Do Our Souls Have Gender? Musings on Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner

caitlyn-jenner-i-am-cate-01-770x513My hairdresser and I were discussing the respective men in our lives. We talked about communication styles and the methods we use to diffuse arguments when the men start getting hot under the collar. And how they can spend long phone conversations talking to loved ones, but neglect to find out the important things: is a sick relative feeling better, or a friend’s marriage on the mend? They don’t know the answers, because they were talking about cars.

We agreed that, even women who are childless usually are naturally nurturing: to nieces and nephews, to the children they teach in Sunday school, to people who are weaker (nursing used to be a traditionally female career), to pets and others. How being a female is about more than high heels and makeup; even though all those things may be fun. Yet many young moms barely have time to apply lipstick regularly and most women, after 40, struggle with 5- or 6- inch heels, learning to prefer comfort over style.

These musings were brought about by the recent media hoopla about the Olympic Gold Medalist Bruce Jenner’s stunning transformation, after three marriages and five children, to “Caitlyn,” a surgically enhanced, satin corset-wearing 65-year-old bombshell.

As the laudatory celebrity tweets rolled in; and dissenting voices were silenced, I don’t think I was alone in being disturbed by this news. Reading comments in center-left newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, revealed that commentators, who are able to post anonymously, were, by a margin of about 3 to 1, critical of Bruce’s “new look.”

Jenner has claimed that he has always had a female soul. But can a human soul be misplaced? Can God, our Creator, accidently plant a female soul in a male body? Is there even such a thing as a “male” or “female” soul? We know the male and female psyches differ. Despite early feminist efforts to say there were no differences, or that those differences don’t matter, most people by common observation (which is backed by science) can see that generally speaking men and women have definite differences in behavior and the way we interact with the world. On a light note, we women sometimes wonder why our mates can be glued to ESPN or Monday night football or never tire of watching the Fast and Furious franchise over and over, when a good rom-com or drama would be so much more interesting. Or why my brother-in-law and nephew’s conversations on Facebook revolve around the cars and trucks my nephew seems to trade as if they were baseball cards.

On a more serious note, we wonder, why, when we ask our partners about a dear friend’s well-being when they get off the phone or home from a visit, they may reply, “We didn’t go into all that.” Whereas when two women get together, even in a new friendship, by the time an hour is over, we know the basic contours of one another’s lives.

We, as Christians, can definitely feel isolated in from our culture’s views of human sexuality, marriage, and gender identification. Sometimes we learn to keep our views to ourselves for fear of offending others, or just because we don’t want to argue or seem intolerant. But when I heard about Jenner, all I could think of was how sad he must be. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, he has lived a life of wealth, notoriety and material blessings; with all the houses, cars and toys many Americans only can enjoy vicariously. Yet, there apparently was still a void in his life that riches and fame could not fill.

As the Bible succinctly notes at the end of Judges: “Israel had no king so everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

Our times are similar. Many Americans have not submitted to the King of kings and Lord of lords, so all we can muster is doing what seems right for us: reveling in “our own truth.”

I like the opening line from a favorite poem, “Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon. She begins the poem with, “I stood with two strong legs.”

Didn’t we all? We “woke up” and were here. We did not choose our parents. We did not choose where to be born. We did not choose our race or ethnicity or the socio-economic group we were born into. And we did not choose whether we were male or female.

But God works through our particular circumstances: we can feel secure in the fact that he has appointed the time and the place where we are born; it was not a cosmic accident. And if we draw near to him, he will surely show us how our individual circumstances can be used for his purpose and for the purposes he has chosen for us to serve.

But we are mysteries to ourselves. Psalm 64:6-7 notes:

“The inner man and the heart are mysterious; but God will shoot them with arrows; suddenly they will be struck down.”

Jeremiah further says. “The heart is deceitful beyond all things; who can understand it?”

It is only through our relationship with God, and our daily communion with him, that we will ever understand our true natures and selves.

In the discussion of Jenner, a prestigious hospital that pioneered so-called sex re-assignment surgery, no longer performs these operations, after findings showed that many people were just as troubled after as they were before surgery. After a decade, the suicide rate for transgendered surgically altered people was 20 times higher than for those who did not have the surgery.

