Womanism: Joy as Resistance by Sonya Tinsley-Hook and Rev. Anthony Makar
HOMILY #1 Sonya Tinsley-Hook
I confess. I’m a bit of a “Pollyanna.” Although I don’t always succeed, I try to see the positive, the hidden gift, the reason to smile, in almost every situation. As Pollyanna would say, I try to find “reasons to be glad.” Now I know what some of you are thinking. How sweet. How naïve. And…let’s be honest…how annoying.
The fact that calling someone “Pollyanna” is an insult shows how little we understand the strength and energy that comes from being glad…and the transformative power of Joy. I know from my studies of positive psychology and from studying the “book of my own life,” that joy is one of the most practical and effective tools that one can use to survive and thrive. Joy is a guiding principle for me and why my daughter’s name is Sophia (which means wisdom) Joi.
Like Pollyanna, I learned to be glad as means of coping with hardship. I wasn’t orphaned like Pollyanna. I wasn’t sent away to live with a humorless, old aunt. Nor did I ever receive someone else’s old crutches for Christmas when what I really wanted was a doll. But I did have to learn how to live with losing my father to cancer when I was only 6. I did learn how to help my mother find and roll all the loose change in the house in order to have enough grocery or gas money until her next paycheck. Understanding that my widowed single mom worked part-time at Wal-Mart in addition to her full-time job to make ends meet, I learned how to secretly skip lunch and discreetly manage a growling stomach during the school day in order to save the money to buy a coveted book by Alice Walker or an album by, I can admit it, Duran Duran. In a world in which black girls and women are so often disrespected, ridiculed, or just plain ignored, I learned to believe in my own intelligence, creativity, and significance…and to stay in touch with my joy.
Before he dies, Pollyanna’s father teaches her to find comfort by playing what they call the “glad game.” So when Pollyanna receives those old crutches instead of a doll for Christmas, she decides to find joy in the fact that she doesn’t need the crutches. Rather than seeing Pollyanna’s Glad Game as something to ridicule, I recognize within it a strategy that determined black women have been using for generations to reshape the world for themselves and their loved ones…even if we never called it a game.
I believe there are two kinds of joy in life and perhaps it is not understanding the difference that causes many of us to underestimate joy and deep gladness as sources of strength…and as forms of resistance against all that seeks to devalue, displace, and deny us. I think of these two kinds of joy as “wildflower joy” and “homegrown joy.” Wildflower joy is what many of us think of as the only kind of joy. It’s the emotion that springs up during our happiest moments…making us feel that, for a brief time, all is right with the world. Wildflower joy comes and goes in our lives. Such a beautiful feeling…but you can’t count on it to remain.
Homegrown joy is the joy that we have to plant and cultivate ourselves. It can live indefinitely, but it must be consistently watered, staked, protected from frost, pruned, repotted, harvested for seeds…nurtured and kept alive. It’s the decision we make to remember what is still good when so much has been lost. It is fertilized with gratitude for what is still there to sustain and strengthen us. It’s a mindset that helps us to remember that things could easily be worse and, in fact, always are worse today, right now, for someone. Homegrown joy is what black women are thinking about when we remind each other not to let some negative person or circumstance “steal our joy.” Homegrown joy is the only kind that is effective as an act of resistance because even though we can let it go, no one else can actually take it. Yet it also moves us beyond resistance to, in the words of Alice Walker, starting to “live in the world today as you wish everyone to live in the world to come.”
I believe that I have meaningful work to do in this world during the time that I am here…and I know I can’t afford to be without this powerful homegrown joy. There is simply not enough time for cynicism and despair.
Joy as Resistance – Rev. Anthony Makar
Four years ago I stepped up to this pulpit and quoted American writer E.B. White, who said, very famously, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” I remember laughter after I said this. And then I said that an essential part of being a Unitarian Universalist was cultivating a way of life that balanced saving the world with savoring the world.
Four years later, and after having encountered Womanism, I am singing a different tune.
Because, what if your world is constantly throwing things your way that aren’t enjoyable, that can’t be savored?
What if you are Rishawna Myricks and your 15-year-old son Darius has been killed by police and suddenly you find yourself living that horrible cycle of a black child killed, a cry for justice, your child slandered and discredited in the press, a funeral is held, and justice is denied—and then, it’s another mother’s son, another mother’s anguish, another community’s outrage, and another round of a cruel cycle that seems to never end….
Or what if you are Brittany Packnett watching the events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia, when the white supremacists gathered to rally against the removal of a Confederate statue, and your humanity as a person of color is being denied, the supremacists brandish their burning torches and they cry out “You will not replace us!” and they slur their racial slurs and you can feel the bloody history of racial terrorism entering into the present, you can feel that…
What if your world is constantly throwing things like this your way?
