Friday, October 29, 2010

Why It Matters to Me, Part 2: Class


Troy D. Smith

Last time I talked about how a grad school assignment had inspired me to think seriously about when, and how, I had first become aware there was such a thing as race or class. That thought process was extremely valuable to me; the act of isolating the ways I became aware of those things helped me to understand how those awarenesses had affected my life from that point forward, and why I felt as I did about those topics. In that blog, I expounded on my experiences with race; now I’ll do the same with class. I do run the risk of repeating myself, because I have discussed some of these things in earlier posts –if so I hope you’ll bear with me.

I’ll begin, as before, with a little background. I was born in the small town of Sparta, pop. 5,000, in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee (see map below.) The Upper Cumberland stretches across northern middle Tennessee and southern middle Kentucky; the Tennessee portion is comprised of ten counties. (At this point you are probably wondering why I have wandered into a geography lesson, and may be nodding off –I’ll try to control myself, I promise.)

I have a reason for bringing all that up. Tennessee became a state in 1796, and by that time the ancestors of all four of my grandparents were already living in the Upper Cumberland; there are cemeteries in White and Overton counties where I can visit the graves of multiple generations of them. The region has also been home to Civil War guerrillas (and archenemies) Champ Ferguson and Tinker Dave Beaty, World War I hero Alvin York, Louis L’Amour’s fictional Sackett clan, bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Benny Martin, and a couple of politicians named Albert Gore. There are a lot of families like mine, who have been there for a couple of centuries… and in that time, especially in the smaller towns (and the largest town, Cookeville, has a whopping population of about 20,000), there has not been a lot of social mobility among those families in all that time. If you are from there and your family has some wealth, odds are they had it before the Civil War; if your family is poor, they’ve probably been poor the whole time as well.

My paternal grandfather was a farmer –a sharecropper, really –and he did prison time in the 1940s for making moonshine. He later worked the fields many years for one of Sparta’s most prominent citizens. My maternal grandparents were townfolk, living in Sparta –my grandfather worked as a freelance gardener and handyman for several of the town’s wealthy families. My mom and her seven brothers and sisters grew up with hunger as a frequent companion. She was born in 1951 –a baby boomer. Everyone knows that baby boomers grew up in suburban houses with pipe-smoking Ward Cleaver dads in gray flannel suits, right? Not where I’m from. My mom did not have electricity or running water until the late 60s, when she was married to my soldier father (I was born in ‘68.) In the early 70s my grandma still heated with a cast-iron wood stove in the living room- I never saw that sort of thing on TV.

My mom and her siblings are all extremely intelligent, and love to read- go to my Aunt Essie’s house and you’ll see Faulkner and McCarthy lying about (their books, not them personally), my mother has an impressive library of her own (she particularly likes African American history and fiction, and historical fiction in general), and when my Uncle Gordon (the eldest) died, my mother found among his effects 1950s rejection letters for a novel manuscript. Those facts are especially significant when you consider that none of them graduated from high school. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, most of them never even attended high school. In fact, I am the first male in my family –on either side, ever, so far as I know –to graduate high school, let alone college and grad school (a couple of my older female cousins did so ahead of me, and to be fair my Aunt Essie’s son Stanton would have had he survived his senior year.)

Suffice it to say, even a town as small as Sparta had a set of tracks, and I was from the wrong side of them.

My earliest memories are of being three years old, and living in a small house (near one of the black communities I talked about last time, Black Bottom) with my (recently separated) mom, her sister Essie and her son, and two of their brothers. My mom got remarried when I was five- she and her husband, and many of their siblings, worked for minimum wage at one of the garment factories in town. There were several such factories- they’d moved into the area in the mid-20th century because labor was ridiculously cheap, since Appalachian Southerners tended not to unionize; some miners had made a go at a strong union during the Depression, which led to a good bit of murder and mayhem in Wilder. At any rate, none of us had very much in the economic department.

