I recently got back from an amazing week in Bahia, north Brazil. As cliché as it may sound, it’s an amazing place with a rich culture and a unique spirit. Bahia is an area where the majority of the population are descended from enslaved Africans. I immediately felt at home there, more at home than I do in the average British city. I was surrounded by Afros, dreadlocks, brown skin, food that tasted strangely similar to the Caribbean stews my Mum cooks at home and men that appreciated me post-tan (been trying and failing to get to Lupita levels of melanin).

On my second day there, I went to a Samba dance/workout class. Now, I usually avoid gym situations like the plague, being naturally averse to other people’s sweat. Like, I genuinely am disgusted by people who drip sweat from their head – which is most men (wipe yourself down before you hug me please), and I visibly shudder when I have to go near anyone who has anything more than a gentle post workout glow. This class was great though. I was working every muscle, had a lot of fun, felt absolutely no judgement about the fact that my melanin had not conferred any dancing ability to me and samba’d my non rhythmic self for 2 hours. It was all going so well, until we approached the end of the class. Our super energetic teacher summoned us towards the band at the front of the room who had been drumming us through the class. I was a bit bemused, but whatever, I samba’d my way over to the drums. She knelt to the floor in front of the drums. I knelt too  – figured this was our final stretch or cool down. Then before I knew it, she was bowing in front of  the drums, arms outstretched, wailing and arching her back.

Hold up. Wait a minute. Let me put some Jesus in it.

I finally cottoned on to the fact that this was some kind of religious activity. Which I respect, but I wasn’t about to be involved in. So I stood up and shuffled to the side.

Later, she explained that she was a daughter of Oshun, (one of the Yoruba deities or what is believed to be a manifestation of God) and that the drumming and dancing was used to summon the Orisha (spirit).

And what is strange about this? She is after all, an African descendent practising her religious lineage.

The history of the intersection of Europeans with Africans is the same in Brazil as anywhere else in the modern world. There are nuances , but the story of deceit, cultural stripping ,rape, whipping, forbidding traditional religions, segregation and hierarchy enforced amongst Africans based on their proximity to whiteness follows the same pattern it does anywhere else.

Unlike my home country of Jamaica, where the majority of the country is Christian and the traditional African religions are shunned by a sizeable amount of the population (although definitely practiced by some), Brazil has a strong tradition of syncretism. The basic definition of syncretism is the amalgamation of two or more religions. In the case of Brazil, Christianity, mainly Catholicism – which arguably is very different from mainstream Christianity, is blended with traditional African religions. The Yoruba religion has different Orishas – manifestations of the supreme being, and people can be daughters and sons of these various orishas. Many slaves were adherents of this religion but were banned by the Catholic church from following it once they arrived in Brazil. To maintain their practice enslaved Africans combined elements of the Yoruba, Bantu and Fon religions known overall as Candomble, with Catholicism.  The ritualism and worship of dead saints in Catholicism lends very well to the reverence for ancestral worship in the traditional African religions. The belief systems, although very different, have enough similarities that allow for their amalgamation.

Strangely to me at first, some of the followers of Candomble in Brazil that I spoke to, identified as Christian  and Candomble. One man simply said “Candomble is first because it is the religion of my ancestors, but I’m a Christian as well”.

I thought a lot that week about how I as a black Christian related to traditional African religions. Had I been taught to fear them more than other religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism? Did I think they were ‘more’ evil? Had I ignorantly referred to them as voodoo simply because I had very little understanding of the practices? The answer to all these questions is, yes.  I can accept that one of the functions of white Christianity was to instil a level of disdain for traditional religions that was part of an entire system created dehumanise people of African descent.

What does this mean for black Christians? If we understand that our receiving of what is termed  ‘The Gospel” – good news, was actually part of a package of what was admittedly bad news for anyone who shared our skin colour, is it necessary for us to reject it?

Firstly, religion being a cultural baton that is passed down through generations doesn’t appear logical. The idea that because my ancestors worshipped a certain way I should naturally follow it, although superficially compelling, seems a completely illogical way to decide on a belief system. There are many things our ancestors believed about a lot of things that we now question, regardless of our ethnic or cultural background. Few people would suggest that because Irish people once believed in leprechauns that Irish Christians are rejecting their ancestry. Clearly, Candomble is seen as a more sophisticated belief system than leprechauns, but the logic that ancestral belief trumps all, fails.

