We were so alike then, almost mirror reflections of each other, two dark-skinned curvy girls with wide, bright smiles. Thick coarse hair crowned our heads, each mane lightly bleached and damaged from misapplied chemical relaxers. We both had the kind of luscious full lips that everyone wants now, but only black folks unabashedly loved then. We’d grown up having our thick frames praised and sought after, so it hadn’t occurred to either of us to fear crop tops.
Shalea** and I both had names that commanded attention. The kind of names that made folks stop and wonder if they heard you correctly. We both had personalities that commanded attention. She was certainly an alpha, a young woman who’d been the charismatic leader of her circle of friends back in Oakland and who was determined to claim that position in our newly formed group—whether or not she was actually appointed. I’d never been seen as the leader of any group. Instead I had flitted from clique to clique at my Catholic school in New Orleans, often taking center stage—whether or not I was actually encouraged.
We linked up with two other young women during our first weeks at Hampton University. There was Tiana from Texas and Linda, who I’d not seen since middle school, after which her family moved to the Midwest. They were initially quieter and more introverted. They were balance. But the glue that held us all together, at least in the beginning, was a shared commitment to Jesus. Each of us were, for the first time, navigating the world without our families. We were the answers to our mothers’ prayers: “Lord, let my baby find some saved friends, so she can stay on the path of righteousness.”
For a long time, our measure for righteousness was sexual purity.
Tiana was the first to let that ship sail. “I don’t know. I just like dick.” Bold, direct truth. She went after what she wanted. Linda was more of a sin, repent, rinse, and repeat kind of girl before she just accepted herself as a sexual being. Shalea and I engaged in a sort of loophole purity: She was super duper in love with her high school boyfriend back home and they were definitely getting married so their marriage bed would remain undefiled by premarital sex. And me? Well, I just did hand and mouth stuff until my senior year. Oh, and there was this one boy I dry humped with until my thighs ached.
The line between acceptable and sinful sexual behavior blurred even more over the next two years, as we worked to reconcile our explorations of desire with this faith our parents had given us. The heaven we crafted in our hearts would always accept us, even if it meant shifting the rules from time to time. The one truth about sex that held fast through all our permutations of righteousness was that homosexual sex was an abomination before God. Of that we were sure.
This certainty was tested sophomore year. Sitting in a booth at Pizza Hut, Shalea, Tiana, Linda, and I dined with our guy friend Derek. Catching up after a school break often involved a check in about sex and what new things we had done. I remember fondly the time I had everyone on the edge of their seats with stories of the army boy who’d made love to me with only his mouth and nearly got caught with me in the barracks because of how vehemently I expressed my gratitude. But this session was not about me. This one was about Derek, who’d been in some hot and heavy 9 ½ weeks-style food-gasming. We noticed that he described the acts in great detail, but spoke very vaguely of the lover.
Once we were back on campus, we four ladies couldn’t stop giggling and speculating about Derek’s lover. (We hadn’t decided that gossip posed a threat to our salvation.) Our dear sweet boy stood six feet tall, a stereotypically femme theater kid. We remembered all the different fruit he and his person had had sex with, honeydew melon especially. In the midst of all the squeals and shrieks, it was Shalea who brought us back to Earth.
“If we love Derek then we need to be praying for him.” She didn’t need to say the rest. We knew. We had to ask the Lord to change Derek’s confused affections, so that he would not give in to a sinful lifestyle and spend eternity in Hell. We prayed, joining the chorus of people who deeply loved the boy but hoped God would erase part of him.
When we came back to school for junior year, Shalea did not return. She stayed in California and would be finishing her education degree there. I haven’t seen her since just before the turn of the 21st century. It’s been well over a decade since we last spoke on the phone. We maintain a sort of pseudo-relationship on the internet, as Facebook friends who never interact, but who watch each others’ lives unfold.
Facebook tells me we each did what we’d set out to do as teenagers: She is married to her high school sweetheart and they have six children together. They go to church, it seems, all the time. The frequency of this event seems never to dull their excitement about it. She has a private therapy practice, just like she always wanted. I’d always wanted to work as an advocate in low-income black communities. I imagined I’d do it as a lawyer; instead I do it as a community organizer focused on building power in communities of color to fight for racial justice. I never married and it’s possible I never will. The institution isn’t very important to me, and until very recently it wouldn’t have been legal for me anyway.
A lot has changed since our undergrad days. We could not be more different now.
In the summer of 2015 my social media networks were clogged with stories about Texas. My friends and colleagues voiced their disgust, particularly with the way law enforcement officials were interacting with black women. Emotions ran the gamut from rage to helplessness. There was so much heartbreak about Texas—with one notable exception.
At a time when the national black community was mourning the sudden loss of Sandra Bland, when we were calling for the dismissal of an officer in McKinney, I scrolled down my Facebook newsfeed and saw the words that knocked the wind out of me:
“I LOVE TEXAS!!!”
My old college friend Shalea broke a very long streak of family and church posts to show some love to the Lone Star state for their attempts to block same-sex marriage, even after the United States Supreme Court ruled such attempts unconstitutional.
A brilliant black boy kept time with a clock made by his own precocious hands. He should have inspired awe and accolades and instead drew the ire and prejudice of the people charged to shape his mind. They couldn’t see a genius black boy, only Ahmed. Isn’t that a terrorist name?
