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July 2018

Church in the Wild

Church in the Wild 1024 678 Corey Leak

Last week I was invited to a community event called the Sons of Former Slaves and Sons of Former Slave Owners. One of my 3 flaws is that I sometimes struggle to pay attention to all the details presented to me in print form. I actually thought I was going to a “Sons of Slaves” event, so you can imagine my surprise to walk into the room and see white faces. That was when my mind recalled the image of the promo, and I thought…”Oh, AND Sons of Slave Owners… I should’ve invited some of my white friends”. I left my house for the event thinking I’d be in a room with black intellectuals discussing race issues, and I was intrigued to see how the conversation would go. Once I got there and saw the room filling up with black, brown, and white faces I was very intrigued to see what the conversation would be. I’ve spent the last two years of my life having conversations about race both on social media and IRL, so I had some idea of the things that I’d hear in this room. Typically these conversations have some of the same talking points like: white privilege, systemic oppression, police brutality, and racial bias. I left the house thinking I’d be engaging in stimulating conversation with other black men who understand what it is to be the “other” in America. I walked in the door and expected to engage in familiar dialog of a different sort, but still within my comfort zone. What followed was a dialog unlike any other conversation I’ve ever had about race or anything else for that matter.

There were 17 men in the room and we all sat in chairs arranged in a circle. In the center were several images of current events regarding race that were laying on top of a baby doll. The moderator, Eric Butler, briefly explained the rules of engagement and asked us all to share what values we would want to instill in this baby. We passed around the “talking stick” and each shared the value we thought we would be important for a child growing up in this world should have. After each man spoke, Eric asked us if we all agreed with the value. If everyone said yes, we would move on to the next man. Everything was going smoothly enough. There weren’t any huge disagreements over the values. Then after one of the guys advocated for empathy to be a value for our baby, Eric, wanting to stir the pot and make things interesting, shouted: “NAH F*CK THAT, I DON’T BELIEVE Y’ALL!”

He went on to challenge our collective commitment to empathy in the wake of the Nia Wilson murder here in the Bay Area. Eric shared his feelings about whether or not the non-blacks in the room had the capacity to empathize with black pain. He said: “Y’all aren’t feeling what we are feeling”. It was a valid viewpoint. The proposition that he rolled out for the room to wrestle with was whether people outside of his village could deeply feel the pain, outrage, confusion, or anguish of those in his village. From that tension I asked the non-black men in the room if they ever felt as though they are not allowed to express true empathy because of sentiments like the one Eric expressed. Many of them nodded, and then Aazar, an Afghan gentlemen sitting to my left shared that he thought we might be conflating empathy and sympathy. After Aazar’s comment, we took a journey even deeper into the complexity of understanding what it means to be empathetic across cultural boundaries.

The man who introduced the idea of empathy to the conversation was a black man named Joe. When I met Joe before we sat in the circle together I was a little intimidated. Another of my 3 flaws is that I expect people to be overly friendly when I meet them, and if they’re not, I consider the interaction cold. As an extravert, I tend to greet people with a smile, and I will usually feel a burden to get to know something about them. Joe had no such compulsion. He greeted me with a hello, nice to meet you and moved on. He spoke with a firm voice and had a “don’t start nothing, won’t be nothing” kind of demeanor. Even in the circle where we were all encouraged to share our truth and be willing to challenge one another I felt a little uneasy challenging Joe. After Aazar made his comment, Joe said “I feel insulted almost right now. I feel insulted off what you just said. I’m a very educated man with life and school wise.” Joe went on to explain an understanding and experience with empathy that was absolutely breathtaking.

Joe shared with us that he had spent 35 of his 40 plus years of his life in prison (27 of which were for murder). He told us that after he heard about Nia Wilson being murdered by a white man in what many have proclaimed a hate crime, his first feeling was empathy for the man who killed her. He shared from personal experience that violent behavior is inherited through life experience and trauma, and that people aren’t born violent. He said he didn’t absolve the killer of his sins or his crime because it’s not his place to do so, but that he wanted to understand what happened in his life what would lead him to take the life of a young girl he didn’t know. Talk about empathy. Are you kidding me?!?!? I don’t have the words to accurately explain what I felt in that moment. I may have been a little dismayed while at the same time filled with wonder at what I had just heard. It hadn’t occurred to me that empathy isn’t a biased virtue. I think I may have held the belief that empathy was earned, but empathy, like grace, is a virtue that can be extended to whomever we chose. The idea that something as beautiful as empathy could or would be expressed for a murderer was in conflict with my tidy ideas of who gets to receive God’s gifts of grace or empathy. Consequently, I understood Joe a lot more after his vulnerability with us. In that moment he was no longer a cold stranger I met at a gathering, but he started to feel like my brother or at least someone I would never forget.