I realise that although I’ve been brought up in a Christian family, I don’t really see Christianity as something that was simply passed down to me. In fact, I think if I had done, I would be a lot more resistant to following it. Undoubtedly the fact that I was exposed to it contributed to my acceptance of it, and it’s obvious that parental beliefs influence children hugely, but most importantly I felt that it was ultimately an individual decision about a belief system.

Secondly,  suggesting that because a religion was initially presented via oppressive means automatically means that the belief system is inherently false is again, illogical. If we reject Christianity, it cannot be on the basis that we came into contact with it in a less than favourable way. Parts of West Africa were exposed to Western medicine via colonialism, but it would be ridiculous to suggest that we reject every aspect of Western medicine simply because our initial contact with it was via colonialism. A system, be that belief system or other, must be judged in and of itself and that is outside the scope of this post.

Before slavery and colonialism and the rise of the Roman Catholic church, Jesus was not white, and Christianity was not synonymous with white supremacy. Jesus was the son of poor woman who got pregnant out-of-wedlock, part of a minority group living under Roman colonial rule. James and John were anti-Roman activists who had a supernatural experience and laid down their placards for preaching.

One definition of colonisation is ‘to appropriate for one’s own use’, and Christianity has been and continues to be colonised by white supremacy. It manifests not only in the historical and present abuses of black bodies in the name of Jesus, but also in the continuing demeaning of black cultural traditions and black self-worth in our own practices of faith. From white Christianity’s refusal to address their racism, to pictures of white Jesus in majority black churches, to black Christians being guilted into accepting their oppression in exchange for a blessing in the afterlife – the manifestations are endless.

In an age where so many young black people are rejecting what they see as a failed faith, a relic of slavery that they cannot in good conscience engage with, the black church must be rigorous, evangelical even, in its attempts to contend for the faith. Decolonising Chritianity is part of our missionary work.  Practically, that means rejecting extra-biblical traditions that are founded on white supremacist ideology.  It’s simple things like not having only Brad Pitt lookalikes when we visually represent Jesus to our congregations, especially our children. It’s more complex things like dealing with the questions our young people might have about how Christians relate to social justice movements, and being open to supporting black theologians in their attempts to understand how our story as black people is positioned in the grand story of redemption. The problem of pain and suffering in the presence of a loving God transcends race and culture, and becomes even more poignant in the recent history of African peoples. It’s challenging ideas that European art traditions have an inherent holiness that African ones are excluded from. It’s lovingly speaking out against voices that suggest that to be proudly black and a devoted follower of Jesus is oxymoronic.

Individually, it starts from a place of accepting that our own blackness is purposefully designed by creator God.  It is not an aberration or variation of whiteness. It is not ‘other’. The Biblical declaration is that God created from rich, brown earth, sons and daughters of glory. The story of redemption IS our story, as much as anyone’s and we must reclaim it.

pauline

Pauline looking vex. (www.mirror.co.uk)

It’s Valentines day and in the words of Catherine Tate, I aint’ bothered. I do however, love a good love story. I do also love an awkward love story, even if it ends in failure. Actually, I love watching awkwardness in any situation.

Which brings me to this First Dates clip that has gone viral. First Dates is a TV show where they film people having blind first dates – I guess the title is fairly self-explanatory. I’ll tell the story for those of you who haven’t watched it. Are you sitting comfortably?

It’s the end of the date. Aunty Pauline is sitting there on national television, her grey afro looking tight because she made sure she had a shape up and creamed her foot before she came to the date. Because she has broughtupsy (that’s a Jamaican word for manners and home training). Someone’s ashy Uncle (we’ll call him Errol) is sitting across from her. Bubbly waitress walks over and hands Errol the bill,  with a smile of course. He looks at the bill, raises his eyebrows and says with a snort “I ain’t got this” (because he has no broughtupsy). Aunty Pauline smiles and raises her eyebrows. Waitress looks at both of them like “Giirrllll, I can’t”, and leaves them to sort out this relational disaster. Errol then says, “So we’re going dutch right?”. Fair enough. Pay day hasn’t happened yet. She smiles again, in shock, but puts some money on the table and says “Is that enough?”. This mess of manliness peers over the table and then proceeds to use the good oxygen God has created to give us life and strength to say “Hmm…put another tenner in”.