My Aunt Essie worked in the factory office –and ended up marrying the owner, a Czech Jew who was 20+ years her senior. Edgar Lebenhart was a kind, gentle man- the son of a Prague bureaucrat, he had escaped Europe during the Holocaust (many of his family did not.) He was educated and cultured –he spoke five languages and collected Palestinian artifacts –he was a huge influence on me. He provided me with a treasure trove of history books; no one had ever even mentioned college to me, and here was someone saying that I should be a professor someday. They bought a very nice house, and then a smaller one next door which my family rented from them. It was a nice set-up all around, especially for me: I had two families, really, and those years were a break from the poverty we had mostly known. It didn’t last long, though; Edgar died of a heart attack when I was 9, and a few months later Essie’s son Stanton –who had always been a big brother to me –died in a car wreck on his 18th birthday. Over time, Essie’s health problems ate away at the money Edgar had left her until it was all gone. The nice houses at the edge of the woods were gone (that place is still the home I go to in my dreams), and my family was back to moving from one rented trailer to another. Sometimes they had big holes in the floor that we covered with ply-board; one was so small that I slept on the ironing board built into the hallway wall. My step-father developed tuberculosis and was usually out of work, leaving us to get by on my mom’s minimum wage job. There were many days when I would not have eaten at all had I not had free lunch at school. Food stamps were a fact of life –but once Reagan’s trickle-down economics came into play, they were cut way back. To this day when I think of Ronald Reagan I think of the harsh growling in my stomach as I looked into the cupboard after a hard day of being a 7th grader and saw nothing but a small can of Crisco, and knew there’d be nothing there tomorrow either. And to this day when I hear people deride those less fortunate than themselves as lazy and undeserving welfare bums, I am enraged. My family did nothing to deserve the poverty they suffered, except be heirs to generations of it with no tools to get out.

The Upper Cumberland was one of the country’s most active moonshine-producing regions in the first half of the 20th century. In the 70s and 80s it was one of the country’s top marijuana producers; nowadays it is a center of meth dealing. Several of my relatives and friends have been in and out of prison. People need to stop crowing about how hard they are on crime and start asking themselves why people in this one region, for a century, have been turning to drugs and alcohol as both an escape and a career; is it because Appalachian people are naturally lazy and/or criminal? That is the image the rest of the country sometimes seems determined to focus on, but it is not true. There just aren’t very many opportunities there- and, with most of the factories I mentioned earlier having moved to Mexico in pursuit of even cheaper labor, it is getting worse.

So –sometimes my family had stuff (like adequate shelter and food) and sometimes they didn’t. That wasn’t hard to figure out, even for a kid. When, though, did I realize that there was more to it than that, and that there was such a thing as social class? I was forced to cast my memory back, for that grad school exercise, and I realized it was around the same age that I had started to recognize racialization.

I really wasn’t aware of class in elementary school. I went to one of the smallest schools in the county, and its location made it an interesting mix. It was near the black communities known as Black Bottom and Bluff City, and by extension was therefore near the poor white neighborhoods which bordered them. At the same time, though, it was also close to a neighborhood which included a place called Sugar Hill –a scenic area where many of the town’s well-to-do lived.

At this point, I have to clarify something. When you grow up in generational poverty in a small town, the people you view as “rich big shots” are really nothing of the kind. In any other setting, they would be considered as average middle class folks- small business owners, professionals and the like. But to poor people, middle class seems rich, and that’s how Sugar Hill denizens appeared to the rest of us. Or, more accurately, to our parents.

You see, the kids at Baker Elementary played together –black and white, poor and not-so-poor, and never thought anything about it. I had very close friends from all three neighborhoods, and there seemed to be no difference. But when I wanted to have some of my Sugar Hill friends over to the house, or go to theirs, my mom was always horrified at the prospect. She was still deeply hurt by the way kids of that class had tormented her as a child, and feared my experiencing something similar. Nevertheless, we played at one another’s houses, and I never thought anything about it.