There are several other remarkable moments from this gathering that I’ll likely share in future blogs. There were stories of unprecedented forgiveness, unparalleled inter-racial conversations, and camaraderie that made me leave and pronounce this gathering the best church service I’d ever been to. In fact I told Eric that as I was leaving. He said: “My grandmother always told me I’d be a preacher.” I told him, she was right, and he’s fulfilling her prophesy. No one in that room professed what faith they hailed from if any, and there were more than a few profanity laced conversations and speeches. Still, somehow I sensed a Divine presence among us. I didn’t sense it because of my favorite song or a great sermon, but because citizens from the community gathered to break bread and share their lives, beliefs, disagreements, and truths with one another. It certainly felt incredibly uncomfortable at times and maybe even a little wild, but perhaps wild is what the world needs right now.

Is there someone or a group of people you struggle to have empathy for?

How can we create more circles like the one I described above in other communities?



Our Sister

Our Sister 1536 1152 Corey Leak

Below is the video of one of us, a human being, who has just experienced a terrible tragedy. She’s Nia Wilson’s grieving sister. She and Nia were passengers on a train in Oakland where they were brutally attacked by a violent criminal late Sunday night.

As a Bay area resident, I’ve ridden BART with my family on a few different occasions, and I can’t imagine the horror of being attacked out of no where by a total stranger. It’s even harder to imagine that altercation resulting in the loss of a loved one. My heart has been heavy over this story since I found out about it Monday afternoon. After reading about the incident, which was initially reported as a hate crime, I processed out loud with my wife, and two of my daughters overheard. My middle daughter has experienced anxiety, and we have been working with her to manage it for a few years now. I knew that she had the potential to fear ever taking public transit again after hearing the news, and in that moment I shared her fear.

As human beings we can usually mitigate our emotional response upon hearing tragic news based on how closely we identify with the circumstances surrounding an event. For me, a black father of three daughters, I quickly identified with this story, and hearing Nia’s sister say that Nia too wrestled with anxiety was almost too much for me to bear. The image of a girl with anxiety taking her last breaths is crushing to me, and it probably is for you too. I was tempted to avoid that part of the story both in real life and in this blog because it’s a painful image to hold. Then I thought: the privilege to avoid the pain of another’s story is not a privilege to be treasured. We shouldn’t look away when we see another’s pain or tragedy. We should move toward it, and do all we can to redeem the justice, dignity or humanity that was taken from them.

I picked the cotton, and I carried it to market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip. These were the words of James Baldwin at a 1965 debate at Cambridge University. Baldwin used the pronoun “I” to express how the American Negro identified with his ancestors.

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His words were intended to assert that all black men were in a sense slaves because our ancestors were. That concept of human connection is at the root of the belief amongst Orthodox Jews that participating in the passover meal is to stand on the banks of the Red Sea and experience the liberation of ancient Jews from Egypt.  Communion is viewed in the Bible as entering into the sufferings and very person of Jesus. Throughout history the act of tangibly entering into another human beings experience has been viewed as a sacred act. Taking part in such sacred acts requires an existential connection. It requires that, as said Baldwin in the 60s, we see ourselves akin to the experience and especially the suffering of other humans. It is a redemptive practice, and it is how we shine light into the darkness of injustice.

Dehumanization, the greatest weapon of the enemies of justice and compassion, detaches us from the common thread that binds us all. Every human being loves, hurts, laughs, and cries, but not everyone embraces our core sameness. When we hear stories like Nia’s we can be seduced into finding ways to not see ourselves in her story. The subtle wording, phrases, and images from media outlets “otherize” victims of violence like Nia. Ignore them. She is human like you. Her family is devastated like yours would be. Allow yourself to be pulled into her story, and feel the grief her family feels. Let’s find a way to redeem this terrible tragedy and remember Nia as if she were our own daughter, niece, cousin, friend or neighbor. You probably never met her, and before reading this blog, you’d possibly never heard of Nia Wilson. You likely didn’t know her, but she was your sister. Her death is a human tragedy driven by a hatred that seeks to destroy us all if we don’t learn to love beyond our own interests.