As Christians, we should have empathy for Jenner; although I don’t believe we can applaud his choice. Better, as the former head of psychiatry for Johns Hopkins said, is to steer these people into therapy, where they can explore why they don’t feel comfortable in their skin.

Every one of us has “issues,” areas that we struggle with daily; sins that we mightily strive to overcome. Failings and shortcomings and even physical and mental illnesses that we, however difficult it is, must deal with and run to God with every day.

It wasn’t for nothing that Jesus commanded his followers to “Take up your cross daily.” Because it was on one particular cross of suffering that death was overcome and new life given to all who come. Our crosses are often the very things God uses to purify us and make us suitable instruments for, and eventual inhabitants of, his Kingdom.

This story originally appeared in Christian Post


The Ray Rice Redemption

Ray Rice jpgOkay, now that every media outlet, blogger and commentator has piled on to Ray Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens running back, can we all take a deep, deep breath for a minute and consider some other sides of this troubling case?

The facts as we know them are this: After a night of heavy drinking, star-running-back Rice got into a verbal and physical altercation with his then-fiancé, now wife, Janay Palmer Rice. He sat down with his bosses and powers-that-be at the NFL and told his side of the story. The NFL likely knew exactly what happened; either through direct viewing of the whole videotape or by extrapolating from the portion that was initially released showing Rice dragging the unconscious Janay from an elevator. Rice and his team and the NFL came to an agreement about the punishment and consequences. Rice would be suspended for two games and he and Janay were to go through some kind of anger-management/marital counseling. Some were dismayed that he had only merited a two-game suspension, but things had moved on.

Next thing we know, a fuller version of the elevator surveillance video is disseminated by the gossip site TMZ, and all @#!% breaks out.

Yes, it was disturbing to watch a young, muscular man essentially knock out a much smaller, weaker woman with one punch. But really, what was in that full-length tape that we did not already know?

And now, once again, a young black man has been held up as the poster boy for some form of societal dysfunction. His name is even used as the hook for the website of the national Domestic Violence Hotline in a headline, which asks, “Have you been affected by the recent news concerning Ray Rice and the NFL?”

It recently came to light that Rice has attributed his (and Janay’s) bad behavior to a night of heavy drinking, and has said that they have since renounced hard liquor and have turned back to their faith. Their church, and no doubt many other people, are standing by, praying for them and counseling them.

The problem I have with the whole scenario is this: One’s word is one’s bond. If Rice, the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens had come to an agreement as to his punishment, and Rice was compliant, it is very “unsportsmanlike” for the league and owners to renege on the understood agreement. It’s as if someone served their jail time based on eye-witness testimony, and only later, after a videotape is discovered with visual evidence of the same crime, the person is sent back to jail to serve even more time.

The result of the latest iterations in the case, in addition to shaming the Rice family and, as Janay wrote, making their lives a nightmare, is that the interruption of his livelihood will no doubt have a very ill effect on the family’s future. Whether one is making millions in the NFL or doing the 9 – 5 grind, we all depend on, and value, our livelihoods. They not only allow us to pay our bills, but many times our work is tied up in of our self-respect and self-definition. Losing our livelihood can create almost unbearable stress.

However, the most important part of this story, to me, is the strident moralizing in the face of a contrite perpetrator, whose victim has apparently forgiven him.

Since Rice has apologized to all concerned, taken his punishment, renounced the things that contributed to his and his wife’s behavior (alcohol) and returned and recommitted to his church, why must we, as a society, be less forgiving than God Himself?

Don’t get me wrong. Violence against women or any other person is completely unacceptable. It is a serious national problem, affecting 1.6 million women annually and costing the nation $5.8 billion in aftercare, including more than $4 billion in medical costs. I am fully in support of October being Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and have worn purple to signify it.

However, Christians believe that God will receive us upon repentance (turning away from) our sin “as if it never happened.” Our culture celebrates and condones all types of behavior once frowned upon (MTV Music Awards, anyone?) but becomes strangely moralizing when addressing a select subset of sins.

When someone repents of their behavior and pledges to improve, and is forgiven by those whom he has hurt, why can’t we extend grace to that person?

