By Hassan Xavier Henderson-Lott
“Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
Psalm 139:7, 8
Recently I made a big move to an even bigger city from a small town where Black children sell lemonade. The town I left is a comfortable Delawarean suburb where residents certainly aren’t wealthy but keep homes quaint and warm when it snows in the winter. This year, I spent my summer at home in that small town with family and neighbors. Things weren’t much different than in years prior, the summers of my childhood.
Black folk, as is tradition, drove cars in sweltering heat with their windows rolled down, blaring our music, shifting the atmosphere. “Power 99FM, Philly’s #1 station for Hip Hop and R&B.” Rap. Judicious language and pentatonic melodies—polysyllabic rhythms will forever conjure the spirits of the living and our dead. When the right mix plays, all who live get their life. Womyn who wear baggy jeans and fitted caps, men with Afros and faces beat for the GAWDS—we all bump to this joint because “let everything that hath breath, praise ye The Lord.” Certainly not your quenticial #CarefreeBlackGirl/Boy aesthetic. But this is our music and it expresses our truth, and we are “free indeed.”
The promise of American freedom is fleeting and violent. But freedom is real. And it can be seen in multicolored barrettes—barrettes that hold pigtails and cornrows and curly Black and brown puff balls tight; waving through the air as little Black girls run door to door selling their lemonade. Freedom is evident in the screeching laughter of the little Black boy who spilled his cup and hopped back onto his scooter to ride home and make another. The bodies of Black children play at the nexus of a Black freedom body politics.
There exist a strange and confounding ideology regarding the junction of race and age in America. Ageism in the United States has deemed the Black adult childish, and the Black child a threat to the security of its established society. Children of color must work in and through an awareness of self whereby their personhood is deemed threatening in the presence of wypipo. Their small Black bodies are subjugated as centers of menace and hostility. Tamir Rice and Tyree King have been ancestored before their time and against their own wills because they were never safe here.
Black children are not now and have never been safe here. Racist American ageism does not exist in isolation. Rather, it operates within a multiplex of long held mythologies that marginalize and pathologize the fear and suffering of Black children who—this year—chose to play free and run barefoot on scorching sidewalks all throughout our neighborhood.
This summer, we were [finally] invited to once again ‘Swim Good’ in the uncharted waters of Frank’s Ocean—deep.
Korryn Gaines was shot dead by Baltimore County police, with her son in her arms. Her son was shot, too. Selah.
Sainted Black artists emerged with new dexterity. Beyonce gripped our hearts to remind the nation “when you hurt [us], you hurt yourself.”
A prophetic proclamation to white America everywhere: you’ve hurt yourself.
This summer, ancestral voices whispered through the preached Word of Sis. Hattie White as she imparted wisdom. She called life “lemons”, and like those Black children, she turned lemons into something sweet to drink. Certainly, Blackness is a collective testimony of that good-‘ol-in-spite-of kind of love and survival.
“I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”
Though she could have, Mother White did not reject life and she did not rebuke lemons, but she took them all and made beauty from ashes. And, this summer, that same sweet stuff materialized out of the entrepreneurial spirits of Black children, all of whom are neighbors of mine, people who live on my street.
Indicative of a true Black experience, my street was hot as hell this summer. Yours was too. Were you paying attention? But even in hell Black folk will find a way to control the flames and discover something beautiful and delicious to create. It’s hard to breathe when the air is humid and stuffy and white. In spite of the choking presence of dusty eggshell politicians, campaigning [read: harassing] Black porches for the Black vote, old Black men in Black barbershops engage in Black prophetic social gossip, “the only thing I got to do is stay Black and die.”
To ‘stay Black’ is to commit ourselves to ourselves and to live free and unapologetically. Freedom is #BlackLove. It looks like Black men loving Black men—embracing one another with a hug where their cheeks touch. Breathing is “a woman who loves other women, sexually and not.” I touch you, and agree with you, and declare that today, we will breath; together.
“…Inhale, In hell there’s heaven”
Indeed, this summer Frank Ocean fashioned a new theological lens through which hell may be reconsidered toward the situation of a Black politics of redemption. We have not given up, and our children have hope. We drive cars in sweltering heat with the windows rolled down, because rhythm will still galvanize community. Our children run door to door selling cups of lemonade by the gallon, because they found use of the lemons/lives we’ve attempted to discard. And all the while, we do so in hell, but we can breath, because Frank told us we can.
Hassan Xavier Henderson-Lott is a black-queer seminarian at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.