Then, elementary school was over and middle school began. Without even realizing what was happening or how, we started self-segregating… the “popular” kids (and somehow you just never saw many poor “popular” kids) banded together, the black kids did the same, and the group known in some circles as white trash hung together. Many of my best friends had been a part of that “popular” group- and all of a sudden, none of them ever talked to me. They didn’t even seem to notice when I was close by, like I was a pigeon. It was like I ceased to exist altogether. It even seemed that many of the teachers knew who the “proper” kids were. I gradually realized that I was no longer considered an important person –because of who I was, and what I did or didn’t have. It also sunk in for the first time that those upper middle class types had things I did not, and never would, because of who my family was –not just physical things, but privileges. And the unfairness of it burned in me like a flame fed by a bellows. To this day, one of the worst things anyone can do, and the quickest way to arouse my fury, is to imply that I am intrinsically not good enough. The second worst thing you can do is to imply that poor people in general are not good enough- that they are automatically lazy and worthless, and imply that they deserve whatever they get (or don’t get.) I take it very personally. When you say that, even in a general sense, you are talking about my family. I also despise being ignored because of who I am or what I do. I was a janitor for many years, and most people never looked into my face or even seemed to realize I was there.

Both race and class issues cut straight to my sense of justice, which –because of the things I have discussed here and elsewhere –is one of the core parts of my psyche. The difference is, I approach racial issues from the perspective of someone one the privileged end of the social construct, recognizing its iniquity and trying my best to disown that privilege. With class, I approach things as the unprivileged one (even though, from what they tell me, I am now on the verge of being a middle class professional.) And unprivileged people react to the concept of privilege by –taking it personally, and getting pissed off. It is human nature.

There are people out there who will say that someone from my background isn’t really unprivileged at all –that I escaped poverty, and that proves anyone can if they really want to. To which I say, bullshit. I am extremely lucky. For every person who tried as hard as I did and succeeded, there were three more who tried just as hard and failed because the deck was stacked against them. And seven others who never tried at all –not because they were lazy, but because poverty creates fatalism. I am in no way better than my friends and kin who wound up in prison. I am fortunate. They are not. And a big part of my good fortune was having an influence early on –my Uncle Edgar –who could envision something better for me and make me believe in my potential.

Some people start in the basement and scale the walls of the tower, until they reach its peak. Very, very, very few. And some, once they are there, become smug; I am here because I am exceptional. Let those still in the basement do the same, if they can. But that’s not how I look at it. I want to do all I can to throw wide the doors that bar their way, and welcome them all. Because I know most of them deserve to be here just as much as I do. I do realize that opening those doors is a tall order, and not one I can realistically do- but maybe, if I really throw my weight into it, I can budge it a fraction of an inch, and other people can pitch in. At the very least, in the meantime, I can try to treat people like human beings –no matter who they are and what they do for a living.

Because that’s what I expect, and demand. Whether I am a professor or a janitor- I am still me.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why It Matters to Me, Part 1: Race

As originally posted on:

I often find myself, in loosely constructed essays that begin as tirades on Facebook and turn into posts on my (erratically amended) blog, addressing social issues which are very important to me: they are more often than not race, class, and sexuality issues. I suppose one could frame them generally as social justice concerns. In debating people with opposite views it becomes increasingly clear to me that one’s stand on these issues is informed largely by one’s own experiences. Duh, you say. Well, yeah… that statement does reflect perception of the obvious. But knowing that your experiences inform your politics, spirituality, and et cetera, is one thing- truly understanding it is another thing entirely.

My focus on social justice has informed my whole adult life. The volunteer work I did with Haitian immigrants in the late ‘80s, the ministries I undertook when I was a young man, the poetry and fiction I continue to write, the themes I explore as a professional historian, the approaches I take in the classroom, all have been driven in whole or in part by the fuel of my social passions. So have my efforts to understand my own place in the universe; who I am, and who I aspire to be.

In my first year of grad school, I took a course on the Black Freedom Movement taught by Professor Sundiata Cha-Jua, whom I greatly respect and admire. One of the first assignments seemed, on the surface, ridiculously simple, and yet turned out to be so complex that it still echoes in my thoughts several years later. The professor instructed us to write a short paper addressing the earliest moments in our lives when we fully realized that there were race and class differences in our society. The very act of sifting through my memories for those epiphanies made me think about my life, and myself, in ways I never had before. I have cared about these things for most of my life –but why? I think a similar exercise would help anyone develop better understandings of themselves and of these particular issues. Perhaps you are a person who does not particularly care; well, why not? Maybe isolating the answer to that question can lead you to future experiences which will make you care more.

