Hope as an Intervention upon America’s Antiblackness

Note: This is part of a series of short posts, in the lead-up to the election, from leaders reflecting on hope and/or resistance.

By Rev. Nick Peterson

Hope, for me, owes nothing to politics. The extent to which we think hope alongside and within the American political apparatus is discouraging at best and soul-killing at worst. At present, the religious right imagines American politics as the right site to enact a near-theocratic rule of law. Holding fast to an American exceptionalism established by the puritans, the right’s religious imagination appeals to a moral yesteryear that never was. Meanwhile, the left opts for a liberal humanism that, on the one hand, narrates inclusion and acceptance as an American God-given birthright. While on the other, liberals insist that the unceasing acts of anti-black violence are not reflections of who we are. On both sides, hope is a means to America.

Whatever America is, it was not made for me. Here, my black body inherits acts of profanation. My ancestors arrived on these shores as human cargo, fit only for enslavement and completely outside the view of America’s god who determined that all men were created equally and endowed with inalienable rights. Hope is our commitment to imagine a sustained and on-going America under the god it trusts who is blind to black realities. So, hope, as I see it, owes nothing to politics.

My hope is Christian but has no obligation to support the on-going work of this nation-state. While I am in this place, my of-ness has always been a matter of contention and debate; it is not a question of if black lives matter, but how do they matter. And if my faith does anything, it looks toward surviving and thriving in this place where my matter is debatable. The wilderness of black existence and experience within these boundaries incubates my hope as an intervention upon America’s antiblackness.

Delores Williams’ groundbreaking work,­ Sisters in the Wilderness, invites us to hold Hagar’s biblical story as analogous to black women’s experience in America. One of her work’s insights points to how Hagar’s encounter with the divine in the wilderness prompts her to “name” God. As other biblical scholars have noted, this is the only time in the entire canon that a human agent names God. Hagar, an Egyptian slave, names God – El Roi – the God who sees. For Hagar, God’s capacity to witness her and her child’s suffering creates the opening of intervention and the possibility of care.

Black critical theorist, Christina Sharpe, gives us helpful language here. In her text, In the Wake, she invites us to consider care in the wake of black social death as practices of redaction and annotation. There is a way that we can read Hagar’s story and God’s engagement with Hagar as redaction and annotation. Whereas Hagar is a slave woman, entitled to no rights and no privileges in society, it is the wilderness, lying outside her owners’ gaze, that gives her space to name God. This naming of God undermines her non-status as a slave woman. It supplants the negation slave intones and affords her an opportunity even her owners did not have. Secondly, God’s response reveals a resource she had not seen there before. As an annotation act, God causes Hagar to see in the margins what she had not seen on the page. The annotation affirms that the God who sees knows what you need and helps you see where to find it.

My hope is in a God who sees and partners with Black folk to redact and annotate the narrow lines, political and otherwise, that forecloses the possibility of black flourishing. My hope is in the commitment that Black parents make to their children to labor for their welfare and well-being in a world that hates them. My hope is in the water that sustains us in this desert and reminds us that God sees, and God knows our struggle.  

Nick Peterson is a PhD candidate at Emory University in Atlanta, GA where he lives with his wife and twin sons. His research focuses on critical theories of blackness and their implications for black practical theology. 

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