Language to (dis)empower

Our words can untie, or unite. Our words can break or build. I am Azariah, an Anglican priest.

My heritage originates in the west of Africa, via the West Indies, then settling in West Yorkshire, where I was born. I have chosen five phrases used by people which have an an impact. I begin with the phrase, then unpack the story.

“I am an African, and you don’t know your true language, your country, or your tribe.”

Some years ago I remember moving from browsing books in my local library to beginning to feast on my favourite find.  A man around my age struck up a conversation, beginning with small talk.  He changed gear asking me my feelings about the world and the news. He was attempting to proselytise me. My mind was half in the book and half on the conversation.  I occasionally injected my own point of view, mourning how the book I had been savouring was losing its spice with this unintended delay.

Eventually something snapped, I began not only to defend my own faith, but to dismantle his viewpoint. He did not enjoy the status shift in the conversation and upped the ante. It felt unpleasant, I sought to make my exit from the library leaving my book behind. He followed me morphing from charming peer, to abusive pest. He asked me where I was from and when I responded my parents were from the West Indies. He responded scornfully with the above words. The words were like a gag roughly stuffed down my throat, the trauma of a dissected history clawing at my neck. His words had the effect of me momentarily feeling as if in a fashion, I did not exist. I was a western product without antecedent. I held a few loose threads, with no knowledge of the tapestry from which they had been torn.

“What are you, a man or a woman?”

I traveled to a small Island in the West Indies. I was to serve a months placement in a church as a component of my training for the priesthood. I had not expected I would be such an anomaly. I wore dreadlocks, and was clean shaven. The Island had inherited a victorian English view of gender. Gender was understood as binary.  You were either male or female.  My dreadlocks were seen as masculine but without the addition of a beard I was unwittingly transmitting a feminine vibe. There was a local desire for a concrete definition of what it meant to be a man. The Island suffered the legacy of transatlantic slavery. White slave masters would rape black male slaves to assert dominance and consolidate power. The resulting hyper masculinity which emerged amongst some of the Islanders was in part an expression of that collective trauma.

On the larger Island of Jamaica dreadlocks were associated with Rastafarianism. They were a religious and political symbol of emancipation. However the Rastas wore beards as well as dreadlocks. Hence I was a cause of concern and curiosity. The question above was asked several times by several people over my time on the Island. I was other to the accepted categories. I remain sad that a number of people will continue to hide parts of who they are in order to fit into the few available boxes.

“God is not a white man on a cloud with a beard?”

I sat in front of a white man, on a couch with a beard. He was a priest and a psychotherapist. I described how I felt disconnected from my sense of racial heritage. I had been handed so many negative stereotypes of the black man in a hoodie. Who-de-cides how high I can climb before the glass ceiling gives me a headache? In an attempt to escape the Lenny Henryesqe caricature of blackness I had in fact escaped the deep substance beneath the shallow swagger.  The white man, on a couch with a beard said the words captured above and went on to say: ‘the more you connect with your history and heritage the broader a picture we will have of God when we meet you.’ That was dynamite, I had been invited to reflect a God who my in minds gallery every picture of him was white and stern. To be given the encouragement to become a fuller reflection of the God I sought to serve, was liberation indeed.

“Don’t annoy Azariah, his African temper might come out.”

One Sunday a young person was helping during the service. I had gotten to know them a little. We had a visiting priest who was going to take the service, and I would preach. We were all in the vestry donning our clerical robes. The visiting priest who knew me a little, teased me. The service helper not catching the nuance of two old colleagues with their banter became quite alarmed and said the above words to the visiting priest. I think I actually felt my African temper coming out towards this young person, but I bit my lip. The words however were a sucker punch. The visiting priest and another server looked at me to judge how they should respond. I smiled and addressed the young person about the visitor saying ‘they are only joking, let’s pray.’ The tension left the room. After praying, I too had to leave the room. I had to regroup ahead of the service. The implication that there was an angry black simmering beast, lurking beneath my civilised English demeanour was sickening to me.

Our words can untie, or unite. Our words can break or build. What phrases or words linger in your memory? How can we recover and touch healed scars, not reopen old wounds? In the Anglican confession our liturgy covers thoughts, words, and deeds. I suggest we pay attention to our thoughts, and see our deeds line up. Then maybe the prison of poisonous words, can become a prism of liberating truth.

Written by Azariah France-Williams, Associate Vicar of St Peter and St Paul in Teddington, London. Azariah has a book due out next summer, published by SCM Press and entitled ‘Chains Shall He Break’.