a hustle! It opened the door for you to work for churches and provide a decent living for the family. You did what you had to do.

Everything was great! You laughed at the same cliche black jokes. “You’re the token black.” “We figured you’d be late.” “Is that your girl’s real hair?” All cannon fodder for humor that the white folks and you thought would help you relate to each other. You even initiated some of the fun to try and amuse your colleagues with your wit and self-deprecation. You kind of thought you were subtly reinforcing the authentic biases that lied beneath the surface of that humor, but also thought they were just jokes. You thought laughing and making those jokes helped you fit in, and for some of them, I agreed. For others, I believed you were complicit in the defamation of our blackness. I felt like our ancestors were somehow disrespected, but you never wanted to think about that too much. You didn’t feel like we could object without becoming a problem for our white partners in ministry. I wasn’t sure, but I went along with the plan. However, humor wasn’t the only area where you didn’t feel we could object.

I remember how many times they used you to do their dirty work. You were asked to have tough conversations with black volunteers or board members about things the white leaders you worked for were too scared to talk about themselves. You found a way to justify their neocolonialism and jumped into a fight that didn’t belong to you to keep your job. Once I started to come alive, I felt uneasy with a lot of what was said and done, but you never wanted anyone to know I was at work with you. You felt like I was the angry side that no one needed to see. How about the time the pastor snapped at you in a room full of people with a tone only your mom and dad had used towards you? I was ready to educate him, but you held me back. You tried to convince me that there was a greater good in being quiet. You felt like you needed to keep a good relationship with the white men who lead you. You believed that your black skin with a leaders salary and title was a giant step for them, and neither of us wanted to put the wife and kids in jeopardy. As examples of racism in culture became more vivid, I could no longer hold my peace, but you still had a job. We agreed I’d be quiet work as long as I got to speak my mind in public through social media and other public forums.

I think we both recognized that what happened to Alton Sterling and Philando Castille was heartbreaking. I don’t remember which one of us wept most about what happened, but I do remember it was becoming harder and harder to not see privilege, systemic racism, and bias all around us. But, again, we still had to feed the family. It was emotionally taxing for both of us to suppress feelings of anxiety, anger, disappointment, and frustration for fear of playing the “black card.” Maybe that anxiety is why it was so important that I find an outlet for my truth.

I started to speak up about injustice. I used #blacklivesmatter on social media. Then I realized just how many people had never met me before. How many “I didn’t know you were so black” comments did you get? You laughed. I snarled. You didn’t want to be labeled, miss out on opportunities, or lose your job. I wanted to tell the truth, and I was growing more and more dissatisfied with holding my tongue in the face of systemic racist structures.  You believed there was no place for a “pro-black” message within the gospel. I wasn’t sure either. After all, neither of us had heard very many sermons about racial justice. We had only heard that we are all one race, and encouraged not to see color.

Even in the absence of theology, I felt I had to speak up. Eventually, we found common ground in theology, and everything changed.

You were no longer the godly version and I the angry black version. We found that the New Testament is full of language that encourages diversity and unity. Jesus and Paul both warned about supremacy. Injustice has always been something God opposes, and it’s always been an evil that humans shouldn’t tolerate. Justice is not a curse word, but a word that can just as easily be substituted for righteousness.  In our theological wrestling, we found our voice. The duplicity we thought we needed to keep the peace is now a burden to us. It was cumbersome to try and be two different people. You had to learn to accept me and trust that I wasn’t an evil to despise, but truth to embrace. The world needed me to speak out about injustices as much as it needed you to sing Well Done.

I wish I could tell you that you were wrong about the white folks you were afraid would reject you if they ever met me. You weren’t. Many of those people you were worried about have bailed. You have lost some friends, and some people who once seemed to be fond of you don’t reach out anymore, but life is lived better from a sense of genuine self than from a safe place of oppressed apprehension.

I use my voice freely now.  I write about justice, faith, and culture, and I bear witness to the black experience. I’m contending for a better world, and there are quite a few white leaders who have embraced the message and me. There is opposition and people mislabeling this gospel as political rhetoric, but I live in the peace that comes from knowing that God is with me.


