The last five months have been especially challenging for me personally. My situation as a single mother remains the same. But I’ve been dealing with that for nearly six years now. While I once hoped it would be a temporary state of being I’ve come to accept that it’s simply my life until my child reaches maturity. And I’d truly made peace with that, with the knowledge that I have no choice but to be everything to my child…and then my financial predicament changed. Hit with a wage garnishment stemming from a trip to the ER, my budget became nearly impossible. Lacking the family support that could help me get through this time(my mother is deceased, my father is not a part of my life, my ex-husband pleads poverty when I ask him to contribute even $100.00 to his child and I’m the oldest of four children who are in no position to help anyone financially), my life quickly began to resemble the plot of a Terry McMillan novel. I began to feel like the stereotype I’d always wanted to avoid: the poor, suffering, single black mother that we idolize in our literature and music. I cried and hyperventilated after my daughter went to sleep, trying to figure out how I was going to afford to buy groceries and pay my rent and childcare on time. I sighed with resignation when I received eviction notices and had to pay the steep late fees associated with bringing my account current. As I watched all of my plans for the immediate future disappear-purchasing savings bonds, starting my daughters’ 529 accounts, starting and additional savings account to give to her once she reaches adulthood-I reached the point where I felt defeated. I wanted so much more for myself and for my daughter, but life was making my aspirations seem futile.
In the midst of my pain and depression, however, a curious thing happened. I found myself sitting at my desk at work listening to Fred Hammond and John P. Kee. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. The Church Girl-turned Sunni Muslim-turned Agnostic Atheist listened to and enjoyed Gospel music. It certainly isn’t something that I would have predicted either. But I am reminded of something an aunt of mine used to say:in times of distress we revert to what we know,and as an African American woman culturally it has been Jesus I look to. Yes I said that too-Jesus. For my Christian readers: don’t break out in a praise dance quite yet, for I have not come back to the fold. I do recognize, however, that I and many of my sisters have been conditioned to look to the figure of Jesus Christ as our Love and Savior, the One to rescue us from this cold, cold world that has abused and hurt us so much. Jesus was something more than the Son of God; he was The Surrogate.
I was first introduced to Jesus The Surrogate when I was ten years old-the same year I was baptized and officially became a Christian. Prior to this I had a basic knowledge of Jesus Christ-my Grandma always took me to Sunday School and Church whenever I visited her in Seattle. And though my Mom was more of a Christian Agnostic when I was a little girl, worshipping the Indiana Colts with more passion than I ever saw her display towards any deity, she too reminded me to pray to Jesus every night. When my life was smooth Jesus was a cool guy that I was supposed to love. Once my idyllic childhood was shattered by crack cocaine and divorce he became much more.
From the time my people arrived on these shores in chains, we’ve had Jesus. The story of how we were introduced to Jesus and Christianity is a topic worthy of its own post, so I shall not detail it here. But when I sat on my Grandma’s floor in back in the 80s and 90s, listening to her weave tales of a life only one generation removed from slavery and shaped by Jim Crow one thing was made clear: Jesus got her through it. Grandma wasn’t given constitutional rights but she could manage because she had Jesus. Grandma wasn’t given a real education-she left school for the cotton fields in the third grade-but it was okay because she had Jesus. Grandma may have struggled at various times in her life due to racism, sexism and poverty…but at least she had Jesus on her side. When I faced my own struggles as an adolescent my Grandma’s mantra would become my own.
I didn’t know if my Mama was dead or alive during times she wrestled with drug addiction…but at least I had Jesus.
My father didn’t give a damn for me and did nothing to show love or concern for me at any point…but at least I had Jesus.
I lived in a one bedroom apartment with my Grandma(courtesy of Section 8), survived on food stamps, TANF and the charity of family…but at least I had Jesus.
The kids at school told me I was too black, ugly and worthless…but at least I had Jesus.
So though I had issues with the tenets of Christianity on a philosophical level, I fell in love with and clung to Jesus Christ. He was the Surrogate, the one who felt and understood my pain. I could never go to my family members and discuss how unloved and worthless certain events in my young life made me feel, so I projected everything onto the figure that I’d constructed in my mind. Looking back I can see that it was my emotional dependency on Jesus and my fear of hell that caused me to remain a part of the Church for so long. Even as a convert to Islam I struggled, as I could not let go of need, addiction really, to Jesus as the surrogate. For while Islam respects Isa as a prophet it is Muhammad that is supposed to be the Insan al Kamil, the one who has reached perfection, in my mind Jesus was still the template.
My apostasy from Islam and rejection of organized religion led to a long and ongoing process of rehabilitation. Abandoning Jesus as a crutch and replacement has been a major element of my deprogramming, and as illustrated by the fact that I went back to listening to Gospel music in my tribulation, it has not been entirely successful. I will be completely honest: at times my emotions have almost gotten the best of me. When I cry and worry the siren song of my old belief system floats into my head. I listen to my religious sistren plead and wail to Jesus, and it is all so tempting. Why not just be like them? Why not just lay my hurt at the altar and tell myself it will be alright in the sweet by and by? As emotionally fulfilling as such a course of action may be, and as much as it may make me feel better temporarily, my mind won’t allow it. I know that I’d simply be soothing myself with a delusion; administering a placebo. My real life situation would not change by doing so. I know that I must face my emotions, admit my pain and weakness and chart a path forward.
With that said, the passionate devotion that my sisters show to Jesus Christ makes me wonder. I look at the world and community that we come from and I ask myself: if our lives were different would we still have such faith? If my people had never been brought to this country as slaves, stripped of everything they loved and held dear but given Jesus, would they still love him so much? If African American women didn’t live in a society where they carry the burden of the twin evils of racism and sexism, would they need Jesus so deeply? If some among us didn’t struggle with poverty, single parenthood, health issues, etc would we be as eager to fill the pews and the collection plate every Sunday? Perhaps if African American women were not the mules of the world(as described by Janey’s Grandmother in Zora Neale Hurston’s classic ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God”) they wouldn’t depend on Jesus the Surrogate to fulfill their needs.