If your mouth has dropped open at this , close it quick before the horseflies catch your tongue.

I don’t know what happened after that, but all I know is that if I had been sitting across from Uncle, the story wouldn’t even have got that far. This would have been the scenario:

Him: “I ain’t got this”.

Me: “That’s unfortunate”.

Him: “Are we going Dutch then?”

Me: “Sure. Here you go. It was nice to have met you”.

I would have then proceeded to leave the restaurant. There would have been no time for an extra tenner, fiver, or even another goodbye.

The end.

I fail to understand why she didn’t tell him about his life  and everything that was disastrous about it there and then. He needed it. Some people can’t understand why this is an outrage. Feminism, equality, you guys wanted equal rights now you have them, why should he pay if he wasn’t feeling her, maybe he didn’t like her afro bla bla to the blaaddy bla. You’re all missing the point.

It’s not even the fact that he tried to split the bill live on national television. I’m sure men before him have done it and I’m sure men after him will. It’s the way he did it.

I’ll very plainly state that I, girlwiththafro, girlwiththabraids, girlwiththaweave, girlwiththebougieattitude, whatever you wanna call me,  will not, shall not, have never, and does not intend to, go halves on a first date. I’ve always offered to out of politeness, but I’ve always expected the man to decline my offer and he always has. That’s because in my fairly conservative Christian circle ‘dating’ doesn’t tend to follow the same pattern as one might expect for the average 20-something.  So because I tend to date men who have the same ideals as me about gender roles I don’t ever really envisage a situation where a man would expect me to go halves on the first date. If in some strange alternative universe it did happen, I would smile politely and pay, but he would never get a second date.

The rules are very simple and very fair. They aren’t biased against men in the slightest. Whoever asks for the date pays for the date.It’s basic etiquette. If you’re a woman and you’re in the habit of asking men out on dates, then don’t be mad when he expects to split the bill. I don’t know if you should even be mad if he expects you to pay for it all  (although most people’s ideas of gender roles would  mean that he would probably at least offer to split). Therefore, if a man asks you out on the date  then he should pay. Regardless of whether he doesn’t like your ombre weave, or thought you were more boring in person or thinks your breath is a little funky. If you can’t afford to date, stay in your yard and play chess with your friends or pull out your inner artist and get creative. Picnics in Hyde Park are free.

For the sake of argument though, this was a blind date. He didn’t initiate or pursue this woman, he was just set up with her by some person at Channel 4. IF he was the kind of man I appreciate, he would have paid for the date despite the fact that it was a blind date or despite the fact that it didn’t go well. But he wasn’t. It still could have played out very differently. Firstly, before he got the bill he could have said ” Are you happy to split the bill?”, as the waitress was getting it. He would still have been a cheapskate in my eyes, but not as ashy a cheapskate. Then, when he got the bill, he could have simply looked at it like a normal person instead of acting like someone had asked him to pay his whole mortgage in one year. Then, when she put in her half and asked if it was enough, he could have been like ‘yeh, sure’.

Basically Errol wasn’t just a cheapskate, he was ashy about his cheapskateness. He had no broughtupsy. He’s the kind of man who expects you to give him some sugar him on the first date even though he’s only taken you to Nandos for a quarter chicken wing. Here is the basic lesson:

Avoid the Errols of this world, remember what your mother taught you about broughtupsy and make sure, like Pauline, your afro is always tight. Goodnight.

adventist.png

 

I had a conversation recently with a friend, and we talked at length about the fact that the nature of religion , especially Christianity, appears to be rapidly changing in our post-modern world. It’s no longer ‘cool’ to have a very definite set of beliefs that suggest that you have a monopoly on truth. Young people of our generation are becoming increasingly disenchanted with dogma, meaningless tradition, and religion that focuses more on prohibition rather than liberation. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

Within my particular denomination there seems to be a shift in certain quarters from focusing on the beliefs that make us different from other branches of Christianity, some of which are seen redundant, irrelevant and even downright wrong, to a seemingly more inclusive approach. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get bogged down  in conversations about religion, politics and society with labels such as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ which often serve little purpose outside of allowing us to keep our ears closed to  the other side. So instead of defending a ‘side’or writing a list of criticisms of complaints, which, let’s face it we’re all good at doing, especially me – I wanted to write about some of the unique things I love about my church. They aren’t in order of importance, they’re just random snapshots of what I love about my faith:

1) Our focus on the Bible

I’m pretty sure I learnt a knock off version of Harvard referencing  system age 5, just from growing up Adventist. It was never enough for me to believe something just because I felt like it was true or it sounded like it was good.  It was never enough for my parents or a pastor to tell me something was wrong or right based on their childhood or a tradition that had been passed down to them. I would ask “Is it in the Bible? Where? Is that in the right historical context?”. And as I got older, that led to me questioning some of the traditions inside my own church and really digging deep to make sure that when I did make a decision in my late teens to actually join the church, that I believed in all the doctrines. Growing up Adventist taught me to take theology seriously and believe that God wasn’t content to just give me a rule book and leave me to it. He wanted me to engage, to ask questions, to understand the history and sociology, but most of all, to come to know and love Him through its study.

2)The health message

If you’re not Adventist, you’ll be wondering what that is – if you’re Adventist you’ve heard the phrase a million times. Adventists are known for their focus on health and a happy lifestyle, and many of us follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. I’ve recently made a commitment to stick 100% to a full plant based diet and I feel great for it. Not only has it given me a sense of achievement,  the discipline required to stay away from my occasional halloumi binges has extended to other areas of life – spiritually, physically and mentally. I love the fact that our ‘health message’ isn’t just about food, but encompasses a total state of well being. Taking time out each week to observe a day of rest, being physically active, getting enough sleep and most importantly, having trust in a power greater than myself give me a sense of well being that I’m incredibly grateful for.

I wish that more of us who are Adventists would try and experience the benefits that come from our health message especially as everyone else now seems to get that eating clean isn’t a chore when it’s done right!

3) Our commitment to social justice

I’ve never been someone who is content to believe that God wanted us to be so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good. In fact, I tend to believe that the more heavenly minded you are, the mor earthly good you will be. One of things I love about being Adventist is that we’re often encouraged to believe that as individuals we can bring a small taste the kingdom of God to earth in the way we live our lives.The network of charities, hospitals and educational institutions run by the church always remind me that I’m not here to live for myself. My talents and my gifts are given to me to share with humanity and to offer whatever portion of peace and joy that I can to the people I interact with. Fighting against injustice, poverty, ignorance, and suffering are not jobs that I can leave to God – he’s given me my own job to do no matter how small, in reflecting his fight against these things.

4) The emphasis on lifestyle standards.

Being a teenager and an Adventist wasn’t the easiest thing. Before I developed a genuine relationship with God for myself, there was often a feeling of irritation. Why did I have to dress differently from other people? Why were my parents so strict about the things I could and couldn’t watch on TV? Why was it so bad to listen to 50 Cent? (I’m revealing my age aren’t I?) Why did I have to be so…different from everyone else? I was fed up of saying no to going certain places. I was fed up of being out the loop of everyone else’s favourite TV show or music video. I was fed up of not having sex.I just wanted to be normal.

As I grew to actually value my relationship with God I understood more and more why what I watched, what I read, where I went, who I slept or didn’t sleep with shaped the kind of person I became. And at times when I struggled a lot with these standards, I saw how I changed into a person that I didn’t particularly like and that my relationship with a God I had come to love and trust, suffered. I know now more than ever that my standards aren’t about arbitrary rules to control how I live but rather daily decisions about how I want the trajectory of my life to go. I realise that in order to be truly happy I have to be consistent in what I do publicly and behind closed doors and that that only comes from consistency in the outwardly little things I do every day.

I am glad that the youth of my church are not content to be stagnant in doing things the way they were done before for the sake of it. I want us though, to ensure that we are not afraid to be different. That our change isn’t powered by being molded by the unrelenting pressure of a secular postmodern world that paints Biblical faith as primitive, restrictive and embarrassing or a modern Christianity that is offended by any denomination that does not subscribe to a one size ecumenicalism. Now is not the time for cowardice or shrinking. We have a faith that can bring light and love and hope to so many. Find out who and whose you are, and live it!

What do you love about your faith?