The “N” Word We Need to Use More Often

The “N” Word We Need to Use More Often 960 413 Corey Leak

I once gave a talk about how circles are better than squares. It was a 9-minute speech with racial undertones.  In the talk, I used the n-word a couple of different times. I knew that it had the potential to make the room uncomfortable. I was sharing this talk in an environment of mostly white people, but it was the best way to get the point across I was trying to make. A few days after I gave the talk, I got some feedback from a 60-year-old white man who said that I shouldn’t use that word because it made him uncomfortable. It was bizarre for me, a black man, to hear that the n-word made a white man uncomfortable, but I understood what he intended to communicate. The word is hard to hear because it has such a loaded history. I get it. I know why we avoid using it in mixed company. It’s a complicated word with a long and arduous past.

But. There is another n-word that we seem to avoid these days that shouldn’t elicit visceral responses, but it often does –  unlike the word used to degrade blacks, this word shocks and offends in other ways. No one re-coils when they hear or see this word, but people react when it’s brought to bear on a conversation featuring strong opinions.

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Try suggesting that taking an innocent life is tragic and women should have the right to choose in the same sentence and you’ll see pretty quickly that some people can’t handle the n-word. We live in a time where people are so convinced of their own righteous beliefs that they make little to no room for opinions that veer from their own even slightly. The mob mentality is strong these days. We are herded into tribal thinking before we have a chance to form our own opinions. People tend to parade gray areas as black or white, and if we don’t accept them as such, we can find ourselves without a tribe. This is especially true for those of us who subscribe to a religion.

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These days religion too often boils down to taking sides. “The only opinion there is to be had is the one that I hold based on my interpretation of the sacred texts or traditions.” Sure, no one would say that out loud. (At least I hope not) But, you can feel this kind of posture being taken by people the moment you suggest that there is another way to interpret the belief they hold so sacred.

Religious people believe that being open-handed with beliefs is tantamount to blasphemy or heresy and warn against leading people astray or getting too close to fires of hell. God’s judgment is always looming with people like that. God is an agent of vengeance looking on angrily as human beings struggle to understand the meaning and work through the pain of life. How tragic is this view of God? How sad is it that for people who have found meaning for their own lives through religious practice and beliefs, that they are so unwilling to allow space for people to think and reason for themselves outside of the limited scope of their self-righteous opinions.

We have reduced too many of our social conversations down to binary beliefs. Complicated issues like gender, race, sex, and women’s health are far too NUANCED for the dogmatic mind to engage in. If you’re already entirely convinced that what you believe is all there is to know about a subject, don’t join a dialog. There is no point. You waste your time and the time of the people you’re engaging in conversation with when your opinion is already the final authority on the issue.

We need more people willing to allow for NUANCE on issues. Because human beings have so many varied experiences and ideas about life, it’s impossible to move forward when there are only two options to choose. “Believe this, or you’re wrong” will never move us forward as humans. Only NUANCED thinking and willingness to enter into dialog with the possibility that my view isn’t complete without the opinions of others will.

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NUANCE makes it possible to believe in the validity of multiple arguments and ideas. When I embrace NUANCE, new facts, discoveries, or experiences aren’t adversarial to me. Instead, further details about something I’m passionate about add to and enhance my thoughts and feelings. I welcome the experience of others. I appreciate new studies and ideas because they provide new insights to factor.

If you’re a person who struggles with allowing for NUANCE, Here are a few things that can help you.

  1. Seek out someone you respect who has a different take on an issue than you do. Perhaps even the complete opposite opinion than yours. If you’re having trouble thinking of someone, that’s a bigger problem. Seek help immediately. 
  2. Listen to the stories of people with life experience for something you have passionate views, but no experience.
  3. Educate yourself through books, blogs, podcasts, or articles. The more you educate yourself, the less dogmatic your opinions become. 

If you put these three things into practice, you’ll see how much bigger the world is, and you’ll find a new appreciation for other experiences, thoughts, and ideas.

After my conversation about how much I used the n-word in my speech, I started to feel like a white man being uncomfortable with me using it to drive home a point about the ugliness of division was his problem, not mine. The same is true for those offended by NUANCED opinions. It’s not your problem when someone is disturbed by your ability to recognize the validity of multiple points of view. It’s theirs.