I intend to structure this endeavor in three parts, and explain the moments in my life that have made me care about race, class, and sexuality. It may seem like a self-absorbed endeavor, and the first time I did it, privately, it was. In this case, though, I hope that seeing how someone else’s thought processes led them to a position might give you a starting point to find where you are on the spectrum of opinion/engagement, and why. I am going to start with race.

I come from a small town in Appalachian Tennessee (Sparta- population when I was a kid, it has not changed much, was 5,000, or about one-quarter of the people in the county. The rest lived in one of a handful of hamlets, or in the rurals.) There were two or three hundred black people (the 2000 census recorded close to 250), making the town 5% black and 95% white back when I was growing up. It may sound weird, but that gave Sparta the highest percentage of black citizens of any town in the whole Upper Cumberland Region- Cookeville has more numerically, but they make up a smaller percentage of the overall population (in 2000, about 700 individuals making up 3% of the population.) No other nearby town was even close; in fact, two –Crossville and Gainesboro –were “sundown towns” and when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s had virtually no black inhabitants at all. My point is, Sparta TN has a black community, and small as that community is it is one of the biggest in the area. Very few of those African Americans lived in the rurals (virtually none, in fact.) Most of them lived in two distinct neighborhoods in town: one was referred to as Bluff City (not on maps- none of these black neighborhoods were ever marked on maps.) The other, larger neighborhood was in the center of town. It was known, to every white person in the county, as Nigger Hill. Forgive my use of that word- I hate it, but I fear that euphemisms or asterisks will weaken the impact of knowing that such a term could be tossed around so lightly so recently. Over the years most folks –except some, in private conversation- have shortened that offensive title to just “The Hill.” There was a third, much smaller, neighborhood not far from Bluff City called Black Bottom. All three neighborhoods were clustered around the Calfkiller River.

I noticed when I was a teenager that white folks from the rurals were much more likely to be vocally prejudiced than white folks from town, and I have always suspected that it was because they rarely interacted with black people. My mom was raised in town- her family had been extremely poor, and they lived on the outskirts of the Bluff City / Black Bottom area. Her childhood friends, neighbors, and babysitters had been black, and she knew them as people instead of scary “others.” There were still social differences, of course; my mom didn’t have to sit in the balcony at the movies or drink from a different fountain. But she did not raise me to think of black people as inferior, scary, or even different- and I suspect many of my white rural classmates had a different perspective offered to them at home. A few years ago I attended a Black History Month expo in Sparta, organized by my friend Louvenia Gardenhire, and couldn’t help noticing that half the audience was black and half was white, and I noticed that the majority of whites I recognized were “townfolk.” This is not to say the townfolk weren’t prejudiced, I just think it was a smaller percentage and more subtly presented. When I was a teenager in the mid-80s one my biggest influences was an elderly black man in the Bluff City area who had been childhood friends with my maternal grandfather. I used to sit and talk with him for hours, and I learned a lot.

None of that, however, answers the question asked of me by Professor Cha-Jua. When was the first time I really, really saw and understood the significance of race? The answer lay, not in personal experience, but on television.

It was 1980, and I was not quite twelve years old. The family was gathered around the set –I believe we were watching 60 Minutes, but it may have been a similar news anthology program. The program did a piece on Emmett Till, who had been murdered twenty-five years before.

If you are not familiar with the case of Emmett Till, he was an African American teenager from Chicago. In 1955 he visited relatives in the Mississippi Delta. Accounts vary, but the 14-year-old Emmett –unversed in “proper” behavior for blacks in the 1950s South –managed to offend a 21-year-old married white woman. Some reports were that he whistled, others that he called her baby, others that he put an arm around her waist and asked her for a date using “lewd” language. Whatever it was he did, it offended the woman and her relatives; Till was later abducted from his great-uncle’s house, taken to a barn in the next county, beaten and tortured, and murdered. His body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River. His mother insisted on an open casket; photos of his terribly disfigured body, and details of his death, were in newspapers all around the country, leading many Americans to reflect on the racial problems of Mississippi and the country in general. Despite an abundance of evidence, an all-white jury acquitted the two accused murderers.