Had Ray Rice violated his agreement and been violent to his wife or someone else again, then sure, bring it on. Fire him from his team; suspend him permanently from the NFL, whatever.

But it serves neither his family, his team, his fans nor anybody else, when he is punished again for a crime he had already been punished for and expressed regret for.

Can’t we allow Ray Rice to be a poster boy for redemption instead?

This article was originally published in Onfaith.

How to Love a Dying Friend

HowtoLoveI met my friend – I will call her Gigi because she reminded me of a ‘60s actress – a little more than a year before she was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. I actually do not remember how we met; just that it was through a mutual friend, Lydia. My first memory of Gigi is New Year’s Eve, 2010, when she, Lydia and I went out to a buffet at a semi-nice restaurant in town. We had no reservations for dinner, so we perched at the bar to eat.

Over the next months, though, Gigi and I became fast friends. She was one of those people I just quickly bonded to. Was it her love of the arts? Check. Her sardonic wit? Check. The way she could make thrift store finds look like a million dollars? Absolutely.

She was medium height, with wide-set blue eyes. She had a nose that I call pert, small and well formed with a slight upward tilt – the type of nose that people go under the knife for. Her hair was once blonde, but now was streaked with gray, and she wore it short, with bangs that skimmed her brows, and she was slender.

Gigi was always up to doing something. A play. A concert. A Greek festival. An art opening. A movie.

Lydia and I fell into a routine of meeting Gigi at her home Sunday afternoons after church. At first, we would go out: to a rustic restaurant in nearby Vermont, or a lakeside eatery where we would dine under a big canopied tent, and lie on wood lawn chairs, dipping our toes in the cold waters of the lake.

Gigi was always keenly interested in what was going on in Lydia’s and my life. She never allowed the presumed shortness of her own life stop her from “rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15)

In July 2011, we planned a trip to a Vermont playhouse to see “Ain’t Misbehaving.” We sat knee to knee during the production, and when I glanced at her, she was clapping her hands and laughing like an excited child. That’s another thing I liked about her: the ability to live life in the present moment.

After, she had to use the restroom to clean her colposcopy bag. When she was diagnosed with cancer after many months of health complaints that were not taken seriously by her health providers, she had had to have several feet of intestines removed.

Yet, I never heard Gigi complain about wearing the bag, or for that matter, about having cancer.

Some people find it awkward to be around the dying. Words fail. You avoid talking about the future, thinking it will hurt them since they won’t be there. You feel uneasy around their suffering. And, yes, the dying sometimes make us uncomfortable because we are forced to contemplate our own mortality.

Lydia and I didn’t have that problem, largely because of Gigi’s great attitude. The three of us single women were always out and about – we called ourselves “the three Musketeers,” although my fiancé preferred to call us – in our mid-50s to 60s – the Golden Girls.

It helped that we all were Christians. Gigi was a Catholic who had had intense experiences with the Holy Spirit. She bought a white wedding gown to be buried in. She wore a silver ring with a cross on her left hand. She spoke longingly of heaven, and credited (or blamed) her Welsh blood for a lingering sense of melancholy that always seemed to hang over her like a veil.

Gigi had come into salvation as a young mother in a troubled marriage. One night, her heavy-drinking husband had disappeared, and she found herself at her wits end, prostrate on the floor, beseeching a deity she only knew at a distance. As she related later, she had a vision of Jesus standing before her, his arms open wide, and he spoke words of comfort to her. She and the husband later divorced, and she remarried and divorced again.

When I met Gigi, she seemed worn out and buffeted by life, although still only in middle age. Two bad marriages, the stresses of parenting a hard-rocking son, and some emotional issues had taken their toll. Many dreams, especially those of serving her Lord, seemed to have come to dust. She had taken chaplaincy courses, but that career never materialized. She had even dreamed of joining a convent.

She was a smart woman with a master’s degree, but before her diagnosis, she worked as a health aide in a nursing home “wiping people’s behinds,” as she wryly put it. The one job she had achieved commensurate with her skills – providing services to recent immigrants – had been short-lived due to a misunderstanding with a client.

The winter before she died, we went shopping for vacation clothes, as she would be spending several weeks in Florida with a cousin she had reconnected with. In the dressing room, watching her try on dresses with flouncy skirts, Lydia and I didn’t want to believe that Gigi didn’t have long to live.

