Whiteness Can’t Save Us
Whiteness cannot give us what we need, and this is not a disappointment. This is a testimony.
Growing up, I spent Sunday mornings under the great painted ceiling of a Catholic cathedral that smelled of old wood, sharp incense, and glazed doughnuts kept in white boxes at the back of the sanctuary until after Mass. As I listened to the priest, I faced an embroidered Black Jesus, His arms stretched wide across a yellow tapestry that hung above the altar. He wasn’t bleeding, this Jesus. He wore a cloak, a triumphant robe that offered shelter within its folds.
Each week during announcements, a volunteer asked visitors to wave and receive our welcome gift. Every time, I turned around slowly but eagerly, and if the visitors were white, I willed them to stay. Maybe if I smiled just so—if I contained my body, not moving suddenly—if I held my posture, or even my breath—they would see us and like us. They would know that we, the mostly Black worshippers, some of whom needed the donations of boxed doughnuts and old bread from the pantry, were kind and good-hearted. They should stick with us, give us a shot. They’d like our Kirk Franklin songs. See the white man who joined the choir? We were worthy.
My husband grew up in a Black church with red carpets and tambourines and Holy Spirit dancing, where whiteness was a satin tie or a woman’s leather pumps on first Sunday. It was a nurse’s pointed hat, an usher’s gloves, a sea of white pantyhose and dresses in pews, broken by Black, sweating faces and then the quick covering of a purple cloth, laid by the nurse over a Black man or woman fallen to the ground, felled by the Spirit. The purple cloth marked them as dead to self, alive to God, marked them as blessed and seen.
They murdered George Floyd this summer. You can decide if they wore a blue cloak and a covered badge, or if they held a Bible in the air before a parted sea of teargas, or if they replaced Imago Dei with “All Lives Matter” when they preached their fiery sermons. I know the facts: A knee to the neck, a knee to the back, a knee to compress all he was into a flatness that air couldn’t find.
We are quickly moving away from the days when all three of my kids can bathe together. A nine-year-old girl, eight-year-old boy, and three-year-old girl, splashing in bodies made of bronze and pecans, of honey and cashews, and all the goodness of Genesis, is beautiful. And tight. The oldest will need her space as hair and breasts sprout, as the nakedness becomes less of a giggle and more of a whisper. But for now, we have a moment.
What is a mother to do, if she cannot save her boy?
“Mommy, why are some white people bad?” my youngest asks. I don’t know if she’s talking about the white men who trapped and killed Ahmaud Arbery or the white cops who murdered George Floyd, or the ones who shot and killed Breonna Taylor. I don’t know if she’s talking about the white girl at preschool who said, “I don’t like your hair” this year, or the girl who shoved her on the playground as my daughter walked by.
“They shot her while she was sleeping?” my oldest asks of Breonna, who should have turned twenty-seven this month.
“Did she wake up?” my son asks. “Did she get alive?” I don’t know if he was asking if the pain struck her awake before she died, or if she became alive again when she saw Jesus in the air.
I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, son. A prayer, a confession, a warped hymn I can’t just swallow behind my lips: I’ve seen so much, and still I don’t know.
“No! They killed her!” the oldest says to her brother. “She was sleeping and they shot her. She didn’t wake up.”
My Grandma Betty and Grandpa John used to hand out envelopes to us grandchildren at Christmas. Grandma bought a white sheet cake with “Happy Birthday Jesus” in thin, frosted letters that we sang over, and then we each took an envelope with our name handwritten on the front. It held a copy of Our Daily Bread, so we would know her God, and a twenty-dollar bill. So many grandkids, twenties of twenty-dollar bills in pairs of brown hands that cost us nothing. Pray for me, is all she’d ever ask of us.
Our eight-year-old asked to be baptized last year. He wanted his daddy, a college professor who’d recently started a church, to dunk him in the local pool and raise him up, his skinny legs dripping in wetness, glistening in newness.
When he climbed out from the pool, draped in an over-sized T-shirt and towel, he said, “I want to get baptized again!”
My husband and I met on the trolley that runs through the University of Virginia. His long, thick eyelashes blinked my way, and I wasn’t felled. But, boy, did I notice. The next time I saw him, I asked him to marry me. I thought it was a joke. Less than three years later, an ivory dress on a Black girl standing on a deck over a dark river in Ohio proved otherwise.
We said one day we’d move back and retire in our college town. Not for its sour Southern taste, but for the sweetness we found in the strength of fellow Black students there. We found our people on Jefferson’s Grounds, though its halls were not designed for us. We’d all shared a good laugh at that.
But we’d also shared a deep reverence for the biceps and shoulders and wombs and hearts of the Black people who built the serpentine walls without pay, who lived without freedom, who didn’t get to roll their eyes at Karens in class complaining about affirmative action.
We moved back much earlier than we’d planned, my husband to teach and then pastor; me to mother and write. Both of us to make sense of a gorgeous city, an ugly city. We never believed all the white supremacists came from out of town in August 2017. We knew they found a form of likeness here. Saw an image of themselves, whether in a Confederate statue or some other structure, a reflection that did not scare them enough.
