how to live in the promised land
“Remember today what you have learned about the LORD through your experiences with Him. It was you—not your children—who had these experiences. You saw the LORD’s greatness, His power, His might, and His miracles.”
Here’s a story I don’t think I’ve ever told you, friends: When I was five, I was riding in the backseat with Mommie driving and smiling back at me, cigarette smoke hissing between her teeth. We were going to Grandma’s—over the river, through the woods we went. Mommie—Nada—was as usual looking good. Grandma even said so. But I was just as wild and nasty and untied and un-tucked and ashy and nappy. This she said too. Then Mommie said her goodbyes and left me there for good.
I was given a room, and given back all my sisters and my brother. I was given books—my new best friends. I was given a new bus route to a new school with a new teacher. And no one said a word about any of this—no explanations about Mommie and where she went. No re-introduction to my sisters or brother. No one took my 5-year old hand and showed me the way.
They took me to school but no one said they’d all be white. No one said they’d touch my hair. No one said they’d say “It feels like wires.” No one said they’d call me "monkey". No one said they’d ask if I tasted like chocolate. No one said they’d ask if my brown skin could rub off and tan theirs. No one said I’d be picked last. No one said I’d always be it when we played tag because they were afraid to touch me. No one said their mommies would whisper “Don’t point" as they ushered them into the station wagon. No one said they’d call me “nigger” without breaking eye contact. That was just day one.
No one said the other 3 black kids would look down when they saw me. No one said they’d be glad for the break I gave them. No said they’d eat their lunches in peace for a change 'cause all eyes and hands and words were on me, the new one, the darkest one. No one said that nobody had said a word to them about any of this either.
On the morning of that first day, I woke up in a house that didn’t smell like my mother and to the whistle of a kettle that didn’t sound like her copper one waiting to pour us into the day—all sassy and like it was calling her lovers. While I waited for the bus on the corner with my brown paper bag lunch in hand, I listened for my mother’s car returning and sniffed the air for the faint smell of her cigarette. But there was only dust and gravel.
On the podcast On Being, Where Does It Hurt?, Krista Tippets interviews Civil Rights Activist Ruby Sales. She asks her what did Ruby Sales mean when she said, “'How could black adults have thrown us into a den of people who don’t love us?' What’s that? What are you describing there?"
Ms. Tippets, let me describe that picture: When I was three, I really wanted a ginger snap cookie that Mommie kept in the cupboard way up high above the stove. And so I began to climb only to be suddenly whisked up into the arms of Mommie who said, “Whoa, baby, don’t be messing around over this stove. Don’t touch. It’s hot.” When I was just a little older,I sat on Mommie’s porch one day and watched all the big kids separate into two teams and take their positions to play kickball in the street. Suddenly, a big car started backing out of a driveway and into all the fun. It stopped right there on the home plate. The door swung open and Mr. Tate who was on his way to work the late shift stepped out of the car and yelled, “Y’all kids quit playing in this street before someone gets hurt! Get outta of this street before somebody end up dead!” When I was a little older and thought I knew all things and could do all things like stay out just a little longer in the sweetness of the dusk just after the street lights blinked on, Mommie opened up our screen door and said, “Don’t be sitting out here in the dark. Ain’t no telling who might drive by here. Get on into this house!”
So many warnings, so many lessons—don’t leave the yard without telling me where you’re going/a lady sits with her knees shut/Lock the door/put a coat on/sit up straight and listen to the preacher/stop smacking on that gum/don’t ride your bike any further than Mrs. Taylor’s house/ play where I can see you/ say yes m’am and yes sir to your elders/tie your shoes before you trip and fall….
And on and on, but why did the lessons stop there? How could Grandmother and Mommie have thrown me into a den of people who didn’t love me? How could they send me into a den of those who would long to strip my skin? Why didn’t they prepare me and take me into their arms and say, “They will say all manner of things about you. But I love you. They will say all manner of things about you as you enter and as you leave. None of it will be true. They will say all manner of things to your face. For this, I am most sorry. But baby girl, do not let them see you tremble. Be determined and confident. Do not be afraid of them. Your God, the LORD Himself, will be with you. He will not fail you or abandon you. Wish the best for them and pray for them when they ask you to explain yourself. But don’t explain yourself. Instead show them who your God is. Instead be ready to give them a reason for this confidence and hope. Do it as gently, as carefully as a dove would land on the back of a snake—as cunningly and stealthily as a snake strikes out to catch a dove. When you come home, we will dry your tears and we will sit and talk about these things.”
How could the black adults have thrown us into a den of people who don’t love us? How could the white adults bury their love beneath the den? When they pulled their freckle-faced boys and their fair-haired girls into their arms, what did they fear that the color of my skin could possibly take away from them?
Before the Israelites entered into the Promised Land, the LORD prepared His children and taught them how to receive. As Jesus prepares to return to the Father, He tells stories to teach His brothers and sisters how to be free. But, like Israelites, we dragged our chains and our grief with us. We had the Law and still we could not possess the Land. We were all starved for unity—blacks and whites. Yet our division was savage and aggressive. The knife sliced clean through to the bone and the sutures continually got caught and unraveled. We were all longing. The jagged edges of our wounds couldn’t heal apart from one another. And we all were tired of wandering, tired of manna, tired of the curses eclipsing the miracles. We were tired of the view we woke to each day that only shed light on what we feared mattered the most—our differences.
When I awakened on that first day to the sounds and smells and faces that were completely unfamiliar, the Black Adults weren’t unaware or uncaring. They were just tired of waiting for this supposed Promised Land, this milk and honey. Tired of waiting, so they settled for the Golden Calf, a sparkling, man-made promise—EQUALITY. Satisfied, they sent me into the den crowded with people who did not love me, who could not love me. They believed they were satisfied because they’d forgotten that love was the milk and honey that Jesus promised when His Father said, “I am the Lord your God. I am the One who brought you out of slavery. I am the One who broke the chains of Egypt. I am the Love that frees you. Open your mouth wide! Wider! Only I can fill it.” Instead, they shut their mouths and hoped on an idol made from golden dreams that could not fill them with even enough air to breath.