How have others come along side you or your family during a time of grief or sorrow?

Have you ever felt connected to the grief of a person or family you didn’t know? Why did you feel that connection?

Here is the link to the GoFundMe set up in Nia’s honor. This is an easy way to honor her memory, and tangibly share in her family’s suffering and healing at the same time.






3 Stages of White Wokeness

3 Stages of White Wokeness 612 515 Corey Leak

Let me acknowledge the elephant in the blog right away. I recognize that I’m a black man writing content to and about a group of people I don’t belong to – white people. In the world we live in it can be intimidating to engage in content about race as a white person, especially a white male, and while I don’t feel sorry for the privileged class, I do understand how difficult it is to engage in healthy dialog with a mark against you before a conversation can even begin. It never feels good to be judged or dismissed based upon factors you were born with and are beyond your control, and I want to assure you at the very beginning of this blog that I’m not writing to attack you. I’m writing to help you engage – not because YOU need to, but because if you don’t, we as a people will never heal from the damage of our past.  If more white people, specifically white males, don’t get involved in helping to tear down racism, sexism, and xenophobia we will fall deeper and deeper into the great abyss of hatred, fear, and racial paranoia. Minorities alone aren’t enough to overthrow a system that delegitimizes their claims of oppression and second class citizenship. Only people operating in full legitimate standing as American citizens economically and socially have the power to enact the change that minorities are clamoring for. Fortunately, there are more and more such citizens beginning to speak out and use their voice to speak for the voiceless. I’ve noticed an uptick in white Americans acknowledging privilege, asking questions, and standing on the front lines for the cause of racial equality. I’ve had many conversations with white friends and colleagues over the past two years, and here are the stages of wokeness I’ve witnessed through our dialog.

Stage One: Awareness

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This stage is where the majority of white woke folks are. People in this stage ask questions, read content, and generally seek out all the information they can about racism, systemic injustice, and white privilege. They have mostly moved beyond fragility and denial, but don’t know what to do with their new found awareness. Often times people arrive at this stage through some personal experience such as adopting a POC or witnessing an injustice in their community. At this stage, it’s still intimidating to engage in the dialog with people of color about race, but the thirst for more information drives aware people beyond their own fear. This stage is about my struggle with racism both in my own consciousness and in the world at large. The people here wrestle with their own subtle contributions to the problems of systemic racism, and experience white guilt. The experience of guilt is a bit of a tipping point in the awareness stage. It’s where a person can potentially become defensive in an effort to try and lift the guilt. If an aware person chooses defensiveness it can show itself in a myriad of ways. One of them is by becoming reclusive about the issue. This is the silence we’re witnessing from some of our religious institutions. You’d be hard pressed to find a single religious leader that doesn’t recognize that there is a racial divide in America, but you’d be pressed even harder to find those same aware leaders actively involved in healing it. A better response to white guilt is to allow it to propel you to the next stage as I’ve seen many people I know do. Awareness is a great place to start, but this is not the stage to rest in. There is more work to be done.