When my son was twenty-two months old and sick and we were awaiting test results, I took him to Starbucks and fed him half a morning bun. I didn’t yet know his blood sugar was only 27. The sugary dough probably kept him from heading into a seizure or coma.
After six years of tests, we still don’t know why my son gets sick. We don’t know why his blood glucose level spikes and plummets, plummets and spikes. A normal level is between 70 and 100. We’ve caught his blood sugar at 27. We’ve caught it at 403. A boy’s body should not fly and crash like that. One moment he’s dancing to the KIDZBOP version of Cardi B’s hit before bed, and then at 5:00 a.m., he’s gagging, drooling, his face drooping, his words slurring. He can’t tell us his birthday, but you can see he’s trying.
We call an ambulance, and I hope the paramedics will take us seriously, will see this Black boy as a boy in danger.
I don’t know, I just don’t know: an ugly hymn the doctors can’t keep from my lips or their own. No one can figure this boy out.
How long, O Lord?
The only words I can write for days after I watch a video of George Floyd.
There must have been other videos of George Floyd.
Mama, he called. Mama.
Who are these white people and why do they persist while we, a people with vision, a people made for breath, perish?
In the days after his murder, while the world is on fire but my front yard is quiet, I have a horrific thought: What if there’s some magic number of Black bodies, a number we must lose, before the killing stops? A disgusting quota, an evil tipping point?
I worry every night. I pray, too, and then I worry again that one morning, right when the sun breaks from the ground, I will not catch the way his brown body falls in on itself. He will crash, he will fall on the ground, choking, and there will be no cameras, no eyes. His mother—what is a mother to do, if she cannot save her boy? What is a mother to do, if she fights so hard to save her boy’s body from itself, only to have an ugly man destroy it for his pleasure?
Sometimes the only difference between then and now is that postcards of wretched barbecues couldn’t go viral.
Pastors have been talking a lot about changed hearts. Individual hearts and sin. That’s the evangelical way.
But Christians get training for everything else. Pastors go to seminary, churches hold financial workshops, and ministers attend international conferences. Yet somehow, with racism, you wave the Bible over the white man’s heart andpoof! The American Jesus takes away not only the man’s sin, but his reliance on privilege. We know this is true, not because he picks up his mat and walks, but because he says he no longer “sees color.”
I’m done breaking my back to lower the white man down through the roof with my studies of race in America. If I give him my rope, he may see Jesus, and still use it to lynch us.
This country, this pandemic, this knee on our necks in broad daylight.
My husband knows the ropes. Black people, including Black academics like him, have to be twice as good. Don’t give the university any reason, not half a reason, to find fault with you.
After eight years of making the right small talk, of doing what he was told, of publishing and presenting papers, of getting above-average teaching evaluations, of studying Black male student athletes and winning a prestigious grant from the NCAA—
My husband didn’t get tenure.
But they offered to promote him.We respect you, they said. But he just isn’t tenure worthy, somehow.
When he asked why he’d been denied, he received a document. One comment from the committee of white faculty, was that a journal that had published his workappearedto be self-published. It was theJournal of African American Males in Education. The acceptance rate for articles? About 20 percent. Some of the biggest names in his field publish in that journal.
Imagine whatwasn’tput in writing.
My youngest is fire and art all rolled into one. When she gets upset, she throws toys, pushes over chairs, and runs to her bed. It’s not cute, even at three. On one of our evening walks as a family, a new ritual since Covid, I slow down, and the two of us fall behind as she looks for dead dandelions.
“When I’m angry,” she says, “it’s because my heart is broken.”
Me too, I think. This country, this pandemic, this knee on our necks in broad daylight.
My oldest had a strange dream, she tells us, as, once more, the three of them squeeze into the bath. It was about her younger brother.
I dreamt he just ran and jumped into the bath, just to have fun, but he didn’t know the water was actually all the way up to the ceiling, and he started drowning. Daddy was cutting his hair or something and didn’t notice, and Mommy said, “Babe! Don’t you see him?!” And then Daddy lifted him up from the water.
I don’t have what it takes to ask if there’s more.
One day, out of nowhere, my son calls for me.
“Mommy, I just want to tell you that I promise I will be alive in 2026.”
He doesn’t even drive yet. He just learned to ride a bike, zig-zagging down our street, trying to avoid cars on either side. I watch him down the sloping concrete, praying no one roars around the corner too fast or makes a wide turn.
Lord, let it be so. Let him live.
The kids are reading books on the living room couch when my youngest interrupts. “God is Black,” she says. “I think He is . . .”
“He is,” my son reassures her. It’s not even a question in his mind.
Whiteness cannot give us what we need, and this is not a disappointment. This is a testimony.
Taylor Harris is a writer living in Virginia. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, Longreads, The Cut, McSweeney’s, and other publications. Her memoir about mothering a son with an unexplainable medical condition is forthcoming from Catapult.
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