I appreciate Austin’s vulnerability in describing the challenges of spearheading reconciliation work as a black woman, as well as the godly and mature example she sets in enduring frustration, negotiating conflict and getting to the other side of disillusionment with the capacity to hope.
Those of us who identify with Austin will likely find her story affirming. Those of us who don’t will likely find her story instructive. Win-win.
After ten years of being committed to reconciliation work, I have found that occasionally it is necessary for others to point out the fact that I am young, black and a woman.
Sometimes the words are said with disdain, dripping from the mouths of men who cannot fathom that such a being could possess something so precious, so risky as authority. But usually it is spoken quietly, in hushed tones, as if my brownness might flee in fright if spoken too loudly. It seems that major portions of my identity are tethered to confusion… assumption… and often require deep reflection for others to comprehend, to accept, to enjoy.
I realize that for many white churches, I am the first black woman they have encountered in a ministry director role- the first to lead the class or host the meeting, the first to guide down the streets of Chicago, the first to preach to their kids and the first who was in control of the plan.
This is sometimes hard for me to remember since I grew up around strong, capable, confident, educated, preachin’ black women. There are so many of us out there. So, I do not write this to suggest that history books will remember my name because I have been “the first” so many times… I write this in lamentation of all the young, brown-toned women who face confused looks when even small amounts of authority are expressed. I suspect there are many of us who are “the first” as we continue to expand our reach beyond our homogenous church roots.
The confused looks can and will catch us off guard. It does not happen often, but when it does, it is a very jolting experience. After all, only one of the three components will change over time; I shall always be both black and woman.
In those moments when I wonder if the skin I’m in can penetrate minds, when I question how far I can go, when I wonder if my impact on the world will be limited after all, when I wonder if anyone can hear me- or if they can only see me- I go back to my roots.
And today, it is Langston Hughes who reminds me of who I am, brown skin and all, in one of the first poems I learned as a child.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.