Stage Two: Alliance

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Once a person goes on the long journey of awareness and made it through their experience with white guilt, they typically look for a partner to walk the journey with. That partner is usually, and understandably so, a POC. In this stage white people engage in deep and honest dialog with friends, colleagues, and neighbors of color about their experiences being minorities in America. These conversations help put flesh and bone on the research allies did in the awareness stage, but there is more to this stage than dialog. This stage is characterized by assisting POC in their struggle for equality, so allies find ways to help minorities. They are empathetic, and will reach out to black and brown friends when there is a racial tragedy such as: a shooting of an unarmed black American or a nationally broadcast supremacy rally like Charlottesville. These are people who truly have “black friends”. They have shared meals with people who aren’t white, and have a great deal of respect for black and brown people. Allies are willing to be lead, coached, and mentored by POC, and loathe racism on every level. They engage privately in open discussions about the evils of racism, and encourage the bravery of black and brown people who speak up. They are the people you’re most likely to see sharing anti-racism posts on social media. Many of them have black or brown family, friends, mentors, or bosses. Allies participate in peaceful protests and attend community events designed to heal the wounds of racism.  The proximity they have to POC makes them far more sensitive to the plight of minorities. They are willing to help people resisting systemic and organic racism. Allies are like your friends who come out to watch you run a half marathon and make sure you have plenty of water as you do it. They are extremely proud of you for running, and are your biggest fans, but they aren’t running with you. That’s allies. They cheer on the people in the struggle, and have great ideas for what they should do next. They are not using a large amount of their own resources or influence to resist racism.  There are legitimate reasons people settle into alliance. It feels like they are helping the cause. They are far from racist, and extremely supportive of their black and brown friends. I’d conjecture that this is the fastest growing stage of the three. With the advent of Trumpian rhetoric and the amount of material being put out on a daily basis presenting evidence of more racism in our country, many white people are settling in this stage if for nothing else to show that they don’t agree with racist rhetoric or practices. It can be a long journey to get to this stage, and it can feel like the end of the road, but there is another stage of wokeness. Honestly, there are many black and brown people who haven’t progressed to the final stage. It’s not for everyone I suppose.

Stage Three: Advocacy

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This final stage has the least amount participants, but especially white participants. This is the stage where the struggle against racism and for racial equality is our struggle. People in this stage are outspoken advocates of social change. Not everyone in this stage is outspoken in the same way. Folks who progress here are: community organizers, writers, film makers, artists, and leaders who don’t need permission from anyone to use their influence to advocate for change. The energy that drives their activity is generated from a deep sense of purpose, and you’ll find white people in this stage on the front lines of resistance to racism whether they are joined by POC or not. They use their platforms to uphold justice and equality. Many of the people in the advocacy stage have committed a significant amount of their time and resources to make sure that efforts to dismantle systemic racism in America continue to move forward. Advocates don’t just attend events, they organize them. They are the people whose content black and brown people read and share. They are running the race along side POC and actively seeking more ways to make sure the message is heard. They are helping raise awareness and recruit allies for the cause. Advocates renounce their own privilege, and though they don’t have the existential  urgency to act – they do anyway.

If you’ve read this all the way through, you’re likely in one of these three stages.

What stage do you most identify with?

Are you satisfied with the stage you’re in?

Imperial Myth 3 (Three Political Topics Your Church Hasn’t Avoided)

Imperial Myth 3 (Three Political Topics Your Church Hasn’t Avoided) 1200 627 Corey Leak

Something I find really ironic is people being put off by churches or church leaders talking “politics” from the pulpit. I’ve heard people say things like: Jesus didn’t get involved in politics. Says the pastor who has 12 sermons on the “power of the cross” saved on their computer. We Christians sing songs about the cross, wear crosses on our necklaces, hang crosses from our rear view mirror, display them on our mantels and fire places… as the symbol of our salvation. However, before it was a symbol of redemption, it was a form of capital punishment reserved for political enemies of Rome. Jesus wasn’t stoned to death or murdered in the streets by a soldier or an angry religious leader. He was killed publicly to discourage any other enemy of the state from speaking of any “kingdom” that was powerful enough to usurp Rome. So, yes, I’d say Jesus was involved in politics.

The Jewish people walking the planet during the times of Jesus expected their Messiah to overthrow Roman government through military efforts like the “saviors” before him. Their interpretation of their ancient holy writings lead them to expect physical salvation as much as spiritual if not more. Political struggle has always been a part of the story of mankind, and the writers of the Jewish scriptures didn’t write in a political vacuum. They wrote in the middle of political struggles for supremacy. When John, a political exile, wrote his often misunderstood epic “Book of Revelation”, he was using art to elevate Jesus as the true Divine Emperor who would ultimately make right the injustice enacted by the unjust Roman Emperors. John followed in the footsteps of prophets like Isaiah when he wrote to the Jewish exiles:

“Your leaders are rebels, the companions of thieves. All of them love bribes and demand payoffs, but they refuse to defend the cause of orphans or fight for the rights of widows” Isa 1:23

Imagine hearing words like this at church on Sunday referring to POTUS or Congress. Chances are  you won’t hear anything like that this weekend at church, but if you’ve attended an Evangelical church over the last ten years or so you’ve probably heard “politics” from the pulpit. Here are the five topics I’ve heard, and chances are you have too.


