Christians talk about love a lot. It’s one of our favorite words, especially when the topic is race.
If we could just learn to love one another …
Love trumps hate . . .
Love someone different from you today . . .
But I have found this love to be largely inconsequential. More often than not, my experience has been that whiteness sees love as a prize it is owed, rather than a moral obligation it must demonstrate. Love, for whiteness, dissolves into a demand for grace, for niceness, for endless patience—to keep everyone feeling comfortable while hearts are being changed. In this way, so-called love dodges any responsibility for action and waits for the great catalytic moment that finally spurs accountability.
I am not interested in love that is aloof. In a love that refuses hard work, instead demanding a bite size education that doesn’t transform anything. In a love that qualifies the statement “Black lives matter,” because it is unconvinced this is true. I am not interested in a love that refuses to see systems and structures of injustice, preferring to ask itself only about personal intentions.
This aloof kind of love is useless to me.
I need a love that is troubled by injustice. A love that is provoked to anger when Black folks, including our children, lie dead in the streets. A love that can no longer be concerned with tone because it is concerned with life. A love that has no tolerance for hate, no excuses for racist decisions, no contentment in the status quo. I need a love that is fierce in its resilience and sacrifice. I need a love that chooses justice.
But I have learned that when I expect this kind of love for my Black female body, it means inviting hopelessness to my doorstep.
Hopelessness and I have become good friends.
When Ta-Nehisi Coates released his landmark book Between the World and Me, a stunning memoir of Black life in America, much of the talk in both secular and Christian circles revolved around the question of hope. Was Coates being too cynical by describing race relations to his son in such bleak terms? Why write such a depressing book? Is Coates that hopeless in real life? People read his words about America—about its history, about its present, about the realities of living in a Black body—and then demanded hopefulness. It boggles the mind.
For me, Coates’s words contain relief in that they were spoken aloud, in public, with the forcefulness history demands. But talking about race in America is not usually a hopeful experience if you’re Black. It brings no pleasure to speak of the hatred inflicted on our souls, the stories of discrimination and pain and injustices large and small that populate our lives. At the same time, we are barraged by society’s reinforcement that we are less than. I may be grieving the murder of Trayvon Martin and at the same time dodging the inquisitive fingers of a white woman reaching to touch my hair. I may be angry over the events in Ferguson and in the same moment attempting to respond with dignity to a white man who treats me as his verbal punching bag. I may have just heard about the latest racist words spewed by a white talk-show host, actor, or politician on the same day when I’m trying to claim my space in the classroom or on my college campus. The persistence of racism in America—individual and societal—is altogether overwhelming. It doesn’t lay the best fertilizer for hope to grow.
And so hope for me has died one thousand deaths. I hoped that friend would get it, but hope died. I hoped that person would be an ally for life, but hope died. I hoped that my organization really desired change, but hope died. I hoped I’d be treated with the full respect I deserve at my job, but hope died. I hoped that racist policies would change, and just policies would never be reversed, but hope died. I hoped the perpetrator in uniform would be brought to justice this time, but hope died. I hoped history would stop repeating itself, but hope died. I hoped things would be better for my children, but hope died.
So I have learned not to fear the death of hope. In order for me to stay in this work, hope must die. I do not enjoy the tears that come from these great disappointments. I do not look forward to future racialized traumas. I don’t really want to recount all the ways that hope has let me down; it’s so damn painful. But all of this comes with living, with struggling, with believing in the possibility of change. The death of hope gives way to a sadness that heals, to anger that inspires, to a wisdom that empowers me the next time I get to work, pick up my pen, join a march, tell my story.
The death of hope begins in fury, ferocious as a wildfire. It feels uncontrollable, disastrous at first, as if it will destroy everything in the vicinity—but in the midst of the fury, I am forced to find my center. What is left when hope is gone? What is left when the source of my hope has failed? Each death of hope has been painful and costly. But in the mourning there always rises a new clarity about the world, about the Church, about myself, about God.
And in this there is new life. Realignment. Rediscovery.
And on the really good days: renewal.
I cannot hope in whiteness. I cannot hope in white people or white institutions or white America. I cannot hope in lawmakers or politicians, and I cannot hope even in pastors or ministries or mission statements. I cannot hope in misquoted wisdom from MLK, superficial ethnic heritage celebrations, or love that is aloof. I cannot hope even in myself. I am no one’s savior. The longer this list gets, the more elusive hope becomes.
And so, instead of waiting for the bright sun shine, I have learned to rest in the shadow of hope.
Shortly after the publication of his book, Ta Nehisi Coates was asked if he had reason to hope that racism in America will one day change. He responded:
Slavery in this country was 250 years. What that means is that there were African Americans who were born in this country in 1750/1760 and if they looked backwards their parents were slaves. Their grandparents were slaves. Their great grandparents were slaves. If they looked forward, their children would be slaves. Their grandchildren would be slaves. And possibly, their great grandchildren will be slaves. There was no real hope within their individual life span of ending enslavement—the most brutal form of degradation in this country’s history. There was nothing in their life that said, “This will end in my lifetime. I will see the end of this.” And they struggled. And they resisted.
This is the shadow of hope. Knowing that we may never see the realization of our dreams, and yet still showing up. I do not believe that I or my children or my grandchildren will live in an America that has achieved racial equality. I do not believe this is a problem that America will fix within any soon-coming generation. And so I stand in the legacy of all that Black Americans have already accomplished—in their resistance, in their teachings, in their voices, in their faith—and I work toward a world unseen, currently unimaginable. I am not enslaved, and yet I look back and see centuries of creative evolution of the hatred for Black bodies. I look at the present-police brutality, racial disparities, backlash against being “politically correct,” hatred for our first Black president, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and the election of a chief executive who stoked the fire of racial animosity to win—and I ask myself, Where is your hope, Austin? The answer: It is but a shadow.
It is working in the dark, not knowing if anything I do will ever make a difference. It is speaking anyway, writing anyway, loving anyway. It is enduring disappointment and then getting back to work. It is knowing this book may be read only by my Momma, and writing it anyway. It is pushing back, even though my words will never be big enough, powerful enough, weighty enough to change every thing. It is knowing that God is God and I am not. This is the cool place from where I demand a love that matters. In this place, I see the sun setting behind me, its light as far away as the stars, and I let the limitations of hope settle over me. I possess not the strength of hope but its weakness, its fragility, its ability to die. Because I must demand anyway. It is my birthright. It is the culmination of everything my ancestors endured, of all that my parents taught me, of the Blackness that rescued me. How dare I consider surrender simply because I want the warmth of the sun? This warmth has not been promised to me. My faith does not require it.
When the sun happens to shine, I bask in the rays. But I know I cannot stay there. That is not my place to stand. So I abide in the shadows , and let hope have its day and its death. It is my duty to live anyway.
Austin Channing Brown is a writer, speaker, and practitioner who helps schools, nonprofits, and religious organizations practice genuine inclusion.
From I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Copyright © 2018 by Austin Channing Brown, reprinted by permission of Convergent Books.