“Nobody who’s that near death has that much interest in shopping!” Lydia had snorted, and I had agreed.

However, there was a turn for the worse when she returned from Florida. Lydia and I still went to Gigi’s, but we would sit around the kitchen and talk instead of going out. Sometimes we would get the “anointing oil,” a bottle of olive oil from the kitchen and pray. I remember that after an especially powerful time of prayer, Gigi called to thank me, saying that she felt, for a moment, the closeness that she had once felt with God. Since she was often wracked with severe anxiety besides the ever-present pain, it was hard for her to feel the presence of God, she’d said.

Two weeks before she died, fluid had surged in her lungs and she feared suffocation. She was rushed to the hospital. My fiancé Morgan and I visited her the next day.

By the time we arrived, she’d had several liters of liquid removed from her lungs. She was looking as pretty and pert as ever, in a satiny blue nightshirt. She told us, matter-of-factly, that the doctors had told her they could do nothing more to make her comfortable. She made Morgan promise that he would befriend her son.

I got the final call in the airport, at a stop between New York and Louisiana. I wept at the airport café table. As I stood in line to board the plane, the agent at the gate asked me what was wrong, and hearing my answer, she gave me a badge to board the plane with the people with special needs. I still remember the older man and his wife waiting there who comforted me.

What did I learn from Gigi? To never be afraid to love a dying friend.

The Bible says no matter how long, our very lives are like a vapor (James 4:14), or like the grass that is fresh and green in the morning, and ready to be thrown into the fire by evening (Mathew 6:30).

A dying friend needs the same thing that she needed when healthy; and that we all need: love, companionship and an ease in being with her. She needs you to listen when she’s anxious, and to laugh with her when she’s happy. She needs to be able to talk about what will happen when she’s no longer here, no matter how awkward or painful that may be to you. She needs you to be her friend in the same way you would were she well.

Gigi left two checks with her mother after her death – one for me and one for Lydia. I smiled when I cashed mine – for $150. I made an appointment to do my hair, bought some bright orange hoop earrings and a flat of flowers, and Lydia and I went out to an Irish restaurant on Gigi’s birthday and raised our glasses to our friend.

Befriending Gigi, and spending time with her during the last days of her life, was a priceless gift. As my friend Debby noted, it is a privilege to walk with someone up to the gates of eternity.




A Broken Hearted Black Woman Speaks Out

Brother's keeperPresident Barack Obama recently announced a major initiative aimed at helping and healing young black men. The biblically named “My Brother’s Keeper” enlists private sector donations toward programs for black men to meet more success and less negativity in American culture.

In our country, black men have historically faced more struggles than black women, who outstrip black males in earning college degrees and finding a spot in the middle class. The reasons for this are many and varied, but include the remnants of racism, a lack of hope in the American dream; anger at being viewed as suspect and frequently inferior by the larger culture; a public education system based on wealth of the surrounding community that doesn’t adequately prepare students academically; and self-inflicted wounds reflecting a fractured self-worth that often embraces a street culture of machismo, violence, and absentee fatherhood.

This street culture has infected the view some have of African American men, despite the successes of prominent black men such as Kenneth Chenault, longtime CEO of American Express, and President Obama himself. Many expected Obama’s outreach to this population to come sooner.

As My Brother’s Keeper was announced last week, the headlines also remembered the fates of young black men who died too soon. Obama’s press conference came a day after the second anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death and just weeks after the close of the trial of the man who killed another 17-year-old Florida boy, Jordan Davis. The jury could not come to an agreement that Davis’ killer, Michael Dunn, was guilty of murder or even manslaughter after he gunned down the victim in a convenience store after an altercation over loud music.

Some media commentators placed the blame on Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows people to shoot first if they feel their lives are threatened. Though this defense was not explicitly used in the Michael Dunn trial, the jury was asked to consider it. The perpetrators of these types of killings aren’t always nonblacks: Another recent case in Florida involved a black male in his 30s who pursued and ended up shooting a teenage black male whom he suspected of burglary.

