Breaking the Code

Obama cool black manPoor President Obama, he just can’t catch a break. Looking strained and weary, he had to interrupt his Martha’s Vineyard vacation and return to Washington because the world seemed aflame with problems both at home and abroad.

His entire second term has been characterized by Congressional gridlock and immigration woes. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took shots at his foreign policy in the media, and he’s been criticized by African Americans for not attending to problems in the inner-city, the type of which boiled over recently in Ferguson, MO.

It’s not that the president doesn’t try. Before African-American audiences, he will assume an air of familiarity that some have found patronizing. About Republicans planning a lawsuit against him, he says they should stop “hatin’ all the time.” Before his last election, he told members of the Congressional Black Caucus (reportedly switching to a preacher’s cadence) to take off their “bedroom slippers and start marching.” He even recently complimented his White House pastry chef by saying his pies were so delicious, “I don’t know what he does – whether he puts crack in them.”

What?

That was my reaction until I realized that yet again, our president was “code-switching.” Saying something has crack in it is like saying it’s crazy good. (With two teens in the house, Obama has a ready resource for the latest slang.)

In a recent piece in The Daily Beast, columnist John McWhorter argued that such relatability was requisite for the presidency today, noting that George W. Bush was often criticized for his Texan swagger.

Many groups code-switch. Italians, Jews, Puerto-Ricans, Mexicans. We all have “in-group lingo;” something that lets us feel we’re members of the inner circle.

I remember when my then-16 year old nephew, Christian, came back from vacation in California, sounding as if he’d grown up on the mean streets East Palo Alto, despite having been born and schooled (and often on the high-honor roll) in rural upstate New York. Now 24, he said, “I think code-switching is necessary to smoothly transverse through different groups. Growing up out there I did not learn what we typically consider ‘urban code.’ Coming to California was my first introduction, and I definitely wanted to speak the code at first just to fit in. I mean, I have regularly spoken in urban code for the last 8 years. But at the same time, I realized what my grandmother meant when she said that people perceive you a certain way when you look and speak a certain way. So around sophomore year of college, I realized it could be beneficial to be able to do both at any time.”

In a TED talk, spoken word poet Jamila Lyiscott riffed easily between urban, Caribbean and standard English, telling her audience she was “tri-lingual.”

Black ministers are often masters of the code-switch. My pastor, the Rev. Arnold Byrd III, a young African-American minister, can easily go from standard English on his job in sales with a major cable company, to language designed to connect with the congregation in his predominantly black church on Sundays. He says he follows the example of Jesus, who used things his listeners could understand – fishing and farming – to explain the Kingdom of Heaven. “Peter was a businessman; he owned his own fishing business. So when Jesus told Peter, ‘I will make you a fisher of men,’ Peter understood where he was coming from because he uses something Peter could relate to.”

With the news dominated again by the killing of a young, unarmed black man in Ferguson, even in the comments section of Christianity Today, we see that black and white Christians seemingly talk a different language. One can see how, if people only hung around with others who shared their views, both on and off-line, deadly misunderstandings could occur when we confront one another in real life.

This shouldn’t be so.

My pastor says that Mark 12:30-31, the famous scripture that tells us to love God with our heart soul, and mind and our neighbor as ourselves, is crucial. “In everything about me I am going to show God I love him, which means his ways trump my beliefs, my thoughts or how I perceive a thing,” he told me.

As Paul writes in Ephesians, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility … that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. (Ephesians 2:13-18 RSV)

As believers we should be masters of the ultimate “code-switch.” After all, we not only are citizens of various nations, but we are citizens of heaven. We should be conversant not only in the language dictated by our differing cultures, but in the language given to us by the Lord Jesus Christ: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics column in August 2014: http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2014/august/code-switching-for-kingdom.html

 

 

Pomp and Circumstance

Thoughtful Obama

 

By Hope E. Ferguson

Like many Americans, I was glued to my TV set for the pomp and pageantry of President Obama’s inauguration. I woke up Martin Luther King, Jr. day and flipped on CNN even before I did my daily devotions, something I never do.  I couldn’t wait to see if the president’s speech would match the fiery and soaring rhetoric of his groundbreaking introduction at the 2004 Democratic Convention. I couldn’t wait to imagine myself among the million on the Washington Mall, hoisting their little American flags. I had been to the mall for the rescheduled the MLK dedication in Oct. 2011, so I knew something about the palpable energy that would be there.

Then, there was the biggest question: What designer would the first lady be wearing?

As the president and first lady left the White House, two Marine guards, in their starched dress uniforms, stood on either side of the door, still as statues. “I wonder what they’re thinking,” I asked my fiancé. “Probably just about doing their jobs,” he replied.

I judged the president’s speech okay. There was no soaring rhetoric, but I liked how he spoke of the amazing diversity of our nation: a truth that hit home this fall when he was re-elected by a majority of people of color and just 38 percent of the white vote. I loved the imagery that poet Richard Blanco evoked with his metaphor of the sun rolling across our multi-hued, multi-faceted nation, and the near-final image of the moon shining on our windows. I loved the patriotic songs sung by James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé, who abandoned her skimpy garb for a dignified-looking black lace-armed gown.

I relished watching the parades from the different states – the president’s Hawaiian alma mater, Punahou School, trailing their volcano, the precision of the military bands, the playfulness of the dance troupe from Nevada, the rhythm of the Isiserettes of Iowa, whose irrepressible beat had the first lady and daughters shaking their shoulders.

I loved how the president turned one last time, to savor the sight of nearly a million American flags flickering in the wind.

Then leaders of both parties sat down to an American luncheon of steamed lobster with New England clam chowder sauce, bison, and Hudson Valley apple pie with sour cream ice cream, aged cheese and honey made with New York apples.

As many a commentator said, it was a day that gave one goose pimples, and only the most hardened partisan could fail to be moved. This is how we do it, they intoned; we transfer power peacefully, every four to eight years, no bloody coups, no uprisings in the streets. Whether we voted for him or not, we honor the office of the Presidency, and the orderly march of time from the first to the 57th  inauguration.

For one cold winter sunny day, coincidentally, on MLK’s birthday, we join together as one nation under God. We openly invoke his blessings. We rejoice in our diversity. We break bread together. We stand on the mountaintop.

For this bright shining moment we are Americans joined by ideals, not by blood. Never mind that tomorrow we will be back to the fights over the debt ceiling, gun control, same-sex marriage. Never mind that the name-calling will begin again, that the heels will be dug in again. That things will grow ugly again.

Human beings, made in the imago dei, long for the sense of unity and purpose evoked at the Presidential Inauguration, where a young, white likely-Republican male dances with a Black Democratic first lady. Where the liberal Commander-in Chief  is cheered by a conservative U.S. military.

We long for the beauty of unity.

Maybe that’s because we really long for the One who will take government upon his shoulders. The One who not only can negotiate for peace in the Middle East, but who is the Prince of Peace. The One for whom every tribe, tongue and nation can exalt and praise with abandon, knowing that he will not prove to have feet of clay. We long, indeed, for the one whose government will have no end.

And the human pageantry we witnessed last week, no matter how beautiful, orderly and well-staged, is only a shadow of those things that God has placed in our hearts; for he has set eternity in the hearts of men and women.

And by the way, the dress our statuesque first lady wore?

A Greek column in red by immigrant Chinese-American designer Jason Wu.