A World Not My Own

Read this reflective narrative about the power of diversity.
(Photo credit: Jazzmine Bustamante)

Growing up, Kayla rarely encountered protagonists in her history classes who were Black, like her. Here, she shares what it’s like to see the world as a person of color — and what it means for her to feel at home. 

There is an African proverb that reads, “Until the lion has its own historian, the hunter will always be the hero.” 

I remember coming across this proverb as a teenager and being struck by the thought that the lion, too, had a family, a life, and a story unknown and untold. In that story, the hunter was an intruder in a peaceful life that needed to be defended.

Now that I’m older, I see that this proverb has come to describe my own life more than I could have imagined. Since my youth, even the tiniest moments have been embedded by a history and a culture not my own. This is what it feels like to be in the minority. If you are white, you may never have to consider being a part of a history not your own — American history books are full of tales of the heroism of people like you. The stories of inventors, leaders, and founders share your heritage and your features, and they not only tell you where you’ve been but where you are capable of going next.

Classrooms across this country teach stories of white people conquering nations, curing diseases, winning wars, and finding causes for national celebration. Rarely do we consider other people who might also be protagonists in these narratives — their stories are mainly a subplot.

So perhaps this is an invitation to adjust your vision to see through the eyes of the lion, not the hunter.

Who tells your story?

Recently, my family got together for a digital viewing of Hamilton. My nieces are between 7 and 12 years old, and they watched in amazement as the story of the American Revolution unfolded on the screen. As we talked during the intermission, it was clear that they noticed something that revealed a deeper truth. Unlike the mutliracial Hamilton cast playing these characters, the actual historical figures depicted here were all white. The small storyline of the Black battalion would have been where their ancestors played a role in this foundational American story.

Unlike the beautiful retelling in Hamilton, the story of my ancestry is buried as a background note in a larger American tale. In this history, those who chained people like chattel were seen as honorable men; those who controlled establishments where people were beaten, raped, murdered, or sold at leisure were seen as entrepreneurs; separating families for profit was a shrewd business move. Our American story recognizes men of power for the battles they led or the elections they won — while those they owned remained powerless.

These competing layers of history are fueling the debate about Confederate statues in many Southern cities right now. In a strange way, I understand the desire to preserve a certain version of the history you call your own. It must be difficult to try to imagine for the first time that the history of your ancestors could be rewritten — that the lands your great-grandfathers claimed, the cities your grandfathers founded, the people your fathers educated may hold a different story than the one you celebrate. It must be difficult to acknowledge that perhaps your greatest heroes were hunters in someone else’s story.

What is ‘normal’?

My history in this country has rarely been held to such grandeur, and yet it is also part of America’s story. There was so much of my own history that I had never been taught — people and accomplishments that had not come to the surface in my history classes. In fact, it is not only my history that is outside of the “norm,” but also lived realities I face daily — from an encounter in fifth grade with a friend who brought makeup to school for the first time and inquired with genuine sincerity if make-up even existed in “my color;” to the moment in college where friends scoffed that I could only identify songs written by the Beatles after seeing Across the Universe, despite the fact that no one felt appalled when they failed to recognize the Motown songs that were the soundtrack to my childhood experience.

What the majority community fails to realize is that they live in a system that was built for them — a system built not just for their success, but in their own image. The fashion of dress; the style of music; the standards of beauty; the way you celebrate, dance, eat, live is all confirmed by the world around you if you are white. It is held up as the “norm” that makes every other expression “unique” or “other.” People of color spend most of our time living, working, recreating, and worshiping in areas made for the majority. Survival means learning how to make these spaces work to our benefit even though they were not intended for our success. 

I am also aware that this feeling of “otherness” bleeds into my church experience. The music, the dialogue, the fashion, the preaching is all centered around the white cultural experience. The statues, crucifixes, and music affirm that God is present in this community, but there is no confirmation that other communities with other cultural expressions are equally made in His image and likeness. Each of these moments reminds me that I am a “guest” in this space — welcome, but not celebrated.

