DeRay Mckesson is a civil-rights activist who became known for his role in the protests against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri. The following is an excerpt from his memoir, On the Other Side of Freedom, out today.
It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in God, but that I believed in Storm more. The X-Men seemed somewhat more relatable to me than a Jesus who died for my sins and rose again. I understood what it was like to be different, to be seen as a mutant of sorts, more than I understood what it was like to be the blond, blue-eyed man on a crucifix I had seen Jesus depicted as.
I went to church because I had to. Church was about more than God to me then. Or rather, it was not about God so much as it was about the other things. It was the cadence, the rhythm of blackness in one room, all of us focusing on something other than our pain for this one moment, asking for relief from a power greater than our own, able to cry and dance and sing and laugh and feel free. It was this feeling of freedom that I most remember from church, that it taught me. That there could be moments in this world when black people could come together and feel an unguarded joy, when we could be given and we could share a happiness that may, at its best, take us through the week until we needed the next dose next Sunday.
But for my father, church was holy. He often credits his recovery from drug addiction as being possible only because of his relationship with God, a power greater than himself. He even thought he might have been called to be a preacher. One of the memories that I’ll never forget is watching him preach about Jesus’s crown of thorns on the cross. But for me, church was a place I went because I had to go.
I did not truly know God then. I said my prayers when I ate because it was a ritual. And I participated in singing the music because it was beautiful, and because of the way the rhythm moved not only through our bodies but through the air. It was its own marvel, its own force field.
I knew Storm. I knew everything about her that I could know from the cartoons, which was admittedly less than I would’ve known had I been into comic books as a child. I knew she was a goddess. I knew how she led the X-Men while letting them lead. I knew how she had the power to control the elements but never let that power drown out the power of her peers.
I knew women who reminded me of Storm—women like my great-grandmother, and my sister, and Robin, my first boss when I was a teenage youth organizer with Baltimore’s Safe and Sound Campaign, who has always been like another mother to me.
Storm taught me how to imagine. But she wasn’t the only one.
Professor X did too. And so did Rogue. I learned how to believe in things that seemed impossible, how teams worked, how decisions were made, and that magic was not only possible but real. I learned how to live beyond the constraints—just like they did. Gravity? It didn’t matter anymore. Rain? Storm could control it. Wind? She had that too. Snow? Storm, again, in control.
For some people, their sense of possibility comes from their understanding of faith, the idea of salvation being a guidepost offering a glimpse into a life beyond the life of now. But that never made sense to me. Storm did.
So much of what trauma does to us is trap us in the present; it traps us in its constraints. We often see the limitations all around us because we need to see them in order to survive. Not to see them would be deadly. We become gifted at knowing how far to push before the world pushes back on us. But Storm? Storm didn’t live in a world with those constraints. And for thirty minutes each weekend, neither did I.
Our superheroes are more than just entertainment. I can’t help but think that in a world with as much chaos as ours, the prominence of Iron Man, Wonder Woman, and Black Panther is no coincidence. I even think about the games we played, games like Mario Kart. I was often frustrated at how the power-ups were distributed in that game, that the closer you got to the number-one position, the weaker the power-ups you got. But now it makes sense. The people who are further behind should get more power-ups, more support, to help them along the way. The superheroes and these games were teaching us so much.
We learn constraints that we face intimately, mostly as a matter of survival. I knew how far to press for a new toy, because I had seen the pain in my father’s face enough times in the past when he said that he couldn’t afford them. I knew to accept that we would always get my sister’s favorite cereal at the grocery store, because we could only afford one box. I knew how proud my father was when we went “school shopping” during the summer and how those clothes needed to last until the winter. And I knew how big a deal it was that I finally got a pair of glasses at LensCrafters, and that if they ever broke, I just might not be able to see again.
We learn the fabric of our constraints early. They become a part of the way we move through the world, a part of the way the world moves around us. But sometimes, our world becomes those constraints. They become our road map and our guide, ushering us from one goalpost to another. X-Men was all about constraints too. On every episode, they faced a challenge that was bigger than themselves, even with their superpowers. But a part of each mission was to think of another angle, another way of defeating the bad guy in the midst of seemingly overwhelming odds. They never saw the challenge in front of them as fixed and permanent, but always as malleable and the result of choices.
I recently phoned an expert on public housing because I was fascinated with how long waiting lists are for housing in cities across the country—sometimes as many as thousands of names—and I wanted to understand why. “So if I gave you a billion dollars for X city, and I told you that you needed to figure out a way to alleviate the public housing list without re-creating the projects,” I offered, “how would you do it?” She paused. And then the first four sentences she uttered were all about the constraints. She explained that there is not enough land; that housing projects might need to be a solution; that it might be hard to identify everyone; that we’ve never seen a list be cleared in an equitable way quickly. I left that call reminded that there is an industry that exists to identify the constraints, and then there are a smaller set of people who understand constraints as the result of choices and not as permanent fixtures. And this smaller set of people generally tends to have less influence than they should.
Consider the issue of mass incarceration. I think that three things will always remain true: first, there will always be rules; second, there will always be people who break the rules; and last, there will always need to be some form of consequences. And when I say rules here, I mean standards that communities set as norms. And when I say consequences, I mean a structured or standardized response to the breaking of said rules.