I watched the 1980 news segment in horror. The infamous open casket photo was shown; relatives of Till were interviewed, and I remember one woman –I assume it was his mother but am not certain now –broke down in sobs. I was overwhelmed. I quickly ran and locked myself in the bathroom because I didn’t want anyone to see me cry, and held in the deep, painful sobs that welled up from my soul. I prayed, silently, fervently and desperately: Why, God? How could the world be such a place –how could people do something like that, because of the color of someone’s skin? I prayed that the Lord would help me understand. And I prayed, with all the sincerity of an 11-year-old, that He would somehow let me do something someday –even if it were only a little something –to help improve that world, to help set those balances straight. It was not until I thought back, while working on Cha-Jua’s essay, that I realized how profoundly those moments affected me.

Concern for racial justice became an ingrained part of who I was. A few years later, when I was in high school and looking for a church to attend (my family was not religious at the time), one of the things that attracted me most to Jehovah’s Witnesses (a religion I would join as a teen and leave when I was in my late 20s) was the racial harmony I saw at their meetings –this when I was from a town where churches self-segregated. Once, when I was 18 or so, I heard a sermon about “Freedom as the Children of God” in which the speaker pointed out that many people thought they were free, but were not. That set me to thinking about freedom- what it is, where it’s found –and (history nerd that I was) I was reminded of how the slaves were freed after the Civil War, yet both the Reconstruction South and the industrial North were not really havens of freedom for them. I decided I wanted to write a book someday –not about slavery, but about freedom. First, though, I spent several years in the full-time ministry. Two of those years I worked exclusively with Haitian immigrants (this was the late 80s, and unrest in Haiti brought a large number of Haitians to America –looking for freedom.) The first year was spent in South Florida, and the second was in New York City. I was living and working at Bethel, the Witnesses’ world headquarters, while serving and preaching in a French-speaking congregation comprised almost wholly of Haitians (La Congregation Francaise Centrale de Brooklyn.) It was while I was there, going door to door in Bedford-Stuy and Crown Heights, that I had another epiphany about race.

There was a lot of racial unrest in Brooklyn in the late 80s and early 90s –ever hear of the Crown Heights riot, or see the film Do the Right Thing? When I was working in those neighborhoods, I was often the minority. On many occasions, angry black people called me names, swore at me, threw glass bottles at me, and on two occasions threatened to kill me… because I was white. It hurt, terribly. I was trying to be a good person. I was trying to help people. I hated racism with every fiber of my being. And yet, there were people who despised me and threatened me –because just from looking at my skin, they thought they knew who I was. It was so unfair. It burned like nothing I had ever experienced. And then, one day, something dawned on me. If I wanted to avoid such treatment, all I had to do was leave that neighborhood and go –almost anywhere in the country. The unfairness would melt away, and I would once more be treated like a person. But if I had been born black instead of white, there would be nowhere I could go in the entire United States where I could completely escape that horrible feeling. And all of a sudden –even though I could never fully understand –I understood better. A few years later, I did write that book about the meaning of freedom: Bound for the Promise-Land. It won Western Writers of America’s Spur Award, and was complimented by many who read it for its verisimilitude. The truth is this: when I wrote that book, the story of a former slave who spends his whole life looking for peace and trying to understand freedom, and tried to put myself in that character’s place, all I had to do was call up the memory of the feelings I had on that day in Brooklyn when people were throwing glass bottles at me from their cars as they drove by. And I had an inkling of how my character felt, and of how the bottle throwers felt.

Flash forward now to the past few years. While at grad school I worked for awhile, as part of a teaching fellowship, at the University High School. Every year a group of those Uni High kids take a weeklong trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi to work for Habitat for Humanity there. That is a noble goal in itself, but the experience involves much more than just that. The teachers –particularly Dr. William Sutton –make the whole thing an educational experience, spending the evenings after a hard day’s work discussing race and class issues with the kids, most of whom are from privileged middle class homes in Illinois, and to whom the poverty and even the history of the rural Mississippi Delta are so foreign as to be virtually incomprehensible. I have accompanied my friend Bill Sutton on many of those trips now, both with student and church groups, and Clarksdale almost seems like a second home to me –it feels more like home, to a Southerner such as myself, than Champaign, Illinois ever could. I have discovered that my own background of poverty has helped me be able to present fresh perspectives to those students, and some have told me they were encouraged by my words to aspire to lives of greater public service. Those are some of the most wonderful words I have ever heard in my life.

