Been In the Storm So Long by Shawna Floyd and Rev. Anthony Makar

Homily – Shawna Floyd

If you follow me on social media, then you have probably seen me affix a certain hashtag to a good deal of my posts.  It’s one of many that I use, but I often save this particular hashtag for last.  It’s my mic drop hashtag.  I usually do not type anything else after I type #blackgirlmagic.

I didn’t create this hashtag. CaShawn Thompson created it and the movement “Black Girls Are Magic” (later shortened to “Black Girl Magic”) in 2013.  She was fueled by negative portrayals of black women in the media such as that infamous Psychology Today article claiming that black women were the least physically attractive people in the world.  Cashawn Thompson created #blackgirlmagic, because she was inspired by quote “women in my family running businesses, raising families, making a way out of no way…” She goes on to say “Sometimes our accomplishments might seem to come out of thin air, because a lot of times, the only people supporting us are other black women.” So, the way I see it, the magic that Thompson refers to is the perseverance, resilience, self-determination, ingenuity within the collective of black women.

So when you see me drop the mic with that hashtag on my social media posts, there are some things you need to know about this particular black girl and her magic.

I am the daughter of a woman who was able to rise up out of the poverty in the small towns and hollers of West Virginia.  I am the daughter of a woman who was the first person to go to college in her family. I am the daughter of a woman who, for all of her faults, raised three black children on her own in a world whose structures were set up in opposition to her blackness and to her femaleness and whose structures created her family’s indigence.  I was born a public enemy of a public enemy, born into an abusive relationship with this country and I am never surprised when I get swung on. Black girl magic is me swinging back.

I am a black girl who survived a mother whose dreams deferred exploded through her children’s lives leaving them to pick up the pieces of themselves.  I’m still picking up the pieces.  I write about this in my song called Collage whose chorus sings “Bro-o-oken one/ Piece by piece you’ll come/ Just go ahead and start/ You’ll be a work of art.” Black girl magic is making art out of pain.

I am the black girl who used to have a speech impediment.  Same black girl who breezes between a crisp standard English and a passionate African American Vernacular English–and won’t do without either.  #codeswitching.

I am the black girl raised with a white Jesus but by a black Granny who was like a god.

I am the black girl whose father was criminalized in his struggle with heroin.  I am the black girl whose life was upended by that.  And I am the black woman who read with a very personal stake the revelation of President Nixon’s former domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichmann.  He admitted that the War on Drugs was a war on people who were deemed domestic enemies:  the anti-war left and black people.  I am the black woman who could have been done told you that.  Black girl magic is telling time by your own clock, knowing what time it is while others have to wait on “official” word.  I am the black woman who knows the ways in which the cry for a public health approach to white people’s opioid addiction (as appropriate and righteous as it is) has some racism at its core.

I am the black girl who twenty four years ago in the summer before my junior year of high school, never feeling beautiful, desirable or approved of, cut my hair off like this–in the Midwest of all places–just to meet more disapproval in others’ eyes but to meet myself for the very first time.  There was no natural hair movement then.  I was stepping out of line.  I was doing something taboo.  Not only was I rejecting the straightening of my hair, I was rejecting the lengthmongering that I grew up with.  Long, straight hair and beauty were one and the same.  That Eurocentric standard of beauty.  I am the black girl who wasn’t havin’ it.

I am the middle child black girl who raised her little brother and took care of her family financially and emotionally when her mother could not.  I am the black girl who, hungry for myself, fattened my black femaleness on the likes of Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde and others.  I am the black girl who wouldn’t be here without them, without them taking for granted their worth and the worth of black women, our lives and our stories.  But for the grace of these black women, there go I.

I am the black girl who though armored with the words and existences of these kind of black women, struck out on my own with a brokenness that attracted brokenness.  I tried at love multiple times. Two of those times each produced a child.  Each love dissolved like a season and, ultimately, I was left to raise two small children on my own. And that era of single parenting, of being low income, of Food stamps and Medicaid, of having to go to the well of my strength and my resilience, the bucket and pulley system falling apart from overuse, that era is imprinted on my mothering experience and my life like the flame-shaped stretch marks that engulf the front and the sides of my waist. I am a black woman who has been through sanity-testing struggle, through trials by fire.  And I loved and cared for my children through them all.  And I kept my dreams of writing in silk, loved them like my children.  For I would not be a mine field of deferred dreams that would wreak havoc on my children’s lives blasting them with holes with which I am all too familiar.

I am the black woman who went to college at the ripe old age of thirty-one.  Cried almost every day I was in college.  Barely felt worthy of being there, no matter the grades I achieved or the awards that I received.  And yet, I am the black woman who graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa in front of her children and in front of a new love who would become my husband.  But I also graduated with a bachelor’s degree in a field that really requires a graduate degree.  I didn’t know how to be a competitive grad school applicant.  I didn’t get into the few schools to which I applied.  I really should have applied to more, but I was discouraged and I had young children with immediate needs, so my focus turned from dreams to survival.

