black coffee with white friends, literally
My schizoaffective, luminous, felon mother was a reconciler. Growing up, I mistakenly thought she was a prophetess, perhaps, even some sort of goddess (which was a thought I kept to myself lest I seem blasphemous). What I knew for certain from the moment that I first took in the whole of my mother for myself was that she was not of this world. She eclipsed my sisters and brother and me. She swallowed our whole world. We were her faint deflections—deviants of her glow. Because, let me tell you, it’s really hard being the child of a Celestial Being who dressed like Pam Greer and spoke sermons even when she was only saying, “Hello.”
This otherness that possessed my mother I think also made her fearless. Since she already was peculiar—to put it kindly—she never felt a need to hide in her shadows. She lived fully in the darkness and the light. She reflected auras and absorbed them, never being entirely happy or sad. Even in her manic, psychotic moments, there was always a gossamer-thin thread of sanity and calm where she would pause, gently take my face in her hands, look straight into my eyes and say, “You’re mama is not crazy, baby. I’m just not feeling well is all.” Then, she would continue were she left off, burning pictures in the microwave or checking for codes in the newspaper. She was completely there and she was completely gone.
My mother embraced the otherness in others and in herself. While other homes in our neighborhood closed their curtains, she drew ours back to welcome drifters and fellow-shunned neighbors. They would all come and sit around her dining room and tell truths and nonsense, meeting my mother’s queries and declarations tête-à-tête.
One Saturday, the Jehovah’s Witnesses landed at my mother’s door. Of course she invited them in. Sipping her last dregs of tea and still dressed in her bathrobe, she pointed the tip of her slim brown cigarette towards the table, gestured for them to come and sit, and went and grabbed her Bible. Then, she joined them at the table. Anytime they would speak, she would begin to read aloud from the Old Testament. When they would ask her a question, she would nod her head as if thinking it over, but only in the end to answer them with the same question. This went on for longer than most anyone would have the patience to bear.
Just as they were each convinced they’d won over the other, a vagrant friend of my mother’s came in through the back door. Without introduction, he joined them, emptied his pockets onto the table: a nickel bag of weed, a matchbook of joint paper, a red Bic lighter. Then leaning back in his chair with his hands clasped behind his head, he listened for a beat or two to the conversation before grinning and shaking his head, pulling up to table and assembling the weed into the paper like a Sushi master so deftly crafts a sushi roll. He was so skilled that even the Jehovah’s Witnesses paused for a fraction of a second in honest appreciation for his artistry.
One of the Witnesses asked my mother’s friend, “Do you know what true riches are?”
The vagrant furrowed his brow, lit the joint and took a long drag, and then held it for a few seconds before slowly seeping out a stream of smoke. Then, he wheezed while blowing smoke through his nostrils, “True riches is right here, man. True riches be right here.”
Take that in for a moment: a mentally-ill single-mother of five, a vagrant drug dealer, and two Jehovah’s Witnesses sharing a conversation about life and what is true and what is good. It’s fractured and bent. I was just a kid. I should not have been there. But, this conversation that happened more than 30, maybe even 40 years ago, taught me that people can speak different languages, come from different places, carry different things in their pockets, and yet understand each other clearly and perfectly.
My world back then was raw and tender—and, volatile. But isn’t today’s world as well? Now, I admit, no one in my circle is carrying nickel bags of weed with all its accoutrements in their pocket. But, we each carry equally dulling sedatives in our hearts. Every social media feed or news piece is just volatile. We never know what’s coming.
So, I was thinking perhaps we could come to the table and unload all that inebriates us, frightens us, and distracts us from hearing one another. Then, I thought, perhaps I really could create space to actually do “black coffee with white friends.”
Inspired by my favorite journalist, Krista Tippetts and her Civil Conversations Project, I aim to bring my conversations with my white friends to the page. Each week, I’ll be sitting with a white person and just having a conversation about the human experience. You might be asking, “Why is this important and who has that kind of time?” Ms. Tippetts explains it so eloquently:
Our young century is awash with questions of meaning, of how we structure our common life, and who we are to each other. It seems we are more divided than ever before – unable to speak across the differences we must engage to create the world we want for ourselves and our children.
You and I have it in us to be nourishers of discernment, fermenters of healing. We have the language, the tools, the virtues – and the calling, as human beings – to create hospitable spaces for taking up the hard questions of our time… The places we’ve looked for leadership and modeling have become some of the most broken in our midst. And so it is up to us, where we live, to start having the conversations we want to be hearing and creating the realities we want to inhabit.
I’ve asked six friends for coffee and conversation. Each friend will have a one-on-one conversation with me. I’m so honored to be in the lives of these six amazing, loving people. I have no idea where we agree and where we disagree. But, I do know that each one of us desires to be part of something better than ourselves. We all come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, beliefs and generations. I am black and they are all white. It’s humbling to have these white friends who are willing to be vulnerable with me in hopes that we all might better understand each other. This series is called Black Coffee with White Friends, Literally. I’ll be posting the transcript for each conversation right here on the blog and introducing each on Instagram. You’ll be able to read both the edited conversation and the full, unedited version. Hope you’ll check them out.
Stay woke and stay tuned!