What if you are Ruby Bridges, and you are six years old, and everyday, to enter into your elementary school, you have to go through large crowds of white people who are shouting and screaming horrible things, and you feel how they want to tear you apart, and you have to go through that, everyday, for months and months on end, to get to your classroom where you, a six-year-old, will learn reading and writing and ‘rithmetic….
If your world is like this—relentlessly chaotic, relentlessly cruel because of the color of your skin or some other aspect of your identity that arouses contempt—enjoying it is not going to come easy. Savoring is not going to come easy. You’re going to feel emotionally flattened every day. Exhausted and extinguished. PTSD of some form or fashion will be a static that is buzzing in the background constantly, easily set-off by the next affront to your dignity, whether intended or not.
So what happens, then, when we get to the other part of the E. B. White equation: the saving the world part?
Despair is going to drain you dry. No passion, no energy available to improve anything.
Downward spiral of despair….
Unless we stop seeing savoring and saving as entirely different things. When they are entirely different things, then, when you’re savoring that’s all you’re doing, and when you’re saving, you’re just saving—which explains all my talk, four years ago, about balancing them.
But now, after encountering Womanism, the different tune I’m singing is: We have to stop seeing them as completely different!
Don’t balance them: blend them!
The beautiful Womanist Audre Lorde says, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
At her son Darius’ funeral, when the organist played “Jesus is my help,” Rishawna Myricks cared for herself by dancing. Despite the lead weight of her sadness, she got up and she danced. Later, at the cemetery, when her son’s bullet-ridden body was being lowered into the ground, they cranked up the stereo playing all his favorite songs and everyone danced their hearts right out and they could feel Darius there with them, and one witness to all this said, “I witnessed the joy of a community that, even in mourning, knew that it had access to one of the most powerful tools of resistance to a system of state sponsored violence and oppression that seeks to crush the joyful spirits of vibrant communities like these.” [Delonte Gholston]
The world did not hand Rishawna Myricks joy on a plate. She dug down deep to find a homegrown joy within, and she relied on a community of resistance to join her in that joy.
And what about Brittany Packett, in the face of the white supremacists of Charlottesville? She wanted to go and protest, but she was already committed to attending a work-related leadership seminar in Aspen, Colorado. At first she was full of guilt and grief—what was she doing in Aspen when she needed to show up with her terrorized community against evil? But she thought about those words from Audre Lorde—they became a mantra in her mind—and she realized that joy sustains her for the larger work of justice. So here’s what she did, beside attend the conference. She went on a seven-mile bike ride, along a stream and through lush, gorgeous scenery. And then she went to Aspen’s favorite burger joint, Woody Creek Tavern, a place so authentic that people park their horses right next to other patrons’ cars. She says, “So I rode, like a child, on my bike, to go get a burger. I might as well have been riding that bike back to myself.” “Joy is not indulgent. Joy is defiant. Joy is a break from a news cycle that will discombobulate me if I let it. Joy is a middle finger to a bigot with a torch who wants to see me cower. Joy is a moral victory against extremism and a political win, fueling us to persist and resist. Joy is resistance to the hate that fills the front page.”
Listen to that!
And, as for what sweet six-year-old Ruby Bridges did to care for herself, to create joy-as-resistance in her life?
She went to church and she learned about a man long ago who loved people even though they were cruel to him, and in her heart, through prayer, she stayed close to that man, she invoked that man, she wrapped that man around her as her protection and her strength and she did something that is nothing like the disgusting “thoughts and prayers” that our politicians perversely invoke to distract people from dealing with the real issues. With a joy that feels like supreme self-protection and serenity in the midst of chaos, she stopped in the midst of the crowd of white people shouting and screaming evil at her and she prayed for these people. It’s all she could do. She said,
Please, God, try to forgive those people.
Because even if they say those bad things,
They don’t know what they’re doing.
So You could forgive them,
Just like You did those folks a long time ago
When they said terrible things about You.
The world has enough chaos and fear and anger in it to last 100, 1000 lifetimes. That’s the world we’ve got to live in, and find a way through, to the good and the beautiful and the true that is also in the world.
So care for yourself.
Dance when events threaten to crush you. Be a part of a community that dances.
Don’t feel guilty if you can’t show up to the protest. Take that bike ride and enjoy that burger because it’s going to feed you and make you strong when you do show up. It’s going to fuel you to persist and resist.
And, find a way to stay close to the religious heroes in all times and all lands. Learn deeply the story of one or two or more. Meditate on their compassion. Pray them into your life, so when you are faced with adversity, you can feel surrounded by their strength, and inspired by their courage.
This is self-care and it is political warfare and it’s all one and the same.
It is joy-as-resistance.