I am the black woman who is really just now coming into her writing and artistic life.  I found out that I was a singer-songwriter at the age of thirty eight years old!  I am the black woman who did not know the voice and the songs I have in me.

I’m in my forty-first year now and as I look upon my life thus far, and I feel the gift of the now, and I peek ahead to the future, I take the greatest of pleasure in looking back (I don’t do it often) to see what I’ve survived, how I’ve survived, that I’ve survived–and, in some ways, how I have thrived.  But had I not made it through, and in the way that I did, staving off bitterness with love and wonder and self-determination…? I shudder to think of it.  Everyone doesn’t make it here.  And while I have character traits that I cherish and I have found value in the struggle, don’t get it twisted:  it’s not fair–any of it.  The magic of making a way out of no way, it takes a toll.  So while I revel in the triumph of having the supreme say over what my life is and who I am, I am very clear that these oppressive systems have me paying a toll for this self and this life that others do not pay for theirs.

And I want people to remember that when they see me drop that hashtag.  Yes, there is whimsy in it.  There is joy in it.  There is victory. But do not forget that Black Girl Magic is a response to and needs to be understood in the context of black women living in a world that turns on the linchpin of racism and sexism and classism and you know the litany.  So, please do, celebrate with me the triumph of black women.  But please know that personal affection for and admiration of black women is not enough. These unjust systems, they need to be dismantled. Because, yes, I got that #blackgirlmagic–I make lemonade out of lemons, I shimmy out of a shambles, I make a way out of no way because I won’t allow these systems that mean for me and my people to be decimated and to lose…I won’t allow these systems to have the supreme say over my life–but I am human.  I’ve been in the storm so long and I am battered and bruised and I am tired.  And I demand to know the shelter of the justice that repairs.

 

Been In the Storm So Long – Rev. Anthony Makar

200 years ago, in 1818, a slave girl by the name of Harriet Jacobs was born. Her father’s widely known and respected skill as a carpenter earned him unusual privileges and he and his wife were able to create a relatively comfortable home life for themselves and their children.

Until he died, and after that his wife. The children were then sold off to the household of one Dr. and Mrs. Flint. By that time Harriet Jacobs was 15, and this is when she would personally experience one of the most terrible realities of Black women under chattel slavery, beyond being owned, beyond the enforced separation from loved ones, beyond the savage beatings and mutilations, beyond the petty cruelty, beyond the chronic deprivation of physical and psychological needs. I’m talking vulgar seduction and rape. Dr. Flint was unceasing in his advances towards Harriet, who was a woman of dignity who lived before her God and knew God saw all, God saw how she was being defiled, and she was ashamed.

She wrote, “My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. But where could I turn for protection?” At one point she even allowed herself to fall sway to the affections of another white, unmarried gentleman. She said, “I knew the impassable gulf between us; but to be an object of interest to a man who is not married, and who is not her master, is agreeable to the pride and feelings of a slave, if her miserable situation has left her any pride or sentiment. It seems less degrading to give one’s self, than to submit to compulsion.” Above all, she hoped that it would be, for Dr. Flint, once he heard the news that she was having a baby with another man, the straw that broke the camel’s back, and he would finally sell her.

But he would not. He would not. So Harriet takes an even more hazardous course of action. She escapes. She is at first concealed by a friend, and then the wife of a prominent slaveholder. Several weeks go by, and then the next part of the plan unfolds: she finds her way to her grandmother’s house, who happens to be white, and she hides beneath the sloping crawl space, a space that was nine feet long, seven feet wide, and three feet high.

She stays hidden in that space for seven years.

That’s the price she paid to win freedom from the vile Dr. Flint, and also the freedom of her precious children. “I tried to be thankful for my little cell,” she wrote, and even to love it as part of the price I had paid for the redemption of my children. Sometimes I thought God was a compassionate father, who would forgive my sins for the sake of my sufferings.” But then Harriet says, “At other times, it seemed to me there was no justice or mercy in the divine government. I asked why the curse of slavery was permitted to exist, and why I had been so persecuted and wronged from youth. These things,” she concludes, “took the shape of mystery, which is to this day not so clear to my soul as I trust it will be hereafter.”

Oh, Harriet Jacobs was in the storm so long.

No doubt as a response to slave narratives like this, Alice Walker, in The Color Purple, has Celie say something that is far less charitable and restrained. “God act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgetful, lowdown…. If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you.”

It would be different because Black women, 200 years ago and today, would not have to be magic to make a way out of no way, to pull accomplishments out of thin air, to make art out of pain.

And not just any pain. Pain that is egregious, vicious, enormous, maldistributed.

Being born into an abusive relationship with this country,” as Shawna puts it. Her mother, “whose dreams deferred exploded through her children’s lives leaving them to pick up the pieces of themselves.” Her father, a victim of the War on Drugs which was, as historians have come to know, explicitly intended to be a war on people who were deemed domestic enemies:  the anti-war left and black people.