As a thought experiment, consider what things would look like if we removed any image of Jesus showing him as a white man. It would be sure to leave an empty wall in every school, church, and administrative building where I have learned, worked, and worshiped in my life. I’ve been presented with an image of Jesus as a white man throughout 98 percent of my life experience — Jesus was white on the Confirmation cards I received, the children’s specials I watched, and the social media posts I viewed. White Jesus is so prevalent that I have to remind myself that Jesus was, in fact, a Middle-Eastern Jewish man with olive skin, curly hair, and dark eyes — a man of color by U.S. standards,  a person “othered” like me.

Though there are Black Catholic saints, theologians, and writers, none of their names crossed my desk in my religious education classes. In fact, it wasn’t until recently that names like Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA and Father Bryan Massingale, SJ came into my view. Except from a passing reference to St. Augustine as an African, I found that my faith education and my racial experience never entwined in the ways I yearned for. In fact, my greatest memory of being Confirmed was not the sacrament itself, but the Black bishop who confirmed me. After a lifetime of white faces on the altar, I sat in awe of a man of color leading the sacrament. This was as much a gift as the sacrament he administered. 

A feeling of home

After more than 30 years of feeling “other,” my heart was struck with joy when I entered a historically Black parish in New Orleans. I’d finally found a Black Catholic community that praised, broke bread, and celebrated life together each week. From the kente cloth on the altar to the soulful music coming from the choir, a feeling of home resonated in my heart. My community was visible in the Black stations of the cross, the music coming from the choir, and the warm welcome of the man with dreadlocks beside me who greeted me without prompting.

From the moment the first chords of the entrance hymn rang out, I felt connected there. There was no doubt God is present here — there was no doubt that the God we are praising is connected to our lived experience as a Black community. 

I left the church that day and I wept — I wept for something I had spent my whole life not realizing was missing: a spirituality that felt integrated and whole. The God of Moses and Elijah, the God of Mary and Joseph was the same God of my ancestors — ever-present and integrated into my experience. That parish community showed me that I, too, was made in the image of God.

This community knew a God who knew my joys and my suffering. A God who is not more concerned with peace than with justice. A God who realized that the yoke is not easy and the burden still not light for large portions of His people. A God who lived in slaves and civil rights activists and every person of color still fighting for equality. A God who wants to see a truly unified world “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Being a part of this community is earth-shattering — it makes me feel like all the times I cried out to God were not in vain. It makes it possible to see the beauty of God in myself and others. It allows God to be as vast and powerful as He is, instead of being trapped inside of a single white image and story. 

God is immense. Even though He allows us to glimpse His love and reach for His truth, He is beyond our comprehension. He is the God of us all, and should not be confined to one race or culture. When I experience faith expressions in different cultures and spaces, I experience God anew. It happens when I listen to the homily spoken beautifully in Spanish at a Latino parish, or when I traveled to Africa and saw the congregation come to life as choirs in brightly colored robes clapped, swayed, sang to the beat of drums, and danced down the aisles. These are moments when I am graced to sit in the presence of a God I have not yet known, moments when the God of wonder amazes me in new ways.

A history not our own

As people fight to keep statues of Confederate soldiers erected or wave a flag that strikes fear into my heart but pride into theirs, I realize that this is, once again, the query of the lion’s story.

It is hard to see history in new ways. It is hard to reimagine a story through the eyes of the lion. In a world where white is considered normal, we have to acknowledge faces and spaces outside of that standard. Here’s why: If we fail to recognize the privilege we live with, then when problems arise, we might push back against the threat to losing that privilege instead of the forces threatening all of our lives

We must consider a history not our own for those yet to come — for people like my young nieces, who sit wide-eyed at the story of America that will become more heartbreaking as they continue to discover the stories not being told. Will they begin to feel that their narrative has less merit? Will they carry less hope for the future? Will they fail to see themselves present in the future because they have already been erased from the past?

To build a collaborative future, we need a collaborative understanding of our past. How will we create a narrative where every member has an equal role in our story?

How long will it be until the lion and the hunter share not only the pen, but a safe place to call home.

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