 

 

period meme

I remember in Year 5, everyone’s parents got a letter in the post. It was something along the lines of:

“Dear Mr and Mrs Girlwiththafro,

As part of the St Jude the Fields personal development lessons, we will be screening a short video on sexual health and reproduction called “The Facts of Life”. Please return the slip attached to the letter below to indicate whether or not you are happy for your child to attend….”.

My Mum being who she is had already given me her own version of “The Facts of Life” at least a year earlier and so I sat smugly through the video, content in my 10 year old mind that I was EXTREMELY mature and aware. The video to my recollection was a fairly benign animation and I don’t remember much, apart from that I was completely unprepared for the ensuing carnage that puberty would bring.

Things they don’t tell you about periods:

1)It’s more blood than you think.

So we know the average woman doesn’t actually lose that much blood, it’s actually really the lining of your uterus shedding. Who cares? It’s red. We’ve all had that awful feeling of standing up after a lecture, date or dinner party and feeling the sudden gush between your legs as your period  has suddenly decided it’s had a nice break, but now it’s time to get back to work. If you’re lucky, you’re prepared and you’ve got a pad, a tampon, or a mooncup to catch the evidence of the slaughter. If you’re unlucky, you’ve just ruined a pair of Boux Avenue polyester knickers. Again.

2) It can smell.

No, it’s not the back of a meat market, just Anna at the other end of the office isn’t changing her pad as frequently as she should. There’s a distinctive and rather gross smell that can associated with period-ing, especially if you use pads (MOONCUPS GUYS, MOONCUPS). The worst bit about the smell is that really, most of us don’t want everyone to know we’re bleeding. Again. Period smell is like a Honda Civic blaring old school garage music through Lewisham High Street at midday. You can’t miss it.

3) The pain is comparable to childbirth.

I’ve never, and may never give birth, but no one can convince me that the period pain I had in 2008 wasn’t as bad a childbirth. I was literally on the verge of taking a kitchen knife, carving my own uterus out, and then just lying there as I bled to death. It would have been a perfectly reasonable response. No one tells you that there are actual women, women all around us who have eventually had to have their wombs removed because their periods were so heavy and the pain is so bad. Nope, they just say “Isn’t it wonderful, you’re becoming a woman!!!”

4) Your hormones can literally ruin life.

I know women who just before their period, practically sink into depression. I’m not joking – lack of motivation, suicidal ideation, unable to perform normal day to day tasks. Some women go on oral contraception just so that their month isn’t at the mercy of their fluctuating hormones. I used to scoff at women who kept claiming that their PMS was the cause of their once monthly erratic behaviour – but now I’m more sympathetic. Recently I found myself sitting on my bed, eating popcorn, crying hysterically, then as it dawned on me that my period was starting in two days, laughing hysterically. Madness I tell you, madness.

5) You’re expected to just get on with it.

If you think everyone will be sympathetic to the fact that your womb is playing squash in your pelvis, and disintegrating through your vagina, think again. Your new boyfriend will be sympathetic for the first 4 months and then after that, he’ll disinterestedly bring you an Ibuprofen and a hot water bottle and go back to watching the football. Your colleagues at work might well be more caring, but it’s really just luck of the draw. Even if your period pain is worse than Mike Tyson repeatedly biting at your ear, no one is going to take kindly to you taking a day off every.single.month.

6) You can have great periods.

So I’ve spent a few hundred words trashing them, but for some lucky women, it’s possible to actually have great periods. I’ve started trying to be more grateful when my period comes. If you have regular, relatively pain free periods, be thankful! Many women don’t get that chance and it’s probably a sign that you’re healthy and your body is working exactly how it should. In fact, for some women changing their eating habits, losing weight and getting better sleep can actually transform their entire menstrual cycle. So if, you’re having bad periods, don’t give up, see your doctor, do your research, and see if there are things you can do to have a happier period. Every month you’re reminded (not so gently?) of the fact that you can bring new life into the world! Isn’t that kind of amazing? No? Ok.

Have I left anything out? What do they not tell you about periods when you’re younger?

 

obama mic

As Obama enters the final hours of his 2 terms as president of the United States, social media, news outlets and  facebook feeds are buzzing. Many are heartbroken – they beleieve their country has traded in an articulate, outwardly progressive, intelligent man for someone who embodies an entirely opposing and distasteful set of values. They are fearful for the future.