These events are, in part, the modern-day results of the fractured history in the U.S. of valuing black life. In 1787, blacks were deemed three-fifths of a person according to the law, and as slaves, had no rights that the white man needed to respect. Slaves could be flayed, raped, bought and sold, and killed at whim. In the 20th century, more than 3,500 black males were lynched by whites in acts of vigilante “justice” for things ranging from looking at a white woman to being disrespectful to a white man. In the intervening decades, black men have felt disrespected, feared and discriminated against, despite Civil Rights laws enacted in the 1960s. In New York City last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s candidacy took off in the black and brown communities after his Afro-wearing son filmed a commercial promising that his father would change the city’s Stop and Frisk policy, which disproportionately targeted black and Hispanic males.

Every black mother lives in fear of deadly trouble befalling her young sons, whether she lives in the New York City governor’s mansion or the Brooklyn projects. The other day on Facebook, I saw my brother-in-law counsel his 24-year-old son, who had overheard a white man reviling blacks and Mexicans in a bar, to ignore such talk for his own safety. My sister had the requisite talk with her three young sons about being polite and respectful to police officers when they are pulled over for traffic stops.

It seems that every black woman, whom society treats more gently, has a story to tell concerning her fears for her husband, boyfriend, sons, nephews, or cousins. Every time a young black man is gunned down, a sword pierces the hearts of black women everywhere.

My fiancé—a tall, dark-skinned, athletic-looking black man who favors sweats, hoodies, and sneakers—seems to encounter racism every day and everywhere. One woman drew her children into a huddle as he passed her on the library steps. While I move invisibly through my routine tasks, I was taken aback at a white woman’s reaction to his presence in the grocery aisle. You could see the look of fear on her face, until she realized he was shopping with me.

Our God is a God of justice, who created all of humankind “out of one” in its diverse expressions. I know he weeps with bereft parents like Davis’s and Martin’s. But he also weeps over the hatred, ignorance, and fear in the hearts of those who kill based on someone’s race.

As Chris Cuomo of CNN stated a few days after the Dunn verdict, there must be a new trial, because the verdict as is, which effectively sends Dunn to prison for life, has nonetheless brought “no resolution on the question of the value of human life.”

And that value, in God’s sight? Priceless.

This article was originally published in Christianity Today, March 2014.

I Get You L’Wren: Thoughts on Suicide & Depression

showbiz-lwren-scott-3I was greatly affected by the death this past March of designer and Rolling Stone girlfriend L’Wren Scott. Unlike a number of commentators, I had heard of her before, and did think of her first as a fashion designer, not as Mick Jagger’s girlfriend.

There was something haunting in the way (it was reported) that she tied one of her own scarves around her neck, and hung herself from a French door; her assistant found her kneeling lifeless on the floor.

Despite the fact that friends were quoted as saying that she had seemed fine in the weeks leading up to her suicide, later reporting relying on anonymous close friends, indicated that she had, in fact, been down in the dumps in the weeks leading up to her taking the final solution. It also was reported that that she had previously tried to “hurt herself.”

Yes, she had financial troubles (but a multi-millionaire boyfriend); and yes, she was forced to shutter her business; and maybe she was frustrated by her non-marriage to Mick and the fact that her childbearing years had passed her by.

But of one thing I am certain: L’Wren Scott was suffering from depression.

For those who have never been in its dark grasp, when depression descends, the very same facts that seem innocuous or par for the course most days, can take on a totally different and sinister meaning. Being depressed means feeling that all of life is hopeless and pointless. It means not being able to sleep; but also not being able to wake. It means losing one’s appetite or doing nothing but eat. It means that time stretches ahead like an eternity, an ocean of hopelessness, days battering the shores of your life with tormenting regularity; restless night leading to hopeless white daylight.

I get you, L’Wren, even though I am someone who believes in God, in accountability to him, in life after death; and that suicide cannot bring a life to an end.

And sometimes those are the only things that stop a believer from ending it all.
I, too, suffer from depression. Mine is biological, as many depressions are. I think people misunderstand depression and look for reasons why someone would want to end their lives … a lost job, loss of finances, loss of someone we love. But most people who experience these things know they must go on.

When mental illness is added into the picture, these things can become a trigger, and one’s very life becomes endangered.