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I’ve sat in entire services dedicated to this one topic. It was done with sensitivity to any millennial democrats who may have been in the crowd, but the service and the sermon were both unapologetically anti-abortion. This is a topic that most Evangelicals have historically not been afraid to talk about. The killing of innocent babies inside the womb is an abomination and amongst the most heinous of all of Americas sins perpetrated by leftist sinners. Roe vs Wade was the beginning of America’s fall from God’s grace, and He will judge this nation for it’s horrible sin. That’s some of the rhetoric you’re likely to hear from an Evangelical church about abortion. I think we can all agree that life is sacred, and the taking of life, any life is deeply tragic. I’ve begun to wonder recently if these same Evangelicals are equally concerned about black and brown lives outside of the womb.

 Same Sex Marriage

God made “Adam and Eve” not “Adam and Steve” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that phrase. I’m not sure who coined it, but I hope they patented it. I’d be surprised if you haven’t heard the term “Biblical Marriage” at least once in the last year or so if you’ve gone consistently. That phrase denotes the marriage of a man to a woman. In recent years with the advent of “affirming churches” and homosexual pastors, there has been less and less full sermons or weekends about this topic, but sermon series about marriage and parenting rarely include language or principles that include same sex partners. The term “husband and wife” used throughout and on the images used for marketing and branding the series both reinforce the idea that same sex partners aren’t recognized as married in the churches or God’s eyes. Also, the majority of Evangelical churches have boundaries for where a person from the LBGTQ community can volunteer. I find the fact that few churches speak out as strongly as in years past about this issue interesting. Especially in light of the fact that ,outside of the afore mentioned affirming churches, most Christians still believe that living life together as same sex partners is a sin. Maybe it’s wisdom. Maybe it’s a growing sensitivity to the gay community. Maybe it’s a fear of polarization. Who knows. Though churches haven’t been as vocal in recent years, they haven’t avoided the issue.

Ten Commandments and Prayer in Schools

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Chances are after a school shooting your church has prayed for the victims families and expressed sadness over the violence that claimed innocent life. Usually churches will stop short of talking about “gun control” as a possible solution for ridding our schools of violence, and will instead site the government’s decision to remove prayer and the Ten Commandments from schools.  As if once that happened God stopped caring about what happens to students and faculty in public schools. Again, you’ve probably not heard full sermons on this political topic, but it’s not something your church will avoid mentioning from time to time. Federal law prohibits vocal “disruptive” prayer in schools which is something that Christian churches have lamented since it became law in 1962. In 1990 a small group of students gathered on their campus before school at the flag pole for a time a prayer and scripture reading. Since then, millions of people gather every year on the fourth Wednesday of September for See You at the Pole. The youth pastor at your church and possibly the whole staff likely attended last year, and will again this fall.

I think if we’re all honest, none of us truly have a problem with our church talking politics. Our issue is with churches talking politics we don’t agree with. We applaud the pastor courageous enough to not be “politically correct” when that boldness is in line with our own sentiments. When was the last time you applauded your churches courageous stance you didn’t agree with? We don’t applaud the boldness. We applaud the alignment to our personal values. In my 35 years attending and working at churches, I’ve found that Evangelicals have been most vocal about social change when a democrat is President. It seemed as if America was on the precipus of total moral decay every minute a democrat sat in the Oval Office. I thought God was a republican until ten years ago, and apparently some people still do. I’ll never forget seeing this imaged posted on social media by a Christian artist the moment Trump was elected president.

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Apparently, Jesus wasn’t welcome in the White House under the previous administration. I guess he was avoiding being too political.

What has your experience been with politics in church?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!!!

Imperial Myth 2 (Independence Day)

Imperial Myth 2 (Independence Day) 1000 1000 Corey Leak


A couple days ago on “Independence Day” I felt a tension that I didn’t anticipate. All my life I’ve participated in National holidays, and I especially love the ones that have eating as a pillar of the celebration. This Independence Day was interesting because for the first time I wondered if I should celebrate or grieve. That is partially due to the fact that I’m prone to being influenced by peers and other well written/spoken people I know and respect. I saw more resistance to celebrating America’s independence from some of my black friends this year than I can ever remember seeing before, and that made me stop to consider whether I agreed with the timing. Was a National Holiday celebrating American freedom the time to lament injustice?