On the last such trip, this past spring, I realized something. I was at the Habitat dorm, at a singalong with the young college students from my church group and several of my Clarksdale friends, and a couple of the songs we sang were old Civil Rights standby’s: “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” It dawned on me while singing those songs that I was only a few miles away from the spot where Emmett Till was murdered in 1955. In a way, I had come full-circle… and along the way, maybe, just maybe I have done a little something to make a difference. I keep trying.

And that’s why race matters to me.

In a week or so I’ll talk about class. Right now I better get back to work on that almost-finished dissertation before I get grounded. It’s about race, by the way.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day

I promise I'll write about something other than "Days" again eventually but this one is close to my heart not because I have experienced it myself but because I have so many friends that have and because I have seen those losses handled so poorly by the Christian community.

We live in a time when we know very early on, sometimes even before our cycles stop, that we are pregnant. This new knowledge comes with a downside in that we also know where perhaps we might not have before that that "late period" is actually a very EARLY pregnancy loss. I am on a message board GCM for Christian mommies and "Cradled in our Wombs" is a very active forum there, unfortunately so is "Empty Arms". Over the decade I've been on GCM I've celebrated many BFP's (big fat positive test results) only to have to turn around and grieve the loss of those babies. It is constantly in my awareness. For most of us though its not...we have have no idea how many of our friends hold their breath until that magical second trimester is reached before sharing their news with the world. Or how many of them grieve quietly and alone because that little one will never be. Even when these moms do speak of their grief they find it too often dismissed because it was "just a miscarriage"...ask nearly any mom who has experienced one if the dismissive little four letter word "just" ever belongs in the same sentence as the word "miscarriage".

I have a very close friend who has lost 11 children prior to their birth. Unless you know her very well you would never know that about her. I am honored to be one of the ones that not only knows but knows all their names. This time of year is especially hard for her because over half of her losses happened around this time. Four of them happened just two weeks before my own daughter's I am always aware...always...that she should have quads just months younger than my daughter. She came to my house directly from the doctor the day she lost the quads. We cried together and she stayed with me until her husband could come and get her. I remember standing at the sink, my hand resting on my hugely pregnant belly, and crying and asking God "WHY?" Yet as close as we are I had somehow never understood, never realized, that losing a 16 week pregnancy isn't passing some tissue...its birthing a perfectly formed tiny person too small to survive outside the womb. Times four. And because it's a 16 week pregnancy rather than a 21 week pregnancy, it's "just" a miscarriage. No birth/death certificates, no burial, nothing except painful memories to prove that those children ever lived. And a wall of silence where there should be others to mourn with those who mourn.

Thankfully there are now days like today...and websites like silent griefor miscarriage support and for later term miscarriages/losses where memorial photography is a possibility there is now I lay Me down to sleep. But still there is too much silent grief and I for one am grateful for days like today where those who have experienced a loss can speak it aloud and be supported in their grief. So I am posting today for all my friends and family who are grieving and I'm remembering with them today if I know of their losses. Hugs and prayers to you all.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

National Coming Out Day

October 11th is National Coming Out Day. Today as part of that observance my daughter and I participated in a March for Gay Rights in Memphis. It was an historic event in this city. Never before has the GLBT community and their straight allies come together in these numbers to protest and to demand equality. And make no mistake Christian IS about equality.

Most of us in the straight Christian world have no idea what life in the GLBT community is like. We don't get what it is to be a minority, despite our incessant whining about how persecuted we are because people want to wish us "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas". We don't comprehend what it is like to live in fear day after day in our places of employment. We don't contend with hatred day in and day out simply because of who we love. We don't have to consider anything other than age of consent when the issue of whether we're legally able to marry comes up. No, that's not even right...the issue of whether or not we're legally able to marry simply doesn't come up. Its just a given. So much of what we take for granted is denied our GLBT brothers and sisters.