When my medication is regulated, I am a happy, optimistic and productive person. When I am depressed, I become an empty shell, a vacant house.

If someone is not a believer, has never felt that life holds a greater purpose, and that suffering can in fact be redemptive, then indeed, why not “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die?”

The Book of Ecclesiastes is the Bible’s most direct book in its illustration of a life without greater purpose and without God. The author, whom many believe to be King Solomon, experiments with all of the things that humans think will make them happy: fruitful toil, a beautiful home, gardens, and vineyards, abundant wealth, entertainment, and sexual pleasure: “I denied myself nothing by eyes desired.”

Yet, he also concludes, “Everything was meaningless, a chasing after wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” No matter how long he toiled, or what he accumulated or accomplished, it was all “folly” because it would end up being enjoyed by another. Pessimistically, he writes, “for the wise man, like the fool, will not long be remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man will die!”

The writer then looks beyond himself, to the misery in the world, seeing the oppressed, “and that power was on the side of oppression … And I declared that the dead, who had already died are happier than the living who are still alive; but better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not yet seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

Ah, yes. Depression causes us to focus on all that is wrong. It steals life’s small pleasures — like a cup of hot aromatic coffee in the morning, the love of a pet, the smell of a flower, the hug of a loved one. It says to its victim, “all is meaningless, there is no meaning under the sun.”

With the recent spate of young and middle-aged bankers ending their lives through suicide, including one of the founding CEOs of Bitcoin, a virtual currency start-up; with the resurgence of heroin ravaging the middle-class; with disaffected young people shooting others before killing themselves, it is clear that there is something amiss.

There is a vacancy in our hearts that can only be filled by God. As St. Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless until they can find rest in thee.”

Shifting light and shortening days seem to exacerbate my depression. Last fall, when I was last depressed, such things as having the check-engine light come back on in my car after having spent hundreds of dollars in repairs (including the emissions system), felt like the end of the world. Some financial problems seemed insurmountable. I felt I couldn’t go on because my situation had become untenable.

Less than six months later, I discovered that my car’s problem was not an expensive catalytic converter, but a small fix that would cost $120, (and anyway, I had bought a new car prior to the next inspection date) and the mountain of debt that had so overwhelmed me was solved with a rather painless debt consolidation. In short, things that had looked so hopeless, were, in fact just ordinary blips on the road we call life.

I wish I could’ve told L’Wren this. There is only one constant in life and that is change. If today is a hopeless, depressing day, tomorrow could be the best day of your life.

And I would echo, with the preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” And in so doing, discover life’s purpose and joy that no-one and nothing can take away.

What Bitstrips Taught Me About Colorism

beyonceSeveral months ago, like everyone else, I started seeing cartoon avatars from Bitstrips show up in my Facebook news feed. Like countless other Facebook users, I had fun piecing together my avatar from a number of choices available and posting a few cartoons.

It was all good passing fun, except for one thing. When I looked at some of my friends’ and family’s Bitstrips, I noticed a disturbing trend. Many people of color created avatars with much lighter skin than they actually have.

Light-skinned blacks became indistinguishable from white. Brown-skinned people were suddenly light tan; and dark-skinned people inevitably made themselves light brown, and in one case even white!

It got me to thinking about how this issue of colorism plagues us still. In the last few years, the topic has been revived by such documentaries as Dark Girls, and by celebrities like Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, who have created controversy by seemingly morphing into white women before our eyes.

Allure magazine recently ran an article on the popularity and dangers of the practice of skin bleaching, and my sister told me that West Africans even have a term for it: Fanta face and Coca-Cola body. (Fanta is an orange-colored soda, and the effect of whitening often leaves brown skin with an orange cast.)

As Yasmin Alibhai-brown wrote in a very cogent piece in the Daily Mail, “Too many black and Asian children grow up understanding the sad ‘truth’ that to have dark skin is to be somehow inferior,” and dated the desire for light skin in India to before the time of the Raj.

For black Americans, it’s an old story. Dark-skinned female slaves brought from Africa were used as sex toys by white slave owners and overseers. A new caste arose: the mulatto. Because these mixed-blood people had hair, skin and features closer to that of the master, many, both white and black, viewed their looks as more desirable. Black sororities and social clubs instituted “paper bag” tests: i.e., you had to be no darker than a brown paper bag to gain entrance. Some mixed people passed for white by day in order to achieve the economic benefits of whiteness, while reverting to their own race when at home. “One Drop,” the mesmerizing story of New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard, who in his later years passed for white, had parents who did just that.