I certainly agree with the premise that America’s Independence was, as I’ve stated in a previous blog, realized more than 200 years before black people received any semblance of freedom. I can understand how a people who have historically been treated like guests or worse in this country would be reluctant to light off fire works and adorn themselves with American Flag shorts.

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(Ironically, people wearing these shorts or any other apparel of the flag to “honor” America are in violation of U.S. Flag code.)

None the less, I had a hard time reconciling how I felt about allegiance to America as a follower of Jesus. I grew up attending conservative Evangelical churches that often served as a campaign platform for Republican values and government. I grew up believing that America was God’s blessed nation as long as it was run by Republicans. “America the Blessed” is the way that most churches I sat in (except for my dad’s AME church) would characterize this Nation. That was in spite of any past or present atrocities American government sanctioned within our borders or abroad. It’s that background that was on one end of the tension I felt this week as our Nation celebrated its independence.

On the other end of the tension was my belief that America is still a country that is oriented in favor of its dominant culture, and people from that group malignantly and some unwittingly participate in maintaining that supremacy. There in lies the challenge of celebrating freely. Now, before you allow yourself to think: “If America is so bad, why don’t you just leave”, I would again caution some deeper reflection. That idea is deeply rooted in the systemic problem with race in America. I am deeply grateful for the freedoms that I and my family enjoy as American citizens. I’m also deeply disturbed by the discriminant fashion in which freedoms are granted to citizens, especially in some of the rhetoric from a group I’ve spent the better part of my adult life helping to build.

This week I watched a video of a church I attended for a long time when my wife and I first married. I watched the pastor of that church during their 4th of July weekend service read a poem from Ted Nugent. The poem recited from behind a podium in front of a giant American flag, attempts to shame athletes who have protested police brutality against the black community by pontificating about the struggles of our armed forces contrasted with the “luxury” of playing sports. While this isn’t the blog to deconstruct that straw man, it should be noted that one has nothing to do with the other. Athletes aren’t boycotting the anthem, and taking time during a worship gathering to uphold American patriotic myth is a tragic conflation.

Church gatherings like this are what make celebrating America difficult for me and other black Americans. I’ve had the privilege of spending time with two men at the center of the NFL protest controversy. I’ve seen first hand the passion and conviction of both Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid. Watching them sacrifice their careers for something they believed in was one thing, but to hear them talk about why in person was something that has resonated to my core.

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I’ve watched as people from the black community have approached them to thank them for being willing to take a stand for their community and use their voices to speak for the voiceless. I’ve become good friends with Eric, and have had many conversations about how his strong faith in Christ is the fuel that drives his passion for changes in our criminal justice system. When the church in America, which I consider my tribe, shows flagrant disregard for the plight of Black America (also my tribe) I’m left feeling disappointed at a time that I would love to be celebrating our freedom unadulterated. It’s hurtful when people (especially Christians) disregard the deeply personal convictions of black Americans, and add insult to injury by demonizing the people taking action to try and bring about change.

It’s a tall ask to expect black Americans to celebrate freedom arm in arm with people who still want to deny them freedom that inconveniences the dominant culture. Can you see the dilemma? Can you imagine having your mom’s birthday fall on the anniversary of your dad’s death every year? That’s what Independence Day feels like these days for black people. Is it appropriate to celebrate American Independence? Absolutely! Is it also appropriate to have difficulty celebrating due to the weight of black history?

Life is heavy and light. It’s joyful and it’s sad. We are often mad, sad, joyful, hopeful, and worried at the same time. It’s unhealthy to ignore the heavy feelings of sorrow to try and “white knuckle” happiness, and it’s exceptionally unhealthy when that effort is forced by the external influence of mythical ideas of patriotism. In the end, I gave myself permission to be both thankful for my freedom and sorrowful for the lack of empathy and partnership extended to the black community. We lit off fire works two nights in a row. We ate burgers off the grill, and spent time as a family laughing and making memories. Today, I’m lamenting hypocrisy. I can express both joy and sorrow. That is the freedom I’m most thankful for this year.

How do you define patriotism?

How can you celebrate freedom, but recognize more progress is needed?