If your mama’s black, you’ve probably been asked the question, “Who you talking to?” Forgive me if it triggers you because usually that question comes before some kind of correction. “Who you talking to? I ain’t one of your little friends.” Or maybe it was, “Who you talking to,” followed by a whuppin. The tone of the question was key; it let you know just how much reorientation you were about to receive.
Like so much of Black parenting, this question was designed to help us navigate a dangerous world with a proper perspective. In this case, it was a call to remember our audience and to remember we were not on equal footing with our parents. It taught us that “forgetting ourselves” or our place could have significant consequences, while rightly remembering our audience could helpfully define us. It could at least keep us from getting our tails whupped.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been pondering the question, “Thabiti, who are you talking to?” It’s a question about audience, goal, and direction in life. For much of my ministry and writing life, I’ve been talking to a predominantly evangelical audience. Not exclusively white but predominantly so. Narrower still, I’ve been in the conservative and soteriologically Reformed side of the theological pool. For much of that time, it was talking to that audience about important but rather commonplace ministry themes–ecclesiology, preaching, shepherding, etc. From time to time, usually in private but on occasion in public, there’d be conversations about race or racism. Overall, it had been a period of detente, a period defined by a kind of racial agnosticism and political dissimulation presenting as “gospel” optimism and unity.
But around 2014, that came crashing down. It became crystal clear that I was talking to the wrong audience. Or, put another way, it was crystal clear that that audience did not share my goals and the direction I thought the Lord was leading me. I knew myself to be called back to a predominantly African-American community and faith setting. In moving me from the Cayman Islands back to the United States, I knew the Lord was moving me back into a country with a very different racial script and history. And coming back to the States one month prior to the killing of Mike Brown and the eruption of protests in Ferguson, MO, I knew also the Lord was calling me back with my own self-conscious point-of-view. All of that meant answering the question, “Who are you talking to?”, and understanding that the “to” needed to change. It meant trying to re-orient myself after 15 years of serving in international and predominantly white contexts to reconnect with the community of my birth and formation. It meant recognizing that talking for Black folks in some sense in those contexts is not the same as talking to them.
Turning around is hard. You turn to some people to whom you’ve felt distant, even foreign, because you’ve been in circles dominated by others. You’re not necessarily denied, but you’re not necessarily owned either. There’s a lot of trust to build, actions to explain, and work to do. If I’m going to keep it a buck, it’s painful and sad to realize how much distance grows between you and your community when you weren’t paying attention.
While you’re turning to one group, you’re turning away from another. At least in the general sense if not always in the particular sense of individual friendships. And some in that group feel betrayed or deceived. They grow angry and caustic, protecting their own goals, agendas, alliances, and directions. You realize those aren’t your conversations. For a while, you find yourself on an island.
But I’ve grown used to island living. The introvert in me likes the seclusion, the slower pace, the abundant peace and ease. But alone on an island won’t suffice. The answer to “who you talking to” can’t always be “myself.” That gets you weird looks. And worse, you develop weird social habits. So you have to come off the island and dwell among a people.
There’s a necessary conversation about Jesus, faith, discipleship, the churches, mission, justice, hope, sanctification, perseverance, joy, resistance, reconciliation, peace, solidarity, independence, friendship, renewal, and cross-carrying that needs to happen. Among Black folks. Brown folks. Yellow folks. And White folks. And between us, too. That conversation, influenced by so many histories and counter-histories, perspectives and counter-perspectives, expertise and ignorance, requires a lot of hard turning around. Turning to and turning from. Turning back again and from again. Until turning and answering “who” becomes a discipline, a habit, an act of faith and longing.
So, who are you talking to?
I am trying to talk to and with Black folks. Narrower still, black Christian folks. That diverse panoply of humming, moaning, singing, swaying, shouting, preaching, marching, sitting, weeping, rejoicing, angry, broken, hopeful, tired, loud worshipers of Jesus who have so few tables where we talk to each other. I am trying to talk with Black folks without reference to white folks. Without the overly-determining, overbearing white gaze. Without the overly insistent, over-confident self-importance of white priorities that demand the rest of us respond to it, prioritize it, find it most important while sidelining our own concerns with parochializing adjectives like “ethnic” or “special” or “limited” or even “Black.” Without falling for the conceit that there’s anything universal about “whiteness” or any other -ness that needs attending before one can talk to himself or to others like him. Without in any way centering the often-fragile and sometimes just plain prideful feelings of individuals from other groups who don’t really care about the conversation we need to have, but care about the conversation they’re having in their own heads. I’m trying to talk to Black folks who are just trying to be Black folks without necessary reference to anyone else. The way we talk when we’re at the barber shop, or the beauty parlor, or the cookout, or the wake, or watching the game. Free. Present. Un-anxious. Unselfconscious. Unburdened. And I’m trying to talk that way knowing others watch, but not tucking in my shirt tail or combing my hair or code-switching to manage their impression. Not caring and just being us.
Because we need to talk to each other. We need to plan with each other. We need to build with each other. And we don’t need to explain that to anyone else or have our conversation distorted. We’ll know we’re free when we don’t feel the need or pull to keep commenting on what “they” are talking about, because as long as we feel that need then “they” are still determining that part of our lives.
I’m going to try returning to blogging this year. But I want you to know who I am trying to talk to. Now, if I am not talking to you, you’re still welcome to listen. But listen like you’re on a subway car overhearing a conversation between garrulous friends. Don’t interrupt if you’re not invited. Don’t act as if their conversation is in any way about you. Don’t try to correct them. Chuckle at what you think is funny. Smile to yourself and shyly look away when you think they might have noticed you. Wait to be invited in. And if you’re not invited in, don’t fret. Remember, it wasn’t about you anyway. And if you are disturbed by the noise, switch seats or subway cars. There are other conversations going on elsewhere, some of which are intended for you.
Black folks, this is The Front Porch. Let’ talk to each other. Let’s talk that talk we talk when it’s just us. Let’s have others join us sometimes–Black, Brown, Yellow, White–but always be ourselves. Let’s forget about the gaze of other groups and trust that, actually, what we talk about both stands on its own and contributes to others who might accept it. But whether it blesses others or not, let’s have enough self-love to bless each other by offering the gift of unfeigned conversation. We are worth that to each other and we need that from one another.