Juneteeth & Emotional Freedom

Juneteeth & Emotional Freedom

by Julian DeShazier


In 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, there were still slaves in Galveston, TX who had not heard about their freedom. A group of Union troops came to deliver the news, and the last slaves were finally freed. This under-noticed occasion should be celebrated as a holy day in American history – I’ve gone on record many times crusading for Juneteenth to be a national holiday – and there is much wisdom to be found in our recognizing it now.

First, it’s important to debunk any romanticized notion that after they got the news, the newly freed slaves all dropped their tools and started partying in the middle of the field. All of our records re: the response after June 19, 1865, indicate a decidedly mixed reaction from the newly freed Galvestonians. This is not hard to imagine – have you ever received overwhelming news before? – some were overjoyed, others frightened at what this freedom meant for their new life (sounds like the disciples post-Resurrection), and many, many, many people simply went back to work. Even though they weren’t in bondage, they continued to work and live like slaves. They chose captivity because, of course, they saw no other options. But they were free.

Freedom is a complicated reality.

Of course, America making Juneteenth a national holiday presents a tragic irony because slavery is in no way dead. Debt continues to bind poor people to powerful institutions, wealth still depends upon exploitation, and non-white bodies are still etched in the American iconography as “workers.” (Oprah: look how hard she had to work! Bill Gates: look how smart he is!) The fact that black wealth and success is still seen as exceptional is proof enough that, if slavery is indeed dead, it “died” as a caterpillar dies to become a butterfly.

By all means, we need to work on these institutions that reinforce slave realities – the criminal justice system, the divorce of “Body” from “Spirit” (so the body can be exploited without losing one’s righteousness), the rejection of black ownership (from property to the right to vote) – and recognize that these among many other realities keep us enslaved to racism: free, but still captive.

But there’s an internal freedom that is threatened on an almost daily basis as well. These are your emotions, and we (all of us) have people that fuse to us emotionally, whether they say mean things, or simply want us to feel what they are feeling. They want to share their hurt, maybe because they think you hurt them, or because they don’t trust they can hold those emotions on their own. They know what to say to get you. The cliché is “misery loves company” but there’s wisdom there: some people want to hold you captive (because they are sociopaths) or need to hold you captive (because they are insecure). It is a common trait/tactic found in abusive relationships and I’ve experienced it personally (in case you’re wondering, yes, it is quite common/expected for pastors to be held responsible for people’s own emotional systems). So I’ve been a hostage before, and I’ve also been a captor in my own personal relationships.

Truly, frustratingly, I’ve been a slave to emotions and responses that were in no way healthy for me, and it had NOTHING to do with another person: I held it and nurtured it myself. I’ve had conversations in the shower with people that weren’t there, multiple strands of the same conversation (“if they say this, I will say this”). I’m not talking about debate prep here, folks: I’m talking about being an emotional hostage, giving my peace over to another person or situation.

Don’t laugh at me: freedom is a complicated reality.

But the truth is as easy to comprehend and difficult to realize as Juneteenth itself: YOU. ARE. FREE. Some people and situations have a special kind of access to your emotional/spiritual system, but you are free to feel what you need, to protect yourself, and to not be scolded for your feelings. You are free to ask, “What is going on with ME to create this response and do I want to live this way?”

Your body is free and belongs to you. You are free to ignore the trap being set for you, without hating the person setting it, or perhaps even finding compassion for them. Remember what Christ said when you feel a hostage situation approaching: “They know not what they do.” You are free.

As a liberation theologian I can’t emphasize this next point enough: I’m not saying if you feel violated that’s your fault, or that you should never share with those you feel violated by. Nor am I abdicating the responsibility of the traumatic experience. I am simply inviting you to share responsibility, as the writer of Proverbs 4 does (“Guard your heart; everything you do flows from it”), or Philippians 4 (“The Peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”), or John 14 (“Do not let your hearts be troubled”), or Galatians 5 (the Fruits of the Spirit, which have no law against them and nothing to prevent them from existing deep within us)…

…or Howard Thurman, who described freedom as “the ability to deal with the realities of one’s own situation so as to not be overcome by them.” They are all sharing the same, difficult Gospel: in affliction, yet we remain FREE in spirit, held accountable by an all-loving God to protect our spiritual and emotional independence.

What may be triggered by outside is also nurtured within, and until we find the courage to seek help – therapy, abuse and violence resources, better boundaries – not to help THEM but to HELP OURSELVES AS FAITHFUL ACTION (!!!)…until then we will be freed slaves still going about the work of our masters. If you need help, or don’t feel safe, no more violence: reach out and let your church find you some resources to help. If you are reading this, you know we will do this.