I find it perplexing that in almost every culture, light is considered desirable, and black despicable. White is pure; black is evil. Why does this mindset stretch across the globe in cultures that until recently had no significant contact with one another? After pondering the issue, I decided that likely it is a vestige of agricultural societies, where the well-to-do were able to avoid toiling in fields and darkening their skin, whereas the peasants were dark or swarthy from the sun. Therefore, light skin became equated with wealth, ease and class, and dark skin with poverty and peasantry.

I grew up in a family that disdained colorism. Or so I deduce, because I was completely unaware of it until my teens, when my family returned to the U.S. after my father’s diplomatic posting in East Africa. I was fascinated and surprised by the talk of “good” hair, light skin, and that the hip popular clique were mainly light-skinned and wavy-haired. My fair skinned, wavy-haired boyfriend with a monster curly Afro, would dissect his family’s lineage with excruciating detail. I later attended Howard University with a green-eyed young man who came from a family infamous for having intermarried with relatives to avoid the “curse” of dark skin.

That is why the Bitstrips avatars, Beyoncé, et al, and the extreme prevalence of nose jobs on beautiful black female actresses, has been such a disappointment to me.

I admit that once upon a time, many, many, years ago, I would probably have gone under the knife to refine my round, negroid nose if I had the money. But now that I am older, I view my nose as a badge of honor. Even if I had the time, money and vanity, I would no more alter what God gave me than to change my first name.

I feel that it’s almost a rebellious act to be proud of my nose. That’s a sad commentary during a time when we have seen our first Black commander-in-chief, and when a black man has just joined the ranks of chairmen at Microsoft.

I say, it’s time to bring back James Brown’s anthem: “Say it loud; I’m black and I’m proud.” As we witness the dawn of the brown, black and yellow century, let’s throw off the old bondage that taught us that if you’re white, you’re all right. Let’s embrace our African, Asian, Arab, Latina beauty … if not for ourselves, then at least for our children and our children’s children.

There’s speculation that women in Hollywood feel they must alter their looks in order to “cross over” and to become mainstream, and therefore rich and powerful. To paraphrase scripture: But what does it profit a person to gain the whole world, if he or she loses his or her soul?

Homeless in New York


“Oh, no,” I groaned, as I exited Union Station on my way to my sister’s home in DC.

We were going to our middle-school reunion that weekend, and I was full of anticipation about seeing friends we’d been out-of-touch with for years. But now a tall, thin, intoxicated man – who obviously was homeless – was checking me out.

As I got directions to the bus from a college-age couple sitting nearby, the gentleman, perfumed with alcohol, ambled over to me. “I’ll help you ma’am,” he’d said, displaying a toothless smile. Still handsome, in a worn sort of way, his muscular frame was covered with a moss-green tank top and jeans.

“No thanks, I’m fine.”

“Let me walk you to the bus stop.”

“No thanks, I. am. all. set.”

“Why don’t you wanna talk to me?” he asked plaintively.


I quickened my pace. Later that evening, I’d laughed about the toothless Lothario with my sister.

Now, on the bus headed home, to my animals, my fiancé, my work, all was well in my world. I was to catch a 5:45 p.m. connecting bus from New York City to Albany, and then my fiancé, Morgan, was to pick me up at the station.

But as the bus lumbered through Lincoln Tunnel, it sideswiped a car, delaying our arrival.

A quick call to the bus company, and I was informed that that I had missed the last bus to Albany that night. Morgan and I decided that I would tough it out at the bus station. I wasn’t overly daunted – as an adolescent, I would take transcontinental flights to and from boarding school, necessitating overnights in international airports.

Lugging my baggage to the nearest McDonald’s, I settled down with my book and a sandwich. As the clock crept toward midnight, however, I began to feel drowsy. Despite how it might look, and with some trepidation about my nearby laptop and handbag, I lay my head on my open book and took a nap.

