(Note: Last week, during the “Writing for your Life” online conference, Brian Allain asked why my Tuesday meditations were not on my blog every week. Well, I didn’t know …but I am going to post them going forward. I hope you enjoy them!)
Most of us have at one time or another felt unworthy or “less than” someone. It might have been a friend, a sibling, or a colleague. How we are emotionally wired makes us susceptible to intaking, swallowing, and digesting how others think of us – or how we think they think about us.
When I was little, I felt it. I was adopted into a family when my mother married my stepfather. From the beginning, it was clear the extended family didn’t care much about me, but what is important is not how they thought about me, but how their rejection and judgment about me led me to think poorly of myself.
As I watched “The Woman -King” this weekend, I looked at the beautiful, dark-skinned women on the screen, and I knew how they had grown up in this country being thought of as “less than” and “not as good as,” because of the color of their skin, but yet, they persisted. And they won.
In a racist, sexist, and generally bigoted world, facing ethnocultural, gender-based rejection is no new thing, and yet, it is clear that many of the rejected never accept that judgment. They have known and lived in their self-worth.
In the recent issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, there is an article about a man who embodies what it is to not let anyone determine one’s self-worth. When 95-year-old Enoch O. Woodhouse went to Yale in 1948 after serving as a Tuskegee Airman in World War II, he was rejected. Nobody wanted him there; many believed he did not belong there, and being a veteran did not help him but rather fed into resentment that many felt about Black men in the military. He was one of four African Americans admitted to the school that year; he tells of how there was a “small enclave of buildings known as the “Slave Quarters,” but none of that could make him accept their opinion of him.
As a Yale undergrad, when he would go into the dining hall, white students would leave. When he walked into lectures, his classmates would ignore him. It had to have been painful, but it didn’t stop him. He completed his education, graduated from the prestigious university, and headed to Boston College and later, to Yale Law School.
He has many stories to tell but one that stands out, in particular, struck me. In this magazine article, he recalls an incident that happened to him as he headed to Texas from St. Louis for basic training. He was kicked off a train by the conductor and told to wait for a later train “that carried Black passengers and coal.”
In the article he didn’t talk about the raw pain he must surely have felt, but he did say something profound. “I feel disappointed in America,…but that doesn’t make me your victim or anyone else’s victim. I am proud of who I am and you should be proud of who you are.” He gave these sage words to a group of cadets, about to begin their military careers, with whom he had just shared this story.
The system works very hard to make certain people doubt their self-worth and make them believe that their lot in life is to be rejected, scorned, and discriminated against. Lisa Sharon Harper reminds us in an article she wrote for Religious News Service that it was Aristotle who made a declaration that oppressors have fully embraced – that the conquered have demonstrated that they were created to be subjects and that those who subjugated them were created to rule.
But thankfully, many people have rejected that idea and belief; they believe and know that they are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and they embrace themselves, their talents, their gifts, their faults, and their flaws, and keep moving. They embrace their dark skin in a world that hates it; they embrace their full figures and full lips so well that some seek to imitate those lips and hips by injecting substances into their bodies! They carry a sense of holy pride in who God made them, and an equally important holy determination that nobody will make them think less of themselves for any reason. They decide that nobody will determine their worth. They know their worth. And they live and walk in it.
In my own life, I absorbed the rejection of my new family and lived and walked in it until very recently – now that I am old as Jesus! But the journey has been revelatory and brings to mind the words of Ntozake Shange in her work, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. One of my favorite poems in that work is “Somebody almost walked off wit alla my stuff!” When we let others determine what and how we think about ourselves, we give ourselves to them, but when we say, “uh-uh,” when we arch our backs so that the wings God gave us have no choice button pull up and away from our sides and let the winds of divine love, acceptance, and power carry us, we have moved into the place God wants us all to be.
And that not only frees us up but has to make God smile.
A candid observation …