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Heaven Feels Like Happiness: Unleashing Black Identity and Spirituality Beyond White Normativity

by Tamice Spencer-Helms

"I think heaven feels like happiness." -Tamice Spencer-Helms

During the open spaces event last week, we had a discussion about happiness, and why I left IHOP-KC after Trayvon Martin died. I shared that the most beautiful consequence of unleavening my faith was the process of returning to myself, a journey deeply rooted in Black spirituality. I’ve had some more thoughts about it since then...

The dangerous thing about theology leavened with white normativity is that it’s apophatic. That is: it’s defined by what it’s against. Just like whiteness is. Anti-Blackness was responsible for the social construction of whiteness because white identity was simply the legal, civil, and economic privilege of not being black. In this way, whiteness is socio-politically apophatic.

And so, the formative years of my identity were shaped by an apophatic theology leavened with apophatic whiteness. I surrendered my life to a “colorblind god” they told me was not concerned with my happiness or my blackness compared to his own glory. Worse. The very pursuit of happiness or the celebration of blackness could actually lead me down a slippery slope astray & away from god. I didn’t want that. So, I made sure to avoid happiness.

And if it couldn't be avoided, I’d try not settle into it too much. That, or shame would help me sabotage it. I avoided blackness too. After all It was disdain for the skin I’m in that produced white jesus in the first place.... and all that animates him. White jesus could never, ever, love what’s black about me. Unleavening caused the absurdity of it all to dawn on me: No one would expect a person to continue taking medicine that made them sick. It’s even more absurd to tell them that that’s what medicine is supposed to do. Recognizing symptoms means you already know how it feels to be well. James Baldwin says it this way:

“If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” *

Each of us gets to make a choice about who & what we will worship. We get to decide how we will live. That is, how we might siphon some quality from life in the midst of all this delusion and madness. I know & take ownership of my choices these days. and it feels amazing. I got my agency back. I find god in blackness. I’ve got more clarity about who I am & who I want to be. I embrace the inner work that gives me the courage I’ve always needed to say what I really mean and to be who I really am. And I like myself.

I’ve come this far by faith. that’s finally become sight. &It hits real different. It looks real different too. I just keep thinking about what happiness feels like. ...about what I’m doing... and who I’m with when I experience it... Happiness feels like heaven in real time. And that was the dilemma that wouldn't die.

The crux and the draw of evangelicalism was an eventual eternity in heaven with God. But if god is truly opposed and/or unconcerned when it comes to our happiness (something I cannot fathom now that I’m a parent)... ...then eternity in heaven with a god who is vexed or disconcerted by happiness is going to be hell. In which case, I wouldn’t want to be there anyway. 

As far as I’m concerned, genuine experiences of happiness, which are hard to come by as it is, especially as we face the loss that accompanies any attempt to chisel away & tear down American idols, is well worth the risk of hell if nothing else is. For so many people hell is a present tense reality already--heaven might as well be too.

"If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.*" James Baldwin "*BALDWIN, J. (1962_ IN LETTER FROM A REGION IN MY MIND. NEW YORK, NY: THE NEW YORKER"


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