At 2 a.m., I made 12-block trek to the bus stop. Passing Times Square, I noticed dark bodies bundled in layers of clothing slumped over the filigreed café tables at a piazza, their possessions heaped at their feet. This was obviously a choice place to sleep for the homeless. Although police cars cruised, and officers surveyed the area on foot, nobody seemed to notice the slumbering bodies.

At the outdoor bus stop, I eased myself down on the pavement, and began to read my devotional, the smell of stale urine drifting up from the sidewalk. Every minute stretched to an eternity. The hour from 2 a.m. to 3 seemed like three hours rolled into one.

I couldn’t take it anymore. Pushing my bags together, and draping my leg over my purse so I would wake up if anyone tried to snatch it, I dozed to the sound of the homeless woman across the street crying out plaintively to passersby. I slept two solid hours. When I awoke, my clothing was rumpled and smeared with dirt, my breath stale, my hair mussed.

I realized with a start that I had just shared an experience of “homelessness” with the men and women at the café tables – and with my wine-soaked Lothario.

True, I had looked at the huddled figures and felt more compassion than I ever had before. As I had passed their quiet frames, I had thought: These people are someone’s children, someone’s siblings, someone’s aunt, uncle, cousin. They are homeless, most likely, due to persistent mental illness and /or substance abuse. They’ve exhausted options with friends and family and have fallen through the safety net.

The reasons for my new awareness could be traced back to an experience three years earlier. I had battled a bout of major depression, and had been in and out of the hospital three times during one year. I had taken months of sick leave from work; fallen behind on my bills.

What if I hadn’t had A-rated health insurance that paid the nearly $150,000 for my hospitalizations? What if I had not had a dedicated circle of friends and family who had prevailed upon me to seek help in the first place? What if instead of being a homeowner in good standing, I had been a renter and lost my home?

My worst nightmare had been that I would end up like one of the people I had seen tonight. I would often lie in bed thinking, What if I never can go back to work? What if my house is foreclosed on? What if I exhaust the sympathy of friends and family?

What if I end up homeless?

My favorite poet, Jane Kenyon, described her experience of being in the city for a conference, and seeing the homeless people “bedded down for the night under rags.” *

At the Cloisters I indulged in piety
while gazing at a painted lindenwood Pieta
… but when a man stepped close
under the tasseled awning of the hotel,
asking for “a quarter for someone
down on his luck,” I quickly turned my back …

 “Do you love me?” said Christ to his disciple.
“Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Then feed my sheep.”

“Lord, what can I do?” I whispered inwardly.  And I seemed to hear him respond in my heart:

Pray for the homeless; they are not invisible to me. They are beloved of my Father, and I shed my blood for them. Give to homeless ministries – not everyone has the will or compassion to work with these people of mine, but everyone can contribute to those whom I have called to do so. And if you have the opportunity, share the forgiveness, healing and freedom you have found in me. For there may seem to be a huge gap between these least of these my brethren and you, but indeed, your righteousness is as filthy rags before me. And when you walk by those people bedded down for the night on the streets, do not forget that they were once loved by someone.

In the Bible, “home” is where our Father will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4). We will be reunited with loved ones and sit down for a heavenly feast (Isaiah 25:6-9). We will be welcome, we will be loved.

One of my favorite scriptures is Psalm 84:3:

Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow builds

 a nest for herself, where she may have her young,

a place near your altar, Oh God…”

How tender it is to know that our Father provides a home for even the birds of the air.

A friend who has experienced homelessness observed that when homeless believers, like the Biblical Lazarus, are taken to heaven, never again will they have to worry about paying the rent or getting eviction notices.  Their home will be provided for the price of love.

Here on earth, home is where we can finally exhale after a time away. It’s where we can put our feet up, let our hair down and be completely, most truly ourselves. It is our sanctuary from work and stress. It is the expression of our interests and our tastes. It is the repository of our dreams.

I was so tired when I got home, that after a long bubble bath, I fell into a deep and heavy sleep that lasted through the early evening and all night.

I was so tired, I didn’t even let my dog in when I heard him scratching at the door.

In the morning, when I finally opened the door, Neptune wagged his tail, his wet nose brushing against my hand.

He was home. And I was too.

*Back from the City, © Jane Kenyon, 1986