March organizer Michael Hlidebrand told WMC news "Nobody knows you can be fired for being gay. They don't know about all of the rights we don't have that straight people have." And we don't and worse we don't care. We stick so dogmatically to the one note song that being Gay is a sin that we cannot hear the chorus of voices around us asking, "So what? Even if it is what does that have to do with denying us our HUMAN rights?"

Because I believe that marrying the person you love is a HUMAN right. I believe that the ability to live openly without fear is a HUMAN right. I believe that the ability to be who you are at your place of employment is a HUMAN right. For so long we've followed the hateful, hate-filled rhetoric of the so called "Religious Right" that we have swallowed the lie that the "Gay Agenda" is pushing for "Special Rights". It is simply not true. Our GLBT brothers and sisters want and deserve the same rights that we in the straight community take for granted as our birthright.

Today I am "Coming Out" and standing alongside my GLBT brothers and sisters and saying: Enough!

WHAT do we want?
What do we WANT?
What do WE want?

Separate is NOT equal and HATE is NOT a Family Value.

I am a straight ally and I love my GLBT brothers and sisters. Equality NOW!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Happy Blog-iversary!

One year ago today this blog was born as a place where I and my friends could ramble about issues of life and faith.

It has been a crazy year for me. In May my house was one of hundreds (thousands?) across the state of Tennessee to be damaged in the flooding. I've been kind of consumed with recovering from that ever since. When I started this blog I was still a member of a Methodist Mega-Church (MMC for short) and I was struggling with the decision of "do I stay or do I go"...the flooding brought me, unexpectedly, the answer to that question. The response of the congregation and pastoral staff at FBC Memphis to a family who were "just visitors" brought into startling contrast the way things were done at the big MMC. By Memorial Day, four weeks post flood, we had moved our membership and we have spent the last several months making our home at FBC. It was the right decision for so very many reasons. I am thankful for this community every day. It has created a safe space to BE an Unconventional Christian unlike my experience in the MMC.

I am blessed to have such an awesome group of co-authors. I gain insight each time one of them posts and I'm glad that the rest of the blogosphere gets to share that experience with me. I am hoping to add a couple of new co-authors in year two so stay tuned! Thanks for joining us this year and Happy Blog-iversary!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Let's Talk About Growing Up Bullied

This is not an easy post for me to write but I am inspired by Dan's courage over at Single Dad Laughing and I am accepting his challenge to use our voices and tell our stories. I'm hoping my co-authors here will do so as well. I know parts of the story of at least one of them and I know he has something very valuable to offer to the conversation.

I tend to minimize what happened to me as a child, I think most of us who were bullied do this in order to survive, but I have come to believe that we are doing our children a disservice by continuing to edit our stories now that we have made it through to the other side.

I was SIX when it started. I look at photographs of that little girl and I realize now that the words that were thrown at her had no bearing in reality. But when you're six and your peers are telling you that you're fat, you're going to believe them. And I did. I remember vividly being taunted and I recall at least one physical assault, the other girl grabbing me by the collar and skirttail of my brownie uniform and throwing me bodily across the playground.

I am fairly sure that was when I came home and told my mother I wanted to do weight watchers for the first time. I was SIX. I remember choking down a required weekly meal of liver and trying desperately not to throw it back up, so badly did I want to be "normal". I was SIX. Decades of yo-yo dieting and disordered eating find their origins in that year. I was SIX. Six year old should not be counting slices of bread and servings of fruit for anything other than math problems.

It ebbed and flowed, getting better some years and far worse others. I had a bit of a reprieve with a change of schools in 4th through 6th grade but in seventh grade in our small rural county all the elementary schools merged into the single middle school and my old tormentors were right there waiting for me to arrive. I remember laughing to keep from crying when my nicknames in band included such things as "Two Ton Terri with the No Ton Tits" (nothing like being both overweight AND flat chested) which mercifully was often shortened to the initials TTTwiththeNTT so at least my peers outside the bandroom didn't know what that meant. Until now.

I am done laughing. Those words hurt more than any of the boys who spoke them will ever know. Or perhaps they will. Some of them are on my friends list on facebook. If you find your way here know that even as I tell the world what you did to me, I forgive you. This is not about you. This is about speaking my truth to the world and hoping that it will prevent some other young girl from hating herself, some other young boy from deciding life is just not worth the pain.

