The summer of 2013 was the summer I grew up. That summer, I graduated from Houghton College; planned a move from the rolling hills of Western New York to the big city of Boston, Massachusetts, to pursue a Master of Divinity degree as a Fellow at Boston University School of Theology; and was hired to work my first summer job away from home as an Admissions Intern at Houghton’s Greatbatch School of Music.
After four years of pestering, my mother finally allowed me to drive my high school graduation gift—a car—from Chicago to Houghton, and, with that decision, the summer of 2013 became the year my mother gave me “The Talk.”
This was not the traditional diatribe wherein parents explain “the birds and the bees” or delineate their expectations for your relationships with significant others. In fact, if you are not an African American, chances are that this rhetorical rite of passage is unknown to you.
There are a few talks that every Black boy remembers. You never forget the horrifyingly sacred hush of your mother’s voice and the lump in your stomach that presses against your dignity as you are told the story of Emmett Till—a Black boy from Chicago who was murdered in 1955 by White men while visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, for daring to assert his equality with a White woman. The summer of 2013 “Talk” was different. There was no sacred homage to a tragedy of the past in the tone of my mother’s voice. Her monologue bespoke fears as fresh as the present, and there was a terror I had never heard or seen from her before.
She said, “Julian, I know that you are an adult, and I am proud of you. But, if the police pull you over, do not move, be polite, keep your hands visible, and do not appear threatening to the officer. Your job is to make it to Houghton safely. Do you hear me?” The sudden authority in her voice shook me, but it was clear that a simple car ride to Houghton had aroused fears for her Black son’s life.
I suppose that the mothers of Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland and Michael Brown also gave them “The Talk.” The continuing necessity of “The Talk” indicates that, while race relations and mores have changed in this country, racism is alive and healthy. The question raised by W. E. B. DuBois in his 1903 work, “The Souls of Black Folks,” is as relevant today as it was 113 years ago: “How does it feel to be a problem?”
I was driven to my involvement in the Black Lives Matter and Non-violent Resistance movements because I was convinced by the gospel of Jesus Christ that I, and all marginalized persons, am not a problem to be solved or tolerated; we are Children of God. The gospel is clear: God is among those whose lives are regarded with indignity by society, and our call as disciples of Christ is to be where Jesus is present.
I participated in the shutdown of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile on Black Friday of 2015 to protest the police killing of an unarmed and mentally handicapped seventeen-year-old Black child named LaQuan MacDonald. Two years ago, the church I am privileged to serve as Senior Pastor, St. Mark Congregational Church, United Church of Christ of Roxbury (the oldest Black Congregational Church in Boston), established a community gardening program to combat the inaccessibility of fresh vegetables in the city’s poverty-stricken Black and Latino community.
Racial justice and reconciliation results in liberation for the oppressed and the oppressor. It liberates the oppressed from the shackles of inferiority that cause them to live as less than what they are, and it frees the oppressor from the hegemonic superiority that permits them to live as more than what they are. Before there can be racial reconciliation, there must be deep truth-telling, prophetic listening and genuine repentance. Our task as disciples of Christ is to work until “The Talk” is no longer a necessary fact of life for people of color. Then, all of God’s children will be able to “beat our swords into plowshares,” and “[n]ation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). In the words of Ella Baker, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes!”