Shawna says, “I am the black woman who could have been done told you that.”

Not that anyone’s trying to be competitive here, as in some Olympic Games of pain. Pain and suffering rain down on just and unjust alike. But like the suffering of the Jews, or that of American indigenous peoples, the suffering of Black people has been uniquely terrible, and that of Black women even more so.

To the point that Celie (or Harriet Jacobs) could wonder if God were a white male racist.

Black women are amazing. They are magic. You listen to any one of our speakers in our Womanism series and I can’t imagine how anyone could walk away not thinking that. They deserve our utmost admiration. But Shawna is right. Celebrate with her, yes, but don’t stop there.

Go on to build the shelter of the justice that repairs.

Protect these beautiful magical people from the storm.

Protect yourself if you are one of these people.

Part of that is what happens in your mind, when you hear the message of what I want to call “plantation spirituality.” Plantation spirituality is a form of faith that exclusively teaches virtues of patience and forbearance and obedience and of never challenging the status quo in this life because that’s how you earn your reward in the afterlife.

You have to get along to go along. Submit to your masters.

That’s the message that the vile Dr. Flint, 200 years ago, communicated to Harriet Jacobs constantly.

That’s the message that society today sends all the time, with its negative portrayals of Black women in the media, like that Psychology Today article claiming that black women are the least physically attractive people in the world.

That’s also the message that can be inadvertently sent when a person of color communicates the pain of what it’s like to have been in the storm so long, and no one’s listening and no one’s changing.

But what happened in Harriet Jacobs’ mind when she heard the plantation spirituality message? She said NO. She said NO because she believed, unshakably, in her inherent worth and dignity, and she was also suspicious of anything calling itself a true faith when it reinforces injustice.

That’s why she did all that she did, including hiding away for seven years in that crawl space nine feet long, seven feet wide, and three feet high.

Self-worth and suspicion. It was in CaShawn Thompson’s mind, too, when she created the movement “Black Girl Magic” as a way to liberate the minds and hearts of women who have learned self-hatred from all the haters.

Self worth and suspicion need to be in all our minds, as we face the messages of plantation spirituality which still persist even as all the real physical plantations as they used to function 200 years ago are long gone.

Believe me, they persist not just in Christianity, but in religions around the world.

Resist plantation spirituality, and reach towards freedom spirituality instead. As an old slave hymn goes, “Ole Satan’s church is here below / Up to God’s free church I hope to go.” That old slave hymn is drawing from an explicitly Christian context, but in this day and age, we want to look for resources for “God’s free church” anywhere we can find them. It’s just like praying to Jesus and Buddha and Shakti and Kwan Yin and every other god and goddess out there. Can’t hurt to touch bases with every one, and it might just even help.

And so we look to all the religions, we look to science, we look to literature, we look to the arts.

Shawna says, “I am the black girl who, hungry for myself, fattened my black femaleness on the likes of Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde and others.” And to this I say YES. That’s how you reach towards freedom.

We’re building the shelter of the justice that repairs. Free your mind.

And also this: never forget. Remember, and testify.

With utmost respect, I salute all the women who have participated in this series on Womanism: Carol Welter, Kim Green, Sonya Tinsley-Hook, and Shawna Floyd. Each of them has dared to be deeply vulnerable in their reflections of what it means to be a Black woman in America and what it means to be womanish and what it means to want the wholeness of all and what it means to resist with joy and what it means to be in the storm so long.

They are testifying.

And when they do that—when testifiers testify and listeners listen—everyone helps build the shelter of the justice that repairs because in the testifying and in the listening we learn how hard life can be but we also learn that some people get through. Not all—but some, and from these some, we can draw courage, we can draw strength, to face our own storms.

Shawna tells her story and she says, “I take the greatest of pleasure in looking back (I don’t do it often) to see what I’ve survived, how I’ve survived, that I’ve survived–and, in some ways, how I have thrived.” From our own survival stories, and those of others, we draw resilience.

We also draw proper outrage. That’s another big reason why we want to remember the stories and tell the stories. I just told you the story of Harriet Jacobs, and what she endured at the hands of Dr. Flint, and how the price of her freedom was seven years hiding away in a crawl space nine feet long, seven feet wide, and three feet high, and if that doesn’t fire you up with a righteous fire to build a shelter of justice that repairs, then I don’t know what to say.

Shawna, she just talked about her mother and her father and about her being born into an abusive relationship with this country, and if you hear that and it does not fire you up with a righteous fire, I don’t know what to say.

We need to turn this thing around, right now.

No one should be born into an abusive relationship with this country.

People should be born into care, instead.

People born into love.

We have to work to make it so. And as we do, we have to keep testifying to our lives, making sure that our suffering doesn’t remain invisible—and that’s going to keep us all dissatisfied, it OUGHT to keep us all dissatisfied, and it will keep us moving forward:

Keep on moving forward

Never turning back

Never turning back