Now, everything else is open to change. We should have more public conversations about how to enforce the rules. To be sure, some people may need to be separated from society as a consequence of their behavior, but if rehabilitation is the goal of any period of separation, then it should not look like solitary confinement. Indeed, no one should be locked in a small room for days, months, and years as a means of behavioral adjustment.
I’m not convinced that the people who search for kids who skip school should be the same people who try to solve murders. What if instead of calling the police to report kids hanging around outside, people called after-school providers or community-center staff and asked if there were ways to engage those kids?
What if every kid was provided with a set of library books from birth to senior year in high school?
If faith is our belief that our world will be better, and hope our belief that it can be better, imagination is what allows us to navigate between the two, to paint a picture of the future that we can one day touch, feel, bring into being. Both require a relationship with the future that is not solely dependent on the past. Both require a belief in things yet to come.
In order to imagine, especially in the midst of trauma, our work is to name the constraints up front and then ignore them. This will be a challenge because they are often so potent, so present. But we can name and expose our limitations, and then work around them. Imagination is often thought of as a soft, feel-good aspect of the work of justice, but without it, we will never win.
When those of us who have come from marginalized communities and/or are engaged in the work of social justice are paving a way forward, we need to figure out how to resolve the internal tensions that will necessarily arise in order to do our best work. Thus we need a compass. Since the protests began in Ferguson, I have thought about the role of the church in the work of social justice and how belief factors into our collective work. In many ways, the civil rights movement was born out of institutions—largely churches and schools. But when we took to the streets in St. Louis, it was the result of an organic infrastructure and not the work of organizations or institutions. Even so, there were local pastors—Traci Blackmon, Renita Lamkin, Tommie Pierson Jr., and Starsky Wilson, to name a few—who were pivotal, as they both protested and assisted protesters in organizing. One day, when Brittany, Netta, and I were traveling, we even called Pastor Blackmon so that she could pray over us on the phone as we were heading into a challenging situation in another city.
I will never forget when Pastor Renita stood between protesters and police on a night that was particularly tense—we thought the police had killed a young man and were hiding their actions as they blocked us from entering the church parking lot—and as she stood between the two camps, she prayed out loud in a firm and warm tone. I’ll never forget the chills I got as we all watched her pray. The police immediately eased up, as did the protesters. It immediately changed the tone of the tension. And Pastor Pierson and Pastor Wilson repeatedly opened up their churches to create space for a range of events, meetings, actions, and to host visitors who were coming to assist the protesters.
The access to resources, the stability of the infrastructure, and the deep sense of moral courage were factors that made the church an important part of the protest landscape in the end, even though they were not the central part of the protest ecosystem.
I think I gained an understanding of God and faith during the movement. On the first night that I drove to Ferguson, I got tired. I was in a small town in Iowa and I knew that I needed to stop for a nap, even if a short one. If I kept on driving, I was certain that I was going to run off the road. So I tried to find a landmark where I could sleep in my car for an hour or so. I found a church. I got some clothes out of the trunk, reclined the chair, and used the clothes as a pillow. I didn’t know it then, but the church would continue to serve as an anchor in the most challenging times during the protests. On the first night of the curfew, I got separated from all of my friends, my phones died, and I ended up on Chambers Street, out of which there was no outlet—all the connected streets were dead ends. And while I was walking, trying to find someone who could help, a man waved to me. I couldn’t make him out right away, but he was a pastor, and the building behind him was a church. I went inside and joined others, who, like me, had become stranded and needed a place of refuge for the night.
By and by, I began to believe that I was doing the work that I was meant to do, and that as long as I stayed true to my convictions, I would be okay. It was an understanding of God that helped me to think more about accountability. I had heard people mostly use accountability as a weapon to challenge people who did not adhere to their ideas or actions, or who made decisions contrary to the loudest voices. But it was in understanding faith better that I came to understand accountability as the quality of one’s adherence to one’s own values, beliefs, and commitments.
I often think of God in the context of activism as reminding us of our moral courage—of being a compass as we navigate key moral issues, those of good and evil and those of justice. Moral courage is the courage summoned because you are firmly rooted in the righteousness of the task at hand. And I think that faith is often an easier facilitator of moral courage than is its absence. But in this moment, the call for moral courage is received differently, as the movement has not been rooted in a belief in God. And thus religious belief has not been the anchor it once was. And I have been thinking about what it means to win in the absence of a belief in God. When I read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “winning” is so closely tied to an ultimate “win” that is salvific. And I think that there is something particularly powerful about anchoring an idea of victory to a world that has not existed before. It keeps the focus on the possible, on the things that we know to be true but are yet unseen, like freedom.
In a complicated world, we know that the institution of the church isn’t the only moral compass, but that ideas of good and evil come from many places—Storm taught me that before I ever understood any teachings from church. It will continue to be important that we validate the many ways that people come to navigate this world with regard to morality, especially when the church hasn’t been an open or safe space to so many for so long. I found faith in the streets and in seeing a set of churches live their commitment to justice.
I learned more about God and faith in the protests. But Storm raised me.
Excerpted from On the Other Side of Freedom by DeRay Mckesson, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by DeRay Mckesson.