A bright black girl’s smile was extinguished forever because the black girl dared to question. The price for anger and irritation was a jailhouse murder disguised as a suicide nobody believes. The unmet expectation of negro meekness cost us the the light of our fighter Sandy.
A hole in the ground opened up and out poured body after body after body of undocumented workers. Mexican families crossed the border into the land stolen from their ancestors, hoping to fulfill the dreams promised by their conquerors. A judge opened his mouth after slamming the door to his heart and determined that no law had been broken when hundreds of these travelers were tossed into mass unmarked graves.
White parents verbally and physically assaulted black teenage girls. When police arrived at the scene, the one who lost his footing immediately lost his cool. He tackled a small teenage girl, wrestled her by the hair. He’d commanded that she sit down. She sat down, but she still hadn’t lowered herself enough for him. He mounted her, his knee in her back. The black boys who thought to rescue her ended up face to face with the barrel of a gun. They only wanted to swim and splash and maybe cannonball into the sterilized water.
But in Texas, blackness still taints.
Police charged Charnesia with resisting arrest when she refused a cavity search of her vagina for the marijuana they allegedly smelled in her car. They slammed her to the ground, pried her legs apart, one cop holding each leg, and forced a hand into her most sacred of places. Where our mamas and grandmamas teach us from toddlerhood not to let strangers touch. In a public parking lot the group of them manually raped the black girl who still called them ma’am and sir throughout. She’d been stopped for running a stop sign in Dallas.
A distraught man ran into a police station, frantically seeking help because he believed his wife intended to kill him. Officers dog piled on him, refusing to help until he calmed down. Whether his wife meant to kill him or not is immaterial. Law enforcement officials did the job.
Texas, which leads the nation in death row executions.
Texas, which helps lead the charge against ethnic studies, because God help us if black and brown kids learn to have pride in the people who share their mighty roots.
It feels like it’s always Texas. Of course it isn’t. There’s Florida. New York. Missouri. Maryland. Ohio. California. America. But they take pride in doing everything bigger in Texas.
“I LOVE TEXAS!!!”
Ugh! She posted it with emojis, too. Like, little hearts and stars and shit.
I’m not even offended that she’s a homophobe. We staked our collective salvation on homophobia when we were 18 years old. I’m offended at her silence on every other issue actually impacting the lived reality of black Americans. Ever since Shalea fell in love with Texas, I started bookmarking stories about vile and inhumane acts of race-based terror that I find on Facebook. I am consistently horrified. She is consistently silent. My heart breaks and I mark each moment of silence by crying out to the church to care about racism. Or police brutality, income inequality, sexism, sexual violence, domestic violence, poverty. I make supplications for them to believe anything else is as urgent as who lies in my arms and offers me gentle comfort at night.
I expect white Christians to miss the point. I expect them to tell me to keep my eyes off man and on Christ. Or that all authority is ordained by the Holy Spirit and that we can’t know God’s ways and why He lets suffering happen. I expect white Christians to encourage me to see the rampant racism killing us in the streets every day as an opportunity to love those who despise us, just like Jesus. I expect them to brush me off with prayer and platitudes.
But when the Christian looks like me, when they share my hue, my curves, my coarse hair, and my full luscious lips, I need those lips to call for justice here on Earth. I need to know their hearts are pricked and their souls disturbed each time we gather more evidence of how hostile this world is to black children. That it pierces them how often we discipline the curiosity out of our babies, because the world never acknowledges their innocence. That they grieve when violence is constantly visited on black women. That they pray for the safety of black men whose very presence is so alarming that cops shoot first and assess later. Anything less is to blaspheme against this skin and the holy spirit enveloped therein.
When the Christian looks like me, I need their silence to be broken on any number of things. Instead I see them turn a blind eye to racism, from daily little microaggressions all the way up to state-sanctioned murder. So many are mum on America’s long history of rape, torture, unjust war, genocide, enslavement, and racial terror being wrought to this day. But The Gays? They’re never silent on The Gays.
It’s strange that Shalea’s vocal support of anti-gay political maneuvering has had such a deep impact on me. We’re not friends. She’s a girl I knew when I was a teenager and, every once in awhile, a flash across my computer screen. People have suggested I just delete her from my friends list. I’ve tried, but so far I can’t.
Even if I delete Shalea, I can’t escape anti-gay bigotry in the form of forced smiles and offers to pray for me. Years ago I left the church I’d made my home because my pastor and friend couldn’t figure out how to engage with me after I told him I didn’t want his prayers or his doctrine, only his friendship and continued welcome to his congregation. His ensuing silence still sits like a pound of lead in the pit of my belly. If I delete her and every black Christian like her from my life, I’ve still lost my church family. I stand to lose my birth family, which is not an option for me.
Even if I erase her from my digital life, I won’t get back the friendships and fictive kinships I’ve lost throughout the years. I won’t shake the grief I feel at building my life around fighting for justice with people who often don’t believe I deserve an equal measure of justice.
And it wouldn’t change the fact that, if I hadn’t unexpectedly fallen head over heels in love with a woman, Shalea and I might still be mirror reflections of each other.
**Names and identifying information have been changed.
*This blog was originally posted at Daily Kos. You can see it here.