People generally fall into two main camps with Obama. They love him or they hate him. A few fall into a more nuanced approach . Various marginalised communities measure his Presidency on what his policies specifically did for their community. In the African-American community, several community ‘leaders’ have been outspoken about the fact that Barack did not specifically target the black community with his policies or create any tangible change for them. Indeed, it’s arguable that black people in America and across the world are equally if not more disenfranchised, downtrodden and disrespected post Obama’s presidency as they were before it.

I speak as somewhat of an outsider being Jamaican-British and I acknowledge that it’s a lot easier for me to have an admittedly more impartial, but potentially less accurate analysis as someone who is largely  affected indirectly by American politics.  I will  hesistantly say though,  that I believe anyone who expected Obama to create any real change for the black community was somewhat delusional. Obama, despite the historicity, despite the tears and moments of pride, despite the cute family pictures and swaggalicious YouTube videos, is a politician. Western politicians, especially at senior levels of government, rarely get there by being completely radical and challenging privilege and power. They get there by acquiescing to it. They might appear, like Trump, to say radical things, but they will almost always either be part of or have to acquiesce to a capitalist white supremacist power structure. It doesn’t matter if they fist bump their constituents or tell them they’re building a massive wall to keep out the rapey Mexicans. At some point they will have to make a choice to play the game.

Obama, as the countries first black president had to be even more careful than any of his predecessors that he was playing the game correctly. He was bound by processes of power that meant that half of his congress had values that despite their protestations were  at least partially rooted in maintaining inequality and upholding white male privilege. He had the burden of not only failing himself, but failing the community. There was a burden of collective blackness that whether or not Barack Obama acknowledged, history would force him to carry. Most importantly, he did not win the election on a mandate of black power – the main groups who voted for him were liberal whites. Undoubtedly, black man and women galvanised around him, but the harsh reality is that a community with very  little economic power has very little political power.

I’m not excusing Obama.  He arguably did more for the LGBTQ community than he did directly for the black community. I agree with every analysis that suggests that he didn’t do enough about police brutality or reverse America’s legacy of destructive foreign policy or dismantle a cruel prison industrial compex. He wasn’t enough. I don’t know that America’s first black president was ever really going to be able to play the game and win if he was publicly seen to be considering the needs of his community as paramount in a country where a significant proportion of the population are deeply prejudiced. Simply put, it was never gonna happen.

Real change has rarely come from the top down, but from the bottom up. It’s the people at the bottom who don’t have enough power and privilege  to be  constrained by the courts and the congresses that can push till the top is forced to look down at them for fear of toppling over. It’s the people who have less to lose that often risk everything to try to change their existence. Desperation is often the fuel that changes societies, not comfort. We, black, white, poor, female , other were never going to find a saviour in Obama because had he had been the radical change you were looking for, he wouldn’t have made it that far.

I remember when Obama got elected for the second time. I watched my Dad, a jamaican man who had come to this country in the 1960’s, walked through the streets of Wolverhampton and had rubbish thrown at his head, stand in the corner of my living room and watch as Obama and his family walked out to a crowd of cheering peooe. I saw the emotion on his face. I saw my Mum’s smile when Michelle Obama spoke. And despite being my usual cynical self, I couldn’t deny the messure of pride and relief when I saw the first family. Entirely black, entirely seemingly in love with each other. Secretly, I wanted my own Obama – or at least what he respresented.

The enduring image from his presidency that I will remember is one of a little black boy touching the President’s head as he bent over in the Oval office. He just wanted to know that the President had the same hair he did. We will never know the countless number of black children across the world who were too young to understand the effects of foreign and domestic policy, but old enough to remember that yes, they can. They can be President. And despite the morality or immoralities of the Obama Presidency, that is in itself significant and enduring.

That’s what Obama’s Presidency meant to me. Not a  departure from neo-liberal values, not a politician that I put my faith and trust in, and certainly not someone who was going to usher in a new dawn of equality or progress.

The Bible says ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God, the things that are God’s. There are some things that belong to the power  structures of this world. Absolute truth, equity , justice, and complete freedom are not those things.Once we recognise that, we can accept Obama for what he was as well as what he wasn’t.