Because you are free. God has made it so, and we are still finding out years later. I’m so grateful for today’s reminder. Happy Juneteenth.

God, thank you for making me free. Thank you for making me, beautifully and wonderfully, and for your Spirit reminding me that nothing has happened, or will happen, that can remove me from the freedom found in you. I don’t want to be enslaved by the past or even by people I love dearly; I want to live free in you. Amen.

Hip Hop, Job, and the Black Struggle for Being

Hip Hop, Job, and the Black Struggle for Being

by Julian DeShazier

The opening of De La Soul’s “Intro” (from the Stakes Is High album) is an expertly mixed chorus of four voices saying these six words…

When I first heard “Criminal Minded”

…which refer to Boogie Down Productions’ 1987 album of that name, one of the most acclaimed albums in hip-hop history. De La Soul’s sentiment is clear, and can easily be translated to “When I first heard that album that changed my life,” be it from BDP or Black Thought or Bob Dylan: the moment the listener hears an album that is both talking to and for them, bearing witness to a reality and helping to create a better reality. BDP and its lead rapper KRS-One became entertainers, journalists, and prophets to a South Bronx, NY, context full of poverty, drugs, and pop music—whether disco or rock—that was served to them but not made by them. As invisible as the politics of the day made them, hip-hop represented the soundtrack of resistance.

The notion of creating music as a way of creating or articulating reality has its roots in other genres. James Cone reminds us that blues music was created in the midst of the black struggle for being in another era, King David of Israel becomes a brilliant psalmist (that’s “songwriter”) in the midst of deep pain, and Samuel Livingston traces humankind’s first songs to the African concept of neferu (cultural manifestations of functional beauty). In other words, music has always had a purpose before it had an industry, and its economy was purely social, made up of those who would listen, identify, and be identified by those artists.

When I first heard “Criminal Minded”
When I first heard 2Pac’s “All Eyez on Me”
When I first heard Common’s “One Day It’ll All Make Sense”
…It changed my world
…Because I heard myself, for the first time.

Rap is scary to some because it is loud, which is entirely the point. It is a response with deep intention toward the systemic silencing by privileged whites, the wealthy, and the ignorant men who hold the center at this particular moment in time. It is the first bell that rings after the death around us young black Chicagoans has silenced us.

It is the cathartic response of Job after being stunned over and over, pathologically pummeled to the brink of nonbeing, and his first words—“Let the day perish on which I was born… let that day be darkness!”—which begin to reaffirm and reconstruct his being. His words are harsh and explicit and feel grossly emotional; in our context they would seem anti-intellectual when in fact they are super-rational, transcending intellect.

In 1988 and today, N.W.A’s “F the Police” is shocking and controversial—“uncalled for” by most tastes—until you hear the songwriters recall their inspiration, being pulled over in Los Angeles, handcuffed and forced to lie on the ground for being one thing: black. Was N.W.A having a Job moment, or was Job having one of the first hip-hop moments? Either way, both texts comprise wisdom, both utterances remain necessary.

If you want to understand the violence epidemic in Chicago, listen to the “drill” music of the shooters. You will hear the struggle for being that too often describes and destroys. If you want to understand the beautiful complexity of our youth, listen to Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem,” where he talks about “scoopin’ all the blessings out my lap” and by the end of the same verse brusquely reminds us that his “shooters come for free.” His message is clear: he’s keeping his, by any means necessary.

What he’s really saying—perhaps in every verse Chance has ever written—is that his being matters. His album Coloring Book, along with BDP’s Criminal Minded, expresses the “courage to be” without probably ever hearing (and certainly never caring about) the name Paul Tillich. These are theological projects as much as they are musical ones, and hip-hop has a way of reminding us that the separation of the head and heart is mostly an academic and superficial one. Job should have written an album; maybe Notorious B.I.G. was reading the famous text when he settled on a name for his first album, Ready to Die.

Growing up on the Southside of Chicago in rap’s “Golden Era,” I had no need for church; I had already found an adequate object of worship in the music that blared through my cassette player—music from Christians and Muslims and Five-Percenters and Black Hebrew Israelites—music that was loud and confident and confrontational, explicit in every sense of the word. For all I had seen and endured, it needed to be.