It is hard to write this. Harder still to know that some of the worst, most hurtful things, took place at church. Yes even God's house was no escape. I will be forever grateful to Pastor James Lee who found me crying in the stairwell that day and who had the courage to share with me his own story of being a bullied child. Who told me I was beautiful and who held out the confident hope that somewhere out in my future there was a boy growing up to manhood who would see that beauty. Who told me that it did get better and who did so from a position of authority as one who had been there and survived to tell the tale.

To those of you who are in the trenches being gets better. Life is NOT high school. Thank God! It gets better and life is worth hanging on for. Living well truly IS the best revenge.

I love my life. I love who I have become. I did find that man Jim Lee told me was out here waiting for me and he does find me beautiful. Yet even without that, I find me beautiful. I love me just the way a I am. I am a person of worth and value and I know that about myself now, despite the best efforts of the bullies in my life to convince me otherwise.

I'm no longer a huge fan of CCM but Hold Fast by Mercy Me is one of those songs that speaks to me. It reminds me of the reality that there IS HOPE. It Gets Better.

I'm inviting my readers and my co-authors to share their stories here. It is important that we speak our truth. It is critical that our children know that it DOES get better. Please. Your story may be the one that a hurting child needs to come across and identify with to gather the courage to face one more day.

If you have stumbled across this blog and you're living the hell of being bullied and are wondering if its worth it...there is help. Organizations like Cindy Lauper's True Colors Project and groups like the Trevor Project focus on GLBT youth while To Write Love On Her Arms exist to help anyone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts, addictions, cutting and so on.

You are a unique and unrepeatable miracle of God. Don't let the bullies convince you otherwise. There is life on the other side and it is worth it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

How Many Before We Say "ENOUGH! "?

This week the news has been buzzing with accounts of the completed suicides of four gay or gay perceived teens. How many more of our children have to die like this before we stand up to our own prejudices and say ENOUGH!? The suicide rate among GLBT teens has long been known to be at least four times the rate among their straight counterparts but this fact has been not only dismissed but twisted by those with a right wing agenda to illustrate their belief that being suicidal is part and parcel of being GLBT. It is not. This is one place in the GLBT world where straight allies can make such a huge difference. Be supportive. Be willing to stand up when others use hateful, hurtful words and to step in when violence is being committed against ANYONE. Be willing to confront the bigotry and ignorance and in doing so bear the burdens of our GLBT brothers and sisters as Christ would have us to do.

And another thing...stop holding up the myth that being bullied builds character. I have heard this countless times in regards to homeschooling my daughter...that by doing so I am sheltering her from having to deal with the reality of bullies. Newsflash! Bullies exist outside the walls of brick and mortar schools. The mythology that surviving bullying is somehow uniquely character building is part of what enables this nonsense to continue. It completely negates the negative impact, the long term scars, that even "survivors" bear. It totally marginalizes the experience of these kids that are telling us, with their last desperate acts, that YES WORDS CAN HURT ME!

Bullying is NEVER ok. It is never a positive thing. That it has been allowed to be spun as such makes it particularly insidious when trying to have it taken seriously as a problem. Asher Brown's parents tried in vain to get help for their son. Seth Walsh transferred into independent study to escape it but the damage had been done. Billy Lucas was actually told by his bullies to "go hang himself" and was suspended for fighting back. The hate and hurtful words actually followed him beyond the grave when a memorial page set up in his memory was bombardedwith homophobic messages. These children and others like them who are being bullied about their weight, or their looks, or their IQ, or whatever their "differences" may be are suffering. They may be suffering in silence or their pleas for help may be falling on deaf ears that believe that bullying is just a normal childhood rite of passage and "kids will be kids". We MUST listen. We must hear what is being said and what is NOT being said and we MUST teach our children better than this.

We must start with our own beliefs and biases. We must make, in the words of AA, a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and be sure that the words our children a hurling at each other are not the ones they are hearing from their parents and their religious or political leaders. We must open our mouths when those role models say something horrific and not let that stand.

We must stop this.