If you saw any of the shows on my Becoming//Black Spring Tour, there is a 50/50 chance you heard me recite “The Gospel of Colonization”. Though my tour this spring was to push Becoming//Black once more before writing my next two books, I shared newer pieces if I had time. I’ve often described Becoming//Black as an immigration story and in doing so, realized that this next collection in many ways in my emigration story. .
I often ask myself questions in an attempt to get to a point of understanding, and people call the answers I write out ‘poetry’. While writing Becoming//Black, I asked myself intentional question about Blackness such as “when is the first time you remember feeling Black?” (the answer being the poem “When the little white girl called me and Mo Niggers”, or ‘what is the difference in experience on being ‘black’ and being ‘Black’?’ (which became the pieces, ‘too black’ and ‘never Black’ enough’), and I am going through a similar process with this next book. The first question that emerged as I gathered and wrote poems was ‘what is decolonization?’. So I asked myself, “what is the first part of yourself you intentionally decolonized?”.
Without much thinking, I knew it was my relationship to God.
I grew up in a Protestant Christian household where we went to church every Sunday. In addition, I attended youth groups, out of town summits and more church related events well into my teen years. And to be honest, I LOVED it! Though atypical in other ways, my parents were your traditionally strict African immigrant parents, so us kids didn’t go out much, but the church was a site of safety, so it also became in some ways an escape. I participated in Christmas plays, revivals and everyone in my family was Christian, so it was in many ways the foundation of my family. Besides, everyone at church was always so kind, and when we first arrived to the States, the Church was very generous and one of few familiar things to my family in this new strange land. Take for instance the church that we used to get clothing from each fall. Instead of having to strain their small earnings while in school to buy us clothing for school, my parents would take us to the church where we swapped last seasons outgrown and frayed clothing for this seasons hand me down donations. Go God!
Everything about the church was great in my eyes, until I was about 8 years old. One fateful Sunday during Sunday School (as briefly described in the poem), I began to question God which led me down a path I never even thought could be paved in my Christian days.
It was around the holidays when we used to do UNICEF drives in church to collect money and make toys for poor children around the world to help them ‘discover the good news of Jesus Christ’. As I was sitting putting together a teddy bear, I was struck with a sudden horrific thought - what if after all this effort of making toys and wrapping Bibles, the kids who got them couldn’t read them because they were in English! I thought about how when I first came to the US, I did not really speak English and could not read it, and I worried that these children in foreign nations wouldn’t know English either. I panicked thinking this damned them, but then I thought, if this was so, how unjust that was. And then, because I was a strange fatalist kid growing up, my next immediate thought was “what happens if they can read English but the Bibles never make it because the pilot crashes the plane into the sea?!?! Would those people go to hell because they never received the good news of Jesus Christ?!”
I was horrified by my thoughts, but it was also the first time I found myself consciously questioning the stories about faith and Christianity I’d heard growing up. This was the first moment I became conscious of the fact that my religion had contradictions in it that my faith was too narrow to bridge. Like how it didn’t make sense to send English Bibles and base someone’s entire damnation or salvation on whether they could interpret the gospel in a language they’ve never heard.
Eventually I began to read about how Christianity came to my land and my people. I read about missionaries and they ways the “saved” my ancestors from themselves and what happened to those who resisted. I read about how the history of Christianity on the African continent predated colonialism, but also about how the type and form of Christianity today is not an outgrowth of that. That instead, that Christianity was the offspring of colonization, growing fat from the complacency of many who have accepted faith as the only way forward and reject any other attempts at world based liberation.
At some point, I just couldn’t reconcile my faith with my findings and the ahistorical ways the church operated today. I asked questions and was rarely ever satisfied with the answer. And ‘praying about it’ didn’t help. Soon, I begun to stop going to church activities that weren’t mandatory until I was only attending Sunday service. I stopped reading the Bible (though at that point I’d read it like 4 times all the way through…I was a nerdy religious immigrant kid, so super popular growing up obviously).
The poem ‘The Gospel of Colonization’ took about 2 years to write because I wrote it almost entirely when I was in church (which is clearly not that often these days). I still have a complicated relationship to Christianity despite my rejection of it. For instance, my parents, two panAfricanist teachers have considered themselves Christians for their adult lives even as they’ve critiqued and actively worked against colonization and its aftermath. And that goes for almost everyone in my blood family — many are are post-colonial, somewhat to fully Christian contradictions. I’ve tried to have conversations with people in my family from my parents to cousins about our indigenous religions, and it is then I am reminded how intentionally fracturing and erasing of our cultures colonization was.
This piece is rooted in a place that is so deeply personal to me that it literally begins in my grandmothers house. In her home, there are a series of important photos displayed near the ceiling. All around the room are mostly Black and white photos of weddings, graduations and other events of joy and celebration. But if you turn your head fully around the room, you cannot miss the image…
I said I wrote this piece mostly in church, and that’s because almost every time I go home to visit my parents, it is over the weekend. When Sunday rolls around, I find myself waking up almost religiously (pun intended) to go to church with them. They don’t force me to like they used to when my siblings (mostly my brother and me) and I were younger and started to question the church, yet I find myself going. A part of it is obligation and tradition — wanting to respect the home of my parents and the way they live their lives. Another part is curiosity — wondering if I go into the church now not looking for anything, what I will find? Still, another part is a longing for familiarity — I still remember all the hymns but more importantly, after each service all the African women and men I call Unco ___/Baba ____ or Auntie ____ / Mama _____ still continue the tradition of gathered outside to hug me and comment on how skinny I am and how much taller their children are now than me.
Outside of my family, I have not been to church since I was a teen and decided Christianity, as it had been taught to me my whole life, was not for me. I haven’t necessarily fallen into another religion or given up every practice I picked up while Christian, but I have fallen in to a spirituality that is less chaotic for me to reconcile with my history and my future.
And that is really all I’ve ever prayed for.