We—that is, most young, black boys—take our cues from rappers, perhaps to a fault, but at least they show better journalistic integrity in accurately describing reality than most news outlets. This trust in entertainer as journalist evolves rappers into a greater role: the poets who shape culture, the poetry whose purpose is to create a new reality. You hear rappers who don’t understand this and use their microphone to spread a dangerous gospel of misogynist and capitalist urges—no different from some pulpits. But you also hear the proclamation and affirmation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, its anger and its spirit engorged as a people fight to be made visible. In the rhythm and lineage you see Africa. It is neferu. It is the catharsis of Job. And for those hearing it for the first time…

When I first heard “Criminal Minded”
When I first read Job
When I saw myself
…it is like coming alive again. It is that Resurrection that many classically trained theologians spend too many words describing. It is a hip-hop moment.

Movement 4 Black Lives

Movement 4 Black Lives

—by D’Angelo Smith

I attended the “Movement for Black Lives” gathering this past weekend in Cleveland, Ohio. It was a very emotional experience for me and propelled me back to the plight of our ancestors and the struggles they faced. All of those who have gone before us, who had a foundation of peace, love, and justice at the core of their struggle, are with us here and now. Ashe’! We stand on their shoulders, for they have lifted us higher in the struggle. Ashe’!

In this struggle we must have the willingness to wrestle with, interact with, and work through the various contradictions within our society to achieve equity and fairness for everyone. When struggles are unified and mobilized it causes us to take a leap forward in the evolution of all humankind – “REVOLUTION.”

When people do not struggle there is stagnation in the process of evolution. I was awakened to these contradictions within our culture and society even more at this gathering. I met so many Black people working across this nation for the advancement and liberation of all Black lives here and afar. These Black people were not just citizens of the United States of America, but from all over the African Diaspora. Many struggles were lifted up in the space that was created for only individuals that identify as Black, to acknowledge where we are, to embrace where we have been, and to unify on the next steps moving forward. I have so much to say about my experience, yet I will just tell of the moment that incited the commitment I now have to the movement of “Revolution.”

On the very last day of the gathering, we witnessed a 14-year-old black teen, who was assumed to be under the influence of alcohol because he had an open container, being slammed to the ground and handcuffed. Now you all know things got “real” because we were not going to let these transit police criminalize our little black brother! We demanded that his mother be notified and that he be released into her custody. They did not adhere to our demands at first because they placed him in a police car. The “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE” chant filled the street and a human barricade was formed. We surrounded that police car with locked arms standing as a shield to protect this young black boy and to keep him from being booked into the “system.” We were told that this was an unlawful assembly and that we should disburse or action would be taken. That same transit officer rushed the human shield and in failing to break it, he pepper sprayed us.

cleveland-cop-pepper-spray-m4blSome of us were sprayed in the face and others, like me, in the mouth. We did not back down but enforced the barricade to block the car from leaving. They said the mother was on the scene and that she wanted us to move back, and we did, but not far enough to allow the car to drive away. We did not know if the request was coming from the mother and we wanted our little brother released! They then moved him from the police car and placed him in an ambulance, still handcuffed. We demanded that the handcuffs be taken off and we surrounded the ambulance! We chanted, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win! We must love and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

After some chanting for a while, a car pulled up and our little brother was released to his mother because we stood up showing BLACK LOVE through the POWER OF PEOPLE! There is much work to be done, but we are thriving, winning, and dismantling systems of oppression! I LOVE MY BLACK PEOPLE! We are here to stay and we ain’t going nowhere. This victory showed me that we can and we will do this. The fight is not over, but the glory is ours through the SPIRIT!

I thank you all for making it possible to have such an experience, through supporting our church with your great ideas, your cheerful giving, and your loving presence. I charge every member of this church to open up, even more, to the struggles within your own realm of individual experiences, and within our collective as a community of believers. We must honor and value every member of our community with training, programming, encouragement and support through assessment on what is needed for each individual struggle and as a collective body. There were ten guiding principles for the gathering and the following is one that I believe will speak to where we are in the life of this church:

“Mostly Directly Affected people are experts at their own lives and should be in leadership, at the center of our movement, and telling their stories directly.”
It is through our solidarity that we envision a world beyond the current manifestations of insensitivity, and numbness to unfairness, that we will capture the heart of all struggles within the movement for social justice. We have been hearing with our ears and seeing with our eyes the injustice and inequity in our society. Now let us listen with our hearts, act as we must, care for ourselves, protect one another, and stay committed to the movement for social justice, which is an instrument for revolutionary minded communities like you, UNIVERSITY CHURCH!

Leaping forward in evolution with you all hand in hand,
D’Angelo Smith